BLACK ACTIVISTS AND THE PALESTINIANS

In hindsight: Since 1968, Black and Palestinian activists and writers have found themselves engaged in a transnational dialogue.
Poster, Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat. Photo originally published by Al Balad Magazine, 1989. Source: The Palestine Poster Archives Project.

by Samer Abboud

In 2018, the most prominent face of the Black Liberation movement in the United States is the Movement for Black Lives (MBL), a platform for coalition and movement building that brings together dozens of organizations in the United States, including Black Lives Matter (BLM). The MBL has articulated a vision for Black liberation that draws heavily on the internationalist roots of Black liberation movements in the United States. One of the most controversial elements of the MBL platform was found in a section entitled “Invest/Divest” that pledged support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement led by Palestinian activists and their supporters.

The MBL platform’s position on Palestine was not an aberration in the trajectory of Black liberation politics in the United States. In fact, it was remarkably consistent with it. Since 1968, one year after the 1967 war between Israel and Arab nations, activists and writers within movements advocating for Black liberation and Palestinian self-determination found themselves engaged in a transnational dialogue, introducing each other’s political ideas and symbols into their respective movements. These historical entanglements provide shared language and worldviews that remain relevant today.

After the 1967 war, the PLO and other Palestinian liberation movements, increasingly sought to situate their struggle in a global, rather than merely an Arab, political context. This growing internationalism was reflected in the political and cultural productions of the post-war period and created the momentum for transnational movement building. Thus, by the late 1960s, radical Black and Palestinian liberation politics were increasingly in conversation through political and cultural mediums, articulating common visions of world order that sought to situate their struggles within a global movement.

A poster published by the Palestinian National Liberation Movement in 1969 reflects the increasing internationalism among Palestinian activists in the late 1960s that was less visible in the pre-1967 war period. These posters were printed in widely circulated official magazines and represented official Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) positions on world affairs.

Poster, “Freedom is One.” Artist, Guy Le Querrec, 1969. Source: The Palestine Poster Archives Project.

For many Palestinian writers and activists, struggles for self-determination struggles in post-colonial Africa, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the United States could only be understood in relation to each other. Black liberation struggles deeply influenced how Palestinian movements saw themselves in relation to the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The prominent Palestinian poet, Ibrahim Nasrallah, incorporated Black Liberation politics into his writing. One of his poems entitled “African Remains a Song” was written after the death of Steve Biko, a prominent South African anti-apartheid activist who was killed by state police in 1977. The poem valorizes Biko and the importance of the anti-apartheid struggle for the rest of the world. The poem also contains a direct reference to al-Qasim’s “Enemy of the Sun.” A passage reads:

The song of the African heart gets loud,
Reaches the sun and
Quakes down interrogation rooms.
Giggles of the repressed dawn shouts
In the face of the enemy of the sun:
Tomorrow, or the day after, you will die.

Nasrallah’s poem celebrates the life and struggle of Biko, whose martyrdom “grows thousands and thousands of revolutionaries” to fight the oppressed. In celebrating Biko’s struggle and giving meaning to his life and death to Palestinian activists, Nasrallah situates the Palestinian struggle directly alongside the South African one.

In 1971 George Jackson, a Field Marshall in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was killed, ten years into a life sentence for armed robbery (he was also charged with killing a prison guard in 1970). When Jackson died, a number of his poems were published in the official Black Panther newspaper, which dedicated its September 4, 1971 issue, to his memory. Among those poems was this one, called “Enemy of the Sun”:

I may, if you wish — lose my livelihood
I may sell shirt and bed
I may work as a stone cutter
a street sweeper, a porter
I may clean your stores
or rummage garbage for food
— — O enemy of the sun – —
But I shall not compromise
and to the last pulse in my veins
I shall resist.

While attributed to Jackson, the poem was actually written by the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim. We still do not know why or how Jackson gained access to a translated version of al-Qasim’s poem. This mystery pushed writers and activists to launch an exploration of Jackson and al-Qasim’s poetry within their respective national spaces. In 2015, the memory of this solidarity was reinvigorated whenan exhibit to George Jackson, curated by Greg Thomas, was held at the Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners Movement Affairs, a library and archive dedicated to documenting the relationship between Palestinian prisoners and their national struggle. The exhibition explored historic and contemporary forms of radical solidarity between Black and Palestinian activists. The exhibit opened two years before the Palestinian National Theatre featured a play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Funeral for George Jackson, depicted on the front page of the The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service. Published by The Black Panther Party, September 1971. Source: Its About Time.

The cases of Samih al-Qasim, Ibrahim Nasrallah, and others who internalized Black liberation politics parallels a similar internalization of Palestinian self-determination among such writers as James Baldwin as well as political movements such as the Black Panther Party. Some understanding of these historic relations provides perspective on what Black liberation and Palestinian politics looks like today, and how earlier forms of radicalism provided the space for common language and a shared sense of struggle. The MBL is not the sole expression of these historic relations. The Dream Defenders, for example, are dedicated to fostering dialogue and solidarity between Palestinian and Black activists and describe themselves as “a part of the resurgence of internationalism within the U.S. based movement for justice, especially inspired by the connections of Black & Palestinian liberation.”

It is not surprising, then, that in today’s political climate activists would reach into the historical experience of movement building and draw on internationalist networks of solidarity. At the same time, many of the same issues that brought Palestinian and Black activists together in dialogue in the 1960s and 1970s remain important to both struggles today, something that has been highlighted in the post-Ferguson period and the re-invigoration of international networks of solidarity.

Samer Abboud’s column for the Lepage Center this spring focuses on histories of security in the Middle East. He is Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University.

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