Applying Black Radical Thought to Palestinian film and media

This week in North Philly Notes, Greg Burris, author of The Palestinian Idea, writes about Black-Palestinian solidarity.

When I look at Israel today, I see Jim Crow. But when I look at Palestine, I think of Black liberation. The potential for such comparisons is evident in the words and actions of three figures in the U.S. who have recently come under fire for their support of Palestine: Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis, and Marc Lamont Hill. Omar was accused of being an anti-Semite after she took to Twitter to criticize AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Davis had a civil rights award from an institute in her hometown of Birmingham revoked as a result of her long-standing advocacy of Palestinian liberation. Hill was fired from CNN after he called for a free Palestine in a speech before the United Nations. Besides their support for Palestine, however, these three figures also share another important feature. They are all Black.

By vocally championing the Palestinian cause, each of these people is building upon a foundation of Black-Palestinian solidarity first laid over half a century ago by figures and groups like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party. While in the past these radical ties were developed through traditional media and the printed word, today they are more often forged through YouTube videos, Instagram photos, and Facebook friend requests. In the hyper-connected, social media-saturated, wireless-enabled world in which we live, Black-Palestinian solidarity has gained new visibility.

The Palestinian Idea_061818_smIn recent years, this web of transnational solidarity has received growing scholarly attention, resulting in the proliferation of journal essays, conference panels, and even book-length treatments. In my book, The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination, I seek to contribute to this solidarity network but not in the way one might expect. Only one chapter is specifically about Black-Palestinian solidarity, but this powerful cocktail of radical thought permeates the entire book. Thus, while the subject of The Palestinian Idea is Palestinian film and media, I tackle it through the lens of Black radical thought. Peppered throughout the book are the words and insights of thinkers like James Cone, C.L.R. James, Audre Lorde, and Assata Shakur, and the book’s theoretical foundation is based largely on the work of my late mentor Cedric Robinson, theorist of the Black Radical Tradition. Thus, while other books chronicle Black-Palestinian solidarity empirically, The Palestinian Idea seeks to take our analysis underground. That is, the book asks how these two powerful traditions of insurgency can speak to each other at the subterranean level, the level of theory, ontology, and epistemology. Exciting things can happen when Palestinian liberation rubs shoulders with Black Power.

As a young, white kid growing up in the post-Jim Crow South, I was greatly troubled by the black-and-white pictures I saw of angry white mobs terrorizing righteous Black heroes. Just twenty years before I was born, the white community of my own hometown had viciously tried to prevent Black students from integrating the local high school and college. Those snapshots of white hatred haunted me, and I remember wondering if I would have had the courage to stand up against it had I been alive at the time. Today, Jim Crow speaks Hebrew. Indeed, how else are we to make sense of the growing network of segregated streets and apartheid walls, the destruction of houses and theft of indigenous lands, the language of ethnic supremacy and hierarchical division. The Israelis even have a word for it: hafrada or separation. Just as Jim Crow had its Black resistors, Zionism has its Palestinian freedom fighters. If we can compare one, why not compare the other?

Thus, today’s Black advocates for Palestine—people like Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis, and Marc Lamont Hill—are doing important work. The hyperbolic reaction their words received proves what we all know to be true, that criticizing Israel is still a dangerous endeavor. Indeed, for some, it can even be career-ending. But there is another lesson here as well, and their words also demonstrate that Black-Palestinian solidarity is still going strong. If today’s racists build walls—whether in Palestine or on the U.S.-Mexico border—it is our job to tear them down. Indeed, that is what the Palestinian Idea is all about.

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