1968’s Revolutionary Echoes

David Austin, ed., Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness (Toronto: Pluto, 2018); 287 pages; ISBN 978-0745338651 (paperback)

• February 2020

“If the descendants of the enslaved learned to read, they would have a lot more clarity on what is happening in the world. They would become a threat to the system,” explains journalist Vladamir Durace in the aftermath of Haiti’s Lasalin Massacre on 13 November 2018, in which police openly fired on the coastal town’s residents before proceeding to dismember, rape, and murder dozens of people.1 In scenes reminiscent of François Duvalier’s notorious death squads, Lasalin’s residents watched as police burned down their homes and killed their loved ones, feeding the remains to stray pigs and dogs. Since the Haitian Revolution, the formerly enslaved and their descendants have struggled against oligarchies, empires, and the violent systems of both. Today, like before, radically literate Haitians and Africans, and their global black descendants, present a serious threat to the status quo.

Fifty years before the Lasalin Massacre, at the 1968 Congress of Black Writers, C. L. R. James vehemently denounced the Duvalier dictatorship. James condemned black folks for aligning with Duvalier only because he was “a black man” (105). James declared Duvalier’s Haiti the “worst and most corrupt government in Latin America” and the principal reason behind his decision not to travel to the island nation, which inspired his classic work, The Black Jacobins (106). At the time, James challenged arbitrary cultural ties and instead advocated for a revolutionary black consciousness grounded in decolonization, communism, and, fundamentally, freedom—the driving principles for the 1968 congress.

Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness, edited and introduced by David Austin, poignantly captures the Pan-Africanist revolutionary fervor of what “was one of the most important black international gatherings of the post-Second World War period” (2). In this timely collection, Austin gathers speeches, interviews, and correspondence covering Montreal’s Congress of Black Writers: Towards the Second Emancipation [and] the Dynamics of Black Liberation. The congress spanned critical conversations focused on the state of black labor, African decolonization, Garveyism’s legacy, and black leadership internationally in the struggle for socialism, alongside other issues. Alvin Poussaint, James, Robert Hill, Walter Rodney, Richard B. Moore, Richard Small, Harry Edwards, James Forman, and Stokely Carmichael were among the event’s featured presenters who spoke on black radical thought at the height of mass worldwide uprisings and in the wake of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The era surrounding this congress radiated the energy of millions who were convinced revolutionary change was not only possible but imminent. From Algeria to Cuba, from Poland to Vietnam and Zimbabwe, this sentiment was palpable. Austin’s Moving Against the System places Montreal on 1968’s international map, specifically as a site of diasporic, Caribbean, and African radicalism.

As Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas, chairman of the Congress of Black Writers Committee, conveyed in his invitation to James, the four-day congress attempted “to trace the whole history of the black liberation struggle in a series of popular lectures” (251). Each speech is riveting. Audience members’ questions and writers’ rebuttals are fascinating. The tense debates among participants and attendees are revealing. Collectively, Poussaint’s “The Psychology of Subjection,” James’s “The Haitian Revolution and the History of Slave Revolt,” Hill’s “The Fathers of the Modern Revolt: Marcus Garvey and the Origins of Black Power,” Rodney’s “African History in the Service of Black Liberation,” Moore’s “The Civilizations of Ancient Africa” and “Black History in the Americas,” Small’s “Race in Britain and the Way Out,” Forman’s “Frantz Fanon and the Third World,” and Carmichael’s “Black Power in the USA” nourish our understandings of black radicalism then and in the present. Even now their words encourage ideological clarity in a moment of corporate misinformation, digital distraction, and “fake news.” Edwards’s provoking intervention, “Moving Against the System: New Directions for the Black Struggle,” advocates for truth-seeking and truth-telling to dismantle the genocidal systems waging war against oppressed peoples. None of the presentations evaded questions of colonialism, capitalism, or imperialism. Nor did they sidestep uncomfortable questions about coalitions and white camaraderie. Rather, each presenter modeled speaking truth to power.

In addition to the ten speeches, the book includes the editor’s introduction, a political manifesto, editorial pieces, event correspondence, and extensively rich notes. Austin’s introductory chapter is a captivating historical narrative that contextualizes the 1968 black radical world by exploring gender politics, revolutionary poetry, the Sir George Williams University protest, and Jamaica’s expulsion of Rodney postcongress. Perhaps the most blatant shortcoming of this historic congress was the absence of black women officially featured. While no black women spoke on record, we can nonetheless imagine their contributions in ways unseen, from logistics for the event to strategy meetings to their intellectual exchanges with their partners, friends, and comrades. Their words most certainly informed final speeches and thoughts circulating at congress panels and caucuses, as Austin remarks in an interview.2

Given this gap, in one of the book’s closing chapters Austin aptly includes “A Black Woman Speaks Out” by Barbara Jones, which was published upon the congress’s conclusion. Jones outlines the event’s overall impressions and the country-specific resolutions regarding the conflict in Nigeria as well as the call for an international communications center to be formed. Additionally, Jones raises gender as one of the historical themes writers acknowledged within their political formations of race, nation, and class: “The writers made the point that the role of black women in the progress of black peoples must be emphasized, even though slavery cruelly disrupted the extended family and the honored place of the woman in black society” (235). Fifty years later, in the twenty-first century, black women’s leadership is central to the vitality, clarity, and legitimacy of social movements. This is most recently evidenced by the founding of Black Lives Matter and by emergent spaces like the international school of Transnational Decolonial Black Feminism in Brazil.

Austin additionally identifies another of the congress’s weaknesses as the lack of “speakers from the African continent, Latin America, and the non-anglophone Caribbean” (43). Nevertheless, writers were engaged in analysis across a broad political terrain from the African continent and throughout its diaspora. Perhaps more noticeable in both the congress transcriptions and Austin’s introduction is the insufficient analysis of black radicalism throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. While speakers praised Cuba as the Revolution neared its tenth anniversary and denounced the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, there is minimal reference to other revolutionary struggles. Yet at the time, black- and indigenous-led socialist, labor, and other freedom movements abounded, from Guatemala and Honduras to Bolivia and Venezuela, as they do today. Moreover, Garveyism and Pan-Africanist thought made noteworthy strides in the non-English-speaking Americas, unifying black majorities under an African liberation banner. Nonetheless, as Austin writes, undeniably the congress was “a black international event that tenuously bridged generations and political perspectives” (43).

For anyone studying African, Pan-African, and Caribbean black radical tradition and revolutionary struggles, as well as their dynamic intersecting histories, Moving Against the System is a must-read. The book’s commemorative release on the congress’s fiftieth anniversary exudes 1968’s revolutionary effervescence, recalling “a period when people discussed the dynamics of social change with a sense of urgency, as if their lives depended on it” (xii). This collection urges readers to recognize black radicalism’s protagonistic role throughout history—not necessarily to reassert black humanity but rather to affirm black leadership in the fight for liberation. Moving Against the System arrives at a time when our world desperately hungers for truth to overcome the foreseeable obstacles from US-led warfare, climate catastrophe, and the rise of white nationalism. As Forman states in his homage to Fanon, “We call upon our brothers and sisters to intensify the revolutionary consciousness among our people, to unite in the fight against racism, capitalism, and imperialism. It is through our unity and an unrelenting struggle by whatever means necessary that we will help in the liberation of oppressed people throughout the world” (212). Their call resonates now more than ever.

 

 

Jeanette Charles, a proud daughter of the Haitian diaspora, is a scholar, popular educator, journalist, and organizer. Presently she is pursuing her PhD in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, focusing on the black radical tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean. Prior to this, she studied at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, with the Cátedra Libre África, a research institute focused on Afro-Venezuelan, African diasporic, and African continental histories. 


1. For more information about the Lasalin Massacre, see Vladimir Durace, “Is It an Accidental Event, a Fight between Rival Gangs to Control an Area, or a Calculated and Planned Political Act?,” Haiti Solidarity, February 2019, translated and republished by Haiti Action Committee, https://haitisolidarity.net/the-lasalin-massacre/ (italics in original).

2. See “Nations and Nègres: An Interview with David Austin by Peter Hudson,” The Black Scholar, 6 June 2015, https://www.theblackscholar.org/nations-and-negres-an-interview-with-david-austin/.