U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Randall Kennedy and the Continuing Project of Racial Liberalism

The most recent issue of the Boston Review includes a provocative review essay by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. In the essay, Kennedy assails what he interprets as a recent historiographic trend that praises the exploits of prominent Black Nationalists Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. Kennedy’s reviews of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Peniel Joseph’s Stokely: A Life, and Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire¸ all reveal a discomfort with the praise the books offer for these complicated historical figures. For Kennedy, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton were nothing more than, at best, misguided young men handed a prominent media stage too early in their lives. At worst, they were Black Nationalists who accomplished little and, in fact, rendered more harm than good to the greater African American freedom struggle.

His descriptions of each work are, to say the least, unsparing in their criticism. On Marable’s Malcolm X book, Kennedy wrote: “He accords to his hero a stature in memory that he lacked in history.”[1] On Joseph’s Carmichael biography: “His biography of Carmichael, however, is not nearly as informative as it should be.”[2] Finally, his take on Black Against Empire can be summed up in this statement: “But Bloom and Martin’s effort to rehabilitate the Panthers’ reputation founders on tendentious advocacy.”[3] Kennedy understands why historians have attempted a course correction in the portrayal of Black Power in recent years. But his review essay is not just about that historiographic trend, or even Black Power itself.

This essay cannot, and should not, be read separately from Kennedy’s other recent works about race in the Age of Barack Obama. In recent years, Kennedy has mounted a forceful defense of racial liberalism—against both conservatives and, it seems more often, African American intellectuals to his political left. As intellectual historians, we should take stock of what Kennedy has argued in his books and essays since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as examples of the enduring Black liberal tradition. No less important than the Black radical tradition, the liberal tradition often attempts to work within Randall Kennedy Picthe system and gain change that way. A definition of this system can be found in Kennedy’s own essay from The American Prospect’s Fall 2014 issue, “Black America’s Promised Land: Why I am Still a Racial Optimist” (italics in the original title).[4]

Kennedy argues that the history of Black American thought about the United States can be boiled down to two groups: racial pessimists and racial optimists. While I find this argument to be slightly simplistic, it is worth considering who Kennedy argues are pessimists and optimists throughout American history. He labels individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey to be important examples of pessimists. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Booker T. Washington are just a few of the racial optimists with whom Kennedy makes common cause. An analysis of the full lists Kennedy provides would be rich fuel for another blog post, but at this moment it’s important to emphasize how Kennedy views most Black radicals within this tradition. In full, let me quote Kennedy on why racial optimism is best:

“Although complacency nourished by an overly rosy view of racial affairs is a real danger, I stand by my conviction that a clear-eyed assessment favors black optimist. Who, after all, have been the figures most beneficial to blacks? Was it the Martin Delany who decamped for Africa, thinking America to be irremediably racist? Or was it the Martin Delany who returned, recruited blacks for the Union, and participating significantly in Southern politics during Reconstruction? Was it the pre-1966 Stokely Carmichael who sang “We Shall Overcome” in the splendid early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)? Or was it the post-1966 Stokley Carmichael (later renamed Kwame Ture) whose impatient bitterness helped to destroy the SNCC and rationalize an indulgent exile to Guinea that squandered a substantial talent?[5] (emphasis mine)

The Obama years have born witness to an increasingly public rift between black liberals and black leftists. That rift was always there—just think, as an example, of the arguments over tactics and strategy amongst intellectuals and activists during the Civil Rights Movement. But Kennedy’s writings, in particular, have argued against racial pessimism and beg readers to instead realize that the nation has taken great strides against racism in recent decades. To do this, Kennedy finds himself time and again criticizing both today’s black radicals (Cornel West comes to mind) and those of the recent past. But he also takes to task a much more personal, and no less aggressive, distrust of American society that he witnessed from his own father.

In Persistence of the Color Line (2011) Kennedy devotes an entire chapter to musings on African American patriotism. He acknowledges the complicated story of African American service in the military, arguing, “Why, one might ask, should we celebrate blacks’ participation in cruel wars of conquest or colonial misadventures?”[6] It’s a tricky ideal, Kennedy acknowledges, filled with fealty to United States born out of a yearning for equality before the law and unabashedly first-class citizenship. His father’s views on the nation, like that of so many older African American men alive today, was born out of experiences in the Jim Crow era. “My father eschewed any sentimental bond with the American government or the American nation. He rejected patriotism,” Kennedy wrote.[7] This, from a man whose life story—military service, work as a post-office clerk, children who went to Ivy League schools—would fulfill the requirements of the American Dream.

Kennedy is fighting a battle on behalf of racial liberalism on multiple fronts: against black leftists within the academy, black radicals from the past, and individuals who aren’t quite as powerful but, like his father and like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, remember all too well the recent history of Jim Crow and white backlash. The entirety of Kennedy’s work places him firmly within a black liberal tradition, one that both takes pride in the election of Barack Obama and wishes he would do more—yet is also critical of forces to its left demanding the president do even still more.

One final thought: it will be interesting to see where historians of the African American experience go next with Black Power. Last week I wrote about Kiese Laymon and Paul Beatty’s literature as indicative of the ideological confusion of the post-civil rights era. But it’s just as important that we get right the richness of the ideological diversity among black activists in politicians from the civil rights time period. Otherwise, we risk missing an important lesson that is all too invisible in contemporary debates about Black American political participation: the wide range of viewpoints among African Americans.

[1] Randall Kennedy, “Protesting Too Much: The Trouble With Black Power Revisionism,” Boston Review, March/April 2015, p. 38-48, quote on pg. 42.

[2] Kennedy, 44.

[3] Kennedy, 46.

[4] Randall Kennedy, “Black America’s Promised Land: Why I am Still a Racial Optimist,” The American Prospect, Fall 2014, p. 22-29. It’s also important to note Kennedy’s essay in Harper’s magazine from last summer, “The Civil Rights Act’s Unsung Victory,” June 2014, where he also talks about the greatness of racial liberalism in achieving serious reform.

[5] “Black America’s Promised Land,” p. 28.

[6] Randall Kennedy. The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, (New York: Random House, 2011), p 154. Important to note that I’m using the Nook e-book version, so page numbers will more than likely not correspond with the physical version of the book.

[7] The Persistence of the Color Line, 165.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Excellent critique, you remind me at the same time that I need to read Waldo Martin. I wouldn’t describe either Marable or Joseph’s books as mere praise for their figures of study; that’s quite an unfair representation of what they are trying to do. Both books offer nuanced criticism of their subjects, their choices, and their ideas, even as there is also fair points on how we can learn from how Malcolm X and Carmichael worked at the level of community (the only issue I had with Stokely: A Life was with how it dealt with gender relations, it seemed to me Joseph could have done a better job at thinking about how dynamics of masculinity and power were performed in the life of his subject).

    At the same time, if we can extract something from Kennedy is the importance of not painting overly romanticized images of leaders like Carmichael–and subaltern communities in general–when counterposing them to the powers that be (empire, racism, etc.). I am always trying to deal with this question because in destroying dominant myths–in mainstream culture and in academia–there’s always the risk of building new myths (if you will, counter-myths).

    • I wouldn’t describe the books as those either, and in Kennedy’s defense, he does state that all three books do offer some nuance in terms of the subjects they study. But for him, the nuance isn’t enough. For example, his treatment of Marable’s Malcolm X book boils down to: yes, Marable offers a complicated portrait of an important figure, but he still slides into hagiography by the end of the biography. So it is, in Kennedy’s eyes, with Joseph’s book on Carmichael and especially with “Black Against Empire.”

      And your point about counter-myths is a good one. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that Kennedy is probably trying to argue against the creation of a counter-myth that privileges Black Power at the expense of the “classic” version of the Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1965. Of course, I think it’s a mistake to separate the two movements this much–you had so many folks, for instance, who easily fit into both camps (Carmichael for one) during different moments in their careers–but in many ways it’s good to see historians still debating the finer points of these movements and their legacies.

      • Thanks for the clarification, I should have read the review beforehand, dumb person that I am! A question for Kennedy would be then if there’s something we can learn and apply in the present from the mid-60s politics of Carmichael and Malcolm, which is what Marable and Joseph propose in the end. Is such a proposal necessarily anachronistic or presentist? My understanding of temporality is not linear, so I do think that even if in discursively–how they represent the historical past—such proposals can be criticized as anachronistic or presentist there is still the possibility of shaping a politics by learning through both the successes and limitations of such figures, stressing always the latter (I think for example of tracing a genalogy of leadership and how activists today are advocating for more inclusive, open-ended practices of leadership). This of course connects with the importance of engaging with, like you say, “the wide range of viewpoints among African Americans” and other subaltern voices in the US.

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