The Problem of How to Interpret Black Uprisings

I remember when I started working on my dissertation — on the 1960s African American uprisings — I really had only one question in mind: What is the correct way to think of these events? It was, admittedly, an odd starting point. But looking back at my early writing, for the prospectus in particular, I can see that I was obsessed with answering this question — or at least negotiating a solution that satisfied both my committee and me. It was a very practical concern as well — how, on the page, to refer to events that I would have to describe in great detail over and over again.

I called them “events,” too. I didn’t know whether they were “riots” or “rebellions” or “uprisings” and I admit that I was fearful of saying the wrong thing; that the wrong choice would send my readers fleeing. I spent a lot of time thinking about terminology and why terminology seemed to matter so much to this particular topic. At the time I didn’t think these events merited the term rebellion. They were too spontaneous, they pulled in so many people with different goals and interests, and above all they did not seem oriented against “the state” so much as certain state actors, namely, the police.

I liked the folk quality of riot — it was the word you’d use if you were going to start one. Riot — as opposed to rebellion — struck me as more encompassing of the varied motives of participants; it preserved the chaotic and messy quality of these events while at the same time preserved their place in the long American tradition of popular violent protest. Riot, then, struck me for these reasons as truer in some way. Rebellion felt a little like wishful thinking — an act of interpretation that called into being the thing being described. It sacrificed contingency for dramatic narrative. I was skeptical, mainly for intellectual reasons — my objections were not yet grounded in years of archival research.

Now I do think of these events as rebellions. Having reconstructed the prior years — the two decades of police killings and harassment and the slow rumbling crescendo of crowd rescues and riots — I can see how these events marked a rebellious culmination of decades of organized and spontaneous struggle within black communities. Harlem and Rochester — and Detroit and Newark and Miami — all seem less spontaneous to me now. They don’t seem inevitable, as I think other histories present them. I do not see them merely or principally as outgrowths of oppressive “ghetto” conditions. But now that I am more familiar with the history of postwar police-community relations — to use a euphemism — I can see how African Americans in cities across the country had been staging these confrontations on a smaller scale for a long time.

Which returns me to two passages I was obsessed with while writing my prospectus. I didn’t know quite what to make of them at the time. But they resonated with me then — and they clearly still do. I was moved to revisit them after reading a terrific essay in the New Republic by an English professor on his experience teaching James Baldwin and Richard Wright — and the different perspectives on race in America these two authors presented in their writing. These two passages take us part of the way toward answering that original question — or at least help to explain why that question has mattered, historically and today.

“If an outbreak of more than usual violence occurs, as in 1935 or in 1943, it is met with sorrow and surprise and rage; the social hostility of the rest of the city feeds on this as proof that they were right all along, and the hostility increases; speeches are made, committees are set up, investigations ensue.”—James Baldwin, “The Harlem Ghetto,” (Commentary, 1948, 165)

“What spurred the authors to this task [Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake in researching and writing The Black Metropolis] was a conviction on their part that there existed a meaning in Negro life that whites do not see and do not want to see…for they [Cayton and Drake] know that violent events will soon flare forth, prompted either by whites or blacks; and they know that white Americans will stand transfixed in bewilderment at the magnitude and sanguinity of these events. When those events come, the authors want you to know their relationship to you and your lie, how to interpret the racial outbreaks that will plague America in the immediate postwar world.” —Richard Wright (The Black Metropolis, xxviii)

Both Baldwin and Wright share a similar concern: how to explain violent black protest to white America. It is a problem of translation, of explaining the actions of one group of people to another group of people whose experiences of the world are separated across an ocean of race and geography. Black people in poor urban areas lived — in the 1940s and still to some extent today — in a world apart from white Americans. Baldwin and Wright anticipated, correctly, that white Americans would be inclined to treat the violent protest of black people as the actions of inveterate criminals (which to some extent white Americans still do to this day).

For Wright, the solution lay in social science: objective knowledge of the “ghetto” would help white Americans understand where black people were coming from. In light of the pernicious legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family,” this approach presented a minefield of racial stereotypes that perhaps would have only served to confirm the racial dysfunction white Americans saw in poor black people. Indeed, the Kerner Report took this approach. Despite its supposed radicalism in blaming “white racism,” the rest of the report focuses on the so-called pathology of the “ghetto.” Redlining is never mentioned; the matriarchal black family is highlighted.

Baldwin preferred the power of narrative, not social science. Although not evident in this passage — and here I draw on that New Republic essay — Baldwin hoped to illustrate the humanity of black people — the humanity they shared with white people. The idea was not to elicit sympathy; knowledge of conditions would not by itself suffice. As he suggests in this passage — which is eerily similar to Kenneth Clark’s famous testimony before the Kerner Commission — the studies and investigations that inevitably followed mass social disorder in the twentieth century never disclosed anything new or surprising. No, they repeatedly make the same claims. Existing outside of politics, the commissions offered cathartic release and thereby unburdened policymakers from taking concrete remedial action. And, thus, the cycle began again.

Baldwin and Wright make clear that violent black protest has occasioned great hand-wringing over terminology and interpretation because it has taken root in a social setting endemically, even systemically, hostile to its participants. More specifically, white Americans historically have associated black Americans with violent criminals — as dangerous threats to the social fabric — making “black riot” a term with deeply criminal connotations. Rebellion, in this context, becomes the counterweight, a move to restore the humanity and sanity to participants who rose up against oppressive conditions. That is not my aim in using the term — but there it is, nonetheless.

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