We cannot let the revolutionary fervour of the black struggle be downplayed, nor forget the lessons to be learned
In the year that we have witnessed the biggest revival in black struggle since the 60s, there has been an added significance to Black History Month.
While we should of course reject the idea that black history should be relegated to a single month or that it is separate from working class history, Black History Month offers an opportunity to focus on the individuals, events and ideas that shaped the struggle before so that we can advance the struggle today.
It is therefore important not only that black history is remembered, but how it is remembered. Mainstream commemorations of black history have tended to focus on cultural icons and where revolutionary figures are discussed they are robbed of their radicalism. The moments of great struggle are presented as “look how far we’ve come”, the victories as generous concessions from the ruling class.
Rather, the knee on George Floyd’s neck, the exoneration of Breonna Taylor’s killers and countless other examples show how far there still is to go. Black Lives Matter has shown that it’s only when people mobilise that change becomes possible.
We must break with the mainstream narrative and remember for example that although Abraham Lincoln represented a move to ending slavery from above – there was a movement for emancipation from below, not least in the form of slave revolts that played a decisive role in bringing the end of slavery. The politics of Martin Luther King Jr toward the end of his life when he championed the anti-imperialist struggle against the Vietnam War and became avowedly anti-capitalist, is downplayed and only his less radical earlier years are remembered.
We must also avoid the danger that even the wider movement lapses into an uncritical celebration of every aspect of black history and gloss over the ideological and strategic debates that emerged. There are different traditions within the black struggle with some arguing for separatism while others argued for building a movement along class lines; some saw legal remedies and political reforms as the goal, others saw an irreformable system that had to be confronted and dismantled.
Out of these debates, the struggle in the late 60s and 70s embraced militancy, moved in an anti-systemic direction and organised in some sections together with other minorities and white working class people. These debates that shaped the movement then are often the same debates the movement is grappling with today. The lessons from the history of the black struggle, its successes and its mistakes, its leaders, agitators, and organisers, are there to inform the movement today.
The renewed Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd has become the biggest protest movement in US history with an estimated 26 million Americans taking to the streets. That it became a global expression for anti-racist struggles in almost every country, and during a pandemic no less, is a testament to how powerful the movement is and how widespread the dissatisfaction with the status quo is.
The resilience of the US protests in the face of brutal state repression from the police, national guard and federal troops, and the militancy which saw the Minneapolis police station burned to the ground and statues of racists toppled across the country echoes of the long march of black history.
The surge in the movement has radicalised a whole layer of society new to political organising and opened the space for discussion on black liberation and how to achieve it. For that, learning from the past is a concrete exercise and this is a function that Black History Month can play.
The Black Lives Matter movement has significantly altered the political landscape and caused a crisis for the ruling class, and not just in the US. They are vulnerable – and they know it. This year, the establishment and their media have made an extra effort to celebrate black history but were even more determined to sanitise it from its revolutionary fervour in an attempt to dampen the growing militancy.
The Tories went even further and used a commemoration of Black History Month in Parliament to attack the Black Lives Matter movement and to warn teachers it is illegal to not be “balanced” in discussions on racism. This came shortly after schools were told not to use “anti-capitalist teaching materials”. But racism and capitalism are deeply intertwined, and so to are the anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggles.
We cannot let them get away with this revision of history or allow them to set the parameters of acceptable discourse. Even as Black History Month comes to an end, we must keep black history alive and use it to learn, to inspire and as the basis for building a stronger movement.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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