African 605: The Black Radical Tradition

Professor: Damon Sajnani aka

Course Description

While the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century has been appropriated by the US mainstream, the more radical antecedent and subsequent manifestations of the Black freedom struggle have been suppressed. In his time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented the fact that the greatest African American scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, was selectively celebrated in a way that venerated his early works and activism but suppressed the radical politics he embraced later on (King 1968). In our time, the same is true of MLK. What were the politics of the politically mature Du Bois and MLK? Asking this question is key to uncovering the story and substance of the Black radical tradition.

One of Malcolm X’s critiques of the civil rights movement was the fact that it circumscribed Black solidarity within US borders and recognized the US government as the ultimate authority. In his famous “Ballot or the Bullet Speech” he said, “we need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level—to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.” Other participants in the civil rights struggle began to see how efforts at assimilation into the US mainstream often reinforced oppression along the lines of race, class, and gender. However, as we will see, the debates between Black moderates and radicals extends far beyond US borders and reaches back to the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This course surveys the major figures, histories, rebellions, and ideas that constitute the Black radical tradition. We will see how, in each epoch, Black radicals fought for internationalist solidarity across the Black world and grappled with the complicated relationship between race and class. As we examine this history, we will ask what its ideas and implications are for racial justice in the world today. We will consider what is needed to move, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, from #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.