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The Case for Reimagining the Black Radical Tradition

Charlene Carruthers discusses the diverse histories often erased when talking about the Black radical tradition.

Protesters demonstrate at a rally for slain teenager Trayvon Martin on March 22, 2012, in Sanford, Florida.

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I fell in love with history a long time ago. Books and documentaries were an escape to a different world. In books I could visit different periods of time and different cultures and at times connect with characters as if they were just like me. I found history in fiction and nonfiction books. I saw myself in Toni Morrison’s telling of Pecola Breedlove’s struggle with sexual violence, poverty, and identity in The Bluest Eye. I knew what it felt like to stand in a mirror and wish I were a little white girl. I saw myself in April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black, and the coming-of-age story of a Black lesbian was closer to home than I was willing to accept as a teenager. I watched Eyes on the Prize and Watermelon Woman. I devoured tales about Black life, and at times the world they took me to was as bleak as the one I was afraid to live in. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in my escape to other places I was searching for meaning and belonging. Since then, I’ve continued to cultivate my seemingly insatiable appetite for knowledge. I constantly feel behind my peers who studied Black radicalism and feminist and queer theory in school and on their own. I never feel as well-read as I should be. Though I always had access to books, much of what I was exposed to was incomplete and fell short somehow. Many of the texts and sources treated as essential didn’t go far enough. I found myself asking, “Well, what came before capitalism? Didn’t patriarchy exist?” Or, “Where are the women in this story? Where are the queer folks?”

I have been crafting more complete stories about Black people and our movements for Black liberation for a long time. I am now clear that my hunger for a more complete story must become a shared strategy for collective liberation. The incalculable amounts of agents for Black liberation are, and were, more robust than the often single story of charisma, strength, and strategies I learned as a student.

Incomplete stories about the history of the struggle for Black liberation have led to ineffective solutions for our collective liberation. If the relationship between two people is one of the smallest units of movement building, then the stories we hear and share within those relationships are the springboards for action. Stories provide context, can describe and explain strategy, and can help people understand what happens in the world. People process stories and make choices based on what they conclude.

Charlene Carruthers.
Charlene Carruthers.

Activists leverage stories to explain complex ideas. People connect to stories easier than they connect with sheer facts. Numbers become numbing. Tables and charts don’t usually strike us as viscerally as stories do. And while there are so many dominant forces affirming that facts simply don’t matter, stories do. Stories draw out emotions. They allow us to see, taste, and feel moments. If the stories we tell about Black people’s experiences of resistance and resilience are incomplete, our movements to transform them, to enact them, will be insufficient and ineffective.

Anti-Blackness limits expertise to people who are not invested in collective liberation. Anti-Blackness says that intellectualism is not the realm of everyday Black folks. Instead it advances the idea that Black radicals who do intellectual work are not truly radical or contributing to collective liberation. Therefore it is our duty to be rigorous and to collectivize the keeping and sharing of our own stories. Our movement needs griots, using multiple mediums, to clarify and expand the stories of the Black radical tradition.

Cover to Unapologetic
Cover to Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements

Today’s Black activists play a dangerous game with history. On the one hand, activists look back at the Black freedom struggles of the past with deep nostalgia. On the other hand, the same people identify problems and critique what happened before us without context or grounding. Activists love and hate the civil rights movement and its best-known strategies. We groan at the idea of “another march” but will call for mass mobilizations in the aftermath of the killing of one of our own. We romanticize the Black Power movement while questioning the role and significance of Black women and queer leaders. This game, just like our lives, is full of contradictions. These contradictions should, however, be recognized and not contribute to a collective amnesia regarding Black movement history. We can hold all those truths in order to make more informed and strategic decisions as a movement.

Contemporary historians work diligently to uncover stories of leaders like Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin. It is not uncommon for someone to insert a “well, actually, Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired” or an “Ella Baker is underrated” or a “Bayard Rustin wasn’t allowed to speak at the March on Washington because he was gay.” Most of us know which March on Washington I’m talking about because, for all intents and purposes, the 1963 march is the only one in the history of social movements that takes up so much significance and space. We love and hate to dig into histories. As Black people, there’s so much to love and hate from our histories. Regardless, they are ours. Acknowledging and wrestling with all they entail not only advance our knowledge; they also give us the juice we need to secure our collective liberation.

It is counterrevolutionary to tell stories about the Black radical tradition that fail to offer critiques, lessons, and insights about how white supremacy breeds systems of gender and sexual oppression. The story of white supremacy is inherently one of gender and sexual violence. Analysis of patriarchal violence is not an adjunct but a cornerstone for understanding why Black liberation is necessary. If a more holistic history of the Black radical tradition were valued, then the movement strategies and tactics would be more radical and relevant to all Black people. We not only leave stories on the table, unexamined, when the radical work of Black feminist and queer liberation is undervalued, we also disdain effective strategy and tactics. Our people can’t afford for us to leave any of our genius on the table.

What I know for sure is that stories of injustice motivate people to take action. The story of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s slaying by a self-appointed vigilante in 2012 led to mass mobilizations and a month-long occupation of the Florida state legislature led by Power U and the Dream Defenders. The August 9, 2014, killing of Mike Brown and attacks on young Black people honoring his life mobilized people in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the world. Outrage from the acquittal of the Chicago police officer who killed twenty-one-year-old Rekia Boyd on March 21, 2012, launched a national day of direct action involving over fifteen US cities and calling for an end to state-sanctioned violence against all Black women, girls, and femmes.

What would be possible if we told more complete stories about the Black radical tradition? What would be possible if the stories of Black radical tradition were created by using a Black queer feminist lens? Understandings of the Black radical tradition would be more complete, and our movement would better understand how to craft effective liberatory strategies for all. Take, for example, the story of Recy Taylor and the international movement her bravery sparked. In 1944, the young mother was kidnapped and raped by a group of young white men and boys in Abbeville, Alabama. Her decision to tell her story motivated activists, Black soldiers in World War II, and journalists across the world to take on sexual violence against Black women as a civil rights and international human rights issue. Taylor’s story was among many interventions across the US to end white men’s sexual terrorism against Black women and girls. As Danielle McGuire writes in At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, to understand the impact of sexual terrorism on the lives of Black folks and “within the larger freedom struggle, we have to interpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement.”(1)

Rosa Parks, an experienced activist, leader, and Alabama native, returned to her childhood home, Abbeville, to investigate the rape, heard Taylor’s story, and began to organize. Parks secured and leveraged the support of influential Black Alabama leaders, including the head of the Alabama Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, E. D. Nixon, to form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. The Chicago Defender called the committee’s efforts the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”(2) The campaign built an unprecedented united front against the rape of Black women and girls. Union leaders joined YWCA, NAACP, and Communist Party leaders to call for justice for Taylor. An emergency meeting in New York City brought “Queen Mother” Audley Moore, an experienced Black nationalist and anti-rape activist, into the campaign. Black communists and leftist newspapers also joined the cause. This united front raised funds, led a local investigation of the attack in Abbeville, and directed demands for justice to Alabama governor Chauncey Sparks. It was a key effort in the struggle for Black liberation. Yet this work—led by Black women and supported nationally by Black labor leaders, media, and organizations—is not widely known in the popular history of the civil rights movement as told in the renowned television documentary series Eyes on the Prize, much less in high school history textbooks.


1. Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2010).

2. Ibid., 37.

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