On Black Study and the Afterlives of King’s Critique
Physically and ideologically, and for rather unique historical reasons, African peoples bridge the decline of one world order and the eruption (we may surmise) of another. It is a frightful and uncertain space of being. If we are to survive, we must take nothing that is dead and choose wisely from among the dying.
—Cedric J. Robinson,
Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition
An embattled, colonized people need liberated grounds on which to gather, to reflect, to teach, to learn, to publish, to move towards self-definition and self-determination. Some of these grounds may be in the heart of contemporary white-controlled institutions, but the experiences of the past few years indicate that there are far fewer grounds in such places than we would like to believe. . . . The vast majority of the black institutions we need are yet to be born. To live the truth is to join in the process of that birth, of that building.
—Vincent Harding, “The Vocation of the Black Scholar
and the Struggles of the Black Community”
King’s assassination is frequently taken to mark the end of a nonviolent, reformist-oriented movement and the beginning of the more militant Black Power era. As Brandon Terry has shown, this framing oversimplifies the intensely complicated “problem-space” of the late 1960s and overdetermines the relationship between the radical dimensions of King’s life and work and the direction of Black politics in subsequent decades.1 This framing also obscures the historical struggle over King’s legacy. At issue are important questions not only about how we remember one of the most noted personalities in modern history, but also about how, faced with the persistence of Black suffering more than a half century on, we might revisit the missed opportunities that King’s legacy represents.
In this chapter we consider a lesser-known claim on King’s legacy, that of Vincent Harding and the Institute of the Black World (IBW), in an effort to reflect on the institutional spaces that nurture the critique of racial capitalism. King was a student of the Black world. And part of what it means to carry forth his legacy is to pick up on lines of inquiry, to wrestle with his thinking about the prospects and pitfalls of the Black freedom struggle, to reconstruct the critical theories that undergirded his vision and assess their explanatory power, and to part with and move beyond King where necessary. Harding, who had been a professor of history at Spelman College since 1965 and helped to author King’s famous 1967 antiwar speech, sought to facilitate this aspect of the King legacy, in part, by working with a group of Black academics to establish the IBW in Atlanta shortly after King’s death. Rooted in an avowed commitment to “the colonized situation of the masses of the black community,” the IBW was to be a center of Black studies, ecumenical in orientation and focused, as King was, on working out higher syntheses of diverse ideological perspectives.2 Initially affiliated with the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, the IBW unsettled the Center’s philanthropic backing and quickly wore out that partnership. Mindful of the pitfalls of the liberal democratic establishment, Harding and his comrades sought to cultivate the Black radical counterpublic. Part of this entailed, as he put it in 1974, a principled commitment to the “vocation of the black scholar” and an unflinching courage to identify and speak truth to the enemy. “Nothing that is black and whole and alive in America can be fully comprehended apart from the endless white thrusts towards our exploitation, deracination, death, and dismemberment,” Harding said. “No discussion of schools or banks, of black mayors or black production workers, of black music or black literature, of black politics or black religion in America can make sense to the people unless we identify the enemy.”3 For Harding, that meant identifying systems of oppression, the complex and often secretive ways in which racial capitalism spreads its tentacles everywhere, including into the institutional spaces that are intended to nurture its critique.
The IBW, established very deliberately to carry forth a mode of Black scholarship in the spirit of King’s later work, presents a case study in the challenges, both epistemic and material, of planning and building the beloved community from within the confines of the racial capitalist world order. The IBW’s roster included the likes of Stephen Henderson, William Strickland, Lerone Bennett, Howard Dodson, Walter Rodney, Sylvia Wynter, C. L. R. James, Ella Baker, James and Grace Lee Boggs, Katherine Dunham, George Beckford, St. Clair Drake, and Ossie Davis, among others. “The depth and variety of scholar-activists at the IBW made it the greatest collection of black intellectual talent in post–World War II America,” writes the historian Derrick White.4 But—or perhaps precisely because of this—the Institute was chronically underfunded, infiltrated by both the FBI and local police, and held at a distance by the leadership of the Black colleges and universities with which it was marginally affiliated. It was a short-lived experiment, forced into closure by the early 1980s. In what follows, drawing on Harding’s “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community” as our anchor, we explore how the trappings of the post–civil rights milieu shaped efforts to carve out institutional space for critical Black research and scholarship. We consider how the demands of professionalization, managerialism, policy prescription, and philanthropic funding undermine the work.
These considerations invite comparison with contemporary debates about institutional support for Black studies. At a time when teaching, learning, and scholar-activism have become almost entirely circumscribed by neoliberal rationality and a structural dependency on both the state and private capital, some have sought to theorize a mode of Black study that is “in but not of” formally established institutions—most notably the predominately white university.5 The idea is not to try to build independent Black institutions, nor to press for more governing control over predominately white spaces, perhaps owing to a certain pessimism about the viability or prospects of such efforts. Instead, transgressive Black study is seen as a mode of flight into what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten refer to as the university’s “undercommons.” This is a necessarily fugitive act of “[sneaking] into the university” to “steal what one can.”6 Perhaps the closure of the IBW was a historical inevitability, a testament to the suffocating grip of racial capitalist dominion. But as we think about transformative Black study as a mode of flight in the twenty-first century, perhaps the time has come again to look beyond familiar and established institutions, to reimagine the IBW as a missed opportunity, and to recommit to the work of building.
“Indissoluble Bonds to the Heaving Life of the Black Masses . . .”
Harding and the IBW began from the presumption of an “embattled, colonized people.” The internal colonialism thesis, which King himself subscribed to in his last years, vivifies both the complexity of racial-capitalist domination and concerns about replicating its formations in and through critique and political practice. Any mode of Black study that could hope to “avoid the realities of white racist-capitalist exploitation of the black community” would need to guard against absorption into neocolonial management schemes, including the emergent custodial politics of the post–civil rights era.7 This necessarily involves, as IBW affiliate Walter Rodney put it in 1969, a mode of scholar-activism that “attaches [itself] to the activity of the black masses” or that reflects, in Harding’s words, “indissoluble bonds to the heaving life of the black masses.”8 Harding and his IBW associates were concerned about how the temptations of the post–civil rights era—the allure of individualized access, “talk of ‘making it’ in the system”—were being made to crowd out critical scholarship and sustained “movement against the white mainstream.” But such “surface manifestations,” Harding said, “are never the best indication of the movement of the black community,” where “critical repositioning” is always already underway.9 The vocation of the Black scholar, the meaning and purpose of Black study, is to remain grounded in this movement from below. None of this was new or innovative. The IBW’s vision for a critique evoked from the “searing life” of the frontline bearers of racial capitalism had long been central to the Black radical tradition.10
Throughout the twentieth century, it had been the relatively marginalized pedagogical work of Black working people—many of them Black women—who pushed for a “group-centered” cultivation of ideas. Here it is worth highlighting the work of Ella Baker, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (and onetime SCLC) organizer who famously tied grassroots education to a de-hierarchical model of movement leadership. Disaffected by the “hero-worship” that trailed King throughout at least his first phase, Baker stressed that any social movement that belittled, wittingly or not, the desires and wishes of ordinary people risked undercutting the epistemic and material power of democratic struggle. We have seen how King can be read to align with and reflect a kind of deference to the Black masses, but it is Baker, much more than King, who really vivifies a faith in the people’s capacity to study and to educate collective movement by virtue of their ability to judge critically the situations in which they find themselves.11
Baker was especially well positioned to expose the pitfalls of structured hierarchies in the context of grassroots education and inquiry. Her activist career had long been oriented to cooperative politics. She spent the early part of the 1930s organizing with the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League (YNCL), an organization that aspired to build Black economic power through collective planning. Central to that work, as Barbara Ransby has shown, was a practice of training understood as the fortifying of intellectual tools that could flow into, as Baker put it, “self-directed action” against capitalism. Of course Baker was ever mindful of the ways in which white supremacism had been integrally tied to the capitalist mode of production. As Ransby puts it, she “recognized the historical significance of racism as the cornerstone of an unjust social and economic order in the United States extending back to slavery.” A “movement for black freedom, defined broadly, she thought, would inevitably be a movement against economic exploitation and the oppressive conditions faced by other groups within American society as well.”12
In 1936, Baker went to work for the Works Progress Administration’s Worker Education Project, focusing her efforts on labor education and encouraging Black workers to “not be satisfied with things as they are” and instead “see the world as theirs and from which they have a right to take what rightfully belongs to them.” For Baker, it was necessary to organize not only at the points of production and distribution, but also at the point of consumption. As she put it in a syllabus on consumer education disseminated for the Project, “The wage-earner’s well-being is determined as much at the points of distribution and consumption as at the point of production.” And because “recurrent ‘business slumps’ and the increased mechanization of industry tend to decrease the primal importance of the worker as producer,” working people “must be oriented to the increasingly more important role of consumer.”13 This falls in line with a broadly left vision, one plainly shared by King, of an economy driven not by profit and private ownership, but rather by an attentiveness to human needs. But more to our point, for Baker—as for King, Harding, and others of the Black radical tradition—the full breadth of the epistemic critique is shaped by the lived realities of the Black masses, wherever and however they may live, work, and consume.
Emergent here is a powerful retort to the generalized distrust of the Black poor and working class, which is so pronounced in managerial configurations of Black politics. Robert Gooding-Williams has shown that one attempt to avoid replicating a ruler-centered politics, which in this case is premised on the assumption of a need to reform or modernize “culturally backward” Black masses, is to declare a kind of independence, and thereby position oneself to imagine the possibility of its abolition.14 We might say that Baker and a whole cast of intellectuals and activists concerned with grassroots education sought to declare independence from racial capitalism’s terms of order, from its hierarchies, from the presumption of governability. Baker would insist in 1964, the year that she and other SNCC organizers helped to establish over fifty Freedom Schools in Mississippi, that “we want to bring the student to a point where he questions everything he reads or is taught—the printed word, movies, the ‘power structure’—everything.”15
This orientation was the heart and soul of many efforts to institutionalize grassroots education, including those undertaken at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Myles Horton, the legendary labor organizer who founded the school in the 1930s, stressed the need for a radical break with the terms of order. “Most people don’t allow themselves to experiment with ideas, because they assume that they have to fit into the system,” he said in a dialogue with the radical educator and philosopher Paolo Freire just before his death. “They say how can I live out these things I believe in within the capitalist system, within the subsystem of capitalism, the microcosm of capitalism, the school system and within the confines of respectability, acceptance. Consequently, they don’t allow themselves to think of any other way of doing things.”16 To be sure, at its core Highlander was, according to historian David Levine, “unabashedly convinced that ‘ordinary people’ possess the power to transform themselves as they work to transform the society in which they live.”17 Highlander educator and “Mother of the Movement” Septima Clark stressed that the mission was to “see people as they see themselves and to help generate within them the desires and determination to improve their conditions.”18 But for our purposes, the point is that all of this requires a push for autonomy, independence, separation, flight from the structures and strictures of extant thought and experience. And this push for what Harding would call “liberated grounds on which to gather” is profoundly complicated by the historical embeddedness of formally institutionalized spaces for grassroots teaching, learning, and scholarship.
King’s involvement with Highlander is a case in point. He traveled to Tennessee in 1957 to give the closing address at Highlander’s twenty-fifth anniversary seminar. There he praised Highlander for its “dauntless courage and fearless determination,” drew out connections between the civil rights and labor movements, and closed with his signature call for “maladjustment”—essentially a mode of flight from the world as we have come to know and experience it.19 The session was infiltrated by the FBI. King was labeled a heretic and a communist. For years the right wing had sought to brand Highlander a “communist training school.”20 Tennessee state officials revoked Highlander’s charter in 1961 and forced the operation to flee to the mountains. Its work lived on. As the Poor People’s Campaign moved ahead following King’s death, for example, Highlander was right there on the front lines, holding workshops with the people, training foot soldiers in the fight against poverty and dispossession. But for Harding and those intent on carrying on this dimension of King’s legacy, the call for institutional autonomy had reached a crescendo.
The IBW was conceived as an “experiment in black responsibility for that intellectual work which defines and directs the black community.” Its “Statement of Purpose” fashioned a call to action in reference to King’s stirring tribute to another Black scholar-activist who had been branded a heretic and a communist, and who ultimately had been compelled to flee the country in an effort to gain some much-needed distance. “We dare to experiment,” the IBW statement read, “partly because we remember the words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., one year before his assassination, as he memorialized W. E. B. Du Bois. Dr. King said then: ‘It was never possible to know where the scholar Du Bois ended and the organizer Du Bois began. The two qualities in him were a single unified force.’”21 Also noted in King’s tribute was another driving theme of the IBW’s purpose, namely, the pursuit of truth, a commitment to the principle that what it means to give oneself over to Black study is to break through a “poisonous fog of lies.”22
In “Vocation,” Harding said that “there are few better summaries of our calling: to speak truth to our people, to speak truth about our people, to speak truth about our enemy—all in order to free the mind, so that black men, women, and children may build beyond the banal, dangerous chaos of the American spirit, towards a new time.”23 He also stressed, in what we now might recognize as a classic formulation in the Black radical tradition, that this requires a fundamental reworking of how we understand possession and property, indeed how we understand our embeddedness within racial capitalist society. “We are finally driven to remember our selves, to recollect our beings, to know that our deepest origins have little to do with American style, but are to be found in a series of cultures in which much emphasis is often placed on the living, acting, dancing, performing of the truth. Indeed, we come from great bodies of men and women who have for many centuries experienced what is fittingly known as possession by the truth. . . . Everyone who has ever observed or experienced possession in African peoples knows that it is not in any way respectable by American standards.”24 Drawing on ancestral memory in renouncing “actual being for historical being,” forging a “revolutionary consciousness . . . from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism,” anticipating a mode of Black study that is “in but not of,” Harding envisioned a Black institution that flatly rejects possession as property by racial capital and the neocolonial state, an institution that refuses to be owned and controlled. What he had in mind, rather, was an institution that is possessed by the truth, a Black institution that is, as Fanon put it in his final days, “slave to a cause.”25
Robinson, for his part, characterized it as “a frightful and uncertain space of being,” this liminal mode of passage “bridg[ing] the decline of one world order and the eruption (we may surmise) of another.”26 Harding said that it takes tremendous courage to enter this space and a willingness to disavow any notion of respectability. “Becoming personally involved in the concrete, active struggle for liberation, entering deeply into its life, and opening our own lives to its risks, is, of course, the most unrespectable aspect of the vocation.”27 One way to approach consideration of the material challenges involved in building an institution such as the IBW is to focus on the battle over the “respectability” of King’s legacy and its public-and private-sector financial sponsors. The post–civil rights electoral class and white liberal philanthropy fought very hard to fashion King as a paragon of liberal respectability. They provided at least some semblance of material support for institutions that would carry on the narrowest claims of King’s first-phase civil rights liberalism and carefully shut out those, such as the IBW, that saw a deeper truth in King’s struggle to expose the unrespectable underbelly of racial capitalism.28
In his 1969 book, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen raised alarm over white philanthropic interests that sought to invest in a range of Black-led organizations with the intent of filtering acceptable political ideology. As organizations such as the Ford Foundation moved to shape social policy, they became increasingly invested in managing dissent. Under the banner of “public affairs,” they prioritized reform over radicalism and sought to stabilize the political and economic order by encouraging the civil society organizations they supported to pursue “peaceful and constructive” solutions to urban unrest and rebellion. Emerging think tanks such as the Metropolitan Applied Research Center (MARC) and the Joint Center for Political Studies (JCSP) began their ascent in the world of shaping Black public opinion just as Ford and other sponsors began shifting their funding priorities to “serve the public need” through such mechanisms as public-private partnerships.29
The connections between the stifling of dissent so characteristic of Cold War liberalism and more concealed forms of philanthropic social manipulation were startlingly close. Ford’s president from 1966 through the mid-1970s, McGeorge Bundy, for example, had been a National Security Advisor during the Kennedy Administration and was a chief architect of the U.S. strategy in Vietnam. He believed that the expansion of Ford’s social mission was tied to the U.S. imperative to develop and stabilize markets at home and abroad. As Allen noted, “stability and capitalist development are essential to the tranquil internal growth and external expansion of the American empire. Instability and underdevelopment, whether at home or abroad, breed violence and revolution. It is for this reason that by the end of 1966 the Foundation had committed seventy-two million dollars to research in population control in the United States, Britain, Europe, Israel, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. It is for this reason that it devotes approximately one-fifth of its annual budget to training personnel and building economic institutions in underdeveloped countries . . . and it is for this reason that in September 1968, it announced plans to invest an initial ten million dollars in the building of black capitalism.”30 It would appear that the point of philanthropic investment in Black movements was to muddy the waters of Black dissent by rendering unimaginable the idea that the substantive shape of those very movements could operate outside the terms of the liberal consensus. The point, clearly, was to manage the Black masses.
If philanthropic organizations had embarked on a massive campaign to diversify their capital investments and curtail Black freedom dreams, many Black middle-class elites were willing to oblige. The King Center, of course, split with the IBW less than a year after its founding in 1970, largely over concerns about potential damage to its reputation and ability to attract and retain funding. But the split also highlighted an ideological battle over what political or public-sector support for Black freedom dreams would entail. The King Center’s view was informed by a remarkably constrained reading of King’s perspective on the conditions of poor and working-class Black people. In place of King’s own conclusions that racial partition, disinvestment, and uneven development were structural constraints on Black freedom, the King Center stressed the promise of equal opportunity and the crowning achievements of civil rights–era legislation.31 But “the broad mass of the black community was no less an internal colony now than in 1965,” Harding said a decade later, and the fact that “certain heirs of Martin King” had come to “support of the myth of Black Capitalism as a means to ‘Save Humanity’” was nothing short of obscene.32 The idea that persistent inequalities were simply a kink in an otherwise perfectible system poorly misjudged the depth of the problem and the urgent necessity of more expansive critique. As Harding put it, “the legal and penal system . . . the economic system . . . the healthcare system . . . the energy conservation system . . . the military . . . and culture” were all trained on the domination of Black and poor people, subjecting them, in one way or another, to vulnerability, suffering, and premature death.33
The funding constraints of the liberal consensus and the ownership claims over sponsored research initiatives had a profound impact on the shaping of the political imagination. Consider the case of the Joint Center for Political Studies. JCPS was cofounded in 1970 by the noted Black sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, who in 1965 helped to pioneer the “internal colonialism” thesis. America’s “dark ghettoes,” he wrote, were “social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies,” and their inhabitants “subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.”34 Yet the think tank that Clark later founded proffered a program of political managerialism and technocratic policy prescription that remained firmly anchored in the paradigm of the political and its presumptions of hierarchy, order, and governability. Having secured a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation in 1970, JCPS made its commitments clear: “attract increased support from officials, business leaders, foundations, corporations and the general public.”35 Black Enterprise noted in a 1978 article on JCPS that Clark’s later work leading a New York–based management consulting firm positioned him well as a mediating voice between the governing elite and Black public opinion.36 It is difficult to imagine how the outcomes of such an approach could be anything other than replication of the very structural relationships that feed the circuits of racial capitalist accumulation.
To be sure, following its initial work on Black studies in 1970-71, the IBW committed to its status as an activist think tank and sought to shape a Black political agenda. But this was never conceived as an exercise in technocratic governance. As Vincent Harding and William Strickland wrote of their “Black political agenda” in The New York Times in 1972, “blacks must resist the temptation to trust in [the political] system to bring forth a humane society . . . blacks must move to a politics of profound ‘black reconstruction.’ . . . Blacks must not only set the agenda, but organize and struggle to achieve it.”37 The IBW’s foray into electoral politics—its involvement in the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, as well as its support of the first mayoral campaign of Maynard Jackson in Atlanta—led rather quickly to a sense of disillusionment. Shunning what Harding called “politics as usual,” stressing what sounded a lot like King’s warnings about the pitfalls of political power conceived as an end in itself, Harding stressed that “electoral politics can be a viable tactic for liberation,” but only “if it is converted from transient political campaigns into a permanent political movement.”38 In other words, the IBW’s Black political agenda remained firmly grounded in the “heaving life of the Black masses.” Electoral politics can be useful, but only as an expression of a vibrant, worldmaking movement.
Ultimately the King Center found support for a narrow reading of King, while organizations such as MARC and JCPS developed political agendas in the service of custodial management. In doing so, they set the stage for appropriations of King’s vision and for projections of the Black freedom struggle that would become commonplace among white liberals and conservatives, corporate boards, philanthropic organizations, and indeed, the emerging Black political class. As Dylan Rodriguez has argued, the relationship between financial sponsorship and the controlling of political ideology is part and parcel of philanthropic hegemony in which “a set of symbiotic relationships . . . link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements.”39 The consequences are profound. The “non-profit industrial complex,” Rodriguez has shown, directs social energy into the reproduction of civil society with the expressed purpose of managing social relations and preserving a form of political rule. “The Left’s investment in the essential political logic of civil society—specifically, the inherent legitimacy of racist state violence in upholding a white freedom, social ‘peace,’ and ‘law and order’ that is fundamentally designed to maintain brutal inequalities in the putative free world—is symbiotic with (and not oppositional to) the policing and incarceration of marginalized, racially pathologized communities, as well as the state’s ongoing absorption of organized dissent through the non-profit structure.”40
The IBW, for its part, was in a tough spot. Senior associate and Ebony editor Lerone Bennett argued that while “there is no such thing as pure autonomy or pure black money,” the organization could still seek out some form of “relative autonomy.”41 He sought to reinterpret the acceptance of blood money not as indicative of dependency on white philanthropy, but rather as a form of reparative justice paid out by historically dispossessive perpetrators. Still, such philosophical justifications could not liberate the Institute from the discursive song and dance that fundraising required. Following the split with the King Center, staff members were forced to offset declining revenue by taking on additional jobs: paid speaking engagements, freelance work, and in some cases formal teaching appointments at established universities. A direct mailing campaign showed signs of promise, but the returns were always meager. The IBW tried to sell bigger donors on ideological plurality and a “synthesis of leading ideas and ideologies,” even as it was clear that their on-the-ground programming involved a less agnostic account of the organization’s aspirations. By 1972, the IBW was working in solidarity with prison uprisings and global working-class movements. Associates were hosting grassroots education workshops and directed readings of Amílcar Cabral’s Revolution in Guinea, Mary Frances Berry’s Black Resistance/White Law, Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers, and Gary Nash’s Red, White, and Black.42 Even if the IBW pronounced its “relative autonomy” to engage in unrespectable work, even if the Institute diversified its revenue streams, even if it was not of the colonial apparatus and the racial capitalist order, it most certainly operated in it. The endowment returns of its charitable sponsors continued to flow through accumulative circuits of dispossession and uneven development. The disciplinary gaze of dependency was constantly reinforced by the possibility that private donors could pull out at any time, for any reason. The legal apparatus of the capitalist state continued to provide protection and enforcement of the accumulative interests of the ownership class. And any white Northern universities that contracted with the IBW to advise and evaluate emerging Black studies programs had certainly gotten rich through the underdevelopment of the Black world. Despite any marginal Black studies initiatives, such schools were set up to continue greasing the gears of racial capitalist inequality.
There was initially some confusion over whether or not the IBW was a school, an aspiring “Black university” of the sort that Harding had theorized in tandem with his efforts to launch the IBW. Harding was a professor of history at Spelman when he—along with Gerald McWorter (later Abdul Alkalimat), a professor of sociology at Spelman, and Stephen Henderson, a professor of Black literature at Morehouse—laid the groundwork for an Institute for Advanced Afro-American Studies at the Atlanta University Center (AUC). This was the precursor to the IBW. As Derrick White has carefully documented, the IBW grew out of the Black studies movement that had roiled college and university campuses nationwide during the late 1960s.43 Established schools, including the Black colleges in Atlanta, proved to be deeply sedimented and inhospitable to Black studies. This led Harding and his comrades to pursue “relative autonomy” through institutional separation from the university.
To be sure, Harding did see promise in a radical renewal of Black higher education. Harding, McWorter, and others sketched out the concept of the “Black university.” In the pages of Ebony in 1970, Harding imagined this as “a new place or a renewed institution or a complex of institutions” driven by “an attempt to break with the long-established familiar patterns of white domination and control over black higher education.” He imagined a university that would “enter that stream of global anti-colonialism which refuses to educate young people primarily for the service of the colonizers.”44 The Black university had to disavow white American common sense about what colleges and universities are supposed to be. “Dark copies of dying whiteness are no longer needed,” he said. It was time for the Black university to break with a dying civilization, to get on the right side of history and demonstrate a “total commitment to the life” of the Black community and world.45 And he was clear that this was to be something distinct from the IBW, but an initiative that could be supported by it. “While those of us at the Institute of the Black World do not consider ourselves a Black University, we are building a research center which will perhaps help to create the content, direction and materials for those new or re-ordered institutions which have committed themselves in such black directions.”46
Harding was convinced that experiments at the time, such as the Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina, reflected a strong desire for a radically new kind of university.47 But he was clear that no established Black college or university in 1970 fit the mold. And the battles with administrators over Black studies programs at Morehouse and Spelman led Harding to think, at least initially, that King Center sponsorship would enable a greater degree of institutional autonomy. By the late 1960s, well into the daylight of the Black Power era, AUC administrators, like those at predominately white schools nationwide, were deeply concerned about burgeoning student radicalism and the institutionalization of Black studies on their campuses.48 A key flashpoint was the 1969 dismissal of Morehouse professor A. B. Spellman, who had been involved in a failed attempt with students to push for a Black-centered curriculum. The student-led Atlanta University Black Paper remarked on the episode, calling out the administration’s “authoritative, sophisticated force to squelch the thrust of the educational revolution,” what the students regarded as little more than an attempt to kowtow “to the interests of the Rockefellers, Fords, DuPonts and Harrimans.”49 For private institutions such as Morehouse and Spelman, structural dependency on white philanthropy made the prospects of radical renewal of the sort that Harding had in mind all but a nonstarter. He suggested that material support for the Black university concept would require claims on the public coffers and a “constant experimentation” with the “still untapped sources of funding within the black community.”50
When Harding and Henderson officially launched the IBW in January 1970, the organization had no formal affiliation with any college or university. Harding claimed that “for the life and work of the black scholar in search of vocation, the primary context is not to be found in the questionable freedom and relative affluence of the American university, nor in the ponderous uncertainties of ‘the scholarly community.’”51 That relative affluence, as Craig Steven Wilder has shown, was quite literally built on the back of African slave labor.52 As Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell put it, “there is no history of the university that is not also a history of capital accumulation and capital expropriation.”53 Whether we are referring to predominately white or historically Black schools, the American university’s mode of sustaining itself “was derived from and inventive of practices and structures of violence and captivity indissociable from the fact of their genesis as slaveholding settler institutions.” Though we tend to imagine that education is reducible to instruction, to a nurturing relation between students and teachers, its institutional reality is a “context constituted as much by students and instructors as it is by those who cleared furnace ashes and emptied chamber pots, by those whose communities were removed for campuses to take root, and by those whose bodies were used as the raw materials for scientiﬁc experimentation and discursive elaboration alike.” On and around today’s campuses, and across the global supply chains that serve them, living labor continues to serve dead labor as a means of “accumulation-by-education.”54 An ugly past gives way to a present university that continues these constitutive processes and refines their technologies. Universities remain settler colonial institutions, forged in the theft of Indigenous lands and captive labors, that continue to conscript students and their families, teachers and researchers, administrators and service contractors, bankers and speculators, and corporate managers and policy wonks in processes of growth and expansion. As la paperson puts it, “universities are land-grabbing, land-transmogrifying, land-capitalizing machines.” They are “gigantic machines that are attached to other machines: war machines, media machines, governmental and nongovernmental policy machines.”55 All of this was clear to Harding and his comrades in 1970, or at least enough so that the IBW had to be forged in flight.56 In the intervening half century, conditions have only gotten worse.
The university, la paperson writes, is a “world-making” institution, nowadays an amalgamation of three distinct “worlding formations.”57 Rooted in the logic of accumulation, “first worlding universities are machinery commissioned to actualize imperialist dreams of a settled world.” Here we identify the “academic-industrial complex: ‘research-ones’ preeminently, but also commercial universities and any other corporate academic enterprise that, regardless of its formal and thematic diversity, is characterized by an ultimate commitment to brand expansion and accumulation of patent, publication, and prestige.” There is also a “second” worlding formation, born of a “desire to humanize” and liberate, at least in the mold of Enlightenment liberalism. This formation, often reflected in liberal arts colleges, “may indeed offer meaningful challenges to the academic-industrial complex, and could be said to be a democratic and participatory academy that seeks to challenge and provoke the critical consciousness of its students toward self-actualization.” But this second worlding formation is defined by the “pursuit of questions of art, humanities, and a libertarian mode of critical thinking” that “displaces the possibility of sustained, radical critique and thereby remains circumscribed ‘within the ivory tower.’”58
The mode of the second university is at least part of what we are engaged in here, in our interpretation and application of King. This is the work of critical theory, of the deconstruction of systems of power and oppression. Such critical work is essential work. But all too frequently, critique remains only discursively or ideologically radical. Its lessons carry a “hidden curriculum” that “reflects the material conditions of higher education—fees, degrees, expertise, and the presumed emancipatory possibilities of the mind.” In other words, critique tends to depend upon and thus “reinscribe academic accumulation.” When we wax nostalgic about the world-expanding possibilities of a liberal arts education, la paperson says, we are “rarely talking about a university that rematriates land, that disciplines scholar-warriors rather than ‘liberating’ its students, that repurposes the industrial machinery, that supports insurrectionary nationalisms as problematic antidotes to imperialist nationalism, that acts upon financial systems rather than just critiquing them, that helps in the accumulation of third world power rather than simply disavowing first world power, that is a school-to-community pipeline, not a community-to-school pipeline.”59
As we consider the afterlives of King’s critique, we must question where this critique lives, how it lives, how it could be made to live and learn and grow in ways that are consistent with the fullness of King’s activist work and movement legacy. As an exercise in critical theory, it can be nurtured in the compromised space of the second university, informed by an external world that holds it in possession. But, in the legacy of King—and of Harding—it cannot in good faith be sequestered in the pages of an academic book or in the memory of a liberal arts college alumna who loved her seminar on Black history but who went on to work in sales and still owes tens of thousands of dollars on her student loans.
Harding, for his part, rejected the imperialism of the first university and disavowed the liberal escapism of the second. He sought to reorient Black study and scholarship around the principle of “community in struggle.” In this, his vision aligns with what la paperson refers to as the university’s “third worlding” formation. Implicit in this phrasing are connections with the Third World Liberation Front, including the watershed battle over Black studies at San Francisco State University in 1968, and the larger legacy of the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the anti-colonial movements of the Global South. The “third world” locution is not accidental. Within the modern university are “decolonial riders,” “by-products,” pieces of “colonialist scrap” who “desire against the assemblage” that made them.60 Here the work is “interdisciplinary, transnational, yet vocational,” and very much in the way that Harding imagined.61 It all goes on in the university’s “underground,” as Harney and Moten would say, in the “downlow lowdown maroon community of the university,” in the “undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”62
Whether we are referring to Harding and his IBW comrades or those involved in contemporary debates over “Black study,” the idea is to nurture prophetic assemblages of inquiry and action that go well beyond academic critique, well beyond what Harding called the “ponderous uncertainties of ‘the scholarly community.’”63 It is not clear that King’s critique of racial capitalism is most at home in the university, even in its undercommons. This is why the case of the IBW—and perhaps the more speculative, untested idea of the Black university, which would necessarily bear fewer traces of the colonial university’s three formations—remains instructive.
The IBW practiced a form of “collective scholarship” as a deliberate counter to capitalism’s technologies of partition and individuation, which in our neoliberal moment are so frequently replicated in the disciplinary wall building and credentialing processes of the professionalized academy. As Harding put it, “in the same way that we break beyond false boundaries of Western colonialism, attempting to recreate our essential Pan-African unity, expressing our solidarity with the larger pro-human struggles, so too our truth demands that we reject the artificial barriers of the academic disciplines to seek the human unity which underlies the experience of our people.”64 Surely this was intended to help safeguard against narrow knowledge production and the commodification of scholarship and credentialed expertise that could be packaged and neatly sold into the technocratic calculus. But more to the point, such “collective scholarship” signals a mode of speculative togetherness and movement building that is less derivative of the university, less well defined by subversive flight into its netherworlds, less interested in “stealing what one can.” It is more an act of building than of taking.
Perhaps we can come at the point via IBW lecturer James Boggs. During his 1974 visit to the IBW in Atlanta, Boggs spoke of race and class, indeed of racial capitalism, and of the need to battle contradictions in struggle. “The eruption of the black movement,” he said, “exposed the historical connection between racism and capitalism and made it clear that it was not possible to get rid of racism in this country without getting rid of American capitalism any more than it was possible to carry on a struggle to reform the South without carrying on a struggle to change this entire nation.” Any struggle, he continued, “may start out with the aim of resolving one contradiction. But in the course of the struggle, if the contradiction which it sets out to negate is fundamental enough, the main contradiction may change; it may become enlarged or expanded. Struggle is social practice and when you engage in social practice, you gain new insights. You find out that there was much more involved than you had originally perceived to be the case when you began your struggle.” In this way, “you are faced with the need to raise your level of understanding, your level of conceptual knowledge. If you do not raise your level of understanding as the struggle expands and develops, then what began as a progressive struggle can turn into its opposite.”65
What Boggs is describing is the critique of racial capitalism born and bred in the movement of a people. This aligns with the story we have sought to tell of King—a figure who was both in and of what Boggs calls “social practice,” who battled contradictions in solidarity with his people, who in the process was made to see other contradictions, to elevate his consciousness, to speak and write about his findings, and to keep learning and growing and building. It is this “social practice” that scholarly institutions must attach themselves to if they are to stay true to the spirit of King’s critique. If the university is ill suited for this task, as Harding seems to have concluded a half-century ago, then perhaps we must continue seeking institutional girders elsewhere, perhaps in those “black institutions” that are “yet to be born.”
“To Speak Now of Building . . .”
To be sure, King’s critique is at home in what contemporary theorists call Black study. “We are committed,” Moten says, “to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.”66 It is truly striking how well this formulation of Black study resonates with King’s vision of life and labor in the beloved community, in that rising tumult of aspiring mutuality, necessarily speculative, with one foot planted in and another stepping out beyond the constraints of the racial capitalist order. King relished the thought of ordinary people taking the time to a read a book and engage their neighbors in conversation about its subject matter. And, most crucially and most scandalously, he imagined people getting paid for doing this. Or, if we prefer a less wage-centered formulation, materially sustained for doing this. The point is that this kind of Black study, what Moten goes on to call “a sort of sociality,” demonstrates its worthlessness as a fuel for the engines of commerce and indicates very clearly that new engines, productive forces that can run on sociality as a more sustainable biofuel, must be built.67
One overarching objective of this book has been to consider how King wrestled with the suffocating constraints of the racial capitalist machine. The great dreamer knew that we can’t just dream up the revolution of values. As Harding put it, King “was wise enough to know that you can’t get at values just by saying you’re going to get at values. You’ve also got to get at the structures that support the values.”68 Black study as an afterlife of King’s critique requires not only ideological and epistemic work, but also a fully embodied confrontation with the technologies of racial capitalism: its mechanisms, its material circuits, its institutions that enable and sustain its reproduction. The marginal spaces of the modern university are but one case study. And one key lesson from this case is that we must look beyond the “‘representational’ work of knowledge production that we associate with the university” in order to also confront “the steam and pistons, the waterworks, the groundworks, the investments, the institutional-governmental-capitalistic rhizomatics of the university.”69
Contemporary notions of a fugitive Black study that is “in but not of” the university reflect both a certain optimism about the richness of the transgressive work always already thriving in the undercommons, but also a certain pessimism about institutional change. Robin D. G. Kelley points out how this scholarly fugitivity bears relation to IBW comrade Walter Rodney’s notion of the “guerilla intellectual.” But “unlike Rodney’s guerrilla intellectuals,” Kelley says, “Harney and Moten’s guerrillas are not preparing to strike, planning to seize power, contesting the university (or the state; the difference isn’t always clear)—at least not on the terms they have set. To do so would be to recognize the university and its legitimacy and to be invested in its regimes of professionalization.”70 The concern, as Harney puts it, is that “by making a request to authority one is already implicating oneself.”71 But if the traditionally recognized university and its regimes of professionalization hurdle toward a legitimacy crisis as neoliberal inequality and Black suffering carry forth, perhaps questions of abolitionism and flight take on a new salience. The limitations of making a claim on authority are real. But beyond practices of sneaking in and stealing what one can, the prospect of simply abandoning these institutional spaces is becoming both more viable and more imperative.
For decades the neoliberal imagination has been consumed by the specter of “dark times.” Things have become so bleak, so despairing that, to paraphrase Wendy Brown, we are unsure if it is just the times that are dark or the world itself.72 Part of the value in revisiting the era of King and Harding, of sympathizing with the collective struggles of the Black radical tradition, is that it helps to situate the scholarly fugitivity of today’s neoliberal pessimism in historical perspective. Not unlike the most sobering critics today, King and Harding grasped the power of the possessive hold, the ways in which our extant organizations—and the state, the market, the antiblackness that possess them—are set up to reproduce themselves. King and Harding were, like we are, thoroughly discontented with all of this. But their era reflected a spirit of collective worldmaking that put the times in their place, as moments in history. King was able to cast his era’s “deep rumbling of discontent” as the “thunder of disinherited masses rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom.”73 The powerful and exploitative profiteers “resent our discontent,” he said, because they “resent our organizing.”74 It is this worldmaking spirit—born of critique, necessarily collective in nature—that led King’s scholarly heirs to take flight even of the undercommons and to strike out into the open, to join together in bold and disciplined efforts to build, indeed to institute, the Black world.
Let us not forget that King warned about integrating into a burning house.75 Does Black study in the tradition of King call for some kind of reinvestment in established universities and their “institutional-governmental-capitalistic rhizomatics”? Or are we called to look for a fire exit and turn our attention to building up the likes of the Highlander Center and the Institute of the Black World? Harding put the question this way: “What institutions must be discarded now in order that they may be more fully prepared to break the circle of white power? What chances and risks must we take in our own time in order to help them towards better positions for their own overcoming movement?” These are the kinds of questions—at once wildly visionary yet life-directing and immediately pragmatic—that present themselves in the afterlives of King’s critique. For ultimately, King spoke of a “black revolution,” one that “reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”76 It remains frightful and uncertain work, but such is the struggle to bridge the decline of one world and the eruption of another.
By the time King’s life gave way to its afterlives, frightfulness and uncertainty had become prominent themes for him.77 He was deep into the second phase of his struggle. Reform had given way to revolution, and he repeatedly reminded himself and his audiences that so much of the modern world as we have come to know it had to be forsaken, including material support for movement work to rebuild that very world. To commit to addressing systemic rather than superficial flaws “may mean the death of your bridge to the White House,” he said to SCLC colleagues in his last year. “It may mean the death of a foundation grant. It may cut your budget down a little.”78 But this is precisely the biting edge of the critique, and by no means does it signal the death of the work. The movement endures. Our efforts to reconstruct King’s critical theory of capitalist society have led us to interpret and translate his ideas, to fill in gaps and occasionally move beyond his words and context. But we have uncovered a few threads—a distinctive dialectical mode of inquiry, an analysis of how human beings are held in relation to one another and differentially valued under capitalism, a sense that capitalist society requires and reproduces violent enforcement of racial formations and inequalities, on both domestic and international stages. We have homed in on King’s sense that, as he put it in his last year, “racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together,” that “you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.”79 King’s critique belongs to the tradition that shaped it, that carried on after his death, and that continues to reverberate within today’s insurgent Black movements.