Black Protest Writing, From W.E.B. DuBois to Kendrick Lamar
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad on a Rich Tradition of Literary Resistance
This past Black History Month, watching the 2016 Grammy Awards provided me with a profound example of just how rich the tradition is of subtext in black protest literature. I sat there awed by the way the rhythmic American poetry artist Kendrick Lamar limped forward on the nearly pitch black stage, but for a commanding spray of light illuminating him and the chain gang to which he was attached, shuffling in single file, acting out the drama of the rap, pointing to the deep meaning lying just under the text of Lamar’s written and spoken words.
Between the limping and the purple-black left eye that shone clear, even on his deep-dark chocolate skin, the message of brutality delivered its punch, Lamar’s words helping us understand it as a brutality reaching far beyond the physical. Lamar and the chain gang, wearing light blue prison uniforms labeled with inmate numbers, marched on past similarly adorned black men in cages, their cells numbered too. Lamar kept going, to the center of the stage, the line of chained men behind him, the cell-bound men to his left and his right, his dreadlocks braided back into several tight corn rows, sweat beading across his forehead, his manacled hands finally, awkwardly cradling the mic, glistening and glinting steel around his wrists dropping in connected links down to the floor where the chains also locked his feet.
“Lock our bodies but can’t trap our minds!” he would shout later, jumping freely around the stage. “Trap our bodies but can’t lock our minds!”
But for now, Lamar launched into a searing attack, rapping the entire first verse of his song “The Blacker the Berry,” the subtext of each shared lyric making clear the otherwise unnamed object of his rage: white supremacy. And in those moments, when Lamar first spoke, between the force of the words and the force of the beat, his entire body jolted as if struck by lightning, as if lit up with a police Taser, as if volts of force rushed through him, froze him in place, then rushed through him again. This, too, orchestrated to reveal the deeper meaning of his lyrics to come: that the secondary status of black bodies is comprehensive, exhaustive, systematic, shocking one’s entire system, jolting, seizing.
The deeper meaning of the lyrics to come—their subtext played out by the drama on the stage—is part of a rich tradition, the continuance of a conversation with some of the earliest black protest writers.
Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion
I’m guardin’ my feelings, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga 
That’s a lot to unpack: disillusionment and resolve; countering negative messaging about black bodies and heritage; acute awareness of racial hatred against black life and culture; threats of vengeful action arising from the pressures of racial prejudice; recognizing the calculated hand of systematic racism in the destruction of black communities… A lot under that hood for sure.
But this was the kind of unpacking I’d been doing for the several months prior to Lamar’s performance, which reached a new level of intensity at the graduate residency that would lead to this essay (originally a lecture). I’d spent many nights in my room poring over classic texts of black protest writing, from W.E.B. Du Bois to James Baldwin to more contemporary writers like Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, investigating their potency, how it worked, and how it still works. But watching Lamar’s Grammy performance I was struck by how clearly his art grows out of that same cultural aesthetic heritage, how he is one of our best current exemplars of black protest writing. I realized that I could take any part of that first verse of “The Blacker the Berry” and connect it to almost any other black protest writer, showing how strong the through-lines are in this lineage—a lineage that continues because the struggle continues.
This lineage predates black protest writer W.E.B. Du Bois’s loosely linked essays in The Souls of Black Folk, but that is where I first began digging all those months ago. Though subtext permeates Du Bois’s collection, it’s in the short story “Of the Coming of John”—the tale of two Johns, childhood friends from a rural Southern town, one white, one black—that the sub-textual tricks are especially powerful. Both characters are going to college, celebrated and encouraged by their families, but the whites of the town discourage the education of black John.
“It’ll spoil him, – ruin him,” they said. “And they talked as though they knew,” Du Bois, the narrator of this sole fictional piece in the book, tells us.
The blacks of the town are so excited that “full half the black folk followed [their black John] proudly to the station, and carried his queer little trunk and many bundles. And there they shook and shook hands, and the girls kissed him shyly and the boys clapped him on the back.”
But, as the whites of the town, proud of their white John and all his possibilities (perhaps he can return and become governor, or mayor, or something more), shake their heads at the foolishness of the black excitement about the black John, the blacks cannot contain their excitement about their John’s eventual return.
“When John comes,” the narrator tells us, “…what parties were to be, and what speakings in churches; what new furniture in the front room, – perhaps even a new front room; and then perhaps a big wedding; all this and more – when John comes. But the white people shook their heads.”
The twists and turns “Of the Coming of John” takes from here are gut wrenching, but just from the opening, very intricate detail, some of the subtext is already horridly clear: black John carries the weight of all of his people, he is the hope and the dream, he cannot fail, and if this suffocating baggage does not, alone, ruin him, most certainly the white blocks stacked against him will. Worse, the blacks are trying to play by the rules, to get ahead, to carry a whole people forward, but the whites, the rule makers, know this education game is not set up for a winning outcome for the blacks, or the “heavily handicapped sons of the freedmen,” as Du Bois refers to them in the book’s essay titled “Of the Training of Black Men.” The whites are sure blacks reaching too high will only lead to a bitter end. This is made overtly clear later, when the father of white John, a judge in control of whether or not black John can start a school for the black children in the town, reminds black John of his station in life.
Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were, – I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well – well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?
There are additional layers of subtext here, including a central point of this protest piece: Du Bois is in communication with naysayers, beyond the book, on the possibilities for black intellect; he’s saying that part of the blacks’ handicap is the calculated, systematic and perpetuated suppression of black intellect across generations.
Calculated, systematic and perpetuated suppression of black life is what Nigerian-born black protest writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie protests, over one hundred years later, in a 2014 interview in which she describes a “self-styled reading journey,” of both “American and African-American history books,” to better understand the white supremacist narratives she’d been feeling complicit in by not understanding.
When you’re an immigrant … it’s very easy to internalize the mainstream ideas. It’s easy… to think, “Oh, the ghettos are full of black people because they’re just lazy and they like to live in the ghettos,” because that’s sort of what mainstream thinking is. And then when you read about the American housing policies for the past 100 years it starts to make sense. And then it forces you to let go of these simple stereotypes.
This journey led to Adichie’s novel Americanah becoming a work of black protest literature, filled with subtext that chips away and reveals the sabotage of generations of black lives. Surely, she studied a little Du Bois.
I realized something, finishing up Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John,” written over a hundred years ago: not only was the whole thing subtext, but protest, too. It was, after all, written in the time of Jim Crow, when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized openly, and when the lynching of black bodies still happened in full celebratory gaze of white men, women and children.
“I could see my dead body lying in some place where they let white kids out of Sunday School to come and look at me, and rejoice,” Thurgood Marshall, born in 1908, once wrote, of his recurring fear that he’d be lynched.
There’s a key point here: That is, you cannot fully grasp the layers of meaning in black protest literature unless you have some understanding of black history in this country and the ongoing injustices faced by black people. Now, sometimes black protest writers include some of that history in the text, but others get right to the messages, expecting readers to have arrived at the text already educated on the background.
The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, and between 1882 and 1968, a year after Marshall became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, at least 4,742 people, predominantly black Americans, were lynched in the United States. In fact, the subtext of the last lines in “Of the Coming of John” leaves us, as the scene builds upon internal thoughts, with a foreboding that the lynching of black John by the white John’s father is all but imminent.
Amid the trees in the dim morning twilight he watched their shadows dancing and heard their horses thundering toward him, until at last they came sweeping like a storm, and he saw in front that haggard white-haired man, whose eyes flashed red with fury. Oh, how he pitied him, – pitied him, – and wondered if he had the coiling twisted rope. Then, as the storm burst round him, he rose slowly to his feet and turned his closed eyes toward the Sea. And the world whistled in his ears.
Along with Du Bois, I had been also reading black protest writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. From the very opening of his book, I could see the through-lines that connected Coates to other black protest writers, particularly his condemnation of racially motivated violence against black bodies, and his desire to probe the sociology behind it.
With the choice of title alone, Coates is in conversation with black protest writers Du Bois and Richard Wright. In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the opening essay of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.” The question Du Bois speaks of and proceeds to elaborate on is, “How does it feel to be a problem?”—a question that resonates throughout Coates’s book. Thirty-two years later, after Du Bois’s 1903 work, the Partisan Review published a poem by Wright about a black man stumbling upon the scene after a lynching. Titled Between the World and Me, it begins:
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
Though he never uses the word lynching, we know from everything he describes, as the poem continues—torn tree limbs, a pair of trousers stiff with black blood, trampled grass, butt-ends of cigars, peanut shells, drained gin-flask, a whore’s lipstick—this isn’t just a lynching, it was a celebrated death show, attended by crowds of men and women: the very kind Thurgood Marshall feared. Eighty years later, Coates opens his book with the poem’s first stanza. Coates’s Between the World and Me and black protest writer James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time also share a framework, as epistolary guides to young black men. Coates’s is a letter to his son, and Baldwin’s to his nephew, how-to’s for surviving mentally, physically and spiritually as they make the transition from black boys to black men in race-obsessed America. A through-line stretching across a half-century.
So when Compton-born Lamar accuses white supremacists of tampering with his people, getting rich off them, making “a killin,’” and in the process devastating the community and leaving behind a people with a damaged emancipation, of course we can hear an echo of Coates’s explanation to his son about what it meant “to be black in the Baltimore of my youth.” It was, he said, “to be naked before the elements of the world, before all of the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Coates, like Lamar, sees this as the result of an act of plunder, of both material and spiritual riches, that has left behind a damaged people, locked in an earthly hell, where destroy wins out over build. Coates tells his son of this plunder, this sabotage, “[A] society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” That something darker is what Adichie took it upon herself to study… and as I grasped these through-lines, I finally fully understood why Lamar is increasingly taught in high school and college.
I began to think very intently about a number of questions: What is black protest writing, really? What connects black protest writers and what makes them part of the lineage? Why does subtext in black protest writing abound? What types of messages are being sent and who are they for? And what background is necessary to fully understand this kind of protest literature? We’ve answered some of this, but let’s continue looking deeper under the hood.
When black authors use their writing to challenge injustices, inequalities, and the secondary status faced by black people in America, in order to provoke change—from the earliest literary efforts to present day, that is black protest writing.
From there the through-lines become clear, whether it’s challenging inequality of education, disenfranchisement, state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, discrimination, prejudice, cultural appropriation, claims of black inferiority, or addressing centuries of theft of labor, freedom and self determination, the overarching connection is the protest of wrongs committed upon a people, and the call to rectify those injustices.
Once these through-lines become clear, it becomes easy to see how black protest writer Kendrick Lamar, for example, pulls from the same cultural aesthetic heritage as black protest writer George Moses Horton, enslaved on a tobacco plantation in early 19th-century North Carolina. Horton’s protest poetry first entered the American literary scene as performance, as he had not yet learned how to write. A professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill transcribed Horton’s performed verses, resulting in the 1829 publication of Horton’s first book, The Hope of Liberty. Thus goes an excerpt from “The Slave’s Complaint,” a protest poem from the collection:
Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune’s rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride
Must I dwell in Slavery’s night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,
Horton’s entire piece is a carefully constructed repudiation of the institution that cast aside his humanity, stole his labor, time and freedom, minimalized and ridiculed his suffering.
Horton had tried tirelessly to buy his freedom, renting himself out beyond his regular duties. His immediate audience an educated white one in the Deep South, Horton’s protest writings were ostensibly a means to provoke in their humanity a desire to end this institution that left enslaved people with the only expectation of freedom coming through death and an assumed ascendancy to heaven. “The Slave’s Complaint” isn’t just a complaint—in the beseeching of God for His intervention, it’s also a shaming of man for his injustices committed on earth. Horton hadn’t been dead more than 20 years before a white critic, appreciative of his poetry but not his politics, wrote, dismissively, “George never really cared for more liberty than he had, but was fond of playing to the grandstand.” Exactly Horton’s point: “Will the world my pains deride forever?”
Though not the earliest black protest writer, Horton was one of the first to protest slavery in poetic form. He remained enslaved for 60-plus years, even as his poetry moved freely about society, making him the only enslaved person in America to publish a book while in bondage, and especially important to the lineage of black protest writers, who all find a genesis in the devastating legacy of slavery on the black community and America as a whole. This may be the biggest through-line of all, connecting every black protest writer mentioned in this essay, across three centuries.
But what’s with all the subtext? Why does it abound in black protest literature? Why don’t Lamar and Horton come right out and call their oppressors by name? Why does Du Bois fictionalize one of his most damning indictments of white supremacy? The answer is not complicated: the artful cloaking of messages is often the only way for the oppressed to speak their fullest truth. Or, as Coates recently put it, “[Y]ou can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history.”
Think of the scene in Beyoncé’s recent “Formation” video, of a little boy dancing alone in front a line of police officers in riot gear, then throwing his hands up in the end—clearly intended as an indictment of police brutality against unarmed black people, it is, nevertheless, a scene in a music video. But it had police officers across the country pledging to boycott security at Beyonce’s events, especially after her Superbowl halftime performance of the song, the not-so-subtle message from those police officers being we’ll leave you in harm’s way if you don’t stop. Imagine the further rage if she had actually spoken in plain language?
We see this artful cloaking of livid discontent, and a parallel demand for justice, again and again in black protest literature. In the 1912 novel the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, black protest writer James Weldon Johnson uses the cloak of fiction to protest the destructive pressures on the psyche brought on by racial prejudice. The pressure is so bad, the fictional ex-colored man tells us, that “fair-complexioned colored people” are “actually and continually” being “forced over into the white race,” forever leaving behind communities and families to pass as something that will release them from their secondary status.
We see artful cloaking with black protest writer Toni Morrison’s rejection of white superiority-induced black inferiority. “I have never seen Black people so preoccupied with the man as I do now. It’s as if all those Black children had their brains shot out just so we could wear a kente cloth bikini in “our own” magazine (that looks just like “his” magazine),” she declared in “Behind the Making of The Black Book,” published in “Black World,” in 1974. One of America’s most venerated writers, who’d one day have a Nobel, a Pulitzer, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, had been writing about violence against black bodies long before Lamar and Coates were even born. We did not suffer this much, she’s saying, lose this much just so we could be imitations of the oppressor, dressed up in black culture to pass it off.
We see artful cloaking when black protest writer James Baldwin laments, in “Down at the Cross: A Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published in the 1963 book The Fire Next Time, how he came to understand there’s no innocence to be had for young black children.
I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
The deeper message here? That he isn’t saying outright? That echoes gravely when Lamar rapped, “you never liked us anyway”? It’s the understanding that black girls and black boys don’t get to experience the innocence of childhood in the face of abuses of the law. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Tamir Rice were all portrayed by their killers as looking older than they were (one of the words to describe the look of Mike Brown: “demon”). But here, Baldwin, aware of that trick, makes sure you know he knows: “When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older.” Probing Lamar’s lyrics through that lens, the “never” hits in the gut harder: you never liked us anyway, not even when we were in our most innocent state, not even when we were children.
The tragedy of this idea runs through Du Bois’s “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” published in The Souls of Black Folk. Therein an anguished Du Bois tries to find some consolation in the death of his beautiful toddler son, his first born, who will be spared “the studied humiliations of fifty million fellows.” “Well sped, my boy,” Du Bois says to his dead son, “before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow.” Better his son die than have his innocence vandalized, as happened to Lamar and Baldwin at early ages.
Black protest writers are in a constant conversation with each other across decades and centuries. The pressure, the struggle, permeates the culture. But so too does the effort to build confidence around black beauty, ancestry, culture and worth, to counter the white supremacist narrative of black inferiority. Lamar, for example, talks with pride about coming from the bottom of mankind, for him the foundation, not the floor. He embraces his nappy hair, the structure of his nose, and assumptions about his genitals. He calls himself a proud monkey, flipping the negative to a self-determined and self-defined positive: nigger to nigga. He talks about his beautiful culture under threat, being raided for its riches. He talks about being black as the moon, his rich heritage—though fully functioning and present—obscured by oppressive forces that only give prominent visibility to that which fits into their narrative of white superiority. Lamar is black as the (part of the) moon that is forever faced away from our view, as white supremacy keeps a “tidal lock” on what we get to see and what we don’t. If we listen closely to Lamar, we can hear the cultural aesthetic progression. We can hear the voices of both his contemporaries and his forbearers.
We hear black protest writer Malcom X’s rejection of black inferiority, in a 1962 speech, ever the master of cleverly rendered subtext. “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” he demands.
We hear black protest writer Claudia Rankine’s righteous anger in her 2014 poetry/essay book, Citizen: An American Lyric, as she recounts a degrading encounter. “You are late, you nappy-headed ho,” says a white friend. “You don’t know what she means,” writes Rankine. “You don’t know what response she expects from you nor do you care. For all your previous under-standings, suddenly incoherence feels violent.”
We hear black protest writer James Baldwin aiming to awaken his nephew to the beauty of his obscured heritage in his 1963 essay “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
We hear black protest writer Toni Morrison doing the same for black women in “A Knowing So Deep,” published in Essence magazine in 1985. “Dear Us: You were the rim of the world—it’s beginning. Primary. In the first shadow the new sun threw, you carried inside you all there was of startled and startling life.”
We hear black protest writer Edward P. Jones, in his 2003 novel The Known World, pushing back on the false notion that blacks are from the bottom of mankind. Just thirteen pages in, white slave patrollers criticize a black slave owner’s business acumen. “This is what happens when you give niggers the same rights as the white man,” we are made to hear the patrollers say. Suddenly you realize this is not the book you thought it was: it’s not primarily about black slaveholders. Jones is just using that as a cloak to come down hard on black inferiority messaging. And till the very last page, he doesn’t let up.
In Rediscovering Black History, published in 1974, in the New York Times Magazine, Morrison gets at the painful core of countering negative messaging:
They were beautiful names—the kind you could whisper to a leaf or shout in the cellar and feel as though you had let something important fly from your mouth. But in the mouths of white people, the names meant something cruel. So Sambo was slaughtered, just as Amos and Andy were annihilated, just as the black jockeys were draped. All because of what they thought rather than what we knew.
All of these writers are part of a historic intellectual progression that keeps having to repeat itself: you are not less than, you are just as good or greater than. This repetition, across centuries and decades, reveals a struggle that hasn’t lessened—it just shape-shifts to the times.
Back to Grammy night, as Lamar continued to shock and awe with two more songs, on two other awe-inspiring stage set ups, including a soaring bonfire, African dance, and a finale featuring a seemingly stage-to-ceiling white silhouette of Africa, the word “Compton” superimposed on it in pitch black letters. It’s hard to really capture it all, what went down. A New York Times music critic described it as “a vehement, multilevel blast against “modern day slavery.’” With his performance, and its collage of carefully curated meaning, Lamar revealed the depth of history he pulls from in his writings, in the same way Baldwin and black protest writer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, made clear their awareness of those who’d gone before them. Both King and Baldwin pay homage to their forbearers when they draw from the same old Negro spiritual, Baldwin in his “My Dungeon Shook” letter to his nephew, and King with the “Free at last, Free at last …” call out in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The original spiritual origin, in part? The connection is clear: “The very time I thought I was lost, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last; My dungeon shook and my chains fell off, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
If past is at all prologue, it’s pretty clear that shining bright lights on inequalities and promoting transformation of those societal ills can be very dangerous for historically oppressed people in the United States. Beyoncé’s increasing use of black pride subtext (“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”) contains an underlying message of bold confidence in the magnificence of oft-disparaged black physical features, a confidence that has been ominously unsettling to some… Whined one journalist: “The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second… I preferred the old Beyoncé.”
What was it Morrison wrote in “A Knowing So Deep” in 1985? Beyoncé was just a toddler then: “In your silence enforced or chosen, lay not only eloquence but discourse so devastating that “civilization” could not risk engaging in it lest it lose the ground it stomped. All claims to prescience disintegrate when and where that discourse takes place. When you say “No” or “Yes” or “This and not that,” change itself changes.” Speaking your truth, Morrison is saying, will be seen as a threat to the dominant message of white superiority, because what your black woman voice has to give could change everything about how we perceive the known world.
Black protest literature contains messages within messages, freedom calls and directions to the oppressed, wake up calls and warnings to the oppressors: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” With this, Baldwin chose to open The Fire Next Time, lyrics from the pre-Civil War Negro spiritual “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn.” The subtext of this epigraph is all you need to know about the protest direction of the book, and perhaps about the power of black protest writing in general: it’s a freedom call, a directive for resistance, and a warning. And 50 years later, when Lamar says “I mean I might press the button,” the tradition continues.
 Original lyrics shown here. Lamar performed a clean version at the 2016 Grammy Awards.
Listen: Claudia Rankine talks to Paul Holdengräber about objectifying the moment, investigating a subject, and accidental stalking.