Joy James uses poet Lucille Clifton's image of “new bones” to reflect on a series of revolutionary anniversaries in 2021 and the nature of political leadership.
“Elites do not invest in popular mechanisms that could replace them.”
For the fearful bravely laughing as we fall into liberation formations.
We recognize the devastations of lack of clean water, adequate food and shelter but the cause of those deficits cannot be remedied through policy. If so, then there is no need for confrontation only accommodation with colonialists and petitions for greater benefit packages. — Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source
we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days,
break out through
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is.
how strong life is.
— Lucille Clifton, “new bones”
Introduction: New Bones and New Intellectualism
Black poet, educator, and parent, Lucille Clifton’s “new bones” shapes skeletal reflections on revolutionary anniversaries: the 2020 summer of uprisings in response to the extrajudicial murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the 1871 Paris Commune; the 1951 We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People in which the Communist Party USA Black-led Civil Rights Congress (as would Malcolm X a decade later) submitted the petition seeking justice and decolonization after WWII. The document utilizes the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to draw attention to white supremacist terror, police and prison violence, rape, poverty, denial of civil and human rights, and labor exploitation. 2021 is also the anniversary of the 1971 Attica rebellion following George Jackson’s assassination by San Quentin prison guards and administrators— another rebel trauma milestone in this excavation of new bones emanating from grassroots communities and Black liberation struggles.
“New bones” grow out of the political cultures of material struggles. Core tenets of 20th century Black revolutionary struggles are embodied by the US Black Panther Party’s militancy, and shaped by rural Black radicals in the Jim Crow south and Black urban youths. Antiblack enslavement and genocide fueled the rise of international capitalism. New bones as political formations in resistance are international. Liberation movements seek to align in solidarity. For example, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and its central leader Amilcar Cabral urged ethical people to “return to the source” in order to end (neo)colonial exploitation, extraction, and terror. Transformative culture—a peoples’ political culture— arises from the mass demanding survival and dignity for their daily needs. The source, as discussed below, does not emanate from an employment sector or the prestige of any institution aligned with states and regimes. US “democratic” culture routinely denies access to political power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, lobbyists, as well as legislation and courts that repress the civil or human rights of the indigenous/Black, laboring/working classes, the undocumented and the imprisoned.
“Antiblack enslavement and genocide fueled the rise of international capitalism.”
When hegemonic leaders—in or out of government— market themselves as the source of “new bones” for social justice, their popularity is often leveraged, but rarely by the masses. Rather, mass media, political parties, and nonprofit industries invest in managing resistance to elite-dominated political-economic orders by raising a favorable profile visibility of their desirable leaders. Black feminist leadership has been celebrated for delivering an electoral victory (Black men were the second largest voting demographic for the Biden/Harris administration, thus Black people were key to defeating President Donald Trump). Still, hegemonic Black leadership—elevated during the Obama administration— has not developed and delivered a system for working and laboring classes to elect and remove “liberation leaders” based on their lack of accountability to under-resourced communities. Since the recent uprisings against antiblack police violence, millions have taken to the streets and hundreds of millions of donor dollars have poured into organizations and monetized political struggles. As Black suffering and protests become spectacles (similar to 19th- and 20th-century lynching) that fuel news, publications, and prestige, non-elite communities still lack access to power necessary to control the legal apparatus (as of 2021 no anti-lynching bill has passed into law) that legitimizes predatory policing. In newly-found markets, movement millionaires emerge to claim not only that they have rightly “earned” their wealth but that they sport new bones for effective leadership for mass and activist cadres that will not be purchased or funded.
“Non-elite communities still lack access to power necessary to control the legal apparatus that legitimizes predatory policing.”
Increasingly, academics—as rising celebrities or defenders of movement organizations that garner access to considerable wealth—play curious roles in stabilizing civil rights markets and defending questionable accumulations within their networks. The broken bones and necks of vulnerable civilians and militants confronting state violence spark movements. The most vulnerable activists mobilize in streets and under resourced communities. They tend to have low visibility and limited funds. Routinely surveilled, indexed, harassed, and arrested, they are most likely to be injured, incarcerated or killed by police forces or white supremacist vigilantes. Elites (in the making) benefit as their personal identities and ideologies align with dominant progressivism and liberalism to elevate new “movement leaders” who were not elected or chosen by grassroots or marginalized communities. Democratic social movements should be accountable to the mass, not the elites. Logically, elites do not invest in popular mechanisms that could replace them.
The ideological conflicts between Black (petit) bourgeois progressives and their militant counterparts are largely shaped by desires and strategies for power (and for some, prestige). These conflicts might spur new bone growth between a class with leisure and institutional connections and classes marked as expendable workers in hustle/underground/Covid-essential/prison worker economies.
Paltry numbers of the petit bourgeoisie betray their class interests to align with the working class, unemployed, and imprisoned (the “disposables” or “replaceables” who have nothing to lose but their chains and their lives). However, accountability on this level of solidarity and engagement is still unclear. Boundaries are rarely sufficiently established. Victims of state violence grapple with boundaries and autonomy among allies whose ideologies they might not share. Still, activists can use their platforms to promote the agency, not just the victimization, of working/laboring classes. Rather than exploit or personally benefit from social justice movements, ethical and reliable organizers struggle with those trapped in prisons and hyper-exploitative economies and poverty-wages, especially domestic care laborers who tend to the needs of children, elders, and the medically fragile. Such Captive Maternals manage “leftovers,” exhaustion, and stress in order to nurture their own families and communities without monetary compensation.
“Victims of state violence grapple with boundaries and autonomy among allies whose ideologies they might not share.”
Philanthropic funders work in tandem with academics and public intellectuals to redirect the “source” of transformative political culture away from the mass and towards the elite strata. Guerilla intellectuals resist such maneuvers. Beyond institutional or academic definitions of the “Black Radical Tradition,” valuable political strategies can be found in the writings of: imprisoned Black queer theorist Stevie Wilson who analyzes the “Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition”; The Abolition of Slavery National Network (ASNN) which theorizes slavery abolition (rather than prison abolition) to focus on enslavement in prisons; August Nimtz’s 1985 “Marxism and the Black Struggle: The ‘Class v. Race’ Debate Revisited”; and, National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Executive Director Frank Chapman’s Marxist-Leninist Perspectives on Black Liberation and Socialism.
State violence and co-optation require analyses of plutocracy amid global influencers. The investment of entertainment industries in social justice movements can gentrify rebellions after trauma leads to outrage and denunciations and protesters burn precincts . If development is a byproduct of capitalism’s ideological strategies, then inquiries into how radical movements are violently crushed and then turned into teachable moments that stabilize existing structures are relevant. Radical actors scrutinize and take actions to address the local and the global; e.g;, US drone strikes killing civilians and US mercenaries proliferating under the watch of AFRICOM; ICE deportations of Haitians and Africans accelerating under the Biden /Harris administration. In the material world, plutocracies tend to break the bones of resistors fighting for a better world for the masses, not just the individual. New bones do not organically grow within the academy, political celebrity, or professionalized activism. Bureaucratic imperial democracy and donor capitalism do not finance the growth of autonomous movements against empire and capital. Belarus activists argue that advocacy democracy plays on a political continuum in which advocates represent (or manage) the masses in pursuit of managerial political goals.
“New bones do not organically grow within the academy, political celebrity, or professionalized activism.”
Post-Civil War in the US, a Black elite, a “talented tenth,” was funded by white philanthropists to ensure that emancipated Blacks, terrorized by white supremacists and capitalists, would channel their energies into “uplift” mechanisms directed by the Black petit bourgeoisie but controlled by white capitalists. (Prestigious HBCUs such Morehouse and Spelman colleges take their namesakes from white philanthropists Henry Morehouse and Rockefeller family member Laura Spelman.) Movements were trained on the ground by communities struggling with the material conditions of deprivation and antiblack violence. Decades later, funding for campus “community engagement” has professionalized students into coordinators. Under the aegis of institutional education, professional intellectuals and professional activists are granted leeway to function in loco parentis for the parens patriae with little to no accountability to, or control by, impacted communities.
Funding for current liberation movements has become less transparent than registering for business through the federal government’s System for Reward Management (SAM). Investment capital’s incursions into protests and cultures of political resistance have manufactured movement millionaires and political influencers who replicate the performances of reality tv/media stars while peaceful protesters kettled and beaten in the Bronx by the NYPD create the cultures of resistance.
Walter Rodney’s “guerilla intellectuals” (Rodney was assassinated in 1980 in Guyana for organizing a peoples’ movement) sets a high standard. Still, it is one worth seeking given that (non)profit corporations and government continue to literally collect the bones of Black victims and rebels. In the case of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University claiming possession of the bones of MOVE children murdered by Philadelphia police, the remains of our casualties from state violence become instructional material for students at prestigious universities. This outrage is not unique. Families report that police routinely keep (or lose) remains from autopsies of victims who die in police encounters or detention.
Guerilla intellectuals as a source or site for renewal requires further study. Two examples—Black Panther Party (BPP) and The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC)— are offered below.
Black Youth Militancy and Fragility
Current political prisoners from the era of BPP resistance include: Sundiata Acoli, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Mutulu Shakur, Leonard Peltier, Kamau Sadiki, Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, and Mumia Abu Jamal. Santi Elijah Holley’s article, “The Forgotten Black Panthers,” quotes former political prisoners who share their analyses of betrayal from popular culture and influencers. According to Jalil Muntaqim, contemporary entertainment industries “exploit the name and the legacy of the Black Panther Party.” Incarcerated for forty-nine years, Muntaqim notes that such industries lack concern for those attacked by Cointelpro: impoverished elderly survivors who “suffer. . . .[under] circumstances. . . [that] are horrendous.” The wealth generated by the use of the Panthers as symbols and political postures for Panther adjacency gave radical credibility to celebrities who began to function as spokespersons for “justice”; yet these entertainers failed to provide material support for those imprisoned for decades. Muntaqim’s critique extends beyond Hollywood: “They’re not providing any services or support for these aging Panthers, but they’ll take the name. . . the legacy of [the Panthers] and exploit it.” For Panther Sekou Odinga: “Someone makes a lot of money. . . nothing goes to the families of the fallen. Nothing goes to those. . . locked up, fighting for their lives.”
In a 1997 PBS interview, Black Panther veteran Kathleen Cleaver asserts that Panther revolutionaries challenged Americans who believed the US system could self-correct its predatory practices and willingly deliver equal and human rights to all; Panthers though viewed the US as “fundamentally corrupt” and so sought a revolutionary struggle to replace it. Describing the Panthers as a youth organization that lacked the resources for a concerted “educational program” to transform society, Cleaver notes how the FBI, CIA, DIA and local police “viciously sabotaged and attacked” the party’s educational mission and exacerbated its “internal confusion and dissension.” For Cleaver, the BPP needed “three or four generations to build a comprehensive educational program.” Three generations have passed in which, arguably, reactionary policing has become stronger. The Black (petit) bourgeoisie has also expanded its roles in capital and government thus distancing from the most vulnerable sectors.
“Panther revolutionaries challenged Americans who believed the US system could self-correct its predatory practices.”
For Cleaver, the petit bourgeoisie adheres to the “capitalist form of democracy.” “Commercial democracy,” she maintains, requires a stable Black middle class as well as inequality. Cleaver argues that the state apparatus and capital structure require “a certain number of people at the elite level, a certain number of people in the middle level, and the rest of the people scrambling and hoping they could get there, all following the same zealous commitment to making money.” In opposition to this political regime, according to Cleaver, revolutionaries “repudiate the commitment to making money and demand justice, structural change, transparency and truth, and freedom” because structures “based on financial rewards and financial incentives” cannot support revolutionary struggle; hence, the BPP said, ‘Power to the people’.” Some twenty years after Cleaver’s interview, the current political landscape promotes the idea that one can have it both ways — proclaim loyalties to transformational justice and become wealthy and influential by building political brands; movement portfolios; or PACs (political action campaign for donors), all the while working within a political duopoly shaped by racist, classist heteropatriarchy and (proto)fascist policies.
If, as Cleaver argued decades ago, the “colonial power creates a middle class. . . to control the colony,” then Black middle class values, concerns, and ambitions did not grow new bones, but grafted onto justice movements the old bones of racial capitalists. If Black elites participate in the marginalization of the agency of the “underclass” they will align with the state’s intent to diminish or discredit that sector’s leadership. Rebellion cultures thus become the raw material harvested by the (petit) bourgeoisie and commodified in corporate culture; here Black death and trauma sell and secure funding for films and fashion.
To demystify and shield revolutionary cultures from consumer culture requires resistance to any resin for radicalism. The struggles and sacrifices of Patrice Lumumba, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Dulcie September, Chris Hani, and many others offer insights into living formations within freedom movements.
Amilcar Cabral and Return to the Source
Freedom fighter, father, internationalist theorist during the anti-colonial war against Portugal, Amilcar Cabral lived long enough to see a liberation movement free three-quarters of the countryside before he was assassinated in 1973 (allegedly the US, NATO, and Britain clandestinely supported Portugal, the first European state to invest in, and the last to relinquish, genocidal trafficking of Africans in order to build an economy). Cabral’s injunction to “return to the source” synthesizes abolitionism, anti-imperialism, and communal culture to assert that communal material struggles create the cultures of liberation movements.
As Secretary-General of PAIGC, Cabral was an outstanding theorist practitioner in the abolition of imperial warfare. He understood both the victimization and the transformative agency of the peasant and working classes. Revolutionary struggle would be shaped by revolutionary culture emanating from the lives of the masses: overly policed and struggling with impoverishment and exploitation. Those folks, out of necessity, adapted the mutations that grow “new bones” to resist violence and dispossession. Academics and intellectuals had a role to play in these militant mutations. They provided speaking platforms for Cabral, comprehending that he and African people were not hapless victims of imperial police powers but agentic intellectuals and skillful strategists. After Cabral’s murder, Africa Information Service (AIS) and Monthly Review Press, academics and educators, continued to support African, African-Caribbean, and African-American freedom movements and preserved speeches and analyses in texts distributed for popular education. (A similar process also occurred with Malcolm X’s speeches and analyses as they evolved towards socialism and [Black] revolutionary internationalism.)
Academics and educators aligned with Cabral’s communal brilliance, humility, revolutionary love, and political will. The source came from those engaged in material struggle against regimes of repression. In an October 16, 1972 address to the UN General Assembly, Cabral noted the need for an “appropriate and effective intervention” by the UN to support the “inalienable rights” of African people in Guinea and Cape Verde Islands. He asserted that those seeking justice and human rights had hoped to “induce the Portuguese Government to respect international morality and legality,” only to wryly observe: “[W]e might well be considered to have been naïve.”
“Cabral understood both the victimization and the transformative agency of the peasant and working classes.”
The UN had the means and capacity to advocate for liberation movements. Located in wealthy Manhattan, its personnel lacked a desire to fight for “practical and effective measures designed to ensure respect” for its own Charter on human rights. Cabral challenged the international community and its elite representatives and management with a query: “When a fighter had succumbed in our country to police torture, or had been murdered in prison, or burnt alive or machine-gunned by the Portuguese troops, for what cause had [they] given [their] life?” His answer: Those who gave their lives for the liberation of their people served the cause of the United Nations because they had sacrificed their lives “in a context of international legality, for the ideals set forth in the [UN] Charter and resolutions. . . .”
Return to the Source maintains that “We Africans, having rejected the idea of begging for freedom, which was contrary to our dignity and our sacred right to freedom and independence, reaffirmed our steadfast decision to end colonial domination of our country.” The book identifies three options for settling the conflict between colonizer and colonized: a radical change in the colonizing government; effective UN intervention on behalf of the oppressed; and “a struggle waged exclusively by the people with their own means.” The colonizer refused human rights. The UN refused to enforce its human rights charter. The only remaining option was a peoples’ movement based in resistance culture.
Return to the Source states that in order to be “effective,” the UN must provide “simultaneously moral, political and material” support to the resistors in the field who disproportionately shoulder the risks of liberation movements. The same should be said of academia and nonprofits in their use of prestige. Money accumulates at the top. The absence of structured distribution systems for funds to reach the base is a design feature, not flaw. Cabral asserted that he did not appear before the UN Committee “in order to obtain more violent condemnations and resolutions against the Portuguese colonialists.” He came for material aid. He left empty handed.
During his last tour of the US, “connecting the struggles” of Africans and Black Americans, Cabral recognized the primacy of international struggle:
“I am bringing to you our African brothers and sisters of the United States-the fraternal salutations of our people in assuring you we are very conscious that all in this life concerning you also concerns us. . . . We try to understand your situation in this country. . . . we realize the difficulties you face, the problems you have and your feelings, your revolts, and also your hopes. We think that our fighting for Africa against colonialism and imperialism is a proof of understanding of your problem and also a contribution for the solution of your problems in this continent. Naturally the inverse is also true.”
Captive Maternals in Abolitionism and Academia
As an ungendered function, the Captive Maternal emanates out of the mutations of chattel slavery. The Captive Maternal is linked not only to the routine theft of generative powers of the enslaved but also to the inevitable (sporadic) organized revolts against captivity. Black parents and communities labor to keep children and elders and themselves stable and protected. That care can be fueled by fear or love, or loyalty, or a mixture of motivations. Often its labor is used to stabilize the very structures that prey on Black lives and honor in schools, hospitals, jobs, and prisons. Generative powers stolen and repurposed by the state and capital for accumulation can also be stolen back for rebellions. The “Womb of Western Theory” explores different stages of the Captive Maternal. Here, using the Attica rebellion and suppression as an illustration, I note these stages: celebrated/conflicted caretaker; protester for social justice; maroon; war resistor; betrayer/veteran survivor.
Prison is the most tangible domestic war zone. War zones are destabilizing. The Attica rebellion, on this its 50th anniversary, exemplifies the torturous growth of new bones by Captive Maternals. Those in Attica, an ungendered mass of captives (not all identified as male although the state classified them as such), maintained the prison structure as trustees and laborers. Under pain of torture, death, or boredom, they cooked meals, tended gardens, did laundry, nurtured, and nursed each other. They also loved, hated, befriended or violated others in their community of captives. Laboring under penal slavery codified in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution., they stabilized the prison that preyed upon them as captives. Rejecting the early stage of contradiction in caretaking, they collaborated to organize a prison strike for human rights and dignity sparked by their outrage over the killing of George Jackson. From protests they moved into a social justice movement for rights. In that movement they took over the massive prison. In the next stage of struggle, captives rebuilt community as a maroon camp inside prison walls. They set up food systems, waste removal, medic sites, political education, security, designated spokespersons to speak to the public and the press, and they wrote their Liberation Manifesto. Community formed out of chaos; in extreme vulnerability, they grew new bones. Within the carceral plantation, they forge unity and political identities and leadership for transformative justice.
“Generative powers stolen and repurposed by the state and capital for accumulation can also be stolen back for rebellions.”
In the fourth stage they became war resistors. A democracy built on chattel slavery viewed Black agency for human rights as a declaration of war. Using military weaponry from Vietnam (as did Philadelphia police in the 1985 bombing of MOVE— today the 1033 program provides military gear to city police), the National Guard deployed by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller shot through white prison guard hostages in order to kill Black and Brown dissidents. Their targets were not prisoners per se but Captive Maternal maroons, community builders and defenders. Once the prison was retaken, guards allegedly continued to torture and execute rebels.
Attica’s rebellion and political agency are remembered differently as the history of freedom movements travels from prisons to classrooms and conferences. For two decades, academia has forged aspects of abolitionism. Complications and contradictions were inevitable. In 2011, Princeton University hosted a conference on prison abolitionism and mass incarceration. A young Black woman seated in the center, front rows of the auditorium calmly posed a query to the panel at which I sat. She identified herself as an academic who taught at a working class vocational college where her low-income/impoverished black and brown students lived under conditions of scarcity, violence, police aggression and imprisonment—all struggles that multiracial academics had discussed in their papers throughout the day. The young professor bravely noted that every academic presenting came from elite private institutions where students were shielded from the vulnerabilities and violence stalking her students. From the stage, I affirmed her critique by noting that abolitionist conferences at elite institutions had become the national norm not the exception for popularized abolitionism. My lone voice of support proved less powerful than that of another academic who chastised her for her lack of appreciation for the conference. Thus, academia mirrored the UN that Cabral had depended upon while knowing it would betray the freedom movement because mission statements without material aid to freedom fighters are designed to meet the preferences of empire. At that conference, I saw one anonymous Captive Maternal bravely determined to organize despite betrayal or censorship from Black captive (petit) bourgeoisie. Her resilience redirected abolitionism back to the source.
Joy James is an American political philosopher, academic and author. She holds the Ebenezer Fitch Professorship of Humanities at Williams College
This article is part of Against the Carceral State: Verso Roundtable. Follow the link to see more articles in the series.
This article previously appeared in Versobooks.com.
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