Buddhists have a saying: “No mud, no lotus.” The most beautiful flower sprouts from the most putrid muck. But not on its own. Suffering does not sublimate itself. It takes careful work. In the case of Black suffering, it has taken constant organizing, artistic innovation, and conceptual rebellion. Much of this work has fallen to scholars, activists, poets and philosophers largely excluded from the Western canon.

In a column published June 21, the Press Herald facilitated this exclusion. Roger Bowen’s “Liberalism has changed, evolved along with our republic” attempts to shoehorn the Black Lives Matter movement into philosophical liberalism. He calls liberalism “the antecedent to Black Lives Matter.”

This is bad intellectual history. Black Lives Matter is the latest flower of the Black Radical Tradition. This tradition has partly functioned, since the 17th century, as a radical critique of liberalism (and of orthodox Marxism, more below). Enlightenment, early modern, classical and modern liberalism have all, in one way or another, whitewashed colonial plunder and enabled imperial domination. Liberalism has long been handmaiden to anti-blackness. It has helped varnish a lawless, racist system with the genteel language of inalienable rights.

Indeed, Mr. Bowen’s own vacillation between an acknowledgement of liberalism’s attachment to “democratic practices” that were “discriminatory and especially intolerant toward black Americans” and his fawning over what is “truly distinctive about America’s governing principles” encapsulates the doublespeak of liberalism. Truth and justice out one side of its mouth, death and misery out the other.

The Black Radical Tradition includes thinkers as diverse as the cultural scholar Paul Gilroy, towering abolitionist Angela Davis and the less famous but no less insightful Ruth Wilson Gilmore. One of the most thorough explorations of Black Radical thought and practice is Cedric J. Robinson’s “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.”

In that 1983 book, Robinson coins a concept that has profound relevance today: racial capitalism. By “racial capitalism,” Robinson means the combination of pre-capitalist European feudal caste systems with modern race-based slavery. This system grew from structures that predate 1619, and it did not end in 1865. It is with us today, and is the answer to why COVID-19 is savaging Black lives. Racial capitalism is also why Maine has so marginalized and impoverished Wabanaki peoples. It is the source and ground of disparate Black suffering. Against the global structures of racial capitalism have emerged countless examples of Black radicalism.


Robinson writes “The Black Radical Tradition was an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle.” To Robinson, this tradition includes but exceeds Marxism. “For Black radicals,” Robinson writes, “Marxism appeared distracted from the cruelest and most characteristic manifestations of the world economy.” And yet Black radicals face these cruelties head on, pained yet unflinching, and distill new ways of being.

bell hooks faces what she calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and distills new pedagogies and feminist theory. Audre Lorde shows us Black radicalism in poetry, womanism and “biomythography.” C.L.R. James shows us Black radicalism in anti-colonial struggle. Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza faced George Zimmerman’s acquittal and coined #BlackLivesMatter. They founded perhaps the most multiracial, multigender, cross-class movement in American history.

Crucially, the Black Radical Tradition is not merely a pantheon of thinkers and famous activists, but many unknown people living and fighting against the grain of racial capitalism. Right now, a Black radical is in prison trying to stay sane. This minute, a Black radical just wrung a morsel of dignity from a power-high boss. BLM Portland, a collective of Black organizers and activists, gave Maine’s biggest city a political wake up call, yet its members eschew canonical status and describe their structure as horizontal and democratic.

Black Lives Matter does not vindicate liberalism. It exposes and upends liberalism. Black Lives Matter comes from four centuries of challenging the system and blasting preconceptions.  What a pity that Mr. Bowen, a self-described political scientist, ignores this tradition of Black radicals resisting the worst of the West. What a pity that the two names that appear in his column are of dead white men. But then again, from the state with America’s worst COVID-19 racial disparity, maybe one should expect no better.

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