News and Interviews

"The Black Lives Matter Movement has its Roots in this Historical Moment" David Austin on his Book Exploring the 1968 Congress of Black Writers


2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Congress of Black Writers, which took place in Montreal. To mark this year's milestone anniversary, David Austin has brought that historic gathering to life in Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness (Between the Lines Books). Moving Against the System includes speeches from the Congress, including never-before-seen texts from Stokely Carmichael, Walter Rodney, and C.L.R. James as well as a fascinating introduction by Austin situating the Congress in historical and cultural context. 

And if Austin weren't impressive enough already, he's also authored a second book this season, Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution (Between the Lines Books), which explores the radical poet's use of poetry as "a cultural weapon". It's an equally powerful book and the timing is a double treat for readers, further highlighting the talented Black writers and their essential literary, political, and historical contributions.

We're thrilled to welcome David to Open Book today. He tells us about the incredible political legacy of the original Congress ("arguably the most important post-Second World War international gathering of black political figures"), how the Black Lives Matter movement connects to Congress, and how he feels after writing two intensive non-fiction projects at once.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?

David Austin:

Moving Against the System: The Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness tells the story of the 1968 Congress of Black Writers, an event that took place 50 years ago this month and that was arguably the most important post-Second World War international gathering of black political figures. And, given the role of black political activity in the sixties and seventies, it was an important gathering in general that pushed the boundaries in terms of thinking about social change in the sixties locally and internationally, and especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and of the tumultuous sixties in general.

Its importance rests not simply in who was there – Stokely Carmichael, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Harry Edwards, Richard B. Moore, James Forman, Darcus Howe, Robert Hill, and Rocky Jones. It helped to precipitate the Sir George Williams student protest in Montreal, one of the most significant protests of its kind during that time (this is no small statement given the impact of student protests around the world in the sixties and seventies). Sir George in turn was the catalyst for protests in Trinidad in support of the students in Montreal that almost toppled the Trinidadian government in 1970. The Congress also ushered Walter Rodney onto the world stage as a political figure and historian, and he would go on to play an important role in pan-African and Caribbean politics and as an important socialist thinker after being expelled from Jamaica in the aftermath of the Congress. Moreover, the Congress publicly put the issue of race on the national agenda in Canada as it was covered extensively in the Canadian media, in English and in French, dispelling the myth that racial exclusion was not part of the Canadian social fabric. It could be argued that these events played an important part in the establishment of Canada’s multiculturalism policy under Pierre Trudeau.

This said, even though women played an active role in organizing the event, as speakers they were conspicuously absent. It was very much a masculine event with men at the forefront as the public face of black political issues and concerns. One woman, Dorothy Jean Hughes, inserted herself into the program and addressed the Congress audience, but she was not an invited guest and there is no audio recording of her participation. The great South African singer Mariam Makeba was present in the company of her then husband Stokely Carmichael, but she neither spoke or performed publicly. Joan Jones of Ontario and later Halifax had a very visible presence as is obvious in the surviving pictures. Women such as Adeline Chancy of Haiti had a presence and discussed contemporary Haitian politics with C.L.R. James, one of great thinkers and true polymaths of the twentieth century and author the classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. There was also Barbara Jones, then a McGill geneticist and poet from Trinidad. Thanks to and article by her, we have an account of the tenor and tone of what transpired during the Congress and the resolutions that were passed at the end of it.


Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?


Well it’s important to point out that two-thirds of the book consists of the speeches delivered during the Congress. Some of the speeches have not survived so what I do in the book’s introduction, the other third, is fill in the gaps, situate the event within its global and historical context, and attempt think about the legacy and importance of the Congress for out time. Clearly, the Black Lives Matter movement has its roots in this historical moment in terms of thinking about issues that affect people of African descent locally, in relation to indigenous peoples, and internationally in relation to other groups of peoples around the globe. I suppose that what I didn’t envision as I was writing was that I would reintroduce the word socialism into the discussion in a very explicit way. Almost all of the speakers would have considered themselves socialist of one kind or another, and were part of a long tradition of socialists of African descent in the Caribbean, Africa, North America, and Europe. As write in the book socialism is as a set of ideas, beliefs, and values tied to the collective will of a society in which the majority of the population plays the defining role in determining their fates while striking the delicate balance between collective rights with the freedom of individuals to develop and realize their creative potential as human being – and to creatively create in ways that also nourish while not being subsumed to the collective will – then socialism is a universal ideal that cannot simply be reduced to a set of ideas that evolved within the context of Europe or limited to the European imaginary. Socialism is a human phenomenon and people of African descent have played an important role in critically engaging and redefining it: C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, Aimé Césaire, Elma Francois, Frantz Fanon, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney and – I would like to suggest here – Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Re-appropriating that word within our current context of increasing global economic disparities perhaps permits us to reimagine alternatives to the world that we live in today. And situating Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. within that tradition – and know many people will take issue with this – was not anticipated when I began writing the introduction. The Congress was dedicated to their memory and once I thought at about their lasting contribution, the conclusion to what it perhaps too long of an introduction, came together quite naturally.


What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?


I’ve been researching and writing about that historical moment for some time. It began as a high school student in Toronto in the late 1980s at Third World Books and Crafts when I discovered a book by Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers. Several of the chapters in that book were based on speeches delivered in Montreal. I’ve been pursuing this Montreal connection ever since, and long before I realized that that was what I had been doing. Because it has been so long, there have been no real surprises.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


Mental space, a computer, and time.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I leave the work for a while, weeks or even months if necessary, and then come back to it when I feel the spirit.


What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A great work of non-fiction is timeless. It transcends the moment in which it was written and we can read it years, decades, and even centuries later and still be enlightened by it, even if we question some of its assumptions. There are far too many great books to name two, but Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution come to mind as two classic books that have had an enduring impact on me and as books that I frequently return to. I would also add Karl Marx’s Capital.


What are you working on now?


Resting and recovering. I was working on two books at the same time (I don’t recommend this). Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution has just been published too. The book is a meditation on social transformation through the prism of poetry, in this case Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry. Johnson is a highly political poet, a poet who has the distinction of being one of two living poets to have been published in the Penguin Modern Classics edition, and also a poet who as introduced to the world via his recordings on record labels such as Virgin and Island. The book ultimately suggests that poets often possess a peculiar insight that permits them to read into our present political predicament and to project how things might change for the better in the future, and that for those of us who are concerned about making the world a better place, it is important to attempt to tap into that same creative insight that poets possess in order to imagine alternatives to the present.


David Austin is the author of the Casa de las Americas Prize-winning Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties MontrealMoving Against the System:The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness, and Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution. He is also the editor of You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James.

Buy the Book

Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness

In 1968, as protests shook France and war raged in Vietnam, the giants of Black radical politics descended on Montreal to discuss the unique challenges and struggles facing their brothers and sisters. For the first time since 1968, David Austin brings alive the speeches and debates of the most important international gathering of Black radicals of the era.

Against a backdrop of widespread racism in the West, and colonialism and imperialism in the “Third World,” this group of activists, writers, and political figures gathered to discuss the history and struggles of people of African descent and the meaning of Black Power.

With never-before-seen texts from Stokely Carmichael, Walter Rodney, and C.L.R. James, Moving Against the System will prove invaluable to anyone interested in Black radical thought, as well as capturing a crucial moment of the political activity around 1968.