Building on the Black Radical Tradition: Jeneé Darden Interviews Gaye Theresa Johnson

September 15, 2017   •   By Jeneé Darden

AS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN these days, I mentally prepare myself when turning on the news or logging onto social media. Police unlawfully killing African Americans, the president “jokingly” encouraging cops to use more force, rising housing costs pushing out long-time Angelenos, our failing education system — we’re up against so much. Then I turn to health news and think, no wonder black people have such high rates of hypertension.

How did our ancestors survive racial injustice during their time, and how do we get through it today?

Futures of Black Radicalism presents a collection of essays by contemporary thinkers, scholars, and activists who address that very question. Co-edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, the collection reflects on the past, present, and future of black resistance. But it is also a tribute to the late Cedric Robinson, a UC Santa Barbara professor of Political Science and Black Studies who died last summer at 75. Robinson is revered in academic circles and had a great influence on many scholars. In 1983, he broke ground with his book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Robin D. G. Kelley wrote in the foreword for the 2000 edition, “I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that this book changed my life.” Robinson’s work challenged Marxism for its Eurocentric focus on movements and for not recognizing the roles black people have played in creating change and resistance. He argued Black Radicalism is influenced by African culture, along with the history and experience of black people in the West. He coined this as the Black Radical Tradition.

For Futures of Black Radicalism, co-editors Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin build from Robinson’s work defining the Black Radical Tradition. They describe it as

a tradition of resistance honed by the history of racialized, permanent, hereditary, and chattel slavery that formed the contours of civic and social life in the Americas, Europe and Africa [and that] produced an enduring vision of a shared future whose principal promise is the abolition of all forms of oppression.

The book also looks at how the Black Radical Tradition has influenced movements domestically and internationally, such as in Hong Kong and Palestine. And it explores today’s relationship between Black resistance and anti-capitalism in this global economy.

Before his death, Robinson chose scholars to contribute to Futures of Black Radicalism, including Robin D. G. Kelley, Angela Davis, Fred Moten, George Lipsitz, and many other luminaries. I spoke with co-editor Gaye Theresa Johnson, an associate professor of African American Studies and Chicano/a Studies at UCLA. She explained the significance of the book for this time.


JENEÉ DARDEN: Black Radicalism has inspired other historic movements. But I’m sure for some people, seeing the words “black” and “radicalism” together in the title will stir fear.

GAYE THERESA JOHNSON: No one is free if black people aren’t free, if Dreamers aren’t free, if people discriminated against because of their sexuality aren’t free. Black people have always had a vision for how to achieve this kind of justice in society. It hasn’t always been recorded or written into the history books. But it has always made history. If you think about it, the most important mission/vision of social justice has come from the Black Radical Tradition. You don’t have to be black to believe in Black Radicalism. You only have to believe in freedom for everyone because that’s what the Black Radical Tradition gives us.

As far as people feeling some kind of way about the words “black” and “radical” together — all of that has been generated from the created fear of what they think black people are.

You describe Cedric Robinson as an “intellectual giant.” He had a major influence on race theory, and has inspired many scholars. But he was not popular, like a Michael Eric Dyson or a Cornel West. Why?

He decided not to elevate himself in that way. The academy has never been a place that’s welcoming to the study of Black Radicalism. Cedric’s career and his choices reflect that. He was a community-engaged scholar. He had a local television show about third-world issues. He and his partner, Elizabeth Robinson, were legendary for their activism.

It’s extraordinary that he wrote from Santa Barbara, which is an example of the wealth gap. It’s also a place where Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and all of the issues he wrote about at the time were on full display.

You consider yourself a community-engaged scholar. One essay expands on Robinson’s critique of intellectuals who distance themselves from oppressed people once they enter academia. How does it hurt the Black Radical Tradition when black scholars disconnect from the community?

We need intellectuals. If you’re talking about Black Radical Tradition and the ways people are trying to get free, theory is important. If you’re doing this in the academy, that’s just the name of the game.

I do think it’s harmful, when Black Studies departments, or the study of Black Radicalism, veers too far. That doesn’t mean you have to be living on Skid Row to understand. But you have to know what it means, because the people dealing with that stuff are talking with you. Theory does not create social movements. Social movements make our job possible.

Racial capitalism is a major theme in this book and a powerful term. Contributors note that we see racial capitalism in the prison system, gentrification, housing, et cetera. How does racial capitalism relate to Black Radicalism?

Racial capitalism is about understanding that capitalism can continue in its present form because it relies on racism to divide people, commodify them, and perpetuate its own power. That awareness of how capitalism works has gotten far away from us in relating it back to our struggle.

Various scholars in the book mention that Black Radicalism is not just about marching. We see it in various parts of black life and expressions of blackness such as art, fashion, and music. Rapper Kendrick Lamar is referenced in this book, for instance.

The Black Radical Tradition is more than just a story of survival despite oppression, it is a story of how African and African-descended people have created intellectual and cultural traditions from their lived experience across the diaspora. The Black Radical Tradition is indeed present in the most visible social protests of our time, but it is also found — and sometimes more meaningfully — in alternative sources of inspiration that speak to everyone, like music, spoken word, and visual art.

Within the black culture, we have different views of how to fight oppression. The Black Radical Tradition is not a monolith, right?

Absolutely, it’s very diverse.

The world is changing, but some things are the same. I was at a retreat for black women where Alice Walker spoke. Trump energizing white supremacists came up. Basically she said, we’ve been through this before.

It’s not really a new monster. It just has a different face.

When Trump won, I wanted to apologize to my parents because my parents graduated from college in 1969. They saw it all. We have a responsibility to honor that history, but we also need to create new forms of struggle. And we have. There’s been an incredible emergence of struggle that has pride in intersectionality, is sensitive to the issues of sexuality and feminism. That’s amazing. We really need to follow that. It’s here. But how do we come together, to actually live that, going forward?

What is the future of Black Radicalism?

We have to be aware of what we are challenged by and burdened with. There’s a history and tradition hidden by the constant barrage of media pundits and a national narrative that black people have come a long way, the arc of freedom is always upward, and many of the problems we have are of our own making. All of those things obscure a much more dynamic and significant history for all of the times that we’ve been responsible for the nation’s definition of what freedom is. The future of Black Radicalism can only happen if we have an awareness of the past.


Jeneé Darden is a journalist who covers women and race on her blog She is working on a book about African-American sexuality and literature.