Memoirs of a Revolutionist | The Nation


Memoirs of a Revolutionist

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By Carmichael's account, his introduction to radical politics didn't occur in SNCC but at Bronx Science, a magnet high school where he met young Communists, notably Gene Dennis, the son of a prominent Communist who had been imprisoned under the Smith Act. Although their friendship and Carmichael's inclusion in New York's left-wing social world (where he sang "Hava Nagila" at parties)

About the Author

Norman Kelley
Norman Kelley's latest book is A Phat Death (Akashic), a novel. His next nonfiction book, The Head Negro in Charge...

did not begin my political interest, it certainly focused it in a certain direction--the tradition of European radical writing and revolutionary theory. For the first time I encountered a systematic radical analysis, a critical context and vocabulary that explained and made sense of history. It explained the inequities and injustice I'd long been conscious of in the society around me and prescribed (even predicted) revolutionary solutions.

Yet he always felt that something was missing from American socialism, namely the black side of things. In other words, he was struck that this "systematic radical analysis" was rooted in the European experience and did not give much credence to or adequately present the black experience; it was "quite narrowly focused." Thinkers like C.L.R. James and George Padmore were dismissed as "Trotskyists" or renegades. Thus, he never joined any Communist or socialist organization.

The roots of Carmichael's transformation into Kwame Ture can be traced, rather, to Harlem's 125th Street, where he was introduced to the "stepladder" speakers, black orators who exhorted Harlemites from stepladders about blacks' history and their present predicament. Not only did he learn the history of black struggle and resistance; he picked up an important lesson: "the influence of style."

Important elements of my adult speaking style--the techniques of public speaking in the dramatic African tradition of the spoken word, can be traced to these street corner orators of Harlem. To them and the Baptist preachers of the rural South.

This would serve Carmichael well, for much of his legacy is rooted in the militant posturing and rhetoric of the post-civil rights period that began after 1965. While this style can exhort some blacks to great sacrifice against entrenched white supremacy, it often comes up short as a means of conveying the complexities of the world. It may explain why black politics often has a surfeit of charismatic leaders with authoritarian leanings; most black leadership has come out of the church (King, Adam Clayton Powell) or other quasi-religious groups like the Nation of Islam (Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan).

While studying at Howard University, Carmichael became, at 19, one of the youngest Freedom Riders during the early 1960s campaigns. A member of that school's Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), affiliated with SNCC, he joined a second wave of Freedom Riders in response to a first wave who had been brutally attacked while riding buses through the South. Arrested in Mississippi for attempting to integrate the trains, Carmichael and others, including CORE's James Farmer, spent more than a month in jail, first at Hinds County jail and then at the notorious Parchman Prison Farm. Suffering forms of torture that would have been denounced by Human Rights Watch had it existed then, he emerged as something of a celebrity and began to gain experience and exposure as a spokesman for the movement. This was needed to raise public awareness and money, but it also sowed the seeds of some SNCC members' cynicism toward "totalitarian liberals."

It was disjunctive, almost schizoid, and as it turned out, a token of things to come. Later, with us in SNCC, the same contradictions would surface. We'd be sending young field-workers, some of them coming out of hardscrabble sharecropper poverty, into trappings of enormous wealth and power, there to tell moving tales--we called them "war stories"--of our people's suffering and resistance. It was classic Americana, shades of runaway darkies and northern audiences.

Yet for every song and dance that was required by such liberals, there was a Harry Belafonte (another Caribbean!) who counseled and supported SNCC activists with no strings attached.

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