In Kwame Ture’s 2004 autobiography, transcribed by Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, entitled Ready for Revolution, he wrote that
“all African-descended people living in 113 countries on the continent and in the diaspora are at the bottom the same people…we share history, culture, and common enemies racism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and capitalist exploitation. At present, we suffer from disunity, disorganization and ideological confusion.”
The 2014 biography by Peniel Joseph of Kwame Ture’s life entitled Stokely: A Life promotes what Ture calls “disunity, disorganization, and ideological confusion” because it looks at Ture’s life through a liberal imperialist lens that ultimately discourages militant and revolutionary responses to capitalist exploitation. A “liberal imperialist” lens is a lens that endorses the racist ideology of wealthy U.S. imperialists seeking to gain power and influence through capitalist exploitation. The work of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ultimately serves capitalists like the Rockefellers.
The narrative choices that Peniel Joseph makes in Stokely: A Life are in line with the goals of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, which were to “neutralize Black nationalist hate type organizations.” This biography distorts Kwame Ture’s life and and ultimately endorses capitalist exploitation.
The first prominent effort by this biography to endorse “ideological confusion” is the title that the author and his publisher, Lara Heimert of Basic Civitas, chose for this biography, Stokely: A Life, drawing on the birth name of its subject, Stokely Carmichael. By choosing this title, Joseph essentially ignores or dismisses the political development behind Kwame Ture strategically shedding his birth name and re-naming himself after two revolutionary nationalists on the African continent, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, who were actively fighting European and U.S. colonialism in order to practice and co-operate within a system of African socialism. Joseph spends more time problematizing Ture’s choices to sympathize with the causes of these revolutionaries and spends no time discussing Ture’s work helping to fight colonialism in both Ghana and Guinea.
This review will focus on the parts of the biography that most clearly promote this “ideological confusion.”
In his preface, Joseph writes that “by 1966, Stokely Carmichael the civil rights militant had become a Black Power revolutionary. The pace of his political evolution from this point forward seemed to accelerate at breakneck speed; in short order he became a Black Panther; the leader of a Black United Front in Washington, DC; and then a Pan-African revolutionary who made Conkary, Guinea, his new home” (Joseph, xi). This statement in the preface contains two key inaccuracies that promotes “ideological confusion.” First, in his autobiography, he made clear that he did not want to be considered a member of the Black Panther Party. Second, Joseph’s conceptualizing of Ture as “a leader of a Black United Front,” is misleading because it suggests that Ture sought to lead the group when in reality he promoted unity across groups seeking racial justice and did not want to “lead” them in the hierarchical model that Hoover reduced many radical groups to. Kwame Ture became radicalized through his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that, as Clayborne Carson wrote about in his history of them, In Struggle, was a group that prided itself on an organizational structure that was group centered and not hierarchical.
In the fourteenth chapter of his autobiography, Ture makes clear his commitment to being part of group centered organizations instead of the hierarchical model that Joseph’s narrative forces him into. He writes that the most influential adviser of SNCC was Ella Baker and part of what he and other SNCC members learned from her was “egalitarian leadership and a notorious distrust of hierarchical leadership” (305). However Joseph routinely casts Ture as an individual who cares mainly about his spotlight as head of an hierarchical leadership. Like many liberals who misunderstand and misrepresent SNCC, he refers to Ture quite often as SNCC “chair” even though Ture made clear that SNCC members disapproved of John Lewis identified himself as “SNCC Chairman” even though they identified themselves as a group centered organization without a chair per se (479). Joseph’s narrative of Ture’s time with the Black United Front (BUF) promotes ideological confusion because it shows Ture as a tyrant who wanted to control the direction of all the groups that were part of the BUF instead of, akin to what Ella Baker wanted, helping to guide the groups within the BUF to a common goal that they all could agree on.
Peniel Joseph grossly misrepresents Ture’s efforts with the Black United Front and other elements. Joseph’s narrative of the Black United Front begins and ends with Whitney Young’s account of Ture trying to dominate the Black United Front, instead of Joseph investigating how the Ford Foundation funding of the National Urban League determined the National Urban League’s involvement in the Black United Front.
Throughout this biography, Joseph celebrates Ture’s identity as a so called “civil rights militant” and routinely promotes “ideological confusion” regarding his identity as a “Black Power revolutionary.” He often misrepresents Ture’s identity after he chose to left the SNCC organization in order to promote the falsehood that since becoming Kwame Ture, he became ideologically confused.
In Joseph’s preface, he writes that his biography “represents an act of recovery,” however through his biography, Joseph’s liberal imperialist lens spends more time praising his time as a “civil rights militant” than as a “Black Power revolutionary.” Joseph writes that “Stokely’s DNA is as much part of the civil rights struggle as it is of Black Power” (xiv). Although Joseph’s book certainly makes a stronger case that Ture be remembered only within the civil rights struggle and not part of the Black Power movement.
Joseph’s prologue section that follows his preface explains why Joseph chooses to praise Ture’s time within the civil rights struggle and not the Black Power movement. Joseph writes:
Ture’s unabashed critiques of Reagan-era capitalism and embrace of a style of Black radicalism out of vogue since the 1960s perplexed Obama, who found more comforting inspiration in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the group of which Carmichael had been elected chairman just before chanting Black Power into the Mississippi night. ‘His eyes glowed inward as he spoke,’ wrote Obama in his memoir Dreams From My Father, ‘the eyes of a madman or a saint (3).
One read of Stokely: A Life will reveal that Joseph presents the life of Kwame Ture as rational saint within the civil rights struggle with SNCC, however as a “madman” within the Black Power struggle after Ture leaves SNCC. Joseph makes Ture the subject of Kwame Ture exciting for a white liberal reader who, based on Joseph’s compelling prologue, should expect to be entertained by the way Joseph writes about Ture walking a conceivably “fine line” between behaving like a saint or behaving like a madman.
This marketing pitch downplays or ignores the very obvious madman behavior or European imperialists such as George Soros and Henry Kissinger and who sold or are selling weapons to other countries for the purpose of murdering leaders of organizations interested in pursuing socialist course of government.
In my conversation with a member of Ture’s organization called the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, he informed me that Peniel Joseph is the director of the Center For Race and Democracy at Tufts University which an academic center funded by the Open Society Foundation which is funded by Hungarian billionaire George Soros. Joseph did not critique the ways that Soros funds coups in Ukraine the way that the CIA funded the 1966 overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, nor does he investigate the ways that imperialists who plot these overthrows, such as Howard Bane who, according to the news editor for ModernGhana.com got a “double promotion” for his role in the CIA overthrow of Kwame Ture in 1966.
Joseph gives no reason for Ture’s decision to support Kwame Nkrumah maintain his effort to keep Ghana independent since 1957. In fact, Howard Bane, the role of the CIA, and the US support for regime change in Ghana that Ture opposed are all completely absent from Joseph’s biography about Kwame Ture’s life. Joseph presents a white supremacist capitalist narrative that ignores the psychological and material abuse and violence caused by white supremacist capitalism. Peniel Joseph looks at Ture’s life with the gaze of current President Barack Obama, an avowed Black liberal who promotes an imperialist agenda. Therefore, when using a liberal imperialist lens to examine the life of an avowed socialist revolutionary, what Ture said about “ideological confusion” will be the result. This ideological confusion is in fact a narrative that the mainstream America encourages.
Joseph names the first chapter “The Chocolate Fred Astaire” after the epithet that “the white kids at Bronx Science” gave him, obviously from a white supremacist capitalist narrative (Joseph, 18). Joseph is appealing to his white liberal reader instead of the audience that Ture was appealing to in his autobiography. A very poignant principle Ture mentions in his autobiography is one that Nkrumah taught him: “the single best weapon of the enemy, he said, was a lack of consciousness among our people” (Ture, 675).
Joseph is clearly not writing to build this kind of “consciousness” among his people because he is writing to keep the white liberal reader entertained. This white liberal reader is a type of reader that the mainstream publishing industry is appealing to. However he does not make every concept for his white liberal audience as clear as possible. Nowhere in Joseph’s biography does he define Pan-Africanism even though he says this is a goal Ture believes in. Ture makes this definition clear at least twice in his autobiography that it is the goal of having total liberation of the mother continent under African socialism. Joseph however presents it as an amorphous concept that is completely self-explanatory by its title.
In his first chapter called “The Chocolate Fred Astaire,” Joseph writes that one of the Trinidadians whom Ture admired was George Padmore whom Joseph calls “a writer, organizer, and adviser to African revolutionaries and a principal founder of postwar Pan-Africanism. Though Padmore was dismissed as a traitor in Marxist circles for his embrace of African nationalism, Carmichael came to admire him as a fellow Trinidadian who had grown up near his old neighborhood” (Joseph, 17). A thorough study of George Padmore will reveal that Padmore was not “dismissed as a traitor in Marxist circles for his embrace of African nationalism,” but because he drew a false dichotomy between Pan-Africanism or Communism in his best-selling book Pan-Africanism or Communism?
Both Henry Winston and Hakim Adi in their works have written about this false dichotomy that Padmore created in his advising to African leaders and suggesting that a Communist economic system would oppose a Pan-African system. Ture celebrates him in his autobiography for the history Padmore provides about the anticolonial struggle, however Winston in his book Strategy For A Black Agenda critiques him for essentially making an anticommunist argument that only helped the aims of the private U.S. interests in Ghana.
Joseph’s second and third chapter describes Ture’s life in the context of speeches and not grassroots movements. Like Tony Kushner’s screenplay Lincoln that centered the struggle for abolition within the halls of the White House, Joseph centered Ture’s understanding of the struggle for civil rights within the halls of Washington. Although Joseph writes that “His experience as a Freedom Rider, his time in Parchman Farm, and subsequent visits to Mississippi made Stokely adopt a vision of radical democracy that placed the fate of the nation far outside the corridors of Washington power brokers,” Joseph is more interested in showing Washington power brokers are most sympathetic (52). Joseph spends pages discussing the March on Washington and its historical significance instead of its relationship to Kwame Ture. He spends more pages providing a history of its significance than on Ture’s beliefs about it.
Ture provides a more detailed history of how the March was perceived by its original planners A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, compared to the more conservative opinions of Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young who did not want the march. Ture writes that regarding this 1963 March, there is “a lot of mythology, folklore, and historical rewriting” (Ture, 331).
Ture said “the political tensions that dogged the march from the beginning were not incidental. They were fundamental” (331). They included John Lewis’ original speech that he said was censored for critiquing the Kennedy administration for sanctioning federal prosecutors indicting SNCC protestors in Albany Georgia. The details of how this 1963 march was mythologized in Ture’s autobiography is nearly absent from Joseph’s biography. He gives passing mention of how Lewis had “grudgingly abandoned parts of his speech objectionable to Washington’s Roman Catholic Archbishop, Patrick O’Boyle, who delivered the convocation” (60). Joseph does not mention how the Kennedy administration demanded that he change the speech to, like Joseph’s book, suit the tastes of a more liberal audience.
In Joseph’s tenth chapter called “A Struggle For Democracy,” he writes that “Carmichael regarded King as his generation’s greatest political mobilizer, a protean force who easily brushed off criticism with young activists” (84). It is clear from Ture’s autobiography that he did not see King as his generation’s greatest political mobilizer. Ture’s critiques of Dr. King are related to the critiques that SNCC had of Dr. King. Both Ture and SNCC critiqued Dr. King and the organization King was head of, which was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ture wrote: “Nobody was ‘jealous’ of Dr. King. We respected him. But we did have principled and tactical disagreements, that’s all” (445). Joseph employs a selective historical amnesia regarding the details of Ture’s beliefs about King by omitting the details that Ture’s enumerates in his autobiography:
the problem was in the SCLC approach of massive, temporary mobilization and press agentry as opposed to creating powerfully organized communities capable of sustaining political struggle. Organization vs. mobilization was always a serious problem, because every day-to-day tactical decision was affected by the strategic approach. Every one. (445)
Joseph’s biography attempts the obligation to provide its white liberal reader with a survey of select historically significant events at the expense of detailing these serious persistent philosophical differences between SNCC and SCLC that were related to Ture absolutely not seeing Dr. King as his generation’s greatest political mobilizer.
In Joseph’s seventh chapter called “Lowndes County: New Directions,” he discusses Ture’s influence on the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and the Black Panther Party. Joseph missed the most important statement Ture made in his book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation that he co-authored with Dr. Charles V. Hamilton about the reality of white racism. The objective of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and the Black Panther Party was to elect public officials who would serve the needs of the Black masses in Alabama, a group that Ture and several others from SNCC included Courtland Cox and Robert Moses were trying to organize. In Black Power, Ture and Hamilton write: “when election day came, the whites could be fairly confident that they had a certain portion of the Black folk tied up. This is undoubtedly the case across the Southland. There will always be those Black people who will vote for whites against Blacks because they fear economic an physical reprisal, because of an embedded belief that politics and voting are indeed “white folks business” (119).
This discussion is absolutely absent from Joseph’s biography. He does not address the goals of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), nor the reasons why this organization was not able to accomplish its goals. Instead, he spends more time in this seventh chapter describing how Ture’s work in Alabama is perceived and how he mourned the death of John Daniels. Joseph ignores the philosophical bombshell Ture and Hamilton would drop on white supremacist capitalism by discussing the terms “institutional racism” and also showing within a scientific socialist setting how it is implemented and how it is institutionalized.
In Joseph’s ninth chapter called “The Magnificent Barbarian,” he writes that “fame…turned friends and colleagues into critics and, more importantly, made Carmichael the target or coordinated surveillance efforts by federal, state, and local authorities that now reported virtually his every move to the White House” (125).
Ture’s critique in his nineteenth chapter is related to an earlier point he made in his tenth chapter: “I’ve noticed that the corporate media aren’t really dependable in their depiction of our Black leaders who refuse to compromise our people’s rights, or of the truth of our condition, or of those who dare to step outside the narrow boundaries of acceptable structure that this system tries to impose” (Ture, 226).
Also in his ninth chapter, Joseph begins his first real interrogation of Ture’s critique of U.S. imperialism: “while his antiwar activism made him popular among Blacks, it proved a source of controversy nationally” (136). This is only a controversy nationally for those white male industrialists who sought to hide their imperialist atrocities abroad from a liberal public psychologically within what Dr. King called “a deadening complacency.” Joseph’s analysis ignores Ture’s principled difference in worldview between himself and industrialists like Henry Kissinger who by this time were trying to undermine governments pursuing a socialist economic system. Again, Joseph’s misunderstanding of SNCC’s group centered organizational structure produces “ideological confusion” that ultimately promotes U.S. imperialism. Joseph writes:
“SNCC’s organizational strength seemed to decline in proportion to Carmichael’s growing fame” (139).
Joseph suggests that Ture’s ego and desire for personal political power was the reason SNCC failed when according to Ture and its supporters including Dr. Muhammad Ahmad, SNCC lost its funding after issuing a position paper critiquing U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and the U.S. supported military occupation of Palestine. About this position paper, Ture said:
When we took on white supremacy and the Klan, we were attacked. But we survived. We took on the president and the National Democratic Party and survived that. When we opposed the war and the draft, we were really attacked, but survived even that. But dare to open our mouths on Zionism? That one, you don’t mess with and survive. That was the lesson the Zionist thought police meant for us to learn in 1967. But we are still here. History will certainly be the judge. That, you can depend on…My party, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, and I continue and will continue to struggle in support of the just cause of the Palestinians. (561-2)
Joseph makes no mention of the role that SNCC’s critique of Zionism played in losing their funding because he is trying to narrate the life of Kwame Ture from a Zionist perspective which is completely at odds with how Kwame Ture presented his own life.
Instead of the withdrawal of Zionist funding from forces like Stanley Levison, recruited by Ella Baker, Joseph points to Ture’s personality as the culprit in SNCC’s demise: “efforts to contain Carmichael’s rhetorical escapades paralleled SNCC’s organizational crisis” (155). Joseph’s obvious logical conclusion for his reader is that Carmichael’s “escapades” caused SNCC’s organizational crisis. Joseph identifies Ture as an ideologue separate from other SNCC members who agreed with the position paper.
His tenth chapter called “A New Society Must Be Born” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what true social revolution means, especially the type that Ture endorses. According to Joseph, the work that Ture conducted in Lowndes County, Alabama, showed that “the drive for self-determination through the ballot was unleashed nationally.” A serious examination of world history will show that self-determination since European colonialism has never been achieved through the ballot – the self-determination accomplished by the Haitian revolution was not achieved through the ballot; nor was the one accomplished by the Cuban revolution. Assata Shakur said that “nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Ture described meeting Assata Shakur at the Clinica Centro Sierra Garcia in Cuba in his autobiography (762). Joseph’s incomplete understanding or “self-determination” is akin to his self-proclaimed mentor Henry Louis Gates’ incomplete understanding of “revolution.”
In his film Many Rivers to Cross, Gates says in his narration that “our revolutionary act would be to integrate the White power elite.” Revolution in the way Kwame Ture understood and fought for did not by any means involve integrating oneself into the economic system. Revolution is more akin to destroying the colonial relationship that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) perpetuates with its lendees, including Jamaica; the way that Cuba during its 1959 socialist revolution destroyed this relationship. While the severing of this relationship did not deter the U.S. from imposing severe economic embargoes on Cuba, it allowed a greater path for self-determination, which was impossible for African Americans to accomplish by voting.
Joseph makes his fundamental difference in worldview from Ture very clear when, in Stokely, he calls Castro’s initial 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks “ill-fated.” However, Ture, in his twenty‑fourth chapter, celebrated the Cuban revolution: “the government and people of Cuba were busy, busy trying to liberate their society from the inherited historical distortions and injustices coming from slavery, the racism of a plantation economy, capitalist exploitation and a colonial relationship with los imperialismos yanquis. The United States. A process I very much wanted to see for myself.” There is nothing that Ture found “ill-fated” about Castro’s initial attack of the Moncada barracks, and by this chapter, Joseph establishes himself as an absolutely unreliable narrator of Kwame Ture’s life. Joseph also disparages the Garvey movement when he writes, “Carmichael’s promise that a return [to Africa] remains the ultimate goal expressed more of a personal desire than a collective sentiment.”
Joseph, like J. Edgar Hoover, tries to downplay the “collective sentiment” that Garvey inspired in 1920 among Black people. Ture mentions Marcus Garvey as part of an honor roll of influential Black thinkers who were either imprisoned or sent into exile. Equally questionable are Joseph’s claims that Ture called African leaders “worthless” since his sources for these claims in his thirteenth chapter, “Africa on the World Stage,” are Washington Post articles. Ture writes about how the Washington Post was a paper that was hostile to his views and revolutionary aims, and that a Washington Post writer had even accused him and other SNCC members of setting up Andrew Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman to be murdered.
In his fourteenth chapter called “Black Panther,” Joseph writes, “Stokely’s relationship with the Black Panther Party grew serious, offering a chance to regroup and channel political energies in a manner that resembled his early days in SNCC,” even though Kwame Ture makes clear in his autobiography that he wanted to play an advisory role in the Black Panther Party and not be a full-fledged member. He was asked to be an officer, declined the offer, and was designated an honorary member. He notes that “from an SNCC perspective, the organization seemed to me entirely too hierarchical.”
Later in this chapter, Joseph attributes the role of Ture in the demise of the Black United Front (BUF), which was a coalition of Black organizations in the Washington DC area, to that of a “seasoned politician” instead of the role that Ture saw himself in, which was as a coalition builder. Both Joseph and Ture write that a key factor in the demise of the BUF was Whitney Young’s comments that “if Stokely wants to run this, we won’t hold still for it.” Joseph suggests that Ture’s erratic, autocratic leadership led to the demise of the BUF rather than investigating how Young could, in fact, be following the dictates of his Wall Street funders by abandoning the BUF.
Ture writes that “it was also clear that those in our community who nurtured fantasies of wielding “insider” influence with the Democratic administration–the usual suspects and we know who they were–did not wish the United Front to succeed, with or without my involvement. Very sad. And, as an entity, the Washington United Front did not long survive.” Joseph’s most egregious misrepresentations of Ture’s life are also articulated in the latter half of this chapter when he writes that, in a speech, Ture “rebuked socialism and communism as ill suited to combat racial oppression.” He later claims that more than socialism and communism, Ture supported “Pan-Africanism,” even though he never defines this concept.
Joseph promotes “ideological confusion” by drawing a false dichotomy between Pan-Africanism and communism which, Henry Winston argues, was a strategy designed to ultimately support U.S. imperialism on the African continent.
In Joseph’s final and sixteenth chapter, he makes a caricature of Ture: “whatever doubts, insecurities and shortcomings, Carmichael freely admitted would be virtually erased by Kwame Ture, who projected superhuman confidence. Ture’s defiant revolutionary proclamations replaced Carmichael’s more poetic and yearningly unfulfilled descriptions of Black political transformation that would be led by sharecroppers and the urban poor.”
Joseph creates a false division that assumes that Ture’s political development caused him to abandon the working masses. His biography, moreover, follows a strict Zionist narrative when he charges Ture with anti-Semitism, a term, as Columbia Professor Joseph Massad explains, that is increasingly deployed to protect supporters of the Israeli occupation of Palestine from principled criticism. Joseph captures Ture’s philosophy in this final chapter when he writes that Ture “discussed the virtues of scientific socialism as the key to a global revolution,” but fails to outline what scientific socialism is or how Ture sought its implementation in Ghana or in Guinea.
Joseph ends his biography with a glaring misunderstanding of Ture’s life when he describes all of Carmichael’s personas – “Black Power icon, Civil Rights organizer, Black Panther, Revolutionary Pan-Africanist–perhaps the least recognized is that of public intellectual.”
A close reading of Ture’s autobiography will reveal that in two instances Ture did not want to be seen as a public intellectual. The first instance was his May 1967 trip to London at the “Dialectics of Liberation” conference, which he called “very Eurocentric. Business as usual among White bourgeois intellectuals even when they call themselves revolutionary.” In response to the Black middle-class who decried the White corporate power structure’s unwillingness to hire more minorities in Ellis Cose’s book The Rage of A Privileged Class, Ture notes in his autobiography: “Nowhere in the book was there the slightest recognition of the wasteful and destructive consequences of multinational corporate rapacity on the poor of the world. Nowhere the slightest recognition that the opportunities they were misusing were won out of the blood their people shed in the struggle. And certainly no sense of personal obligation to that struggle.”
Ture did not want his legacy to be that of a public intellectual. He did not want to be included within a public intellectual circle that upheld the sin of corporate rapacity. Of the four roles Joseph mentioned, Kwame Ture’s autobiography itself reveals first and foremost that he was a Pan-African revolutionary.
The contrast between these books recalls the importance of what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about telling our story “through the lens of our struggle.” While Joseph fails painfully in this endeavor, Kwame Ture tells his own story best through the lens of our struggle.
 Editor, www.ModernGhana.com, “The CIA, Kwame Nkrumah and the Destruction of Ghana” http://www.modernghana.com/news/363669/1/the-cia-kwame-nkrumah-and-the-destruction-of-ghana.html
An edited version of this review first appeared in The Advocate (Vol. 27, Spring No.2 (2016)): http://gcadvocate.com/2016/05/06/review-stokely-life-lens-kwame-tures-autobiography-ready-revolution/