I am not a great fan of the older generation bemoaning the limitations of the younger one. I am not at all sure, as some of my peers are, that we were more curious than they are, read more, were smarter, more engaged, more mature. With this in mind, I generally don’t tell stories about my youthful political experiences. My students know little, if anything, about them. They are a kind of prehistory of my public life. But I am recalling them this week as I realize how important they in fact have been in informing my understanding of politics and the publishing of Public Seminar, and, particularly this week, for my understanding of the long history of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I was once a student radical. Even though I went to the State University in Albany, New York, far from the center of national attention, I came to meet, as a member of a small (at first) reading group, some of the key movement celebrities of the times: Mark Rudd, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and William Kunstler, among others who I cannot now recall. We called ourselves “The New Left Organizing Committee.” We took part in one of the most radical demonstrations of the times, in New Haven, Connecticut, to free Bobby Seale, where we talked to people from the Weather Underground and heard speeches by Abbie Hoffman and Jean Genet, while an armed National Guard waited in the streets and helicopters hovered above. At that demonstration, we committed ourselves to help organize a national demonstration against racism, which, a few days later, happened to coincide with the American escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and the subsequent killings at Kent State. Ready to go, our small group led mass demonstrations that temporarily closed the New York Thruway, and closed the Federal Building of New York State for a day. Our group led a student strike and organized alternative courses. The first class I ever taught was on Herbert Marcuse’s essay on “repressive tolerance,” on the consequences of free speech in class society.
I demonstrated outside the headquarters of the New York State Department of Corrections and briefly occupied its offices immediately after the massacre in Attica, New York. (In the photo below, I am the young man with the huge hair.)
I was in a different group that organized the first “Earth Day.” Radical leftist that I was, I noted that it was also Lenin’s 100th birthday: April 22, 1970. The same year, I took part in the first gay pride march in Albany, along with my friend Joe Borgovini (in the photo above to the right, the man with the longish straight dark hair and the black glasses), who later died from complications due to AIDS. I worked on a newspaper, Bad News, monitored by the FBI, which paid a visit to my apartment to ask apparently innocuous questions about Joe.
I am an aging New Leftist, constant in my central radical commitments, matured, working to enrich them, building upon learning and experience, informed by my own imagination and the imagination of others. As I recall now, unlike some of my more naïve and enthusiastic friends, I never thought the revolution was on the horizon. Their certainty disturbed me. And when some of them started celebrating Chairman Mao, going to the shooting range to prepare themselves for the uprising, while others joined the Communist Party, I was unsettled, bewildered by their authoritarianism. They seemed absurd to me, even funny. Later, when I began to do research in Central Europe, the European killing grounds, I saw how their absurdities mirrored the great tragedies of the 20th century, farce following tragedy. My friends seemed to be clowns, while in Europe there were executioners.
I remember a sobering moment: we were on our way from the University to the Capitol building, protesting the war abroad and domestic injustice. I believe it was on Western Avenue. Working class folks from my neighborhood were on the sidewalk hooting and denouncing us. And I realized that there was something fundamentally problematic going on. Radical change can’t happen against the people for whom you are demonstrating.
The radical engagement and the sobering moment have shaped my political and intellectual orientation ever since, as I have not abandoned the ideals of the left, but have opened myself to insights from people to my left and to my right, and become conversant in academic culture and the cultural world beyond the academy, drawing both from people with experiences very different from mine and from people with whom I share a great deal. It is with this orientation that Public Seminar was formed, and this insight informs my understanding of what we publish from week to week.
A highlight this week was the publication of an excerpt of the book The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea by Chris Lebron, which opened a forum with commentaries from Jenn M. Jackson , Marquis Bey, Deva Woodly , and Lebron himself.
The book is an elegant account of the intellectual struggle supporting the idea that “black lives matter.” Lebron presents a history of this fundamental principle in African American thought. The movement for black lives emerged in response to the disregard for black lives. Lebron tells the story of an ever enriching intellectual project centered on the writings of key public activist–thinker-writers: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Together, Lebron argues, they reveal the shameful distance between the practice and promise of proclaimed American ideals, and go much further. They subvert white commonsense about race relations. They assert the full dignity of black lives in their great diversity, including their gender and sexual identities, and they provide ways to love in the face of suffering, providing hope against the experience of hopelessness. One of key features of the Black Lives Matter movement is its inclusiveness and lack of hierarchy, its radical assertion of dignity, without dogma. Lebron’s book gives it coherence as he embeds the movement’s goals in African American intellectual history. It is, therefore, an important book.
Dignity without dogma, especially appeals to me given my experience as a student radical, and also as a mournful observer of the rise and apparently tragic fall of the democracy in Poland and among its neighbors.
The commentators who took part in the Public Seminar forum all recognize Lebron’s achievement, as they critically respond to the chapter we have excerpted, on the ideas of Cooper and Lorde, on black feminism and intersectional black identity. What I find most intriguing is how the criticisms don’t diminish the significance of the chapter, but deepen it, continuing the project of the book. Woodly points to the limits of appeals to the abstract ideal of humanity and highlights the importance of embodied personhood, Bey pushes to go beyond gender binaries, and Jackson seeks a story that is more situated and considers more richly the connections with larger patterns of political and social injustice. They seem each to be saying in illuminatingly different ways: “yes, and further…” Lebron in his response recognizes this, when he announces that he does not “intend to engage in the usual intellectual jostling.” It’s a critical enriching forum, inviting further enrichment.
I am heartened. There is a radical commitment to get to the root of the matter, here the dignity of black lives, drawing upon a long and rich intellectual history, building upon lived experience and ongoing struggle. As someone in deep solidarity with the movement, and with these colleagues who help me understand its significance, I feel as if I am again on Western Avenue, and though there are still onlookers who are jeering (including Donald Trump and company), there’s also a chance that many more are cheering. At the very least, I can say with confidence, that these activists and thinkers of this generation suggest to me that there still is a chance.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar