“Descendants of Freedom”[i]: Free Black Communities Drowning in Violence
A 2020 Prism Commission, Aferro Publication No. 31Wanted: “Asylum from the deep degradation”
We, the people of the Republic of Liberia, were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America.
We were compelled to contribute to the resources of a country which gave us no protection.
All hope of a favorable change in our country was thus wholly extinguished in our bosoms, and we looked with anxiety for some asylum from the deep degradation.
– Excerpt from The Liberian Declaration of Independence written in July 16, 1847.
It is striking that the houses that the former American “slaves” built in Liberia resembled the plantations of their former enslavers.
Perhaps, white American violence coursed through their veins and infected their imagination. They were compelled to prove themselves worthy of freedom by creating life-size replicas of their former worlds of captivity.[iii]
We dream that after surviving the rape and violence of slavery—these descendants of freedom would have imagined communities that were radically different.
But they did not.
They were in a theater of war.Uprisings Everywhere: Black Lives Matter Imagines a New Black Freedom
Whites are obsessed with Black freedom.
The recent uprising in response to the public executions of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have put criticism of Black activism on the world stage.
Black activism and white criticism are informed by the history of Blacks freedom fighters in this country, its territories, and the West Indies. A fight now several centuries long of being submerged in both a physical and psychic world of violence.
If Black activism against white supremacy was a theater of war, twentieth century leaders were its “generals” — imagine, men and movements like Marcus Garvey and UNIA. Later “generals” like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were slaughtered on the “battlefield.”
Today’s organizing does not have generals. It is “nappy,” it’s dykes,” it’s “losers,” it’s “winners,” it’s “fags,” it is “educated,” it is “poor,” it is “Hip Hop,” it is “punk,” and it is “homeless.”
It is homeless.
Rest in power Oluwatoyin Salau.
It is a radical framework taught by leaders like Ella Baker. Baker, an African American woman organizer, worked with King and reportedly urged him to allow other people to lead marches. She believed “group centered leadership” would strengthen the movement. Dispersing power weakened the centuries old white supremacist strategy of terrorizing key African American community leaders, buildings, homes, and churches.
This included government violence too, like the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) from 1956 –1979 which monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted various American activist groups. Mostly, they targeted African American activists with surveillance, harassment, and murder.
To prevent the rise of a Black messiah.
Free Black Communities: Making Home on Battle Fields
RE: COUNTERINTELLIGENCE PROGRAM
BLACK NATIONALIST – HATE GROUPS
- Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a “messiah”; he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Jr, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammed all aspired to this position.
– FBI COINTELPRO Records March 4, 1968
The term “messiah” evokes the idea that Blacks need a homeland, a salvation.
In 1816, The American Colonization Society (ACS), a coalition of white antislavery men and slave owners, fearful of free Black unity and revolt, founded Liberia to “encourage” Blacks to return to a “homeland” most had never even seen.
Blacks from around the country immigrated to Liberia. In their 1847 “Liberia Declaration of Independence,” the former enslaved and freed Blacks, now Americo-Liberians, explain the intractable violence of the United States:
Liberia is an asylum from the most grinding oppression…Amongst the strongest motives to leave our native land – to abandon forever the scenes of our childhood and to sever the most endeared connections was the desire for a retreat where, free from the agitation of fear and molestation.
Little did they know that their migration for freedom would literally expand the borders of American violence against more free Black communities.
Liberia would declare itself independent from ACS in July of 1847. The freed Blacks, the Americo-Liberians, oppressed Liberia’s indigenous communities, in a theater of war that ended violently in the 1980s.
Many of the older Americo-Liberians would flee to the United States.
Today, some indigenous Liberians squat in the dilapidated plantation-style buildings.
The First Free Black Communities: Material and Spiritual Transformation
In the nineteenth century, free Black communities in cities like Newark and Philadelphia were a menace to white supremacists. Free Black communities provided sanctuary to the fugitive enslaved and worked to empower free Blacks economically and socially.
As ACS Vice President Theodore Frelinghuysen declared Blacks were a “depressed people … lost in the midst of the white race,” he sought to “embody them in one neighbourhood, even in all their wretchedness.” Though he regularly encountered Black intellectuals and activists in Newark, like Samuel Cornish, co-editor of the first national African American newspaper, he promoted this idea until his death. This false framework, Blacks as wretched infidels, would set the stage for the twentieth century policing of African Americans in free Black communities.
Newark’s First Presbyterian Church is the city’s oldest still standing church. It is located on Broad Street, one block from the Prudential Stadium and house music vendors blasting “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Follow Me.”
A “Black Lives Matter” banner boldly crosses the door where once Blacks were required to stand by the windowsills during services. This segregation occurred nationally but in different forms, forcing Blacks to stand on the outskirts of the pews or in balconies, sections called the “nigger pew” or “African corner.” Many of the Blacks would leave First Presbyterian Church to meet in their homes in Newark and then later to form their own church. A century later, Mae Williams, a member, wrote a song describing these early civil rights leaders, “Zealous, determined thirty-seven men, Free men in souls, tho some wore slavery’s chain.”
These free Blacks created what the Colonization society feared, a visible and radical Black freedom by helping the enslaved and demanding their rights.
The Blood: “Fortresses” and Bombs for Freedom
It is our opinion, that if all the blood of our colored brethren, shed by the people of the United States, since the Declaration of Independence, was kept in a reservoir, the framers of that instrument, and their successors might swim in it.
– The Colored Anti-Slavery Society of Newark, 1834
Free African Americans in Newark, Philadelphia, and New York used powerful, truthful imagery to connect with their audiences. Slavery was not an abstract concept, it was the kidnapping, rape, and murder of their families. The blood of their blood!
Freedom from violence was central to the agenda of Black free communities.
The Black Arts Movement in the 1960s expanded on the traditional African American use of arts and culture to strengthen free Black communities. “Spirit House” (organized by Amina and Amiri Baraka) was a community group housed in a three-story residential building that used cultural activism to dismantle the internalized violence from white supremacy (though the collective still wrestled with sexism).
Calling Spirit House, the “New Fortress,” Baraka writes in 2013,
I moved in and had it painted light green, with details of red and green, like the flag of the Black Nationalist Movement. It was to be a site for poetry readings, a place to hold discussions formal and otherwise, and a general gathering site…
The theater and poetry performances were one aspect of Spirit House, but the House’ (sic) very existence inside the Newark community brought changes to its function.
We changed the name of the city to its original charter name New Ark. This is what the English Christians who settled the city called it, it meant the same thing but very different for us. Since we intended for it to function as that, a New Ark for us, carrying and caring for a new crew of settlers. [vi]
Blacks would rename, create, and politically organize in places where their ancestors were enslaved. Contemporary acts of violence against Blacks included increased police brutality and substandard healthcare and education, essentially equating Blacks with outsiders.In 1985, in Philadelphia, the predominantly Black collective MOVE would be bombed by the police (with possible support by the FBI) after they barricaded themselves in the house. Four children and six adults were murdered and sixty-five houses in the Black community were destroyed.
It is said when the police commenced the attack that they shouted through a microphone, “Attention MOVE: This is America!”
A reminder that free Black communities were not “America.”
This Present Moment: Healing and Organizing from the Inside Out
Violence has had a deep influence on Black women and the ways that they organize. Black women have had to shield their internal emotions creating a “culture of dissemblance” to survive the layers of violence in their communities and the United States. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls and the bounty on Assata Shakur’s head—the battlefield of Black Freedom is canvassed with the blood and bodies of Black women and girls.
Were they . . . soldiers?
#BlackLivesMatter was founded by three radical Black women activists, two of them queer. The structure of BLM responds to these historical and unrelenting assaults of violence against free Black communities by maintaining group centered leadership and a “need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people,” an activism that invokes freedom of all Black lives.
A freedom that does not demand a performance of war.
[i] This title is attributed to Andre Lancaster (1979-2018), an LGBTQI writer and playwright whose courageous work illuminated Black communities fighting against violence for freedom.
[iii] In A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture and Mississippi in Africa both authors explore the deep influence American culture had on the Americo-Liberians. In fairness and solidarity, I have included a statement from the Historical Preservation Society of Liberia Facebook post September 7, 2018 “Americo-Liberian” architecture, rather than an American South imitation, is actually uniquely Liberian, influenced by the British Colony of Sierra Leone, British Caribbean tropical housing, local African building traditions, and the American South.”
[iv] Noelle Lorraine Williams, Queen Latifah_ Marcus Garvey, Digital Reconstruction, 2015 archetypes.http://www.noellelorrainewilliams.com/remixed-historical-photos.html
[vii] MOVE still needs help to free imprisoned members they are accepting donations at https://www.paypal.me/MichaelAfricaJr. Please visit the page of Mike Africa Jr. who fought to free the members and his parents https://mikeafricajr.com/