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Book Review: Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, by Randall Robinson

July 23, 2010


Defending the Spirit is an autobiography. Randall Robinson first lays out the history of himself and his nuclear family, and his upbringing in the south. His experience of racism and classism is immediately recognizable to any Black person in America – or anywhere else on the globe, for that matter – and is an experience he would later battle as he delved into higher education, job employment, simple everyday living, and most certainly when trying his hand at activism.

Randall states early in the book, as he tries to battle racism, both in and out of school, while attending Harvard Law, “No one could know that black leaders and organizations would become either so enfeebled by a lack of resources or by the strings attached to those resources that their call to arms, if heard at all by the rank and file, would sound perfunctory or, worse, incomprehensible.” This observation is alarmingly clear to true activists, revolutionaries, political prisoners, as well as their supporters the world over.

Robinson spends the remainder of the book detailing his efforts and accomplishments in several national and international campaigns. Chief among them was his very successful effort to bring international focus on South Africa’s apartheid, a policy that was fully supported and funded by the U.S. and its closest allies. As a direct result of his actions, international focus was brought to bear on U.S. hypocrisy. The ensuing international exposure and condemnation shamed U.S. government officials into pressuring U.S.-backed corporations into divesting, a move that was fought tooth and nail by the so-called “great communicator,” Ronald Reagan, and his entire racist regime. Robinson explains later, however, how after all their efforts to free South Africa from apartheid, free Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners jailed for decades for opposing apartheid, once these former political prisoners gained power, it was these same corporations they would have dealings with, rather than the black-led organizations that freed their nation.

Randall Robinson, as head of an organization named TransAfrica, attempted to apply similar tactics, both abroad and locally to other predominantly Black nations that faced dire existences headed by either maniacal leaders or labouring under foreign oppressive policies: Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Haiti, and Grenada. TransAfrica attempted to help expose all their plights, although obviously none achieved neither the support or initial success of the ousted apartheid. These nations and many others named in the book continued to receive TransAfrica’s efforts of exposure and justice.

In support of his efforts, Robinson cites a who’s who list of celebrities and politicians, most who have been on the scene for years, but save for a very few, seldom speak out for more progressive issues, or the people that advance them.

Maybe if they would support the true soldiers who have dedicated their lives and freedom for the cause of justice, groups like TransAfrica would have a more consistent and sustainable support system than is usually offered by those celebrities, most of whom are employed to uphold American imperialism anyway – people who themselves believe that U.S. policy only has errant moments that need exposing, rather than confronting this nation’s inherent unconscionableness.

I have seen Robinson on several tv interviews and have always found his views to be concise and informative. Defending the Spirit was pretty much the same as those interviews. And I really do applaud all of his efforts to do something, feel compelled to say something in an era when so many are paralyzed with indecision or worse, apathy.

However, after a while, many of these books start to have the same feel as that deplorable Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where the explicit details of the horror was exposed to the victims, but there was no planned exacting response for justice. How many details are needed? How many roundtable discussions by intellectuals, before justice is not just demanded, but committed to by those being victimized?

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