woensdag 2 december 2015

Black emancipatory movements : documentaries

Recently (27 November 2015) I saw the documentary ‘The Black Panthers: vanguard of the revolution’, as part of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) of 2015.

The documentary in itself was good. I found it informative in a broad way. Good documentaries, I find, ultimately answer questions while at the same time raising them. Perhaps it is better to say “arouse interest”, because there is not much use in raising questions if you do not answer them.


The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland, California, and represented one of the several groups and movements in the US, part of Black Power: resisting against White structural racism, oppression and racial inequality. These movements came especially to the fore in the 1960s, although Marcus Garvey’s movement and large organization, the U.N.I.A. (Universal Negro Improvement Association), set up in the US since 1917, pioneered Black Power much earlier already.

The specific aims of the Black Panther Party were quite practical. There were connections of the founding members with other Black movements, and founding members were inspired by Malcolm X. Yet, at first the Black Panther Party used the “right to bear arms” in US law to defend themselves, and specifically to patrol against police brutality against Blacks in Oakland. In time, of course, this goal broadened to addressing all social injustices and oppression with armed response, underpinned by a socialist, Marxist philosophy of anti-capitalism. Overthrowing the US capitalist government became one of its stated goals. The Black Panther Party functioned and existed from 1966 to 1982. During this time there came more and more internal conflicts, and not least the harsh repression by the FBI and US government (and police forces). Edgar B. Hoover of the FBI had a cynical role in this, as he had toward other Black Power movements (including earlier in Garvey’s).

The documentary portrayed this turbulent history well, including interesting images and historical film fragments, and interviews with members in this period. I personally got more insight in the Black Panthers’ history; I knew much less about the Black Panthers than about Marcus Garvey and his movement – which I studied much more -, but also less than about the civil rights movement, or the Nation of Islam. A welcome addition to my knowledge, you can say. As racially motivated police brutality in the US persists today and has become more of an issue recently – i.e. reached more media – the said origins of the Black Panther party is relevant again.

The documentary stayed superficial in certain regards, perhaps inevitably, but still a pity. The very core was explained very good though, and especially the repression by the US government and FBI was worked out well. Other parts less. What inspired the founders (e.g. other Black leaders and ideas) got scant attention, as did the aftermath (what and who the Black Panthers eventually themselves inspired).

The Black Panthers were not religiously inspired, looking mainly at social conditions. They were also more activist than “cultural”, you might say. They were, however, ideologically inspired by Marxism in their goal of revolution. Black upliftment was, beyond this, their main goal, though it intertwined with Marxist, anti-capitalist goals. Of course “race” and “class” intersect, and it can be reasonably argued that the Western capitalist system is by definition oppressive and exploitative of Black people. Still, as Marcus Garvey already noted, the mixing of race and class interests can obfuscate deeper race-based inequalities.


I note that a main difference between the Black Panthers and other Black movements, is the Black Panthers’ lack of focus on either the cultural and spiritual aspects of Black people. The Nation of Islam is of course more religious, though the choice of the Islam as source of Black/African identity can be deemed inappropriate from a historical point of view. Long an Arab-led religion, Islam for a long time discriminated against Black Africans, and enslaved them over time in great numbers. It came from outside of Africa, did not develop organically within it. To this day, lighter, Arab looks (as the ones who brought the Islam) are more favoured in countries like Egypt and Sudan, whereas African traits are often culturally despised.

On the other hand, Martin Luther King’s Protestant branch of Christianity was likewise non-African in essence (though Christianity in itself was longer present in Ethiopia than in Europe).

The Nation of Islam (NOI) took in fact a distance from Africa, the ancestral continent of Black people, among other things by abandoning the goal of repatriation to the motherland, unlike the earlier Marcus Garvey movement. Like the Black Panthers, the NOI chose to focus on US conditions and contexts, whereas Garvey kept thinking international and geopolitical: with the African continent as crucial for both identity and upliftment.


It is this last aspect that continues in the largely Marcus Garvey-inspired Rastafari movement, which arose in Jamaica (where Garvey was from), since the 1930s. Jamaican poet and intellectual Mutabaruka described the Rastafari movement as a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus”. That “nucleus” being the worshipping and adhering of Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, following Garvey’s prophecies of a redeeming African King that would be crowned. Rastafari developed along with this also other, own spiritual ideas, that – like other spiritual ideas – gave people meaning and support in their lives.

Some atheists, nonbelievers – or believers in other faiths - criticize such spiritual/theological ideas as irrational or escapist. This is what I call “opportunist arguments”. Why are such ideas more irrational than supernatural ideas like those of a higher being – God - somewhere in the sky (apart from man kind), the notion of – or rather: “belief in” - a heaven after death, the Bible as true and holy, the Pope as God’s representative on Earth, or the worship of Jesus as son of God (with little “hard evidence” of his actual existence as historic figure)?

Besides this, they miss the point. The interesting thing about Rastafari in relation to other spiritual/religious movements - but also in relation to other Black Power movements - is that it centers on and upholds Africa in hailing and worshipping Haile Selassie, and by upholding Marcus Garvey. Also, by still clinging to the goal of, if often eventual, repatriation to the motherland Africa. The Nation of Islam does not do this as much, focussing on the US context, though it recognizes the African origins of Black Americans. Also other movements, focussed more on local events, combined often with for instance localized (Black US) forms of Christianity.

Yet, the local and practical is real life, you might say. Indeed, in the documentary it became clear that the Black Panthers were not really “culturally nationalist”, nor spiritual, in that sense, but were involved in (effective) social work and aid for Black people, including improved housing, employment, economic improvement, getting out of poverty etcetera, as part of its programme. Certainly recommendable and praiseworthy. Its focus on Marxism, and Black Power, however, made achieving such goals impossible in the White, Capitalist-dominated US. Hence the repression as detailed in the documentary.

It can be argued that Communism is also foreign to Black people. Marcus Garvey called Communism (something along the lines of) “a White man’s solution to problems created by the White man”. He seemed to favour capitalist methods. Later “anti-capitalism” as it came to the fore in Rastafari did not take the form of Communism, but rather of natural living and self-sufficiency on a small scale (Garvey pleaded for self-sufficiency, but on a large scale).


It seems to me sensible that “racial pride”, and self-respect and self-love of Black people, cannot be separated by the continent of origins, Africa. It is the most appropriate source of identity. Certainly, throughout the Americas, African-derived religions like Vodou, SanterĂ­a, Winti, and CandomblĂ© celebrate the African heritage culturally, but not in a broader political or socially critical way. While members of Vodou-like groups tend to mutually aid one another, it is not a broader, comprehensive social, activist response to social depravation and poverty of Black people in societies and nations. They tend to be solely spiritual, which of course is valuable and supportive for people in and by themselves.

I find it therefore unfortunate that when such comprehensive, more activist Black Power movements did develop, notably in the US, the African cultural heritage was more or less abandoned, especially after Garvey. It is true, that individually many African-Americans focussed culturally on Africa, retraced their origins, adopted traditional African clothing, food ways, or other African cultural customs (wearing the dashiki, African drums), especially also in music. This is however mostly fragmented and not concerted. The geographical focus remains on the US or the Americas.

Marcus Garvey said that “a tree without good roots cannot bear good fruit”, as well as “if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future”. He promoted self-love and love for the Black people’s race and African origins. Rastafari’s distinction among other Black Power movements pays homage to that philosophy, by focussing on Africa. Crucially: not just as something of the past, but also of the present and future.

Rastafari hereby remains a source to draw on, harassed by “Babylon system” (as Rastas call Western oppressive forces), but loose enough to avoid being “squashed” by it. That’s in a sense the power of spirituality that purely materialist (capitalist, Marxist) or activist movements ultimately lack.


Back to the Black Panthers: Wikipedia and other sources had much more detailed information on Black Panther founders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and later prominent member Eldridge Cleaver, when compared to the documentary. Both Newton and Cleaver found in certain periods exile in Castro’s Communist Cuba. Also Malcolm X showed in words respect for Fidel Castro.

My own study of and experience in Cuba (where I also have been several times between 2001 and 2006) taught me that there were policies in Cuba under Fidel Castro that advanced large parts of the Afro-Cubans. This limited racial inequalities in some ways, and improved – albeit with differing degrees of success - food security for poor Cubans (to which most Afro-Cubans belonged), as well as housing. That is in itself positive. At the same time, like all Cubans, Afro-Cubans were kept very “dependent” in the Communist police state, with a dictatorship, censorship, and moreover, a subtle racial inequality favouring white Cubans, that still persisted, and persists to this day. The Castro brothers look phenotypically White (and are mainly of Spanish – Galician/Canarian descent), and many others in high Party circles are still disproportionately White as well. So racism and discrimination against Afro-Cubans persists in present-day Communist Cuba, also in specific (“egalitarian”?) Communist activities as such.


A writer who gave much attention to this continuing racism in Communist Cuba since the 1959 Revolution in Cuba, and in the course of Castro’s reign, is the Cuban-born Carlos Moore. He is Black and his parents were migrants from the British Caribbean (Jamaica a.o.), but he was born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1942.

As happened more often, he first sympathized with what the Revolution promised to improve for poor and Black people, yet during his participation he noted that racism and discrimination against Afro-Cubans persisted. He even argued that this was supported by Castro’s “integrationist” policies. After incarceration, he fled to France in the 1960s, and later settled in Brazil. In his book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’, from 1988, Moore elaborates his critique of Fidel Castro’s use of the “race” issue in his foreign policy. Mostly, he regards this pro-Black stance of Castro more as co-optation and opportunistic powerplay, rather than as a totally sincere commitment. This is a serious accusation, of course, going against the grain of the idolizing of Fidel Castro by many of the “fashionable Left”, even some Black people. Moore spoke with Malcolm X, and even the latter said that he sadly did realize that even in Communist Cuba White Cubans did not let Black Cubans get to the top. Yet, Malcolm X despite this still thought strategically about how to use Castro’s stated policies and aid, such as in Africa, truly in the favour of Africans and Blacks. Use Castro before he uses us as Blacks, so to speak..

On the exile of Black Panther leaders Elridge Cleaver and Huey Newton in Cuba, Moore gives some attention in the mentioned book, though not much. He points out that Cleaver also objected to the racism in Cuba when he lived there (he settled there in late 1968), and like Newton he over time fell out of favour with the Castro regime (official reason: ties with the CIA though Black Panther members), and went to another country after that (Cleaver went to Algeria). Politics is a vicious game.

Apparently the “white man’s solution” Communism can be as oppressive and exclusionary toward Blacks as Capitalist systems.


Another documentary I saw during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) of 2015 related to one specific African country, Burkina Faso. It was called “The siren of Faso Fani‘ (2014), and was set in the city of Koudougou in western Burkina Faso, where a locally maintained textile company was a period successful, resulting in wealth in Koudougou (the third city in size of the country), and economic improvement. All that was based on local products and skills. One must realize the political context, then. Thomas Sankara, the progressive, Marxist-inspired president from 1983 to 1987, set in motion policies independent from former colonizer France, the IMF, and the World Bank (the Western Capitalist world, so to speak), by nationalizing industries. Koudougou, with the large Faso Fani factory, became the textile capital of Burkina Faso.

How this industry waned in Koudougou was the subject of the documentary. After the coup against Sankara, and his murder in 1987 - he had local middle-class and foreign interests as enemies - the country in time came in a recession. In this context the IMF and World Bank supplied their well-known (notorious) “aid/loans under conditions”, to release Burkina Faso from a debt. Even a European country, like Greece, knows this burden now, like many developing countries did and do. The textile factory in Faso Fani came also under foreign control and was “modernized”: most workers in it suddenly lost their job. Many among these were in an advanced age, and became poor and in insecure conditions. Several went back to rural towns. What came across well in the documentary, I thought, was the sensed importance of “job security” for the workers. United workers of Faso Fani even offered to work under lower wages just to keep their job. The bosses however already had decided, and did not need the workers, as they could produce more cheaply with modern machines. They did not care about the future of these workers.

The example of self-sufficiency by Faso Fani (before it all changed) admittedly bore a Marxist mark, yet the textile factory then seemed to function and provided income and security in Koudougou. Sankara imitated some practices from Cuba, but I do not know whether the rigid Communist “low maximum wages” (as in Cuba) was also adopted, or that workers could earn more money. Sankara can either way be praised for several beneficial developments in Burkina Faso he set in motion, even if not long in power, regarding women’s emancipation and equality, for instance. Yet, as said, the IMF, dominated by Western Capitalist countries “took over”, and changed the course, benefitting their own interests.

This historically grown worldwide inequality is likewise a result from the colonial history, and European (later also US) colonial dominance. This hampers the self-sufficiency of developing countries, and hinders a true independence that also Marcus Garvey promoted for Africa.

Other documentaries at the IDFA had as topic (as documentaries in other years) “other” types of African dependence on Europe and the West, namely through foreign aid and international cooperation (poverty alleviation). While seemingly less “interested” or egocentric than the IMF and such, it is argued that such foreign aid also keeps Africa dependent.

All this shows the significance of an international Black Power perspective (like Garvey’s and Rastafari’s) in fighting race-based inequalities, preferable over a too limited, local one, as the Black Panther Party had (especially in its early stage). The local should on the other hand not be ignored entirely, of course.


Another documentary that I very recently saw also deals with race and, well, Black people. It was not as part of some festival, and one did not need to buy a ticket. It was a short documentary made public on the website of CNN (cnn.com) since Monday, the 30th of November of 2015. It is called ‘Blackface’, and is made by African American filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. The documentary is about a Dutch holiday tradition known as Sinterklaas, a “carnivalesque”, bishop-type figure giving presents to children each 5th of December. This festivity includes a dressed-up “Blackface” figure called Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), being “helpers” (servants) of this Sinterklaas.

This Blackface portrayal of Black people is stereotypical and racist. The connotations with slavery are evident. As Blackface (minstrel) theatre stereotyping Black people, have been discredited in other countries like the US and Britain (though such racist “minstrel” shows were still on TV only some decades ago in Britain), the maker Williams was shocked to still find such blatant racism in a country he thought to be relatively progressive. Williams investigates this further in this documentary, speaking with people against it and defending it.

See it here: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/tv/2015/11/25/digital-shorts-blackface-dutch-holiday-roger-ross-williams-orig.cnn/video/playlists/digital-short-films-t1-for-specials-page/

As I live in the Netherlands, this was hardly new to me. The critique against this racist caricature has been formulated before by Black Dutch activists like Quincy Gario and others, in recent years also through the larger Dutch mass media. What is new is the international perspective by Williams (who lives in the Netherlands with a Dutch man, by the way), in English, and on the CNN website. Maybe this international exposure brings about change.

In the context of this essay of mine, it can be seen as an objection against a local practice of racism, like the Black Panthers objected against police brutality and profiling in at first Oakland, California. It deals however more with “image” and culture, in this case a specific holiday tradition. In comparison to worldwide racial inequality, actual brutality and violence, and racist power structures, it may seem a bit trivial.

Yet.. what is trivial? When one looks at what this tradition represents and symbolizes, it is in fact quite serious. Essentially, such stereotypes degrade and “dehumanize” Black people, portraying them as half-witted slaves. This is a remnant of the likewise “dehumanizing” colonial past, including slavery. Also the Netherlands was of course as a colonial power once involved in slavery of Africans. The Netherlands further has quite some “Black” inhabitants, that understandably feel offended by this tradition of Blackface, and even in a sense excluded from the Dutch nation, which apparently is only defined as White. The “Black Pete” figures at least seem to confirm this, not aided by the fact that this tradition is hardly adapted, even after Black protests. The fact that Black people, including children, were and are teased (better: “bullied”) by some Dutch people calling them “Black Pete”, shows that the tradition is not that innocent. It furthermore, as said, alludes to stereotypes of Black people from the slavery era.

This same history of slavery kept Black people back up to this day, and which - along with wider colonialism - perpetuates in the racial inequality we find in the present-day world: Africa for instance still being economically largely dependent on the West, as the example of Burkina Faso showed. Perpetuating such stereotypes is therefore lamentable, especially as part of a party for children. At the very least, it is insensitive. In this sense, this local issue surely relates to international racial inequality and racism.


All these movements I discussed in the above text – either social, activist, cultural, or spiritual - are responses. Much human behaviour is of course, but in these cases they consist of responses of Black people to (historical and present) “dehumanization” and discrimination. The goals being emancipation, justice, and redemption. Goals consist further of regaining humanity, equality, and self-love, in order to achieve mental well-being, essentially, through (regaining) confidence in self. In this, identity, spirituality, ideals, and psychology somehow come together, as part of a very human quest for both meaning and harmony. Also, the need to belong to a larger group of like-minded people is all too human.

Some of these movements over time received increasingly (sincere) sympathy or even support from non-Black people. Perhaps inevitable in today’s world of globalized culture and media. The Black Panthers, in its time, also got some liberal White professed sympathizers who considered their cause to be just, for instance.

This understandably met and meets with mistrust among some Black people in these movements. Especially, because it is not always clear whether it is just that, sincere sympathy and support (beyond race), or whether it is rather “co-optation” by more powerful groups in society, otherwise in a position to “switch” back at any time to their more privileged, comfortable lives. If the latter is not the case, and e.g. White people sincerely feel empathy and also find meaning in their lives by joining or supporting such movements.. if they, as part of this, truly try to connect with and understand these Black people and Black (and African!) history, I think it only can be seen as positive.