"I Am 32 Flavors" (1998), Alana Davis, Anti-Stereotype, Class Struggle, Critical Race Theory, Derrick A. Bell, Dick Oestreicher, Evangelical Christianity, Franz Fanon, Graduate School, Humanities, JD, Karl Marx, Labeling, Labels, Leftist, Liberal, Marxist, Neo-Marxist, Pitt, Rosemary Martino, Stereotypes, W. E. B. Du Bois
Over the years, I’ve grown tired of the idea that my social, cultural, economic and political beliefs could be summed up with one or two words. Like “progressive,” “Communist,” “neo-Marxist,” “leftist,” “liberal,” and/or “Marxist.” Why? Because like so many things American (or in this case, Western), ideologues and intellectuals take the easiest path and slap overgeneralized labels on groups of people without thought, without nuance, and certainly without an understanding of both people and history.
I’ve felt this way about these labels at least since my first year of grad school in the University of Pittsburgh’s MA and PhD programs (1991-92), and likely longer than that. But in that program, I was surrounded by professors and colleagues who were various shades of Marxism. At least that’s what they claimed. More to the point, they claimed that “the class struggle” was the defining feature of both human history and US history. “The class struggle” trumped slavery and America’s racial caste system, the near eradication of indigenous cultures in the US and around the world, it trumped the exploitation and exclusion of women in Western civilizations.
I admit it. It really, really, really pissed me off to be earning my MA and beginning my doctoral work around such ignorant thinkers. They would ask me about my Marxism, and I’d say, “I’m not a Marxist. I’m not a neo-Marxist. I’m not even a Groucho Marxist.” My Pitt grad school colleagues would laugh, sometimes a little too forcefully. My professors, for the most part, ignored me, since I was an African American history student who believed that race intertwined with class to be US history’s defining feature. How scandalous!
It wasn’t that I hadn’t read Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848). I read it via Rosemary Martino in twelfth grade, though I can’t remember if I read it for AP English or for her Humanities Philosophy class. I’d also read Marx’s much longer Das Kapital (1867), Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and so many other supposedly Marxist-leaning tombs by the time I’d taken my first full semester of grad-level courses (I took my first grad course my junior year at Pitt).
I just wasn’t that impressed on the Marxism part of things. I mean, I was well acquainted with oppression, exploitation and abuse long before I’d read anything by Marx and Engels, or George Orwell in ninth grade English, for that matter. I had a contrarian Humanities classmate in JD who espoused what I considered even at the time his version of Communist gibberish all through middle school and into our sophomore year at Mount Vernon High School. So how do you label someone a Marxist or Communist who both views it with disdain and didn’t grow up quoting from it? I’d like to know.
This last question, though, is bigger than just my own experience with poverty, race, racism, child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, homelessness, cultish religions, and sheer willful ignorance and neglect. Historically, labeling anyone who had radical ideas about the falsities of human civilizations as civilizing the human tendency to spread inequality and oppression to the most vulnerable as Communist is a bit ahistorical, no? So-called leftists or socialists do that with Jesus and Muhammad almost every day. Maybe we should call Karl Marx an original, Asiatic Christian or original Muslim, minus the spiritual component of kneeling before God in prayer.
For me, growing up in a striving household that ended up in grinding welfare poverty didn’t make me a Communist. I went through several stages of belief, from my Mom and idiot stepfather Maurice hoisting the Hebrew-Israelite thing on me, to evangelical Christianity, to just plain Christianity, to critical race theorist adherent. I never completely gave up on capitalist democracy, because what would’ve been the point of that? By the time my son was born in 2003, I saw myself more in European terms, as either a Social Democrat or a Christian Democrats, believers in compromises and reforms from within that ameliorate the worst forms of racial, gender and other forms of oppression and poverty.
Yet even that is too big a label to hang on me or others, now and across history. What did people call those who wanted to rid the world of poverty and economic oppression prior to 1848? Or prior to the French Revolution, for that matter? Troublemakers? Radicals? Jacobites? Weird? Lunatics? To be honest, any of these terms fit me better than progressive, liberal, leftist or Marxist. Because ultimately, I don’t believe in any single economic or political belief system crafted by Homo sapiens. They’re all subject to corruption, all subject to be bent by those with the most power and resources.
So, who am I, ideologically speaking? To quote Alana Davis, “I am 32 flavors” and dim sum. Go ahead. Try to figure that out and come up with a label that fits!