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Black Nationalism in Oakland: Imagining Nationhood and Self-Determination

Historical Essay

by Sybil Lewis, 2015, Part 2 of 3

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Imagining Nationhood and Self-Determination

Inherent in Black nationalism is the conception of an autonomous Black nation where people of African descent can organize around shared experiences of oppression to form representative economic, political, and social structures to govern their lives. While most Black nationalist groups agree that Black people in the U.S. are colonial subjects under oppression by the dominant state, there lacks consensus as to what a separate nation entails and the necessary tactics to create it. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) have conceived of two different imaginaries of nationhood reflective of the wide array of Black nationalist ideologies. Furthermore, to organize toward a concept of nationhood, it is crucial to define who will reside in the new nation and for both the MXGM and APSP a Pan-African ideology underscores perceptions of identity and nation.

MXGM

Members of the MXGM closely follow the ideology of their predecessors PGRNA wherein they consider themselves to be New Afrikans and mobilize with a vision of the New Republic of Afrika. According to an organizer of the MXGM, Liz Derias, the identity of a New Afrikan is based on the understanding that Black people deserve a nation separate from the U.S. because “historically Black lives in this country are in direct opposition to the Northern Empire.” To be a New Afrikan is to acknowledge the shared national identities of Black people in the U.S. that is not primarily determined by shared cultural characteristics, but rather a shared history of oppression. The unique aspect of the PGRNA and the MXGM is that they have conceptualized nation not solely as a necessity for freedom, but also as the acquisition of land to create a nation within a nation. In 1968 the Malcolm X Society sponsored the Black Government Conference in Detroit, bringing together over 500 black radicals to discuss the future of Black nationalism. The resulting ideology was the Republic of New Afrika—a sovereign, autonomous Black nation in the Southern belt of the U.S. nation.(1) Organizers claimed five southern states—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina—as the New Republic of Afrika because they have historically and continue to have a high concentration of Black people/New Afrikans.

Five state Black Belt area.jpg

The five state black belt territory of the U.S. delineated as the Republic of New Afrika.

The conception of the New Republic of Afrika was formed in accordance with traditional notions of nationhood—at the conference radicals established a Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and governing body was created to accompany the new nation. Within the Declaration of Independence the PGRNA was established to act as an intermediary government that holds national elections every three years to “continue building the governmental structure needed to win independence—state power for those in the historic Black Nation who want it.”(2) Organizers of the MXGM in Oakland work to mobilize Black people toward a consciousness of themselves as New Afrikans and aim to improve the material living conditions of Black people to build enough power to claim the Republic of New Afrika. The uniqueness of this theory is that political self-determination and self-rule is dependent on the acquisition of land. Liz Derias describes the focus on land as a Stalinist approach where “land means control of institutions by which you can govern yourself and if you don’t have land then you are still ruled within an empire.”(3) This ideology also aligns with Malcolm X’s argument that communal separatism is paramount for the Black community to avoid the “dehumanization and displacement” associated with integration into mainstream society.(4)

APSP

The APSP’s vision for self-determination also revolves on acquiring state power, but the notions of nationhood are more centered on theories of class and socialism. The party’s ideologies, authored by the Chairman, argue that the issue facing Black people is not racism because race is a construct of white oppression, but rather colonialism that oppresses the African Working Class. The party adopts a Pan-African identity for all African people and descendents of the African diaspora but makes a clear distinction based on class—the party seeks to represent the African Working Class, which is distinct from “the petty African bourgeoisie that follow the racial liberation theory of Black intellectuals such as DuBois.”(5)

The conceptualization of the African Working Class corresponds closely with Huey Newton’s definition of the Black lumpenproletariat used to distinguish the BPP’s organizing tactics from other communist/socialist groups. As panther Eldridge Cleaver described, Huey Newton aligned with Marxist-Leninism on the most basic level that the disadvantaged underclass in society must revolt against their oppressors to take steps towards communism, but modified it to reflect the Black experience in America.(6) Newton stated that the Black lumpenproletariat, which is the most disadvantaged class in society, will lead the revolution and that will occur in the streets because unlike the working class the lumpenproletariat do not have access to work sites, such as factories or unions, to contest—hence, “it's very important to recognize that the streets belong to the Lumpen, and that it is in the streets that the Lumpen will make their rebellion.”(7) The APSP’s alignment with Newton’s definition also explains why the APSP focus on tactics of street mobilization and protest.

Unlike the MXGM the APSP does not have a concentrated understanding of what new state power would look like; however, they have a socialist vision that the African Working Class will overthrow the state power of North Americans and will become the new ruling class. Bakari Oluntji, one of the leading members of the APSP Oakland chapter explained it well in an interview:

I can’t say what the new nation will look like I just know that it will not look the way it does now and the African Working Class will be the new ruling class. We want state power and are developing economic, media, and internal security apparatuses to be able to self-govern when the time comes.(8)

APSP Pol-Reagan&Queen83003x.jpg

African People's Socialist Party demonstrating against Reagan and the Queen of England in Golden Gate Park in 1983.

Photo: © Jeanne Hansen


Affirming Self-Governance

Organizers at the MXGM and the APSP acknowledge that nationhood is a long-term goal and vision that realistically cannot be achieved in the near future. Hence, to affirm their right to self-governance both organizations host democratic, communal assemblies to discuss issues and plans of action. The MXGM hosts People’s Tribunals and Assemblies that are rooted in the political organizing of worker’s parties around the world, such as in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. MXGM has held several tribunals in Oakland around issues of police brutality and gentrification and in 2009 traveled to New Orleans to host an assembly on the state-sanctioned violence during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Liz Derias said that tribunals and assembles are necessary because “people want to determine their own lives, so we assembly in a democratic fashion where everyone gets on vote per agenda item.”(9) Similarly, the APSP as a political party has hosted six congresses since 1981 that determine national decisions and strategies. On the local level, the party also hosts assemblies with non-party members.

Achieving Economic Self-Reliance

A component of self-determination championed by Marcus Garvey and the BPP is economic self-reliance. Both the MXGM and the APSP demand reparations from the U.S. government for slavery and structural racism that has deprived many Black people of wealth accumulation. The APSP has created many black businesses in East Oakland that are a part of the Black Star Industries LLC. When the headquarters were in Oakland the APSP created the Uhuru House in East Oakland, and this space continues to host the party’s events. In addition, in 1987 several businesses were created including the Uhuru Bakery, Uhuru Furniture, and Spear Graphics. The last prints the party’s newspaper. These businesses provide economic funds for the party’s actions and are inspired by Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping line that was supposed to facilitate the transportation of goods, and eventually Black people, to Africa. The APSP also identifies white allies as economic strongholds for the party. The African People’s Solidarity Committee is made up of white allies that are not considered Africans, but North Americans, who work to educate their white communities on the perils of the Black community and to collect funds reparations from white communities. Bakari Oluntji states that many other Black nationalist groups refuse to join coalitions with the APSP because of strong white involvement in the organization.(10)

Education of Self

Black nationalist organizations formulate ideologies about Black people’s present situation and envision a future as a way to provide different perceptions of ‘self’ among the ‘masses’ of Black people they are trying to mobilize. Ideology has been used to empower people toward an understanding of themselves that challenges mainstream narratives about slavery, colonialism, racism, and concentrated poverty. Eldridge Cleaver illustrated the importance of Newton’s studies that drew on Marxist-Leninist, Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and others, but ultimately created a unique ideology tailored to the Black experience in the U.S.:

For too long Black people have relied upon the analyses and ideological perspectives of others. Our struggle has reached a point now where it would be absolutely suicidal for us to continue this posture of dependency. One of the great contributions of Huey P. Newton is that he gave the Black Panther Party a firm ideological foundation that frees us from ideological flunkeyism and opens up the path to the future -- a future to which we must provide new ideological formulations to fit our ever changing situation.(11)

Once an ideology is established, the history of Black nationalism in Oakland shows that the next step is to organize educational campaigns to foster political consciousness among the targeted mass of people. In Oakland, educational and political Black nationalist campaigns have taken many forms, including distributing newspaper publications, offering political orientation courses, and reforming the school districts by either forming new schools or protesting existing school policy.

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Burning Spear, February/March 2004

APSP The APSP wanted to appeal to a wider audience of people in East Oakland and adopted a technique called ‘Scorch the Earth’ in the early 1980s that involved party members putting flyers and stickers everywhere to increase visibility and as “evidence of a revolutionary movement.”(12) Bakari Oluntji decided to go to his first APSP meeting due to a sticker he saw driving in Oakland in 1985 that read ‘Free Freddy Lee Roberts’ signifying the work that the party was doing to raise awareness of a young Black man that was accused of shooting a cop, even though witnesses say he was running away with his back facing the police. Along with flyers, members of the APSP would stand on street corners distributing the party’s newspaper, The Burning Spear founded in 1968, documenting the party’s programs and causes—a strategy that reminded Bakari Oluntji of the BPP’s work in Oakland:

I went to middle school and high school in the late 1960s and 1970s in the middle of the Black revolution in Oakland. I remember that the Panthers and the Nation of Islam were always out on every street corner and they would give us kids money to hand out leaflets. I was not politically aware at the time but I tried to emulate them

with their uniforms and style…In 1985 when I saw the Freddy Roberts sticker and

picked up a Burning Spear I was reminded of the Panthers and how I used to pick up the leaflets on 85th and International, which is now Allen Temple.(13)

The weekly newsletter of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, The Negro World (1918-1933) expressed the ideas of the organization and included a front page editorial written by Garvey on issues concerning people of African descent all around the world. Throughout his work Garvey highlighted the importance of newspapers and other education programs as a means “to teach Black people about economic and social uplift through collective action” and that through education Black people “would learn to believe in themselves, [and] in their race.” To fulfill this goal of political reawakening of the Black masses, UNIA sponsored several educational programs such as The School of African Philosophy, the Booker T. Washington University, and Liberty University.(14)

MXGM

Following strongly on another Garveyite tradition, the MXGM and its predecessor organization, PGRNA focused on challenging the dominant education system, which they argued failed to teach Black and poor students narratives of Black history focusing on the devastation of slavery and state repression of Black people. The MXGM took advantage of an initiative by the Oakland public school district to experiment and fund alternative schools and created the School of Justice and Community Development in Oakland to provide a holistic curriculum centered on social justice for Black and Latino students. Liz Derias worked at the school for five years from 2003 until it was closed when the public school system took away the funding. She recalls that each graduating class had about 100 Black and Brown students, some of whom utilized their politicization and social justice training to become activists themselves.(15) Alternative schools were not new in the East Bay and inspired several Black nationalists, some of whom went to work with PGRNA and MXGM. Maya Ayanna recalls attending study groups led by the PGRNA about their New Afrikan Ideology at the alternative school in Berkeley called Black House. Black House was established in 1970 and focused on teaching Black children “the effects this society has had on Black children.”(16) Mama Ayanna did not attend Black House as a student, but her sister attended high school there and she recalled that it was a strong hub for Black liberation movements.

Organizers from both organizations stress the importance of multi-generational work and also offer workshops and training programs for Black adults to learn about the foundations and understandings of Black history. For instance, the MXGM offers community workshops led by organization members on issues such as police brutality, political imprisonment, and gender and the APSP regularly offers full weekend politicization courses on the historical analysis and organizing strategy of the party.

These education-based mobility strategies attempt to cultivate a political consciousness among people that aligns with the respective organizational ideologies and aims to provide the community with the what the MXGM defines as the “intellectual tools to identify, articulate, and mobilize against a problem,” allowing the community to “seize its own density and struggle against the larger forces of oppression.”(17)

Continue reading about MXGM and APSP in Responding to Police Brutality and the history of Black Nationalism in Oakland

Notes

1. Berger, Dan, The Malcolm X Doctrine: The Republic of New Afrika and National Liberation on U.S. Soil, New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness (2009) 47-51.
2. PGRNA website under the “New Afrikan National Elections” section
3. Interview with Liz Derias by author, April 2015.
4. Tyner, James, The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space, (Routledge, 2013), 162.
5. Interview with Bakari Olatunji by author, April 2015.
6. Cleaver, Eldridge, On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party, (Black Panther Party, 1969), 2.
7. Cleaver, 10.
8. Interview with Bakari Olatunji by author, April 2015.
9. Interview with Liz Derias by author, April 2015.
10. Interview with Bakari Olatunji by author, April 2015.
11. Cleaver, 1.
12. Interview with Bakari Olatunji by author, April 2015.
13. Ibid.
14. Smallwood, Andrew P. "Black Nationalism and Black Power." A Bibliography The Negro in America (University of Nebraska Press; 1970).
15. Interview with Liz Derias by author, April 2015.
16. Appleton, Susan Frelich Alternative Schools for Minority Students: The Constitution, the Civil Rights Act and the Berkeley Experiment (Berkeley Law Review, 1976), 859.
17. MXGM website