Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
SOMEWHERE OFF-SCREEN in South Africa last week, while former U.S. President Barack Obama was celebrating the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth by delivering, by all accounts and perspectives, pro or con, an extraordinary speech that crafted world history in a way that made liberals of all races on both sides of the Atlantic smile and believe again, some unpopular Black people infused with Ma’at’s truth serum were organizing. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, one of the pillars of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, protested the American ex-president with the African daddy. It listed all of the ways that the United States, and American corporations that keep America working, destabilize the world through the military, politics and economics. Special Operations military forces, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), multinationals—it all added up to an invisible Captain America shield ricocheting throughout the Earth, causing damage to whatever it hit in the continent. Captain Africa was nowhere to be seen, so folks stepped up to tell the alternative history. In its online statement, the union and its supporters were “outraged at the horrifying record of U.S. foreign policy in the world.”
And somewhere within that somewhere, deep in the back—or maybe it was in front, it’s sometimes hard to tell—a little man with glasses wearing a Nehru suit was seen by those wearing history’s shades. A ghost, a mirage. He looked familiar to those reporters who cover anti-imperialist, anti-Western protests, particularly those who know well a special African village in New York. He looked accustomed to being there–he always was comfortable everywhere Africans were, really–because he was reminiscent of the 1910s Pan-Africanist thinker Hubert Henry Harrison, with a little bit of the 1940s Ollie Harrington thrown in. A smile could be seen through his moustache, and the image began to fade.
Elombe Brath (1936-2014), whose writings from two decades have been collected here in a fundraising vehicle for the memorial foundation bearing his name, was the heir of Harlem’s street orators—those men who gathered at streetcorners before and after World War II and talked about the Africa inside and out. Armed with a century of books, pamphlets and documents, these African internationalists educated African villages across America about the relationship between history, culture, politics and society from the perspectives of the most powerful people who had ever been colonized. Brath’s Patrice Lumumba Coalition was the weekly gathering place for African education/political socialization for at least two decades. He fought for, and knew personally, African revolutionaries who became African leaders. He mastered the art of simultaneously being out in front and in the background. He connected to the most revolutionary Black man who ever existed, Marcus Garvey, through a follower/leader, Carlos Cooks, a man who does not have baseball caps decorated with his image or YouTube ready-made clips of his addresses.
ELOMBE BRATH WAS many things, but a consistent prose stylist, for the most part, he was not. He was a Black activist for de-colonized causes, and he wrote like one. The goal of these missives, many, many of which appeared in The New York Amsterdam News and The (Brooklyn, N.Y.) Daily Challenge in the 1980s and 1990s, was to impart socio-political history of the African or African-American topic of the day, and sometimes to advertise a meeting of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition. He was writing to document—and show—resistance, not for literature’s sake.
That does not mean, however, that this very uneven anthology lacks powerful compositions. His one extended essay on Malcolm X, “I Remember Malcolm (A Narrative),” alone could be sent to Black news websites as an advertisement for the book and the Foundation (hint, hint). His sections on Pan-Africanism/Marcus Garvey and the Caribbean are, unlike the early part of the book, editorially clean and clear. And occasionally, Brath explodes with a powerful, artistic phrase such as “The ‘90s are looking more and more like the ‘60s turned upside down.” His idea that “[n]either neo-colonial dominion nor benevolent imperialism should be accepted as an alternative” is as fresh as last winter’s news of China allegedly spying on the African Union headquarters it built. And as to Spike Lee’s 1992 “Malcolm X” film, his critique of that flick’s opening is as clear as Amiri Baraka’s: “[A]s a graphic artist, the Stars and Stripes in the configuration of an X lends a substantial link to the use of St. Andrew’s Cross—the stars in the shape of an X that forms the basic graphic symbol of the Confederate flag.” Bang.
“Selected Essays and Writings” attempts–and succeeds, using with what it has—to do service and justice to the writer/activist. The problem is that, for a book to be read and discussed—to live and breathe outside the reference desk of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—the reader has to be serviced, too. Buried in this sometimes-frustrating jumble of words is an extraordinary Brath Reader, but the reader-recipient has to wade through too much bad Brath writing, particularly at first, to find it.
Self-publishing a book is not without its editorial-peer risks. Sadly, the publishing basics for a book of this type—the kind of work on it that would allow those in the intellectual and literary community to take it seriously—are missing. These items could be in a new, revised future edition. These basics would include:
1) An extended, footnoted or endnoted introduction, outlining Brath’s life, the movements that shaped him, the people he met and interacted with, the causes he was involved with, his life as a WBAI-FM host, graphic artist for WABC-TV and Gil Noble’s unofficial producer of international topics on that station’s Black public-affairs show “Like It Is,” and his longtime work with the Patrice Lumumba Coalition. There are so many great first-person observations, memories and points buried in this book that could have been fed into that intro. That invisible in-depth essay, which could be built from this, would have made the reader want to wade through the two decades of writing contained here.
2) A timeline of Brath’s life and work. His listed accomplishments in arts, culture and politics. Several times in the book, Brath and the editors/compilers mention activities that beg for primary source research and documentation. Instead of learning about his cartooning and graphic art career, his work in Afrocentric beauty pageants, and more, the reader has his time wasted with information on upcoming meetings and old phone numbers, when he or she could be better understanding the man and his times.
3) Detailed, accessible introductions to either the essays, or the sections. The reader has to know waaaayyy too much about the people, places and events of 20th century around the world in order to absorb what Brath is saying about a particular national, international or local moment in time.
4) Something this writer, too (one who, after a review is posted, constantly re-enters imix’s server to correct his many spelling and grammar mistakes) constantly and desperately needs: a good copyeditor.
Fierce, involved, well-researched editing could cut this book by at least 150 pages, and still have space give the reader more, to see and understand why Brath is worth this effort. Young people who find reading 1,000 words laborious will, unfortunately, quickly pass this book by if they don’t see any organized, summary information. Who? What? Why should I care? What does Wikipedia have on him?
A writer grown to well-deserved living legend status in Black communities in New York City and his near-native Detroit in recent years, Boyd knows—and has done—better. So agreeing to edit this book is clearly an act of love by Boyd for Brath and his family, as well as all those Brath intellectually and politically represented throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. A fulltime freelancer and book author, Boyd does not have the same time and resources as others. Boyd’s name on this cover is clearly an attempt to make sure Brath breathes—that the book is sold and distributed, seen, thought about, reviewed and, ultimately, read. He deserves substantial credit for that, and future editions of this book should retain him. His act here, of publicly adopting something this grassroots and de-colonized into his extraordinary, and ever-growing, family of Black American history and biography, is really one of a quiet, humble heroism typical of him.
THIS BOOK ARRIVES when Pan-Africanism—the fantasy 20th century African Justice League of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Winnie Mandela, Maurice Bishop, Steve Biko, Thomas Sankara and El-Hajj Malik-El-Shabazz, with Fidel Castro as reservist and Bob Marley as herald—is becoming a smoky memory, something either buried in old library books, sporadically referred to in a classroom or, even more rarely, in a documentary. As the third decade of the new century prepares to arrive, history’s wind is shifting toward those well-educated, well-polished, do-good-and-do-well non-white people who think like this: the world’s –isms can be overcome with a strong, serious and sustained commitment to a reformed (and, not coincidentally, well-funded), beige version of white hegemony, that both joining City Hall and connecting it digitally is the only way to fight it. Politically, the goal of the establishment is no longer to create Oreos, but, pun intended, smoothies—brilliant, talented Black people in America, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean who have read Fanon and Garvey and decided, somehow, that they were some kind of edgy motivational speakers, that they promoted ideas and ideals that can be (now-digitally) implemented within the status quo of world white supremacy and world capitalism. In their worldview, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Angela Davis and Ida B. Wells share equal space in the Black ether. Obama is the first summit, and the most current summary, of this thinking, and Brath’s ideas must be used to counteract that.
The painful idea hidden behind this Brath collection is this: yes, it is possible that real Black radicalism—nationalism, scientific socialism, et. al—will die by a thousand cuts in America with the departures of radicals like Brath (and one day, shudder at even the thought, the ageless Boyd 🙂 ). Fact disguised as opinion: In 2018, memorial books and Black community tribute street signs are slowly becoming the Black radical equivalent of Confederate general statues, seen but not absorbed, ultimately unproductive markers of when-we-were-kings memories. It’s not Black nationalist blasphemy to say that Brath could be headed to the same Black radical memory limbo as his predecessor, Harrison. The book points out that one of Brath’s favorite Garvey statements was the hope of the organizer: “When all else fails to organize the people, conditions will.” With U.S. President Lex Luthor in power and world shortages of clean air and fresh water on the not-so-distant horizon, this era—filled with hackers who can not only paralyze governments and corporations, but even shape American presidential elections—is a prelude to new, 21st century tests of that idea.
Books are important current discussions and, at best, futile attempts at permanence. When they succeed, the world shakes, because memory banks and dreams become active and organized. This first, imperfect book from the Brath Foundation is an important first step toward some of that. Whether more walking happens is up to Brath’s remaining friends and the Black decolonized (Re)public, those ready and willing to step in expanding gaps left by ever-increasing new Ancestors.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.