By Ogaga Ifowodo
‘IF ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of condition.” So wrote, presciently, Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, in his seminal Democracy in America, published in two parts in 1835 and 1840.
This was before the American civil war fought over the southern states’ dying wish to perpetuate slavery would lead to Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation declaration. But this insight is not peculiar to the United States of America. I suspect that Tocqueville’s intuition was informed by the objective conditions of the great revolutions that convulsed his native France and its slave colonies, in particular, the Haitian revolution led by the ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture and consummated by his protégé Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
The Haitian revolution changed the character of the more romanticised French revolution of 1789-1799 by holding it up to its goal of equality, freedom and anti-monarchism. The inimitable radical thinker, C.L.R. James, made explicit the interconnectedness of the simultaneous Haitian and French revolutions in his classic work, The Black Jacobins. Simply put, the high-flown slogans of the French revolution’s white Jacobins, “liberté, egalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, solidarity) rang hollow in the face of the brutal suppression by France of the struggle for freedom and human equality by the slaves in its colonies, the most prosperous being the island of San Domingo, later Haiti.
It was this contradiction that inspired and sustained Toussaint’s successful rebellion while also committing the white Jacobins and, even more important, the Parisian masses who passionately denounced the “aristocracy of the skin,” to liberty and equality for not just themselves but the slaves in the colonies as well. Reviewing The Black Jacobins to mark its 70th anniversary, Ashley Smith underlines the point: “The fate of the two revolutions was tied together in a complex knot.”
The wider impact of the Haitian revolution was clear to Frederick Douglas who reminded his fellow African-Americans in the United States not to “forget that the freedom” that they “enjoy today,” that “eight hundred thousand coloured people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the coloured the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti,” adding that “When they struck for freedom … they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”
It need not be pointed out, does it, that it is the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States, precisely in the state of South Carolina, over a quarter of its population black and nearly sixty percent of its Democratic electorate, that resurrected Joe Biden’s dying party nomination bid? He had lost the three preceding Democratic Party caucuses and primary in the predominantly white states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Then the powerful clack congressman James Clyburn, son of the soil, endorsed Biden, made an impassioned plea to right thinking Americans, in particular, his African-American brothers and sisters, to rally round him. And so it was that the black vote saved Biden during the primaries and set him on the course of his turbulent but resounding election as the 46th president of the United States.
Biden himself always knew his fate lay in African-American hands, going so far as to tell a black radio interviewer that any African-American who had a problem figuring out whether he or she is for him or Donald Trump “ain’t black.” It was almost one gaffe too many even for a famously gaffe-prone politician but African-Americans weren’t about to desert him for Trump, a racist bigot and enabler of white supremacists who saw fine people on both sides of neo-Nazis marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the anti-racism protesters who confronted them.
No, they weren’t going to cast their lot with a president who couldn’t bring himself to say that black lives matter nor offer one word of consolation to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake or any of the many other African-Americans shot dead in cold blood by murderous policemen, among a thousand other bigoted actions.
Nor had African-Americans forgotten that Trump launched his political career by leading the birther movement whose sole goal was to delegitimise Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House by peddling unrelentingly the patently false claim that Obama was not born on American soil, and insinuating that he was quite literally a secret Muslim fundamentalist.
Do I equate an election involving two centuries-old establishment parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, a fringe party or independent candidates, with a revolution? Yes, I do. I’m not a political scientist, nor a historian, but it is safe to say that the term is complex and scholars have yet to posit one definition of it.
There are two broad ways of understanding a revolution, according to Tocqueville, invoked at the beginning of this essay: as a sudden and violent uprising aimed at the radical transformation of a society through the establishment of a new political system, or as a gradual but nonetheless sweeping transformation of a society, a process that may span several generations.
Captured in these two rubrics are such cataclysmic events as coups d’état, civil wars, peasants’ revolts, or even any socio-economic phenomenon of such great impact as results in a significant transformation of beliefs and attitudes, making it possible for us to speak of the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific or Germ Theory Revolution, the Information Technology Revolution, etc.
In this sense, I find Jack Goldstone’s definition in his “Towards a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory” apposite: “an effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilization and non-institutionalized actions that undermine authorities.”
All of which means that in trying to understand a revolution, we must pay careful attention to its context, its preceding circumstances, for no revolution is prompt or spontaneous. There is no question in my mind that what Trump desired and so defiantly sought by his brash inauguration day declaration of America First was a retrograde return to the pre-Civil Rights political and socio-cultural order of Jim Crow and legalised segregation through the dubious policy of separate but equal.
This is why his Make America Great Again slogan has been rightly unmasked as a not-so-clever code for Make America White Again. In any case, he never leaves room for doubt. If his racist birther-in-chief hounding of Obama forms the highlight of his discriminatory actions in public life, there was before that his dogged campaign for the execution of the Central Park 5, four black and one Latino teens, for rape, and his refusal to apologise even after DNA evidence exonerated the kids.
And also in business: his serial violation of the Fair Housing Act by refusing to lease property to Blacks. And then his ceaseless dog-whistle calls to racists and white supremacists even in the heat of his re-election campaign, notably in Bemidji, Minnesota, where he regurgitated long discredited eugenics ideas of selective breeding that categorise white Europeans as superior to all other peoples.
“You have good genes, you know that, right?” he said to his pearly-white audience. “You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re different? You have good genes in Minnesota.” This same Trump noisily claims at every turn to be “the least racist person” alive!
By scorning all decorum, norms, ethics, manners and character in private and public life, Trump sought to clear for himself an unrestricted space for doing and getting away with anything, so that, as he put it himself, he could stand in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose any voters.
Ifowodo is a lawyer, scholar, poet and public commentator and principal partner at Remedium Law Partners.