- African Americans have a history of both real and culturally-expressed violent resistance against oppression, from historical slave rebellions to contemporary urban riots. Examining these themes in literature, music, film, and other media offers insight into the perception and justification of violent revolt within the African American experience.
- Four main ways that violent revolt resonates:
- As a means to attain freedom or other instrumental ends. Violence is seen as a tactic towards liberation.
- As an emotional catharsis or outlet for rage under oppression.
- As carrying themes of justification based on a history of aggression and the failure of legal recourse.Violence becomes a self-defense mechanism.
- As a way to gain respect from the oppressor group. Only by fighting back can the humanity and personhood of the oppressed be recognized.
- Historically, violence has been used to advance political agendas in America, from European colonists against indigenous people to state violence against protesters.
- Given this history, it is not surprising that oppressed groups like African Americans have also used violence as a tactic in their struggle for liberation
- Violent revolt has been a reality for African Americans from slave rebellions through the 1960s urban riots and beyond
Fantasies and artistic depictions of violent revolt have also recurred throughout African American culture (literature, music, film), from slavery narratives to modern rap
THE REALITY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN VIOLENT REVOLT
- Enslaved Africans rebelled violently from the beginning, with hundreds of recorded slave uprisings and mutinies
- Key examples include plans by Gabriel Prosser (1800) and Denmark Vesey (1822), and violent revolts like the Stono Rebellion (1739) and Nat Turner's uprising (1831)
- There were also some cases of enslaved Africans seizing control of slave ships, like the Amistad (1841) and Creole (1842)
- The Christiana Rebellion in 1851 saw escaped slaves take up arms against attempts to return them to bondage
- In the 20th century blacks created formal and informal armed groups to resist racist violence
- The most visible violent revolt by blacks has been riots characterized by property destruction, looting, and attacks
- Modern riots differ from past “race battles” initiated by whites aiming to destroy people and property in black areas
UNDERSTANDING AFRICAN AMERICAN VIOLENT REVOLT
- Scholars have long sought to explain why African Americans have engaged in violent revolts, especially during the 1960s
- Theories emerged like "relative deprivation" (revolts due to frustration over unmet needs) and resource mobilization (strategic revolt)
- These suggest violent revolts serve emotional and instrumental purposes
- Understanding violent revolt requires knowing how participants justify and understand it
- These suggest violent revolts serve emotional and instrumental purposes
- African Americans have often invoked self-defense to justify violent resistance, given failure of legal protections
- Violent resistance was seen as justified against the reality of "wretches" murdering blacks under slavery
- Abolitionists argued violent self-defense was legitimate with laws favoring slaveholders
- Later on, civil rights leader Robert Williams also advocated "armed self-reliance" in the face of racist violence, with nonviolence seen as ineffective alone
BLACK FANTASIES OF VIOLENT REVOLT
- African American creative works often depict violence as a necessary response to prolonged and severe oppression by white people, drawing parallels with the violence of the American Revolution.
- These narratives suggest that African Americans believed violence was essential to gain respect from their oppressors, a viewpoint influenced by historical respect granted to those who resisted white encroachment, such as Native Americans.
- The literature expresses deep-seated anger and a yearning for vengeance among the oppressed, often portrayed through characters who speak of an impending violent uprising.
- The theme of violence as a means to reclaim humanity is prominent, with characters using violent rebellion as a way to transition from being seen as objects to being recognized as autonomous individuals.
- The concept of violent revolt as a reaction to oppression and a method to regain dignity and humanity continued to influence African American literature into the 20th century, shaping its portrayal of resistance against oppressive whites.
- African American literary and artistic works from the 20th century:
- Claude McKay’s "If We Must Die" and Richard Wright's narratives, often portray violence as a justified and humanizing response to racial oppression.
- The progression from nonviolent civil rights activism to the more militant Black Power movement is mirrored in the arts, with increased depictions of violent revolt as both a symbolic and practical form of resistance.
- This shift is evident in the works of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, who use their art to express anger, frustration, and the urgency for change.
- Sam Greenlee's novel "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" illustrates the use of violence not just for retribution but as a means of societal change, portraying the protagonist's journey from a CIA agent to a leader of a revolutionary movement. This narrative, along with others, emphasizes the transformative and liberating potential of violent resistance.
- The popularity of "Blaxploitation" films like "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" reflects a community-wide sentiment that embraced narratives of violent resistance against white oppression. These films, although produced largely by Hollywood, resonated with African American audiences.
VIOLENT REVOLT IN THE ERA OF HIP-HOP— THE 1980S TO THE PRESENT
- During the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop music and videos frequently depicted themes of violent revolt, such as prison riots, political assassinations, and violence against police.
- Public Enemy and Nas are notable examples.
- WA's "F— the Police" (1989) and BDP's "Bo Bo Bo" (1989) both portrayed violent resistance against oppressive police actions, echoing the sentiments of many in the Black community facing police brutality.
- In 1989, the release of these songs coincided with actual riots in the U.S. triggered by police violence, including incidents in Miami, Vineland, New Jersey, and Virginia Beach, where rioters played "F— the Police" and "Fight the Power" during the unrest.
LESSONS FROM FANTASIES OF VIOLENT REVOLT: BLACK VIOLENCE AS VENGEFUL SELF-DEFENSE
- Black fantasies of violent revolt are seen as both a cathartic release from oppression and a strategic, instrumental act. These fantasies stem from real experiences and perceptions of systemic injustice and dehumanization.
- Oppression and the need to fight for respect and recognition of Black humanity are central to justifying violence. The notion of violent revolt emerges as a form of self-defense against continuous attacks on Black life and dignity.
- Violent revolt as a mechanism for regaining humanity is a recurring theme in Black fantasies and culture. It forms a part of the broader narrative that validates violent revolt as a legitimate component of African Americans' political action repertoire.
- Thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Jean Paul Sartre, and Frantz Fanon have argued that violent revolt can be a means for the oppressed to reclaim or reconstruct their humanity, viewing it as a transformative and liberating force.
- African Americans often view violent revolt as a response to oppression, suggesting that such uprisings are deeply embedded in Black political thought. The concurrence of real violent revolts and their depiction in creative works indicates that these actions are not just spontaneous but are rooted in a collective understanding of resistance.
- Violent revolts are justified by pointing to the actions of oppressors, with the goals of achieving retribution and forcing oppressors to respect Black humanity. These uprisings are seen as a reaction against systemic injustices and a means to address grievances directly.
- For some African Americans, engaging in violent revolt is perceived as a way to reclaim or reconstruct their humanity, which has been undermined by oppressive systems like slavery or racial caste systems.
- Violent revolt is not only a transformation of external circumstances but also as a personal liberation and transformation of the self.