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Black Left: Introduction

Rachel Herzing
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

Black people are a fearsome people, it would seem. We need to be contained. This year’s jail and prison census reiterates the United States’ priority on locking Black bodies in cages. The death of Sean Bell at the hands of police and the arrests of the San Francisco 8 signal loudly how perilous it is to be Black.

Our fearsome roots reach back. To Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, dangerously educated and focused on freedom. Our fearsome roots have likewise stretched across national boundaries and oceans as we used the spirit of internationalism to shine light on our struggles at home. It should be no surprise at all, for instance, that Cuba, highlighted by Melanie Willingham-Jaggers in this section, has long been a friend of US-based Blacks. Fidel Castro is no stranger to warm welcomes in Harlem. Similarly, US Blacks have felt strong support in Havana. Not only did Cuba provide Robert F. Williams a base from which to broadcast news about Blacks in the US back home to them, for instance, it has served as a signal fire to Blacks hungry for revolution at home, from members of the NAACP and participants in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee to the Black Panther Party, helping create a blueprint for social change in the US.

And while Black US support for Cuba has been consistent across these decades, Fidel Castro’s failing health and the social residue of prolonged economic sanctions—from execution and imprisonment for political opponents to creeping signs of economic inequalities— highlight the contradictions with which we must grapple even in our solidarity. Signs of a growing leftist base in Latin America may offer new opportunities for Cuba to emerge from an era of malicious deprivation and may have the potential to refocus Black support for social change makers in the region. Ashanti Alston echoes those sentiments as he calls for us to wake up, recognize our fearsome-ness and use it for our own liberation. He wonders if the ability to cage and kill the Black leaders calling for revolution has caused our fearsome roots to wither and issues a call for us to renew our struggles.

The project of containing us spreads beyond our racial identifiers to our gender and sexuality, as well. Arguing against an imposed sense that to be Black is to be straight and gender conforming, the participants in this issue’s forum stretch the limits of Blackness and gender, feminism and sexuality to suggest that we may be at our strongest when we are able to operate from multiple positions simultaneously. While our fearsome sexuality has historically been used as just another reason to cage and pathologize us, the forum participants remind us that movement happens when we turn over the board tables, disassemble the front and back of the line, and break open the containers.

During the past year we’ve been scratching the surface of the state of the Black left. We’ve asked what it means to be Black. We’ve wondered what it means to be left. We’ve looked at electoral politics and labor and wondered why Black women’s bodies are so expendable. We close the series much as we began, with a handful of voices presenting their own perspectives on what it means to be Black and left in our current period. Despite the questions and contradictions that have emerged during this series, one thing seems clear: To be identified as fearsome means not only running from the slave catcher in whatever form he or she may take, but to act on what makes us dangerous to the power structure. Onward.