Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog


January 13, 2017

January 13, 2017






W. E. B. Du Bois

Was Un-American

dubois 01


Image: John Flannery

February 1951 was a busy month for W. E. B. Du Bois, who turned eighty-three and threw himself a huge birthday party to raise funds for African decolonization. He also married his second wife, the leftist writer Shirley Graham, in what the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper called the wedding of the year. And he was indicted, arrested, and arraigned in federal court as an agent of the Soviet Union because he had circulated a petition protesting nuclear weapons.

The Justice Department saw Du Bois’s petition as a threat to national security. They thought it was communist propaganda meant to encourage American pacifism in the face of Soviet aggression. They put Du Bois on trial in order to brand him as “un-American,” to use the language of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Du Bois was not in fact a Soviet agent. He was an American citizen using his First Amendment rights to protest nuclear weapons on his own behalf. A federal judge acquitted him because prosecutors failed to present any evidence.

W. E. B. Du Bois may be our keenest critic of Trumpism today.

Nevertheless, the trial and the publicity around it ruined his career. He was left scrabbling to earn enough money just to buy groceries. And the trial hardly ended the state persecution. In 1952 the State Department illegally revoked Du Bois’s passport to stop him from traveling to a peace conference in Canada (and, implicitly, to prevent him from moving to a friendlier country where he was not blacklisted). The Supreme Court restored passport rights for suspected communists in 1958, and three years later Du Bois used his regained freedom of travel to become an expat in newly postcolonial Ghana. But while he was there, the State Department refused to renew his passport, effectively annulling his United States citizenship. The American civil rights icon became a Ghanaian citizen and died there in 1963.

I thought of this history this week when Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, began his confirmation hearings. In 1986 Sessions was denied a federal judgeship partly because he allegedly called the NAACP, which was co-founded by Du Bois, “un-American.” (In his 1986 confirmation hearings, Sessions walked a fine line, saying that the NAACP “take positions that are considered un-American.”) Trump himself has suggested that the government should revoke the citizenship of flag burners, and Trump’s pick for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has called for an indefinite world war on terrorism, which he says must begin at home by targeting Muslim Americans. This is the same ugly cluster of ideas that landed Du Bois in court on trumped-up charges sixty years ago: the idea that demanding basic civil rights is tantamount to treason; that protesting national policy means forfeiting one’s citizenship; that darker skin or leftist views make one less American; and that an open-ended global war justifies unconstitutional repression.

The mental picture of an eighty-three-year-old Du Bois in handcuffs reminds us that these ideas have consequences. Du Bois himself, though, fought furiously against persecution. He crisscrossed the country giving speeches, wrote passionately about his trial, and built a small but vigorous coalition that helped preserve social justice causes during a decade that tried desperately to strangle them. In our own moment of threatened repression, Du Bois’s story and his civil rights and antiwar tactics offer important political lessons. Du Bois may be our keenest critic of Trumpism today.

section separator

Du Bois’s opposition to nuclear weapons grew out of his long history of antiwar activism. In 1913, as editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois wrote an editorial titled “Peace” in which he argued that the peace movement could become “a great democratic philanthropy.” But to do so, he said, antiwar activism would have to change its very soul.

Du Bois connected the outbreak of World War I with colonialism, industrial capitalism, and conflict over African territory.

International peace activists, Du Bois claimed, were too focused on establishing treaties and legal bans on war to see the actual roots of it. “The greatest and almost the only cause of war,” Du Bois argued, is Europe’s “‘colonial’ aggression and ‘imperial’ expansion.” If antiwar activists wanted to stop war, they would have to fight the colonial exploitation of native labor and natural resources. This made the peace movement a potentially unparalleled weapon against global racism. Since war was so bound up with conflicts over colonial territory, Du Bois thought the fear of war could be used to convince voters to combat racism and economic exploitation at home and abroad.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Du Bois believed it was driven not by European internal strife but by colonialism, specifically conflict over territory in Africa. In a 1915 essay in the Atlantic called “The African Roots of War,” he connected war and colonialism with industrial capitalism. Du Bois argued that working-class whites in Europe and America were tricked out of feeling solidarity with similarly exploited people of color around the world because they were lured by the promise that, under a system of racial capitalism (to borrow a later term from Cedric Robinson), their whiteness would guarantee them a higher rung in society. In addition, Du Bois argued that they succumbed to the promise that resources looted from the colonies would boost the standard of living in the West. Du Bois therefore described the Great War as an attempt to maintain “industrial peace at home at the mightier cost of war abroad.” The machine guns firing in Flanders kept factory workers from striking in Detroit.

After the United States joined the fray in 1917, Du Bois faced a difficult decision. Black soldiers regularly faced abuse in the segregated army, and he had to balance criticizing the war with improving their conditions. He ultimately chose to support the war. In 1918, despite the fact that he knew The Crisis was under government surveillance as a “seditious” organ of civil rights, Du Bois wrote an editorial called “Close Ranks” in which he asked black men to lay aside their “special grievances” and join the war effort. By doing so, Du Bois argued, they would make an undeniable claim to American citizenship and all the rights it entailed.

Events proved him spectacularly wrong. A shortage of jobs for returning soldiers after the war produced serious racial and economic tensions, exacerbated by the fact that many factory jobs during the war had been filled by Southern blacks who migrated north to the cities. There was also widespread fear of a communist revolt like the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that fear centered on African Americans. President Wilson described black soldiers returning from abroad as “our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” In the summer months of 1919, anticommunist paranoia and white economic resentment led to a series of bloody race riots, primarily driven by white mob attacks on blacks.

Working-class whites in Europe and America were tricked out of feeling solidarity with exploited people of color around the world.

Black soldiers were singled out for particular violence in this “Red Summer.” Many were beaten simply for wearing their uniforms in public. The Louisiana True Democratcaptured the anti-black soldier mood in a December 1918 editorial titled “Nip It in the Bud,” which argued that military service had given black soldiers “more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists” and that it was “the right time to show them what will and will not be permitted.” After the first incident of the Red Summer, Du Bois declared in a fierce editorial that “We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. . . . We return fighting.” But given the failure of the war to produce freedom and civil rights, Du Bois’s earlier pro-war stance cost him significant credibility with the NAACP board and the black public. His reputation took years to recover.

Du Bois learned from the episode. He wrote in 1941, “I have lived to know better and my opposition to war under any circumstances has been immeasurably increased.” Nonetheless, when World War II broke out he reluctantly advocated closing ranks again, this time “not in joy but in sorrow.”

section separator

After the genocide and the atomic horrors of World War II, Du Bois hoped the postwar peace, governed by the newly formed United Nations, would diminish racism.

In 1945 he served as the NAACP’s advisor to the U.S. delegation at the UN’s founding conference. He advocated decolonization, but the UN ignored the issue. In 1947 he tried again, launching an NAACP petition to the UN demanding human rights for African Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, who led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rejected Du Bois’s appeal and resigned from the NAACP board in protest. Human rights were not so universal after all.

Du Bois fumed that by ignoring the colonies, the United States and the UN were setting a course for a third world war. He still believed his words from “The African Roots of War”: “If we want real peace . . . [w]e must extend the democratic ideal to the yellow, brown, and black peoples.” Du Bois made this point at various international peace conferences in 1949 and 1950, including a conference he hosted in New York that was disrupted by the CIA and a conference he attended in Paris where two thousand delegates from more than fifty countries marched with half a million French citizens chanting “Peace, no more war!”

At the very height of the McCarthy era, Du Bois tried to keep alive a free and open debate about American military, economic, and foreign policy. He fought, above all, for intellectual freedom.

In 1950 Du Bois was named chairman of the Peace Information Center (PIC), an antiwar and nuclear nonproliferation organization headquartered in New York. Its main activity was publishing a newsletter to inform its substantial mailing list about international peace movements in order to foster global cooperation. (They also sent out stickers for kids to wear.) The PIC soon circulated the Stockholm Appeal, a petition launched by the Nobel Prize–winning chemist and French communist Frédéric Joliot-Curie calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. It was signed by such notables as Marc Chagall, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso, and the future French president, Jacques Chirac. It received 2.5 million American signatures, nearly 3 percent of the voting-age population at the time.

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson took to the pages of The New York Times to call the petition “a propaganda trick in the spurious ‘peace offensive’ of the Soviet Union.” Du Bois responded in the Times that “regardless of our other beliefs and affiliations, we [formed the PIC] for the one and only purpose of informing the American people on the issue of peace.” Du Bois was speaking for himself, he argued, as an American.

The Justice Department disagreed. Federal prosecutors charged him under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, arguing that he and the PIC had to register as agents of a foreign power because their petition began in another country. If convicted, Du Bois and the PIC’s other board members, Kyrle Elkin and Abbott Simon, along with former board member Elizabeth Moos who voluntarily agreed to stand trial and the PIC’s stenographer Sylvia Soloff, faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For the eighty-three-year-old Du Bois, it might as well have been a life sentence.

The government’s principal aim was to silence the PIC and discredit Du Bois, just as the House Un-American Activities Committee forced leftists to recant or go underground. In the court of public opinion, the accusation itself had already accomplished that goal, so prosecutors offered to drop the case if Du Bois pled no contest. The PIC’s goal was to publicize antiwar activism, though, and so in spite of the personal risk, Du Bois chose to fight the charges against him publicly in court.

He knew it would be an uphill battle. In 1950 he had run for senate as an American Labor Party candidate to publicize his antiwar views. He gave speeches to tens of thousands of people and received an impressive two hundred thousand votes. During his campaign, he discovered the role of big money in politics: it cost a fortune to buy ad time in the press, on the radio, and on the new medium, television. In 1951 he knew his legal defense would cost him, too. Justice was not cheap.

Du Bois began fundraising. He made two nationwide tours, speaking to audiences of thousands from Chicago to Denver to Los Angeles. His biggest success was with union workers, college students, and Christians who opposed the bomb. He told them that “Big Business” and its hunger for Third World marketplaces and natural resources would lead again and again to American military interventions abroad. Persuaded that corporate greed helped drive war, more than one labor union appealed to President Truman himself to drop the charges against Du Bois.

Such public speaking was the centerpiece of Du Bois’s defense strategy. He saw his case more as a matter of publicity than a matter of the law. The secretary of state had smeared him in the press, and he believed the Justice Department was holding secret meetings with his colleagues in the civil rights movement to frame him as a communist spy.

So Du Bois fought propaganda with propaganda. Besides his speaking tour, he placed ads in newspapers, circulated petitions, and inspired an international letter-writing campaign to judges, prosecutors, the attorney general, the secretary of state, and the president. He received birthday cards and letters of support from around the world, including from luminaries such as Pablo Neruda and Albert Einstein.

Einstein himself was to be Du Bois’s star character witness. They had corresponded since the 1930s, when Einstein wrote a short piece about racism for The Crisis, and by the late 1940s their antinuclear views aligned as well. When Du Bois was indicted, Einstein offered to do “whatever he could” to help, bringing to bear his substantial fame and the ostensible objectivity of his scientific expertise. Du Bois also planned to testify, using the witness stand as a bully pulpit.

The prosecution had their own star witness, O. John Rogge, a former member of the PIC who had hosted the organization’s founding meeting in his very own living room. When he testified at the trial, Rogge tried to paint his former colleagues at the PIC as communist puppets. Du Bois felt deeply betrayed. However, the judge blocked the speculative parts of Rogge’s testimony, and when the prosecution rested after Rogge finished his story, the judge declared that prosecutors had failed to present any evidence of the PIC’s Soviet ties. He therefore acquitted Du Bois and his co-defendants Elkin, Simon, and Moos from the bench. (The PIC’s stenographer Sylvia Soloff had already been summarily acquitted since she was an employee, not a policymaker.)

Du Bois was immeasurably relieved by his acquittal, but he also believed the judge had been pressured to acquit before Du Bois or especially Einstein could testify. The trial, after all, was supposed to silence dissenters. In lieu of testifying, Du Bois publicized his ideas in 1952 in a memoir about his trial, In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday, which extensively quoted ads, petitions, letters, and his newspaper coverage—in effect reprinting his publicity to generate more visibility for his case. The book also theorized how to protest in a period of repressed free speech, and it put those theories into practice by finding creative ways to circulate dissent—including birthday cards.

section separator

At the very height of the McCarthy era, Du Bois tried to keep alive a free and open debate about American military, economic, and foreign policy. He wrote in In Battle for Peace that he wanted to create “forums” for people to learn about and discuss geopolitics, because the government was trying to “limit the thought processes of American citizens to the four corners of the United States boundaries.” He was fighting, above all, for intellectual freedom.

Du Bois ended up practically stateless in 1961 when the State Department effectively cancelled his citizenship.

In 1951, the same year Du Bois waged his battle in court, the philosopher Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that we can “measure” totalitarianism by whether governments strip their people of citizenship. Despite her own intense opposition to the Soviet Union, Arendt feared that “even free democracies” such as the United States were “seriously considering depriving native Americans who are Communists of their citizenship.”

Du Bois did end up practically stateless when the State Department effectively cancelled his citizenship after he moved to Ghana in 1961. There is no description of this more accurate than what Arendt would call it: intellectual totalitarianism.

Du Bois’s theory of politics in In Battle for Peace is aimed at precisely such repression. He examines how to spread ideas in order to build coalitions like his own motley mix of supporters, which included “Left support” but also “liberals, progressives, and even some conservatives who believe in peace and free speech.” Du Bois’s coalition rejected the ideological binary of the Cold War. He worried that Americans increasingly demanded “complete unity of belief” and objected “to any co-operation at all.” “This attitude,” he wrote, “thwarts democracy and stops progress.” Progressive activists, instead, have to reach out to any potential allies, even ones who “believe in many matters” they do not. In his writing style, Du Bois tried to model this coalitional politics, from reprinting newspaper stories and birthday cards to incorporating commentary from his wife Shirley Graham.

Du Bois held open a small but resilient public space for criticizing American military policy and calling for civil rights at home and abroad. By the end of the 1950s, that conversation had borne fruit, as black activists such as Rebecca Stiles Taylor called for feminist resistance to the bomb, Einstein published his famous 1955 antinuclear manifesto with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and Martin Luther King Jr. framed antinuclear politics as crucial to civil rights. In the 1960s such coalitional activism expanded beyond Du Bois’s wildest dreams. King famously damned the Vietnam War as a racist colonial adventure. The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who ran for president with the Peace Party in 1968, cited Du Bois’s trial as his inspiration.

Du Bois’s battle for peace offers four major lessons. First, we need to make visible the economic and social structures that produce violence at home and abroad. Second, we need to use history to track how and why those structures evolved and how past activists fought them. Third, in a period of ideological polarization and permanent war such as our own, democratic debate and the free circulation of ideas is the first thing to defend. Finally, we must build robust coalitions, across movements and between nations, to resist violence, oppression, inequality, and injustice.

“Peace is not an end,” Du Bois wrote in 1949. “It is the gateway to real civilization.” His democratic ideals remain our best path to peace and justice. Just as Du Bois helped preserve those ideals in the early 1950s, we have to keep them alive today.





Vol. 39 No. 11 · 1 June 2017

Vol. 39 No. 11 · 1 June 2017





by Elaine Mokhtefi

In 1951 I left the US for Europe. I was working as a translator and interpreter in the new postwar world of international organisations: UN agencies, trade-union bodies, student and youth associations. My plan was to visit France briefly, but I stayed nearly ten years. For anyone living in Paris, the Algerian war was inescapable. Where did your sympathies lie? Which side were you on? In 1960 at an international youth conference in Accra, I struck up a friendship with the two Algerian representatives: Frantz Fanon, a roving ambassador for the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, and Mohamed Sahnoun of the exiled Algerian student movement. After the conference, I flew to New York, where I met Abdelkader Chanderli, the head of the Algerian Office, as the unofficial Algerian mission at the UN was known. Chanderli invited me to join his team, lobbying UN member states to support Algerian independence.

In 1962, with independence declared, I went back to Algeria. Vacancies left by close to a million fleeing Europeans meant that jobs were on offer in every ministry and sector. Before long, I found myself working in President Ahmed Ben Bella’s press and information office, where I received foreign journalists, scheduled appointments and dished out information to the reporters from Europe and the US who were streaming in. I even learned to fake Ben Bella’s signature for his admirers.

I stayed on after the coup that brought Houari Boumediene to power in 1965. I had made a home in Algeria; I was happy with my life and my work in the national press. In 1969, events took an extraordinary turn. Late one night I received a call from Charles Chikerema, the representative of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, one of many African liberation movements with an office in the city. He told me that the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was in town and needed help.

It was June. I remember it very clearly. I can see myself walking down a side street between the Casbah and the European sector of Algiers towards the Victoria, a small, third-rate hotel. I climbed four flights of stairs and knocked. The door opened and there was Cleaver, and beyond him, flat out on the bed, his wife, Kathleen, eight months pregnant. The sense of awe I felt that day never left me. The shortcomings of the Black Panther Party are clear enough in retrospect, but they took the battle to the streets, demanded justice and were prepared to bear arms to protect their community. Their slogans – ‘The sky’s the limit’, ‘Power to the People’ – resounded through black ghettoes across the US. They denounced American imperialism as the war in Vietnam gathered pace.

Cleaver had arrived secretly in Algiers using Cuban travel documents. After ambushing a police car in Oakland, he had jumped bail and headed for Havana, where he spent six months as a clandestine guest before he was ‘discovered’ by a journalist. The Cubans had put him on a plane to Algiers without informing the Algerians. Cleaver felt his life hung in the balance. He had been assured in Havana that everything had been cleared with the Algerian government, that he’d be received with open arms and allowed to resume the political activities denied him in Cuba. But his handlers at the Cuban embassy in Algiers were now telling him the Algerians weren’t willing to offer him asylum.

I’d never known the authorities to refuse asylum seekers, whatever their nationality. Since I was the only American the local officials knew, I was often called on to interpret and explain, and to take responsibility for Americans who arrived without realising that hardly anyone in Algeria spoke English. Later that day I talked to the official in charge of liberation movements, Commandant Slimane Hoffman, a tank specialist who had deserted from the French army to join the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) and was close to Boumediene. I explained that Cleaver wished to remain in the country and to hold an international press conference. Hoffman agreed straightaway, but insisted that Cleaver’s presence be announced by the Algerian Press Service. ‘You saved my life,’ Cleaver told me repeatedly; he was convinced the Cubans had set him up.

The press conference went ahead, in a hall packed with students, members of the local and international press, diplomats and representatives from the world’s liberation movements. Julia Hervé, the daughter of Richard Wright, came from Paris to interpret from English into French. I did the same, into English, for the Cleavers. ‘We are an integral part of Africa’s history,’ Cleaver said at the conference. ‘White America teaches us that our history begins on the plantations, that we have no other past. We have to take back our culture!’

From then on, we were a team. Cleaver was tall – he seemed to me towering – and sexy, with a perfectly developed sense of humour and expressive green eyes. He and I had a rapport, no sex but much sharing of confidences. When the Cleavers arrived, I was working at the Ministry of Information organising the first Pan-African Cultural Festival, which was to bring together musicians, dancers, actors and intellectuals from every country in Africa and the black diaspora, including members of the Panthers from the US. For more than a week, the streets of Algiers overflowed, performances filled the day and carried on into the small hours. Among the performers were Archie Shepp, Miriam Makeba, Oscar Peterson, and Nina Simone, whose first performance we had to cancel after Miriam Makeba and I found her dead drunk in her hotel room. The local stagehands were shocked: they had never seen a drunk woman. The Panther delegation stayed at the Aletti, the best hotel in downtown Algiers, and were provided with a storefront – they called it the Afro-American Centre – on rue Didouche Mourad, one of the city’s two main commercial thoroughfares, where they distributed party literature and screened films late into the night. Cleaver and his companions – most of them also refugees from US justice – were quickly integrated into the cosmopolitan community of liberation movements. The Panthers may not have noticed, or perhaps didn’t care, that Algeria itself was a conservative, closed society, that women were not really free, that a form of anti-black racism existed among the population, and that the Algerian establishment’s generosity required certain codes of conduct and reciprocity on the part of their guests. The Panthers ignored whatever they didn’t want to deal with. After the festival, the delegation returned to California, while the exiles got down to business. I received invitations for Cleaver to meet the ambassadors of North Vietnam, China and North Korea, as well as representatives of the Palestinian liberation movement and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Vietcong). I accompanied him on these visits: he was dignified and lucid, performing like a seasoned diplomat, despite his past as a school dropout, rapist and convict. He could also close down, and retreat to an inaccessible place.

Shortly after Cleaver’s arrival, the ambassador of North Korea invited him to Pyongyang to attend an ‘international conference of journalists against American imperialism’. Cleaver was the star of the conference and stayed on for more than a month. One morning, shortly after his return, he showed up at the Ministry of Information, where I was part of a small team working on a political magazine for international distribution. He was wearing shades and slumped down on a chair next to my desk. Then, without any preamble he lowered his voice: ‘I killed Rahim last night.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Rahim, aka Clinton Smith, had escaped from prison in California with a fellow inmate, Byron Booth, in January 1969. They had hijacked a plane to Cuba and joined up with Cleaver. Not long after sending Cleaver off to Algiers, the Cubans packed off Rahim and Booth too.

Cleaver told me that Rahim had stolen the Panthers’ money and was planning to ‘split’. He and Booth, who witnessed the murder, had buried the body on a wooded hillside a little way out of town, near the sea. Once he’d finished telling me this he put on the cap he’d been playing with and strolled out of the office. I couldn’t get Rahim’s face out of my mind. I was angry with Cleaver for imagining I needed to know any of this. Did he think I could help him if the Algerian authorities got wind of the murder and decided to take action? Several days later a French friend told me that he had seen Rahim and Kathleen Cleaver ‘smooching’ in a cabaret when Cleaver was in North Korea. My friend didn’t know that Rahim had ‘disappeared’. When I next saw Cleaver he told me that the hastily buried remains had been discovered, and added that it must have been obvious from the afro and the tattoos that the victim was an African-American. By then Booth had left the country. A French friend of the Panthers was summoned to police headquarters to identify the body but no one from the Algerian authorities ever got in touch with the Panthers or with me, though I was sure the killing had gone on record.

The Panthers financed themselves thanks to donations from supporters and Cleaver’s advances on book projects. His royalties from Soul on Ice, the defiant confession that had made him famous, were blocked by the US government. Over lunch one day in the spring of 1970, Cleaver pleaded with me to find a way for what the Panthers were now calling the ‘International Section of the BPP’ to be recognised as a sponsored liberation movement, allowing it access to a range of privileges, and a monthly stipend. I turned the problem over to M’hamed Yazid, who’d been the Algerian provisional government’s first representative in New York. He spoke fluent English and was married to Olive LaGuardia, niece of the former mayor of New York City.

algeria 02

M’hamed invited us to lunch at his house outside Algiers, built in the Ottoman period. We sat at a table in the garden, the Cleavers, Don Cox – the former military leader of the BPP, known as ‘DC’ or ‘the field marshal’ – and myself. M’hamed charmed us with stories of his life in New York, all the while sizing up his guests. The interview went well and soon afterwards he called to say the Panthers had been assigned a villa formerly occupied by the Vietcong delegation in the El Biar sector of the city. They would be provided with telephone and telex connections and Algerian ID cards; they wouldn’t need entry or exit visas; and they would receive a monthly cash allocation.

Why did the authorities decide to support the Panthers more openly? Perhaps they would serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington over Algeria’s oil and gas reserves. There were ideological reasons too. It was obvious to everyone living there that Algeria was not neutral in the struggle between the superpowers. Ties with the Soviet Union dated back to the liberation war and the Eastern bloc’s generosity in providing weapons, training and education.

Cleaver was on top of the world after receiving formal recognition. In May, he shipped his pregnant wife off to give birth in North Korea. The wonders of the Korean health system, it was thought, were unsurpassed, and the decision would strengthen the BPP’s ties with Pyongyang. Meanwhile Cleaver had met a gorgeous young Algerian called Malika Ziri who was constantly at his side. Attaching herself publicly to a black American at least 15 years older than her in a society where discretion was the rule would have required immense self-confidence. The Panthers were stars in Algiers, but their flamboyance was also looked on critically. They helped themselves to scarce resources – basic entitlements in American eyes – that other liberation movements didn’t have access to: houses, cars, media coverage, visiting celebrities. They openly dated attractive women, both Algerian and foreign. I can still picture Sekou Odinga, an exile from the New York branch of the Panthers, swooping along the rue Didouche in a shiny red convertible with the top down, a lovely auburn-haired American at the wheel.

The official opening of the headquarters of the International Section took place on 13 September 1970. ‘This is the first time in the struggle of the black people in America that they have established representation abroad,’ Cleaver told the crowd at the ‘embassy’. A few weeks later Sanche de Gramont, a French-American journalist, published a cover story in the New York Times Magazine entitled ‘Our Other Man in Algiers’.

Soon after the opening of the embassy Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD (‘turn on, tune in, drop out’), and his wife arrived in town. Leary had been sprung from a US prison by the Weather Underground, who’d been paid $25,000 (some say $50,000) by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a California hippy group that manufactured and distributed high-grade marijuana and LSD. Nixon had called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America’. Cleaver and I gave Slimane Hoffman a toned-down version of Leary’s story, emphasising his career as a Harvard professor. Cleaver assured Hoffman that he was capable of controlling Leary’s drug use and his bouts of nonsensical eloquence. The commandant wished us well.

My first impression was that the Learys were elderly hipsters. I don’t know what I expected: something crazier, more flamboyant and exciting. In the name of the revolution Cleaver decided that Leary had to denounce drugs, and Leary agreed to take part in a BPP film session aimed at US audiences. Cleaver opened the interview by saying that the idea that drugs were a way to liberation was an invention by ‘illusionary guys’: the real path was through organisations like the Weathermen and the BPP who were involved in direct action. Leary’s reply was cagey. ‘If taking any drug postpones for ten minutes the revolution, the liberation of our sisters and brothers, our comrades, then taking drugs must be postponed for ten minutes … However, if one hundred FBI agents agreed to take LSD, thirty would certainly drop out.’

The Panthers decided Leary should join a delegation invited to the Levant by Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s party, then the dominant force in the PLO. Leary should break cover there, it was argued, not in Algeria. The group, headed by Don Cox, landed in Cairo in October without incident, then went on to Beirut, where they were put up in a hotel frequented by the Western press. Leary was spotted and the hotel was besieged. The delegation was followed everywhere and it became impossible for them to visit Fatah’s training camps in Jordan and Syria as planned. They returned instead to Cairo, where Leary, paranoid and hysterical, became ‘uncontrollable’, DC reported, scaling walls, hiding behind buildings, raising his arms and screaming in the streets. The Algerian ambassador put them on a plane back to Algiers.

From there, they hired a car and began spending time in Bou-Saada, an oasis in the Sahara where, at their ease on handloom carpets, they partied with LSD. Algeria is an immense country, four-fifths desert, but one is never quite alone. The Learys would smile blissfully and wave to the astonished shepherds who came across them. The Panthers didn’t approve of these escapades and in January 1971 ‘arrested’ the Learys, putting them under guard for several days. Cleaver filmed the prisoners and issued a press release that was distributed in the US: ‘Something’s wrong with Leary’s brain … We want people to gather their wits, sober up and get down to the serious business of destroying the Babylonian empire … To all those of you who looked to Dr Leary for inspiration and leadership, we want to say to you that your god is dead because his mind has been blown by acid.’

When he was freed, Leary complained to the Algerian authorities and we were summoned by Hoffman. The atmosphere was heavy until Cleaver and DC produced bags of drugs recovered from Leary and his visitors – enough for 20,000 hits. Hoffman’s jaw dropped. Tim was tired of us and wanted to move on. He no longer hid his dislike of DC and me; we felt the same way about him. Early in 1971, he left without saying goodbye.


There must have been thirty Panthers, men, women and children, in the International Section. They operated in military style with strict regulations, daily worksheets and activity reports. They maintained contact with support groups in Europe and other liberation organisations in Algiers. They ran training sessions in self-defence and weapons instruction. Just before the embassy opened Huey Newton, the legendary BPP leader who had spent almost three years in prison on a manslaughter charge for killing a policeman, was granted parole, awaiting a new trial. When he was released from jail ten thousand people turned out to greet him. But the man who took back the leadership of the BPP was not prepared for the transformation that had taken place in his absence. The party had become a powerhouse that the FBI was bent on destroying, waging war against its members, attacking chapter headquarters, letting loose an army of paid informers and circulating fake information. Newton’s reaction was to demand total control, dismissing groups and condemning individuals who failed to fall in line.

With the attempt at containment came self-aggrandisement. He was living in a penthouse, had taken over a nightclub and was walking with a swagger stick. At the start of 1971 he was due to appear on a morning TV show in San Francisco and asked Cleaver to join him to demonstrate their alliance and dissipate the rising tension. The International Section met and decided unanimously to use the occasion to confront Newton. When Cleaver appeared onscreen he demanded that Newton overturn his expulsion edicts and called for the removal of Newton’s lieutenant David Hilliard. Newton cut short the broadcast, then called Cleaver. ‘You’re a punk,’ he said and expelled him from the BPP. Chapters and members across the US took sides.

Cleaver had taped the broadcast and the phone call. He asked me to come and listen to the recording, worried about the Algerian reaction. I didn’t think they would get involved: ‘It’s not their problem, it’s yours, Eldridge.’ The Panthers took down the BPP plaque at the entrance to their embassy and started to call themselves the Revolutionary People’s Communications Network. They hoped to enable information exchange between left-wing groups around the world and to produce a newspaper for distribution in the US and Europe. To take the measure of the damage caused by the Newton/Cleaver split, and launch the network, Kathleen and I headed for the US in October 1971 on a month-long cross-country speaking tour. We soon realised that the party was collapsing.

The group in Algiers plodded on. There was no reaction from the Algerians, no sign that they were following events in the BPP, though Newton had sent a formal message to Boumediene denouncing Cleaver. Then, on 3 June 1972, I received a call from the head of the FLN telling me that a plane had been hijacked in Los Angeles and was heading for Algiers. The hijackers had demanded that Cleaver meet them at the airport. They were holding $500,000 in ransom money, which they’d obtained in exchange for letting the passengers go. We stood on the tarmac, Cleaver, DC, Pete O’Neal (the former head of the Kansas City Panthers) and myself, and watched Roger Holder, a young African-American, and his white companion, Cathy Kerkow, slowly come down the steps from the aircraft. All were in high spirits until we realised that the Algerians had taken the moneybags and were not about to put them into Cleaver’s eager hands. The money was returned to the US; Roger and Cathy were granted asylum and became part of the local community of US exiles.

On 1 August another hijacked plane arrived, this one from Detroit. The hijackers, black but again not Panthers, had been paid $1 million by Delta Airlines for releasing the plane’s passengers in Miami. This time the authorities in Algiers kept the Panthers at a distance, and once again sent the money back to the US. The Panthers were furious: they were ‘vibrating to the overtones of dollar bills’, Cleaver would later admit. They wrote an open letter to Boumediene: ‘Those who deprive us of this finance are depriving us of our freedom.’ DC told his comrades they were crazy and resigned from the organisation: ‘The government is not going to risk the future of their country for a handful of niggas and a million dollars. There’s gonna be trouble.’ He was right. Reproaching Algeria’s head of state in public showed a lack of respect. The police invaded the embassy, confiscated the Panthers’ weapons, cut the telephone and telex connections, and closed it down for 48 hours. When the guard was lifted, Cleaver was called in by a senior official and severely reprimanded. The atmosphere cleared within a few days: Algeria wasn’t ready to abandon them.

Cleaver and his colleagues knew little of the country that had taken them in. They never ventured beyond Algiers. They didn’t read the local press or listen to the radio. Except for women friends, they knew few Algerians and never visited Algerian homes. They knew little of Algeria’s colonial past, the ravages of the war, or the under-development the regime was attempting to tackle. They saw themselves as free agents, able to protest and use the media at will. Some of them even proposed organising a demonstration in front of Boumediene’s offices. Cleaver had to remind them that this was Algiers, not Harlem. They had no real understanding of their hosts, their politics or their reservations about their American guests, and they underestimated them.

The Algerians, for their part, weren’t sure how to deal with the Panthers. Algeria was a leading light in the Third World, active in the non-aligned group of nations. It was hosting and training liberation movements from Latin America, Africa and Asia. There was too much at stake for the FLN to let itself be pushed around by these American exiles. And it couldn’t allow international hijackers to make Algeria look like a nation that didn’t abide by international rules.

With a dying organisation in the US and international support fast slipping away, the Algiers Panthers were close to stateless. ‘The International Section,’ Cleaver later wrote, ‘had become a sinking ship.’ He left the embassy. Malika had been replaced by a series of Algerian women. One of them, to my astonishment, was a veiled neighbour of mine who never left our building unaccompanied. He had wooed her as she hung out the laundry on her balcony and had been meeting her in my apartment while Kathleen was in Europe, seeking asylum for the whole family.

‘To each his own’ was a formula Cleaver used on many occasions. When he used it now, he was signalling his withdrawal from the organised left. The community of exiles began to look to their individual survival. They started leaving Algeria towards the end of 1972. Some settled in sub-Saharan Africa, a few attempted an underground existence inside the US; others, Cleaver included, left for France on forged passports: within a few years he would be back in the US, a born-again Christian. No one was ejected from Algeria. The group of Detroit hijackers left in mid-1973; Roger and Cathy were the last to go in January 1974. Cox, the field marshal, returned to Algiers that year and lived and worked there for another four years. The arrival of the Panthers in Algeria had been more than an education or an experience for me. I believed in them, I loved them and shared their goals. I hated to see them go.

I had made the arrangements for Cleaver’s departure: I found the passport he would travel on, the passeurs who would see him safely across national frontiers, the hideout in southern France, and the apartments in Paris. Before long, he was taken up by influential people there. His French residency and legal immunity were sorted out by the minister of finance, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, shortly before he became president. Then I stopped hearing from him. To each his own, I reminded myself.





June 26, 2017

June 26, 2017



Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur

Cuba pledges refuge

for ‘U.S. civil rights




On June 16, Donald Trump, while announcing the rollback of President Obama’s modest improvements in U.S. imperialism’s posture towards revolutionary Cuba, demanded Cuba return freedom fighter Assata Shakur.

As part of the Cuban government’s overall response to Trump’s attack, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez rebuffed Trump’s demand: “Regarding the issue of the so-called ‘U.S. fugitives in Cuba,’ I can reaffirm that, under our national law and international law and the Latin American tradition, Cuba has granted political asylum or refuge to U.S. civil rights fighters. Of course these people will not be returned to the United States, which lacks the legal, political, and moral foundation to demand this.” (, June 20)

In May 1973, Assata Shakur, former Black Panther Party activist and member of the Black Liberation Army, was in a car stopped by New Jersey state troopers.  A shootout broke out. One trooper and the car’s driver were killed, and Shakur was severely wounded.

Another trooper initially testified that Shakur shot and killed the cop, but then admitted he lied. In her trial, it was revealed that Shakur never even touched a weapon let alone fired one. The police bullets that pierced Shakur had severed nerves in her arms and shoulders, making it impossible for her to fire a weapon.

Nevertheless, an all-white jury, including five friends and family of N.J. state troopers, convicted Shakur of murder simply because she was present at the shootout. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Assata Shakur received horrible treatment in prison. In 1979, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights wrote: “One of the worst cases is that of Assata Shakur, who spent over twenty months in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner. Many more months were spent in solitary confinement in mixed or all-women’s prisons. Presently, after protracted litigation, she is confined at Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in maximum security. She has never on any occasion been punished for any infraction of prison rules which might in any way justify such cruel or unusual punishment.”

Assata Shakur gave birth to her daughter Kakuya Shakur in 1974.  While in the hospital she was beaten and restrained by prison guards. On Nov. 2, 1979, with the help of BLA members, Assata Shakur escaped from the New Jersey Clinton Correctional Facility. The FBI and local police conducted a massive, nationwide manhunt for Shakur, including warrantless searches through a whole apartment building in Harlem.

In 1984, Shakur managed to reach Cuba, where the government immediately granted her asylum. She was reunited with her daughter in 1985. She works as an English-language editor for Radio Havana Cuba. In 1987, she published her autobiography, and in 1997, she wrote the book “Still Black, Still Strong” with Dhoruba bin Wahad and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wrote: “When I use Assata’s powerful demand in my organizing work, I always begin by sharing where it comes from, sharing about Assata’s significance to the Black Liberation Movement, what it’s political purpose and message is, and why it’s important in our context.” (, Oct. 7, 2014)

Assata’s pledge affirms: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.  We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

U.S. imperialism has long sought to reimprison Assata Shakur. New Jersey and the federal government have offered a $2 million bounty for her capture. But revolutionary Cuba has long stood on the side of the oppressed people of the U.S. and around the world.  No amount of bullying by Boss Trump is going to shake its resolve.











Cover Story:

Serena Williams’s

Love Match

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz. A STAR IS BORN Serena Williams, photographed in Highland Beach, Florida.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
A STAR IS BORN Serena Williams, photographed in Highland Beach, Florida.


Last January, on the eve of the Australian
Open, Serena Williams handed her fiancé,
Alexis Ohanian, a paper bag containing six
positive pregnancy tests. It was just the latest
surprise in an unlikely pairing: the
world’s greatest tennis player and the geek
co-founder of Reddit. From their first date
—a magical six hours in Paris—to their plans
for the baby’s arrival, this is the full love story.

This is a love story.

It wasn’t seamless, starry eyes at first light. There was a discovery, unexpected and shocking. There were moments of really getting pissed and the standard irritation that comes when one half of the whole kept leaving the suitcase in the hallway. But there were also moments of unplanned intimacy that is the only true kind of intimacy in a love story, soft touches and laughter and absurdity, because you need absurdity in a love story, since love is slightly absurd anyway, a feeling that, like eternity, is indefinable.

Which leads us, on the surface at least, to the seemingly mismatched pairing of 35-year-old Serena Williams and her fiancé, 34-year-old Alexis Ohanian. She is the beyond remarkable tennis player, although all superlatives are pointless. He is in the high cotton of high tech as the co-founder of the Web site Reddit, which has 234 million unique monthly users. They became engaged last December, after first meeting roughly a year and a half earlier, then found out in January that Serena was pregnant. They will be married in the fall after the birth of the baby.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

With 23 grand-slam wins on the women’s pro tennis tour spanning nearly three decades—from her first, at 17 years old, in September of 1999, to her latest, at 35, in January of 2017, and the most in the open era—Serena is in the heart of every conversation concerning the best athlete of her time. “If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of question,” she told me. She may well be right, a society still conditioned to believe that men are better than women in everything except the superfluous.

Alexis, on the other hand, had never seen a tennis match until he met Serena, in May of 2015 in Rome. He knew so little about the game that the photo he excitedly posted on Instagram of her playing her first match in the Italian Open showed her foot faulting.

Serena plays a sport that requires the mental focus of instantaneously letting go of losing points and moving on because there are a lot of excruciating ones no matter how great you are, continual regrouping and re-inventing: dwell on them, you lose confidence; lose confidence and you lose. She is also superbly conditioned, given that a female tennis player may run about three miles in a match without the luxury of coming out of the game because you feel winded or lost too much money gambling with teammates the night before on the charter and would rather mope on the bench.


Alexis’s athletic history amounted to the level of a very gangly defensive tackle for Howard High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, far more interested in science fairs and programming and building Web sites. His skill at tennis is not one of potential; when Serena offered to give him a lesson, he turned it down so he could tell his friends that he once turned down a lesson with Serena Williams.


Serena has been romantically linked in the past to such rappers as Drake and Common. Once, when she and Alexis went to a movie in San Francisco, he got up from his seat to get popcorn, earning the admiration of the kid at the counter.

Reddit, Rome, and rats? Watch the video
below for a primer on the unlikely beginning
of Serena Williams’s and Alexis Ohanian’s



“Yo, dude, that wasn’t Serena Williams, was it?”

“Come on. Me? Really?”

“You’re right.”

Before we get to how Serena and Alexis actually met, or a better sense of who he really is, or her reaction to the pregnancy and how she told him, it’s probably wise to spend a little time with Serena Williams to give our love story some context.

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Serena Williams is the best tennis player in history, with an aggregate winning percentage of 85.76 percent and 72 tournaments won on the Women’s Tennis Association tour (including the 23 grand-slam victories in 29 singles finals, not to mention 14 doubles finals with sister Venus). She has earned $84,463,131 in career prize money and nearly twice that in endorsements and appearance fees.

Thirty is the point of no return for most female tennis players, but Serena has only gotten better since, with 10 grand-slam wins and almost running the four-tournament table—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—in 2015. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world longer than anyone other than Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, and is the obvious favorite to win any tournament she chooses to play in.

But then an unforeseen discovery left both Serena and Alexis in shock. Which is perfect for our love story, since a love story without drama is just another story.



It began to unfold roughly a week before the beginning of the Australian Open, in Melbourne, last January, not that anyone would have known. After playing poorly in her first match of the year, in which she felt she had missed too many backhands, she went to the practice court and for two and a half to three hours hit 2,500 of them, by her estimation. If she missed one, she started over. She did roughly the same the next practice day.

But she felt a little different physically. She had unexpectedly thrown up at one point and her breasts had enlarged. She thought it might be hormonal. But her friend Jessica Steindorff immediately suspected something else and suggested a pregnancy test. Serena thought it was ludicrous.


Jessica worked on her for two days until Serena relented, and so Jessica went to a pharmacy and bought a pregnancy kit.

“I’ll take it just because (a) to prove you wrong and (b) because it’s fun, whatever. It’s like a joke. Why not?”

GRANDSTAND “I don’t know what to do with a baby. I have nothing.... I’ve done absolutely nothing for the baby room.” Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

GRANDSTAND “I don’t know what to do with a baby. I have nothing…. I’ve done absolutely nothing for the baby room.”
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

That Friday, as Serena was doing her hair and makeup for an event sponsored by the lingerie company Berlei, where she is a spokesperson for its line of sports bras, she took the test in the bathroom. “I put it down. I went back to finishing hair and makeup, was laughing, talking. I was getting the styling done. An hour and a half later, I went back to the bathroom and I totally forgot about it because it was impossible for me. . . . So I went back to get dressed and I went back in the bathroom and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that test.’ ”


Jessica shrieked in delight at the results. Serena, as she put it, “did a double take and my heart dropped. Like literally it dropped.

“Oh my God, this can’t be—I’ve got to play a tournament,” said Serena. “How am I going to play the Australian Open? I had planned on winning Wimbledon this year.”

But never underestimate the Serena Stubbornness, as legendary in certain circles as her first serve. Beleaguered Jessica went back to the hotel pharmacy and bought five more test kits to further convince her.

Test No. 2: Positive. Test No. 3: Positive. Test No. 4: Positive. Test No. 5: Positive. Test No. 6: Positive.

Which is an opportune time in our love story to bring in the father and rewind to the moment Serena met Alexis and Alexis met Serena.

MAY 2015

Although in his early 30s, there is something still gushingly boyish about Alexis, six feet five inches and lean, with the moppish hairstyle that college tour guides favor as they extol all the wonders of the campus, including the mail room and the six-shooter cereal dispenser. In his case the corporate offices of Reddit, in the Union Square area of San Francisco, which look oddly unfinished—as if to say, Why be bothered with such trivialities in the hip high-tech culture?—twentysomething savants engrossed by their computer screen with heads slightly hunched, the way people used to look when they were engrossed by books, searching for the next Pied Piperian breakthrough and likely finding it before lunch is served on the second floor from a line of stainless-steel buffet trays winking and nodding with nutritious options.

Alexis was born in Brooklyn and raised in the nationally known planned community of Columbia, Maryland. Reddit’s origins go back to 2004 during his junior year at the University of Virginia, when he took an L.S.A.T. prep exam for law school, got about midway through the first section, and went to the Waffle House on Route 29 in Charlottesville to have waffles. He realized he did not want to be a lawyer, just as he had also realized that his real love was programming and building Web sites. He teamed with Steve Huffman, an engineering major, whom he had met the first day of freshman year.

Williams and fiancé Alexis Ohanian, photographed in Highland Beach. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Williams and fiancé Alexis Ohanian, photographed in Highland Beach.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

They came up with the concept for Reddit, a Web site self-described as “the front page of the Internet,” in which users interact and respond to a myriad of topics that interest them. The number of users went up rapidly, and, in 2006, 16 months after launching it, he and Huffman, still in their early 20s, sold the company to Condé Nast (which also publishes this magazine) for a reported $10 to $15 million. The price was a fraction of what Reddit has been estimated to be worth today: $4 billion. Alexis sheepishly admitted that they may have sold the company a little early.


He left Reddit and went to Armenia, where his father’s family is originally from, to do volunteer work. He wrote a book called Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, and traveled the United States for five months to promote it on a bus that went to 80 universities because he wanted to be on a bus that traveled around the country. He became a leading voice in stopping government intervention in the Internet. He helped invent the travel Web site Hipmunk. Several years ago, he and Huffman returned to Reddit as executive chairman and chief executive officer, respectively, the company once again independent.

Alexis and Serena met the way two people do in the best love stories: by chance. Actually, it runs a little deeper than that because, let’s face it, Alexis was initially considered by Serena and the others she was with to be an irritant they were hoping would just get the hint and go away.

The location was the Cavalieri hotel, in Rome, on May 12, 2015. That night Serena was about to play her first match in the Italian Open. She is not a morning person and usually doesn’t eat breakfast, but the buffet offering at the Cavalieri was beyond extravagant and Jessica was champing at the bit, so they went to try it along with longtime agent Jill Smoller, of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, and Zane Haupt, who handles some business-development opportunities for Serena.

The buffet had closed down five minutes before the group got there, so their only recourse was to go to the pool area and sit at a table for four and order breakfast. Other people on Serena’s team were expected at an adjoining table.

The night before, Alexis had stayed up until one or two in the morning drinking at a café with Kristen Wiig and friends—Wiig was in Rome shooting Zoolander 2, and he knew her cousin, so he introduced himself. He passed out when he got back to the hotel, where he was staying for the Festival of Media Global conference, and was slightly hungover when he came down to breakfast. He too headed out to the pool area. Which is when he decided without thinking about it to sit at the table next to Serena, his only interest to get coffee and food and put on his headphones and work on his laptop. Which struck Serena and the others as a pain in the neck, since Alexis had a choice of other empty tables.

“I knew it was coming,” she says of the proposal. “I was like, ‘Serena, you’re ready. This is what you want.’ ”

“This big guy comes and he just plops down at the table next to us, and I’m like, ‘Huh! All these tables and he’s sitting here?,’ ” Serena remembered. Alexis recalled that the pool area was “not quite so empty.”

Then came the quintessential Australian accent of Zane Haupt. “Aye, mate! There’s a rat. There’s a rat by your table. You don’t want to sit there.”

Serena started laughing.

“We were trying to get him to move and get out of there,” said Serena. “He kind of refuses and he looks at us. And he’s like, ‘Is there really a rat here?’ ” At which point Serena remembers the first words she ever said to him.

“No, we just don’t want you sitting there. We’re going to use that table.”

“I’m from Brooklyn. I see rats all the time.”

“Oh, you’re not afraid of rats?”


Which is when Serena suggested a compromise and invited Alexis to join them.

Which is when Alexis became “98 percent sure” that the person asking about his rat tolerance was Serena Williams. He knew generally about her accomplishments on the court. But Alexis, an avid pro-football-and-basketball fan, had “never watched a match on television or in real life. It was literally the sport—even if ESPN was announcing tennis updates, I would just zone out. . . . I really had no respect for tennis.”

He did keep this to himself.

Serena asked about the tech conference and whom Alexis had come to hear speak. He later described the question as a “softball lobbed over the plate” that even he could hit out of the park.

“Actually, I’m here to speak.”

Alexis told her about Reddit. Serena knew nothing about it but acted as if she did, and said she had been on it earlier in the morning.

To which Alexis asked, “Oh, were you? What do you like about it?”

To which Serena gave a very long “Wellllll . . . ” and was saved by Jessica and Jill chiming in.

Serena Williams has long been queen of the
tennis court, but her success also extends to
business, fashion, and philanthropy. Watch
the video below to see some of her biggest
career achievements.



Serena started asking him about her Web site and if she should have an app. Alexis thought, “This is an interesting, charming, beautiful woman.” But he had just come out of a five-year relationship and was still slightly hungover and “I was not thinking beyond ‘Yeah sure, I can give you some feedback on your Web site.’ ”

Serena thought he was interested in Jessica. But she did give him her number—she later said it was only because she might have more tech-related questions. He was eminently likable, and Jill, after finding out he was a client of WME for his speaking gigs, invited him to the match that night.

Serena had an injury and did not play well but still won. Afterward she and her team got on a van to head back to the hotel. Alexis was on board as well and Serena freaked out a little bit.

“I see this super-tall guy get in our [van], and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Jill. Tell me what’s wrong. Do I have another stalker? Why is Rome sending personal security with me. . . . And she’s like, ‘No, that’s Alexis.’ I remembered his name because it was a unique name. I was like, ‘Oh, I remember.’ ”

After recognizing him, she invited Alexis to join her team for dinner that night. It didn’t work out. But something was in the air, and as our love story continues, there’s only one place to find out just what.

After Serena won the Australian Open, the next big tournament was the second leg of the grand-slam circuit, the French Open, at Roland-Garros, later that month. She texted Alexis that she was bummed that he had not seen her play well in Rome and proposed that maybe he should come to Paris. To Alexis, it was one of those classically inverse L.A.-style invites that are extended because you are sure it will never happen.

But Alexis did come to Paris for the weekend. Not that he had any particular expectations. “Even if she blows me off and we don’t even hang out, I’m still going to have an amazing time in Paris, and I’ll have an even better story for all my childhood friends when I was like, ‘Yeah, I went to Paris for a weekend. I was supposed to meet up with Serena Williams, she blew me off, but I’ve got other friends there, and we had a great time.’ ”

The tournament, which Serena would ultimately win, had not started yet. So Alexis and Serena got into an Uber near Serena’s apartment and drove toward the Eiffel Tower. They stopped at a zoo Serena knew about called La Ménagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, then at a stall selling candies. Serena became excited, like a small child, and Alexis bought her some.

They just walked and roamed, Serena placing her faith in Alexis because he was a tried-and-true traveler, where all you needed was a backpack and the only rules were none. Alexis also sensed that this was not something Serena ever got to do as a worldwide celebrity, so much of her life being about regimen and glamorous scenes where acolytes circled like fireflies. For six hours they walked all over, the magic of the day multiplied by the city’s heartbreak of beauty, which only made it more beautiful.

APRIL 2016

The day of his birthday, April 24, Alexis went to the Carousel Restaurant in Little Armenia in Los Angeles with his grandparents. Serena and he FaceTimed. She was calling to say happy birthday, which might not sound like a big deal but was because she is a Jehovah’s Witness and part of the religion is not to celebrate birthdays. She was doing something she normally would not do, reaching beyond, telling him on the phone how wonderful their lives together had been.

Alexis knew then he wanted to marry her, not simply out of happiness or compatibility. She was helping him become the best version of himself because of her own work ethic and focus, with millions watching and the expectation of the public that she should win every time, what Serena herself described as carrying “three pyramids” on her shoulder. He thought he worked hard—it is part of the romance of high tech that everyone works 18 hours a day and then curls up under the desk for a few hours’ sleep with their laptop as teddy bear and pacifier—but he realized it was nothing compared with Serena.

“I felt like a door had been opened to a person who made me want to be my best self. . . . I find myself just wanting to be better by simply being around her because of the standard she holds.”


Alexis decided he would surprise Serena by proposing to her on December 10 in virtually the same spot he had first met her: the Cavalieri. It was an intricate and tactical plan, several months in the making. Serena was scheduled to play in an exhibition in India, so Jill Smoller talked her into making a stopover on the way back and spending the night at the Cavalieri. Then the exhibition was canceled. There was no reason for Serena to go to Italy. Plus, she was beginning training for the Australian Open, and when Serena gets close to a grand-slam event, practice becomes a personal Hacksaw Ridge—fury, broken rackets, sometimes tears. Now going to Rome?

Alexis scrambled to enlist the help of others. Serena’s executive assistant, Dakota Baynham, secretly packed her bags. Tommy Hilfiger did a major solid by scheduling a meeting at her house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to discuss some fashion-related items so she would be there to get picked up for the airport. Jill came to the house and told her that she had to go to Italy because Alexis wanted her there under the guise of a spontaneous trip, much like the one they had taken to Disney World a few weeks earlier.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Serena wasn’t happy. Actually, she was livid. But after she got on the plane, she realized that he was flying her out for only one reason. “I knew it was coming. I was like, ‘Serena, you’re 35, you’re ready. This is what you
want.’ ”

Alexis picked the same room they had shared a year earlier, the hotel at his instruction filling it with flowers. He took her downstairs to the same table by the pool area where they had first met. No one else was there, since the hotel, also at his instruction, had cleared everyone else out. He retold the story of how he had met her for the first time at this exact spot two years earlier. On the table was a little plastic rat.

Alexis got on one knee and proposed.


Once Serena knew she was pregnant, she called Alexis and told him he needed to come to Melbourne earlier than planned. She did not give him the reason, but Alexis thought it was likely health-related and immediately got a United flight out of San Francisco. When she saw him, not a word was said.

She handed him a paper bag with the six positive pregnancy tests.

He was as shocked as Serena. But there wasn’t time to dwell. The Australian Open was about to begin, and an immediate medical determination had to be made on what risk there might be in playing. The doctor who examined her thought she was about three or four weeks pregnant—it was almost impossibly hard to tell because the fetus was so small—and said there was no risk whatsoever. When Serena returned to the States and had a subsequent exam, it was discovered that she had actually been more advanced, about seven to eight weeks, but she said she still would have played. There were only five people who knew during the tournament: Alexis, Jessica, Jill, Venus, and the doctor. Not even Serena’s coach knew. Nor did tournament officials.

In her earlier years Serena was all about sheer aggressiveness, playing to the strength of opponents and still beating them. She has gotten more strategic, but her game still pivots on power, a first serve that often clocks in at somewhere around 120 miles an hour and is one of the best ever in tennis. The speed is lethal, but it is complemented by a perfect technique in which she tosses the ball in the air with the same trajectory every serve so her opponent has no idea where she is aiming. Assuming her opponent can even get to the first serve, it often makes for a weak return that enables Serena to finish off a point with short, three- or four-stroke rallies that conserve strength. This obviously helps her endurance and allows her, a great three-set player, to win a match.

The Australian Open presented a new challenge that Serena had never faced before in her career. Because of the pregnancy she did not have the same endurance. She could uncharacteristically feel herself getting tired between points, particularly long ones. If a match went to three sets she knew she would lose, so she was determined to make every match two sets. She also had to deal with the Melbourne heat, which can be vicious on the court in the late afternoon: despite hating playing in the morning, Serena, because she had the option of choosing the match time in the early rounds, played as many as possible at 11 A.M.

You had to win seven matches to win the tournament.

Serena won them all in straight sets.

MAY 2017

It is a typical day in Palm Beach Gardens, the temperature in the mid-80s and enough humidity to get your attention. Serena is on the back patio, curled up on a white outdoor couch trimmed with wicker. There is none of the pouty celebrity I-would-rather-be-doing-anything-other-than-this monosyllabic slouch, nor is every answer punctuated with Sorry-I-have-to-take-this-call. There are a few moments when she pauses and talks to Chip, her beloved teacup Yorkie, who is slightly bigger than her hand, and whom she calls “her son” and clearly means it.

She is now a little more than six months pregnant and showing, which is helping her face the reality that she is having a baby, because “it just doesn’t seem real. I don’t know why. Am I having a baby?

“If you would have told me last year in October or November that I would have a baby, not be pregnant but have a baby, I would have thought you were the biggest liar in the world. This is kind of how I am right now. This is happening sooner than later, and it’s going by so fast.”

If there is no giddiness, there is no panic. Says her friend Diondria Thornton, Serena “loves being pregnant.” But it’s not that simple. “I can also see competition creeping in on her. Is this over yet? I think she’s getting this itch . . . to see her intensity and her workout—‘I have to stay fit. I have to get back on the court.’ Very determined to get back on the court.”

Serena says she will return to the tennis circuit
as soon as January because “I don’t think my
story is over yet.”

She is slowly converting one of the guest rooms of her house into the baby’s room but as of May hadn’t made any further preparations. “I don’t know what to do with a baby. I have nothing. . . . I’ve done absolutely nothing for the baby room.” She is more than busy: the working out, about to launch her own online fashion site, recently named to the board of SurveyMonkey, an online survey platform. She won’t get to the bulk of baby paraphernalia until later in the summer, when moving around will be much harder and she will be, as she puts it, “bored to tears.”

Alexis, of course, is earnestly preparing and already has a tip jar he puts money into whenever he uses profanity so he won’t utter it around the baby. He also wants to make sure that Chip, his future stepson, is psychologically cool with a baby in the house.

Alexis and Serena still try to see each other every weekend in what will be a bi-coastal relationship until marriage. Alexis is looking forward to the marriage. Serena, with tongue floating somewhere in cheek, says, “I’m trying to enjoy the little freedom I have left.” They are largely homebodies when together, cooking with each other—although Serena is very proprietary about her tacos—playing the game Heads Up!, in which player No. 1 calls up a name on their cell-phone screen, places it on forehead, and player No. 2 gives clues to see if player No. 1 gets the right answer before time runs out. There is another version, in which the clues are in the form of impressions, and Serena tries earnestly, even though, according to Alexis, she is frankly terrible, whereas Alexis takes pride in doing some pretty good ones. Alexis is aware that when you are in tech the word “nerd” becomes a suffix next to your name. But he says that Serena is really the nerd, knowing, for example, all the words to the animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender by heart.

Marriages are impossible to predict. Fairy tales become broken tales, love stories turn into stories of love lost, initial euphoria into a wish for marital euthanasia. The trouble with love is that it comes with the guarantee of nothing.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

The nature of it is risk, happiness and hurt in the same muscle of the heart. Maybe Serena and Alexis are too different. Maybe she won’t be able to give enough when she is giving to a baby even before the marriage begins. Maybe he will feel he is making too many sacrifices in his spectacular and exciting career to accommodate Serena, since her career is even more spectacular and exciting.

Perhaps the prospect of a continued love story is as realistic as Serena’s insistence that she will return to the pro tennis circuit as soon as January because “I don’t think my story is over yet.” But if she says she will be back in January, she will be back in January. Anyone who has met Serena for more than five seconds knows that.

The marriage? How can it not thrive when the first date was six hours in Paris—with no particular destination—where no matter how crowded the streets and alleyways winding through the city, there was no one else except the two of you.

Now that’s a love story.





May 17, 2017

May 17, 2017




The Birthmark

of Damnation:

Ta-Nehisi Coates

and the Black Body



Liza Bramlett was a slave. She lived on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, during the 19th century. White men raped her repeatedly throughout her life. They traded her body amongst themselves in exchange for calves and piglets. In the end, Liza gave birth to 23 children, 20 of whom were conceived by rape. One of Liza’s daughters, Ella Townsend, was born after emancipation, but remained in the bondage of sharecropping in rural Mississippi. As an adult, she carried a pistol with her in the fields, determined to protect herself and the surrounding children. One day, a white man on horseback rode into the fields. He had come to abduct a young Black girl. Ella, carrying her pistol in a lunch pail, intervened. “You don’t have no Black children and you’re not going to beat no Black children,” she told the intruder. “If you step down off that horse, I’ll go to Hell and back with you before Hell can scorch a feather.”

“I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says of white racists in the final paragraph of his bestseller, Between the World and Me, written as an open letter to his son. Coates describes racism as galactic, a physical law of the universe, “a tenacious gravity” and a “cosmic injustice.” When a cop kills a Black man, the police officer is “a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.” Society is equally helpless against the natural order. “The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed,” says Coates.

In a widely replicated gesture, Coates locates the experience of racism in the body, in a racism that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” In the slim volume, fewer than 300 pages, the word “body” or “bodies” appears more than 300 times. “In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body.” Another brooding passage dwells on the inevitability of this violence.

It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body.

Yet Coates’s descriptive language and haunting narrative are not mere metaphors. They act as an ontological pivot, mystifying racism even as it is anchored in its physical effects.

Metaphor has long been used to capture racism’s almost unimaginable brutality. Lynching became “strange fruit” in Abel Meerpool’s song, made famous by Billie Holiday. In a wry, tragic innuendo, rape was referred to in Black communities as “nighttime integration.” The use of metaphor is not in itself an obfuscation. But Coates wields metaphor to obscure rather than illuminate the reality of racism. What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people. To imbue race with an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its indelible roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people — of politics — is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation.


Ella knew her mother Liza’s unimaginable suffering, but her memory was not a yoke on her shoulders. It provoked something in Ella. As an adult, she did not see the white predator stalking the fields as some helpless agent. She took matters into her own hands. There was no tenacious gravity strong enough to break her will or loosen her grip on her pistol. Her efforts rippled beyond those cotton fields. Ella taught her own daughter, Fannie Lou Hamer, not only to struggle, but to resist.

Fannie Lou was born into a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi, but would go on to become a beacon of the Civil Rights movement. She is best known for her tireless work registering Black voters in Mississippi, most famously during 1964’s Freedom Summer, at great personal risk. Police arrested and beat her. White racists shot at her. Lyndon Johnson dismissed her as an illiterate. In 1973, an interviewer asked her, “Do you have faith that the system will ever work properly?” By then, Fannie Lou had seen a decade of setbacks and false dawns since first walking off her plantation in 1962 to fight for Civil Rights. She responded,

We have to make it work. Ain’t nothing going to be handed to you on a silver platter. That’s not just black people, that’s people in general, masses. See, I’m with the masses… You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way you’ve got to fight.

She marched. She sang freedom songs. She testified. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. For her, the logical solution was political: uniting a powerless many against a powerful few. White racists could be stopped. Black people could resist, and Fannie Lou and so many others did just that.

Fannie Lou knew that the wages of racism were measured on the body. “A Black woman’s body was never hers alone,” she once remarked. White doctors sterilized her without her consent during a minor surgery, a barbaric intrusion so common she called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.” However, though she knew racism’s physical toll, she drew inspiration from stories of Black resistance passed down orally across the generations. She recalled her grandmother’s will to survive and her mother’s weapon of protection. These intergenerational resistance narratives, according to Charles Cobb in his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, “underlay a deep and powerful collective memory that was invisible to whites but greatly affected the shape and course of the modern Freedom Movement.” As a result, Fannie Lou and so many others possessed an intimate knowledge not only of their own human dignity, despite the racist brutality they endured, but also of the very real human frailty inherent to their racial oppressors.

In the years before Fannie Lou’s political struggle began, whole communities, Black women and men, rose up against the violence that was forced on Black women’s bodies. Feminist historian Danielle McGuire argues this anti-rape community organizing in Alabama laid the foundation for what eventually became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She observes, “The majority of leaders active in the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955 cut their political teeth demanding justice for black women who were raped in the 1940s and early 1950s.” Despite being a poor, Black sharecropper drowning in the poverty and racial terror endemic to rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou held fast to her forebearers’ stories of resistance. She did not resign herself to fatalism, as Coates does.


Coates too takes a multigenerational view. Between the World and Me is framed as a letter to his son. However, rather than seeing a legacy of resistance, he finds a lineage of Blackness defined by fear and dysfunction. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid,” he writes. “I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia,” Coates continues. “And I saw it in my own father.”

My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us.

Coates describes his condition, and that of all Black people, as a “birthmark of damnation.”  The resistance stories passed down to Fannie Lou and so many others spurred them to march. Coates’s narrative, riddled with fear and futility, begs us to retreat.

Though Coates has never explicitly cited it as his theoretical framework, the dour outlook of his work evokes the themes of Afro-Pessimism. The pivot to the ontological that is apparent in Coates’s rhetoric is a hallmark of Afro-Pessimism. “Ontology by definition is the study of being, and to speak of Blackness as an ontological condition means analyzing the state of Black bodies through the lens of slavery,” Afro-Pessimist scholar Michael Barlow Jr. writes in the academic journal Inquiries. However, for Barlow, the relation of slavery that ontologically defines blackness is not a matter of political economy, but rather a “libidinal economy.” In this ontological pivot, labor and ownership — that is, political economy — are merely incidental to racial slavery. Instead, it’s the white imagination and its depraved “metaphysical desires for Black flesh” that both predated and catalyzed racialized chattel slavery. Racism is reduced to the spiritual, more a matter of a sinful nature than a political struggle. Coates has echoed this retreat to interiority, to the spiritual, to consciousness.

It’s the ontological pivot that leads Frank Wilderson, perhaps the world’s foremost Afro-Pessimist, to declare in his foundational text “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” that Black people are no more than cows in a slaughterhouse. Wilderson posits that “death of the black body is foundational to the life of American civil society,” just as a cow’s death is essential to the slaughterhouse. Flippantly, Wilderson asks, “how would the cows fare under a dictatorship of the proletariat?” Coates adopts a similar impotence. He characterizes struggle as aimless toil — an apolitical end to itself. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” Yet, how are we to struggle against earthquakes and physical laws? How can we fight gravity?

Both Coates and Wilderson speak of power in terms of dreams. Coates writes of monolithic white “Dreamers,” those whose investment in the American Dream requires a faith in their own whiteness. Similarly, Wilderson sees America as enacting two distinct dreams. For Wilderson, “the dream of black accumulation and death” is separate from “the dream of worker exploitation.” Ultimately, in both Coates’s and Wilderson’s respective frameworks, solidarity is unimaginable and class struggle is rendered futile. Though Coates does not go to the lengths Wilderson does to position himself in opposition to materialist politics, the result is effectively equivalent: a separation of race and class combined with a deep skepticism of class-based solidarity, reforms, or even revolution. This is a deviation from the Freedom Tradition embodied by Fannie Lou Hamer. For her, the problem of racism wasn’t cosmology or ontology, it was an expression of politics implicated in class antagonism. Fannie Lou Hamer stood “with the masses,” both white and black. Solidarity through struggle from below — class struggle — formed her path to victory.

Coates’s ontological pivot is more muddled than Wilderson’s. Fleetingly peppered throughout his work are allusions to material reality, betraying the superimposition of metaphysical abstraction that ultimately drives his perspective. “We did not choose our fences,” he writes. “They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible.” Coates knows that Virginia planters did not invent gravity or earthquakes. Yet this historicizing impulse does not prevent him from essentializing racism when he confronts it head on.

In string of tweets from December 2016, Coates conceded that racism is not transcendental, noting that “at its very root it was always economic.” But acknowledging racism’s economic impact has not led him to embrace class struggle. Even Frank Wilderson can acknowledge that racism has an economic impact, but he still believes that class struggle and racism exist on distinct planes. Coates holds a similar belief; that racism is wholly different in kind from class. In the same series of tweets, he concluded that “in America, ‘class’ isn’t the only kind of class.”

Just as he mystifies racism, even while locating its impact in the bodies of Black people, here he once again performs a muddled ontological pivot. Coates cannot address material politics on its own terms, preferring instead to retreat to a contrived mystification. He replaces action with interiority. As he recently told an auditorium of eager Northwestern students, “The process should not be… people looking out at the world and saying, ‘I would like for there to be change in the world, how do I do that?’” Instead, he implored the crowd to engage from the “inside-out, not outside-in… because if you are in the business of justice, and making this society more democratic, you might get a lot of disappointment.”

Consciousness matters, of course. “Baby you just got to love ’em,” Fannie Lou Hamer would say of the white segregationists who routinely threatened her life. “Hating just makes you sick and weak.” This was Hamer in a reflexive moment, but it was no retreat. In the very next breath, she warned, “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.” Fannie Lou truly was her mother’s daughter. Reflection, whether through intergenerational story or her own thoughts, enhanced her resistance. The same cannot be said of Coates.

Instead of in political action, Coates finds relief in a cookout at Howard’s homecoming, surrounded by Blackness. He fantasizes that he is “disappearing into all of their bodies,” as the music and dancing, the Black cultural zeitgeist of the moment, cure him of the “birthmark of damnation.” The curse is lifted. Blackness is transfigured, becoming a space “beyond the Dream.” It’s another ontological pivot, this time allowing Coates to conclude that The Mecca’s cookout has a “power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill.” It’s a fantasy of retreat, as if Black culture were beyond the machinations of capitalism, as though Black cultural expression existed in the world but was not of it.

Between the World and Me concludes with Coates considering climate change. He sees climate change as a manifestation of a polluted white consciousness, rather than the unfettered excess of industrial capitalism. It is a “noose around the neck of the earth,” allegedly resulting in large part from white flight, the mid-century exodus of negrophobic white families to the suburbs and the pollution caused by the cars that took them there. Coates’s words here are poetic, but grossly inaccurate. They mimic Afro-Pessimism’s emphasis on the white libido, relegating his rhetoric to the realm of interior life, the souls of white folks, and stopping well short of the political domain. To Coates, climate change is “more fierce than Marcus Garvey” — a reflection of Coates’s pessimism. For Coates, the Civil Rights movement was not a struggle to alter a material world; rather the “hope of the movement” was merely to “awaken the Dreamers.” Black politics is only relevant as far as it can arouse white consciousness, which he sees as a largely futile exercise, due to “the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”

Coates sees common interest between the Black elite and the Black poor, as he marvels at “the entire diaspora,” from lawyers to street hustlers, present at Howard’s homecoming. Yet he cannot conceive of anti-capitalist class solidarity across racial identity. He has a darker vision, of a kind that Corey Robin has described as “apocalypticism.” Coates’s ultimate hope is not in collective human action, but rather the total annihilation of the world and all those living in it— another feature that unites him with Afro-pessimism, which calls explicitly for the “end of the world.” As he says of the Dreamers, “the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” Paradoxically, though he can see a collective fate in apocalypse, he rejects shared struggle for liberation. “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves,” he declares.

The problem is, the whole of capitalist enterprise, both past and present, cannot be reduced to race as Original Sin, and its poisoning of all existence. Left out of Coates’s mythology is the fact that colonial enterprise, in what would become the United States, relied first on European indentured servants, most of whom died within a handful of years after arriving on the continent. It’s Coates’s reading of race as sin that pushes him to imagine quasi-salvation in the fantasy of apocalypse. In this racial fatalism, reparations for slavery emerges as the anticipation of the inevitable Judgement Day. It is therefore no surprise that Coates has taken up racial reparations as his cross to bear, not to change the world, but to condemn it.


For the better part of two years, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been the most visible and combative supporter of reparations in politics. Coates calls reparations “the indispensable tool against white supremacy.” In 2016’s “My President Was Black” and “Better Is Good,” Coates refers to the “moral logic” of reparations. They are a measure that could atone for what he called in 2014’s “The Case for Reparations,” the “sin of national plunder.” There he claimed that the nation owes a “moral debt” that must be remedied by the “spiritual renewal” that reparations would facilitate. Reparations for slavery is Coates’s ontological pivot fully realized.

These days, we find Coates touring prestigious universities and making his case for reparations in keynote addresses to packed auditoriums. “I think every single one of these universities needs to make reparations,” Coates said to thunderous applause at a March 3 conference at Harvard University. The day-long conference, “Universities and Slavery: Bound By History,” began with Harvard’s president admitting that the university “was directly complicit in slavery from the college’s earliest days in the 17th century.” Coates pushed the university to “use the language of reparation,” as a measure that would “acknowledge that something was done.” Though Harvard acknowledged its history, no race-specific remedy was forthcoming.

Last fall, Georgetown did Harvard one better. They not only used the language of reparations, the school also put forward a program of financial and symbolic atonement. The university admitted to selling slaves in 1838, “a transaction that helped save Georgetown from financial ruin.” In 2015 Georgetown convened a commission to “reflect upon our University’s history and involvement in the institution of slavery.” The commission recommended granting preferential admission for descendants of the 272 slaves the university sold two centuries ago, in addition to gestures like changing the names of campus buildings from those of slavemasters to those of slaves and free people of color.

Georgetown’s example is the closest actualization of reparations policy that has taken place during Coates’s three years of evangelizing. Coates said of the plan, “folks may not like the word ‘reparations,’ but it’s what Georgetown did. Scope is debatable. But it’s reparations.” Coates wants “special acknowledgment” from above, in the service of spiritual renewal — which explains his penchant for means-tested trickle-down anti-racism. But if he had faith in the masses, as Fannie Lou Hamer did, he’d see that the renewal and acknowledgement he seeks comes from below, from class solidarity in the struggle for universal emancipation.

Harvard has a $37 billion endowment. Mere months before Coates’s appearance, dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves, but the university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.

I’m a former staffer for UNITE HERE, a hospitality union. Last year, I worked on a campaign in a multiethnic, multiracial university cafeteria in Chicago. The campaign’s primary demands were for wage increases and healthcare, using the slogan “Dignity and a Doctor.” Negotiations with the subcontractor had stalled, and strike preparations were under way. Pressures ran high. Workers were afraid. However, just as stories catalyzed resistance for Civil Rights leaders, stories anchored the worker organizing in our campaign. Though workers’ struggles with poverty wages and a lack of health coverage were crucial, one story stood out above the others. Workers continually shared stories that their Chinese colleagues were being abused for speaking Chinese on the shop floor. Managers would walk past, and upon hearing Chinese, they’d smack the speaker on the back of the head commanding the worker to “speak English!”

Most of the workers were people of color, but the majority were not Chinese. The largest plurality in the workplace was made up of African-Americans, virtually all of whom only spoke English. But everyone could identify with the indignity of the story, the asymmetrical relations that empowered the bosses to abuse any one of them for any reason. Workers from a whole range of identities fought in solidarity with the Chinese workers. Discrimination on the basis of language became a central demand in the broader campaign. The campaign attached the specificity of the Chinese workers’ situation to all the workers’ common struggle against the boss. It was class struggle; not enough to overcome racism the world over, but a brief glimpse of solidarity across backgrounds and experiences, through acknowledging the shared indignity of class exploitation.

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.

Because he fails to deeply consider the real, material resistance of the masses, the kind that guided Fannie Lou Hamer, Coates idealizes racism. He evokes metaphors of earthquakes and physical laws to describe its magnitude. But for the workers in that university cafeteria, racism was a smack from a boss. For millions of poor Black people, racism is the corrosive water pipes poisoning their bodies. School closures, crumbling and unstable housing, and all the intimately practical things necessary for everyday life are the measure of racism. These racist realities are not separable from questions of class. In fact, they are expressions of class politics. The racialized tragedies faced daily by the masses require us to embrace class struggle, not Coates’s demobilizing metaphysical maxims about how white people “must ultimately stop themselves.” Solidarity from below, between cafeteria workers, truck drivers, secretaries, and any number of everyday people is worth magnitudes more than special acknowledgement from elites. This solidarity through shared struggle, as Fannie Lou Hamer recognized, is the foundation for social transformation. Where Coates would have us retreat, she called on us to march. She knew that the only way to defeat racism was to fight it, every step of the way.

is an organizer in Chicago, founding editor of Orchestrated Pulse, and the A. Philip Randolph Fellow at Jacobin.















Lez Talk II

Resolute Publishing and BLF Press are excited to receive submissions for Lez Talk II: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction, a collection that amplifies the diversity of Black lesbian experiences. We operate under the assumption that “lesbian” is not a dirty word and seek submissions from Black women who identify as lesbian and write about lesbian experiences. We welcome submissions from emerging and experienced writers.We seek stories that:

  • cross a range of fictional genres (e.g., romance, speculative, mystery, humor, horror, coming-of-age)
  • merge the themes of Black and lesbian; affirm the interconnectedness of race+gender+sexual orientation; express how Black America/America experiences our race+gender+sexual orientation
  • explore new subjects and aspects of our experiences
  • showcase the uniqueness and beauty of Black lesbian love/lives
  • push the boundaries of storytelling in a wonderfully written way.

See “Submit Lez Talk II Stories” below for details.

The Editors
Lez Talk II is a partnership between Lauren Cherelle, manager of Resolute Publishing, and BLF Press publisher S. (Stephanie) Andrea Allen. Stephanie and Lauren co-edited Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Fiction (2016) and Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color (2017). They also co-host Lez Talk Books Radio, a podcast featuring Black lesbian writers (@LezWriters). Lez Talk II is their third literary collaboration.

Lauren’s most recent f/f novel, The Dawn of Nia, was released in 2016. Her short stories have been featured in two collections. Twitter handle @LaurenCre8s

S. Andrea Allen is the author of A Failure to Communicate (BLF Press 2017), a collection of short fiction, and is currently working on a second short story collection and her first novel. Twitter handle @S_Andrea_Allen

General Manuscripts

Resolute Publishing is an independent publishing collective that transforms dreams into realities for female writers. Resolute produces quality publications and products rooted in African American culture and/or same-gender loving experiences. We welcome submissions from women of color that are committed to great storytelling and are also passionate readers.

Resolute is accepting completed, unpublished manuscripts to expand the collective. We welcome fiction and creative nonfiction submissions (excluding erotica). See “Submit Manuscript” below for details.

Ends on July 31, 2017 







 Short Story Award

For New Writers


“Thanks for providing a place for emerging talents to thrive!”
— Amy Williams, The Williams Agency

||| SUBMIT NOW |||

$3000 + Publication + Agency Review

It’s back! Our Short Story Award For New Writers, our biggest submission period of the year. The winning story will be awarded $3000 and publication online. Second and third place stories will be awarded publication and $200 and $100 respectively. All winners and honorable mentions will receive agency review by: Nat Sobel from Sobel Weber, Victoria Cappello from The Bent Agency, Andrea Morrison from Writers House, and Mark Gottlieb from Trident Media. We want you to succeed, and we want your writing to be read. It’s been our mission to support emerging writers since day one.


  • Winner receives $3000, publication, and agency review
  • Second and third place prizes ($200/$100, publication, and agency review)
  • Stories under 7000 words
  • Previously unpublished stories only
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed
  • Emerging writers only (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit. Writers with works published with a circulation of less than 5000 copies can also submit)
  • International submissions allowed
  • $20 entry fee
  • Deadline: July 31, 2017
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication

To submit a story click the submit button:

Contest Details:

Winners and honorable mentions will be announced in the fall. The winning writer will be awarded $3000, publication, and agency review. Second and third place will be awarded $200 and $100, respectively. All winners and honorable mentions will earn agency review. All stories submitted will be considered for publication. It is very common for us to accept additional work.

We don’t have any preferences topically or in terms of style. We’re simply looking for the best. We don’t define, nor are we interested in, stories identified by their genre. We do, however, consider ourselves a publication that focuses on literary fiction and are looking for stories that dazzle us, take chances, are bold — and do so by focusing on more than plot. For a good idea of what we like you can read last year’s winners. Our New Voices archive is also a good reference.












multiracial media

Call for Submissions!


This is a Call for Submissions

Are you mixed race / multiracial (meaning your parents are of two—or more—different races*) or you are in an interracial relationship and any one (or more) of the following:

  • Writer
  • Actor
  • Musician
  • Comedian
  • Artist / illustrator / graphic designer / comic book artist
  • Poet
  • Photographer
  • Film maker
  • Fashion designer

If so, then Multiracial Media wants you!

We’d love to showcase your:

  • Paintings
  • Illustrations
  • Short film
  • Music video
  • Video of slam poetry
  • Photography
  • Essay / blog
  • Poetry


*When we say mixed race, Biracial and / or multiracial, we mean that one parent is Asian and the other is White or one is Black and the other Asian or Native / Indigenous. We do not mean one parent is German and the other is English, or one is Chinese and the other is Japanese. Just need to make that distinction.









dj lotus moon 01




Featured DJ: Lotus Moon

| Shea Butta + A Sweet Mango

This mix is welcoming the warm, vibrant, smooth, and cosmic radiance of life++ Some sounds from the selecta to you. Burn some nagchampa, close your eyes, listen, align and rejuvenate yourself.

+ Black Girl Magik – sisterhood, self-love, and enlightenment
+ |
+ Find Aliyah on the web | IG: aliyahblkmre, soundcloud: @liyahlackmore

Take a listen.

Track List:
1.Owl Chant – Sampa the Great
2. Young Girls- Princess Nokia
3.House of Love (Ogbe Yekun) – IFE
4. Heaven – Nick Hakim
5. Tea Leaf Dancers (ft. Andreya Triana)- Flying Lotus
6. Wise One (Phillippe Edison Remix) – John Coltrane
7. Kamaal Coltrane – Stro Elliot
8. Beyond The Sun – DR.M∆D & Megiapa
9. Bring It Back (ft. Iman Omari) – Billzegypt
10. Rocket Man (ft. Toro Y Moi) – Astronauts Etc.
11. slowdowntho (from frugalearth) – Mndsgn
12. stroke it, baby – Mr. Carmack
13. Nights in Harlem (Elevation) – Pablo Fierro
12. The Moon and The Sky – Sade
13. Any Time, Any Place – Janet Jackson
I4. I Want You – oriJanus

Like, comment and re-post if you’re feeling good.
Love + Light

–> Send us your favorite Woman of Color DJ to be featured on the website, curate a playlist or have a #BlackGirlMagikMix