The Stokely Carmichael of the 60s continued to politically and ideologically evolve while in Africa where he adopts the names of his political mentors Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah.
“Ture imagined a world where holding fast to principles of anti-imperialism and anti-racism were crucial, not one where I only scratch your back if you’re prepared to scratch mine.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Amandla Thomas-Johnson. Thomas-Johnson is a British-born journalist of African-Caribbean descent. He is based in Dakar, Senegal, from where he covers West Africa. His book is Becoming Kwame Ture.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Amandla Thomas-Johnson: Becoming Kwame Ture charts the years Kwame Ture spent living in Guinea (1969-1998), where he worked to build solidarity across the Black world and beyond through the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. As an anti-imperialist and socialist, KT was always alive to the interconnectedness of global struggles: resistance to Jim Crow in Mississippi was connected to uprisings against police violence in London, to struggles against neo-colonialism in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, to anti-colonial insurrection in Angola and Mozambique.
In some ways, Becoming Kwame Ture shows how little things have changed. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against global white supremacy and neocolonialism over the last year alone and have been met with the full force of the state. But Kwame Ture would not see, say BLM in the US and the UK, Endsars in Nigeria, the Free Senegal movement and the protests in Haiti, as isolated incidents. He would frame them as deeply interconnected based on an understanding of shared historical processes, material conditions and power structures.
Perhaps he would take this further and view them not merely in nation-state terms, but as global African struggles, connecting them to a history of Pan-African revolt.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I wanted to draw attention to the work of the All-Party People’s Revolutionary Party, founded by Kwame Nkrumah in the late 60s, but led by Kwame Ture for around 25 years. With members drawn from 33 countries, important beachheads in DC, Chicago and New York as well as London and in Guinea, the party is probably the largest Panafrican organization in the world from the late 70s to the 90s, operating in the period between the decline of the Black Freedom movement globally and today. Unusually for Panafricanist groups of the day, the A-APRP also established a women’s wing in the early 80s based on an understanding of the triple oppression that Black women face: race, class, and gender.
There are few things activists and organizers can take from this, the first being the sheer ambition of trying to create a transnational revolutionary organization on this scale. Social media makes this much easier to do today, a world away from having to rely on the postman and the telephone exchange. But how ambitious are we?
I often see clips of Kwame Ture speeches floating around the internet, but my book tries to show that he wasn’t just talking, he was trying to put those words into action and saw himself as primarily an organizer -- and an ambitious one at that.
“The A-APRP established a women’s wing in the early 80s based on an understanding of the triple oppression that Black women face: race, class, and gender.”
Of course, the party isn’t perfect, and there are tensions among its nationally and ideological diverse membership, while it encounters difficulties in placing Africa at the center of its orbit. Nevertheless, its shortcoming provides healthy lessons for those hoping to do Panafrican work today.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the party was operating in a period of decline, where, to quote Ture directly, “the reports coming into Conakry from cadres in the field as well as from allies across the continent were almost all grim.” Things are going horribly wrong: coups, corruption, civil wars, mass incarceration, structural adjustments and the global imposition of neoliberalism.
Yet people were still organizing, still pushing, struggling. I think that our movement today can take heart from this, and understand that struggle doesn’t always bring about instant results, instant gratification. Ture further reflects:
“In the liberation struggles of Africans and all oppressed and exploited peoples -- some unfolding over generations, even centuries -- there are low points and reverses. That’s all. The struggle continues.”
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
First, I want people to unlearn the idea that Kwame Ture’s political career ends when he leaves the United States for Guinea in 1969 at the tender age of 27.
We went with the title “Becoming Kwame Ture” to show that the Stokely Carmichael of the 60s continued to politically and ideologically evolve while in Africa where he adopts the names of his political mentors Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah.
Relatedly, I had an interest in writing against a nationalist conception of the Black freedom struggle that views the American struggle as both exceptional and separated from the rest of the world, a formulation that often relegates Africa to a historical footnote.
There is no better person than Kwame Ture to tear this to shreds because he is born and spends the first decade of his life on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, lives for seventeen years in the US, and then resides in Guinea for just under thirty years. His American years are but a small -- though highly important -- chapter in a long and complex life.
It’s worth saying that I’m also susceptible to a western-centric view of the world, as someone born and bred in the UK. But I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Africa for the last few years, in Senegal. Through interviewing comrades both there and in neighboring countries such as The Gambia and of course Guinea, I set out to craft a more African-centered view of Kwame Ture, reflecting the actual trajectory of his life.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Growing up as the son of Caribbean immigrants in London, where racialized policing and media frenzies about ‘scary black men’ were the norm, reading Malcolm X was electrifying. It woke me up and gave me the arguments to analyse my situation. I was no longer a minority but part of a global Black community.
My late father, Buzz Johnson, was another key influence. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, he had witnessed his country’s 1970 Black Power revolution before founding in London in the early 80s, Karia Press, one of the pioneering Black radical publishing houses.
Through him, I also indirectly fell under the intellectual legacy of Claudia Jones for he had written and published the first study of her the year before I was born.
I recall that the title of the newspaper Claudia founded in London in the 1950s was the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, and it seems clear that her internationalism and Pan-Africanism shaped his publishing output, which in turn shaped me.
I’ve always been interested in those intellectuals that are able to situate Black experience globally; Walter Rodney has been an important influence in this regard.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Kwame Ture imagined a world that bridged some of the conceptual divides that movements for change have come up against in recent years. For instance, he brings together mainly Black activist groups from countries across five continents -- including the US, Brazil, the Caribbean, and India -- to form a coalition against Israeli Zionism. This was fascinating because he was prepared to mobilize Black people for causes that were outside of the Black world (although he does refer to Palestine as “the tip of Africa”), the sort of Afro-Arab solidarity advanced by Frantz Fanon.
Ture imagined a world where holding fast to principles of anti-imperialism and anti-racism were crucial, not one where I only scratch your back if you’re prepared to scratch mine.
It also is interesting that Kwame Ture chooses to live not in an English-speaking country like Ghana or Nigeria, but in a Francophone country. His life story from the Caribbean, to the US to Africa is already quintessentially Pan-African, but the mere fact of him living in and speaking from a Francophone African nation should encourage us to think of new worlds that are able to traverse linguistic barriers, too.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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