The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation

Reed, Adolph

Publisher:  Jacobin
Date Written:  06/10/2015
Year Published:  2015  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22133

After decades of frustration with what Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay calls "white saviour" narratives, antiracist progressives appear to have settled on an ideologically more appealing alternative - what Adolph Reed calls the James Brown Theory of Black Liberation.



In 1969, after Brown had aligned himself politically with President Richard M. Nixon, he released the paean to black self-help, "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)." In the nearly half-century since, especially during the last two decades of neoliberal hegemony, that self-help perspective has become the righteous antiracists' standard for cultural criticism and political judgment.

Typically under the sign of acknowledging and respecting black people's agency, it has become unacceptable to suggest that black Americans' advances have depended significantly on anything other than, against all odds, the perseverance and will of black people themselves and a small cast of white allies.

But this interpretive approach, which blends the several meanings of self-help, is totally consistent with neoliberal premises that eschew collective action in favor of individual voluntarism and deny the significance of social structures in shaping political opportunities. It masks the important fact that every advance black Americans have made toward equality, full citizenship, and racial justice has been enmeshed with broader struggles to advance egalitarian interests.

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