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    Original Essays | August 14, 2015

    Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: IMG The Blind Spot of United States History

    The most frequent question readers ask about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is "Why hasn't this book been written before?" I'm... Continue »
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Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination


Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination Cover




'Dreams of the New Land

Africa I guard your memory

Africa you are in me

My future is your future

Your wounds are my wounds

The funky blues I cook

are black like you—Africa

Africa my motherland

America my fatherland

Although I did not choose it to be

Africa you alone can make me free

Africa where the rhinos roam

Where I learned to swing

Before America became my home

Not like a monkey but in my soul

Africa you are rich with natural gold

Africa I live and study for thee

And through you I shall be free

Someday I'll come back and see

Land of my mothers, where a black god made me

My Africa, your Africa, a free continent to be.

Ted Joans, "Africa"

Schoolhouse Rock didn't teach me a damn thing about "freedom." The kids

like me growing up in Harlem during the 1960s and early 1970s heard that

word in the streets; it rang in our ears with the regularity of a hit song.

Everybody and their mama spoke of freedom, and what they meant usually

defied the popular meanings of the day. Whereas most Americans

associated freedom with Western democracies at war against communism,

free-market capitalism, or U.S. intervention in countries such as Vietnam or

the Dominican Republic, in our neighborhood "freedom" had no particular tie

to U.S. nationality (with the possible exception of the black-owned Freedom

National Bank). Freedom was the goal our people were trying to achieve; free

was a verb, an act, a wish, a militant demand. "Free the land," "Free your

mind," "Free South Africa," "Free Angola," "Free Angela Davis," "Free Huey,"

were the slogans I remember best. Of course, "freedom" was also employed

as a marketing tool to sell us things like Afro wigs, hair care products, and

various foodstuffs, but even these commodities were linked in our minds to

the black struggle for independence, not just in the urban ghettos but around

the world. "Freedom" even became a kind of metonym for Africa—the home

we never knew, the place where we once enjoyed freedom before we were

forcibly taken in chains across the sea. We drank Afro-Cola, which came in a

blue can emblazoned with a map of the African continent, partly because

slick marketing executives told us it contained the taste of freedom, partly

because we pretended it was nectar from the motherland.

Of course, not everyone identified with Africa or associated the continent


dreams of freedom, but we were living in Harlem, of all places, during the era

of the "black freedom movement." Formal colonialism had ended throughout

most of Africa—the exceptions being southern Africa and the Portuguese

colonies—so those who paid attention to such things were excited by the

prospects of a free and independent Africa. By the time I enrolled at California

State University at Long Beach, the black studiesBlack Studies program

there reignited my nascent, underdeveloped Pan-African vision of the world.

Our professors turned diehard party people and wannabe Greeks into angry

young "Afrikans." And we had good reason to be angry. After twelve years of

public miseducation, reading works by pioneering black scholars such as

Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery, Cheikh Anta Diop's The African

Origins of Civilization, George E. M. James's Stolen Legacy, Angela Davis's

Women, Race, and Class, W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and

Black Reconstruction in America, J. A. Rogers's World's Greatest Men and

Women of African Descent, among others, opened up a whole new world for

us. We learned of the origins of Western racism, the history of slavery, the

rise and fall of African kingdoms before the European invasion, the Egyptian

roots of Western civilization. We were particularly obsessed with the large-

scale civilizations along the Nile—Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia—as were

generations of Afrocentric scholars before us, as Wilson Moses recently

pointed out in his valuable book Afrotopia. Indeed, the title alone explains

why we junior Afrocentrists were attracted more to the powerful states of the

ancient world than to the civil rights movement: We looked back in search of

a better future. We wanted to find a refuge where "black people" exercised

power, possessed essential knowledge, educated the West, built

monuments, slept under the stars on the banks of the Nile, and never had to

worry about the police or poverty or arrogant white people questioning our

intelligence. Of course, this meant conveniently ignoring slave labor, class

hierarchies, and women's oppression, and it meant projecting backwards in

time a twentieth-century conception of race, but to simply criticize us for

myth making or essentialism misses the point of our reading. We dreamed

the ancient world as a place of freedom, a picture to imagine what we desired

and what was possible.

Sometimes we couldn't read fast enough; other times, we were so

overtaken with emotion we put our books down and wept, or fantasized about

revenge. More importantly, we began to see ourselves—as earlier

generations of black intellectuals had—as part of an African diaspora, an

oppressed "nation" without a homeland. Many of us gravitated to campus

black nationalist groups, imagining Africa as our true home, either as a place

of eventual return or a place from which we were permanently exiled. At least

in our minds, we joined a long line of black thinkers who believed that to

achieve freedom we first had to get out of Dodge.


Few scholars or activists today take proposals to leave America and return to

Africa or some other "homeland" seriously. Back-to-Africa proposals in

principle are almost universally dismissed as "escapist" or associated with

essentialist, romantic ideas about black cultural unity. Critics dwell on the

impracticality of such schemes, or they point to sharp cultural and class

differences that keep the black world divided. They are not wrong to do so,

but any wholesale dismissal of the desire to leave this place and find a new

home misses what these movements might tell us about how black people

have imagined real freedom. The desire to leave Babylon, if you will, and

search for a new land tells us a great deal about what people dream about,

what they want, how they might want to reconstruct their lives.

After all, the history of black people has been a history of movement—real

and imagined. Repatriation to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Flight to Canada.

Escape to Haiti. The great Kansas Exodus. The back-to-Africa movements of

Bishop Henry McNeil Turner and Marcus Garvey. The 49th State movement.

The Republic of New Africa. The Rastafarian settlement of Shashamane,

Ethiopia. I'm goin' to Chicago, baby, I can't take you along. Space is the

Place. The Mothership Connection. All these travel/escape narratives point

to the biblical story of Exodus, of the Israelites' flight out of Egypt. It isn't a

coincidence that the stream of black migrants who fled the South for Kansas

and Oklahoma in the late 1870s were called "exodusters," or that one of the

South Carolina emigration societies was called the Liberian Exodus

Association. Indeed, as Eddie Glaude points out in his recent book Exodus!

Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, the

book of Exodus served as the key political and moral compass for African

Americans during the antebellum era, and it would continue to do so after the

Civil War. Exodus provided black people with a language to critique

America's racist state and build a new nation, for its central theme wasn't

simply escape but a new beginning.

Exodus represented dreams of black self-determination, of being on our

own, under our own rules and beliefs, developing our own cultures, without

interference. Even before New World Africans laid eyes on the Bible, the

fundamental idea behind Exodus was evident in the formation of Maroon

societies throughout the Americas. Maroon societies were settlements of

renegades from the plantation system made up primarily of runaway slaves,

some indigenous people, and, in a few instances, white indentured servants

who rebelled against the dominant culture. These settlements often existed

on the run, in the hills or swamps just outside the plantation economy.

Africans tended to dominate these communities, and many sought to

preserve the cultures of their original homelands while combining different Old

and New World traditions. Over time, Africans adopted elements of various

Native American cultures, and vice versa, and Europeans relied on aspects of

these cultures for their own survival. In the words of political scientist Cedric

Robinson, these movements were inventive "rather than imitative,

communitarian rather than individualistic, democratic rather than Republican,

Afro-Christian rather than secular and materialist[;] the social values of these

largely agrarian people generated a political culture that distinguished

between the inferior world of the political and the transcendent universe of

moral goods." The impulse toward separatism, defined broadly, is rooted in

maroonage and the desire to leave the place of oppression for either a new

land or some kind of peaceful coexistence.

The problem with modern "Egyptland" is that it claimed to be a republic,

and too many black people—slave and free—invested their own blood, sweat,

and tears in building or protecting the country. Therefore, in the United States

the impulse to leave conflicted with black claims to full citizenship and full

remuneration for our contribution to the nation. Prior to the adoption of the

Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the question as to whether or not African

Americans were citizens of the United States had not been settled. The

experiences of free African Americans during the antebellum era demonstrate

that citizenship was beyond their grasp, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 denying black people citizenship rights

cleared up any ambiguity on the matter. While some black leaders insisted

on their right to citizenship during the mid-nineteenth century, others such as

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Jermain Loguen, James T. Holly, Samuel Ringgold

Ward, Paul Cuffe, and Martin Delany called on black people to find a

homeland of their own. Not that they were willing to relinquish their claims to

citizenship; rather, they reached a point of profound pessimism and began

deeply to question their allegiance to and identification with the United States.

Whether they thought about leaving or not, the question of citizenship

always loomed large, compelling some to renounce the United States

altogether. Nineteenth-century black activist H. Ford Douglass once said: \"I

can hate this Government without being disloyal, because it has stricken

down my manhood, and treated me as a saleable commodity. . . . I can join

a foreign enemy and fight against it, without being a traitor, because it treats

me as an ALIEN and a STRANGER.\" Emigration not only rendered African

Americans "transnational" people by default, but it remained at the heart of a

very long debate within black communities about their sense of national

belonging. The debate was further complicated by the fact that many white

people supported emigration. The American Colonization Society was formed

within the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816 for the purpose of deporting

free black people to Liberia. Its leading members included Henry Clay, Daniel

Webster, and Francis Scott Key, composer of the "Star Spangled Banner."

During the Civil War, President Lincoln's initial program to reconstruct the

nation included an elaborate plan to deport black people, first to Liberia and

later to what he believed was a more practical location—Central America.

When the prospect of enjoying real citizenship emerged on the horizon

during Reconstruction, emigrationist sentiment among African Americans

ebbed and Lincoln's plan won very few adherents among black leaders.

However, despite the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the question

of African American citizenship had not been resolved, and with the collapse

of Reconstruction and the erection of Jim Crow, the situation took a turn for

the worse. In the South, black people were denied the right to vote and hold

public office, access to the public schools that they had helped established

and continued to finance with their tax money, and any semblance of justice.

Instead, African Americans were subjected to mob violence and "lynch law."

Between 1882 and 1946, at least 5,000 people, the vast majority of whom

were black, were lynched in the United States. Black communities had to

deal not only with a steady stream of lynchings but also with a constant

threat of invasion by armed, murderous white mobs. In the decade from 1898

to 1908, "race riots" broke out in Wilmington, North Carolina; Atlanta; New

Orleans; New York City; Phoenix; South Carolina; Akron, Ohio; Washington

Parish, Louisiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Brownsville, Texas; and

Springfield, Illinois; to name but a few. Historian Carter G. Woodson

expressed the problem poignantly in his 1921 essay "Fifty Years of Negro

Citizenship as Qualified by the United States Supreme Court": "The

citizenship of the Negro in this country is a fiction."

Most black people believed there was an order higher than the

Constitution. Psalm 68, verse 31 of the Bible had promised redemption for

the black world: "Princes come out of Egypt. Ethiopia stretches forth her

hands unto God." This passage was as important to Pan-Africanist and

emigrationist sentiment as the book of Exodus, becoming the theological

basis for what became known in the nineteenth century as Ethiopianism.

Ethiopianism spread throughout the black world, from the Americas to Africa,

calling for the redemption of Africa by any means necessary. One of the

earliest published examples of this doctrine was Robert Alexander Young's

Ethiopian Manifesto: Issued in Defense of the Blackman's Rights in the

Scale of Universal Freedom (1829), which predicted the coming of a new

Hannibal who would lead a violent uprising to liberate the race. The black

abolitionist speaker Maria Stewart echoed some of the ideas in Young's

manifesto, drawing on scripture to argue that Africans were the "chosen

people." While she identified herself as African, described America as "the

great city of Babylon," and believed that black people possessed a distinct

national destiny apart from that of other Americans, she did not advocate


Because the Bible, not the specifics of our lineage or heritage, framed

most nineteenth-century black conceptions of national destiny, Ethiopia took

on greater importance than any other nation or region of Africa. It was also

known as Abyssinia, and black people the world over considered it the cradle

of civilization. Ethiopia has remained one of the black Christian world's

principal icons and, in some ways, might be called an African Jerusalem. As

historian William Scott explained, many African Americans believed

that \"Ethiopia had been predestined by biblical prophecy to redeem the black

race from white rule.\" Its reputation as a beacon of hope and strength for

Africa and the African diaspora was strengthened in 1896, after Menelik II,

leader of the Amhara, united Ethiopia's princes to defeat Italy. Italy's

humiliating loss to Ethiopian armies in the battle of Adwa demonstrated to

the world that Europe was indeed vulnerable, and it rendered Africa's "holy

land" the only independent nation on the continent. For many black

observers, it appeared as if prophesy would come to pass. Groups such as

the short-lived Star Order of Ethiopia, founded by Grover Cleveland Redding,

called on African Americans to move there. The Ethiopian ambassador to the

United States also encouraged black people to settle there. By 1933 the

African-American community in Ethiopia numbered between 100 and 150.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia again in 1935, this time successfully, the entire

black world mobilized in its defense, some volunteering for military service.

Nineteenth-century emigrationists looked upon Africa as the new

promised land, a land of milk and honey where its offspring in the diaspora

could return and thrive. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner of the African Methodist

Episcopal (AME) Church emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates

of emigration. As vice-president of the American Colonization Society (ACS),

Turner supported black emigration to Liberia during the late nineteenth and

early twentieth centuries. The AME missions under his guidance promoted

redemption as uplift ideology—the idea that education, modernization, and

devotion to God would uplift the continent and the race. At the same time,

Bishop Turner had no love for the United States, once describing the

Constitution as "a dirty rag, a cheat, a libel, and ought to be spit upon by

every Negro in the land." He believed that white supremacy generated black

self-hatred and that no black man could achieve manhood unless blacks

could protect and govern themselves. Turner attracted a significant following,

especially among poor workers and farmers who believed that any place was

better than the Jim Crow South. One Mississippi man wrote to the ACS

asking for assistance, comparing his circumstances to slavery and

asking, "Oh my God help us to get out from here to Africa."

Most nineteenth-century proponents of repatriation viewed the imminent

return of African Americans as a kind of civilizing mission, bringing

Christianity to the heathens and technology and knowledge to the backward

natives. Africa needed to be redeemed not from European colonialism but

because it was a civilization in decline. Redemption translated into uplift

ideology, a radically different cultural approach to "return" from the early

impulse toward maroonage. By the end of the century, Africa's most vocal

Negro redeemers tended to be formally educated elites who drew their

ideological arsenal from Western notions of national destiny, race, progress,

and civilization. Men such as Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet,

Bishop Turner, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and the lesser-known leaders of

emigrationist organizations dreamed of turning their ancestral homeland into

modern, "civilized," powerful nations where black people could create their

own wealth and rule themselves. They imagined a society patterned on the

best of the West—its schools, railroads, factories, and religion—without the

racism, inequality, and oppression. While they desired "Africa for the

Africans," limited autonomy if not total independence, and freedom for all (at

least in theory), they also wanted to participate in the international market as


For the next few decades, Liberia became the model for the benefits of

civilization; it was upheld by African-American intellectuals as evidence that,

if left alone, black people could develop a free and industrious nation on the

basis of their own intelligence, frugality, and good planning. Liberia was to be

a black man's utopia, the land where race prejudice was a thing of the past

and every person in the republic enjoyed the fruits of citizenship.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened. In their haste to defend Liberia,

most commentators ignored or played down the role of the United States (via

the Firestone Rubber Company) as an imperialist presence in the colony and

the position of Americo-Liberians as a new, exploitative ruling class. As a

result, the indigenous population of Liberia was exploited and oppressed by

African Americans, who had ironically returned to their ancestral homeland to

escape tyranny.

Few emigration advocates during this period questioned the Western

model. Edward Wilmot Blyden was among the few to propose adopting

elements of traditional African culture, but only after years of study. His early

works, A Voice from Bleeding Africa (1856) and The Call of Providence to the

Descendants of Africa in America (1862) both argued that God allowed

enslavement of black people so that they might be converted to Christianity.

It was now the manifest destiny of black people to return to their ancestral

homeland and bring the benefits of Christianity and "civilization." By the end

of the century, following a thorough study of Islam, he wrote a series of

articles proposing that black people develop an African personality (as

opposed to copying European culture) and defending indigenous African

culture, including polygamy and traditional family practices. He argued that

African cultures were naturally communal and did not allow private ownership

of land, and that their emphasis on collective responsibility for the entire

community rendered homelessness, poverty, and crime nonexistent. And

because all adult women were in marital relationships, he argued, there were

no "spinsters" or prostitutes.

Blyden's defense of traditional African culture might be one of the first

explicit examples we have of what later would be called African

communalism or African socialism—the idea that precolonial societies were

inherently democratic and practiced a form of \"primitive communism\" that

could lay the groundwork for a truly egalitarian society. In the shadow of the

failed Paris Commune, the upsurge of working-class socialist movements

throughout the Western world, and growing concern about the dangers of

industrialization, Blyden's celebration of African communalism is particularly

striking. Of course, we now know that African social organization ran the

gamut from hunter-gatherer societies to large-scale, class-stratified societies

based on agriculture, slave labor, and even limited manufacturing, and that

traditional family and gender relationships were based on severe hierarchies.

What is noteworthy, however, is the fact that Blyden and others imagined

Africa as a place free of exploitation and believed that this model might lay

the basis for a new society of black settlers. Rather than worship Western

culture and modernization, Blyden at least toyed with the idea that

traditional, precapitalist life might offer a superior road to freedom.


Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association

(UNIA)—the largest "African redemption" movement in the history of the

world—promoted a vision of a New Africa that embraced certain Western

ideas and technologies but transformed them to suit black people's needs.

He created African Fundamentalism, a revision of Christianity rooted in

Ethiopianism, African Methodism, and a variety of religious beliefs that would

eventually make their way into the Rastafarian faith. As Robert Hill points out,

Garvey argued that Adam and Eve and their progeny were black and that

Cain was stricken by God with leprosy (whiteness) as punishment for the

murder of his brother, Abel. The white race, in other words, began as lepers

punished by God. But Garvey differed from the Ethiopianists by insisting that

the Egyptians were blacks who enslaved the Hebrews. Garvey's strong

identification with the Egyptians makes perfect sense given his argument that

we descended from a powerful civilization. His vision of the power of

indigenous African culture was ancient, rooted in Egypt and Ethiopia, not in

contemporary African culture, for he accepted Oswald Spengler's idea that

African civilization was among those in decline. Only a movement for Africa's

redemption could restore Africa's original glory. Interestingly, while he did not

identify with the enslaved Jews of ancient times, he did identify with the

modern Zionist movement. Garvey called his own movement Black Zionism,

comparing the struggle for an African homeland with the Jewish movement for

a homeland in Palestine. He patterned his Universal African Legion after the

Jewish Legion, which came to be seen as a Jewish national guard for

Palestine. He even received significant patronage from Jewish financiers such

as William Ritter of the United States and Abraham Judah and Lewis

Ashenheim of Jamaica.

Garvey founded the UNIA with his first wife, Amy Ashwood, in his native

Jamaica in 1914. It began as a benevolent association, but when they moved

to Harlem in 1916, Garvey transformed the UNIA into a mass-based, global,

black nationalist movement intent on redeeming Africa and establishing a

homeland for the black world. In some ways the UNIA resembled an army

preparing for battle, which might be expected of any nationalist movement

born in the midst of the greatest European nationalist conflict of all time:

World War I. Yet like most race leaders at the time, Marcus Garvey was heir

to an older warrior tradition rooted in the Old Testament. Redemption, after

all, was a violent and bloody proposition. Betray God and He might smite

your first born, take you down by sword or plague, crush you to earth or

drown you. Nat Turner, leader of a bloody slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, was

told by God that slavery was to be eliminated by bloodshed, even if it meant

sacrificing the master's women and children. It was God's will, and the signs

from heaven were clear: "I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my

enemies with their own weapons." Nat Turner was not out of step with the

leading black abolitionists of the day. Besides Robert Alexander Young's

prediction of a race war led by a new Hannibal, David Walker warned white

people that God was prepared to take His vengeance out on them, and that

when the slaves rose up and cut their throats, it was God's will. \"The whites

want slaves," he wrote in his Appeal, "and want us for their slaves, but some

of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in

its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of

the earth.\"

The UNIA never actually waged war anywhere, but World War I militarism

had a profound impact on the organization's gender politics, according to the

historian Barbara Bair. Garveyite parades, pageants, poetry, and songs, as

well as speeches and documents, drew on metaphors of war that defined

gender roles within the movement. Black men assigned to the UNIA's African

Legion performed military drills, symbolizing assertiveness, readiness, and

self-defense. UNIA leaders wore elaborate uniforms resembling European

imperial designs, therefore reversing the dominant image of black men as

subordinate. Garveyite leadership exuded strength, dominance, and

nationhood. The Black Cross nurses symbolized the nurturing role of women

by ministering to the needs of soldiers and the community as a whole. They

wore white habits that, likewise, reversed the dominant image of black

womanhood. Challenging stereotypes of black women as hypersexual

Jezebels, the Black Cross nurses were "angels of charity and mercy," holy

sisters united in purity and devotion to their own community and to the

greater redemption of Africa.

In many respects, Garvey's vision of the proper role of black men and

women in a new, liberated society differed little from those of previous

generations of black nationalists, who embraced the prevailing notion that

African redemption equaled manhood redemption. The strength of the nation

as a measure of manhood, after all, was a common characteristic of modern

nationalism. The writings and speeches of Crummell, Edward Blyden, and

even W. E. B. Du Bois described Africa as the "fatherland," and the

redemption of the fatherland was almost always framed in terms of manhood

rights. Not surprisingly, early Pan-Africanist and emigrationist organizations

were almost entirely male affairs. While politics was considered an

exclusively male domain in this era, masculinity was especially pronounced

in black nationalist politics because of its roots in the struggle against

slavery. Despite the fact that abolitionism developed alongside woman

suffrage, the struggle against slavery by free blacks and even white

abolitionists was cast as a struggle for manhood rights largely because

servility of any kind was regarded as less than manly. Black men's inability

to protect their families under slavery was considered a direct assault on their

manhood, since manhood was defined in part by one's ability to defend one's

home. Thus, it is not surprising that black abolitionist appeals emphasized

manhood rights and violence as strategies of liberation. Abolitionists like

David Walker, John Russwurm, and Henry Highland Garnet called on slaves

to "act like men" and rise up against slavery, and their appeals were

frequently echoed by black women activists. From Maria Stewart to Ida B.

Wells, black women chastised black men for failing to fulfill their manly role

as defenders of the race.

Consequently, women barely figured in most Pan-Africanist or

emigrationist imaginings of what the New Land might look like, except in

Garveyism. Thanks to critical scholarship by Barbara Bair, Ula Taylor,

Michelle Mitchell, and others, we know that women participated at all levels

in the UNIA and were central to the construction of modern black

nationalism. Garveyite women spoke, taught, organized local meetings, and

wrote and edited texts (though always under the threat of male censorship),

and in so doing simultaneously challenged and reinforced gender divisions

and conventions in the movement. The UNIA's construction of gender in the

auxiliaries extended to its conception of Africa under colonial domination,

which was symbolically conceived as a benighted woman in need of

salvation. Motherland replaced the more common nineteenth-century word

fatherland, as representations of Africa in the Garveyite press ranged from the

nursing mother whose children had been torn from her breast by slavery to

the shackled woman raped by imperialist masters. Defending Africa from

imperialism was tantamount to defending black womanhood from rape; black

men were called upon to redeem this oppressed and degraded black woman,

our mother of civilization, in a bold, chivalrous act. Rape symbolism was not

just a convenient metaphor but carried specific historical resonance in light of

the history of sexual terrorism visited upon black women in slavery and

freedom. These themes reappear over and over again in Garveyite songs,

such as \"The Universal Ethiopian Anthem,\" \"God Bless Our President,\"

and \"Legion\'s Marching Song\":

The Legion here will fight for Africa there,

We are going to avenge her wrongs,

We are coming, oh Mother Africa,

We are four hundred millions strong. . . .

No cracker will dare seduce our sister,

Or to hang us on a limb,

And we are not obliged to call him mister,

Or to skin our lips at him. . . .

Clearly, the UNIA was very conservative when it came to gender. Among

other things, it promoted Victorian mores, the patriarchal family, and the idea

that women's primary roles centered on caregiving, domesticity, and race

building by way of reproduction and education. But in the context of a racist

culture that viewed black women as immoral, licentious, and criminally

inclined, or faithful but ignorant members of a servant class, placing black

women on a pedestal to be exalted and protected radically challenged the

status quo. Although the pedestal created its own limitations, both for

women's autonomy and independence and for their participation within the

leadership of the UNIA, black women did exercise more power in the Garvey

movement than they had in other Pan-Africanist organizations of the day.

Structured along the lines of African-American churches, the UNIA elected

a "male president" and a slate of male officers along with a "lady president"

and women officers who oversaw the female auxiliaries and juvenile division.

The Parent Body Leadership, its international body, designated one position

for a woman—fourth assistant general president, which was held by Henrietta

Vinton Davis, one of the UNIA's leading orators. Women who held these

elected and appointed positions were more than tokens; they often used their

platforms to challenge the movement's gender conventions. Amy Jacques

Garvey, Marcus Garvey's second wife, used her position to write a column in

the Negro World featuring stories about women in traditionally male

professions—physicians, executives, bankers, engineers, etc.—and profiled

strong, heroic black women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

She covered a range of controversial issues, from birth control to women's

roles in political movements, and she encouraged women's participation in

the public sphere. Although her argument was based partly on the idea that

women's special virtue, unique spirituality, could soften "ills of the world,"

Amy Jacques Garvey was just as quick to describe women as warriors. In a

scathing critique of the UNIA's failure to promote more women to important

leadership positions, she portrayed some male leaders as cowards who

harbored "old-fashioned tyrannical feelings" and predicted that the

women "will press on and on until victory is ours. . . . Ethiopia's queens will

reign again, and her Amazons protect her shores and people." Likewise,

Henrietta Vinton Davis called on women to be prepared for battle like their

foremothers in Africa and America: "If our men hesitate, then the women of

the race must come forward, they must join the great army of Amazons and

follow a Joan of Arc who is willing to be burned at the stake to save her


Garveyism continues to exist today, but its heyday was really the 1920s.

It was a movement founded in the midst of war, steeled on war metaphors,

and practically destroyed by a war waged by the U.S. state and colonial

governments throughout the world. Internal conflicts also destabilized the

Garvey movement; corruption, theft, and bad investments (not to mention

poor political judgments like Marcus Garvey's decision to meet with leaders

of the Ku Klux Klan) all contributed to the collapse of the UNIA. Perhaps the

outcome was inevitable. After all, the economic philosophy undergirding

Garveyism was independent enterprise and entrepreneurship. In this

philosophy, industries such as the Black Star Line would not only serve

black people but would also be a source of capital placed entirely in black

hands, wealth for a rising race. The problem was that Marcus Garvey trusted

his lieutenants; he didn't believe they would skim wealth off the top or

consider their personal desire for wealth above the greater good of the African


I doubt that most of Garvey's followers imagined the New Land as an

African version of American capitalism, a land of entrepreneurs hawking

commodities and opportunities at every turn. Instead, the Black Star Line

was less a business venture than the new ark. Africa, or somewhere other

than here, marked a new beginning, a beautiful, peaceful, collective life where

needs were fulfilled and poverty was a thing of the past. It was not unlike the

vision of the promised land radical Jews had hoped Israel would become—a

socialist paradise modeled after the kibbutz. Just as the kibbutz draws on

ancient ideas of how God intended men and women to live their lives, ancient

Africa in the black imagination continues to be a window on our dreams of

the New Land.

Space Is the Place

What does the New Land look like? Singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln tells us

in her 1972 song "Africa," a paean to the continent, the home she had been

searching for, the "land of milk and honey." She sings not about a lost past

but a hopeful, glorious future; she sings of a deep longing for a place like

Africa, for it was remembered and experienced as a world that kept us whole.

Lincoln's lyrics echo a massive body of literary, visual, musical, and political

texts. We read them in the writings of Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Aimé

Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Leon Damas, Margaret Danner, Margaret Walker,

Nicolas Guillén, Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, Paul

Robeson, Melvin B. Tolson, Ted Joans, and Carolyn Rodgers. We see them

in the paintings and sculptures of Aaron Douglass, Lois Mailou Jones,

Sargent Johnson, Charles Alston, Meta Warwick Fuller, Hale Woodruff,

Wifredo Lam, Betye Saar, John Biggers, Richmond Barthé, Faith Ringgold,

Melvin Edwards, Jeff Donaldson, Camille Billops, and Bill Maxwell. We hear

them in the music of Duke Ellington, Randy Weston, Melba Liston, John

Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Horace Parlan, Pharoah Sanders,

Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Yusef Lateef, Bob Marley, Mutabaruka,

Mandrill, X-Clan, Blackstar, Harmony, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Tonton

David. And I've barely scratched the surface.

The desire to pack up and leave persisted well into the late twentieth

century, although it seems as though the story of Noah's ark from Genesis

might have overtook the Book of Exodus as the more common analogy of

flight. Increasingly, the ark has taken the form of the modern space ship, and

the search for the New Land has become intergalactic. Predictions of the

destruction of Earth abound. Genesis, indeed.

For at least a century, a long line of black intellectuals and religious

leaders have contemplated space travel, including the Honorable Elijah

Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. One of the most famous, if not the most

fascinating, black proponents of space travel was the Birmingham-born

pianist/composer Herman Sonny Blount, better known as Sun Ra. As early

as the 1950s, he called his band an Arkestra, and he claimed that he had left

this earth only to return. He, too, looked backward to look forward, finding the

cosmos by way of ancient Egypt. Critical of racism in America and

elsewhere, he promoted a kind of interplanetary emigrationist movement.

Dressed in metallic outfits that might best be described as ancient Egyptian

space suits, Sun Ra's Arkestra played an advanced form of music that

incorporated vocalists, dancers, and electronic instruments long before they

became popular. He did not consider his music jazz, nor did he accept

the "avant-garde" label. As he once said, "It's more than avant-garde,

because the 'avant-garde' refers to, I suppose, advanced earth music. But

this is not earth music." At the heart of Sun Ra's vision was the notion of

alter/destiny—the idea that through the creation of new myths we have the

power to redirect the future. He penned many poems and songs promoting an

Alter/destiny, including "Imagination":

Imagination is a Magic carpet

Upon which we may soar

To distant lands and climes

And even go beyond the moon

To any planet in the sky

If we came from

nowhere here

Why can't we go somewhere there?

Sun Ra and his Arkestra inspired other Afrofuturists, interstellar fellow

travelers, such as George Clinton, founder of Parliament/Funkadelic,

Jamaica's Lee Scratch Perry, and Chicago disc jockey "Captain Sky," whose

radio shows spoke metaphorically of space travel to bring attention to the

conditions of black people in the United States. Perry and Clinton, in

particular, employed the image of the ark as a mode of space travel. Perry,

who made dub records charting "the relationship between madness,

space/time travel, the Old Testament, and African identity," called his studios

The Black Ark, and made records such as Heart of the Ark, Build the Ark,

and Black Ark in Dub. Clinton's ark took the form of the "Mothership," a funky

flying saucer designed to take all the party people to a better place.

Not surprisingly, the most visionary strand of hip-hop culture also

embraces a politics of escape not averse to interstellar time travel. During hip-

hop's infancy, the pioneer Bronx disc jockey Afrika Bambaataa and his

various groups—the Jazzy Five, Cosmic Force, and the Soul Sonic Force—

embraced the space-age styles as well as the impulse to escape the

wretchedness of daily life through dance music. Founder of the Zulu Nation —

a politically conscious organization of rappers, break-dancers, graffiti artists,

and others associated with 1970s hip-hop culture—Bambaataa is perhaps

best known for his hit song "Planet Rock." By the early 1990s, the themes of

exodus, the search for paradise, even African redemption became more

pronounced in the music of groups such as Poor Righteous Teachers,

Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Tribe

Called Quest, PM Dawn, and X-Clan, among others. More recently, artists

such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dilated Peoples, Afu Ra, Natural Resource,

Common, Reflection Eternal, and Dead Prez, among others, have continued

to explore some of these themes.

These artists might be described as modern ancients redefining freedom,

imagining a communal future (and present) without exploitation; all-natural,

African, barefoot, and funky. A product of many influences, from

Rastafarianism and the Five-Percent Nation (a youth-oriented Islamic group)

to science fiction, some of these groups advocated vegetarianism, natural

hair, and a pace of life where humans were the masters of time rather than

the other way around. Poor Righteous Teachers, whose notion of \"pure

poverty\" signifies both a knowledge of the condition of black folk and a

position from which to critique forms of oppression, called for the creation of a

new utopia within the city by transforming the way people live their lives.

Others, like X-Clan, combined a politics of resistance with a politics of

escape in songs such as "Xodus," "Cosmic Ark," and "Arkilogical." In addition

to fighting racism in their place of residence, in part by founding their own

black radical political movement called Blackwatch, they sing songs that

advocate a return to "the East"—what they imagine as a peaceful, classless,

oppression-free Africa. Decked out in beads, leather, ear and nose rings, big

walking sticks, and a wild assortment of African garments, the men and

women of X-Clan had a startling visual presence. Musically they mixed the

sound of African drums with samples from Parliament/Funkadelic. And

despite the serious revolutionary rhetoric, X-Clan never lost a sense of humor:

Its ark was a pink Cadillac.

Songs by groups such as Digable Planets, PM Dawn, even De La Soul

promoted an alternative vision to the violent and artificial realities of urban life.

The tragically short-lived Arrested Development (one of the original Southern

hip-hop groups, let's not forget) focused much of its music on reconstructing

relationships between human beings across lines of color, gender,

generation, and spirituality, and of reconnecting black people to the natural

world. These themes are especially pronounced in songs such as "People

Everyday," "Mama's Always on Stage," "Children Play with Earth," "Natural,"

and "Dawn of the Dreads." Their wildly popular 1992 hit "Tennessee," from

their debut album Three Years, Five Months, and Two Days in the Life of . . .

captures the desire for a new space, a place in the countryside away from

urban chaos, and yet it is a place with a history of pain and violence

that "Speech," the lead rapper, must reckon with. It is God who tells him

to "break / outta the country and / into more country":

Where the ghost of

childhood haunts me.

Walk the roads my

forefathers walked,

climbed the trees my

forefathers hung from.

Ask those trees for all

their wisdom,

they tell me my ears are

so young. . . . Home

go back to from

whence you

came. . . . Home.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Take me to another place

Take me to another land

Make me forget all that hurts me

Let me understand your plan.

In one sense, "Tennessee" parallels the Exodus story in that God tells the

singer to go find salvation, except that the new Israel is situated in Egyptland

itself, after the apparent overthrow of the Pharaoh.

Another powerful but little-known example of hip-hop's vision of an

earthbound utopia, free of fratricidal violence, full of natural beauty and

splendor, is "Sunny Meadowz" by Oakland-based rapper Del tha Funkee

Homosapien, which appeared on his 1991 debut album, I Wish My Brother

George Was Here. That Del was produced by Ice Cube (Del's cousin) and

the Lench Mob, known to most hip-hop fans for their notorious gangsta

rhymes of mayhem and misogyny, makes "Sunny Meadowz" even more of a

curiosity. He opens by declaring war on all the thugs and fake rappers,

promising to snatch their gold chains and gold "fronts" (teeth) and return

them "to the caves of the Motherland / and ride a rhinoceros back to the other

land." Listen to his description of "the meadowz":

D. E. L., the eighteen-year-old dweller of the meadow,

It sure in the hell beats living in the ghetto.

Things are peace and everything's settled

With a goodnight snooze on a bed of rose petals.

I wake up in the morning feeling happy and refreshed. . . .

Before the day is over, the singer journeys past earth, reclines on a hippo,

writes "scriptures by the old wishing well," and lives a wonderful life where

everything is clean and natural. Although he does have a maid in the

meadowz, and in his imagination his music keeps him paid, freedom is

conceived in the "Sunny Meadowz" not in terms of materialism but as a way

of living, a way of being in the world that is at once intensely personal and

collective. This is not the image one usually associates with the hip-hop

generation, especially at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And yet it

is pervasive, especially among some of the young contemporary "spoken-

word artists" who are also products of hip-hop culture. Consider the following

stanzas by Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie:

I want to walk barefoot

in a place where barefoot has no name

in a place where soul on Earth

is natural

a place where toes in soil

is common as

true love


and birth. . . .

I want to walk barefoot

in cities without streets

where admiration is a deep silence

and conversations are replaced by the eloquence of eyes

barefoot in a place

where excuses are not enforced in law books

where there is no law

only that which is right. . . .

The imagery has changed; even the geography has shifted from Africa to

anyplace but where we are now. But the dream of Exodus still lives in those

of us not satisfied with the world as we know it. It is not the only dream.

There is yet another radical tradition that insists that we can all live together

in peace and harmony, but only if we transform society together. For many

black radicals seeking justice, salvation, and freedom, the vision of socialism

proved to be especially compelling, even if incomplete.'

Product Details

Kelley, Robin D. G.
Beacon Press (MA)
United States - 20th Century
African American Studies
History & Theory - Radical Thought
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - Histor
General Social Science
African American Studies-Black Heritage
African American Studies-General
Edition Number:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
June 2003
Grade Level:
8.64x5.46x.73 in. .70 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » African American Studies » General

Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination New Trade Paper
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$24.95 In Stock
Product details 264 pages Beacon Press - English 9780807009772 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , US
"Synopsis" by , Kelley unearths freedom dreams in this exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora in the twentieth century. Focusing on the visions of activists from C. L. R. James to Aime Cesaire and Malcolm X, Kelley writes of the hope that Communism offered, the mindscapes of Surrealism, the transformative potential of radical feminism, and of the four-hundred-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. From'the preeminent historian of black popular culture' (Cornel West), an inspiring work on the power of imagination to transform society.
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