PRESENTED BY FRED HO at the Left Forum2010 on 21 March--
For more than 30 years, FRED HO has been a radical musician, composer, scholar and REVOLUTIONARY activist. Ho was the first Asian American to receive the Duke Ellington Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award. His music fuses Asian and African traditions, and he is known for his critical take on the term "Asian American Jazz."
This is a groundbreaking essay that will help inspire and push us forward down the 21st Century Revolutionary Path of Resistance & Struggle.
Since the revolutionary struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, at its crest, over 100 black studies departments existed throughout the U.S. Over 100 black professional theater companies had come into existence. Over 100 black-owned movie theaters flourished.
Asian American studies became to blossom and flower throughout the U.S. Asian American arts organizations, from traditional to contemporary, in all disciplines, also increased. In 2010, while African American and Asian American Studies have received
varied institutionalized stability, the artistic and activist landscape has been decimated. There are no professional fulltime black theaters in existence any more. With the exception of the Magic Johnson Movie theaters (in Harlem and Los Angeles), black movie houses have all folded. Asian American arts organizations have also had tremendous losses. Where is the Black Left? Or, the Asian American Left? Who is to blame? Why has this happened? What has happened to the Ethnic Studies movement for African Americans and Asian Americans? How have African Americans and Asian Americans been pitted against each other in the era of multiculturalism? How has the popular election of President Barack Obama demanded new forms of struggle? What is to be done?
In this essay, I shall argue that the degree of "assimilation" and acceptance within frameworks and structures of American mainstream society reflect the inverse declination of African American and Asian American self-reliant and independent vigor respectively, as well as the degree of solidarity between their interactions. I shall also examine "the historical record" between the impact of Left-leadership and the accomodationism and quiescence of mainstream-appealing and annoited leadership and argue with historical example of how efforts and energies towards self-reliance and independence make irrelevant such a problem as "the glass ceiling."
Finally, I shall argue that the actual quality of artistic and intellectual production has diminished as Blacks and Yellows rush to the big White house, a burning house as described by Malcolm X more than 40 years ago, for which I still agree with X's description. Finally, I shall argue that the rise of a younger generation of African American and Asian American "hip hop" "gen x" "multicultural" pop cultural pundits and would-be scholars are scrambling more for a "piece of the action" than any real interest in Afro-Asian unity building as a force in furthering the liberation struggles of their respective groups.
It would be entirely incorrect and mistaken to equate the upsurge of grassroots populism that carried Obama’s election as America’s first African American president with the revolutionary upsurges of the 1960s and early 1970s that ushered in an unprecedented array of revolutionary organizations and popular institutions throughout American society, including the advent of African American and Asian American studies and activist and artistic-cultural organizing.
One of the clear and massive by-products of those revolutionary upsurges was the expansion of the professional classes of Third World peoples in the U.S. and their entrances into previously excluded sectors of public and private institutions. The popular struggles not only had forced open many of these institutions, but as part of these dominant institutions plan to contain and better control the best, brightest and most committed of these activists and rising leaders, the very inclusion of these opponents conveniently and expediently came to serve as a major force in the cooptation of these respective movements. Once dependent upon careers, livelihoods, better standards of living, prestige, notoriety—a slew of recognitions and rewards—potential dissidents and opposition could be easily turned into dependents. Many once primarily self-reliant, independent, activist-led organizations would soon join the ranks of the growing non-profits (and thereby turned into lesser versions of mainstream institutions) or be decimated or made obsolete by better-funded mainstream operations run with either minimal to significant presence of womyn, queers and Third World people.
Another divide and conquer ploy was privileging certain groups to the entitlement troughs and putting others further back in line, increasing a hierarchy of disenfranchisement resulting in an envy for those closer to the trough. The franchise of tokenism had a ranking order: at the front of the dole outs are usually white women, then blacks, followed by affluent queers, then latinos, and the bulk of Asian Pacifics making up the rear. No better example of the construction of this scenario is the treatment and condition of so-called Area Studies: Women, Ethnic and Queer Studies.
THE TROJAN HORSE OF THE JOINT APPOINTMENT
As part of coopting these new areas of cultural production and educational incursions, most of the conventional and longstanding departments of the Sciences and Mathematics, the Social Sciences and the Humanities remain bastions of white male dominance. No clearer example is the University of Hawaii-Manoa where white males who emigrated to Hawaii for their appointments remain both the numerical and administrative dominance despite the concession of Area Studies, including Asian American Studies and the Center for Hawaiian Studies, in a state in which people of Asian, Pacific and Hawaiian descent have been both the historic and current numerical majority. The power of tenure, like Supreme Court Justice appointments, is a power of anointing and preserving those who both serve interests of and reflect somewhat the demographics of the rulers.
African American studies for the most part in the U.S. was conferred departmental status by most higher educational institutions.
Unlike a department which can tenure its own faculty and thereby preserve its integrity, stability and independence, the status of a program, which has been more the case for Asian American and Latino studies, requires that hirings and faculty tenure be supported by one of the mainstream departments. It is no wonder that we see in this era of funding cuts, faculty hiring freezes and growing professional careerism and self-preservation that in every instance of a joint appointment, Asian American studies programs are being betrayed by such faculty who will not defend, stand with, fight for, much less even identity with or support the survival of the very programs that fought for and brought them to the campus. If there is one example of a joint appointed faculty member who spoke up against the mainstream department, sided with Asian American studies over the mainstream department, please shout out their name now.
The very future of Asian American studies, should the policy of joint appointments continue, is certain death. The handful of established Asian American studies departments will become ethnic enclaves impotent against the political and ideological onslaught of white studies and its current ideological and political assaults for which I have termed, OBAMIFICATION, and for which I will discuss further below. But before I do so, another threat to Area Studies has to do with the evisceration of its own intellectual and creative innovations, its own self-poisoning.
CULTURAL STUDIES WITHOUT CULTURAL PRODUCTION
Increasingly the Area Studies are being infected and transmogrified by the virus of “cultural studies”, latest in an array of trendy so-called post-structural ideological assaults upon Marxism (deemed the boogie man granddaddy of structural analysis because it targets The System). Like the term post-modernism, its proponents and adherents have neither a unified nor coherent definition of its meaning or its purpose. Much of the focus of cultural studies seems to be on literature and the media and visual arts, though some attention seems to be increasing for the performing arts. This is not surprising since many professors can ostensibly study culture by simply staying safely in the libraries or well-secured in barrenly private special collections. For those interested in music and theater as performing arts and not simply as artifacts conveyed via published scores or scripts, without engaging the mélange of live performances, they can easily listen via the internet downloads or watch videos and rarely venture forth into a social experience, as performers and their audiences must constantly do so. Somehow it is believed that avoiding the contamination of actual experience elevates an intellectual’s potency.
In reality, what we have is the increasing impotence of what had been powerful, counter-hegemonic, alternative narrative scholarship and intellectual creativity, important compliments to the people’s liberation struggles to transform education and make it serve radical socio-cultural transformation. We have culture being studied by those who cannot create culture. Even furthering the fragmentation and divorce of theory and practice, not only are the analyzers of poetry or music not able to write a poem, compose or play a tune, they are incapable of even caring about whether the poetry or music that they are analyzing is any good. Good music or good poetry is left to music department composition or performance teachers or creative writing adjuncts. Needless to say, the recognition and salary rewards significantly favor those who analyze and think about art and culture over those who can create and perform it. Aesthetics has become anesthesized.
It is no wonder that many community people and those who wish for and seek meaning and practical application are either bored or confused. Area studies has lost its functionality, its service to the oppressed to obdurately oppose obfuscation, and instead, allows for all kinds of opprobrious con games.
Today, ask any of the cultural studies notables if they can write or read a poem, compose or perform music, and you will find them totally and completely unable as well as unwilling to do so, with actual contempt for cultural production and its producers.
The main cause for the setbacks and losses over the past four decades has been the assimilationist dependency so relentlessly critiqued by anti-colonizing forces a half century ago but which has become the sine qua non of today’s impotent intellectuals and their even more effete intellectual production. The mainstream gatekeeping of rewards and recognitions has done much to promote the effete and to marginalize, and in some cases, shut down or erase the earnest resistors. Let’s look at one of the system’s most prestigious and lucrative individual recognitions and fellowships: the Pulitzer Prize.
Let’s take three examples of more recent winners who are African American and contrast them with those who never got the award or in one celebrated figure, actually prevented from receiving it. The three recent African American artistic Pulitizer awardees I cite are poet Natasha Tretheby, playwright Susan Lori-Parks and composer-musician Wynton Marsalis.
None of these three, and I will extend this critique to probably all other Pulitizer Prize winners who may happen to be African American and Third World people, are innovators or forces of liberatory influence as three older examples (two of whom are still living, one deceased) I will put forward: poet Sonia Sanchez; playwright Aishah Rahman and of course, Duke Ellington.
Tretheby and Lori-Parks, besides both being weak practitioners of their respective craft, are tremendously boring, unable to break new ground either in subject matter or style. The most glaring inadequacy is Wynton Marsalis, who the late Miles Davis condemned as a musical Uncle Tom for having to “prove” that he can play western European classical music. Marsalis was conferred the Pulitizer Prize in musical composition for his sprawling and sophomoric big band work “Blood in the Fields” (his first). Marsalis was the first African American jazz musician-composer to receive the Prize in music. More than three decades earlier, in 1965, the first and only time the Pulitzer Prize for Music was not given to anyone was because Duke Ellington was slated to win it. Ellington, at the time 73 years in age, remarked in his graceful wit when being told of the Pulitizer board’s refusal to award him (after the Music committee had recommended him to be that year’s recipient), “Fate doesn’t want me to become too famous too young.” Marsalis received the award at age 36 (in 1997).
Those who are supreme creative talents, stylistic originals and formic innovators, but who assert an independent black aesthetic, uphold and purvey interests of self-organizing or lack the required and necessary obsequiousness or syncophantic genuflection to the alters of white establishment high art and intellectual forms and traditions, remain niggers and heathens.
Here is the final component to my analysis: Trojan Horses and Uncle Toms, while still employed and deployed, have given way to the latest and possibly most insidious incarnation of servility and sterility: Obama and Obamafication.
OBAMAFICATION: THE PERSISTENCE OF RACISM IN THE POST-RACIAL HYPE
The term post-racial has been bandied by academics to media pundits to describe the Obama ascension as evidence that America is well on the way to becoming a “post-racial” nation, meaning where racial identification and worse, racism, is quickly disappearing or lacking saliency. While acknowledgements of persisting racism and inequalities are made, the overwhelming sentiment is that if Americans can elect its first black President, then equal opportunity is clearly the dominant condition and that failures and problems have more to do with individual and perhaps cultural deficiencies than with social or systemic contradictions.
What is not apprehended is that the permeability of the system, to allow for a few tokens and acceptables to pass through, is the power of its perpetuation and persistence. The overall declination of black and yellow independence, self-reliance, and growing dependency and assimilation (meaning no other choice but to acquiesce, accommodate and attenuate), has brought about an acceptable condition to white supremacy and imperialism that the popular movements will be contained and channeled without the interference and opposition from countervailing revolutionary, radical or anti-imperialist forces. The Republican Party form of rule by outright white supremacy, blatant militarism, rapacious economic plundering, and the overall intensification of private profit from public losses and pain, has created a weaker U.S. imperialism, beset by internal and external anger and opposition. The ability to rule over its own population for a superpower with proclamations as a modern civilization is the ability to do so with finesse and transparency, and not from revolt-inspiring open and direct subjugation and plunder.
The mistake that the U.S. left, and especially the Communist Party of U.S.A. made during the World War Two-New Deal-Roosevelt Years was not its entry into a global united front with its own liberal Democratic Party bourgeoisie against Japanese-German-Italian facism, but to liquidate its own independence, even going so far as to dissolve itself. However, today Afro Asian ascension must be global. The two largest continents with the two largest populations and two most significant diasporas need to construct a global united front against U.S. imperialism and demand reparations (in the form of some of what I outline above as possible reforms), a curriculum of radical, liberatory educational imperatives that reject the gatekeeping mechanisms of mainstream institutions which foster and promote intellectual ivory prisons of academic servitude towards career aggrandizement; to energize grassroots activist and artistic movements that reject the seduction of assimilation and deradicalized accomodationism and embrace self-reliance, independence and anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism as their core mission.
To oppose Obamafication will require creative expansion into new ideological and political struggle. The very organizations and forms that we revolutionaries created 30-40 years ago have been co-opted. I’m talking about the so-called “non-profits” or NGOs, as well as Area Studies in the institutionalized academy. We can not take back these forms, nor can we out-compete them, and let us be absolutely clear: we cannot transform them from within. Rather, we must build our own, independent, self-reliant and explicitly revolutionary forms that are designed to attract the most radical and revolutionary artists and activists.
Hip Hop, as is often noted, is the step-child of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement. But it is a glaring example of co-optation, its cultural style, attitude and flavor so vigorously made to service Nike, Coca-Cola, MacDonalds and a host of corporate behemoths. The scholars and intellectuals of Hip Hop, from Michael Eric Dyson to Jeff Chang to Nelson George, won’t bite the hand that feeds them, namely corporate media. Rather than amplify revolutionary expression in Hip Hop, they situate and legitimate Hip Hop within mainstream acceptance.
What is to be done?
Ideologically, we must stop romanticizing the 1960s and early 1970s but do the hard summation and critique our own culpability in liquidating the national question in our obsequiously dogmatic rush towards Marxism, and a host of other political and strategic errors, so many to enumerate and analyze on this panel, and which demand at least an entire conference and continuing project to recognize and extirpate. We must eliminate our own egotism and openly and boldly admit to our errors. We must make self-criticism, and to proceed with rectification.
Concurrently, we must focus our intellectual and political efforts upon three critical areas, which have historically been the catalyst of revolutionary motion and energy in the U.S. These are:
1. Creating and supporting revolutionary black music (and cultural expression in general, for which The Music has played a leading influence). Black music as a whole and generally has influenced the entire planet. Revolutionary black music influences all cultural expression towards radicalism and innovation.
2. Build black revolutionary politics, which profoundly influences the radical direction of all oppressed peoples world-wide. The characteristics of such politics must be pan-African, anti-imperialist and pro-Third World. Black revolutionary politics must look to engaging and uniting with the Third World, especially with oppressed nationalities in the U.S. The tired black radicalism that is stuck in the Sixties hasn’t extended itself to become more Third World-engaged, and thus more innovative, but is stuck in perpetuating and regurgitating its own truisms.
3. Focus upon black and third world youth. Whenever and wherever this sector is in revolt, that is where and how the future will be made. Older comrades must divest themselves of their ageism. They need to mentor, teach, train and struggle to unite with the younger rebels and radicals. They need to talk WITH the youth, not talk TO the youth, and this can only truly be done, with sincerity, in a unity-struggle-unity relationship, with criticism, and more importantly, with self-criticism, to admit to our mistakes, errors, denials, failures, blindspots and egotism.
Rather than seek academic jobs and do the bulk of our teaching in classrooms of academic institutions, we can do soirees and salon series and study groups right in our living rooms, and not have to teach simply whatever students show up and register for our classes, but should recruit the most open and radicalized and provide them revolutionary ideological development.
We are creating such a project with the SCIENTIFIC SOUL SESSIONS. Based out of a private home in Harlem, a series of study groups and public cultural/artistic events will be held specifically aimed at promoting revolutionary black and third world/oppressed nationality culture and politics, aimed at young people, completely without funding from the state or foundations, and totally self-reliant and self-sustaining. But most of what we do will be done with very little money and rely upon our members’ own skills, creativity and grit. For example, Dr. Kobinah Abdul-Salim, a Harvard plant biologist, who lives in that communal household, is leading a backyard garden project for which we will grow our own vegetables which will feed people who live in that communal household and for the people who come to our public events held in that private home.
Members of SCIENTIFIC SOUL SESSIONS range from professors with Harvard degrees to professional musicians to college students to kitchen workers to teenagers. We are black, afro-latino, asian and one white young person.
This is our contribution to an experimental, innovative new revolutionary prefigurative form that is black and third world, and part of a new Afro-Asian Ascension.