From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans stands as the magisterial study of the American black experience by the late Pr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) and Pr. Alfred A. Moss Jr. It was a revelation when it appeared in 1947. He followed up with several and many articles on Reconstruction, the martial culture of the antebellum South, runaway slaves and other subjects. Each one is a model of graceful prose, meticulously documented and free of bias or cant. The quality of Mr. Franklin’s writings made him the first black chairman of a history department at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College, in 1956. Later came appointments at the University of Chicago and Duke, and teaching assignments at Howard and Cambridge universities and elsewhere. Along the way he assisted Thurgood Marshall’s legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, served in government and accumulated more academic honors than we have space to mention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I am reacting here briefly to the transcript of the interview called “A Frank Conversation with a White Nationalist.” Although not not an empty talk the exchange reads like a polite but vague conversation. It fails to turn into an articulate and meaningful dialog. Its flaw lays in its weakness and even lack of historical perspective.
It is true that the journalist, Al Letson, and his interlocutor, Richard Spencer, met the day after the Republican candidate’s shocking Electoral College victory that made Donald Trump president-elect of the USA.
However, the atmosphere of the electoral upset, it was incumbent on them to acknowledge and explore better the complexities of such loaded topics as identity, race, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. Instead, they went for clichés, wrong assumptions, and somewhat shallow personal stories.
For instance, the two interlocutors agree —not surprisingly— on the contribution of Blacks in the making of American culture. Unfortunately, and due to its entertainment undertones —not to forget the association with sports—, this recognition is nothing but a stereotype. Because we know that real power is not in music and athletic achievement; it is in economics, finances, banking, science, and technology.
So what do I see as hits and misses by Al Letson and Richard Spencer respectively?
As an investigative journalist, Mr. Letson did not bring up the stronger arguments. Instead, he limited himself in reminding Richard Spencer of the Ku Klux-Klan and its terrorist lynching raids. Oddly, a word search of the interview show that Al fails to mention Slavery altogether. Yet, African bondage has been often and appropriately called America’s original sin, by President Obama. Is it merely coincidental that it was during his stewardship that such movies as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, etc., were produced and realized? Probably not. And it was obviously not serendipity but rather a fitting reunion when former President G.W. Bush joined Obama in the inauguration of the African-American Museum of History and Culture back in September The latter finished the project that the former had started.
Therefore, African-American media professionals like Al Letson ought to study as hard as they can African-American history, sociology, economy, political science, linguistics, etc. Such an activity nurtures the mind and helps—among other things—to debunk the myths of white supremacy. They prepare and empower African-American scholars, journalists and artists as they seek to engage and refute the views of the likes of Richard Spencer.
The other Achille’s heel in Al Letson argumentation is that he does not draw Richard Spencer’s attention that oppression engenders resistance and rebellion. And that African-Americans stood up against slavery. They fought heroically to end it during the Civil War. They challenged Jim Crow. Under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others, they defeated legal segregation in 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and in 1965 (Voting Rights Act). Incidentally, Richard Spencer refers to the 1964 legislation as Immigration. That’s a mistake.
The bottom line is that, through and through, Blacks were neither submissive nor passive. Strong personalities and fearless leaders emerged and blazed the trail of no-surrender, insurrection and entrepreneurship right in Antebellum America. Among them Toussaint-Louverture (Haiti), Abdul-Rahman (from my native Fuuta-Jalon), Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and so many others.Their successors fought for the end of the abomination of slavery and to assert their humanity. And Whites and Jews showed solidarity all along. Quakers, intellectuals, politicians joined the anti-slavery movement, which peaked with John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.…
Mr. Spencer’s intellectual handicap and judgemental predicaments are many. I list here some of them.
First, he suffers from the delusion that Whites, Blacks, Asians, etc. constitute separate races. Never mind that such a prejudice is deep-seated. Genomics has dispelled it thoroughly. There is only one species, and that’s Humans, aka Homo sapiens? Even it still applies in culture, politics and in administration, it does not hold water in nature and in biological sciences.
Second, Richard has the illusion that Whites are homogeneous. But history belies that wrong premise. The elites, rulers and states of Germanic, Latin and Slavs peoples and countries have fought many a battle for political and economic power, as well as for cultural dominance. Three examples:
- Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812
- His battle against Wellington in Waterloo (1815)
- Hiter’s occupation of Poland, France, and Nazi partition of the latter in two territories during World War II
Richard Spencer does not seem to know that without African —slave and colonial—labor, neither Europe nor America would have gained such prosperity. He ought to read Edward Baptiste’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And Thomas Piketty. Capital in the 21st Century.
Third, Richard Spencer idealizes and idolizes the history of Europe. He is entitled to his opinion, but not to the facts. Before it spread its tentacles on the Southern Hemisphere of the Globe, capitalism began to wreak havoc at home. Again Richard should read the masterpieces of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and other works that depict the miseries brought upon Europe by the rise of capitalism. Writing in the 20th century, historian Eric Hobsbawn has laid bare the lows and highs of the Industrial Revolution.
Fourth, for all its scientific and cultural achievements Europe was the matrix of the first (1914-1918) and the second (1939-1945) World Wars. The horrors of WWI led European artists, writers and poets to express their rejection of Western civilization and to seek inspiration elsewhere. Their quest was fulfilled by the so-called primitive arts of Africa and Oceania. Thus was born surrealism, dadaism. Then the Harlem Renaissance flourished. It carried on and elevated centuries of blacks’ struggled against racism and exclusion in the United States of America. Young African and Caribbean scholars in Paris followed suit with the Négritude movement, a trailblazer of the emancipation of Africa from colonial rule.… In essence, the Surrealism—Harlem Renaissance—Négritude chain underscores how societies and people are interrelated and interdependent, irrespective of skin color or “racial” background… And, in particular, it illustrates the ties that bind the intelligentsia, as well as literary, artistic and scientific trends and currents, in time and space.
That said, on January 20, 2017 Mr. Trump will have executive control of the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Should that lethal armory be—accidentally or willfully—unleashed and retaliated against, it will wipe human life off the planet, sparing no one, including the advocates of racial supremacy or ethnic superiority.
In the end, Al Letson does not introduce Richard Spencer adequately to the audience of his podcast. We are only told that he was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Texas, and that he likes mountain biking! That’s not enough to profile the carrier of a hostile ideology. The interview could have disclosed further information about the white nationalist’s education, profession, intellectual background and political connections.
But since Al Leston and Richard Spencer remain in touch, let’s hope to learn more about this supporter of president-elect Donald Trump .
Tierno S. Bah