The Black Radical Tradition of Resistance

A Series on Black Social Movements

Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” (Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud)

This series was curated by Dr. Dominique Thomas, scholarship-to-practice fellow at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

In recent years, there has been renewed attention to issues of disproportionate police brutality targeting Black citizens and communities, Black voter suppression tactics, racial inequalities in health care, and other types of discrimination and anti-Black racism. This attention has sparked mobilization of individuals and groups across diverse Black and ally communities. Such mobilization is a part of the fabric and legacy of Black American history and indeed, of American history. That is, while more recent iterations of resistance to systems of oppression are associated with efforts such as Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives, the ongoing struggle for Black liberation has taken on different forms throughout several centuries. It is important to understand this historical legacy of resistance, or as scholar Cedric Robinson coined it, the Black radical tradition. The Black radical tradition is a collection of cultural, intellectual, action-oriented labor aimed at disrupting social, political, economic, and cultural norms originating in anticolonial and antislavery efforts.

This tradition is not only resistance against structures rooted in slavery, imperialism, and capitalism, but maintenance of an ontology (cultural traditions, beliefs, values). From ship revolts to maroon communities, from abolition to civil rights, from Black Power to Black Lives Matter, the major goal has to be strategic action to maintain the dignity and humanity of Black people. There are countless examples across the African diaspora. Haiti became an independent Black nation (the second independent nation in the Western hemisphere after the US) after more than a decade of revolt and revolution. While popular mainstream portrayals of the Civil Rights Movement can present an image of individual, dynamic African American leaders and African American masses as passive followers, scholars studying this era document and highlight the creativity, courage, and agency of African American communities and organizations in helping African Americans gain formal equality under the law and desegregate public places. The Black Panthers were the vanguard of the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, providing a more militant and radical critique of racial capitalism.

Further, although the varying manifestations of Black social movements have happened at different times, they often influence and draw inspiration from one another. For instance, African Americans in the 1800’s hosted celebrations of the Haitian revolution, as it had profound impacts in advancing ideals of freedom and equality and galvanizing African Americans’ action around those ideals. Scholars and activists across multiple generations still study and cite the work of scholar-activists such W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis, among others, as foundational to their scholarship and activism efforts.

We are pleased to introduce this essay series in which diversity scholars share their analyses of historical and contemporary Black social movements, emphasizing different aspects, strategies, and goals of the Black radical tradition. In one essay, Callie Watkins Liu urges us to understand and engage the Black Lives Matter movement as not simply a reaction to police brutality, but as tied to the dual imperatives of Black people fighting to survive and be seen as human while attending to their own trauma and healing so that they do not lose their humanity in the fight. David Green illuminates the queer roots of Black Lives Matter, presenting the long history of Black queer writers contributing to Black social movements. W. Carson Byrd’s analysis highlights linkages between earlier Black social movements and the strategies and outcomes of current student activism efforts in higher education, raising important questions of current and future institutional responsibility for addressing marginalization and oppression. Scott Kurashige provides historical and contemporary snapshots of Black community organizing efforts in the city of Detroit, illuminating how racial barriers (and strategic actions needed to address and overcome them) were and are inextricably tied to structural, economic, and political conditions uniquely affecting the city. Finally, Patricia Coleman-Burns illustrates how current social movements strategically use images and symbolic representations through social media in ways that parallel (and can extend) how social platforms and iconic imagery were used in Black radical movements from abolitionist to civil rights eras.

Dominique Thomas, Scholarship-to-Practice Fellow at the National Center for Institutional Diversity
Tabbye Chavous, Director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity and Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan



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