Farrakhan's 'activism' as poststructuralism

jones/bhandari djones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Wed Oct 18 15:00:22 MDT 1995

I think that Farrakhan canNOT even be understood in the anti-union
tradition of "home-based strategies", about which Earl Lewis has written
favorably in his history of Norfolk, Virginia, In Their Own Interests:
Race, Class, and Power in th 20th Century. 

That is, Farrakhan does not even promise to really follow through on the
"home-based" demands which often came to replace the project of multiethnic
workplace solidarity. Farrakhan represents the end of all activism, though
he may revive some very limited forms of this home-based strategy.      

I quote from Eric Arnesen's critical review of Lewis' book which appeared
in the journal International Labor and Working Class History, no 41, Spring
1992, pp.65-6:

"After WWI, black workers abandoned the workplace strategy for home sphere
struggles for two reasons: First, the existence of a racially divided labor
market meant that 'long-term progress on the job required inerracial labor
solidarity," something that 'was unlikey to materialize' because 'race was
the great divide'.  Second, black workers apparently agreed with the
'ANNOINTED SPOKESPERSONS FOR THE RACE that community development was
essential, perhaps more essential than the broad organization of black
workers".  Blacks 'never abadnoned the quest for progress on the job; they
simply redirected the bulk of their resources.

"The home-sphere strategy, which Lewis views as historically more
appropriate than workplace organizing for black Norfolkinans, encompassed
everything from direct ressistance to Jim Crow--boycotts against streetcar
discirmination and protests against a municipal residential segregation
ordinance--to lobbying and demonstrating for a greater division of often
scarce community resources. Virtualy all black activism outside the
workplace, Lewis insists, derived rom blacks' deeply rooted belief in the
importance of community advancement and the 'development of he homse
sphere.'  If black workers, 'after careful calculation decided that
advances in the community were more attainable than  those in the
workplace', their actual experiences must have disappointed them on most
occassions.  Lack of white support in the workplace created some degree of
disenchantment with that strategy, Lewis argues, but white hostility toward
black struggles in the home sphere aparently played no comparable role. 
Accepting the intractability of segregration, blacks fought on-going
battles, a few successful, many not, over such issues as the creation of an
all-back park and beach.  While Lewis argues that 'protest politics based
on developement in the home sphere' enabled blacks to chip away at the
'armor of segregation,' 'seize power' in unlikey places, and behind the

" The limits of activism and the power of Jim Crow notwithstanding,
Norfolk's blacks were neither without resources nor resilience.  Students
of both slave and black urban life have stressed the potency of
African-American culture and religion.  Lewis casts his related argument in
a way that reflects the influence of POSTSTRUCTRUALISM'S CONCERN WITH
MEANING AND LANGUAGE.  Approaches that produced no immediate dividends
'proved informative', in that blacks begain to 'frame their own reality'. 
This involved modifying  political language to transform segregation into
'congregation', a linguistic sleight of hand that changed 'structural
limitations' into a limited autonomy and power. Living 'within reach yet
beyond the towrld of white control', blacks chose with whom theywould
interact; they ate the foods that they preferred, participated in religious
revivals, and maintained family and friendship netwroks by regularly 
visting nearby and distant cities and the countryside.  Lewis demonstrates
that Norfolk's black population never accepted the legitimacy of white
domination.  When all else failed--when white Norfolksuppressed black
campaigns for equality, access, or justice--Norfolk's blacks hardly were
defeated in the cultural realm." (emphases mine; irony Arnesen's)

We will need quite a few so-called cultural theorists to translate
segregrated parks and new Afrocentric rituals--the sort of things so
favored by Black segregationists like Louis Farrakhan--into victories. 

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