Black Revolutionary v. Black Radical

What’s the difference (if any) between being “a radical thinker/actor” and being “a revolutionary thinker/actor”?

This question, among others, was poised to me in an email by a sister/colleague of mine from my days at the University of Michigan. The fact that this question was sent over email is further evidence of why spaces like the Superspade are so vital, so we have active and lively discussions pertaining to Black Thought. Primarily because for those of us who were active in college but are now spread across the country, it is difficult to have conversations like this. Thank you Tiffany,

I remember having a conversation with my nephew where he used some slang term I can’t remember right now, but I asked him what the word meant. He tried to define it as best he could but to no avail. The lesson learned was that we should all be careful to use words that we know what they mean. This same principle applies to the question posed from the outset.

What’s the difference (if any) between being “a radical thinker/actor” and being “a revolutionary thinker/actor”?

The operative words here are obviously radical and revolutionary. A dictionary search of these terms I think provides a good foundation for our discussion.

For our purposes the best definition we have for radical is favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms.

As for revolutionary, two definitions actually suit our purposes;

1. of, pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of a revolution, or a sudden, complete, or marked change: a revolutionary junta.

2. radically new or innovative; outside or beyond established procedure, principles, etc.: a revolutionary discovery.

With these definitions in tow, I think it is safe to say that a radical is someone who believes things should be profoundly different while a revolutionary is someone who takes action to realize the manifestation of radically held beliefs.

Are these terms commonly used interchangeably — if so what are the implications in doing so? Do we use the terms “revolution” and “radical” in superficial manners?

Unfortunately these terms are thrown around like dirty socks. People should understand that real revolutionaries died and risked the safety of their families just so we could go to college, vote, use public accommodations, and give us the peace of mind to be anything we wanted to be. We are the living dreams of those who sacrificed and imagined what a better America would look like.

I think it is safe to say that the term radical is not widely used as revolutionary. Having said that, the term revolutionary has become so superficial that people think they are a revolutionary if and when they put their fist in the air. If we took time to appreciate the sacrifices of those who actually started to raise their fists, I don’t think many people would feel worthy to do so.

What does this mean for the black community? (i.e. does it change how you think about our history? how would collective definitions of “revolution” and “radical” impact our future?)

What all this means for the Black Community is that we need to have real discussions about first what radical means. For example, is it too radical to think that the federal government should apologize for slavery? Moreover, is it radical to think that we should completely change the way we fund K-12 public education that leaves inner-city schools with the least resources and the most problems? Is it radical to think that mentorship in the Black community should be a way of life and not something you do to spruce up your resume’? I could go on and on but I think on a fundamental level, we have convinced ourselves that all of the big battles have already been fought and won.

What’s more, what we think of as radical seems to be constantly minimized. Just about every time I was at a town hall meeting for the Black community, someone would always say that in order to build our community, we should make a point to speak to every Black person we see on campus. For some people this was a radical idea believe it or not. So what would help our efforts is to really dig when people claim to have radical ideas and use our rich history to test how radical this idea really is. Because I am sorry, but speaking to each other is not radical, that is required. But we do disservice to those who came before us when we either start with a defeatist attitude or we let our fear diminish the size and scope of our dreams.

How do these definitions apply to you and your profession and/or your contributions to the black community and society as a whole?

I’ll start with what I do. I work as the Michigan Field Organizer for the United States Student Association, the nation’s oldest and largest student association where our motto is, “Education is a right, not a privilege”. Right now I am doing voter registration/get out the vote work across various campuses and after the election I will be coordinating campaigns focused on increasing access to higher education. So for me, the work I do is directly tied to radical ideals and I have the opportunity to work on two issues where revolutionary action is needed; political and educational access.

However, the fatal flaw far too many of us make the assumption that our revolutionary work (if we do work at all) is confined to our college days and once we graduate, we put those things behind us. Working a corporate job does not give you a community service pass, nor does working a community service job give you the moral high ground. A word on folks holding down the corporate job; stop saying you are too busy. In college you held down two jobs, 16 credits, and managed to hold down 4 organizations. So just know that you make time for what is important. And if it is the case you literally have no time for anything other than your job, I would ask you two things. 1) Are you being efficient with your time? And 2) are you leading a life of significance or success?

Lastly, I would ask everyone to really ask themselves what it is they want to do that is revolutionary on a small scale and a large scale and draw up a backwards plan and see these goals through fruition. And the beautiful part is that you will need allies to help your goals. That is the true beauty of my people. For if anyone has ever been to a rally with a sizable amount of Black people intent on accomplishing one goal, you know exactly what I’m talking about. That is truly revolutionary.

Stay up fam,



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2 responses to “Black Revolutionary v. Black Radical”

  1. Billione says :

    Thank you for making the distinction between “radical” and “revolutionary.” There are those among us we believe that we fit somewhere between the two. It is only through our contributions to knowledge, and other social conventions that impact our communities, that we can truly identify the radials from revolutionaries.

    This piece makes an excellent point and offers an opportunity to asses what role we play in elevating the quality of live for Black people. We must always take inventory of ourselves and make sure we remain progressive and in tune to our communities.

    I wrote a piece after having a long discussion about the status of our people and the distinction between “radical” and revolutionary.” Just months later, the friend with whom I had the discussion was murdered and thrown into the Detroit River where his body was later found. He was a true revolutionary. I think this piece relates to the subject and offers an additional perspective.

    Angels With Dirty Faces: 4 Osakwe Jahi
    By Billione

    After the love affair that we once had
    From Afro picks through refer stashes
    I thought for sure that we would last
    Now I cry for you through prison glasses
    Our fight for freedom ain’t so clear
    When we all thought the end was near
    We offered relaxed tensions for corporate pensions
    Now true revolution is never mentioned

    I contemplate your true intensions
    You texturize your recessed kitchens
    It’s clear to me we were never friends
    Now my enemies come in Black and tan
    You got honey colored and cocoa skin
    With nappy roots and dreadlocked ends
    It’s a face like mine but a heart like Them
    That puts us back where we began

    You replicate my life advancements
    To justify your poor enhancements
    You always thought you had me fooled
    While I played the game you changed the rules
    No more tricking me with false alliances
    Cheating me through wry compliances
    I won’t offend this skin I’m in to
    Justify your malicious sins

    Now we all are angels with dirty faces
    And trying to find out where our place is
    Don’t talk to me about unity
    When you’re too ashamed to walk with me
    It’s hard to see that we gon’ make it
    Can’t let Them know that we gon’ take it
    Until we do, we all gon’ fake it
    We must protect what we created

  2. CrysMack says :

    yes, thank you for explaining the distinction. I think its safe to say that both terms are feared by “mainstream” society. Both are stigmatized (remember the New York times cover with the Michelle Obama in “revolutionary” garb).

    And Billione? I can dig it. I can dig it.

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