Thinking about political resistance requires an understanding of both what constitutes the political and its various and varying forms of resistance. Black intellectuals have articulated both the ontological and epistemological contours of each category, and provided us with foundational and lasting critiques of state power and capitalism. Any analysis of political resistance must begin and contend with such studies. One way to frame the category of political resistance is to ask whether these modes of politics are interested in reform or revolution—two modalities of political engagement that often characterize political resistance in both theory and practice. It is important to note how reform-based movements often strive for better conditions of everyday life by working within channels of state and capitalist power, and are often the legitimated historical data to account for black American political resistance. Reform-based initiatives often call for equal recognition and protection under the law for black Americans, and work toward activating a base of voters that hold political officials accountable for upholding legal precedents and protections. While reformist approaches often critique inequality, these initiatives enhance state power, thus fortifying the very racist structures, logics, and affects that make antiblackness an enduring force in American life. In the case of the revolutionary, acts of political resistance exhaust state and economic power by enacting various degrees of revolutionary possibility. These acts, though they have not yet successfully overthrown state or capitalist power, reveal to us the limits of these structures of power in being accountable to black communities. In fact, often these revolutionary acts demonstrate the very ways through which the state and capital consolidate their power around and through continued violence against black subjects. In addition, revolutionary resistance aims to create the kinds of alternative modes of community, kinship, and accountability that might exist outside of state and capitalist interests. These movements often create systems of mutual aid, providing resources in the face of poverty and violence. As many activists have noted, while activists outwardly condemned various modes of structural oppression, these organizations contended with internal contradictions including ongoing sexism and homophobia, coupled with counterinsurgency efforts led by the state that limited their revolutionary efficacy. While these two modalities of political resistance might at first read as prescriptive, they are merely meant to provide an organizing structure to the readings annotated in this article for those who are beginning their study of black American political resistance. It should be noted that political resistance in black American histories include (but are not limited to) a variety of economic, cultural, and social practices that cannot be fully recorded or recounted in relation to the qualifying terms of “political efficacy.” This curation of readings aims to include some of those forms of political resistance that would otherwise not be interpreted as such, in an attempt to exemplify that black American political resistance folds in and out of conventional definitions of such activity.
Black American Political Theory
While there is some contention on the relationship between political theory and practice, Robinson 2000; Brotz and Austin 1999; and Hine, et al. 1995 provide a guiding framework for understanding praxis as a critical engagement between theory and its application. Scholarship within this category draws on a range of contributions from political economy—as reflected in the works of Du Bois 1935 and Du Bois and Holloway 2015—to theories of black embodiment—as reflected in Hartman 2010—in order to develop both the commonalities and exceptionalities within black subject formation in the United States. These theoretical works develop and unsettle more conventional Marxist approaches to the question of slavery and its lasting affects—ones that tend to collapse the question of race into one of class entirely—in order to examine the development of modes of black political resistance (Giddings 2006, Cooper 2017). Sometimes turning to armed resistance and other times to the ballot box, these scholars appeal to the tenants of philosophical inquiry in order to examine the contours of resistance itself.
Brotz, Howard, and William Austin. African-American Social and Political Thought: 1850–1920. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1999.
This comprehensive collection presents an overview of the dynamic and diverse political positions in black political thought between 1850 and 1920. Includes primary source material organized into thematic sections in order to best account for a diversity of opinions on the nature of black social and political disenfranchisement, and probable solutions for these structural problems. Presents voices from the most foundational black male political thinkers in the United States.
Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Cooper provides a compelling genealogy of black intellectual thought that is organized around black women’s contributions to questions of the political, social, and cultural. In this study, Cooper argues toward an understanding of black intellectual thought in which the very subject of racial knowledge emerges out of black women’s thinking and activism.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Russel & Russel, 1935.
Du Bois’s 1935 volume approaches the question of politics by focusing on economic theory. In this analysis, Du Bois focuses his study on black and white American laborers in the sedimentation of racist structures and practices in a post–Civil War United States.
Du Bois, W. E. B., and Jonathan S. Holloway. The Souls of Black Folk. London: Yale University Press, 2015.
This groundbreaking analysis is one of the earliest sociological studies, and offers meticulous theorizations of the roadblocks and possibilities within the black freedom struggle. Quoted often and thoroughly by scholars in multiple fields, Du Bois’s study theorizes his own experiences by bringing together extensive analyses across multiple vectors of black American experience. Cultural, political, historical, and personal materials all share the same space in this book, which is a tour-de-force in the study of black American political resistance.
Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
This comprehensive study charts black women’s influential role in movements against sexism and racism in the United States. Giddings offers how black women ushered in new theories and approaches to resistance by centralizing how racism and sexism are co-constitutive systems of power and privilege.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Hartman provides both the theoretical and historical scaffolding though which we can understand various afterlives of slavery. In her foundational study, Hartman traces the historical continuity between slavery and Reconstruction as it plays out against and through black bodies. Freedom and violence activate and calcify racism, thus making the question of political resistance one of degrees and levels of devastation against black bodies.
Hine, Darlene C., Wilma King, and Linda Reed. We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1995.
This edited volume includes foundational works on black women’s contribution to political theory and social movements. These works catalogue how black women’s intellectual contributions allow us to rethink the conditions of politics proper through strategies that span reform, revolution, and everyday acts of subversion.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
In this resounding historical analysis, Robinson offers us the first comprehensive study of the relationship between Marxism and black radicalism. Detailed through a re-reading of Marxism’s Eurocentrism, Robinson offers a corrective to understandings that privilege Marx and his contemporaries without accounting for both the theoretical and practical contributions made by black radicalism. By focusing on these “two programs for revolutionary change,” and the relationship between them, Robinson’s analysis provides us with an enduring study of radical politics and revolutionary change (p. 1).
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Sexton’s study details the ongoing activation of antiblackness in post–civil rights era multiracial politics. In this account, Sexton provocatively charts the lasting impact of antiblackness within “people of color” politics by tracking how the multiracial project requires the continual force of antiblackness in order to be registered, visible, and effective politically and socially.
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