Cedric J. Robinson – Black Marxism

I’m not well-read enough on either African-American studies or Marxism to function as some fabulous expert recommender who can tell you with legitimized assurance that this book is a great starting point for those topics, but as a personal starting point for someone with nascent interest in both, it violently C-sectioned the nascence right out of the womb into fully extant bloody screaming flesh. One of the prior reviewers [on Goodreads] would perhaps diagnose this outcome as a doomed or sadly trisomied preemie bound for stupidity, stunted growth, failure and an early grave, and I lack the credentials to challenge his judgment, but even such infants deserve a parent’s love, and what with environmental factors and those always-promised “improvements in medical science” there might yet be some value to be found in its life that justifies the highest rating possible for Cedric J. Robinson’s obstetric treatise-treatment.

One could give this book great praise simply for the abundance of inviting and edifying material it points to and draws on extensively: to restress my qualifications, I am no grandmaster academician, but having been around the campus block a few times I have never seen a text so exhaustively footnoted, the footnotes themselves opening into other interesting and often very long (think David Foster Wallace, maybe, but with a much more humble and magnanimous factuality) pathways like some sort of rainforest trailhead, prompting the same sort of standing still at times and wondering which way to divert and how far forward to go in the main text before doubling back to check on the other routes of progress and illumination. It is called a “footnote,” after all – hiking’s an even more appropriate metaphor than intended – and the required legwork to really soak up the landscape is strenuous but never dull. Robinson’s assiduity here gives his arguments an impressive weight yet without them feeling like a recited facsimile of the source material.

As impeccable as the book is in its documentation is it also in the quality of its sources: original works, fewer paraphrased interpretations of thinkers than one might expect, always extensive explanation of disagreements in opinion in the footnotes. Contrary to another thrust of the aforementioned physician’s reading, I felt that there was a vigorous engagement and dialogue with Marx and other thinkers and texts rather than any attempt to gainsay their main conclusions. Many writers and apparently the vast majority of public intellectuals and “regular people” throw out the baby with the bathwater on Marx – in any other case, a horrible cliche, here justified by the now long-running preestablished metaphor – but if anything this book is adding smelling salts or maybe a ring of candles like you always see in films to allow for a more complete and full experience of splashing around with its rich theory. It’s to the book’s credit that every source, even those with which we are convinced to disagree, is presented with a tacit encouragement to readers to explore for ourselves, to further steep in this freshly aromatic bathtub of thinking and learning about the past and present.

The conclusions and rediscovered histories feel eye-openingly atypical if not enlightening: epiphanies about the perennial hated and yet wholly relied upon immigrant labor force existing as a reality in Europe long before its importation to North America, the true classes and backgrounds that rule or set the policy for a country (just who were “the Portuguese” anyway, for one, and then for that matter who are “the Americans” or “the British” and oh yes the remembrance that the nation-state is a construct for particular people to profit by…), a truer history of Europe and Islam (prefiguring current liberal rethinkings by a couple of decades), a rich history of maroon societies in South America, fuller explorations of differences between African cultural practices and Europeans’ – this point leading to some qualifications of Marx’s theory and the theories of other white men but in an enriching way, lengthy citations of rarely mentioned (outside of highly specific curricula) writings by storied intellectuals like Du Bois and C. L. R. James and a rounded description of their struggles and developmental shifts, ad what-feels-like-inf. Final opinions can always be revised, but I won’t lose the uplifting exhilarating feeling I got from reading this precious baby anytime soon.

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