Photo by Kyle Depew
The following interview was conducted via email correspondence with Reverend Osagyefo Sekou. Rev. Sekou is perhaps the nation's most well-known organizer working at the intersections of faith and democratic socialism. His political performance of Pentecostalism and comments on being as a complement to the limits of politics, in particular, are illuminating and worth deep consideration. His responses to the questions are lightly edited for ease of reading. To preserve the immediacy and evocative power of Rev. Sekou's remarks, no changes have been made to the content. Enjoy, and please share a comment below! - Rev. Andrew Wilkes
Wilkes: In your article, “Beyond Trivial Melodies,” you offer a four-fold typology of black churches engagement in social action, commending ultimately the socialist option. Can you explain the typology briefly and explain why you favor the last option?
Sekou: As a child of the black Pentecostal church (Church of God in Christ), I read the world with a Pentecostal “hermeneutic of suspicion.” I read the “signs and wonders” of the American Empire with a sanctified refusal to believe that the material conditions of black people are ontological. Simply put, we are not doomed. While our “situated-ness” is absurd, our tradition has made meaning out of the existential chitterlings of America. The methodical approach (i.e. cleaning, boiling, and preparation) is one I use in understanding the black church and American democracy. This typology, then, is a reflection of that process. The social conservative, social gospel, liberationist, and democratic socialist are one way to describe the rubric known as the black church.
The black church, writ large, is forced to perpetually reconstitute a self in a civilization that denies their personhood. So all the varieties of the black church are concerned with the making of the self: black dignity (personal piety), black self-respect (politics of respectability), and black self-determination (personal responsibility). This self-constitution is given more emphasis in social conservative, social gospel, and liberationist black churches, but [it’s also] at work even in the democratic socialist tradition.
The black church is a living, breathing institution so riddled with all the beautiful contradictions that we humans exude. I opt for the democratic socialist tradition because I believe it embodies the best of the other categories while holding a steadfast [critique of the system]. It’s porous enough to absorb difference, which makes it unique.
To be biblical, there is room at the cross for all who are heavy laden (queer, black, poor, female, differently abled, young and old).
W: What’s your testimony and personal narrative regarding politics? That is, as a COGIC minister how do you develop your political and religious commitments as a socialist?
S: I was blessed to be raised by a deeply loving, black community in the Arkansas Delta. Rural, semi-literate people taught me [about] love, Jesus, and justice. Their Jesus was working and toiling in history. Concerned about their suffering, he was on their side. My grandmother shielded me at the age of six months old from a fate that may have been too terrible to tell. She saved my life.
Born in 1910, my grandfather was an elder in the Church of God in Christ, a farmer, and railroad worker. While my grandmother was my world and hope, my grandfather occupied a different space. He bore the marks of being a black man in the rural south. Hard, stern, and prone to Jack Daniels, his memory was haunted by the race riots of his childhood. The Elaine Race Riots in 1919 and the Harrison Railroad Riots in 1923 were defeats in his field of labor (farming and railroad work). Red Summer (May 30-October 1, 1919) — a term coined by James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the Negro National Anthem Lift Every Voice— was one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the United States. Over thirty race riots throughout the country in which hundreds if not thousands of black folks were murdered in state sanctioned violence.
The Elaine Race Riots—just 70 miles from where I was raised—occurred in response to the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America organizing black sharecroppers’ demands for fair pay. J. Edgar Hoover blamed "certain local agitation in a Negro lodge" and "propaganda of a radical nature.” The lodge he refers to was the Prince Hall Free Mason Lodge, where my grandfather’s elders were members.
In the first thirty years of the 20th century, there was a salient strand of socialist organizing in the Arkansas Delta culminating in the creation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Initially, STFU advocated for New Deal subsidy distribution from plantation owners to tenant farmers. Plantation owners used routine violence, kidnapping and torture to prevent the organization from collective bargaining as a union. Socialist leaders played key roles in organizing the workers in Harrison, Elaine, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, many of whom were black preachers. My grandfather was born during that era, and as an adult, [he] continued to build relationships with socialists in his local railroad union.
Socialism, like Pentecostalism, offered an alternative vision of the world. This is critical to black existence in the American Empire. Another world had to be possible given the high level of violence being exacted on black bodies. During the 1919 Elaine Race Riot, 237 people were lynched in the Arkansas Delta’s Phillips County.
As Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative said in a recent New York times article: “Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics, and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century.” The crime of violating racial limits was executed with terrorizing totality. The absurdity of being black in the rural Arkansas Delta forced my grandfather to embrace the notion of a wholly other modality.
Pentecostalism, like socialism, intervenes and breaks open a new set of possibilities—a working out of a peculiar salvation. Like my grandfather I am an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC)—the nation’s largest Pentecostal and black denomination. “God in Christ,” as the old saints called it, flourished in the Delta region during the height of lynching. Within the violence of the Jim Crow era, Pentecostalism and black socialist desires emerged from the same eschatological yearning for a new way of being. The emphasis on holiness mirrors the cry for worker solidarity and emboldens black folks to resist hegemony—existentially and economically.
In the Arkansas Delta, the geography of lynching overlays the geography of socialism which overlays the geography of Pentecostalism. A map depicting areas where lynching occurred mirrors that of the expansion of Pentecostalism and socialist organizing in the region. The harshness of the formative years of my grandfather’s social location served to be pivotal to the development of my own brand of socialist Pentecostalism. In that sense it is heavily Gramscian, because I begin with a lumpen yet dignified demos.
This is the tradition of militant socialist Pentecostalism that is characterized by signs and wonders (social movements), speaking in tongues (democratic speech and prophetic rage), and holiness (creating a just world).
W: Who are the most effective and courageous religious socialists of America - and abroad - in your view?
S: First and foremost, I would take issue with the term “effective”. It sounds dangerously close to the very American notion of success, which is more often than not a catch phrase for "popularity, visibility, access to power, and most importantly, fiscal accomplishments." Out of my narrow understanding of the gospel of the world’s most famous Palestinian, I prefer the term "faithfulness"—a commitment to keeping track of the most vulnerable while speaking truth to power with no victory in sight; guided by a deep abiding love. Thus, I have to begin with Cornel West—the nation’s most important public intellectual. It was his early writing, particularly Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, that demonstrated his unparalleled capacity to articulate the brilliance and beauty of a suffering people. His honorary chairmanship of the Democratic Socialists of America and support of the Black Radical Congress serve as touchstones for interpreting this moment.
As the Empire takes its last breaths, the socialist tradition is under ever greater assault. The hegemony of neoliberalism serves to undermine the possibility of any alternative; whether it be a robust welfare state in Europe or revolution in Cuba; both of which are crumbling before our very eyes. The recent election of the Left in Greece is a bright spot on an otherwise dark political canvas. The last remnants of liberation theology in the global south, particularly in Latin America—such as the continued political engagement of Leonardo Boff and the parliamentary election of Ivan Petrella (a Harvard-trained liberation theologian) in Argentina are signs of hope.
W: What would it take to mainstream religious socialism in America?
S: I have no idea. I would begin to answer the question by interrogating the notion of the mainstream—which I believe may be more accurately described as a "cesspool"—hegemony that is at once death dealing and commodity making. We all live in it and we all smell like shit. Such an environment forecloses on any hint of a critique of capitalism. West and Roberto Unger make the keen observation in their terse text, The Future of American Progressivism, that a major task of neoliberalism is to humanize the inevitable triumph of the market.
In the streets of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, I see the makings of a radical new form of governance that may be up to the task of shaking off neoliberalism. As the state continues to overreach and the people continue to resist in every sector of society, a democracy that is grounded in the life chances of those who suffer, presenting a faith in a new way of being becomes more and more possible.
W: Where are the biggest growth areas for religious socialism, or socialism writ large, in the nation?
S: The election of [our] dear sister Kshama Sawant to [the] Seattle City Council offers a critical intervention in local politics. It presents the opportunity for locally based grassroots organizing to gain a foothold in the municipal government. Her election, like the recent elections in Greece, offers a glimpse at what elected officials can do in the midst of a circumscribed electoral process. Given the strength of the neoliberal option inside most churches, it seems that religious socialism will not be a reality any time soon. While there are clergy who are members of the CPUSA and religious folks affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, we are extremely marginalized both inside and outside the church.
Moreover, the dominance of religious and fiscal rights in public discourse has foreclosed upon the very possibility of a public debate about the merits of socialism. The Black Life Matters movement, underway in the United States, has displayed a radical edge with anti-capitalist sensibilities. Many of the young organizers are suspicious of the federal government, black capitalism, and hegemony writ large. Therein lies the kerygma (proclamation) of a new discourse and polity to emerge, which calls for, at bare minimum, democratic checks on the market.
W: How might one build a multi-faith constellation of involvement in socialist work in America?
S: Constellation in Ferguson is multi-sectorial. The faith sector is the weakest and has the least radical edge. The nature of faith traditions is to be right wing, reactionary, and conservative. So the slow movement of clergy into the streets to contest hegemony is to be expected. As noted earlier, the disdain for socialism in the public discourse makes any discussion of the matter nearly impossible. Yet the radical edge of the Ferguson and Black Lives Matter movements are opening space that has tended toward the collective, with an internal refusal to adopt a hierarchical leadership structure. The largely unchurched (spiritual, though not religious) movement is setting the stage for the revival of the American religious Left. As the movement gets stronger, so too will the religious Left.
W: What are the limits of politics and a socialist project in your view? What is it incapable of accomplishing?
S: Recently, black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper noted that liberation must include joy and pleasure. Politics and socialism alone cannot account for this. The materialist privileging in socialism obscures the non-material in such a way that the project is rendered insufficient. Marxist, radical, and socialist thought offer an important understanding of the world but cannot account for "being" (the nonmaterial constituting of self) in the world.
Within the context of the American Empire—now and then—the material conditions are so devastating, draconian, and disinheriting that one has no option but to kill oneself. Materially there is no way out of the hell that black bodies are subjugated to. Albert Camus’s meditation on suicide reveals this. I understand how Camus arrives at his conclusion, I just do not share it.
Part of black religious tradition is to look squarely at suicidal material conditions and say: “No!” Accordingly, Camus notes that when the Rebel says no they are saying yes. In response, black folks have called upon nonmaterial forces that sustain them in the face of hellish materiality. Their sense of joy and pleasure was not dictated by the happenings of hegemony but their hope in heaven. My grandmother used to sing a song: “This joy that I have the world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.” The world—the materiality that seeks to discipline and punish black existence—offers that which can be taken away. Black religion posits an alternative source of joy—a holy other, God—the most moved mover.
God is the secondary element in discursive joy. A god working and toiling in history, [who] intervenes in time and space in order to hold at bay suicidal conditions. It is in the gathering of the believers, struggling to make some collective sense of such bleak materiality, that is the primary source of joy. Calling upon the nonmaterial—joy, love, pleasure, and Eros— in religious ecstasy, communal gathering, musical, cultural, and the homiletic tradition, black religion [can] offer a counter-narrative to a death-dealing hegemony. To sing and dance one’s way out of the pit of the American Empire is constitutive of black religion. The zeitgeist of resistance that permeates our music, dance, poetry, style and movement through time and space is a nonmaterial response to material conditions. Politics and socialism cannot accommodate these needs, but they can in part explain the situated-ness that necessitates alternative narratives and complex modes of being.
W: How does--or might--the tradition of religious socialism overlap with movement work among Ferguson activists?
S: If the saints and Slavoj Zizek are correct, and we are truly Living in the End Times, the end of the American Empire is at hand. The global collapse of the economy and attendant global resistance characterized by the occupation of public space and rejection of traditional leadership has produced a new model of leadership—queer, black, poor, largely female. The new leadership appears on the social and political landscape to affirm their humanity under inhuman situated-ness. It is in this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged; a hash tag and organizing principle crafted in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s extrajudicial killing—a phenomenon that happens every other day in America. Black Lives Matter was co-created by two queer black women, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, and their sister-comrade, Opal Tometi. All three women lead radical edge organizations that focus on organizing “the least of these” (domestic workers, black Diaspora immigrants, and victims of police brutality - particularly trans folks of color). Thus a black, queer, poor transnational feminism with a stinging critique of capitalism sits at the center of this new political moment. Moreover, if Black Lives Matter is the Word, Ferguson is the Word made flesh. It is a queer word with a black soul.
[Honestly,] I am less interested in the ways in which religious socialism overlaps with Ferguson activists and instead believe the question[s] before the religious Left [are]: "Can we see the religious sensibilities at work in the life of these movements? What are the ways in which this moment embodies the best of the prophetic Left while extending the tradition to a new generation on its own terms?"
Ferguson—America’s Nazareth—is populated with urban Protestants. The lynching-like display of Michael Brown’s body prompted a level of resistance that has not been seen in half-a-century. In terms of duration and impact, Ferguson is second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The way in which religious practices and faith claims are at work in the streets of Ferguson is fascinating and telling. The politics of respectability blind many religious folks, preventing them from seeing the holy work on the ground in Ferguson.
Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence offers a way to read the protest as a religious gathering that makes faith claims. Something happens in the street when folks gather in community to protest state violence against the most vulnerable. This spirit of joyful yet mournful resistance saturates the night air. In the midst of the crowd, [the] protest leader, often a young, queer, black woman, calls on the gathered to repeat our movement's faith claim: “I believe we will win.” May it be so.