“Sorrow, Tears, and Blood”: Black Activism, Fractionation, and the Talented Tenth

Every­body run run run
Every­body scat­ter scat­ter
Some peo­ple lost some bread
Some­one near­ly die
Some­one just die
Police dey come, army dey come
Con­fu­sion every­where
Hey yeah!
Sev­en min­utes lat­er
All don cool down, broth­er
Police don go away
Army don dis­ap­pear
Them leave Sor­row, Tears, and Blood

—Fela Kuti, “Sor­row, Tears and Blood”

In the first decades of the 21st cen­tu­ry, the men, women, and chil­dren detained, impris­oned or slain by U.S. police in exces­sive and grotesque uses of force remain dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly black.1 Rarely viewed as activists, they have formed a space between con­ven­tion­al pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship and rad­i­cal con­fronta­tions with police and state-sanc­tioned vio­lence. This frac­tion­at­ing, or divid­ing into fac­tions, of lead­er­ship from below has opened a void favor­ing new forms of polit­i­cal agency and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment.

Those killed by police are remem­bered as inno­cent civil­ians made hap­less by the racist fear and arro­gance of whites autho­rized to kill with impuni­ty. These mar­tyrs have no pub­lic his­to­ries of known orga­niz­ing or fam­i­ly con­nec­tions to social jus­tice move­ments. Yet with their deaths, they have con­tributed to mobi­liza­tions, protests, lob­by­ing and leg­is­la­tion for reform. The homi­cides of black Amer­i­cans by dep­u­tized whites’ or white police include the slay­ings of: Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Mar­tin, Akai Gur­ley, Eric Gar­ner, Michael Brown, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stan­ley-Jones, Tamir Rice, John Craw­ford, and Tari­ka Wil­son who died hold­ing her 14-month old son, Sin­cere, who was also shot but sur­vived. Police have been held unac­count­able for these homi­cides by their depart­ments, unions, dis­trict attor­neys, grand juries and siz­able seg­ments of the pub­lic. It is that lack of account­abil­i­ty before the law (fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tions still pend­ing) for crim­i­nal acts by police that incites out­rage. That rage was recent­ly expressed in youth, female and queer black lead­er­ship fol­lowed by tens of thou­sands of mul­ti-racial, diverse pro­tes­tors and orga­niz­ers chant­i­ng “Black Lives Mat­ter!”

Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Mall of America.
Black Lives Mat­ter demon­stra­tion at the Mall of Amer­i­ca.

The pro­tes­tors and fam­i­lies of those slain have emerged as nation­al spokesper­sons against tor­ture2 and police vio­lence; they thus seem to have deflect­ed atten­tion from for­mal civ­il rights lead­er­ship privy to state-cor­po­rate pow­er. Diverse actors for rights are found in one move­ment. Yet, the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of civ­il rights through phil­an­thropy only began in the 19th cen­tu­ry. It increased dur­ing the south­ern civ­il rights move­ment in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and today shapes lead­er­ship for the reform of mass incar­cer­a­tion in align­ment with lib­er­al per­spec­tives on social change. That lead­er­ship is now being con­test­ed not only by those who deny the exis­tence of white suprema­cy as a struc­tured evil and so oppose rights (from vot­ing rights to pris­on­ers’ rights), but also those who find the “deliv­er­ables” of pro­fes­sion­al­ized lib­er­al or neo­rad­i­cal3 lead­er­ship, embed­ded in cor­po­rate-state struc­tures resis­tant to change “from below,” too pal­try.

This elite could either join or expand upon the street protests and prayer vig­ils. But it would not be allowed to lead the grass­roots move­ment that explod­ed in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. For that move­ment had a prox­im­i­ty to sor­row, tears, and blood, and the con­di­tions of sub­ju­ga­tion tied to non-celebri­ty queer­ness, black­ness, mater­nal female­ness famil­iar with trau­ma and pover­ty. Upris­ings are not the same as move­ments; they often refuse ges­tures of wel­come to those con­sid­ered “out­siders.” The civil­i­ty of mut­ed applause can be eas­i­ly replaced with jeers towards elites and police. It is insuf­fi­cient to be in favor of civ­il rights; one must be in favor of fol­low­ing, rather than attempt­ing to lead or con­trol protests in the streets and speech on screens that emanate from the most dis­en­fran­chised groups.

There is always push back against unau­tho­rized activism. Police spec­ta­cles of racist denial chal­lenged demon­stra­tions against police vio­lence: white NYPD offi­cers take self­ies wear­ing “I Can Breathe” t-shirts, mock­ing the shirts donned by pro­tes­tors of Eric Garner’s death by chest com­pres­sion and choke­hold; police wives protest with plac­ards “Blue Lives Mat­ter” (“White Lives Mat­ter” might have been seen as too provoca­tive) mim­ic­k­ing the “Black Lives Mat­ter” coda. While oth­ers trans­late the coda into “All Lives Mat­ter,” deflect­ing from black vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and agency.

For spec­ta­cles to usurp the pub­lic stage and deflect from seri­ous debates, there must be spec­ta­tors and per­form­ers. For debates to dom­i­nate the pub­lic are­na and fos­ter strate­gies and the imple­men­ta­tion of use­ful plans, there must be lead­er­ship based on demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er that moves beyond the elites. Such lead­er­ship would not be self-serv­ing or prag­mat­i­cal­ly oppor­tunis­tic, with a vision lim­it­ed by lib­er­al­ism or neo­rad­i­cal­ism, such lead­er­ship would be inspired by an agi­tat­ed mass that may or may not see eye-to-eye with par­venu (ivy-trained) or pari­ah (less­er edu­cat­ed) pro­fes­sion­al lead­ers.

Lead­er­ship has to deliv­er in order to com­mand loy­al­ty. The rise and fall of fund­ing for social wel­fare pro­grams seems to fol­low at times the rise and fall of riots, as Fran­cis Fox Piv­en and Richard Cloward argue in Reg­u­lat­ing the Poor. Fund­ing in the absence of inci­sive analy­ses and agency is not suf­fi­cient to dis­tract from trau­ma­tiz­ing spec­ta­cles replayed con­stant­ly through mem­o­ries and on screens. Nar­ra­tives and visu­als rad­i­cal­ized seg­ments of the pub­lic (some pre­pared by aca­d­e­m­ic texts on mass incar­cer­a­tion). Michael Brown’s body lies in the streets for hours with­out com­fort from and to fam­i­ly. Tamir Rice stomps on snow­balls, points a toy gun at the sky and sev­er­al pedes­tri­ans, sits under a gaze­bo by him­self, stands up as a police car races onto the pavil­ion and is shot in sec­onds by police who offer no assis­tance to the twelve year old, yet tack­le his teen sis­ter who runs to his aid and hand­cuff her in the back of the police car; a fed­er­al detec­tive pass­ing by gives the CPR that police are not legal­ly oblig­at­ed to admin­is­ter; the boy dies. Eric Gar­ner pants “I can’t breathe” near­ly a dozen times while white men pin him to the con­crete; lat­er only Ram­sey Orta, the Lati­no friend of Gar­ner, who filmed, denounced and shared the killing with the pub­lic is indict­ed on an alleged gun pos­ses­sion charge. John Craw­ford, toy gun in hand, does pre-Christ­mas shop­ping in Wal­mart, in an aisle where fam­i­lies stand unalarmed at their carts, and is shot moments lat­er by Ohio police in a state that legal­izes uncon­cealed weapons (else­where in the store run­ning, fran­ti­cal­ly escap­ing gun­fire, a white shop­per, Angela Williams, suf­fers a fatal heart attack lat­er ruled a homi­cide).

These graph­ic illus­tra­tions of ghost­ing black life and col­lat­er­al dam­age to non­black life coex­ist with data on incar­cer­a­tion and polic­ing that is less vis­i­bly embod­ied but equal­ly dis­turb­ing. With 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed, the Unit­ed States has 5% of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion and 25% of its pris­on­ers; blacks are near­ly 50% of the incar­cer­at­ed. Racial dis­par­i­ties abound: whites are five times more like­ly to use drugs yet blacks are ten times more like­ly to be impris­oned for drugs; blacks’ state prison sen­tences for drug offens­es is only slight­ly less than the sen­tences whites serve for vio­lent offens­es (five years plus). Penal cap­tiv­i­ty sta­bi­lizes the mid­dle class and upper class with jobs that fac­to­ry work and indus­try no longer can pro­vide.4 Polic­ing and incar­cer­a­tion also pro­vide eco­nom­ic growth for investors and pro­fes­sion­al crit­ics. Inter­ra­cial­ly and intrara­cial­ly, vio­lence and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion are uneven­ly dis­trib­uted.  Strate­gies to redress these inequities often seem super­fi­cial and under­fund­ed, yet pro­gres­sives are told to work hard­er for change. Of course, this state of affairs, a cri­sis in trans­for­ma­tive lead­er­ship, did not hap­pen by acci­dent.

Robber Barons and the Talented Tenths

Dur­ing Recon­struc­tion, the con­vict prison lease sys­tem emerged in which blacks were essen­tial­ly worked to death, with a life expectan­cy short­er than that of the plantation—they died for min­ing, lum­ber, and the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the South.5 Rob­ber barons expand­ed their great wealth (J.P. Mor­gan had been a war prof­i­teer dur­ing the civ­il war).6 They took a frac­tion of that wealth accrued from the post­bel­lum black slav­ery of penal servi­tude (legal­ized through the 13th amend­ment) and endowed edu­ca­tion­al indus­tries to train the tal­ent­ed tenth. The black tal­ent­ed tenth has its pro­to­type in every ethnic/racial group­ing. Phil­an­thropy frac­tion­at­ed black lead­er­ship, but not just black lead­er­ship. Cor­po­rate lead­ers Rock­e­feller, Carnegie, Cor­nell and oth­ers fund­ed col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (most car­ry their names) that are pre­dom­i­nate­ly white and work to main­tain a social order con­trolled by cor­po­rate elites who redi­rect law, gov­ern­ment and police-mil­i­tary pow­er in their favor. Their train­ing of the edu­cat­ed class would influ­ence the mul­ti­ple frac­tions of lead­er­ship that con­sti­tut­ed a com­plex oppo­si­tion to racism and pover­ty.

The Amer­i­can Bap­tist Home Mis­sion Soci­ety (ABHMS), fund­ed by cor­po­rate mag­nates, coined the term “tal­ent­ed tenth” in 1896. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s alma mater, More­house Col­lege, is named in hon­or of ABHMS sec­re­tary Hen­ry More­house. The equal­ly pres­ti­gious Atlanta Spel­man Col­lege is named after the wife of John D. Rock­e­feller, Lau­ra Spel­man. In the­o­ry, the worst effects of racist oppres­sion and pover­ty are mit­i­gat­ed by the phil­an­thropic inter­ven­tion of cap­i­tal­ists. In prac­tice, their wealth, derived from exploita­tion and degra­da­tion of work­ers and neoslaves, uses police-mil­i­tary vio­lence and law for main­te­nance and expan­sion.7

With the 1903 pub­li­ca­tion of “The Tal­ent­ed Tenth” in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) became tem­porar­i­ly a pro­mot­er of a tal­ent­ed tenth of “race” men and women mod­el­ing the path for a democ­ra­cy against the “col­or line.” This for­mal­ly edu­cat­ed black lead­er­ship cadre based in elit­ism and race man­age­ment, fund­ed by blacks as well as state largesse and pri­vate bene­fac­tors, was trained to remain with south­ern, his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges, in order to serve as both a mod­el for minori­ties and a buffer zone between eman­ci­pat­ed blacks and the white elite and mid­dle class. Out­mi­gra­tion, deseg­re­ga­tion, and affir­ma­tive action lib­er­at­ed it and like­ly dilut­ed its his­tor­i­cal man­date as rec­og­nized “race lead­er­ship.” Fil­tered increas­ing­ly through main­stream col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, the man­date of ser­vice trumped activism, par­tic­u­lar­ly rad­i­cal activism, which seemed unschol­ar­ly and “biased.”

Many con­ve­nient­ly for­get that Du Bois lat­er dis­missed the tal­ent­ed tenth as oppor­tunis­tic and self-serv­ing, and why he recant­ed. With Fisk degrees and a Har­vard Ph.D., Du Bois had an inside track on the tal­ent­ed tenth. Less­er-edu­cat­ed blacks might ide­al­ize this for­ma­tion as a set of impor­tant celebri­ties (albeit minor ones in rela­tion to artists, enter­tain­ers, and sports heroes). Lib­er­al whites and the tenth them­selves might view them, as Du Bois once did, as a “cred­it to their race,” work­ing in the inter­ests of progress. But elites are human; they work with­in polit­i­cal economies. They have desires and needs; and they want to be paid.

In some ways, Du Bois com­mit­ted caste sui­cide as an aca­d­e­m­ic, and main­stream pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tu­al. Notwith­stand­ing his judg­men­tal study on impov­er­ished blacks in Philadel­phia, as he stood clos­er in sol­i­dar­i­ty to mass black suf­fer­ing, he devel­oped a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of the (self-)conceit of frac­tion­at­ed lead­er­ship, see­ing the tenth as a byprod­uct of racial cap­i­tal­ism and con­sumerism. His mem­oirs note that when the U.S. gov­ern­ment tar­get­ed him for his com­mu­nism and inter­na­tion­al­ism, the black mid­dle class strayed while black trade union­ists stayed with him. He reflects upon his ouster from the NAACP, due to his advo­ca­cy for eco­nom­ic jus­tice, lament­ing the absence of rad­i­cal peers. This is sad­ly iron­ic, giv­en his mar­gin­al­iza­tion years ear­li­er of anti-lynch­ing cru­sad­er and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Ida B. Wells from the found­ing of the NAACP.  Wells’s affin­i­ty for, and prox­im­i­ty to, black suf­fer­ing was embed­ded in an incen­di­ary pen and voice. She once dis­guised her­self as a labor­er to enter pris­ons to take the tes­ti­monies of black males await­ing legal lynch­ing. Wells had frac­tion­at­ed the tal­ent­ed tenth by being an immense­ly tal­ent­ed, large­ly self-taught intel­lec­tu­al, trau­ma­tized by fam­i­ly loss into a con­fronta­tion­al rad­i­cal­ism at odds with more afflu­ent and assim­i­lat­ed blacks. She was nei­ther cor­rupt­ed nor coopt­ed by for­mal pow­er. Her frac­tion of the tal­ent­ed tenth was out­side of offi­cial­dom. Unau­tho­rized, it was mar­gin­al­ized for an affin­i­ty to the needs of the most vul­ner­a­ble, poor­er blacks for whom Wells had great demands, but also much respect, too much to try to man­age them. Ida B. Wells’s resis­tance became an art form, an impres­sive shield against state-sanc­tioned vio­lence imped­ing grass­roots strug­gles.

On 50th Anniversaries

In 1965, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son rep­re­sent­ed an inter­de­pen­dent rela­tion between the gov­ern­ment and the civ­il rights move­ment that led to the sign­ing of the 1965 vot­er rights act, recent­ly weak­ened by the 2013 Supreme Court Shel­by Coun­ty vs. Hold­er.

Over the course of his remain­ing years, King became more close­ly aligned with grass­roots activists and pub­licly reject­ed cap­i­tal­ism and the impe­ri­al­ist U.S. war in Viet­nam (55 thou­sand Amer­i­cans and 2 mil­lion Viet­namese died as the war drained pub­lic cof­fers of fund­ing for the “Great Soci­ety” pro­grams). Con­se­quent­ly, King’s polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sup­port from gov­ern­ment, cor­po­rate fun­ders, and the mid­dle class (black and non­black) dis­si­pat­ed. Like Ida B. Wells, King had frac­tion­at­ed the tal­ent­ed tenth with the desires of poor and col­o­nized peo­ple. They became his inspi­ra­tion of a mate­ri­al­ized spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Rad­i­cal­ized fac­tions with­in the tal­ent­ed tenth orga­nized and exe­cut­ed polit­i­cal con­fronta­tions that made progress pos­si­ble.8

Diver­si­ty and inte­gra­tion became the offi­cial prize for those strug­gles. Diver­si­ty offers sta­bil­i­ty for a social order rid­dled by racism; it does not nec­es­sar­i­ly offer sol­i­dar­i­ty with the poor. Part of the man­date of tal­ent­ed tenths (in their mul­ti-racial, cross-class and -sex­u­al­i­ty plu­ral­i­ties) is that they epit­o­mize respon­si­ble change: noth­ing to the “left,” or inde­pen­dent of their exten­sion of offi­cial­dom, should accrue polit­i­cal val­ue. King began to con­demn cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, and as had Du Bois, saw civ­il rights bridges to the main­stream being burned by lib­er­als. (They would be rebuilt after his death, and his voice of rea­son and pas­sion extend­ing civ­il rights into human rights and domes­tic into for­eign poli­cies was large­ly silenced.)

In 1963, Mal­colm X pub­licly crit­i­cized an assas­si­nat­ed pres­i­dent who was cau­tious­ly mov­ing towards civ­il rights. Mal­colm out­raged whites and alien­at­ed blacks in mourn­ing when he referred to John F. Kennedy’s death as “chick­ens com­ing home to roost.” That utter­ance allud­ed to alleged CIA involve­ment in the coup assas­si­na­tion of African inde­pen­dence leader Patrice Lumum­ba, who briefly served as the first Prime Min­is­ter of the Repub­lic of Con­go. Reserv­ing his grief for the black lives that mat­tered most to him, Malcolm’s lead­er­ship was splin­tered off from the Nation of Islam. That painful event allowed Mal­colm X to grow into Malik El-Shabazz. Mal­colm was the mas­ter of trau­mat­ic rein­ven­tion. Before assas­si­na­tion, he had sur­vived parental loss, dis­mem­ber­ment of fam­i­ly, fos­ter care, crim­i­nal­i­ty and pimp­ing, incar­cer­a­tion, dem­a­goguery, sex­ism, chau­vin­ism. Even as a child, Mal­colm seems to have been an old spir­it, famil­iar with sor­row, tears, and blood. Like the oth­er male lead­ers who frac­tion­at­ed the tal­ent­ed tenth, he was not a saint, but his risk-tak­ing love for peo­ple trans­formed and inspired lives.9

The mys­tique of the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion began after the 1963 assas­si­na­tion, and con­tin­ued as Kennedy was cul­tur­al­ly enshrined as a hero of civ­il rights. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son had Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. as teacher and co-archi­tect of pas­sage of the 1965 vot­ing rights act. King was a pub­lic crit­ic of Johnson’s domes­tic and for­eign poli­cies. Their rela­tion­ship went beyond the­atre. Mass move­ments kept it hon­est; suf­fer­ing and moral­i­ty demand­ed more. King’s assas­si­na­tion in 1968 hor­ri­fied a nation in which most elites had fad­ed as he marched with san­i­ta­tion work­ers and poor peo­ple. No coun­ter­parts to Mar­tin and Mal­colm exist today. That was then; this is now. Yet, domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al human rights con­tin­ue to demand oppo­si­tion to police vio­lence, drone killings of civil­ians, tor­ture, the fund­ing of geno­ci­dal occu­pa­tions while oppos­ing Palestine’s entry into the UN Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court.

The space between Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Mal­colm X, whose ini­tial­ly diver­gent pol­i­tics con­verged to inspire free­dom move­ments half a cen­tu­ry after their assas­si­na­tions, can­not be mea­sured. There is a wealth of pos­si­bil­i­ty in their dis­tance from each oth­er and the bridges that can be built between these two icons. To a sig­nif­i­cant degree, these hero­ic insid­ers who became larg­er than life out­siders are in con­stant con­ver­sa­tion. Which is a relief: it removes the bur­den­some fix­a­tion on the space between Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Rev­erend Al Sharp­ton, whose con­ver­gent pol­i­tics priv­i­lege the move­ments they can man­age. Such move­ments do not pos­sess the capac­i­ty for an expan­sive con­cept for change.

Infinity in Between the Fractions

With the cho­rus “Them reg­u­lar trade­mark!,” musi­cian-activist Fela Kuti’s 1977 Sor­row, Tears, and Blood chron­i­cles police-army vio­lence against cit­i­zen artists and gov­ern­ment oppo­si­tion. Fela was politi­cized by his moth­er, Fun­mi­layo Ran­some-Kuti (1900-1978),10 and his African-Amer­i­can lover San­dra Isadore. As an artist-activist, Isadore intro­duced him to the writ­ings of Mal­colm X. With lyrics that describe how oppressed peo­ple focus on per­son­al achievements—babies, par­ties, new homes, wealth—Fela argues that this focus diverts from or masks fears of fight­ing for jus­tice and free­dom-as-hap­pi­ness; these fears are root­ed in the poten­tial loss of access, afflu­ence, and safe­ty stem­ming from resis­tance.  Fela’s video mon­tage, Sor­row, Tears, and Blood, opens with a gold­en por­trait of the sax­o­phone play­er stand­ing under the ban­ner “Black Pres­i­dent,” an unof­fi­cial exec­u­tive pre­sid­ing over an embat­tled peo­ple. It ends with his asser­tion: “Music is the weapon of the future.”11

A tal­ent­ed musi­cian, Fela achieved celebri­ty sta­tus inde­pen­dent of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship roles, he merged art with pol­i­tics. When Fela frac­tion­ates the African and Niger­ian tal­ent­ed tenths, as a rad­i­cal mem­ber, he replaces mis­sion­ary ori­gins with Orisha, Afrobeat, and guer­ril­la the­atre. With no pub­lic image or rat­ings to main­tain, he and his col­lab­o­ra­tors pur­sue con­vic­tions out­side of con­ven­tion­al soci­ety, cre­at­ing “The Move­ment of the Peo­ple.” Their fail­ings, imper­fec­tions, con­tra­dic­tions, like those of W.E.B. Du Bois, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Mal­colm X, have been and will be sub­ject to cri­tique. It is impor­tant to note that giv­en that they did not seek gov­ern­men­tal pow­ers, none of these lead­ers had to devel­op a plan for lib­er­al­ism in an apartheid state—as did Nel­son Man­dela, whose last prison, a spa­cious home with a swim­ming pool and white ser­vants (and guards), held reg­u­lar meet­ings with Afrikan­er lead­ers and cap­i­tal­ists that shaped the tra­jec­to­ry of pover­ty for black South Africa. Fela, as an unof­fi­cial pres­i­dent, belonged to the aber­ra­tional tal­ent­ed tenth, that frac­tion of elites that accept­ed polit­i­cal tute­lage from “below,” and was trans­formed into cre­ativ­i­ty.

Lead­er­ship is frac­tion­at­ed by prox­im­i­ty to suf­fer­ing. Depart­ing from the cho­rus in har­mo­ny with lib­er­al cor­po­rate-state spon­sors, hear­ing the cri­tiques of rad­i­cal coun­ter­parts, refus­ing the dis­ci­pli­nary func­tion of role mod­els, allows a mass lead­er­ship of peo­ple strug­gling in cross­fires (misog­y­ny, homo­pho­bia, col­orism, and clas­sism) to resist con­flat­ing respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics with free­dom, and resist append­ing the title of “best and the bright­est” to those most dis­ci­plined and incen­tivized to con­form to insti­tu­tion­al instruc­tion. Col­lec­tivism cel­e­brates the bril­liance of the wild card. The gifts of the “rab­ble” can frac­tion­ate elit­ism and flood the mar­ket with tal­ents that can­not be eas­i­ly sold.

What­ev­er fac­tions or frac­tions we belong to, we can devel­op a keen­er under­stand­ing that, despite indi­vid­ual per­son­al char­ac­ter, as a group, elite lead­er­ship by itself lacks polit­i­cal will to self-divest of its eco­nom­ic and exis­ten­tial inter­ests cul­ti­vat­ed by the barons. The tal­ent­ed tenths are not designed to change, and so by them­selves are inca­pable of alter­ing, the tra­jec­to­ry of a nation­al econ­o­my based in con­cen­trat­ed cap­i­tal, a pro­cliv­i­ty for war for cap­i­tal, and a rewrit­ing of his­tor­i­cal strug­gles of democ­ra­cy that make elites the “nat­ur­al” lead­ers of progress. Tal­ent­ed tenths need to be frac­tion­at­ed by col­lec­tiv­i­ties that under­stand that the call for “jobs,” if sev­ered from rad­i­cal eco­nom­ic jus­tice, will mean more jobs guard­ing pris­on­ers and bor­ders, mil­i­ta­riz­ing police, deploy­ing troops. With­out rad­i­cal agency, employ­ment remains linked to cap­tiv­i­ty and vio­lence. Street rebel­lions cause us to pause and reflect; but in the absence of expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge about orga­niz­ing they may become texts for lead­er­ship stud­ies that reify or obscure rad­i­cal­ism.12

There are end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties with­in and between the tal­ents of lead­ers who emerge, one after anoth­er, in our col­lec­tive treks towards free­dom. Some say that there are two types of infin­i­ty, a less­er and a greater one. The less­er is the sequen­tial march of lead­ers. The greater infin­i­ty exists with­in the expanse between lead­ers. Those infi­nite spaces for free­dom exist with­in the gaps between lead­ers, beyond the con­trol of fun­ders or the cor­po­rate state. That is where rad­i­cals work, frac­tion­at­ing the tal­ent­ed tenths, explor­ing the void, and fab­ri­cat­ing armor for the future.

Afterword: A Response to Viewpoint

Thank you for your insight­ful queries; hope­ful­ly, the fol­low­ing address­es some con­cerns.

Yes, the prox­im­i­ty of Wells, Du Bois, MLK, and Mal­colm to black pover­ty and suf­fer­ing enabled them to “frac­tion­ate” the Tal­ent­ed Tenth in dif­fer­ent ways. (There is a ver­sion of the “tal­ent­ed tenth” in every ethnic/economic group.) Of the lead­ers cit­ed here, only the mid­dle class ones with Ph.D.’s—Du Bois and King—had to reed­u­cate them­selves in order to increase their analy­sis and agency. For Wells and Mal­colm, their per­son­al and famil­ial strug­gles with dispossession—both were impov­er­ished, self-raised orphaned children—gave them expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge that expand­ed their per­spec­tive, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and pas­sion. Unfil­tered by fam­i­ly struc­ture, mon­ey or caste, the expe­ri­ences of black life are more trau­mat­ic.

Yes, in a con­sumer soci­ety mul­ti-eth­nic elites are alien­at­ed from trau­mat­ic suf­fer­ing tied to pover­ty and racism. Reform seems rea­son­able to some due to their dis­tance from dai­ly den­i­gra­tion and vio­lence. Prac­ti­cal pol­i­tics and free­dom reduced to per­son­al achieve­ment or ide­al­ism become attain­able goals. “Inequal­i­ty” thus becomes a euphemism for oppres­sion. Prof­its from polic­ing, cap­tiv­i­ty, war­fare and mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy go with­out cri­tique in par­ty-dri­ven pol­i­tics. Civil­ian deaths by drones and/or geno­cides ignored by the Unit­ed States seem dis­tract­ing from domes­tic issues. Yet, when cen­turies-old phe­nom­e­na crowd the present moment, suf­fer­ing can frac­tion­ate any orga­nized enti­ty, even those that are “lead­er­less.”

Frac­tion­a­tion hap­pens because black peo­ple are taxed in their desires to love, their chil­dren and their selves. Reform poli­cies do not bring back dead babies, at home or abroad. So the void between loss and jus­tice is not spanned. Leg­isla­tive reg­u­la­tions, or judi­cial inter­pre­ta­tion, police enforce­ment, and man­age­r­i­al alle­vi­a­tion of some forms of stress while insti­tut­ing forms of depen­den­cy and dis­hon­or mean that black fam­i­lies suf­fer for their children’s futures and bat­tle as they bury them. His­to­ry is always instruc­tive.

Ida B. Wells pio­neered an anti-lynch­ing move­ment in 1892 only after the father of her two-year old god­daugh­ter was lynched. Pro­fes­sion­al, fund­ed civ­il-rights lead­er­ship found Wells too dif­fi­cult to deal with in com­bat­ting lynch­ing, although they need­ed her mil­i­tan­cy in order to be effec­tive. Mamie Till defied law and respectabil­i­ty by hav­ing an open cas­ket funer­al for a muti­lat­ed teen mur­dered by self-dep­u­tized whites. Mass atten­dance at Emmett’s Chica­go funer­al in 1955 is now cred­it­ed, com­ing months before Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seg­re­gat­ed seat, as a cat­a­lyst for the mod­ern civ­il rights move­ment. The NAACP tried and failed to man­age Mamie Till’s grief and rage for its leg­isla­tive reform agen­da.

Suf­fer­ing peo­ple resist: they write, sleep, watch screens, self-med­icate, go to the streets—some do all of the above. Resis­tance is spon­ta­neous or orga­nized, or alter­nates between the two. It is nev­er bureau­crat­ic. Bureau­cra­cies do not grieve; they can only offer grief man­age­ment with­in the para­me­ters of exist­ing pro­to­col and reg­u­la­tions. Ten­sions between self-orga­nized, group-cen­tered activism and bureau­crat­ic reforms are inevitable. The spaces between the old and new advo­cates with pub­lic recog­ni­tion can shrink or expand. Activism also can­not raise the dead. Hum­bled by this fact, activists may dis­play a dis­ci­pline and auton­o­my that goes beyond mul­ti­cul­tur­al “tal­ent­ed tenths,” expand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for end­ing vio­lence and neglect.

  1. This reflec­tion focus­es on males; but I rec­og­nize the mater­nal or the black matrix as the basis for change. See Joy James, Seek­ing the Beloved Com­mu­ni­ty, New York: SUNY Press, 2013. 

  2. For a brief com­par­i­son between the 2014 Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Report on Tor­ture and the polic­ing of black Amer­i­cans see, George Yan­cy and Joy James “Black Lives: Between Grief and Action,” “The Opin­ion­a­tor,” The New York Times, 23 Decem­ber, 2014.  

  3. I explore the term “neo­rad­i­cal­ism” in “Rad­i­cal­iz­ing Black Fem­i­nism,” which first appeared in Shad­ow­box­ing: Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black Fem­i­nist Pol­i­tics. Its edit­ed reprint in Seek­ing the Beloved Com­mu­ni­ty, con­tains the fol­low­ing para­graph: ‘Accord­ing to con­sumer advo­cate Ralph Nad­er, being raised in Amer­i­can cul­ture often means “grow­ing up cor­po­rate.’ (For those raised ‘black,’ grow­ing up cor­po­rate in Amer­i­ca means train­ing for the Tal­ent­ed Tenth.) One need not be afflu­ent to grow up cor­po­rate; one need only adopt a man­age­r­i­al style. When merged with rad­i­cal­ism, the man­age­r­i­al ethos pro­duces a ‘neo­rad­i­cal­ism’ that, as a form of com­mer­cial ‘left’ pol­i­tics, emu­lates cor­po­rate struc­tures and behav­ior. As cor­po­rate fun­ders finance ‘rad­i­cal’ con­fer­ences and ‘lec­ture move­ments,’ demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er-shar­ing dimin­ish­es. Rad­i­cal rhetori­cians sup­plant grass­roots orga­niz­ers and polit­i­cal man­agers replace van­guard activists” (59). 

  4. The African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the large­ly black/brown cor­rec­tion offi­cers’ union for NYC Rik­ers Island jail, Nor­man Seabrook, has built a com­fort­able lifestyle through over­see­ing a large com­plex known for its bru­tal­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly against youth of col­or. Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuo­mo has autho­rized leg­is­la­tion to ban hous­ing teenagers in adult pris­ons and peo­ple under 21 in soli­tary con­fine­ment. New York is one of the few states to treat teens as adults and has con­se­quent­ly seen the rise of teen sui­cides in cap­tiv­i­ty as youth too poor to post bail wait for tri­als under hor­ren­dous con­di­tions. 

  5. White phil­an­thropists frac­tion­at­ed black lead­er­ship, and filled a void the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed by reneg­ing on its pro­tec­tion of black life under Recon­struc­tion. The key promise here was safe­ty from racial ter­ror­ists, and the abil­i­ty to work freely. As Du Bois notes in Black Recon­struc­tion (1935), with chap­ters on the “black pro­le­tari­at” and the rein­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery and his­tor­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da, mis­ery fol­lowed eman­ci­pa­tion; fed­er­al inter­ven­tion in the South was in favor of cap­i­tal, not the work­er or labor­er or neoslave. 

  6. Wealthy phil­an­thropists, under­stand­ing them­selves to be with­out peers, offered them­selves as role mod­els and tutors. They ruled empires secu­ri­tized by a state that would not police them, but would deploy vio­lence against those who resist­ed racial cap­i­tal. That his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry con­tin­ues pro­tect­ed by a buffer zone fund­ed by cor­po­rate wealth. 

  7. The 14th amend­ment, designed for eman­ci­pat­ed blacks, grant­ed polit­i­cal per­son­hood to cor­po­ra­tions; thus the U.S. Supreme Court, and also local, state and fed­er­al courts, pro­tect­ed cor­po­rate inter­ests and the exploita­tion of labor. 

  8. Break­ing Jim Crow, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence deter­mined the suc­cess of the civ­il rights move­ments. Activists under­stood that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Edu­ca­tion Supreme Court rul­ing to deseg­re­gate required a move­ment led by black chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, the 1957 Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, inte­gra­tion of schools. 

  9. Decades ago as a sem­i­nar­i­an on a class trip to Puer­to Rico, I met a sen­a­tor, blond, blue-eyed, seem­ing­ly “white,” a Puer­to Rican who spoke about how proud he, as a stu­dent, felt as a black man when Mal­colm X debat­ed at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, mil­i­tant­ly denounc­ing white suprema­cy. 

  10. An “aris­to­crat” by birth, Ran­some-Kuti led reform move­ments in edu­ca­tion, anti-pover­ty ini­tia­tives, women’s rights, before her son became inter­na­tion­al­ly known. Embrac­ing Yoru­ba mar­gin­al­ized her from the polit­i­cal­ly assim­i­lat­ed cul­ture, yet inspired Fela’s music or art as the weapon of the future. 

  11. Arrest­ed and beat­en scores of times, Fela Kuti (1938-1997) lost his moth­er, Fun­mi­layo Ran­some-Kuti, months after army troops beat and threw her out of a win­dow dur­ing a raid on his com­pound. The Niger­ian gov­ern­ment vio­lent­ly repressed Fela, his fam­i­ly, and loved ones, along with oth­er polit­i­cal vic­tims. Still Fela’s cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal move­ments against (neo)colonialism and state cor­rup­tion were influ­en­tial. He qual­i­fied as an inter­na­tion­al mem­ber of the “tal­ent­ed tenth” with pres­ti­gious fam­i­ly, and a Lon­don edu­ca­tion at Trin­i­ty Col­lege, but left him­self vul­ner­a­ble through rad­i­cal advo­ca­cy. 

  12. In acad­e­mia, pol­i­tics may be over­ly tex­tu­al. One can assign Assa­ta: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, by the for­mer Black Pan­ther leader Assa­ta Shakur, a fugi­tive in Cuba who escaped from a U.S. prison in the late 1970s and main­tains that she was false­ly accused of killing a troop­er, and a tar­get of the FBI’s mur­der­ous COINTELPRO polic­ing. At the same time, one might hes­i­tate as fac­ul­ty to orga­nize a teach-in about the sig­nif­i­cance of the FBI plac­ing Shakur on it ter­ror list along­side mem­bers of Al-Qae­da. That list presents as a drone kill list. Trag­i­cal­ly, thou­sands of civil­ians have been killed by U.S. drones in the Mid­dle East, more than died from ter­ror­ism on 9/11. 

Author of the article

is author of Seeking the Beloved Community, and teaches political science and social justice theories at Williams College.