The idea of a black nation seems so far-fetched as to be ludicrous, but if you entertain it for a minute, even as an impossible dream, it should give you a feeling of wholeness and belonging you’ve never had and can never have as long as blacks have to live in a country where they are despised. – Julius Lester
Derrick Bell, founding father of critical race theory, used the previous quote as the epigraph for his short story, The Afrolantica Awakening, in which an island emerged out of the Atlantic Ocean. Imperialistic nations saw it as an opportunity to conquer and were swiftly defeated by the island itself: the air pressure appeared to be twice the level at the bottom of the sea. But as people continued to explore, they reached a startling conclusion: only black people could survive on this island.
In addition to this, not only could black people survive, but they could thrive: the island was teeming with natural resources and those who visited were filled with feelings of liberation. This discovery, however, sparked discussions within black communities, with some wholeheartedly affirming emigration to Afrolantica while others argued that remaining in the United States was their right and their responsibility.
Bell brilliantly used this story to illustrate the range of black political thought. Political theorist Michael Dawson outlined six ideological categories of such thought: radical egalitarianism, disillusioned liberalism, black Marxism, black nationalism, black feminism and black conservatism. Many of those categories fit within the umbrella of black liberalism, in the sense that black political thought in the United States came to be in the context of the United States’ claims about itself. The oldest critique of this frame, however, came from black nationalists.
There are few things more important than an accurate self-conception. This is true of us as human beings as much as it is true of us as political beings. Particularly in the United States, we must be honest about the fact that we live in a nation that has made promises of justice and liberty, while simultaneously building structures and systems perpetuated and fed by injustice and oppression. For example, we peer into the incongruity of being a slave society fighting a revolution for “freedom” in the eighteenth century. We must peer into the incongruity of being a nation claiming a robust democracy with both legal and violent voter suppression in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Central to black political thought is an affirmation of that primal fact: that the nation was not built for us even though it was built by us. Claims of a deep commitment to freedom and equality have been met historically by a concurrent unwillingness to engage with the talons and tendrils of what many refer to as white supremacy: thoughts, actions, policies, and procedures that place those racialized as white at the top of structures of influence. The question then is, where do we go from here?
Such a question, when posed to the Christian, raises the question in a particular register: what does it mean to be a beacon of the Gospel in a society shot through with white supremacy, a society in which legal, educational, and even ecclesial structures are corrupted, churning with a destructive energy that suppresses and snuffs the expressions of, particularly, Black men and women? What does it mean to be a beacon of the Gospel when daily activities like driving (Philando Castile), running (Ahmaud Arbery), or sitting in one’s apartment (Botham Jean) are possibly life-threatening? It would appear that the Church would do well to learn from traditions that have stared into the abyss and built robust resources for resistance. However, even as robust engagement with these traditions is necessary, frank assessments of their faults is also necessary. One of those traditions is the Black nationalist tradition, particularly as instantiated in the Muslim activist, Malcolm X.
Before considering Malcolm, however, a few things must be said about Black nationalism, especially in light of the recent more public resurgence of white nationalism. One could (and some do) see the two phenomena as two sides of the same coin. To do so, however, would be to make the same mistake as ascribing the same moral and theological value to the existence of predominantly white and historically Black churches. Black nationalism is primarily concerned with dignity; white nationalism with domination. The historical provenance of Black nationalism is a form of political despair: Black people are encouraged to form their own nation because the nation in which they find themselves continues to treat them like a rejected organ.
Such an impulse also flows from an assumption about American life: that it is fundamentally a racial order. Race and racial oppression are not aberrant elements of American life; rather, they have been integral in the nation’s formation and they continue to be integral to its continued life. To state the case even more sharply, the assertion is that America is fundamentally racist. The nation’s claims to liberal democracy are understood to be hypocritical lies, an understanding that is bolstered by history. On this point, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed. In reflecting on the fact that steps forward for racial justice have historically been met with resistance, King said, “The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.” Where Martin and Malcolm diverged, however, was in how much hope they had and where they situated that hope.
It is important to remember that within Black communities, Malcolm X was much more popular than Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. When one peruses his writings, one can guess the reason why: if Malcolm was concerned about anything, it was the unqualified affirmation of black dignity. Anyone reading or, better, listening to Malcolm X will be struck by the reasonability of his claims as well as the reasonability of his methods. On December 20, 1964, he articulated his goals quite clearly, thundering: “Politics change and programs change, according to time. But the objective never changes…Our objective is complete freedom, complete justice, complete equality, by any means necessary.” Those who balk at his affirmation of self-defense often fundamentally misunderstand his reasoning for it. Malcolm was no bloodthirsty monster. In fact, he was keenly aware that this was the way in which the white media sought to portray him, referring to the fact that people expected him to be “somebody with some horns…about to kill all the white people — as if he could kill all of them, or as if he shouldn’t.” More fundamental than any of Malcolm’s particular political commitments was his commitment to human dignity, particularly Black dignity because of the ways in which it was systemically and systematically denied and trampled.
The affirmation of black dignity was paired with another affirmation: the affirmation of black self-determination and self-reliance. African-American history broadly taught this lesson: efforts to attempt to freely engage with the American political process were often met with violent backlash. The Civil War effectively freed Black people from chattel slavery, yet they were only freed from one form, as convict leasing soon took its place. White militias, of which the Klan is perhaps the most well known, formed during Reconstruction in order to resist the terrifying specter of “Negro rule”. The violence of racialized lynching struck terror into Black communities, as its often indiscriminate, spectacular, and regionwide spread communicated that Black people were not really safe anywhere. Add to that the fact that the modern civil rights movement was precipitated by a lynching: that of 14-year-old Emmett Till, killed by two white men because of the false accusation of Carolyn Bryant.
Each of these discrete, traumatic experiences built to a crescendoing wail in the minds of many Black Americans and it is eminently reasonable that some, if not many, would lose hope in the nation and seek to build their own. In light of a history in which dignity was dashed and self-determination and self-reliance were gutted by enslavement and predatory violence, the cry of “by any means necessary” was a welcome one.
Much can be said and has been written about the Black nationalist tradition and what I have focused on in the previous paragraphs have been its more universal elements. I have not focused on the claims of some individuals like Elijah Muhammad, who argued that white people are evil or others who were more strict separatists like Marcus Garvey. Their conclusions made sense given their contexts, but such claims are beyond the pale for those who affirm that all humanity is, while fallen, created in the image of God. Black nationalism is not inherently founded on a doctrine of Black supremacy but some Black nationalists have taken it to that level. The core of the thought for thinkers who would fit in this category, however, is not ethnic supremacy, but rather survival.
Black political thought exists at the nexus of the practical and the theoretical because we have never been able to afford not to exist at that nexus. This approach, however, is shared by both Black political thinkers and Black theological thinkers, leading to an ecclesial tradition that sees the political pursuit of justice as a necessary consequence of a Gospel-saturated life.
So then the question remains: what does the Christian have to learn from the best of Black nationalism? Whenever one asks a question like this, one must keep at the forefront of one’s mind the ethical non-negotiables of our faith: love of God and love of neighbor. Thus the question is really, “How does a robust engagement with Black nationalism equip those united with Christ to love God more and to love one another more wisely?” Here, Malcolm X’s political trajectory is even more helpful. Near the end of his life and following his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm began to drift from Black nationalism toward a more global approach. He became open to white cooperation rather than refusing it outright because of the evils perpetuated by white people.
When he became aware of and committed to not just the struggle of black people in America but the struggle of all oppressed people everywhere, his political assumptions and ethical commitments moved toward pan-Africanism. Some will be nervous at the fact that later in life, Malcolm embraced a more socialist agenda but they must also be aware of the fact that later in life, Martin Luther King, Jr., with his distinct religious beliefs, came to affirm a similar agenda. Both began to realize the close relationship between racism and capitalism: that the construction of race was ultimately for the purpose of economic exploitation. This intersection indicated a tendency in the battle against racial oppression: a tendency to realize that the fight is much deeper and more difficult that we can imagine. Malcolm realized, as we must, that social evil is not reducible to race, though in our particular context, race continues to be one of the determinative factors in the unjust distribution of wealth, opportunity, and health outcomes.
Yet a refusal of that reductionism did not quench his commitment to racial justice; it merely added another dimension to it. So it must also be for us. A history of racial violence ought not surprise a people convinced that sin pervades every inclination of the human heart. The pervasiveness of that violence also ought not dissuade us from rooting out the impulses that support it in our own hearts and minds as well as in our families and communities. Love of God and love of neighbor require us to be honest about the ways in which God has been profoundly dishonored by our ignorance and trampling of our neighbors, including the ways in which we suppress and ignore the racialization of our society. In order for us to love one another wisely and well, however, we must understand one another’s needs. In a society that thrives on our continued ignorance of one another’s plights, close relationships with the marginalized are a beacon of Christlikeness.
One of the most compelling aspects of Malcolm X’s ministry was his unrelenting identification with the suffering. The same was true of the Christian abolitionist before him, David Walker, who penned an Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Both of these men looked around at the women and men in their midst, saw that society was crushing them and lying to them about themselves, and sought to remedy that trauma with truth and empowerment. This has indeed been the primary thrust of Black nationalism: not domination, but empowerment of a people whose power has been repeatedly stripped. If we understand the Gospel as the power of God unto salvation as well as the true answer to all of our needs, we must ask the question of whether or not it has the power to empower and heal the traumatized, particularly those who have faced and continue to face racial trauma.
The answer, of course, is “yes, it does.” The Apostle reminds us in Ephesians that we wrestle not against flesh and flood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:10-17 is perhaps one of the most encouraging passages in the struggle against white supremacy. While some Black nationalists would, given the horrors of our history and present, understandably point to white people as the devil, we must compassionately point to actual demonic realities, recognizing that those who seek to oppress, to dominate, and dehumanize are not themselves the devil but instead of their father, the devil.
Yet He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world. If we stare into the abyss of violence and injustice in the world, it can be easy to turn to despair or back-breaking, self-reliant effort. Both lead quickly to burnout and disillusionment because they misunderstand the nature of the war. We are not fighting one another ultimately, but rather the one who has the power of death and in order to defeat that one, we must align ourselves with the One who, through death, freed those who all, their lives, were held in slavery by the fear of death. Black nationalists in their clear and expressed solidarity with Black people filled and, in many cases, continue to fill a significant hole in American society: a group of folks who affirm Black dignity militantly and without question because of the recognition that even when such dignity is not under direct attack, it is always under atmospheric attack. One thinks back to the Black Panther Party, whose most significant work included its free breakfast program for children and whose Ten-Point Program was primarily concerned with, as the tenth point states, “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” An unrelenting struggle for these basic needs animated the Party and guided its action. From this, we have much to learn.
Love of neighbor begins with the recognition of the worth of our neighbor as well as a recognition of their struggles. In order to do that, however, my white brothers and sisters must recognize that the Black experience of the US is markedly different from their own. My white brothers and sisters must recognize that, as Dr. King said, “for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” Racism is unfortunately not a localized malady; it is a systemic one, spreading through the bloodstream in a way that is not easily excised. But it is nonwhite communities that see and feel it most deeply.
Julius Lester’s quote poignantly points to a black nation as a source of wholeness and belonging and there are many who continue to think that that is the only way to find such wholeness and belonging. The Christian ought to know better, but often has no real situations to point to as a counterargument. We have often been guilty of this failure, but it need not continue to be so. We ought to be a beacon of wholeness and belonging in a fractured and alienated world. No nation can supplant the body of Christ and no nation or national identity can provide the nourishment and worth that vital union with Christ communicates. But in order for our neighbors to understand that, we must say it and live it.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.