Since western journalists cannot get a visa to Algeria, there has been little coverage of the Algeria’s impressive nearly year long pro-democracy struggle being waged through peaceful protests every Friday across the nation. I wanted to see the revolution firsthand and meet with young Algerian revolutionaries. Of course, no one had bothered to tell us that the Algerian government had banned all university conferences until after the December presidential election—which most Algerians were slamming in advance as a sham. But the government had, apparently, made an exception for our conference thanks to successful lobbying by university administrators—and the students had agreed to stop protesting for two days to attend. How better for these young Algerian democratic revolutionaries to learn about revolution than at a conference honoring Algeria’s revolutionary past?
Algeria has often been described as having once been a political and poetic “Mecca for revolutionaries”—like Frantz Fanon, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Ted Jones, Ed Bullins, and so many others who drew their inspiration from Algeria’s iconic struggle against colonialism and imperialism. Brave Algeria, the country that had fought the French and won! A country where freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Mario di Andrade, Amilcar Cabral, Mário Soares, and Che Guevara traveled—along with Black Panthers like Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, and Emory Douglas. A global stage for the Black Arts Movement, where music legends like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp and Dave Burrell took center-stage at the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969 and broadcast black power, artistic excellence, and political solidarity around the world.“The black revolt is as palpable in letters as it is in the streets” – that’s how Hoyt Fuller, the dean of the Black Arts Movement who attended the Pan African Festival in Algeria, began his seminal 1968 essay “Towards a Black Aesthetic.” Fuller was one of many African American cultural workers who the Algerian festival organizers invited to represent the “nation within a nation”—artists and activists who embodied the “spirit of the revolution.” “It is up to the Black Arts Movement and its various regional manifestations,” he explained, “to rise up against whatever form white racism takes, in book reviews or on the streets.”
Fuller had already traveled extensively throughout the African continent, including Algeria in 1959 when “Algeria was an armed camp, with the French colonial masters firmly in control” with “arms at the ready.” On his way out of the Casbah, where he went to visit a young freedom fighter and his comrades, with whom he “drank coffee and talked of African liberation,” he was stopped by a guard who asked him for his passport and explained to him that the Casbah was dangerous and closed to tourists. “But, M’sieur,” Fuller replied, “I am a black man. The Algerians have no need to harm me. We are fighting the same war.”
When Fuller returned to liberated Algeria in 1969, it was like the birth of a new world. “Algiers was the Black World coming of Age,” he wrote—on the “soil of Frantz Fanon’s adopted country.” The publication of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in America in 1965 was celebrated by Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party as “itself a historical event”—the “Black Bible” had arrived. Stokely Carmichael referred to Frantz Fanon as his own “patron saint.” As the lead editor of Negro Digest, Fuller decided to change the name of his journal from Negro Digest to Black World in the wake of the 1969 Pan African Cultural Festival in Algeria—emphasizing the transnational character of the black arts.Malcolm X also drew important parallels between the Algerian war for independence and the African American freedom movement and compared Algiers and Harlem. At the Militant Labor Forum in May 1964, Malcolm X declared:
“I visited the Casbah…in Algiers, with some of the brothers. They took me all down into it and showed me the suffering, showed me the conditions they had to live under while they were being occupied by the French…And they also showed me what they had to do to get these people off their back. The first thing they had to realize was that all of them were brothers; oppression made them brothers; exploitation made them brothers; degradation made them brothers; discrimination made them brothers; segregation made them brothers; humiliation made them brothers …The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort eventually to the terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community.”
Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka—they all saw the connections between France’s colonial violence in Algeria and America’s subjugation of its own colony within a nation.
At the Pan African Cultural Festival in 1969, black art of many forms—music, theatre, poetry, sculpture—was showcased as a revolutionary tool—a weapon—in the romantic and deadly quest for liberation. Steeped in social and racial justice, civil rights, feminism, sexuality, and black consciousness, the radical aesthetic of the Black Art Movement was rooted in Fanon’s anti-colonial revolutionary modernism and found its global stage in Algeria.
In the words of civil rights veteran and legend Courtland Cox, who I interviewed about his time at the festival for my speech in Algeria:
“The arts are always important to the liberation struggle of the Black Community. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had the Freedom Singers and they both reflected the music of the Black community and created music based on the struggle. Music has always been a strength of the Black community and was an important part of every SNCC meeting, demonstration or community gathering.”
Music was at the center of the Pan African Cultural Festival where thousands of delegates from dozens of African nations—not to mention North and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe—gathered.When I stepped off the plane after landing in the coastal city of Oran, my feet finally planted on Algerian soil (a long-held dream for me and colleagues who liken me to the 19th century adventurer Isabelle Eberhardt), I was taken to a hotel with a Mediterranean view. Anxious to see the water, I made my way to the door of my hotel with a singular focus, but the young male receptionist stopped me.
“You can’t go to the sea alone,” he said. “It isn’t safe—because you’re a woman.”
I’d traveled through Afghanistan, Syria, and many other hotspots alone—nothing had never stopped me. I couldn’t imagine Algeria would be more dangerous than those no-go zones, but I didn’t want to disappear on my first day. It was creepy enough that the receptionist himself couldn’t stop flirting with me—exhorting me to look up his Youtube channel to watch him croon, and asking if I was mad because I wasn’t smiling enough.
How different Algeria had become from the days of the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969, when Algerian women in full-face veils danced next to bare-chested women in the streets. As James Garrett, who attended the 1969 festival and organized the historic strike at San Francisco State University to establish the first department of Black Studies in America, recounted to me:
As women from across the continent grooved together in the streets of Algiers, their bodies exchanged the cultural traditions nurtured and protected in their muscle memories–in various states of dress and undress.
No one was being shamed for showing some skin, or shaking their assets and taking up space.
Garrett added: “There were women from other places like Tunisia who did belly dancing with woman from Cameroon and Nigeria. Women from five different African nations who find they are doing the same dances.That’s what they are discovering. Seeing their sisters with little variation, and they didn’t even know they were sisters! There was a freedom of space, they made space to let people do their thing. It was 100 degrees so everyone was a little loose.”
There was no Saharan/Sub-Saharan divide at this historic celebration of Africa—no “North Africa” and “West Africa” and “South Africa” and “East Africa”— just Africa.
After all, it had been the French who had severed North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa through six vicious decades of colonial policies.Since I was stuck in my hotel without a male escort, the conference organizer came to my rescue and took me with his daughters to a seaside café. My Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen was singing “Streets of Philadelphia” from the speakers, as we talked about their interest in Frederick Douglass, and my experience interviewing Malcolm X’s old mentors and acquaintances in Beirut and Khartoum.
One daughter was still an undergraduate studying Black Studies, and the other was training to be a doctor. How far the Algerian education system had come in just a few decades.
When the Pan African Cultural Festival happened in 1969, Algeria had only been liberated for a few years and was still lacking basic services and education—making the gathering of so many artistic and political visionaries from around the world nothing short of miraculous.As Garrett remembers:
“How the hell did this thing get organized? Thousands of people into a community that didn’t have doctors, teachers–the French got out of there—there was a new intellectual sector coming into being. And in the Casbah, if they read, they read from the Quran—the only book they could get. All this under-development, black people coming from the United States—the most scientifically developed country on earth. Cultural expressions coming from people learning to connect to each other. If they spoke at all, it was through a colonial means: English, French, German. People worked that out—over 7-8 days, people worked their cultural energies with each other.
You’re gonna have love affairs and all of this stuff—reminded me of the uprising in DC a year before where young blacks coming from southeast DC and areas on the edge of DC–the first time they come into downtown DC was to burn it down!
That sweet thick black coffee—lighter skinned Algerians or mixed French used to drink that and people coming out of the Casbah saying: “Who the hell are these people?” And seeing people dancing with no tops! Think about—that’s an incredible mix taking place just a few years five years after the revolution—the ecstasy of revolution and people who don’t what you’re talking about.”The ecstasy of revolution—that’s what had drawn me to Algeria to meet with other like-minded folks. I bonded in particular with one colleague from Guadalupe, which itself is not yet free from French control. Her uncle was a freedom fighter against the French, and her father, who had been in Algeria in 1962, accompanied her to the conference for old time’s sake. But Algeria today was a country he didn’t recognize. We weren’t allowed to leave the hotel without security or a minder. In the bazaar, strange men appeared seemingly out of nowhere to shadow us as we wove through fresh fruits and vegetables, buying Algerian dates, turquoise leather slippers, and dusty qraqebs—handheld iron castanets used in North African music.
Were we the perceived threat—or the prey? No one told us anything—all we knew was that we were not allowed to go anywhere without permission and a security escort. Even the bathrooms on campus were locked—we had to fetch a person with a key whenever we needed to use the restroom.
I had not brought any money with me, as I expected to use ATMs—but there wasn’t one single ATM in the whole city. My colleague from Guadalupe also couldn’t change her euros into dinars, according to the four banks we tried. Stuck in Algeria with no money, prisoners in our hotel, we tried to stay positive and make the most of it under lock and key.I was most excited to meet with Algerian students, since I knew they were on the frontlines of the ongoing revolution. During the “Arab Spring,” I had taught revolutionary students at the American University of Beirut and Sultan Qaboos in the Sultanate of Oman (where I delivered an entire seminar on revolutionary literature)—but my Omani students, so hungry for democratic change, had never even heard of the Battle of Algiers and had no idea that Algerians had actually fought against the French for their independence. So the Algerian students I met at the conference (almost all women) were leagues ahead—they knew their local and global history and were majoring in topics like Black Studies and African American literature.
Listening to them talk about their passion for Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and other literary titans, I thought of Nathan Hare, the founding publisher of The Black Scholar who attended the 1969 festival and later became the first chair of Black Studies in America. In the November 1969 edition of The Black Scholar, he noted Algeria’s resistance to “the re-entry of the French and American imperialists” and wrote of seeing revolutionary graffiti on “buildings, walls and fences, and the old pre-revolutionary symbol of resistance, the haik (or veil), worn by so many of the women.”
Some of the young Algerian women I spoke with wore veils, others did not—but all of them were proud anti-racist activists and feminists. They had stopped protesting for two days to hear us talk about the Black Arts Movement—including black writing as an artistic celebration of feminism, and writers Octavia Butler and Asia Djebar resisting the “amnesia of history.”As the Vice-Chancellor kicked off our conference, despite the nationwide ban on such gatherings, I thought of the opening ceremony of the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969, which took place on the same day that astronauts from the US Apollo mission planted an American flag on the moon. When a New York Times reporter in Algiers asked Eldridge Cleaver about this historic feat, he replied: “I don’t see what benefit mankind will have from two astronauts landing on the moon while people are being murdered in Vietnam and suffering from hunger even in the United States.” The Vietnam context of the festival is often left out—but the same black student activists from America who were invited to Algeria were intensely engaged in the anti-war movement. As Courtland Cox recounts:
“The Pan African Festival in Algeria is one of my fondest memories. I still have many Polaroid pictures from the Festival that I look at from time to time. I had just returned from representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the previous year at the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal that was organized by Bertrand Russell. Some of the judges at the War Crimes Tribunal included notable European intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre, Issac Deutscher and Simone de Beauvoir. When the invitation came to the activists who were struggling against racial discrimination in the United States, many of us were delighted to participate.”
So Asia was definitely in the minds of these young student activists along with the Black Panthers in Algeria as the latest battlefield against imperialism. Fitting, as I explained in my keynote in Algeria before hundreds of Algerian students and professors, since, in many ways, the roots of the 1969 Pan African Cultural Festival (long before its conception in Congo at the Organization of African Unity in 1967) can be found in Asia—specifically, Indonesia, which hosted the Bandung Conference, the first large gathering that solidified Afro-Asian cooperation and Third World transnational solidarity, in 1955.
“BLACK LIKE MAO”: ASIAN INSPIRATIONSMost black radicals of the late 1950s and early 1960s identified themselves as part of the “Bandung World,” and in November 1964 an event in Nashville was titled: “The Black Revolution’s Relationship to the Bandung World.” In a 1965 article published in Black America, the Revolutionary Action Movement, a Marxist black nationalist group, introduced a theory called “Bandung Humanism”—which connected the African American struggle to movements in Algeria, China, Zanzibar, Cuba, Vietnam, and Indonesia. However, the term “Bandung Humanism” was dropped in 1966 in favor of Black Internationalism.
Another direct influence on the Black Arts Movement was Chinese communism and Mao’s views on art, presented at the Yenan Forum, that helped inspire calls for revolutionary arts and culture. In the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book was sold on the street corners of Harlem to raise money for the Black Panthers, who carefully studied his ideas at their meetings nationwide.
In April 1968, Mao said: “On behalf of the Chinese people, I hereby express resolute support for the just struggle of the Black people in the United States.” It wasn’t just his views on art that black radicals were after; the Revolutionary Communist League—founded and led by Amiri Baraka—also studied Chairman Mao’s writings on philosophy.Several panthers, including Eldridge Cleaver, who explicitly framed the Panthers as a Marxist-Leninist party, traveled to North Korea, China, and North Vietnam from Algeria after the 1969 festival. Huey Newton said of his time in China in 1970: “I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life—completely free among my fellow men.”
For female Black Panthers who were understandably suspicious of “white feminism,” which made no place for them, Mao’s emphasis on women’s equality helped form a black feminist agenda separate from the exclusionary feminist discourse produced by white American feminists.
Mao’s writings also had an impact on the black student activists who attended the festival. Jimmy Garrett told me that he studied Fanon and Mao before organizing the historic 1968 strike at San Francisco State University to establish the first department of Black Studies in America. He was also inspired by Algeria.
He and other Black Student Union leaders at SFSU called for a strike to gauge the support of the black students – a tactic they said was inspired directly from the Algerian struggle as depicted in the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, which leftist groups had screened across America.
As Courtland Cox recounts: “The Pan African Festival in Algeria is one of my fondest memories…In 1969, many of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee veterans were just leaving our work in the South and beginning to look at a much broader picture beyond racial discrimination in the United States. We were very much aware of the colonial situation in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Many of us were quite aware of the struggle in Algeria against French colonialism through the works of Frantz Fanon and The Battle of Algiers.”Talking about the Asian context of the Algerian struggle, Garrett remembers fondly his conversations with James Baldwin (or “Jimmy,” as he called him) on Algeria: “Around Algeria, he talked about France. The whole notion of a weakened French empire was the thing. It was not only about Algeria. It was about Indo-China. France had just lost a war to China. They were losing the Francophone Islands in the Caribbean. His perspective was broader. They can’t hold on to Algeria, Tunisia. That was his basic thing—they needed to give that up and cut that loose and rebuild France, but their colonial–what I would call white supremacy—you can’t give it up.”
For Baldwin, Algeria and Harlem were one, even though he never made it to Algeria. In Baldwin’s own words: “The fact that I had never seen the Algerian Casbah was of no more relevance before this unanswerable panorama than the fact that the Algerians had never seen Harlem. The Algerian and I were both, alike, victims of this history, and I was still a part of Africa, even though I had been carried out of it nearly four hundred years before.”
REAL TALK: BREAKING DOWN IN ALGERIA“I’m a rapper and an actor,” a charming young Algerian student said from his wheelchair, sandwiched between the desks of the classroom and the wall during a coffee break at the conference. His buddies, one of whom introduced himself as a mentalist and did a mind trick I still can’t explain, had helped him maneuver his wheelchair into the room while he cracked jokes with a mischievous smile like that of James Franco.
“What’s life like for people in Algeria with disabilities?” I asked, sharing my own wheelchair horror stories from America—where even a big city like New York is off-limits to people with disabilities due to its inaccessible subway system.
“It’s horrible—like everything else in Algeria!” he said, going on to explain how he wants to improve life for people with disabilities in Algeria. But dreaming of equal access feels like a luxury when everything around you is in tatters. He and his buddies offered to help me make some sense of what I was seeing and experiencing in Algeria—finally, some young confidants unafraid to speak the truth.
“Wait–why is there no money?” I whispered, wondering how an entire city could be without a bank machine. “There are no ATMs to get money from here, and the banks won’t even exchange our bills.”
“BECAUSE THIS IS ALGERIA!” they said, cracking up with the giddy delirium of having battled, time and again, absurd levels of dysfunction. This was their pessimistic mantra, their answer to almost every question I had—which is why I wasn’t prepared when the next day a student approached me after my second talk to sincerely share his family’s pain.
“My father died three months ago and he didn’t have to—he DIED! He died in the hospital because of their bad care. He wasn’t even really sick—he died because of the terrible state of our healthcare here—that is Algeria. We are dying—my father died, and he didn’t have to—and they don’t care,” he said, breaking down into tears.
I didn’t know what to say, other than: “I am so sorry.” He was broken, hunched over as if in physical pain and holding his stomach, repeating his traumatic memories of his father’s unexpected death.
As I was whisked away by our appointed driver, feeling guilty for having to leave him frozen in a trauma state, I wondered why we in America have heard nothing of the common Algerian’s laments—the daily records of discontent fueling over forty weeks of non-violent protests.
When I asked around to see if his family’s experience was representative, I was told that many Algerian families have suffered similarly from a dysfunctional and corrupt healthcare system that is not only in disarray but deadly.
REVOLUTIONARY WOMEN IN ALGERIA: YESTERDAY AND TODAY“We Algerians are racist! This is the truth,” said a young warrior of a woman in a black hijab resolutely from the stage during her talk on combatting racism in Algeria. “This is not an academic talk—I am not here to present research—I am here to discuss the reality and the truth to start a conversation,” she said.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen such a bold seizure of a stage—she had clearly come to cause a ruckus and appeared unshakeable. She was ready for all the inevitable punches and welcomed them—waiting with calm anticipation for the opportunity to counter each strike. I had wanted in to discuss North African racism towards sub-Saharan Africans in my keynote, but knew it was a grave taboo. My concerns were affirmed, when a crowd of thirty professors and students swarmed up to challenge her after her talk.
“We Algerians are not racist! How can you say this!?!” an Algerian man shouted at her, taking her cultural critique as a personal attack. No matter how much he aggressively tried to push her to recant her views, she stood firm. The signs of racism were all around us—in the conference hall and in the streets. The conference organizer had to spend an hour trying to hire a taxi for my colleague from Guadalupe and her father because no drivers would take them due to the color of their skin.“We Arabs are not racist!” the man continued ranting. “Who is Arab here?” she asked. “Not me! Arabia is very far from here—I am an Algerian—not an Arab.”
I knew that just a few days beforehand, twenty-two Algerian demonstrators given one-year jail sentences for “undermining national unity” by bearing the Berber minority’s flag during anti-regime protests.
The man turned his head in rage and exasperation, with gaze zeroing in on me—the only non-Algerian in the crowd. His passionate defense of the honor of all Arab was wasted on this hungry foreigner trying to push her way through the crowd to lunch.
“Well, I’m racist,” a petite older Algerian woman in a hijab said with humble honesty, comically shrugging her shoulders and rolling her eyes with a sweet and knowing smile at the others staunchly defending their reputations and pride. Algerian women, young and old alike, were the ones running this show—and they weren’t about to be bullied into submission for speaking the truth.
Women also played a central role on-stage and off at the Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969 in Algiers. For some in the Black Arts Movement, the figure of the “black woman” reflected the revolutionary consciousness of the nation. In the preface to an anthology that Ed Bullins edited, he praises Adrienne Kennedy (whose work and person he had once denigrated) as the “most radical” of the black writers of the 1960s.
Artists like Miriam Makeba and radicals like Kathleen Cleaver were on the front lines of the 1969 festival, creating bonds of solidarity with other revolutionary women from around the world. Barbara Easley-Cox, one of the Black Panthers that lived in Algeria, cherished meeting women from other liberation movements—from Asia, Africa, and South America—and in particular befriended women from a Namibian liberation organization (SWAPO).Kathleen Cleaver was a French interpreter while in Algiers—from where she visited North Korea. As Jimmy Garrett explains: “Kathleen was not born with Eldridge. She was already a tremendous intellectual force; she was already an activist and middle class black woman.”
As for South African singer and anti-apartheid hero Miriam Makeba, Garrett remembers: “Miriam Makeba was a political thinking cultural worker. It was Miriam who opened the doors for us to get in those political meetings. She had a distinctive mind–her career was blocked because of Stokely and her own politics. We felt close to her because of her politics. She was already a teacher for many of us.”Broadway actress Vinie Burrows, who also attended the 1969 festival, still defines herself as a “cultural worker” whose work is rooted in the history of women and their resistance to patriarchal oppression. In addition to performing in six Broadway shows, including alongside Helen Hayes as a youngster, she also appeared in the original production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and continues to agitate at the United Nations against fascism, war, and imperialism as the Permanent Representative for the Women’s International Democratic Federation. For half a century, Burrows has been highlighting the intersections of race, gender and class on-stage—long before intersectionality became a buzzword. In recalling her visit to Algeria, she notes: “I have vivid memories of that extraordinary visit. My two children, at the time 5 and 9 years old, accompanied me. Although we stayed at the Saint George hotel we had dinner at the home of the Guellal. At the time, Sheik [Cherif] Guellal was an Algerian Diplomat stationed in Washington D.C. I met him through my close friend Yolanda Betbeze Fox, a former Miss America. My son who was nine at the time also has vivid recollections of our Algerian experience.” Many of the other women who attended the festival, such as Charlotte O’Neal, were also mothers, and they brought their children along with them; revolutionary motherhood figures prominently in their recollections of Algeria. Of course, getting these revolutionary sisters from America to Algeria for the Pan African Festival of 1969 might not have ever happened if not for the heroic organizing efforts of Elaine Klein Mokhtefi, a young Jewish-American political activist in the Algerian war of independence who was radicalized in Paris after witnessing police cruelty and racial discrimination against North Africans (her recently published memoir Algiers, Third World Capital details her many historic escapades). Not only did she help bring the Black Panthers to Algeria—she also helped get them out when their welcome had worn out by smuggling a stack of stolen US passports to get them safely to France.
When I met up with her recently in the Yale Art Gallery to excavate her memories of the 1969 festival and palling around with the Black Panthers in Algiers as their fixer, she stressed the terrible toll the struggle had taken on so many lives, and the tragedy of watching a revolutionary movement ruthlessly crushed. But despite those loses, the seeds of solidarity that were planted in Algiers in 1969 are still bearing fruit—from death row to Palestine.
ALLIES IN ALGIERS: BLACK PANTHERS & THE PLO“When I left the United States, I had no idea that I would end up in Algeria, but I think that I was very fortunate coming to Algeria at the time of the festival and to receive an invitation to participate in the festival, to have the opportunity to establish the Afro-American Center which we opened for the festival, which gave us an opportunity to make ourselves known to the other liberation movements who were brought together by the festival. The stage was set. People came here specifically to check each other out, to see what was going on, and to get some idea as to which movements they could relate to.”
— Eldridge Cleaver
The Pan African Cultural Festival of 1969 significantly deepened the awareness of the African American participants of the Palestinian struggle. They were in daily contact during the festival with members of the PLO—who had an office in Algiers like the Panthers.
The spokesman for the PLO said about the Black Panthers: “We support them absolutely! And revolutionaries all over the world. We see our battle as one and the same—a fight against imperialism and capitalism—and that fight can’t be divided.”
As Courtland Cox recounts: “The Pan African Festival allowed many of us to understand the struggle of the Palestinian people, and because of that understanding we were able to educate Americans about the struggle for liberation in Palestine.” This influence can be seen in the literature of the Black Panthers and others who attended the festival—such as Haki Madhubuti’s 1970 poem, “A Poem of a Poet,” for the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.These increased contacts at the festival led to the July 26th, 1969 issue of The Black Panther devoting its pages to the Palestinian struggle. It proclaimed: “The BPP supports Al Fatah and the Palestinian people in regaining their occupied territory.” The Panthers framed the fight against Israel as “an integral part of the world revolution against imperialism-capitalism.”
Solidarity between African American and Palestinian activists is mistakenly framed in the media as something new, with the historic press conference in Algiers between the Panthers and PLO forgotten. As for Algeria and Palestine, Algeria remained at the vanguard of Palestinian solidarity. On November 15th, 1988, Algeria became the first country to recognize the new State of Palestine.
Of course, on-the-ground Palestinian solidarity continues today with young anti-racism activists from America heading regularly to Palestine to bear witness to the occupation. When I traveled with such a group last year, we came across a giant statue of Mandela near Ramallah and a George Jackson exhibition at Al Quds University.
After the prison assassination of George Jackson, Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party, prison guards seized Palestinian resistance poems by Samih Al-Qasim from Jackson’s prison cell in San Quentin, California. Jackson had taken the poems, “Enemy of the Sun” and “I Defy” from an anthology of Palestinian poetry entitled Enemy of the Sun, which had been published by Drum and Spear Press—a publishing company begun by Courtland Cox after his trip to Algeria. The exhibit, created and curated by Greg Thomas, a professor at Tufts University, also includes a Letter of Solidarity from American political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal.
“Do you find Algeria today like the Algeria you just described in your paper?” a hip Algerian student asked me in the Q&A after my conference talk.
I didn’t know if it was a trap, or if he genuinely wanted me to validate his discontent. So I said something vague—like how can we compare or judge two radically different times? I let the Algerians be the ones to say how far Algeria had fallen from the political and artistic Mecca it once was.
After the Q&A, the student came up to me to lament how different Algeria used to be, when it gave aid to the oppressed and hosted the leading figures of liberation movements from around the globe.
“We lost our way,” he said. “It’s nothing like it once was. What happened? What went wrong?”
He wanted to know how it all went so astray. Even though he was just twenty years old, his eyes burned with a manic longing for a radical past that he felt had escaped and betrayed him. I knew he knew his country’s history better than me—the internal coups for power, the decades of strongman authoritarian rule, the destructive policies of Arabization, the 1980s oil glut, and the 1990s civil war between the government and Islamists—not to mention corruption writ large. A country that lived, until recently, under a 19 year state of emergency, and is now being rocked by a population peacefully—but forcefully—protesting with fervor for democracy.
REVOLUTIONARY LEGACIES: FROM CONGO TO HARLEMWhile most people today are unaware of the 1969 Pan African Cultural Festival in Algeria, it had significant and lasting impacts on the cultural workers and activists who attended—as well as on global literary landscapes and world music soundscapes. Archie Shepp flew to Paris after Algeria and recorded his groundbreaking new style—free jazz mixed with Tuareg music. Trumpeter Cal Massey wrote “Quiet Dawn” in Algeria in 1970, after Eldridge Cleaver commissioned him to write the Black Liberation Movement Suite dedicated to black leaders, such as Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Huey P. Newton, John Coltrane and Cleaver himself.
South African poet and anti-apartheid legend Dennis Brutus wrote “Only in the Casbah” on July 27th, 1969, while in Algiers for the festival:
[O]nly in the Casbah
where the bombed structures gape
In mute reminder of the terror of the French
only in the Casbah
is the tenacious, labyrinthine and unshatterable
Harlem’s night upon the world
are drops of Algerian sand
with joyeyes overworked to welcome.
He concludes his poem “Rise Vision Comin: May 27, 1972” by invoking and venerating many of the liberation movements who were present at the 1969 festival from Mozambique, Namibia, Guinea, and Cape Verde.
For some, the festival inspired them to create in ways they had never created before. Barbara Chase-Riboud, a world-renowned African-American writer and sculptor, had an artistic breakthrough at the festival. In Algiers, she came up with the idea to do a series of Malcolm X sculptures and add silk to her artistic repertoire.
Henri Lopes, the prize-winning Congolese novelist and politician, had only published a couple of poems before the festival, where he led the Congolese delegation as Minster of Education for Congo-Brazzaville.His political consciousness had been nurtured by the Algerian war for independence. He compared his trip to Algeria to a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he considered Algeria his “revolutionary school.”
At the festival, he was introduced as a writer, even though he wasn’t—but the idea and identity stuck, and after he returned home he began to write the short stories that comprise his 1971 novel Tribaliques.
The fourth short story in the book, “Ancien Combattant” [“Veteran”], which is set in Algeria, highlights the long-lasting effects of French colonial violence and the struggle for independence on ordinary Algerians and sub-Saharan Africans who the French employed to fight Algerians in the war of independence.The festival also inspired artists and activists alike to found independent black institutions when they returned home. Inspired by his time in Africa, Courtland Cox co-founded Drum & Spear Press with other SNCC veterans to bring different perspectives from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to the American public. In 1969, Drum & Spear Press published their first book, C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan-African Revolt. In 1970, they published a classic anthology of Palestinian poetry, Enemy of the Sun: Poems of Palestinian Resistance, whose poems were found in George Jackson’s cell.
The festival deepened participants’ commitment to black nationalism and strengthened their will to make social change at home and abroad. Cox continued his organizing efforts in Africa, recalling: “In 1973 and 1974, I worked with the Tanzanian government to organize a worldwide conference of African people in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The conference included the liberation movements from South Africa, African governments, Caribbean governments, and African peoples in the Diaspora.” In the concluding ceremony of our conference, I wondered: will our humble but historic conference in Algeria have an impact years later? Will Algeria’s revolutionary actions today bear fruit? On both counts, it’s impossible to know—but at least we planted some seeds.
BEING REVOLUTIONARY TODAYWith protests ongoing in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Colombia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, France, Chile, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere—and with the Black Arts Movement in mind—we might ask: what is the revolutionary potential of art and culture today to express the discontent of the oppressed? I am thinking of revolutionary graffiti in Tahrir Square, Khartoum, and now Lebanon and Iraq.
How can artists and activists use culture to protest America’s endless wars abroad, its war against the poor at home, and its inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at its borders—not to mention its domestic wars over race and the right to dissent (I myself was harassed by Yale Law School professors for being anti-war on Twitter). What about Trump’s threats of war crimes and America’s unjust Muslim ban (I myself was recently interrogated at JFK because I speak Arabic and am an expert on Islam)?
Despite all my privilege, I have not been immune to these injustices—nor can I even imagine the deepest lash of the whip. In the recent words of legendary jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, who kissed the ground with poet Ted Joans when their plane landed in Algiers in 1969: “State power is unrelenting, and is something we should stand up against.” So how do we collectively respond?
Our struggles at home and abroad are interdependent. Police brutality against African Americans at home serves as the template for America’s mass murder of people—mainly brown-skinned Muslims—in the Middle East (according to Brown University, over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly).America’s unjust criminal justice system and prison industrial complex provide the template for its horrifying programs of torture and indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, global black sites, and military bases. The establishment of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and destabilization of Libya have resulted in an increased American presence on the African continent as well as an epidemic of human trafficking, slavery, and the migration of millions.
So how should cultural workers on both sides of the ocean respond to this unprecedented militarization and migration? How can artists challenge racism and colorism around the world—such as against North Africans in France and sub-Saharan Africans in North Africa? How can activists pressure former colonial powers like France to help deliver justice those they tortured in Algeria?
In the United States today, political attacks on African-American Studies, Islamic Studies, Palestinian Studies, Ethnic Studies, and other minority studies are intensifying, and the transnational history of liberation movements, Black Nationalism, the Black Arts Movement, abolition and other attempts at resisting white supremacy are victim to erasure and demonization under fascism’s rising tide. So how to push back against those seeking to de-legitimize histories of the oppressed, disenfranchised, and marginalized?
It is tempting to engage in radical chic nostalgia when looking back at the 1969 festival. While it is important to celebrate the successes of the Black Arts Movement and the global force of black power, we must also remember and honor the suffering—the sudden exiles, tortured bodies, and lives lost—in large part due to the FBI and CIA’s interference in human rights struggles at home and abroad.
The United States’ ruthless extermination of civil rights leaders and leftist movements at home and abroad brings us, in many respects, to our current political moment today. As Archie Shepp recently told a concert audience at Princeton: “In the face of injustice and adversity, certainly some gave their lives looking to change the world. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Sometimes, things seem to be even worse. Perhaps we are all prisoners.”But the resistance does continue, even in the most elite of circles, as I saw first-hand while an Islamic Law fellow at Yale Law School last year.
After all, it was young African and African American female students who led the shut-down of Yale Law School one day last fall to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and our unjust justice system.
Later in the year, Yale’s entire Ethnic Studies Department quit to protest lack of support from the university and take a stand for the decolonization of academia. We also had an event to remember the global student protests of 1968 and a course taught on the topic.
At our conference on Rebellious Lawyering at Yale Law School, we had political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal talk to us from jail about Castro and Mandela, who, as lawyers, “rebelled against such unjust systems to transform those societies.”
In both America and Algeria, the elderly elite are seen as out of touch with the young, who want fair-paying jobs, representation in government, and a voice in their country’s future. The healthcare sector in both countries is causing unnecessary grief and death for many, and the independence of the judiciary is in jeopardy too.This fall in Oran, Algerian judges and lawyers clashed with riot police while protesting the appointment of thousands of new pro-government judges—a dangerous “stranglehold by the executive over the power of the judiciary.”
In America, Trump has done more to change the judicial landscape than any other president; one in four U.S. circuit court judges is a Trump nominee and two of his picks sit on the Supreme Court. Even though the Algerian people have been engaged in an inspiring and righteous year-long peaceful movement for democracy, the US (despite its written and stated ideals) does not support the protestors—favoring the iron grip of military rule instead. Our suffering is one.
ALGERIA TOMORROWWhen the conference concluded, I was finally free to roam around Algeria without a babysitter. So I checked into Royal Hotel, a 1920s art-deco dream filled with antiques, in the heart of Oran.
Hanging a right out of the hotel, I wandered into the square where the weekly protests take place around an obelisk topped by a winged statue of Joan of Arc and decorated with the noble visage of Emir Abdul-Qadr, who led the Algerian anti-colonial resistance against the 19th century French invasion. An ancient symbol of Africa crowned by a French heroine and chiseled with the face of an anti-colonial legend–Algeria, in a nutshell.
An Algerian friend of a friend swooped me up in his car to show me the town and help me transition from being a conference hostage to a tourist. Cruising along the Mediterranean, to the accompaniment of the Tuareg tunes of Tinariwen (my favorite African band), I told him I had no money (since there weren’t any ATMs), and I wanted to visit a Sufi shrine for my research.Stepping through the gold plated door of an ornate Sufi shrine, we were greeted by an elderly sheikh with an ecstatic smile, who invited us to visit the tomb tucked inside.
“All is love,” the sheikh said, as he sweetly lectured us on the merits of mysticism and unity of all creation under the banner of divine love. Blessed with the baraka, or spiritual power, of the Sufi saint, we journeyed onwards.
Climbing up the minarets of the Abdellah Ben Salem Mosque, once The Great Synagogue of Oran, I got a prime view of the sea. In the book market outside the Cathedral of Oran, where a gold-tinged mosaic of Jesus hovers over the door, I perused Camus, along with the medieval physician Ibn Sina and Islamic philosopher Averroes.
As we wound our way up to the 16th century Spanish fort of Santa Cruz, we passed by Ottoman ruins and vestiges of the French—a palimpsest of colonial history. From the fort’s Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, topped by a towering statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the sea, we watched heavy machinery building new government properties on the coast.
“Mary belongs to all of us,” my Algerian friend said, as we looked down at the military base—the muscle-flexing realities on the ground juxtaposed with the transcendent beauty of the divine feminine above. When it came time for us to part, he put some money in my hand, and told me I never needed to repay him.Checking out of my hotel a few days later, I asked the concierge if there would be protests later that day.
“Yes—every Friday we protest!” he said. I had never been in such a revolutionary space where everyone seemed on the same page: protest is what we do; protest is who we are!
“Will there be protests today?” I asked my old Algerian taxi driver on the way to the airport the third Friday before the presidential election.
“Inshallah!” [God willing!] he said, shaking his hand in the air with excitement. “Every Friday is beautiful because of the protests!”
When I went through customs at the airport and had to go through security, I was told the scanning machine was broken and they would have to go item by item through my bag.
“DON’T TAKE MY MONEY!” a woman sobbed at the female security official holding onto two wads of cash. I was confused about what was happening—but remembered the conference organizer asking us how much money we had brought into the country. Was no money allowed to come in, and no money allowed to go out?
“PLEASE—THAT IS MY MONEY! GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY!” the woman wailed.
When it was my turn, the official went straight for my wallet and began rifling through it. Fortunately, I didn’t have any money for her to seize, as I had spent my Algerian friend’s money on souvenirs. I have been in many countries suffering from corruption, but never seen a security screen function, essentially, as a hold-up.
“Algiers is moving forward, and with defiance, and she wants to take the rest of Africa with her. Godspeed,” wrote Hoyt Fuller on his flight back from Algeria, unaware that Algeria’s revolutionary promise was not to be fulfilled.On my flight back to China, I similarly found myself contemplating if Algeria today is moving forward and poised to take the rest of Africa along. Will the recent sham elections damper their revolutionary spirit, or will the protestors press on? With 70% of the population under 30, their demands cannot be so easily dismissed, and every Friday you’ll still find them in the streets chanting: “Civil state, not military state!” and “It’s you or us, we will not stop!”
The still-fresh wounds of the devastating civil war of the 1990s ensure that Algerians will not succumb to the armed struggles and sectarian divisions plaguing their neighbors. The intellectual richness of Algeria’s revolutionary past—and fierce fight against the French—continue to inform today’s protests for change.
Algeria has shown the world—in the past and present—how to welcome and wage revolution. Perhaps it’s time we pay more attention. Who better to turn to for inspiration in this dying and corrupt world desperate for radical solutions and solidarities? Or, with their numbers starting to dwindle, will today’s revolutionary moment in Algeria also fail to fulfill its transformative promise–like the one before it?
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