I know that many are given to hyperbole upon learning that a person they revere has gone to be with the ancestors, but it is not an overstatement to say that Cedric Robinson, who passed away on June 5, truly changed my life.
I was a graduate student in 2006 when I came across a book with a black background and the words “Black Marxism” written in blue-and-red block letters on the front. The title surprised me because, unlike now, most of the progressives I’d met were white men and women given to tie-dye shirts and arguments about the differences between Trotskyism and Leninism.
The history of black Marxism intrigued me. I knew I couldn’t have been the only one, but I was unaware that I was part of a lineage that combined academic rigor with social activism. A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Dois, Richard Wright—they became more than historical figures. They were my intellectual family. They gave me the courage to fully be who I was called to become: a black man who placed my unapologetic love of black people in dialogue with my commitment to economic justice.
This is the gift of great scholarship, the reason that black intellectual genealogies are important. They teach us that history is a living, breathing thing—something with which we can wrestle and to which we can contribute. Black history is more than a series of firsts. It’s also groundwork laid by intellectual giants that beckons us to complete the effort or, at least, build upon it.
In philosophy, I was required to read books written exclusively by white men. I wondered if I had what it took to contribute, if my culture was of philosophical import. Cedric Robinson informed me that I mattered, that my culture mattered. I had something to contribute, and his example challenges me still.
Born in Oakland, Calif., Robinson completed his undergraduate work in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He achieved his Master of Arts and doctorate at Stanford University in political theory. He wrote many books of note, Black Movements in America and An Anthropology of Marxism among them, but Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition is his magnum opus—the text for which he will be remembered.
Charting black Americans’ engagement with Marxism is no simple task. To start with the version of Marxism found in Europe and slowly and meticulously show the way black thinkers dialectically developed a version of the ideology that adhered to the basic principles of economic egalitarianism found in almost all explications of Marxism but differed in how it placed racism in dialogue with the conceptual lens Marx provided was brilliant, necessary and courageous. It’s a lesson that many progressives need to learn.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders were surprised by the candidate’s cold reception from black voters. They thought that Sanders’ message of economic reform would be sufficient to make the senator from Vermont appealing to that constituency. What these supporters underestimated was the degree of suspicion black Americans have historically had regarding attempts to address racial ills using socioeconomic cures.
A black working-class child has to contend with economic inequality and racism. Fixing the former will not eradicate the latter. If economic egalitarianism is achieved, an officer may still gun me down in the street because I am black. Sanders’ persistent pivot to class was part of his undoing with black voters. A close reading of Black Marxism would have let him know what to expect.
Before the movement for black lives made black radicalism cool for millennials, Cedric Robinson did the work of excavating an intellectual history we rely upon today. No great obituaries ran in the New York Times. Few even noticed his passing. But the work of Robinson continues to inspire black scholars whose work intersects with the Marxist tradition. He did it because he loved black people, and his work speaks to us still.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.