Walter Rodney

Black Power: A Basic Understanding (1968)

Excerpted from a lecture delivered to Jamaican students in 1968, available in the collection The Groundings With My Brothers (1971).


Black Power is a doctrine about black people, for black people, preached by black people. I’m putting it to my black brothers and sisters that the colour of our skins is the most fundamental thing about us. I could have chosen to talk about people of the same island, or the same religion, or the same class — but instead I have chosen skin colour as essentially the most binding factor in our world. In so doing, I am not saying that is the way things ought to be. I am simply recognising the real world — that is the way things are. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to be colour-blind, to choose my friends solely because their social interests coincided with mine — but no conscious black man can allow himself such luxuries in the contemporary world.

Let me emphasise that the situation is not of our making. To begin with, the white world defines who is white and who is black. In the USA, if one is not white, then one is black; in Britain, if one is not white then one is coloured; in South Africa, one can be white, coloured or black depending upon how white people classify you. There was a South African boxer who was white all his life, until the other whites decided that he was really coloured. Even the fact of whether you are black or not is to be decided by white people — by white power. If a Jamaican black man tried to get a room from a landlady in London who said, ‘No coloureds’, it would not impress her if he said he was West Indian, quite apart from the fact that she would already have closed the door in his black face. When a Pakistani goes to the Midlands, he is as coloured as a Nigerian. The Indonesian is the same as a Surinamer in Holland; the Chinese and New Guineans have as little chance of becoming residents and citizens in Australia as do you and I. The definition which is most widely used the world over is that once you are not obviously white, then you are black and are excluded from power — power is kept pure milky white.

The black people of whom I speak, therefore, are non-whites — the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few millions in the Americas. A further subdivision can be made with reference to all people of African descent, whose position is clearly more acute than that of most nonwhite groups. It must be noted that once a person is said to be black by the white world, then that is usually the most important thing about him; fat or thin, intelligent or stupid, criminal or sportsman — these things pale into insignificance. Actually I’ve found out that a lot of whites literally cannot tell one black from another. Partly this may be due to the fact that they do not personally know many black people, but it reflects a psychological tendency to deny our individuality by refusing to consider us as individual human beings.

Having said a few things about black and white, I will try to point out the power relations between them. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the capitalist division of the world was complete. It was a division which made capitalists dominant over workers and white people dominant over black. At that point, everywhere in the world white people held power in all its aspects — political, economic, military and even cultural. In Europe, the whites held power — this goes without saying. In the Americas the whites had committed mass murder as far as many ‘Red Indian’ tribes were concerned, and they herded the rest into reservations like animals or forced them into the disadvantageous positions, geographically and economically, in Central and South America. In Australia and New Zealand, a similar thing had occurred on a much-smaller scale. In Africa, European power reigned supreme, except in a few isolated spots like Ethiopia; and where whites were actually settled, the Africans were reduced to the status of second-class citizens in their own countries. All this was following upon a historical experience of 400 years of slavery, which had transferred millions of Africans to work and die in the New World. In Asia, Europe’s power was felt everywhere, except in Japan and areas controlled by Japan. The essence of white power is that it is exercised over black peoples — whether or not they are minority or majority, whether it was a country belonging originally to whites or to blacks. It is exercised in such a way that black people have no share in that power and are, therefore, denied any say in their own destinies.

Since 1911, white power has been slowly reduced. The Russian Revolution put an end to Russian imperialism in the Far East, and the Chinese Revolution, by 1949, had emancipated the world’s largest single ethnic group from the white power complex. The rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America (with minor exceptions such as North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba) have remained within the white power network to this day. We live in the section of the world under white domination — the imperialist world. The Russians are white and have power, but they are not a colonial power oppressing black peoples. The white power which is our enemy is that which is exercised over black peoples, irrespective of which group is in the majority and irrespective of whether the particular country belonged originally to whites or blacks.

We need to look very carefully at the nature of the relationships between colour and power in the imperialist world. There are two basic sections in the imperialist world — one that is dominated and one that is dominant. Every country in the dominant metropolitan area has a large majority of whites — USA, Britain, France, etc. Every country in the dominated colonial areas has an overwhelming majority of nonwhites, as in most of Asia, Africa and the West Indies. Power, therefore, resides in the white countries and is exercised over blacks. There is the mistaken belief that black people achieved power with independence (e.g., Malaya, Jamaica, Kenya), but a black man ruling a dependent state within the imperialist system has no power. He is simply an agent of the whites in the metropolis, with an army and a police force designed to maintain the imperialist way of things in that particular colonial area.

When Britain announced recently that it was withdrawing troops from East of Suez, the American secretary of state remarked that something would have to be done to fill the ‘power vacuum.’ This involved Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Malaysia. The white world, in their own way, were saying that all these blacks amounted to nothing, for power was white and when white power is withdrawn a vacuum is created, which could only be filled by another white power.

By being made into colonials, black people lost the power which we previously had of governing our own affairs, and the aim of the white imperialist world is to see that we never regain this power. The Congo provides an example of this situation. There was a large and well-developed Congolese empire before the white man reached Africa. The large Congolese empire of the fifteenth century was torn apart by Portuguese slave traders, and what remained of the Congo came to be regarded as one of the darkest spots in dark Africa. After regaining political independence the Congolese people settled down to their lives, but white power intervened, set up the black stooge Tshombe, and murdered both Lumumba and the aspirations of the Congolese people. Since then, paid white mercenaries have harassed the Congo. Late last year, 130 of these hired white killers were chased out of the Congo and cornered in the neighbouring African state of Burundi. The white world intervened and they have all been set free. These are men who for months were murdering, raping, pillaging, disrupting economic production, and making a mockery of black life and black society. Yet white power said not a hair on their heads was to be touched. They did not even have to stand trial or reveal their names. Conscious blacks cannot possibly fail to realise that in our own homelands we have no power, abroad we are discriminated against, and everywhere the black masses suffer from poverty. You can put together in your own mind a picture of the whole world, with the white imperialist beast crouched over miserable blacks. And don’t forget to label us poor. There is nothing with which poverty coincides so absolutely as the colour black — small or large population, hot or cold climates, rich or poor in natural resources — poverty cuts across all of these factors in order to find black people.

That association of wealth with whites and poverty with blacks is not accidental. It is the nature of the imperialist relationship that enriches the metropolis at the expense of the colony, i.e., it makes the whites richer and the blacks poorer.

The Spaniards went to Central and South America and robbed thousands of tons of silver and gold from Indians. The whole of Europe developed on the basis of that wealth, while millions of Indian lives were lost and the societies and cultures of Central and South America were seriously dislocated. Europeans used their guns in Asia to force Asians to trade at huge profits to Europe, and in India the British grew fat while at the same time destroying Indian irrigation. Africa and Africans suffered from the greatest crimes at the hands of Europeans through the slave trade and slavery in the West Indies and the Americas. In all those centuries of exploitation, Europeans have climbed higher on our backs and pushed us down into the dirt. White power has, therefore, used black people to make whites stronger and richer and to make blacks relatively, and sometimes absolutely, weaker and poorer.

‘Black Power’ as a movement has been most clearly defined in the USA. Slavery in the US helped create the capital for the development of the US as the foremost capitalist power, and the blacks have subsequently been the most exploited sector of labour. Many blacks live in that supposedly great society at a level of existence comparable to blacks in the poorest section of the colonial world. The blacks in the US have no power. They have achieved prominence in a number of ways — they can sing, they can run, they can box, play baseball, etc., but they have no power. Even in the fields where they excel, they are straws in the hands of whites. The entertainment world, the record-manufacturing business, sport as a commercial enterprise are all controlled by whites — blacks simply perform. They have no power in the areas where they are overwhelming majorities, such as the city slums and certain parts of the southern United States, for the local governments and law-enforcement agencies are all white controlled. This was not always so. For one brief period after the Civil War in the 1860s, blacks in the USA held power. In that period (from 1865 to 1875) slavery had just ended, and the blacks were entitled to the vote as free citizens. Being in the majority in several parts of the southern United States, they elected a majority of their own black representatives and helped to rebuild the South, introducing advanced ideas such as education for all (blacks as well as whites, rich and poor). The blacks did not rule the United States, but they were able to put forward their own viewpoints and to impose their will over the white, racist minority in several states. This is a concrete historical example of Black Power in the United States, but the whites changed all that, and they have seen to it that such progress was never again achieved by blacks. With massive white immigration, the blacks became a smaller minority within the United States as a whole, and even in the South, so that a feeling of hopelessness grew up.

The present Black Power movement in the United States is a rejection of hopelessness and the policy of doing nothing to halt the oppression of blacks by whites. It recognises the absence of Black Power, but is confident of the potential of Black Power on this globe. Marcus Garvey was one of the first advocates of Black Power and is still today the greatest spokesman ever to have been produced by the movement of black consciousness. ‘A race without power and authority is a race without respect,’ wrote Garvey. He spoke to all Africans on the earth, whether they lived in Africa, South America, the West Indies or North America, and he made blacks aware of their strength when united. The USA was his main field of operation, after he had been chased out of Jamaica by the sort of people who today pretend to have made him a hero. All of the black leaders who have advanced the cause in the USA since Garvey’s time have recognised the international nature of the struggle against white power. Malcolm X, our martyred brother, became the greatest threat to white power in the USA because he began to seek a broader basis for his efforts in Africa and Asia, and he was probably the first individual who was prepared to bring the race question in the US up before the UN as an issue of international importance. SNCC, the important Black Power organisation, developed along the same lines; and at about the same time that the slogan Black Power came into existence a few years ago, SNCC was setting up a foreign affairs department, headed by James Foreman, who afterwards travelled widely in Africa. Stokely Carmichael has held serious discussions in Vietnam, Cuba and the progressive African countries, such as Tanzania and Guinea. These are all steps to tap the vast potential of power among the hundreds of millions of oppressed black peoples.

Meanwhile, one significant change had occurred since Garvey. The emphasis within the US is that black people there have a stake in that land, which they have watered with their sweat, tears, and blood, and black leadership is aware of the necessity and the desirability of fighting white power simultaneously at home and abroad. Certain issues are not yet clear about the final shape of society in America. Some form of coexistence with whites is the desired goal of virtually all black leaders, but it must be a society which blacks have a hand in shaping, and blacks should have power commensurate with their numbers and contribution to US development. To get that, they have to fight.

Black Power as a slogan is new, but it is really an ideology and a movement of historical depth. The one feature that is new about it as it is currently exercised in the US is the advocacy of violence. Previously, black people prayed, we were on our best behaviour, we asked the whites ‘please’, we smiled so that our white teeth illuminated our black faces. Now it is time to show our teeth in a snarl rather than a smile. The death of Martin Luther King gave several hypocritical persons the opportunity to make stupid remarks about the virtues of non-violence. Some of the statements made in the Jamaica press and on the radio and TV were made by individuals who probably think that the Jamaican black man is completely daft. We were told that violence in itself is evil, and that, whatever the cause, it is unjustified morally. By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master? By what standards can we equate the violence of blacks who have been oppressed, suppressed, depressed and repressed for four centuries with the violence of white fascists? Violence aimed at the recovery of human dignity and at equality cannot be judged by the same yardstick as violence aimed at maintenance of discrimination and oppression.

White Americans would certainly argue the moral and practical necessity of their participation in the First and, particularly, the Second World War. What is curious is that thousands of black people fought and died in these wars entirely in the interest of the white man. Colonialism is the opposite of freedom and democracy, and yet black colonials fought for this against the Fascism of Hitler — it was purely in the interests of the white ‘Mother Countries’. Slaves fought for American Independence and for the North in the American Civil War. Black oppressed Americans went in thousands to fight for justice in the world wars, in Korea and in Vietnam. We have fought heroically in the white men’s cause. It is time to fight in our own.

Violence in the American situation is inescapable. White society is violent, white American society is particularly violent, and white American society is especially violent towards blacks.

Slavery was founded and maintained by violence, and in the one hundred years since the ‘emancipation’ of slaves in the US, the society has continued to do black people violence by denying them any power or influence (except for the occasional individual). Their interests are therefore ignored, so that thousands of black babies die each year because of lack of proper food, shelter and medicine; while hundreds of thousands are destroyed emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination. This is the worst sort of violence, and it is accompanied by many acts of individual violence against blacks carried out by white citizens, police and sheriffs. [1] Most incidents of rioting in recent years arose spontaneously out of self-defence and out of anger against brutality. When black Americans react to meet force with force, this should surprise nobody, because even the most harmless animal will finally turn in desperation against its hunters. It is useful to know that this is the conclusion arrived at not only by Black Power leaders, but also by the official committee of the US Senate which was appointed to investigate the racial situation.

Apart from local violent protest (riots), US society faces the possibility of large-scale racial war. The book Black Power, written by Stokely Carmichael [2] and Charles Hamilton (and now banned by ‘white power’ Jamaican government), stresses that its aim was to present an opportunity to work out the racial question without resort to force, but that if that opportunity was missed the society was moving towards destructive racial war. In such a war, black people would undoubtedly suffer because of their minority position, but as an organised group they could wreck untold damage on the whites. The white racists and warmongers cannot drop their bombs on black people within the USA, and whatever damage is done to property means damage to white property. We have nothing to lose, for they are the capitalists. Black people could not hope to, nor do they want to, dominate the whites, but large sections of the black youth realise that they cannot shrink from fighting to demonstrate the hard way that a 10 per cent minority of 22 million cannot be treated as though they did not exist. Already the limited violence of the past few years has caused more notice to be taken of the legitimate social, economic, political and cultural demands of black people than has been the case for the previous one hundred years. The goal is still a long way off, for it is not only in a crisis that the blacks must be considered. When decisions are taken in the normal day-to-day life of the USA, the interests of the blacks must be taken into account out of respect for their power — power that can be used destructively if it is not allowed to express itself constructively. This is what Black Power means in the particular conditions of the USA.


  1. See S. Carmichael and C. Hamilton, Black Power, the Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967). 

  2. Better known as Kwame Ture.