Re-learning the past to re-imagine the future
- January 25, 2022
Anarchism & Autonomy
In his new book, Modibo Kadalie examines the convergence of maroon and Indigenous cultures in the US and rediscovers a lost history of intimate direct democracy.
Dr. Modibo M. Kadalie is a social ecologist, activist, academic and lifelong radical organizer from Riceboro, Georgia. He was a participant in the civil rights, Black Power and pan-Africanist movements beginning with the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Atlanta. In the 1970s, he was a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the African Liberation Support Committee and a delegate to the Sixth Pan-African Congress. He has also been a draft dodger, brewery worker, cab driver and a professor of political science. He retired from Fayetteville State University in 2010 and founded the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology in 2017.
Modibo’s most recent book, Intimate Direct Democracy: Fort Mose, the Great Dismal Swamp, and the Human Quest for Freedom, is a critical reexamination of the history and historiography surrounding two sites of African maroonage in North America: the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina; and Fort Mose in Florida. In the book, he argues that maroon communities were actually ethnically diverse sites where freedom-seekers fleeing oppressive societies established socially intimate forms of democracy, echoing longstanding directly democratic traditions from both Africa and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
From the 16th to the 19th century, African people enslaved on the Atlantic coast of North America emancipated themselves and fled into natural areas like the Great Dismal Swamp, escaping the oppressive hierarchies of white settler-colonial society and the slavery system. In the swamps, they established hidden free communities and supported ongoing anti-colonial resistance efforts by Black and Indigenous peoples of the region.
Others fled south to Spanish-occupied Florida where they established similar communities, including the town of Fort Mose, just two miles north of St. Augustine. In 1738 Fort Mose became the first documented free African town in North America. Here, they maintained a fearsome fighting force with which they regularly attacked British slavery colonies while simultaneously navigating Spanish colonial politics and successfully petitioning for their own freedom. Both sites, Modibo argues, were convergences of preexisting directly democratic social movements emanating from West African and indigenous North American traditions.
While working on this latest book, Modibo Kadalie and I met over a video call to further reflect on the histories of the Great Dismal Swamp and Fort Mose as they relate to the development of an intimate and directly democratic revolutionary politics. A more complete version of this abridged interview is included in Modibo’s forthcoming book which can be ordered here.
— Andrew Zonneveld
Andrew Zonneveld: First, can you speak more about the concept of intimate direct democracy? How does social intimacy relate to direct democracy? How does the desire for an intimately democratic life animate the histories that you’ve discussed in this book?
Modibo Kadalie: Intimate direct democracy is what many Indigenous peoples in the Americas were already practicing at the time of European invasion. We need to learn from it. It’s the kind of life in which people can sit down, talk with one another and reach some kind of consensus about how they want to live, how they want to relate to their immediate environment and how they want to structure their institutions and carry on their history. The most fundamental basis of direct democracy is its intimacy. In order for direct democracy to exist there must be an intimate knowledge of the people involved, both individually and collectively.
This book offers two historical examples, which were not really similar to each other, and uses them to explore directly democratic traditions emanating from North America and Africa. Fort Mose was a settlement constructed by a group of self-emancipated African people who had migrated to Florida seeking freedom. The Great Dismal Swamp, on the other hand, was a lush natural place that had already existed — and had been populated — for thousands of years before it became a place of refuge for African maroons. Through these examples, we come to understand a radically different history of democracy than we have been taught.
What we find missing in the great propaganda efforts that masquerade as histories of the United States is the fact that the US has never created any form of democracy. We sometimes hear the US being referred to as a “great experiment in democracy,” but in this book I wanted to show that the US actually destroyed — exterminated — real democratic institutions at every turn. More than that, they also decimated the land itself. The founding of the United States was, in fact, a great ecological and social catastrophe from its very beginning. It was never a “great experiment in democracy.” It wasn’t in the beginning and it’s certainly not now.
Right. And in the midst of all of this violence and colonization of what became the emerging US empire, there were actual examples of direct democracy happening on the peripheries — at places like the Great Dismal Swamp and Fort Mose. The people in those places lived their lives in resistance to the slavery and colonialism that defined the European presence in North America.
You mention in the book that there existed many other such directly democratic communities of refuge and resistance, especially in Florida. One of the most remarkable of these sites existed near present-day Bradenton and is remembered by the name Angola, Florida. This site has only recently been the subject of serious archaeological study and there is very little written about it. Compared to Fort Mose, however, it was a very large community of about seven hundred people who lived spread out around the Manatee mineral spring.
Interestingly, the site was once home to mounds constructed by the Calusa people on the bank of the Manatee River. They predate the founding of the Angola community in 1812 and have since been destroyed, but they were intact when maroons lived in the area. Mound-building cultures feature prominently in your historical contextualization of Fort Mose. According to the archaeological record, these local mounds may not have been in use at the same time as the Angola community was established, but we know that the mounds were there, and that indigenous people were there, and the folks who lived at the Angola site had meaningful day-to-day relationships with Indigenous people.
Archaeological research at this site has largely been a community effort led by Black citizens of Bradenton. They have, of course, sought the involvement of some professional researchers, but the major impetus for the excavation of the Angola site was undertaken by ordinary Black citizens who were not necessarily affiliated with any university but whose ancestors had themselves once sought freedom and built their community in this place. It seems to me that new sites like these are constantly being uncovered nowadays. Can you comment on the future of such studies? I’m especially interested in your evaluation of the role of community science in these endeavors.
What is so interesting is that it’s really hard to tell who was native and who was African in a site like that one. Everyone lived together. They were all freedom-seeking people. There were probably some white people there too. I bet some of them even had blue eyes. [laughs]
Well, when the people from the universities start coming in there to study this shit, you gotta watch ‘em! Be careful with that. Keep an eye on these people and make sure they don’t misinterpret everything. I think that new technologies have allowed ordinary people to study these things on our own authority. And when we learn this history, we can see that it’s really our story. It is us.
In order to have a vision of the future the first thing we must do is ask ourselves: “Is this it? Is this how our story is going to go? Is this how the world is going to be, with nation-states, governments, and corporations centralizing all of the wealth and authority?” When we decide that we don’t want that to be the case, we have to reimagine the future. In order to do that well, we have to understand the past and our evolving role as living social creatures sharing this planet with the rest of the natural world.
So, the archaeological effort being made at the Angola site in Bradenton is not merely an academic exercise. It’s an example of humanity trying to understand where we came from and, in so doing, trying to understand how we want to live on this planet and share it with each other and with other living things.
I’m really impressed with younger people. They are more and more convinced that the nation-state is not offering them a future. Newer generations of researchers are now beginning to look for evidence of community and collectivity. In the past, people studying some archaeological site would be asking “Where did the privileged people live? Where did the priest live? If there’s a mound, I guess he must have lived at the top!” [laughs] But once these new technologies [like LIDAR and GIS mapping, among others] are taken up by ordinary people who are studying our real collective past and creating a new vision for the future, they’ll do a much better job than any professional academics ever have.
[Considering] the communications technologies of the internet and the use of lasers to map archaeological sites, I think a lot of new things are going to be uncovered that reframe how we understand the past. Here on the coast [of Georgia], there are people who use laser technology to study grave sites of enslaved people. They find grave sites everywhere, man. All of this new technology can be used to help gather the real history of this region. We are going to see a shift for sure. You and I are part of it, to tell you the truth. And I’m glad to be a part of it.
The story is clear to us now. Humans typically don’t want anything to do with hierarchical societies or the oppressive institutions that these societies create. Those structures and ideas are imposed upon us by a few people who want power, but we can always find ways to escape it. Meaningful human equality can never be granted to anyone by a government. That’s something all of us must assert for ourselves. And that’s what these community archaeological efforts are doing. They are asserting their community’s place in history and its contribution to the human tradition of intimate direct democracy. And that’s what our effort with this book has been, too.
Wow, yes. That was very well said. Let’s circle back later to this idea of critical historiography as political practice, but before we take that any further, I’m curious how you might relate the histories of the Great Dismal Swamp and Fort Mose to the histories of the Gullah-Geechee peoples of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. [The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of people who were enslaved on the region’s coastal rice plantations. Present-day Gullah-Geechee communities are distinguished by their own dialect and many other African cultural retentions.] Where do they enter the story that you’ve outlined in this book?
The Yamasee were a multi-ethnic group of mostly Indigenous people. When they lost the Yamasee War — which was essentially an effort by large numbers of Indigenous peoples and African maroons fighting to chase the English out of what is now South Carolina — alliances began to weaken, and many people fled south. There, they assimilated with local native peoples and a growing population of trafficked and enslaved African laborers. This creolized culture, made up of a central core of Africans recently imported from the upper Guinea rice coast, became what we know today as the Gullahs of the South Carolina coast and the Geechees of the Georgia coast.
Most of the people trafficked to this region came from Western Africa and held communal scientific and agricultural knowledge of rice cultivation. They had been enslaved by the British and trafficked in huge numbers to North America, where they were forced to do the same work that they had once done for the benefit of their own communities, only now they were doing it under threat of horrific violence for the profit of European colonizers.
Ecologically speaking, however, they were much more at home than the British. When you look at maps of South Carolina and the Guinea Coast, they are almost like mirror images. The rivers, tides, plant and animal life, are all very similar. So, Gullah-Geechee people brought their indigenous knowledge from Africa to the South Carolina (and eventually Georgia) coasts. They understood the ecosystems here. As maroons, they went deeper into the swamps and woods, where they maintained a certain amount of cultural homogeneity and continuity with Africa, which continued after the US Civil War into the present day.
Although the title of this book is “Intimate Direct Democracy,” it is not a how-to guide for creating radically democratic or egalitarian communities. Instead, it’s a historiographic exploration of how we can use direct democracy as a critical lens for better understanding history. Why do you take this approach, as opposed to more prescriptive approaches to writing about political theory?
Well, if we believe in direct democracy that means that we must believe that ordinary people can create institutions to liberate themselves and drive history forward. So, to get those ideas across, we can’t just start telling people what to do and how to do it. It doesn’t work that way. So, what I’m attempting to do with this book is to help people to look at our own history. Hopefully we will see that we have been lied to about our history and that could shift the way we understand the world and inform how we want to embrace and contribute to this rich historical legacy.
Critical historiography should allow us to see ourselves in our most democratic essence, through self-examination of our histories, so that we can self-manage our societies. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s very strongly opposed in a society that is so rigid, with such powerful instruments of propaganda. It’s hard to break through it, but we are breaking through. I can see it. I can see that people are beginning to grasp it. I think that’s because elitist politics have failed everyone so badly in the past. The prevailing top-down worldview of history and everything else has led to some catastrophic consequences and now people are seeking a way out of this — but that’s not to say that anyone will lead them! They will lead themselves.
We have talked a lot about historians’ relationships to freedom struggles, but what about activists’ and organizers’ relationship to history? How can we understand and articulate critical historiography itself as a political project, and why is it so important for people involved in freedom struggles today to become familiar with an anti-hierarchical view of history?
If we look at history closely, we will find that social movements really are social movements. Some are more hierarchical than others, but those that are in their most directly democratic form [from the self-emancipation of enslaved African people, all the way forward to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Black Power rebellions, or the George Floyd uprising] tend to be the most successful, especially when they erupt spontaneously. Then later, of course, the state creeps in and chops them up, channeling energies here and there, but when it first erupts it is a pure expression of social will by a collective of oppressed people.
Now, in order for us to best understand what we are doing while we are in social motion, we need to know what our predecessors have done in similar situations. We need history as a guide, but it can’t be a guide to hierarchical organization because our history and our experience has already shown that’s a dead end to more oppression. So, if history is going to be relevant to social movements, it must be understood as a guide to non-hierarchical, democratic organization. Luckily, if we look at the long arc of human social history, that’s exactly how our most fulfilling and liberating institutions have been organized.
The study of history has to be a politically conscious and very intentional project, and a social movement should have people willing to do research, to dig down deep into this stuff and provide the movement with examples of direct democracy in action. That’s how we crystalize a vision for the future: by establishing a continuity from the rich democratic past toward a more enriching and much broader directly democratic future.
There have been many recent contestations over public history, especially movements aimed at removing Confederate statues and other racist monuments in the United States. Often, the activists involved in these struggles are very young. Here in Decatur, Georgia, where I live, a group of high school students successfully campaigned to have a Confederate monument removed from the public square. You have also personally been involved in some public history projects, like the preservation of the Historic Baptismal Trail in Riceboro. Do you see involvement in public history projects as an aspect of activism?
Yeah, I do. We have to be careful with the younger activists, though. We have to challenge them to stand up for themselves without us throttling their efforts. They need to know that their demands are justified regardless of what any law says, because the laws were written by people who do not have our interests at heart. Slavery was the law of the land at one time, after all.
When young people start moving, it’s a beautiful thing. Our role is to stop the state from creeping in. When the state creepers come around that’s when the young folks need us the most. [laughs]
So, is that your advice to younger generations of activists: “watch out for politicians?”
Watch out for the politicians, for the state creep, and make sure you do your research and understand your research perspective clearly. In science, we use observation to substantiate our assertions. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re not. There are some people who can’t give up on their assertions. Oh my goodness. The world tells them one thing and they will deny their eyes and their ears refusing to believe it. That’s really a danger in society, when people deny what’s going on.
There is a propaganda machine out there with unbelievable power. Young people are subject to it. We’re all subject to it. It informs how we think about everything in the world, including our own history. We need to be aware of it and develop our ability to examine the world on our own authority.
Above all, critical historiography is the most important thing. We have to be able to look critically at our own perspectives on history, because they reflect how we understand the world around us. We must proceed from the point of view that hierarchy is dangerous and that, if continued, it will destroy us all. It will wipe away all life from this planet. So, we must stop it. The way we stop it is by dismantling the nation-state and dismantling these corporations through our own directly democratic efforts. To do that, we must acknowledge and affirm the social upheavals that create directly democratic social institutions and relations, support them, and build upon them the intimate, horizontal, and democratic communities that spring forth from the bottom of society.
Before we end our discussion, is there anything else you want to share about this project? Any final thoughts?
When I think back on my experiences in the Black Power struggle, it seems to me that part of the reason our movement was so susceptible to state creep is because it wasn’t rooted in an understanding of our own history. The fundamental flawed assumption of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement of the ’60s and ’70s was that the governments of various nation states could move history forward. It was commonly assumed that liberation could take place by reforming an existing government or by taking over and creating a new government. Our struggle was limited to and contained within the parameters of the nation state. The obvious reformers saw themselves as changing certain critical policies within the state. The “revolutionaries” wanted to seize state power. Various charismatic leaders were able to articulate variations of these basic themes. In this way they were attempting to take — and are still trying to take — the movement in all sorts of different directions, all leading us right back to the state in one form or another.
This is still the most dangerous limitation placed upon our social movements. These people are still being interviewed, by the way. Their books are in all the libraries. So, it’s hard to counter the narratives that they have established. There are people who are still saying that there is no tradition of direct democracy among Black people. Or that Black people are looking for a messiah. And, of course, when these charismatic and high-profile people get killed, that’s just another part of the state’s demoralization of our social movement. So, it’s better not to have the high-profile people in the first place. And our work here can help our movements to become better rooted in our own directly democratic past and to look beyond the narrow politics of charismatic individuals.
I think a strength of our recent work, especially in our public events together, has been our clarity on this idea. In every public talk you’ve had, there is someone who says, “I hear what you’re saying about this direct democracy stuff, but what do we do?” And in our responses, I think that you and I have been successful at dispelling the idea that intellectual work and activism are somehow separate. Part of “what we do,” is doing history: re-learning and re-explaining the struggles that have already happened so that the right ideas are in the right place at the right time when those situations emerge again. Critical research is a very important aspect of effective activism and organizing, but some people have a hard time wrapping their brains around that idea.
Most of the time when people ask, “What should I do?” they’re really asking “What organization should I join? What leader do I follow?” So, we must always try to debunk that. We should say that if you find yourself in a movement that has formed around an obviously dominant leader, you might as well go the hell home. That movement is a dead end. But if you have people who are organized around an issue or idea and they are able to sit down and listen to one another and develop a strategy, then you’re on the right track. I can’t find those people for you. You have to learn to look for them, because those are the people who are making history.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/modibo-kadalie-interview/