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Black Humanity and Black Power

BLACK HUMANITY IS UNEXCEPTIONAL, Walter Johnson exhorts. Once we have taken up the debate of humanization versus dehumanization under slavery, we have already ceded critical ground. Like Johnson, midcentury Black Power activists understood that it was necessary to redirect such questions toward the matter of how the legacy of racial slavery continues to shape citizenship, democratic participation, and human rights, not just for black Americans but for people of color around the globe. Johnson’s essay offers profitable avenues for reappraising how Black Power is the conceptual bridge between Reconstruction-era black struggles for self-determination and Black Lives Matter’s present-day fight to end martial and economic violence against people of color.

One of the most critical contributions of the Black Power movement was its searing critique of American racial capitalism. The movement’s roots in multiple strands—black nationalist, black feminist, black Marxist—of the black radical tradition formed the basis of its understanding of political revolution, community organizing, and the links between local, national, and global human rights struggles. Inspired in part by Nation of Islam theology—which holds the foundational belief that people of color are the most fully human of all—Malcolm X, Black Power’s political and ideological avatar, predicated his political ideology on the conviction that slavery’s legacy is central in shaping contemporary racial oppression.

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Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.