The Transnational Black Imagination: The Muslim International and Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star and Crescent Moon

In our post-Reagan, and post-Iranian Revolution moment, black and Muslim bodies have become increasingly entangled as sources of fear, nationalist narratives, and racial scapegoating. Amid the ongoing war on drugs and the war on terror, blackness and Muslimness is consistently used to mobilize consent for and support for increased state power, systemic policing, and a culture of violence. According to Vijay Prashad, “the international Muslim terrorist and the domestic black criminal stand as alibis for revanchism.  Race free criminals (read white) are free from extra detection or from pious fulminations of the political class” (Prashad 2003, p. 75).  Sohail Daulatzai similarly elucidates the dialectics and shared experiences in “Are we all Muslim now? Assata Shakur and the Terrordome,”

As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Khalil Gibran Muhammad have noted, once the US state defined particular activities as “crime”, it then sought to crack down and control it. As the fears of the “black criminal” were stoked, the political will was generated in mainstream America to pass repressive laws that normalised “crime” and linked it almost exclusively to blackness, making all black people suspicious, and leading to state-sanctioned racial profiling, the creation of an urban police state, and the explosion of a massive prison archipelago that Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow”.

            The “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war.

Similarly in the “war on terror”, the US has named particular acts as “terrorism”, delegitimising them and generating the political will through fear to normalise the figure of the “terrorist”, making Muslim-looking people, and even Muslim countries themselves, suspects under deep suspicion in their struggles for self-determination.

As a result, the need for state security created broad “anti-terrorism” measures that expanded state power, making Muslim countries subject to invasions, sanctions, bombs, and drones, and making Muslim bodies subject to indefinite detention, torture, surveillance and targeted murder, as Muslims got marked as people who don’t have the right to have rights.

While the system of mass incarceration used the face of the “black criminal” to legitimise itself and disproportionately target black men and women, the tentacles of incarceration soon expanded to include Latinos and other poor people in its orbit.

Similarly, the “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war. But while the Muslim has been the face of this, the logic of “terror” is now being used to target other countries and also black and brown communities domestically, as the fluid category of the “terrorist” continues to morph.

These entrenched narratives, racializing stereotypes, and white racial framing not only impact policy, but cultural representations, public discourse, and everyday interactions. It results in stop and frisk, and racial profiling on the streets and in airports; it contributes to daily microaggressions and flattened cultural representations. Black or brown bodies and criminal are imagined as interchangeable, Muslim and terrorist are positioned as inseparable, reflecting the entrenched nature of “post-racial” hyper racial American discourse and practice.

The connection between black and Muslim subject is not limited to white supremacist discourse, state violence, and shared racialization, but is equally evident in the “political and cultural history of Black Islam, Black radicalism, and the Muslim Third World.” Herein lies the focus of Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America (University of Minnesota Press 2012), a very important work that pushes readers to look at resistance, to look at a history of radicalism, and examine Diasporic challenges to white supremacy.

Black Star, Crescent Mood decenters whiteness and antiblack racism, spotlighting the shared histories and interconnections beyond policing and state violence in the everyday resistance and the ongoing struggle for justice. Challenging the conventional narratives surrounding the black freedom struggle, that centers nonviolence, the South, Christianity, and civil rights, Dr. Daulatzai centers everyday resistance, the black radical imagination, the Muslim International in an exploration of artists, activists, intellectualist, and change agents.

Black Star, Crescent Moon begins its discussion of the Muslim International subject, black internationalism, and the “Afro-Diasporic imagination” (xxxiii) with Malcolm X. Given Malcolm’s position within the Nation of Islam, given his internationalist politics, and given his symbolic meaning into present-day discourses, it is no surprise that Malcolm anchors this work. “In mapping Third World solidarity against white supremacy onto the racial terrain of the United States and arguing that the man who colonized Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Kenya is the ‘same man’ who is in Georgia, Michigan, California, and New York, Malcolm radically challenged the sacred narrative of American exceptionalism” (29). Reflecting on the dialectics between Malcolm’s faith, his transnationalist politics, and Black Islam Dr. Daulatzai narrates a history whereupon Malcolm expanded the political imagination, foregrounding alternative freedom dreams and new methods and approaches to turning those dreams into reality.

Black Star, Crescent Moon builds upon its discussion of Malcolm to highlight the ways the Muslim International and transnational black politics are equally visible with respect to the Battle of Algiers (which would be highly influential to the activists and black cinematic imagination), Sam Greenlee’s The Spook who Sat by the Door and Baghdad Blues, and Frantz’s Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Mask all of which furthered the message of a black radical politics anchored in internationalism, decolonization, and an imagined (and real) community based in Afro-Asian (Afro-Muslim) solidarity. “Black cultural activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power era positioned themselves, their art, and their politics in relation to the anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements taking place in Asia, Africa and Latin America, writes Dr. Daulatzai. “The Cold War inaugurated a new phase in American power that simultaneously sought to contain both the anticolonial impulses emanating from the Third World and a burgeoning Civil Rights and Black Power movement domestically” (69). The power of this work rests not just with its detailed textual analysis, its examination of aesthetics, and the Diasporic context, buts its emphasis on geo-politics and the responsive utterances from black radicalism.

Black Star, Crescent Moon ends with discussions of both Muhammad Ali and hip-hop, making clear how each has used, deployed, and been influenced by the intersections of blackness, Islam, and transnational radical politics. “In reinvigorating and reshaping the already vibrant space of the Muslim International, these artists and activists force and compel the Muslim international to be a broad and inclusive space that understand the overlapping histories and interconnected struggles that not only have shaped the modern world” Their work “also shape the conscience of the Muslim International as a site for radical justice and equality” (196). Like Malcolm and the Battle of Algiers, Ali and Greenlee, Immortal Technique and Jasiri X, Black Star, Crescent Moon and Sohail Daulatzai expands our radical imagination, indexing transnational dreams and pathways to freedom, justice, and social transformation. Powerful and inspiring, this work reshapes our understanding of social movements and the ongoing struggle for black freedom.

 

 

Questions

In what ways is black internationalism not inherently radical? What sorts of examples demonstrate the liberal or conservative use of black internationalism?

How and why is Black Islam seen as a threat to post-civil rights state formation?

What are the connections between culture wars, “Islamic terrorist” and “black criminal”? How do they exist at a crossroads?

What is the significance of the connection between Killer of Sheep (and the LA Rebellion) and Battle of Algiers?

How did technological shifts impact the black radical imagination and the Muslim International?

How do we account for antiblack racism within Asia and the Middle East given these histories?

Why is the Caribbean and Latin America (or is it) not as prominent within these Diasporic and transnationalist black radical formations

How does India.Arie “ghetto” fit within this discussion?

Women and the the Radical Tradition: A review of Want to Start a Revolution?

This week’s book for American Studies 525, a course on social movements, is Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (New York University Press – 2009).  Pushing back against historic erasure and a tendency to merely mention “various women as key participants and note the damage of sexism” (8) – “dominance through mentioning” – this book documents the political, philosophical, intellectual, organizing and activist contributions of several radical women.  Moving beyond a discourse of “firsts” (249), it spotlights visionary women who challenged movements to “imagine a different kind of politics,” to create alternative paths to freedom, and to expand the struggle.

Along with its efforts to chronicle the contributions of “radical women in the Black Freedom Struggle,” to highlight their impact as leaders, organizers, theorists, strategists, intellectual forces, and in a myriad of other ways, the collection pushes the conversation regarding social movements in a broader sense.  Writing against “single-game” analysis and those that focus on individual movements/leaders or the rise and fall of organizations/ movements, the collection speaks to continuity between movements.  From Vicki Garvin to Shirley Graham Du Bois, from Rosa Parks to Flo Kennedy, the history of radical women of color is a story that transcends boundaries.  Whether talking about Garvin’s “journey from old left to black liberation and Third Word solidarity” or Shirley Chisholm’s presence in multiple types of movements, or Flo Kennedy, Ella Baker, Yuri Kochiyama, and Rosa Parks’ presence and influence across various organizations, this collection “resists marking these women as activists defined exclusively within any singular movement,” making “visible the ways these black women radicals redefined movement politics” (4-5). The breadth of many decades of activism and organizing, intellectual and creative works, is illustrative of the range of influences.  To talk about radical women is to talk multiple points of influence, multiple organizations, and multiple movements.

The book’s cover, which shows Rosa Parks holding a picture of Malcolm X speaks to the orientation of the book: a refusal to see the contributions and influences of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle in a single snapshot.  The history is too dynamic. The influences extend beyond a struggle against a single injustice but instead are seen in the intellectual and theoretical impact and the confluence and bridges that existed between communities, organizations and movements.

These women, and the ideologies, organizing tools, and influences that brought into these movements can be seen across multiple spaces and organizations; their influence was not limited to a single issue, organization or movement.  Here lies one of the most powerful aspects of the book: the influence of a feminist black radicalism across generations and movements, which are often imagined as distinct and at times in opposition.   Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard make this clear in their introduction, arguing:

Black women radicals continued this fight for equality into the 1960s and 1970s.  Unwilling to keep silent about gender issues within all-black organizations, many of these women highlighted gender oppression as part of their political analysis.  They opened up conversations about gendered structures and assumptions in the organizations in which they worked…. Black women radicals fought to make feminist politics an intrinsic part of the black left and Black Power mobilizations, just as they pushed white feminist to address racism and economic exploitation as crucial to women’s liberation (p. 15).

Writing about Flo Kennedy, Sherie Randolph notes, “Kennedy was simultaneously a Black Feminist and a black nationalist who built alliances between the mostly white feminist and Black Power movements during the postwar period” (225).  Kennedy, like Parks, Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Denise Oliver, and countless other Black women radicals were immerse inside many movements.  Their imprint can be seen in their day-to-day impact of various organizations and struggles, and also in their intellectual and theoretical influence within these same spaces. Again from the introduction:

Each woman proved a long-distance runner and embraced a range of strategies.  Each woman traversed a host of movements and invested in innovative coalition building and each woman articulated an intersectional analysis that made connections between multiple movements for social justice: black freedom, women’s equality, anticolonialism, and the redistribution of wealth.  Taken together, they show the day-to-day work necessary to sustain a radical movement, women’s intellectual contributions to the advancement of the struggle, and the broad vision of black liberation that was forged in the post war era” (4).

For example, Shirley Graham DuBois intellectual work and “freedom dreams” brought issues of colonization and the Diasporic struggle into focus within both the Communist and Black radical movements, pushing each to also interrogate gender privilege and patriarchy.  To deny the intellectual theorizing and the imprint on the radical theorizing and thinking is to further the erasure of women from this history.  This collection refuses to follow this tradition.

While the book offered many important interventions, the collection and the individual chapters are organized around three thematic interventions: (1) throughout the book, there is a clear emphasis on how the radical women discussed worked from an intersectional approach.  This approach, which was brought into the organizations and movements, and their theorizing around the interplay of race-gender-sexuality-class-nation, is crucial to understanding this history.  For example, Erik McDuffie highlights the ways that Ella Baker, Marvel Cooke and Esther Cooper Jackson challenged the tendency among white communist women to imagine “’woman’ as a universal ahistorical category.”  To talk about labor and class required talking about race and gender, racism and sexism within a capitalist culture.  “Like Baker and Cookie, Cooper Jackson singled out the Bronx slave market to make the case that African American women encountered unique forms of exploitation and intersections of race, gender, and class positioned black and white women differently vis-à-vis one another” (33).  Understandings of intersectionality, long before academic discourses reflected on the “intersectional turn,” guided the activist work, which included day-to-day organizing and the production of intellectual/artistic works.

(2) A second point of intervention rests with the book’s refusal of the binary that posits “respectable and radical” in opposition.  Speaking to the ways that these women “adhered to and destabilized notions of stability,” spotlights a complex and dynamic history.  At times using the middle-class sensibilities and the class-based privileges, they also “reshaped dominant notions of respectability as a vehicle to promote radical change” (12).  Often donning a style coat and hat (12), Juanita Jackson Mitchell used her “social competency and confidence in her social role… to speak to multiple audiences, crossing racial, religious and class lines to convey political messages that were important, relevant, accessible, and inspirational (50).

A third intervention resists the tendency to seeing “women’s work in the movement” as being “solely behind the scenes, local activists.” Speaking to their national influence, and the influences as leaders, the collection moves beyond the story of “slow and respectful work” as it relates to the contributions of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle.

On one end of the spectrum, this included charismatic leadership.  Women like Lillie Jackson, Shirley Chisholm and Denise Oliver took public leadership roles, pushing aside barriers of sexism in their organizations. … On the other end of the spectrum, many women (and men) believed in participatory democracy and resisted public leadership and national roles.  Activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Rosa Parks understood that no movement could be built without people creating an infrastructure, without the day-to-day work to enable the dramatic public action.  These movement organizers rejected notions of the charismatic individual and instead heavily in building democratic organizing structures and completing the behind-the-scenes work the struggle entailed.  Still others, like Toni Cade Bambara and Erika Huggins, created alternative structures and institutions to nourish themselves and others in order to provide political spaces free from racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia (13).

The radical women highlighted in the book were organizers but they were also leaders, theorists, and activists both visible and in the background; “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3).  Shirley Chisholm often described herself as “unbought and unbossed” – this description applies to the women spotlighted in this book, each who in different ways changed the contours of post-War radicalism.  The collection speaks to their many important contributions, giving voice to their histories and their powerful words.  The book, like the videos below, speaks to the many “freedom dreamers” who in the face of racism and sexism, refused to accept, demanding the world anew.

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions

  1. What do Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard mean when they argued that “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3)
  2. Michael Apple argues that 2nd wave of historiography has often engaged in “dominance through mentioning” – what does he mean here and what impact does it have on our understanding of social movements?
  3. Why is the book pushing us to move beyond “first” and documenting the untold stories?
  4. What, according to collection, are the dangers of seeing women purely as organizers, or as bridge leaders?
  5. In what ways does the book document the influences of a larger history of black radicalism on the southern civil rights movement, feminist movements, Black Power  movements, and the White Left?
  6.  Robin Kelley argues, “The collapse of an organization does not necessarily signify the destruction of a movement or the eradication of traditions of radicalism” – what examples does the book supply to illustrate Kelley’s point; why do you think that this sort of historic framework further obscures presence and influence of radical women
  7. Has the focus on the influence and importance of World War II on the civil rights movement contributed to these generated narratives?
  8. In what ways does the book document a history of diversity, breadth, and longevity of movements?
  9. Why is the “long distance runner” metaphor so prominent within this book; why is this an important intervention?

10. In what ways does this book speak to the transnational nature of post-War movements?  What role did radical Black women play in articulating these understandings?

11. Horne and Stevens describe Graham Du Bois as having a “series … of many lives” – why is this sort of historic memory so uncommon within historiography and why is this such an important intervention?

12. Several chapters challenge the flattening if black radical women within the historic imagination – why have movements, historic narratives, and the broader culture invoked black women as symbols – Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King?  What does this visibility and invisibility speak to?

13. From Septima Clark’s work as a teacher to Garvin’s work as “mother hen” (84) to Huggins’ involvement with “survival programs” and Johnnie’s Tillmon’s welfare rights organizing to Chisholm’s role as a politician, much of this work gets positioned outside a history of radicalism – why? What does this tell us about definition of radicalism and violence?