In mid-December, noted American philosopher, social critic, and public intellectual Cornel West published an excoriating commentary on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
"Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle," West writes. "[Coates] represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.
"The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading."
In a powerful and important critique, West criticizes both Coates and Obama – "the first black head of the American empire". In contrast to those who choose to cooperate with and even benefit from a neoliberal structure that still oppresses black Americans and other marginalized populations of the world, West proudly affirms his decision to stand with those "who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others."
In addition to the core disagreement between West and Coates -- whether, and how far, to participate in American capitalism and empire -- there's a generational divide as well. West was publishing essays on Marxism in the '70s; Coates was just born around the same time.
West's essay sparked a terrific intellectual debate, drawing in all sorts of other brilliant interventions, both for and against his position (and some neither). Some participants have urged the two to stop fighting but in many ways this sort of vigorous public debate is precisely what America's increasingly moribund intellectual fabric needs.
Peniel Joseph's intervention on the matter reminds us "that black intellectual traditions… have always been fraught, contested and hotly debated in public and private." His article offers mostly male examples of this lengthy tradition. But the issues and realities that divide West and Coates would be all too familiar to Louise Thompson Patterson (1901-1999) as well. Keith Gilyard's new biography of Patterson offers a sobering reminder of the lessons to be learned from those who came before in the struggle.
A civil rights campaigner and labour organizer who was involved in the communist movement and became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Louise and her second husband William L. Patterson were already veterans in their 60s when the black power movement exploded across America, dislocating Communism and other left-leaning movements as the focal core of the black civil rights struggle. The Black Panthers initially looked upon them as mentors, but critiques from these elder Marxists eventually drove an intergenerational wedge. Louise and her husband felt that the Panthers, for all their virtues, were unfamiliar with the powerful existing legacy of African-American struggle; that their blustering statements were short-sighted and inadequately informed by Marxist analysis, and they evinced a lack of respect for those who struggled before.
Commonalities between West and Louise also manifest in their dogged perseverance and refusal to give up the fight. West has refused to bow or moderate his perspectives in the face of mainstream liberal approbation in recent years. Louise, whose professional life and the organization she worked with fell prey to the post-WWII Red Scare, refused to bow to mainstream liberal pressure either. Forced out of her job with the National Lawyers Guild in the early '60s because of her politics, instead of moderating her position she defiantly responded by helping to establish the American Institute of Marxist Studies (AIMS) in order to promote "a fairer public hearing for Marxism."
The perseverance and courage of such figures is rightly impressive. Insofar as familiarity with forgotten icons of earlier struggles is important, biographies such as Gilyard's serve a critically important function. Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice is the finest sort of biography: impeccably researched and chock full of detail, it also compels the reader by crafting a powerful image of the world in which Louise and her comrades lived and struggled.
It evokes the vibrant energy of a movement which was at once cultural, political, and personal. The narrative also shares the stories of many of Louise's fellow travelers: her lifelong friend and comrade the poet Langston Hughes; her mentor and occasional collaborator W.E.B. DuBois; her fellow organizer and friend the folksinger Paul Robeson; even Zora Neale Hurston, for whom she worked briefly as a secretary before becoming inadvertently caught in a triangle of professional and personal jealousy between Hurston and Hughes. Later in her life Louise also become a colleague and mentor to Angela Davis, playing a lead role in Davis' legal defense movement in the early '70s.
What the book also conveys is the scale of injustice and institutionalized discrimination against which Louise and other black American organizers fought. Louise always centred the class struggle in her endeavors, yet she like other African-American communists and socialists, she recognized that the class oppression of capitalism and the racial oppression of American society were deeply and inextricably intertwined. Gilyard's biography does an exemplary job of centering and chronicling Louise's shifting understandings of black identity and racism, in all of its complexity. As a communist sympathizer, Louise may have been disapproving of African-Americans who collaborated with white capitalist elites, either in the business community or by serving in the police forces (while also recognizing the need to work strategically with upper-class African-American liberals when it was advantageous for the movements she represented). Yet the tale of her life also illustrates with harrowing force the scale of oppression African-Americans experienced throughout the 20th century (and which continues of course today).
From lynchings and police shootings to all-white juries and fatal firebombings, the dangers for organizers and average black citizens alike were -- and remain -- real. During the Sojourner phase of her organizing, Louise castigated government officials for spending massive amounts of time and resources on anti-communism crusades, persecuting left-leaning civil rights organizations and pursuing trumped-up cases against veteran civil rights activists, while flagrantly ignoring waves of murder and terror directed against African-Americans by white supremacists. A similar dynamic exists today, with a US government obsessed with foreign terrorism threats and expending countless billions in fighting that threat, while racism rages unabated on domestic soil and white police officers flagrantly murder black Americans.
Louise and her husband were right in emphasizing the importance of being familiar with earlier struggles. Revisiting 20th century history through the lens of an activist like Louise helps put current civil rights struggles in context. It's all too easy to write off white supremacist marches and police shootings of black civilians as a temporary aberration; a dark moment that must inevitably pass. Reading the struggle of Louise and her comrades a century ago reminds us that the racist violence of today is not a temporary aberration, but a deeply rooted and pervasive flaw in American society. It reminds us that overcoming it will require more than piecemeal reforms and one-off investigations; it will require deep-seated, even revolutionary change to the way America operates and to the relationships Americans have with each other. While some historians may write off Louise and her comrades as radical idealists, the lingering violence and injustice against which they struggled reminds us that radical and revolutionary ideas are vital to achieving the sort of racial and economic justice for which they fought and which still eludes America, today just as much as it did a hundred years ago.
Such histories offer a sobering reminder that America needs a reckoning with its racist past and present. While white supremacists decry the toppling of slaveowner statues as excessive; reading histories such as these reminds us that such measures only scratch at the surface of the reforms American society needs. They remind us why, in addition to ending the injustice and persecution of African-Americans in the justice system and elsewhere, America needs a national apology to its African-American population and reparations against the vast heritage of economic exploitation experienced by African-Americans in order to build white citizens' wealth in the US. Histories like this remind us and put in context the importance of such demands to shaping the future of whatever sort of country the US will become.
Louise's history reminds us of the revolutionary scale of economic and racial transformations American society requires, and that these revolutionary demands are not new. Her tale also serves as an inspiration to those seeking the strength to participate in that struggle. Gilyard has offered a masterful portrayal of a key figure in 20th century American history; more importantly his work reminds us there are heroes -- imperfect people, like all humans, yet heroes nonetheless -- whose commitment, idealism, and perseverance can still serve as an inspiration for us today.