Zen and the Anarchism of Blackness

An Interview with Author & Activist William C. Anderson

I recently picked up a copy of William C. Anderson’s new book, The Nation on No Map, an excellent and timely discussion on the history, theory, and practice of Black anarchism. I was a fan of his prior work with Zoe Samudzi in the essay The Anarchism of Blackness and their book As Black as Resistance. Throughout all of these works Anderson and his co-authors have been developing a vision of Black anarchism which responds to the changing terrain of contemporary Black liberation struggle by presenting a radical and deep-rooted tradition of egalitarian resistance to white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, citizenship and the State, and an incisive critique of persistent hierarchies within the movement for Black liberation which have limited its effectiveness, particularly patriarchy, nationalism, assimilationism, ideological dogmatism, and cults of personality built around charismatic leaders. In Nation Anderson celebrates the victories of the Black radical tradition and through critique helps to open up new avenues of thought by asking hard hitting questions about what we must learn — and what we must forget — to finally wake up from this nightmare called the United States of America and the world domination of states and governmentality.

While reading Nation I was pleasantly surprised to come across a few paragraphs which mention Zen, particularly the iconoclastic thought of Lin-Chi (Rinzai), and the Zen discursive practice of koan study, as an influence on Anderson’s process of radical deconstruction of political orthodoxy and dogma. I was intrigued by these references and did a little digging. In an interview with the Black Agenda Report he listed among his inspirations, alongside revolutionaries and personal mentors like Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin (author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution), “the iconoclasm of Zen and its foundations with teachers like Bodhidharma and Lin-chi among other foundational monks.” Wanting to know more about his relationship to Zen and his thoughts on its relevance to radical politics, I connected with Anderson on Twitter and asked if he would be willing to do a short interview on the subject. He agreed, and we exchanged questions and answers over email. I’m very excited to share his insightful responses on this blog.

R: How did you become interested in Zen, and how does it inform your revolutionary praxis and/or day-to-day life? What role has Zen’s iconoclasm played in your intellectual and spiritual growth?

WCA: There was a time when I was looking at new spiritual practices and faiths in my life. It actually mirrored a period when I was also pretty frustrated with a lot of the problems I had run into in conventional leftist spaces. I began to ask a lot of questions and I didn’t have the language then to describe what I was trying to get away from like I do now. Ultimately, I came to realize it was dogma and rigid orthodoxies. Of course, this happens across faiths and spiritual traditions. So, initially I was very interested in a relationship with Tibetan Buddhism that felt directive and instructional like what I was used to growing up in the church. Of course, that didn’t make sense because that was what I was questioning so I came to Zen and found it fascinating the more I began to understand it over time. The way it paralleled the development of my relationship with anarchism has a lot to do with an appreciation of radical Black autonomy, self-organization, and spontaneity. All of these things are informed by Zen and vice versa in my life. 

R: Do you see any clear affinities between Zen, the broader Buddhist tradition, anarchism, and the struggle for Black liberation? What about conflicts and contradictions?

WCA: Zen has an established history reaching back thousands of years of confronting doctrine and dogma in very important ways that has influenced my thinking. Black anarchism does this across a wide spectrum of various types of Black radicalism with calcified forms and outdated politics where they manifest as orthodox Marxisms, classical anarchisms, Black nationalisms, and liberal reformist efforts. We have to be willing to take our truths further and confront things and destroy problems within ourselves. That’s the whole point. You see how far something can take us and then you change and adapt and grow to go even further.

R: What does “liberation” mean to you? What are you personally organizing, learning, meditating, and writing for?

WCA: I find Zen teachings helpful to answering a question like this because how can we name the unnameable? Think about the way revolutionary theorists have long tried to prognosticate all the inner workings of revolution and transformation. Lin-chi’s teachings about the mind not differentiating come to me here. He talks about the emptiness of names and words used to describe phenomena. He said “Even if something did exist, it would in all cases be no more than an environment that changes with what it depends on.” So, for me, liberation is a constantly changing thing. Its form and its nature are impermanent. It’s like the Zen conception of emptiness as truth without characteristics. Naming gives birth to descriptions that can create unnecessary dualisms that limit more than liberate. So, liberation is not a static condition or a happy ending to a movie. It’s not one thing. It’s a collage of many pieces that when combined creates a nameless composition. Since people’s needs are always changing, the answers to questions that meet those needs are always changing too. As Cedric Robinson says, “There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world.”

R: In your books As Black as Resistance and The Nation on No Map you have been developing a theory of Black anarchism that draws on the anarchist traditions of Europe for inspiration, but by no means limits itself to them. Instead, Black anarchism grounds itself in the actual experience of Blackness in America as inherently anarchic. What does this way of theorizing anarchism have to tell us about studying the anarchic features of other liberation struggles and philosophies? Does it have something to teach us about resisting their capture by the hegemony of whiteness?

WCA: I want to make sure that people understand I’m not doing this work to rescue classical anarchism from its whiteness. As I’ve said before, the existence of Black anarchism represents a failure of European anarchist movements because they couldn’t overcome their own lack of appeal to Black communities. To this day, classical anarchists have a race and racism problem they struggle with like any other faction of the white left. The anarchism of Blackness is about pointing out the historical struggles of Black people that were anarchic without simply plastering anarchism onto them. Instead we can draw parallels and as Russelll Maroon Shoatz said when describing something similar, “the affinity between anarchism and the following is not rejected; on the contrary, it’s welcomed as a sister set of ideas, beliefs and concepts.” That’s all that’s happening here. It’s a continuation of work that’s already been going on and an extension of thinking that goes back many decades. 

R: What do you say to critics of this broader conception of anarchism who argue that applying the label anarchist to historical and contemporary movements which have not claimed it is colonial or anachronistic?

WCA: I’d refer back to Shoatz here. I agree with what he said. The full quote reads: 

“First off, let me state that I’m not an anarchist. Yet, a lot of what you’ll read here is gonna look a whole lot like anarchism! To that I will only quote an unknown ancient, who after racking his brain to formulate answers to vexing problems, only later to discover that those who had come along before him had already expounded on what he thought were his intellectual inventions, is supposed to have blurted, ‘confound those ancients, they’ve stolen all of our best ideas.’

Therefore, to the anarchist reader, what follows cannot properly be termed anarchism, simply because the practitioners themselves never knew that word, nor were they in contact with people of that view, as anarchism is a European ideology and these parties – for the most part – were Africans and Amerindians with very limited input by a small number of outcast Europeans. Further, all of the struggles here written about had pretty much taken off and gained success prior to that concept’s spread – under its classical anarchist thinkers and practitioners. 

Still, the affinity between anarchism and the following is not rejected; on the contrary, it’s welcomed as a sister set of ideas, beliefs and concepts – as long as the anarchists understand that they stand on equal footing, in a spirit of inter-communal self determination.”

R: What kind of political and theoretical developments would you like to see from people who identify with Buddhism and anarchism?

WCA: I want to see them destroy doctrine and come up with new ideas. I want to see more self-immolating texts. I want to see them go against their own comforts and see the death of what once taught us as a continuation towards a greater horizon, not a bitter end. Let’s question our attachments and see what new things we can bring forth. Rest in peace to Thich Nhat Hanh. As he wrote: “Dualistic notions, such as birth and death, being and nonbeing, sameness and otherness, coming and going, are the foundation of all afflictions.” This applies to much more than our physical bodies. It helps us think through the binaries we get trapped by and I’d love for a lot of these teachings to help us break free of it all and transcend and transform for the sake of much better things.

Many thanks again to William. You can purchase The Nation on No Map and his previous book As Black as Resistance from AK Press (or do as I did, and request a copy at your local public library). William often writes for ROAR magazine, offshoot journal, and the Sostre Institute. You can also follow William on Twitter @williamcson

©William C Anderson 2021

One thought on “Zen and the Anarchism of Blackness

  1. Reblogged this on Speculative Non-Buddhism and commented:
    Another necessary post from Reed Ingalls at No Self, No Masters: an interview with author of The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition and activist William C. Anderson. Along these general lines, I also recommend Marquis Bey’s Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism.

    Liked by 1 person

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