The Problem of Radical Heroism

Activists often invoke a fear of "selling out" to keep followers in line

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For my last Times column I did some cursory research on other movements, besides abolition, and some of the tactics. I got through quite a bit of Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's Sell-Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which is a semi-defense of ostracism as a political weapon.


A quick nugget:

During the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s leading black figures constantly addressed themselves to what they saw as the problem of racial betrayal by complacency, collaboration and outright treachery. Fannie Lou Hamer declared that the champions of black empowerment had to "stop the Toms" from selling out. "I don't believe in killing," she remarked, "but a god whipping behind the bushes wouldn't hurt them." 

Malcolm X asserted that "just as the slave-master used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slave master today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms--twentieth century Uncle Toms-to keep you and me in check,": "There are Negroes," Martin Luther King Jr., complained, "who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will co-operate with their oppressors." 

In Montgomery, during the bus boycott, the talk actually got quite real:

The boycott is typically portrayed an entirely voluntary enterprise in which the heroes of the story wage their struggle against racist villains without morally soiling their hands at all. The reality, however, was considerably more complicated. The boycott was mainly animated by the commitment of many blacks to reform, if not erase, patterns of racial subordination that they rightly abhorred.

It is important to note, however, that the boycott was also reinforce by the knowledge that any black person caught riding the buses would face ostracism from his peers. He or she would be denounced as a sellout--or words to that effect. Tha the fear of reprisal acted as a coercive influence is no mere speculation. A number of blacks who sought to ride despite the boycott testified in court proceedings that they were physically harassed or intimidated by supporters of the strike. 

As it turns out, extraordinarily few African Americans rode the buses. More would have evaded the boycott, however, had they not feared the cost of attempting to do so. This  slive of black Montgomery would have included Negroes who either opposed the boycott on ideological grounds or opposed being enlisted in a strike by which they did not want to be inconvenienced. These blacks have largely been airbrushed from the public memory of the boycott. But they did exist and should be taken into account.

A couple of reactions. First, one reason why, as a child, I wasn't much interested in the Civil Rights movement is because it was always presented as a kind of holier than thou moral play. Black history, at least in the schools, existed mainly as clunky "You Can Do It" inspirational rhetoric. I often joke that I know I'm in a hood school because there's a lot of inspirational sloganeering around "success," "achievement," and "winning." At my old middle school they actually organized us into "teams" named after heroes of black history--the Woodson team, the King team, the Garvey team, the Booker T team etc. I was on the Marshall Team. On the rafters of my hall there was a slogan that went something like, "It is by choice not chance, that we choose to enhance, the Marshall Team. We can achieve. We will achieve..." and so on.

The point was to make black history utilitarian, and applicable to our education. The strategy was not wrong, but with it came this sense that we walked in the path of infallible Gods. No one talked about, say, Garvey dismissing the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Or Fannie Lou Hamer talking cracking some Uncle Toms head.

I don't even know that that sort of thing is appropriate for middle school kids, but my point is that the narrative of black super-morality never  connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely  passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.

The funny thing is even while these more human portraits attract me, they actually point out why I am ill-suited to radical activism or activism. In re-reading Douglass's denunciations of Lincoln last week, I couldn't help but feel that sometimes, they were really unfair. And yet, leaving aside the fact that I have never lived as a slave, I don't know that it's the job of any activist to be "fair." It almost seems "unfair" to ask radicals to function in a moral universe where no other humans, especially those with power, tend to live. I strongly suspect that any serious history on Mandella's ANC will find the exact sort of behavior, if not behavior that's even more complicated.

And yet, while being convinced by Kennedy's defense, there is not a single African-American in the world who I feel comfortable disparaging as a sell-out or a Tom. Indeed, I've never liked Malcolm's "house slave/field slave" comparison. I couldn't see myself physically threaten someone for riding the bus, if only because, I'm very much an individualist. I understand why these tactics existed, but I recoiled while reading about them. I think about gay rights activist outing conservatives who support anti-gay policies. I recoil at that too. But I'm not an activist. Nor is it really my fight.

I've been listening to a lot of lectures on Napoleon and the French Revolution. I think I would have been with Burke. And yet,  the Revolution was good, yes?



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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