A-Z of Black Radicalism

G is for Grassroots

Make it Plain is exploring Black Radicalism with Kehinde Andrews exploring a new letter each day. All of these are sourced from Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, proceeds of which go to the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity There are some limited suggested resources below but please send in suggestions for more, these are just a few to start with

Black radical politics have always been defined by working with those discarded by society. The Black Panthers recruited heavily from former prisoners, embracing the class of people we are all too quick to forget. Rastafari was born from the rural poor in Jamaica, who resisted the appeal of the ‘crazy baldheads’ trying to make it in by fitting in to the colonial system. Revolutions in Guinea, Congo, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and across Africa could only be sustained by engaging the masses of the people. It is by embracing the grassroots, the masses, the most dispossessed that we find the radical basis of Black politics. To understand the world through those who have the least means we must always strive to transform rather than merely edit the system.

One of Malcolm’s most famous ideas is the distinction between the House and Field Negro. Both were enslaved on the plantation but those who worked it the house lived in slightly better conditions, received slightly better food and clothes than those who worked in the field (although we should not romanticise the house, it remained a brutal site of oppression including the horrors of sexual violence). Malcolm argued that because of this the House Negro was far less likely want to burn down the house, instead clinging to their somewhat elevated position. But the Field Negro had no scraps to hold onto, subject to horrendous violence and to toil in the field, eating the scraps of the scraps from the master’s table. They therefore understood the reality of oppression and were only too happy to revolt. It is a metaphor that Malcolm uses to understand the present, those of us with jobs and income are keen to defend our relative privileges. Too often Black politics has focused on the needs of the so called respectable and aimed to swell the ranks of those who can “make it” within the system that oppresses us all. This is why the revolutionary class is the formerly incarcerated, the unemployed, those who have no stake in the system and therefore will not think twice to revolt.

But since Malcolm’s time there has been one significant change to the way racism operates. Before race relations legislation there was no doubt that those of in the West were locked out in the field. By opening the door ever so slightly the illusion that we can all succeed in the house has become ever more popular. By allowing (limited access) to the welfare state the majority of us have some stake in the system. The poorest Black people in the West are still in the top 20 percent of earners in the entire world. We need to move beyond seeing the house as middle class status. The house is the West and the struggle should never be for those here to get more comfortable within it. The Field Negro, the global grassroots, reside outside of the West facing conditions of poverty and violence that we are mostly protected from. Radical politics means understanding that the grassroots means connecting into the global struggle with those in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. By doing so we will quickly realise that the only solution is to break free from the system that still works on the same logics as the plantation.


Amilcar Cabral Revolution in Guinea

Amy Jacques Garvey Garvey and Garveyism

Barbara Ransby Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

Malcolm X Message to the Grassroots

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