From 1967-1971, H Rap Brown (now Imam Jamil Al-Amin ), native of Baton Rouge Louisiana, distinguished himself in how he foretold the future of the Black Power movement and clarified the questions we should be asking about where African American politics and anti-racist politics were headed. His deeper contributions to politics are obscure to most perhaps as a result of a cloud of sensationalism that on one level he contributed to himself.
H. Rap Brown could be a trickster. While he spoke directly and did not speak in proverbs, he was a spirit with a great degree of knowledge that could disrupt conventional wisdom and normative patterns of behavior. Encountering Brown at the height of his abilities on the world stage, as film clips and archived old LP records and newspapers suggest, must have been both beautiful and disturbing.
Remembered for calling racist whites “honky” and “peckerwood,” and quotations like “Burn Baby Burn,” “If America Don’t Come Around We Gonna Burn It Down,” “Violence is American as Cherry Pie” – these produced emotive responses but were not his most profound contributions. These sensational comments need to be placed in historical context. Neither was Brown’s attempt to popularize the idea that “the bad nigga,” the Black street force that lived by their wits if not by a hustle, was more authentic than the “Negroes” who lived to assimilate to white norms and become token professionals. Brown’s instinct that the African American elite wished to avoid what was “black” in themselves was an insight that was both partial and imprecise – but by instinct and unfolding history this gleaning by Brown quickly became something else.
Where Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) argued “every Negro was a potential Black man,” Brown insisted “every Negro is a potential traitor, and every Black man is only a potential revolutionary – with emphasis on potential.” Brown’s key contributions to Black Power politics was illuminating these creative conflicts ever more precisely.
Brown increasingly developed concepts that insisted upon leaving behind partial mistakes or antiquated perceptions for an aspiring improved synthesis. We remind ourselves Brown had a conception of Black manhood that suggested every compromise with the white racial state’s authority transformed Blacks into what Gil Scott-Heron called “pieces of a man.” Alert that most choose to speak of humanity over manhood today, his challenges to authority are still worth pondering.
Brown began to see how the revolution in Black identity and culture was not a consistent radical political reality
civil rights movement
commitment. Being “black,” which projected as an aspiring new ethic, not just an existential condition of the alienated and victimized wrapped in a darker hue, actually could be appropriated by compromising elements. Black Power ideas were becoming reconcilable with American Exceptionalism – not last month, or last year, but fifty years ago. When Brown began to articulate this reality, he was living in a moment of danger for clarifying the conflicting tendencies in the Black Power movement.
The title of Brown’s book Die Nigger Die! (1969), that was part memoir and significant philosophical statement, is still disturbing to many and could obstruct starting a more profound conversation. Brown talked about the wives and daughters of prominent white politicians in this book and in public life with a cavalier boldness that was electric and unmannerly, disturbing those false ladies and gentlemen who gathered at Southern soirees, to uncompromising Black audiences. Brown toiled in a historical environment that still remembered the consequence for such loose talk was lynching. His challenge to respectability politics was not more complete by the standards of today. But it was much more audacious than what we see in our own place and time from a younger generation of social critics.
“Don’t Get Left”
Contemporary cultural discussions on television and in university life, often led by people of color and women, can explore a plurality of identities that suggest an existential crisis, the gaze of victimization, aggression, and oppression — more it is true than Brown fifty years ago could conceive. But unlike Brown, these conversations are laden with a false civility and sense of reason, an overstated cosmopolitanism, and a complicity with at least half the state and ruling class.
Often these discourses are in denial that aggression is not primarily what we are subjected on a “micro” level or interpersonally through communication. There has never been more discussion of anxieties over what historically had happened, and perceptions of what might happen, short of social organization to keep violent attacks from happening or to retaliate when they do. And this was before the Age of Trump. Few have adjusted since.
Brown used to toss out a challenge: “…And to the white left, don’t get left.” In an environment where Brown and other Black Power advocates were popularizing armed struggle in the aftermath of the official Civil Rights movement (where Black elected officials increasingly disavowed mass mobilizations) and its discontents felt by everyday Blacks, this was something to consider. As the contemporary white social-democratic left revels in expanding into the Democratic Party, where many Blacks overwhelmingly and unproductively are trapped, it is important to remind that the insurgent rebellions of fifty years ago and of recent vintage broke out beyond containment by the fraud-world maintained by progressives.
When Brown asked “how many white folks did you kill today?” at Huey Newton’s birthday rally in February 1968, this was not the same as saying “the police are killing you, what are you going to do?” Though both were rapidly changing, it is true there were few police of color then, and few whites who saw the police as unfriendly. This fiery sentiment is historically best processed by the insight of Walter Rodney, the native of Guyana who inspired the Black Power movement in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. In 1968-1969, Rodney reminded that history must be placed in the service of Black revolution. That there need not be deference to whites in articulating impending confrontations against injustice. For sincere whites who identify with the Black freedom movement at its most radical will not do so because of their desire to relate to Black identity, culture, or history. They will not ask that Blacks prove their humanity, qualifications for employment or full citizenship rights (as limited as these are in fact).
To rally the anger and discontent of a crowd, even Brown would admit, is not a precise science – and agitation could not always contain the kernels of what was required to design a new society or all the proper and valid questions we should be asking. What many do not like about the historical Black Power movement, as it has been recalled in distorted fragments and passed down shorn of its commitments to socialism, radical internationalism, and affinity for the Third World, is its tendency to unleash a racial anger that could not or would not discern differences among white people.
Besides the fact that white supremacy notoriously doesn’t recognize differences among Blacks (and then only as an indirect put-down), it is important in response to this concern to note that those few white people who genuinely related to Black Revolution fifty years ago were not easily prone to hurt feelings or deterred from radical political activity even where they disagreed with this or that Black person. Those who merely related to mere civil rights and uncritical social integration often did panic. But as Frantz Fanon suggested, and which most U.S. based Black Power activists who otherwise embraced him as a theorist did not relate, facilitating guilt to be born in minds was not a contribution to a radical breakthrough. But this required a self-awareness by both blacks and whites that, per Fanon, we were “not the slave of the slavery that dehumanized our ancestors.” H. Rap Brown understood this to be true and was striving for a higher accountability from blacks and whites in the freedom movement.
Signifying and the Mask of Anarchy
Brown’s memoir actually shows if not an evolution in his politics as one turns the pages, then in some ways a mask of anarchy. Brown was bringing an insurgent chaos, a will to destroy the compromising manners that restricted the Black freedom movement. When some, like Bayard Rustin, began to advocate shifting from protest to politics, by which was meant lobbying and ethnic patronage politics (and a retreat from opposing war and empire), this exposed that for many African Americans their condemnation of “institutional racism” was inauthentic. In fact, it was believed specific individuals and public policies were in fact decisive, and that Black participation and management of institutions, that a short time ago were labeled totally illegitimate or inherently oppressive, was alright. Blacks, by leading them, could even redeem them.
This contradiction reminds us why the discourse of the critique of white privilege was growing. It was a new veil for a new reality – fifty years ago. The very same material practices of whites and people of color could be evaluated totally differently because of racial disparities. Property could be said to be empowering for people of color but whites already had too much. Popular humor about who thought they were “the man” among Blacks, reminds that decades ago, the white man alone no longer embodied executive and supervisory roles in the management of subordinates. An anxiety about what it meant to be “black” and promote social equality was emerging because it could not be denied, that while Dr. King desired to redeem the soul of America, from the inception of this idea, what was required was willful ignorance, opportunism, and collaboration with corporate imperialism.
Brown spoke of Black Power in a manner that exhibited evolving, at times overlapping, and unfolding positions asserting a certain type of race-first stance, then examining color complexes in the Black community, and slowly brewing he arrives at a dynamic class consciousness without discarding an original Black identity and ethic. This could be seen as a creative conflict within his personality. But I prefer to view it as an evolving conversation with the Black community’s consciousness that was peeling back layers of awareness.
Brown in a sense transcends how the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar spoke of Blacks wearing “a mask” to obscure troubles in mind by wielding in his own way a mask of anarchy. The masks Brown metaphorically wore as he spoke spread chaos against loyalty to the white racial state and stoked counter-punches within Black identity formation as it was rapidly evolving and taking shape at the height of the Black Power movement.
Brown embraced the idea that he should personify the trickster of the Anansi stories of West Africa . Sometimes such tales were led by a character such as a spider or a signifying monkey. One limit of seeing Brown as a trickster is his approach was not a zig zag of cryptic proverbs but transparent confrontation. Still, those who signify would “rap.”
Brown wished to locate himself in Black working class oral history among those who would snap, rank, play the dozens, and wielded the ritual game of competitive insults as a portal to more serious political claims. In this way Brown could be said to be a trickster because his political philosophy was far more complex than sensational media sound bites.
Such ritual signifying in African American neighborhoods on the street corner often asserted a stronger against a weaker manhood, and the degradation of women (one’s opponent’s mother, sister, girlfriend) in the spirit of a rogue who threatened an assault through crafty words – this could be funny to a macho or confident street audience, but also turn explosive in unproductive ways.
There is reason to underline Brown’s patriarchal tendencies and below we shall consider them further. But we should also note that Brown was correct, that in the culture of the Black street force, some of the best signifiers, wielding wicked gendered and sexual putdowns were ordinary Black women. An older generation might call these “blues women” who refused to aspire to be ladies after Southern white women claimed the cult of true womanhood only for themselves and by contrast attempted to degrade the woman of color as Aunt Jemima or Jezebel.
Street folks, whether women or men, are rarely the comfortable subjects of Black middle-class professionals and their contemporary outlook on respectability, and its new related trope micro-aggressions. Crucially, Brown as trickster embraced Black oral traditions , and attempted to turn the Black street force, wielding its own idioms, toward a confrontation with white authority (and evolving Black authority).
Nevertheless, Brown is best understood at this historical moment as seeking to ensure, through shrewd tactics, that the Black freedom movement would not be compromised and reconverted into a main current of multi-cultural imperial corporatism. Today progressives are still trying to influence the ruling class party who supports this disposition.
In 1967 Brown became the chairperson of SNCC in its Black Nationalist phase, following the leadership of Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and the emergence of the Black Panther Party the year before. In 1968, The Vietnam War was undermining President Lyndon Johnson, who liberals otherwise accepted as a voice of civil rights. There was student revolt in Poland, West Germany, Mexico City, and in the United States (from Columbia to Madison to Berkeley).
Student revolt was joined by workers’ revolt in France and Italy. Prague embodied for a moment the anti-Stalinist revolt against the Soviet Union. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an inspiration to many – Mao had not yet embraced Richard Nixon and Huey Newton weeks apart. There was an insurgent rebellion outside the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. By the end of the year Richard Nixon won the White House and represented the backlash of “the forgotten [white] man” that the Age of Trump has taken much further in a comparative context of freedom movement disorganization – though the spirit of resistance has grown in the last five years and is growing and unfolding.
The Historical Context for “Burn Baby Burn”
Of course, 1968 was the year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the influence of the Black Panther Party was at its height. From 1964 to 1968 there were urban rebellions against police brutality in Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., and even Little Rock. Brown was among the few Black radicals that state surveillance records blamed for cultivating the popular will toward the 1967 urban uprising in Detroit , as well the famous rebellion in Cambridge, Maryland where Black community resistance was led by Gloria Richardson .
H. Rap Brown was someone who profoundly inserted himself in the midst of insurgency and fanned the flame in a remarkable manner – at moments like this what is termed responsible is often counter-revolutionary and restorationist. Unlike those in recent years who proclaimed a desire for major social change, condemned respectability politics, but found Ferguson and Baltimore (where Blacks were fighting with police and burning property in rebellion) alarming, Brown cultivated the popular will in a manner that extended the rebellious instinct toward a greater understanding of radical power not electoral or ethnic patronage politics.
It is true, as James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs tried to remind in real time during this historical moment, that a rebellion or insurgent uprising is not the same as a social revolution. A social revolution, even potentially, requires dual power conditions where radical social movement organizations and counter-institutions as an incipient new society mirror the existing state, offering a vision of a new beginning and calling into question the regime’s popular legitimacy. But urban rebellions, as C.L.R. James would assert, that fight police and burn property all over the country are a measure that illustrates the esteem and legitimacy of official society are in question.
Those who will facilitate forms of governance that are a new beginning must also encourage the destruction of the old politics and the institutions that defend it. But just as insurgent rebellions can retreat, most conceptions of social revolution in how they conceive of taking power, if they are not careful, can be seen as bourgeois restorations just as much as new beginnings. Those who criticize the limitations of urban rebellions tend to forget this or are working for resuscitation of a dying system.
In the past couple of years, we saw how Black Lives Matter appeared to speak for the rebellious spirit of Ferguson and Baltimore, a broader coalition posed a Movement for Black Lives, and then this idea became adaptable to the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic Party. It had never discarded the legitimacy of President Obama or the ethnically plural police state as it rejected the white racial state.
At a moment where “Black Power” became an idea that spread like a wildfire, Brown’s fanning the flame of insurgency was difficult to do and a significant historical achievement. Many conflicting tendencies of identity, culture, and politics in the name of Black empowerment proliferated. Though Brown, as a political agitator was an original, it was his contributions to clarifying Black Power thought that should not be forgotten.
The Vote as Tool of Oppression
Often the Black Power movement is seen as the illegitimate brother of a Civil Rights movement whose moral claims in hindsight were unimpeachable. Actually, the Black Power movement completed the conservative aspirations of the Civil Rights movement where its legitimacy had stalled. Further, the conflicting tendencies in the Black Power movement exposed that the idea of a Civil Rights Revolution as absurdity, however much it contributed to the national reconstruction of the style of management and hierarchy the U.S. is familiar today.
Brown believed the vote had been used as a tool of oppression of Blacks. Blacks were essentially still conquered but this was obscured because the Voting and Civil Rights Acts of 1964-1965 allowed authorities to term Blacks “free.” Brown felt the Democrats and Republicans did not represent a choice of parties with fundamentally different views. Both were very partisan and biased toward racist white people with money or the ruling class as a whole. He argued these parties were of no value to oppressed people in this country for they both functioned as a degrading force.
If George Wallace, the voice of Jim Crow segregation in 1968, were to be elected, or Nixon or the Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Brown felt there would be no fundamental difference because it was the popular will of white supremacy that shaped mainstream electoral politics. The agenda of repressive laws that criminalized Blacks was shared by all parties.
Blacks, argued Brown, needed to prepare to fight all of these parties and the emphasis on the vote, and overcome choosing between factions of the ruling elite who Blacks have no power to choose as the candidates they put up for office. Therefore, electoral politics was meaningless. The emphasis among Black community leaders running around telling everyone of the importance of the vote was a mystification. Brown felt the objective conditions of Blacks, repressed by the state, is that they have to prepare themselves for the confrontation being forced upon them.
Brown clarified that mobilizing Blacks as a voting bloc within ordinary white politics in the name of ethnic pluralism is a denial of Black people’s role in the forefront of revolutionary possibilities. Brown saw all legal initiatives for surveillance of communications and to contain urban rebellions, including the freedom of movement of Blacks, as evidence of repression both against the Black masses and their radical potential. From “no-knock” to “stop and frisk” laws, Brown pioneered exposure of the normalization of crimes of the post-civil rights state against Blacks.
Brown explained the passing of these laws justifying state repression of Blacks was proof that “politics” very often has nothing to do with voting and elections. The definition of politics can be very flexible when the ruling elites use it against the multitudes. Politics is not just putting people in office, Brown illustrated, for everything ordinary Blacks did was political, and everything the white ruling elite do is political.
Brown could overstate that everything the Black masses did was political. And he was fighting shifting and receding tides of resistance as more and more Blacks were not “tokens” but essential to the political machines that actually determined political candidates for office.
Brown was correct though that those Blacks seeking electoral office, and especially after having found it, saw their piece of state power as not permanently enhanced by mass mobilization but wished to establish a safe distance from it. This became clear as Brown was removed from public life a year before the National Black Political Assembly at Gary, Indiana in 1972 that tried to foist a tepid Black liberation program, that it is true condemned official society, on to Black capitalist politicians who were now a part of it and frowned on discussion of social revolution.
Black Culture, Black Power
When Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics and did not bow down to the American flag in a Cold War racist environment, for Brown that was a political act just as Colin Kaepernick’s more recent protest in kneeling before the flag before NFL games was political but had nothing to do with voting. But Brown, like many critics, could deny the validity of cultural and symbolic politics even as he affirmed or condemned aspects of it.
H. Rap Brown took note that in 1968 Black celebrities, professional athletes and entertainers, not only got the vote out for the Democrats but also the Republicans. A major critic of James Brown who wrote “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud,” H. Rap Brown pointed out he only wrote this song after “America Is My Home” in 1968 was deemed unacceptable to the Black multitudes.
This line of steel between H. Rap Brown and James Brown reminds of a cultural divide opening up between advocates of “Black Power” that most would not recognize today. But we need to see that chasm open up again. And we need to be on guard against those who seek to repair the breach.
Black pride was becoming reconcilable with “America Is My Home.” Brown argued the Black Power movement was in danger of being coopted by the white establishment in 1968. If it could become sufficient to be “black and proud” than culturally Blacks can be separated from insurgent politics. Brown argued if Black pride is all Black people sustain, they will “boogaloo to the concentration camps when the man chooses to send them there.”
Brown argued the radical wing of the Black liberation movement had to begin to interpret and project what type of politics are relevant to Black people. It is very crucial to grasp all the wider meanings of this. We can mistake this simply for a call for “community control.” There were actually many versions of this sentiment and all could not be reconciled. If the African American community produces a plurality of political ideas and programs, white allies and others who support “self-determination” cannot agree with all of them. Solidarity requires deciding for oneself not about the humanity of the oppressed but what will advance the most profound autonomy and the fighting forms these must take whether in coalition or in the same organizations together.
Brown saw the Black cultural movement as beginning to separate from the Black political movement. On one hand Blacks, as all human beings, should have autonomy to express themselves in theatre, film, literature, art without a political litmus test. But Brown explained the argument was increasingly being made that Black culture was needed for “knowledge of self” and this could be quite ambiguous in social significance and politically of no consequence.
What Does It Really Mean to Know You Are “Black”?
Brown contested Black people for years have known they are “black” and in terms of what will make Black people fight for survival, he underscored it will not be identity. Rather, it will be the material conditions of their oppression and repression. In recent years, Adolph Reed Jr. has tried to clarify that conflicts over Black identity are really petty resentment over ethnic patronage politics – they are elitist and pragmatist slights of hand . Who is to be a civil rights leader, a professor, a corporate executive? Whose business should get a government contract? When the meaning of Black power is not power to the common people it is a compromise with capitalism, and collaboration with hierarchy and domination. It is a fight of 100 aspiring middle-class people for 3 available jobs or the fight of ten aspiring millionaires for business contracts from the public budget. Often Black consciousness gets derailed into such arguments in the name of self-determination and Brown saw this historical problem emerge fifty years ago.
It will not be some special identity, said Brown, that will lead Blacks to freedom. To be clear, Brown was not suggesting the material conditions of Black oppression was merely that they were poor, unemployed, workers or toilers. But he was speaking to the racial and fascist attacks of police and Klan.
H. Rap Brown, like certain Black Panthers who criticized cultural nationalists as having an inherent interest in Black capitalism, argued this proposition in this manner. While it may have been overstated to center those who start Black bookstores or sell dashikis as excessively ambitious profiteers, Brown made a projection that is more lasting. He said Black Power, as black cultural nationalism, saw in Black identity a type of Black social capital not in a new society, though some may have articulated they were building “a Black nation.” But within the main currents of U.S. society with all its warts and affliction.
There is a conflicting tendency here in Brown’s assertion. Even today we have women of color professionals, who maintain hair styles with consequences for which are ambiguous. They may find subtle and open repression in certain parts of the U.S. where anti-black racism is stronger in their workplaces. But Brown’s proposition was basically correct. Black cultural autonomy was, in substantial ways, becoming acceptable to the left bloc of capital and its party politics. Historically this was not so in 1964. The cultural landscape of the U.S. in the next decade changed drastically.
Further, Brown underscored that Black Power activists who emphasize running the white man out of their communities, in terms of the small merchant, find this profitable for this creates an opportunity to be the capitalist, however small-time, in the Black community. Such Black businesses can only replicate the same type of exploitation of the marginal toiler under some false communal premise, and this is dangerous. That Brown, as Imam Jamil Al-Amin, later presided over a small corner grocery store in Atlanta, was not a retreat from this basic insight. His search for a modicum of self-reliance after his first stint in prison was not accompanied by the promotion of false dreams and aspirations.
Brown felt it useful to make distinct cultural nationalism and political nationalism. Increasingly, as 1969 and 1970 approached, sectors of white official society, whether this seems odd or not, wished to support Black cultural nationalism in a variety of forms.
For if Black identity and Black entrepreneurship could be emphasized among people of color, white official society wouldn’t have to worry about Blacks moving politically in an insurgent manner beyond the vote and ethnic patronage politics.
If Black capitalism can be encouraged as the meaning of Black Power, the elite white guardians of the system wouldn’t have to worry about the system being jeopardized, whether or not they relate to dreads, cowries, dashikis or Kwanzaa. When Blacks begin to move radically, asserted Brown, they understand that capitalism must be opposed.
H. Rap Brown explained the logical extension of cultural nationalism, as it was being practiced in 1968-1970, was a result of American constitutional principles denying Black humanity and rights to be “free.” This could produce an endless epistemological discussion in the name of “Black Power” as to who has been left out of the system, the white racial contract, later the gendered social contract, contract and domination. What we know the terms of order to be diagnostically must have some relation to who and what we are fighting against. Today it is not so.
We have a plurality of identity politics and social diagnoses; yet, there is no corresponding popular sense of the need to overturn institutions and design new ones. Instead we want oppressive institutions to include us and give us rights. While it makes sense that those victimized, to a certain extent wish to be left alone, the search for rights soon became the counter-claims against who was privileged. And on this basis some people of color advanced beyond or managed the lives of others in the hierarchy. This was the new social equality in the Age of Black Power and Black identity and culture was becoming social capital within the main currents of society.