By Christopher Carrico
Photo from: http://www.themajoritypress.com/
I. How I came to know Tony Martin, and initiate a dialogue with him about his scholarship and activism.
I first came across Tony Martin’s work in the late 1990s while I was reading scholarship about Afro-America and the circum-Caribbean. I was preparing to do dissertation fieldwork in the Anglophone West Indies (Guyana), and I was interested in work that addressed the manner in which race, class, and nation had been thought about by scholars from the Caribbean. Like Tony Martin, I thought that there was an important dialogue of continued relevance that had come out of this scholarship. I was interested in the work of C. L. R. James, Franz Fanon, George Padmore, and Walter Rodney – as well as in some of the issues that arose out of the debates between Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois that Tony Martin has dealt with in such detail.
Tony Martin’s work was again brought to my attention during the years 2004-2006, while teaching as an adjunct instructor in the greater Philadelphia area. In some of my Anthropology and Sociology classes, I was trying to teach the Israel – Palestine conflict in a way that was honest. I was aware that by doing so, I was at risk of being labeled “Anti-Semitic” – especially because this was at the height of the campaign of David Horowitz’s Orwellian named Students for Academic Freedom to demonize anyone who criticized Israel (or the neo-conservative agenda in general) as using authoritarian tactics in the classroom that infringed upon the academic freedom of conservative students. During this time, I became aware of Tony’s book The Jewish Onslaught, and the great controversy that began with his teaching about the Jewish involvement in the slave trade in his classes at Wellesey College.
The first time that I had the pleasure of hearing Tony Martin give a public talk was at CARIFESTA X, in 2008, in Georgetown, Guyana (where we currently live). Tony was part of a panel of speakers that included Rupert Roopnaraine, Rex Nettleford, Miguel Nenevé, and Kim Johnson. The panel was entitled “A Caribbean Philosophy? The Role of Ideas in the Making of a Caribbean Nation” and Tony’s paper was on the philosophy of Marcus Garvey.
Just over four months ago, I met Tony at Charlene Wilkinson’s monthly Rufaro Centre “Conversation-Lime.” It was at this time that we discovered that his son and my daughters were attending the same school, and that his son and my youngest daughter were in the same pre-school class.
It was in the context of beginning to know Tony Martin personally that I came across a reference to his work being made in the current debates over the American far right “Tea Party” crowd. The article that cited Tony was in a newspaper out of Durham, North Carolina, The Harold-Sun, and was entitled “Glenn ‘X’ Beck: How the Right Revitalized Black Nationalism.” Its author was Paul Scott, a writer, activist, and an ordained Baptist minister who refers to himself as the “TRUTH Minista”.
Paul Scott’s argument is that the media attention that Glen Beck and other right-wing pundits are currently giving to Black Nationalism – a scare tactic that tries to associate the rise of a renewed Black Nationalism with the Presidency of Barack Obama – is actually backfiring on the right-wing media by sparking a renewed interest in Black Nationalism. Scott argues that this dynamic is similar to when Mike Wallace’s 1959 “exposé” of the Nation of Islam turned Malcolm X into a household name in the U.S. Similarly, in the campaign leading up to the 2008 elections, FOX News’s attempt to use comments by Reverend Jeremiah Wright to show that Obama was part of a “black racist” church, gave Rev. Wright a national platform, “even though (previously) most Americans outside of the black church and Chicago had barely heard of him.”
Scott argues that more interest has been generated in Malik Zulu Shabazz and the New Black Panther Party, new movements such as the Militant Minds Militia are being formed, hip-hop activist Jasiri X’s song “What if the Tea Party Was Black” has become an internet hit, and even “the otherwise mild-mannered head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous” has been bold enough to publicly refer to the Tea Party as a racist movement.
In the midst of all of this, Scott gives a brief history of Black Nationalism wherein he quotes Tony Martin, one of the world’s leading Marcus Garvey scholars, on the subject of the polemics about Pan-African politics that made Garvey and DuBois into bitter enemies during the years that Garvey lived in the United States.
I sent Tony an e-mail bringing Paul Scott’s article to his attention, and he was pleased to learn about the reference, and was encouraged by Scott’s interpretation of the paradoxical effect that the right’s demonization of Black Nationalism is having. We had the chance to talk about the article, and about current American politics further, when Tony and his wife, Paloma Mohamed, invited our family to their son’s birthday party last Sunday. We talked at length then, and he agreed to meet me later during the week for an interview.
II. Learning from Tony about how his student activism helped to inform and clarify his theoretical thinking.
Tony Martin was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1942. He spent most of his childhood in Trinidad, where he went to the same Primary School as Stokley Carmichael before Carmichael immigrated to the U.S. After Secondary School, Martin went to England to study Law, where he was called to the Bar in 1966. He subsequently studied economics in England, and received a BSc with honours from University of Hull in 1968. He taught briefly in Trinidad at the Cipriani Labour College, before moving to the United States in 1969 to pursue graduate studies in African History at Michigan State University, where he completed his PhD in 1973. His doctoral dissertation, on Marcus Garvey and U.N.I.A., would be the basis for the book he later published as Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
About his experiences at Michigan State, Tony Martin had the following to say:
I went to Michigan State during very exciting times, this was beginning in 1969, which was the height of the Black Power movement. Michigan State was (and still is) one of the largest campuses in the United States. If I am not mistaken, there were some 40,000 students at the East Lansing campus when I was there, and it also had one of the largest populations of Black students at any predominately White campus…. Since this was the State University, a large proportion of these Black students would have been from Michigan, a lot of them would have been from Detroit, and Detroit had just had the summer riots of 1967. You had many of these students who had lived through the experience of these riots, you had many students who were returning Vietnam veterans, and all of these factors led to a wonderful, highly charged political atmosphere.
I remember that the sense of intellectual stimulation there was absolutely wonderful. You know, I spent most of my academic life just down the road from Harvard University, Wellesley College was the number one women’s college in the United States, and Harvard was just down the road, and M.I.T. was just down the road, schools like that all around, Tufts, Boston University… Boston, supposedly, is the very pinnacle of the academic world in the United States, but I’ve always told people that in my 34 years in the Boston area, that I never encountered anything that compared to the kind of intellectual stimulation that I got when I was in East Lansing, Michigan.
At Michigan State, Tony Martin was an activist-student. He became one of the leaders of the Black Student Union within the first several months after his arrival at the University. They were activists against the racism in the wider society, as well as against the racism that students experienced on campus. During Martin’s time at Michigan, for instance, there was a Black cheerleader that was not allowed into an all-white cheerleading squad, and there were instances of racially motivated violence against Black students. He describes a seamless relationship between their activism, their intellectual endeavors, and their social lives. They read voraciously about the political issues of the day, and this informed and inspired both their scholarship and their activism, and was often the subject of their conversations and heated debates at parties and social events.
As on many University campuses in the United States at the time, there was an overlap between the student Anti-War movement and the Black Power movement. The Black Student Union at Michigan State, for instance, participated in the protests against the American military incursions into Cambodia from Vietnam in 1970. They recognized that in the big picture, the struggle against the Vietnam War and the struggle for Black Power in the U.S. were a part of the battle against the same racist power structure. At the same time, like Stokley Carmichael argued in “The Myths of Coalition”, Martin and his comrades in the Black Student Union believed that there were limitations to entering into alliances with predominately White liberal and radical organizations, and protected the autonomy of their organization and its goals when entering into alliances with other student groups over particular objectives and shared aims.
III. Lessons for today?
To me, it is interesting and instructive to revisit the context in which these two Trinidadian-American Pan-African Nationalists – Stokley Carmichael and Tony Martin – were making their arguments about the autonomy of Black organizations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to think about how different the situation is today, in spite of, if Paul Scott is correct, a renewed interest in Black Nationalism.
Carmichael began the chapter “The Myths of Coalition” from the 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in the United States, with a critique of the position of veteran civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who argued forcefully for the necessity of building coalitions with White liberals and of working within the Democratic Party. Rustin directly attacked the position that Carmichael and others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had put forth that Black people needed to form their own political parties autonomous from the Republicans and Democrats. Rustin wrote:
Southern Negroes, despite exhortations from SNCC to organize themselves into a Black Panther Party, are going to stay in the Democratic Party – to them it is the party of progress, the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society – and they are right to stay.
Carmichael argued that SNCC:
…does not oppose the formation of political coalitions per se; obviously they are necessary in a pluralistic society. But coalitions with whom? On what terms? And for what objectives? All too frequently coalitions with black people have been only at the leadership level; dictated by terms set by others; and for objectives not calculated to bring major improvement in the lives of the black masses.
Carmichael’s concerns are genuine concerns and continue to speak to important issues in many organizations worldwide. A similar dynamic now takes place between the NGOs of the global North and the NGOs of the global South, wherein it can sometimes be quite difficult for NGOs from poorer countries to enter into coalitions with NGOs of richer countries without having their agendas hijacked and set by a new breed of “humanitarian imperialism.”
However, the central contradictions of specific historical moments are highly contingent, and should never be approached using transhistorical formulas assumed to be unchanging for all of time.
Today, there is a Black president of the United States, who at least some Pan-African Nationalists view as being a hero. President Obama, however, has done little to deserve the respect of the Black community other than share a Black identity and appeal to Black Solidarity.
Obama’s record as a President is fairly straight forward. “Change You Can Believe In” has meant a realpolitik wherein any substantial change is written off from the outset as impossible or utopian. In spite of talks of timelines of combat troop withdraw that follow the rules of Zeno’s paradox, and recycled Vietnam era doublespeak about remaining in Iraq under an advisory capacity, Obama had done everything possible to keep Washington Hawks happy, escalating the war in Afghanistan, sending unmanned drones to bomb the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while everyone is watching the Middle East, continuing on the Pentagon’s plans to ensure American military dominance into the 21st century by building more military bases around the world, particularly in those areas where there might be large amounts of scarce natural resources to be had: as in Africa and in Latin America.
Besides being a naked militarist, Obama has proven himself to be a stooge for Wall Street, and spent his time worrying about “too big to fail” banks and corporations, rather than the “too big to fail majority of the American People.”
In spite of these antics, Black America, and White liberals and progressives have done very little to stand up to the Obama administration, because they are, in Glen Ford’s words “Under the Obama Spell.”
Where are the Black leaders today who call, like Stokley Carmichael, to build independent organizations that can challenge the hegemony of the Republicans and the Democrats? Will a renewed interest in Black Nationalism mean that leaders will emerge that can effectively push Barack Obama out of his comfort zone, where he knows that he can count on Black solidarity, so he can spend his time reassuring the White establishment (as Cornel West noted). Or, will Black Nationalism act to rally troops around the President in a defensive posture in reaction to the threats of the Mad Hater’s Tea party? For those who take the latter road, they have essentially adopted the politics that they have historically argued against: they have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the liberal-democratic establishment, and have left themselves no ground on which to articulate any other coherent political position.
If, on the other hand, a renewed anti-war movement can free itself from the Obama Spell, and people all over the U.S. can start to form class alliances (class alliances where they fight alongside immigrant workers instead of against them), and Black America demands that a Black President isn’t good enough if unemployment remains at Depression-era heights, if there are more young Black men in prison than in college, if drugs, disease and gun violence destroy the fabric of whole communities, if our civil rights continue to be slowly eroded away in the name of the war on terror.
One positive is that President Obama aroused a great hope among many people: among African Americans, among non-white peoples all over the world, and among white liberals and progressives in the U.S. Not all of these people can remain under the Obama Spell indefinitely, and when we see them come out from under this spell, we may see them begin to build movements for radical social change unlike anything that has been seen at least since the 1960s.