African American nationalism, the concept of internal colonies and Third World solidarity: Reflections of a movement worker
By Gloria House, Ph.D.
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The years 1965 to 1967 mark my work as a field secretary in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Alabama, and the beginning of a life-long commitment to the African American liberation movement and the worldwide struggles for human rights. This was a period of fierce rebellions in major cities across the United States as African Americans expressed our rage at the continued oppression of our communities. It was also a period in which many of us activists began to travel abroad, to the African continent in particular, but also to other Third World countries.
I was part of the SNCC faction that called for a strong international orientation and self-determination for oppressed nations around the world, including our own nation of 30 million Black people in the United States. This new direction grew out of our deepening understanding of our history as a people in America and in Africa, and our identification with liberation movements of the period in Asia, South America and Africa. Our work coincided with these liberation struggles, and we were beginning to see ourselves as part of this worldwide upheaval of oppressed peoples fighting for freedom.
Colonized people worldwide, some of whom were engaged in armed struggle against European powers, were consolidating their national, cultural and political movements, and working to build international solidarity as the Third World — rejecting alignment with both the Western camp and the Soviets, perceived as the first and second “worlds.” The African American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60s and 70s constituted a significant flank of this global uprising of oppressed peoples, with many of us viewing our movement as a national liberation struggle, for we were beginning to think of ourselves as constituting an internal colony of the United States. We saw that our social, political and economic conditions paralleled those of Third World peoples, making it very easy for us to identify with them: our communities were occupied by hostile police forces; we did not own property or businesses in many of our neighborhoods; the schools and other essential institutions were not under our control; we faced disabling discriminatory policies in our search for work and decent housing.
During the 1960s and 70s, many revolutionary nationalist formations emerged among people of color in the United States: Mexican American youth in urban areas organized themselves into the Brown Berets (1967), demanding Chicano self-determination and supporting the movement for restoration of Mexican land holdings; Puerto Rican militants formed the Young Lords (1969) and other political groups to bolster the longstanding independence movement on the island. On the West Coast, Japanese American youth generated the first protests against the segregation and repression their elders had experienced in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. In the northern cities, the Republic of New Afrika (founded March, 1968) and other political organizations began to include the demand for land on their agendas, based on the centuries of Black labor invested in cultivating the land of the Black Belt South and building the industrial power of United States. My point is that a passion for self-determination characterized all these groups, and wherever possible, their political actions called for or attempted to reclaim space or places essential to their identity.
From African American demands of ‘’Black power” and “community control” to lawsuits in which Native American nations have challenged the U.S. government to return stolen land, activists in these movements were reacting to four centuries of oppression implemented in large part through ruling class control of the land — the natural and built environments — of North America. Segregated in America’s reservations and ghettoes, we had not experienced the personal or collective power that supposedly derives from citizenship in the United States. Consequently, we were fighting for the right to create our own communities without fear of repression in the forms of police control, violence, government surveillance (as in such programs as COINTELPRO), and other genocidal policies.
Our demonstrations of solidarity with the Vietnamese people were an important part of this internationalization of consciousness and activism. SNCC’s statement against the war, which I drafted during a national staff meeting in Atlanta, was a reflection of the thoughts and arguments that were articulated primarily by the nationalist faction within SNCC. Whether we should issue a statement against the war was debated heatedly. The opposition to the statement by some SNCC staffers was not, of course, because they supported the war, but because they correctly foresaw that once the statement was released, SNCC would lose the support of the Northern liberal establishment.
The SNCC Vietnam statement reflected our solidarity with the struggles of colonized peoples in the Third World, while pointing out the hypocrisy of the United States’ stated dedication to freedom and democracy. We stated, “The United States government has been deceptive in claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of the colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and in the United States itself. . . (SNCC’s) work, particularly in the South, taught us the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders. . . We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.”
Ongoing protests against the war in Vietnam by African Americans and other oppressed national groups, ranging from street demonstrations to draft resistance — which led in some cases to prison or exile — expressed our firm solidarity with the Vietnamese and other Third World independence struggles. The important point here is these actions reflected that we were seeing ourselves on the world stage, in the larger light of internationalism, not simply within the boundaries and political context of the United States. We were oppressed national groups of color joining the worldwide community to which we belonged.
The tenacity of racial prejudice, the relentlessness of organized violence against African Americans throughout U.S. society, and the intransigent segregation prevalent in
all major arenas of life in the U.S. — the courts, housing, education, employment — had convinced many in my generation that African Americans would never win equal treatment as citizens of the United States. Alienated by the closed door of American whiteness and racial oppression, persistent for four centuries, many political activists, intellectuals and writers of the period sought our true identity elsewhere. We turned to Africa, the Motherland. With unprecedented intensity, Black artists and writers in all parts of the Diaspora attempted to wrest ourselves psychologically from the hold of Eurocentric conventions, to forge a new aesthetic based on African arts, cultural practices and spiritual traditions.
Identification with Africa reconfigured all aspects of daily life for the “conscious” of this generation — including acceptance of our own African physical features, reclamation of African clothing, art and artifacts, music, dance and religion. But most important, this identification sustained engagement by activists in the ongoing work of solidarity with countries that were fighting for independence from colonial powers — Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. We studied the writings of African liberation leaders like Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral, from whom we learned the essential role of indigenous culture in the formation of revolutionary theory and praxis. We collected and shipped medical supplies, arranged solidarity exchanges, raised funds and organized forums and teach-ins to inform our communities of the day-to-day struggles of the African liberation campaigns. We would become equally engaged in solidarity with Cuba and later with the Sandinistas of Nicaragua — speaking out against the imperialist role the U.S. government against these sovereign nations.
Fundamental to the internationalist thrust of the Black Consciousness movement and our identification as Africans in the Diaspora was the project of retrieving pre-colonial African history in order to reassert the role of African civilization onto the world stage. I witnessed while in Paris in 1961, the destabilization of France by the Algerians’ protests in support of their revolutionary comrades back home. Witnessing the determination of these seriously committed African freedom fighters heightened my own political consciousness so I began to view U.S. foreign policy from a different vantage point and with a great deal more discernment.
In study groups (during my time in Cuba in 1970), we reflected upon the liberation theory and practice of revolutionaries throughout the Third World. Of course we read Mao, but we also learned about the courage of such individuals as Camillo Torres, the Columbian guerilla priest, and his early formulation of liberation theology; Carlos Marighella and his Manual of the Urban Guerilla, and we were humbled and inspired by Lolita LeBron’s commitment to Puerto Rican independence. This was an ideal of revolutionary engagement, rejecting elitism and intellectual arrogance, fostering international solidarity.
The influence of Frantz Fanon on African American nationalist activists was enormous. The Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary personified internationalism, given his work in France and Algeria. We read his “Wretched of the Earth” as if it were scriptural text. In the chapter on “National Consciousness,” he reminded us it is not our role to judge the effectiveness of our foreparents’ freedom struggles. Rather, he pointed out, we are required to identify the liberation mission of our generation, and get busy.
For many African American activists who came of age in the 60s, the understanding of our political and cultural ties to the international community of freedom fighters and our insistence upon lifting the African American struggle onto that stage through ongoing, consistent work have been major facets of our generation’s mission — undertakings that carry on the work begun by the great African freedom fighters Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore, C.L.R. James, Paul Robeson and Malcolm X.
Gloria House, Ph.D., is professor of Humanities and African American Studies and director of the African and African American Studies Program at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. The full article of this excerpt was written for and presented at the Port Huron Statement Conference in November 2012. It was also published in the Jan./Feb/ 2013 issue of Against the Current journal. Dr. House has been an activist in community issues and international solidarity causes since the 1960s, when she was a field secretary in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Lowndes County, Alabama. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Against the Current. She has authored three books of poetry, Blood River (Broadside Press, 1983), Rainrituals (Broadside Press,1989) and Shrines (Third World Press, 2004).