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Memoirs of a Revolutionist | The Nation

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Memoirs of a Revolutionist

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There's a point in Ready for Revolution's narrative where Carmichael recedes and his alter ego, Kwame Ture, takes over. Ture (Carmichael's name since the 1970s) takes issue with the depiction of whites being booted out of SNCC or its ever being an integrated organization. He practically denies that there were whites in the organization because those who were melanin-challenged were not really "white" in the traditional sense of the word. Hence "our comrades stopped being 'white'" and thus could not have been expelled, booted out or made to leave. "So I meant it as a sincere compliment when I said there were no 'white' people on the SNCC staff." However, Dittmer's excellent Local People states that in December 1966 "SNCC had voted, narrowly, to expel all whites from the organization."

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...

This kind of dissembling is to be expected of Ture. After all, he spent the last thirty years of his life in Guinea organizing for a Pan-African revolution that never bore any fruit--except, possibly, more Pan-African conferences. As Ture, he waxes hagiographic over his two African "fathers," his namesakes Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed president of Ghana, and Ahmed Sekou Touré, the president of Guinea, an African nation that devolved into a textbook example of despotism, an appalling caricature of the very Pan-Africanism that Ture espoused. These men, in Ture's eyes, could do no wrong, and the only time he's critical of African leaders--"hustlers, poseurs, and charlatans"--is when he's describing some of the liberationists holding up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, not Guinea. Ture alludes to the outcome in Guinea as the intrigues of foreign powers and the government's mismanagement of the economy. Thus the party (i.e., President Touré) had to "defend the revolution by any means necessary," but that line of reasoning usually justifies the carnage of internal repression.

While he doesn't exactly skim over his marriage to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, he doesn't reveal much about this remarkable woman or their relationship. As an "older woman," Makeba was the mango of young Carmichael's eye. Yet the passages in the book, like those about Nkrumah and Touré, read as one more paean to another glorious African, mythic but not very soulful or insightful. In fact, he's rather naïve about the consequences of Makeba's marrying him. When they were married, her American shows were canceled. A veteran target of racist attacks, who'd seen whites economically sabotage blacks in the South, he writes, unbelievably: "I could never have imagined my enemies would be so ruthless or so thorough. And so quick. I mean, the day after we got married? How low could you go?" The culprits, however, are only identified by innuendo. "Only one organized interest group comes to mind. But I have no hard evidence. And we don't want to indulge in conspiracy peddling, now do we? But it's pretty clear." He doesn't say, but could it be the "J people," the coreligionists of the people with whom he once sang "Hava Nagila"?

Carmichael and SNCC's brilliant organizational efforts in Mississippi and Alabama laid the foundation for developing an independent black political base, but they were tossed aside for the rhetoric of revolution. Instead of organizing or thinking through the problem of organizing for "hard" power--voting, economics, political representation--Carmichael began preaching a "soft" form of power: black cultural nationalism. In fairness, this was important, given that African-Americans had been systematically brainwashed into hating themselves.

Yet Carmichael's legacy of Black Power consciousness, along with that of Maulana Ron Karenga's cultural nationalist group US (i.e., "us" against "them"), had an unintended consequence. It spawned a racialized political mindset, a sort of "black orthodoxy," in which some African-Americans, especially those who reside at the bottom of the social well, tend not to think critically of those who engage in Head Negro In Charge (HNIC) politics at their expense. It has produced Kwanzaa and Afrocentricity rather than black political independence. Since the black elite has disengaged from mass-action politics over the past thirty years, the black rank and file has increasingly listened to Jackson, Farrakhan and HNIC wannabes like Al Sharpton (not to mention hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who is simultaneously selling sneakers and reparations). These men have eschewed a programmatic agenda in favor of a black-at-the-table politics that masks a private agenda of personal aggrandizement. They may wave the red, black and green flag of black unity, but, as Courtland Cox, one of Carmichael's comrades, said, "Blackness is necessary. But it is not sufficient."

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