Black Anarchism, No Maps

A review of William C. Anderson, The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition (AK Press, 2021).

In 2009, I edited a book with German translations of writings by Greg Jackson and Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. The texts mainly came from the Black Autonomy newspaper, which was published from 1994 to 1997. I was hoping that the book would inform discussions about racism and the left in the German-speaking world, where relevant debates had just started to take shape. My hopes were not fulfilled. The book sold miserably. I can only speculate as to why. It was notable, however, that the mentioned debates took a strong turn toward academic exercises in the name of “critical whiteness.” Material analysis and practical organizing weren’t priorities.

William C. Anderson writes in the introduction to his book The Nation on No Map that he is “coming from a place where people don’t have time to entertain nonsense.” What a promising start. He also makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be “another loud, leftist, vanguardist man barking”; instead, he wants to offer “some realizations I’ve had that I’d like to share.”

Referencing a ROAR Magazine article that Anderson wrote together with Zoé Samudzi in 2017, he emphasizes the parallels between Blackness and anarchism: “Being Black regularly places us in a position of opposition to the state whether we choose to accept that placement or not. … Zoé and I put it this way: ‘Blackness is the antistate just as the state is anti-Black.’”

Black anarchism, Anderson writes, “has much in common with classical anarchism, but it is Black-centered, specific to Black.” He explains: “The result is sets of politics that avoid many of the pitfalls of the authoritarian and classical anarchist left but also point us toward solutions applicable to the entire left.”

With regard to his background, Anderson states: “I have … gained an understanding of white supremacy by being Black and working class, by cleaning toilets as a janitor for the majority of my life growing up in the Deep South. My job and my class position, of course, have informed my politics.”

The Particular and the Universal

Everyone has a specific point of departure. But everyone is also able to, as Anderson puts it, “point us toward solutions applicable to the entire left.” The challenge is to balance the particular and the universal. To suggest that the universal doesn’t exist because of the particular makes little sense. If it didn’t, the particulars wouldn’t know of each other.

Many of Anderson’s reflections are of great value to a broader left, not least his take on immigration and citizenship, and on how intertwined Black history is with experiences of migration, displacement, and gentrification. He states: “I envision a nation that doesn’t need to be a nation and that doesn’t need to be on a map, because it knows borders, states, and boundaries cannot accommodate the complexity of our struggles.”

In the midst of a troubling liberal-leftist embrace of American exceptionalism – not least within the Democratic Party – the demand from a self-proclaimed US resident (“Black people are residents in but not citizens of the United States”) to “encourage separation from all positive identification with the United States” is refreshing.

Anderson has an uncompromising critique of celebrity culture:

“It’s been clear for generations now that one of the central barriers to overcoming our oppressive conditions is the popular idea of success. The notion that if we work hard enough things will be fine clouds the reality: under capitalism, in order to be at the top, many others have to be on the bottom. … Royalty, fame, and celebrity to some degree dictate power in this society, but they are not liberation and can never bring freedom.”

Anderson also critiques “the narrative that we are all descended ‘from kings and queens,’” as “emphasizing African royalty as something to take pride in reproduces the notion that wealth and power is what determines a person’s value.”

He goes on to quote Malcolm X, who stated in a 1963 interview:

“Comedians, comics, trumpet players, baseball players. Show me in the white community where a comedian is a white leader. Show me in the white community where a singer is a white leader or a dancer or a trumpet player is a white leader. These aren’t leaders. These are puppets and clowns that have been set up over the Black community by the white community and have been made celebrities and usually they say exactly what they know the white man wants to hear.”

Anderson is not only wary of “Black celebrities profiting off pro-Black messages while being conservative and business-minded in the most self-serving of ways,” he also questions the notion of leadership as such: “Why do we never refer to ‘white leaders?’ The very question would seem perplexing to most people. Yet Black people are no more inherently infantile or in need of guidance by so-called Black leaders.”

DIY Radicalism

Anderson calls to “break through the complacent, liberal veneer,” as we need “movements much more radical than what we’re currently seeing.” Self-determination and sovereignty are key to any such efforts:

“Simply detaching ourselves from the state is not enough. We’re charged with growing our own survival programs, institutions, and survival economies as a means of building a revolutionary movement that can effectively challenge the state. We’ll have to be able to present masses of people with revolutionary options that can actually meet day-to-day needs like food, housing, and health care.”

When it comes to the importance of “building functional collective structures,” Anderson stresses that “Black people are already doing all of this.” It might seem far-fetched, but it reminded me of how I only really understood the notion of DIY (Do It Yourself) while living in African villages. People’s ingenuity put everything I had got to know as a European DIY hardcore kid to shame.

Needless to say, there is nothing to romanticize. The form of DIY culture I experienced in Africa was a survival tool forced upon people by a brutal imperialist regime. Nonetheless, it contains the shells out of which a new, better, world can grow. As Andersson writes with respect to the practical knowledge acquired by Black Americans: “It’s time to connect efforts and do this in an organized way in order to spread these practices as far as we can across the empire with explicitly politicized intentions.”

The Nation on No Map is a great book. It helps return Black anarchists such as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin and Kuwasi Balagoon to public consciousness, it proves that “a Black critique can serve as political education for all anarchists,” and, as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin suggests in his afterword, it “rewrites and reinterprets” anarchism. One thing more important than the other.

Gabriel Kuhn

(October 31, 2021)