Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Open Letter from Rayfield A. Waller


You have written a very lucid and modulated response to Papa Amiri, Kofi.

Which is as it happens also compassionate, without compromising the integrity of your intellectual POSITION. I have every confidence that he will recognize the clarity of your position, and inasmuch as you and he DO share an ultimate belief in the struggle for justice we all must engage in, he will be persuaded.

You make it abundantly clear that your position is not personal but is political. Your writings over the past two years make that fact clear for those of us who have bothered to read you closely--and your commentaries have inspired me and others to be both realistic about the limitations of a Black democrat within the capitalist econo-military white supremacy system AND critical about his failure to push against those limitations--to expand political possibilities as we have seen CAN be DONE (FDR, for example with the WPA, and LBJ with the 'Great Society' programs, and even to some extent, the mendacious Richard Nixon, who despite his war crimes abroad and enemies list at home, instituted wage protections and price controls that stabilized an otherwise predatory economy and thus created real economic growth for the middle classes and strength in the manufacturing sector which meant strength for Black workers and a chance to earn a living wage--a distant memory under the far more destructive Reagan.

Nuance sometimes is uncomfortable, but as Angela Davis, after Marcuse, often warned us, it's what we must seek if we are to not only articulate change for this world but also actually CHANGE it. Hopefully, Obama's latest remarks about rebuilding America's infrastructure and about social justice for working Americans arguers a shift in his too often gutless unwillingness to FOLLOW THROUGH on his rhetoric, prefering instead to squander his support by seeking fruitlessly to mollify and to seek an impossible bipartisan support from those who are his unyielding, historical ENEMIES (and ours).

Indeed, one thing that is crucial about your many analyses which may have escaped Baraka for reasons I can only speculate about, perhaps because of Black cultural nationalist pragmatics, not to say reductiveness,, is the nuance of your writings over the years regarding American political reality in general and the politics of Obama's candidacy and presidency in particular. Melba Boyd, chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State where I teach, speaks often and eloquently of the need African American intellectuals have to work toward achieving and maintaining nuance. Your words, as I have noticed by reading you closely in the past few years, are always presented in a context of SHIFTING POSITIONS AND CRITIQUES IN SERVICE OF FIXED, UNYIELDING PRINCIPLES. If the principles we struggle for are freedom, justice, and equality/egalitarianism, then the positions we take must adapt to shifting political and ideological circumstances (often those shifts manifest themselves within public figures we claim to 'admire' or to 'despise' and, commensurate with the PROTEAN nature of late capitalism and of late capitalist figures, such as Obama, the shifts can be disconcertingly rapid, and contradictory). The positions we take as intellectuals therefore, must be adaptive in order to ALWAYS KEEP WITHIN OUR SIGHTS THE HIGHER PURPOSE OF THAT WHICH WE CLAIM TO BE STRUGGLING FOR. We do not struggle to protect Black 'leaders' who STAND for these things, but rather struggle FOR these things and struggle against anyone who threatens them and we must struggle WITHOUT anyone who is too frightened or compromised to struggle with US.

Thus, when appropriate, you have been a tireless defender, though a NUANCED defender, of Obama's humanity, legitimacy, and value,as a Black man, such as when he was depicted as a monkey (??!) in a white supremacist cartoon circulating in American newspapers; as a Black president who has ACTED in progressive decision making to alter or reverse structural injustice, such as your lauding him for his appointment and even more importantly his unafraid support of, Sonia Sotomayor; andas a symbol and enabler of transformational change, such as when you carefully warned that the black and white working class 'masses' are often as or more reactionary as and than the ruling white elites.

Your writing and your thought thus challenges us to not look at history and culture as merely a screen upon which we project our own wishful thinking, our own desire to see social, cultural, historical or ideological 'heroes' and 'demons'. Leaders are HUMAN BEINGS with the equal potential to ACT in a heroic or in a demonic fashion. DEEDS NOT WORDS you used to remind us, is the purpose of leadership. Likewise, it little matters if we idealize the masses in the name of our socialist dreams, our Marxist dreams, our bourgeois dreams, or our cultural nationalist dreams. What we are HISTORICALLY BOUND to do, is to remain ever critical, never cynical, always focused upon deeds in service of the principles these political modes of thought stand for without overly valorizing the modes of thought themselves. This is what made the prophet, Jeremiah a thorn in EVERYONE's side.

This is why, as I have noticed over the years, you write with nuance in your ongoing defense of Obama's value as a political catalyst in America, who at times articulates in a profoundly effective way a vision of change that can and does inspire the masses while his articulation invites us (ala FDR) to MAKE him LIVE UP to what he says. As you have often said and written, that is OUR historical role, one which we have not lived up to as fully as we could have. Likewise, you have, when appropriate, pointed out what is objectively TRUE: that he has many times FAILED to move and act MATERIALLY with the same integrity of purpose that he ARTICULATES human dignity and human needs.

So then, WHAT IS TO BE SAID? I am convinced that it is not true that we must speak in a univocal manner in lockstep behind perceived 'leaders' in the name of a siege mentality (even the leaders of the Warsaw rebellion against the Nazis, truly under siege, refused to give in to the despair of siege thinking, which would have limited their actions, commitment, and courage), but that 'we are not one, we are many,' as you have so often reminded us in the past--we are an absolute diversity of thought, interests, identities, races, persuasions, and modes of thought, united not be an ideology but by an awareness of our collective historical role: to bring about justice and then to defend it from those who will NEVER stop trying to take away from us. The battle is never 'won', but is eternal and requires eternally evolving strategies, critiques, POSITIONS in service of what lies behind all our work and writing and organizing and struggles: What is to be said is that, in your words:

"The most deadly, dangerous, and powerful enemies of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans in general, Women in general, the poor in general, the working class in general, children in general, Freedom in general and Democracy in general in American society today is the truly heinous Republican Party and their endless number of severely bigoted and demagogic minions, mentors, sponsors, and supporters. Anyone who doesn't know or believe this blatantly obvious fact is not only a hopeless FOOL but ultimately deserves their fate."

To the extent that Obama recognizes THIS fact, and to the extent that he ACTS in that knowledge to preserve and to protect freedom and justice in America, we can call him a leader who exemplifies the same principles we do. To the extent that he FAILS to do those things, and to the extent that he fails to respond to our urgings (assuming we get OUR own shit together and bring our demands to his front door, giving him the impetus and the OPPORTUNITY to act), to the extent that he backs down from the horrific historical THREAT of the Republican party and its proto/neo fascist programs, we are quite justified to call him what it will be certain he must be: a FOOL and a COWARD. Because anyone who fails to see what must be done, is foolish and cowardly. That is all there is to be said.

Continue to do what we need you to do, Kofi, and don't let us off the 'hook'.

Yours in struggle,

Rayfield A. Waller
Department of Africana Studies
Wayne State University

say no to war,
no to violence against civilians and to pain,
say no to young men and women
being sent off to be slain.
-R. Waller