By Rhone Fraser.
In Kwame Ture’s 2004 autobiography, transcribed by Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, entitled Ready for Revolution, he wrote that “all African-descended people living in 113 countries on the continent and in the diaspora are at the bottom the same people…we share history, culture, and common enemies racism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and capitalist exploitation. At present, we suffer from disunity, disorganization and ideological confusion.” The 2014 biography by Peniel Joseph of Kwame Ture’s life entitled Stokely: A Life promotes what Ture calls “disunity, disorganization, and ideological confusion” because it looks at Ture’s life through a liberal imperialist lens that ultimately discourages militant and revolutionary responses to capitalist exploitation. A “liberal imperialist” lens is a lens that endorses the racist ideology of wealthy U.S. imperialists seeking to gain power and influence through capitalist exploitation. It is capitalists such as Rockefeller that the work of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ultimately serves. The narrative choices that Peniel Joseph makes in Stokely: A Life are in line with the goals of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, which were to “neutralize Black nationalist hate type organizations.” This biography distorts Kwame Ture’s life and and ultimately endorses capitalist exploitation.
The first prominent effort by this biography to endorse “ideological confusion” is the title that the author and his publisher, Lara Heimert of Basic Civitas, chose for this biography, Stokely: A Life, drawing on the birth name of its subject, Stokely Carmichael. By choosing this title, Joseph essentially ignores or dismisses the political development behind Kwame Ture strategically shedding his birth name and re-naming himself after two revolutionary nationalists on the African continent, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, who were actively fighting European and U.S. colonialism in order to practice and co-operate within a system of African socialism. Joseph spends more time problematizing Ture’s choices to sympathize with the causes of these revolutionaries and spends no time discussing Ture’s work helping to fight colonialism in both Ghana and Guinea. This review will focus on the parts of the biography that most clearly promote this “ideological confusion.”
His tenth chapter called “A New Society Must Be Born” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what true social revolution means, especially the type that Ture endorses. According to Joseph, the work that Ture conducted in Lowndes County, Alabama, showed that “the drive for self-determination through the ballot was unleashed nationally.” A serious examination of world history will show that self-determination since European colonialism has never been achieved through the ballot – the self-determination accomplished by the Haitian revolution was not achieved through the ballot; nor was the one accomplished by the Cuban revolution. Assata Shakur said that “nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Joseph’s incomplete understanding or “self-determination” is akin to his self-proclaimed mentor Henry Louis Gates’ incomplete understanding of “revolution.” In his film Many Rivers to Cross, Gates says in his narration that “our revolutionary act would be to integrate the White power elite.” Revolution in the way Kwame Ture understood and fought for did not by any means involve integrating oneself into the economic system. Revolution is more akin to destroying the colonial relationship that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) perpetuates with its lendees, including Jamaica; the way that Cuba during its 1959 socialist revolution destroyed this relationship. While the severing of this relationship did not deter the U.S. from imposing severe economic embargoes on Cuba, it allowed a greater path for self-determination, which was impossible for African Americans to accomplish by voting.
Joseph makes his fundamental difference in worldview from Ture very clear when, in Stokely, he calls Castro’s initial 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks “ill-fated.” However, Ture, in his twenty‑fourth chapter, celebrated the Cuban revolution: “the government and people of Cuba were busy, busy trying to liberate their society from the inherited historical distortions and injustices coming from slavery, the racism of a plantation economy, capitalist exploitation and a colonial relationship with los imperialismos yanquis. The United States. A process I very much wanted to see for myself.” There is nothing that Ture found “ill-fated” about Castro’s initial attack of the Moncada barracks, and by this chapter, Joseph establishes himself as an absolutely unreliable narrator of Kwame Ture’s life. Joseph also disparages the Garvey movement when he writes, “Carmichael’s promise that a return [to Africa] remains the ultimate goal expressed more of a personal desire than a collective sentiment.” Joseph, like J. Edgar Hoover, tries to downplay the “collective sentiment” that Garvey inspired in 1920 among Black people. Ture mentions Marcus Garvey as part of an honor roll of influential Black thinkers who were either imprisoned or sent into exile. Equally questionable are Joseph’s claims that Ture called African leaders “worthless” since his sources for these claims in his thirteenth chapter, “Africa on the World Stage,” are Washington Post articles. Ture writes about how the Washington Post was a paper that was hostile to his views and revolutionary aims, and that a Washington Post writer had even accused him and other SNCC members of setting up Andrew Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman to be murdered.
In his fourteenth chapter called “Black Panther,” Joseph writes, “Stokely’s relationship with the Black Panther Party grew serious, offering a chance to regroup and channel political energies in a manner that resembled his early days in SNCC,” even though Kwame Ture makes clear in his autobiography that he wanted to play an advisory role in the Black Panther Party and not be a full-fledged member. He was asked to be an officer, declined the offer, and was designated an honorary member. He notes that “from an SNCC perspective, the organization seemed to me entirely too hierarchical.” Later in this chapter, Joseph attributes the role of Ture in the demise of the Black United Front (BUF), which was a coalition of Black organizations in the Washington DC area, to that of a “seasoned politician” instead of the role that Ture saw himself in, which was as a coalition builder. Both Joseph and Ture write that a key factor in the demise of the BUF was Whitney Young’s comments that “if Stokely wants to run this, we won’t hold still for it.” Joseph suggests that Ture’s erratic, autocratic leadership led to the demise of the BUF rather than investigating how Young could, in fact, be following the dictates of his Wall Street funders by abandoning the BUF. Ture writes that “it was also clear that those in our community who nurtured fantasies of wielding “insider” influence with the Democratic administration–the usual suspects and we know who they were–did not wish the United Front to succeed, with or without my involvement. Very sad. And, as an entity, the Washington United Front did not long survive.” Joseph’s most egregious misrepresentations of Ture’s life are also articulated in the latter half of this chapter when he writes that, in a speech, Ture “rebuked socialism and communism as ill suited to combat racial oppression.” He later claims that more than socialism and communism, Ture supported “Pan-Africanism,” even though he never defines this concept. Joseph promotes “ideological confusion” by drawing a false dichotomy between Pan-Africanism and communism which, Henry Winston argues, was a strategy designed to ultimately support U.S. imperialism on the African continent.
In Joseph’s final and sixteenth chapter, he makes a caricature of Ture: “whatever doubts, insecurities and shortcomings, Carmichael freely admitted would be virtually erased by Kwame Ture, who projected superhuman confidence. Ture’s defiant revolutionary proclamations replaced Carmichael’s more poetic and yearningly unfulfilled descriptions of Black political transformation that would be led by sharecroppers and the urban poor.” Joseph creates a false division that assumes that Ture’s political development caused him to abandon the working masses. His biography, moreover, follows a strict Zionist narrative when he charges Ture with anti-Semitism, a term, as Columbia Professor Joseph Massad explains, that is increasingly deployed to protect supporters of the Israeli occupation of Palestine from principled criticism. Joseph captures Ture’s philosophy in this final chapter when he writes that Ture “discussed the virtues of scientific socialism as the key to a global revolution,” but fails to outline what scientific socialism is or how Ture sought its implementation in Ghana or in Guinea.
Joseph ends his biography with a glaring misunderstanding of Ture’s life when he describes all of Carmichael’s personas – “Black Power icon, Civil Rights organizer, Black Panther, Revolutionary Pan-Africanist–perhaps the least recognized is that of public intellectual.” A close reading of Ture’s autobiography will reveal that in two instances Ture did not want to be seen as a public intellectual. The first instance was his May 1967 trip to London at the “Dialectics of Liberation” conference, which he called “very Eurocentric. Business as usual among White bourgeois intellectuals even when they call themselves revolutionary.” In response to the Black middle-class who decried the White corporate power structure’s unwillingness to hire more minorities in Ellis Cose’s book The Rage of A Privileged Class, Ture notes in his autobiography: “Nowhere in the book was there the slightest recognition of the wasteful and destructive consequences of multinational corporate rapacity on the poor of the world. Nowhere the slightest recognition that the opportunities they were misusing were won out of the blood their people shed in the struggle. And certainly no sense of personal obligation to that struggle.” Ture did not want his legacy to be that of a public intellectual. He did not want to be included within a public intellectual circle that upheld the sin of corporate rapacity. Of the four roles Joseph mentioned, Kwame Ture’s autobiography itself reveals first and foremost that he was a Pan-African revolutionary. The contrast between these books recalls the importance of what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about telling our story “through the lens of our struggle.” While Joseph fails painfully in this endeavor, Kwame Ture tells his own story best through the lens of our struggle.