The New Jersey Nation of Islam Vanguard Drill Team—serious-looking young sisters marching in paper-cut precision right in front of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the masses who had gathered for the State of the Black World IV Conference—looked like something out of an old book on Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
The self-proclaimed “provisional president” of Africa had mass black conventions in New York City in the 1920s, almost a hundred years ago, that continue to inspire black activists today. The NOI is an outgrowth—actually, a child—of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. So there was a sense of continuity, a sense of history being in sync with the present, the ever noticeable black time loop.
What kind of gathering was the State of the Black World IV Conference?
It was the kind of meeting where, in front of you, you could see the middle-aged daughter of revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon, Mirielle Fanon-Mendez-France, sharing private moments with Ester Ogulari, a young scholar-activist studying and participating in the Afro-Colombian movement.
It was the kind of meeting where Yvette Modestin, a black Panamanian, explained that she lives the same “African reality” in Latin America as she does in the United States.
It was the kind of meeting where Danny Glover, known to most as an actor, talked about his world travels as an activist and an honorary leader of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, the group that sponsored the five-day confab.
The SOBW was held Nov. 16-20 in Newark, N.J., the site of the first black power conference in 1967, back when the IBW attendees were young black power advocates. The city is now run by Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of the late artist-activist Amiri Baraka, who was a founder of the Black Arts Movement and one of the conveners of the National Black Political Convention of 1972.
So it was go black or go home.
The talks were either very abstract or very practical. Maulana Karenga, the controversial black-studies scholar who made Kwanzaa—a “first-fruits” celebration in Tanzania and elsewhere on the African continent—into a black American holiday 50 years ago, was present. And he emphasized that the struggle was internal and external, based first on self-healing: a “radical reconstruction of self, society and the world.”
Minister Farrakhan, 83, who closed the conference Sunday to a packed hotel ballroom of about 1,000 very black people, was introduced by New Jersey activist Fredricka Bey as “the last man standing.” He talked about a divine wind that had blown through America, one that clearly and deliberately shattered the expectations of Hillary Clinton and her many supporters.
Trump’s unlikely-voter base came alive because “we are rising and they [whites] are falling," Farrakhan said. "[He] is peeling back the onion of civility.”
The NOI leader called for a return to the concept of a black America—but this one should have a president; a secretary of state; and a ministry of information, one of culture and one of justice. That way, we collectively control how our communities function, he said.
Yes, history’s weight was ever present.
Jesus “Chucho” Garcia, the consul-general of Venezuela, started roll/role-calling the black intellectual martyrs and their anti-imperialist ideas. He insisted that black people must never forget the names and works of leaders such as Pan-Africanist historian Walter Rodney; Maurice Bishop, the socialist leader of Grenada; and Thomas Sankara, the Marxist former president of Burkina Faso.
There was no debate over the United States’ role, then and now, as an empire. At the postelection town hall meeting, Mayor Baraka called for “a united front” against the United States’ brand of fascism.
“Lincoln facilitated the instantiation of empire,” explained Dowoti Desir, chair of the New York-based NGO Committee for the Elimination of Racism, Afrophobia & Colorism. “Obama was holding up the empire, and Trump is simply going to name himself the emperor.”
The revolutionary spirit that coursed through the convention spoke loudly: The empire must fall. To that end, tomorrow and the day after may be filled with new rages against Trump Tower and its new twin, the White House.
Faya Ora Rose Toure, founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Ala., said that she and the young people who came with her left the conference briefly to attend a protest at Trump Tower in New York City over the president-elect’s choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a racist, as U.S. attorney general.
Sir Hilary Beckles, vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, declared that in this reactionary moment, blacks now “have a destiny with democracy.” Greg Carr, chair of Afro-American studies at Howard University, declared that with Trump, the gloves were finally off: “Now we can finally have the fight” while the Republican Party “dissolves into a war of whiteness.”
There was not a frown or sigh of resignation in sight; more than one speaker called Trump’s election a blessing, an opportunity, and was greeted with nods and agreements from the crowd. Eight years of the Obama experiment in American democracy are over. “We didn’t ask President Obama for much,” said economist Julianne Malveaux, “so we didn’t get much.”
And a pent-up black-activist America is quickly returning to normal.
Melvin Foote of Constituency for Africa said of the election: “Don’t agonize; organize." But the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, reminded the crowd that “demonstration without legislation means frustration.” The question that has yet to be answered came from Farrakhan: “Will your presence affect their power to rule you?”
Revolutions won’t start and can’t be stopped by these gatherings. After all, these postmodern black radical conferences are what they are: social networking sessions that try to fill the void created by a serious absence of funded, staffed think tanks among the African-centered activist class.
The NAACP, Rainbow PUSH, Congressional Black Caucus, et al., get the white funding and the suits, and IBW 21 gets the dashikis, African walking sticks and pass-around donation baskets. IBW 21 President Ron Daniels said that his group’s conference mission was providing “[political/spiritual] renewal.”
Why is that needed? The mean age at the conference was 70. As Daniels openly said to one of his many peers in the room, poet-publisher-educator Haki Madhubuti, “We’ve been doing this work our whole lives.”
Unfortunately, the manifestos inevitably produced are important documents of the moment, but no staff and no funding means no follow-through. But whether these meetings produce anything practical—or revolutionary, for that matter—is not the question that will dictate the immediate, counterrevolutionary future.
The first pressing question might be, what will the future shaped by Trump create: more Michelle Obamas or more Fannie Lou Hamers and members of the NOI drill team? More Walter Rodneys or more cable-TV-ready black liberal public intellectuals?
The next president, by his white nationalist nature, policies and appointments, is set to organize black people in a way not seen since the days of apartheid-era Sun City and Magnum, P.I. on the boob tube. This is a harking back to the 1980s, the decade in which Rodney, Sankara and Bishop were assassinated.
The second question is, will the youths of Black Lives Matter, the middle-aged hip-hop generation and the aging, formerly Afroed baby boomers be in the constant communication needed for successful new movements?
All week long, speaker after speaker lamented the fact that very few young people—by the perspective of these participants, people between, say, 15 and 40—were SOBW attendees. No matter how those connections happen, let’s stop talking about “passing the torch” from one generation to another, demanded Makani Themba, an activist in Jackson, Miss.
Everyone, young and old, must carry the flame.
The actions of America’s white world have inevitably shifted the SOBW into nonsymbolic wokeness. If Clinton had won, the larger issue would have been, will black America’s happy-to-be-colonized majority, led by the American Obamas and those like them, just wait for the decolonized minority to get tired or die?
Whose flag will black America wave strongest in 2017: Betsy Ross’ or Garvey’s red-black-and-green dream of a united Africa? But all of that is now moot, at least until the Democrats strike back at some point in the electoral future. Right now the Orange Man is grabbing the historic ray gun, and although it’s winter in America and winter individually and collectively for the boomers, black activists of all ages now seem ready to make a multigenerational fist and throw it, to merge into a unified movement against unsheathed white supremacy.
The wind of reactionary history that will attack them as they step outside into their painful, powerful Garvey-to-Malcolm heritage is still freezing and blustery, holding the alternating screams and cheers of the ancestors. Beckles reminded the conferees that history is not linear, that the struggle for self-determination moves back and forth.
Meanwhile, metaphoric armies are gathering, hopefully creating hip-hop songs about Crispus Attucks and David Walker, and praying that the battles to come will fulfill the painful glories, the blood seen on ragged slavery rags and dreamed-of flags.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.