A half-century ago this week, “Black Power” entered America’s mass consciousness. In early June 1966, James Meredith launched his “March Against Fear,” a one-man demonstration down the 220 miles of road between Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. Meredith hoped to inspire black men to exercise their voting rights, or at least to join him in a defiant trek across the Mississippi Delta. Just two days in, the demonstration seemed abruptly ended when a white sniper shot and hospitalized Meredith while he was walking alone. Some 15,000 demonstrators—men and women—resolved to complete the march, with Meredith following the events from his hospital bed. When the march reached Jackson nearly three weeks later, black activists had not just crossed the Delta and renounced a general fear of white supremacy in the South. They had adopted “Black Power” in place of “We Shall Overcome” as the national rallying cry of the black freedom struggle.
This year will no doubt see plenty of fitting and necessary commemorations of Black Power’s importance in American history. Still, 50th anniversaries seem as good a time as any to clear up enduring confusions. “Black Power” is not some dusty or even hallowed slogan trapped in the past. It resides in the here-and-now as a set of living political and civic commitments. It includes a healthy suspicion of white-run institutions and an enduring desire for black ownership and other forms of self-determination. It also includes a hope that an unapologetic love of black people can, indeed, become a site of interracial political consensus. Chicago’s Black Youth Project 100, Baltimore’s Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and scores of #BlackLivesMatter activists and their affiliates around the country represent but a handful of the groups that sharply echo the most militant political practices of the last half-century.
Not unlike Meredith’s marchers, courageous men and women over the last 50 years have also kept alive a certain intellectual fearlessness, advancing what one could fittingly call a Black Power method. A Black Power method remains both anti-racist and, often, anti-liberal in its interpretive and archival practice. Interpretively, it refuses to caricature black radicalism as doomed for failure. It also remains attentive to racism’s class and gendered dimensions, even if, like historical Black Power, it is not uniformly, or even necessarily, “progressive” on either. Projections of black unity, as Elsa Barkley Brown recently reminded, often require silencing. Thus, it still takes real intellectual work to prioritize the stories of working-class people, queer people, and women who might otherwise be erased from the historical record, either by white supremacist history-making or black bourgeois responses to it.
In even more fundamental, archival terms, a Black Power method moves to destabilize or interrogate dominant white perspectives in mainstream media outlets, government records, and in the very definition of what constitutes a credible source. For any history book addressing black subject matter, its first challenge is usually dealing with white power in the archive. Who gets to become an archivist, how archives get organized, and even what counts as an archive have a profound racial impact on what endures as valued historical research. Expansive, digital archives can still be locked behind paywalls or library turnstiles at elite universities. Brick and mortar archives stand in racially segregated parts of town. In the most concrete ways possible, racial politics determine how we locate the past.
Thankfully, a Black Power method has historically been productive, one could even argue cumulative, by pointing successive generations of scholars toward an ever-expanding archive. During the 1970s and 1980s, the first generation of writers and publishers to chronicle the fervor of Black Power politics were the activists themselves. Keepers of Black Power’s flame included Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Paul Coates, George Jackson, and many others, some of whose names we’ll never know. They carried out the critical early work of archival reclamation and anti-racist theorization. They worked under the most modest conditions, and, not infrequently, from behind bars. Through the political winter of the Reagan era, these thinkers countered the vilification and erasure of black radical history, thereby laying the foundation for the arrival of Black Power as a “legitimate” topic of academic study in the 1990s, and its eventual mainstreaming in the early 2000s.
We enjoy, today, a rich collection of Black Power books. But, as with any other aspect of black culture gone mainstream, preserving Black Power’s insurgent scholarly politics demands a measure of inventiveness and deliberate, often courageous, effort.
One signal example of such courage is Dan Berger’s impressive account of black prison activism, Captive Nation: Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. Berger compels readers to place black prisoners at the center of the history of social movements and the intellectual history of America in the late-20th century. “The history of black radicalism,” Berger maintains, “can be thought of as a long opposition to confinement.” Echoing the Black Panther Party’s early invocations of the Declaration of Independence, Berger takes as his analytic starting point the notion that black people do indeed possess inalienable rights. But rather than argue for the gradual expansion of black citizenship by way of liberal reform, he focuses on the imposition of “rightlessness,” or “a state sponsored deprivation of group rights and political action.” For the formerly enslaved and the currently incarcerated, the history of America is the history of rights taken, not granted. Thus, organizing within prisons, Berger argues, represented “less a claim to expand rights than it was a critique of rights-based frameworks.”
As prisoners themselves did (and do), Berger uses the thinking, writing, and public protest of American inmates to challenge the absoluteness of the cage. If 20th-century liberalism in the United States conveyed its benefits largely on the basis of white belonging and property ownership, then prisons served as containers for liberalism’s discarded, the place where rights and people, quite literally, went to die. In Berger’s able hands, however, we see how prisoners have long refused to yield to the cage’s designs. “Prisoners and their allies reasoned that if the prison’s power lay in its invisibility”—its ability to disappear people—“then exposure constituted a means of resistance.” By simply making their thoughts and actions public, prisoners could, in effect, turn confinement against itself.
Berger makes a similar move, using the prison, as an archive, to undermine white supremacy’s silencing power. Prison officials collected and generateed paper as part of their particular brand of administrative violence and surveillance. But Berger uses these records to foreground how black people experienced and evidenced state oppression. He takes prisoner manuscripts, smuggled anti-prison pamphlets, inmate interviews, and even confiscated love letters between Angela Davis and George Jackson to reveal a rich genealogy of black abolitionist thought.
Berger also challenges the presumed intellectual origins of the anti-prison movement by detailing how even the most revered European theorist of prisons, Michel Foucault, remained indebted to black thought-work. Foucault’s 1975 tome, Discipline and Punish, which famously theorized the relationship between state violence, intimacy, and the self, first emerged as part of a prison reform group, of which Foucault was a member. The group studied George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and corresponded with the American prison movement. The famed French philosopher, Berger points out, makes no acknowledgement of Jackson’s influence. Berger has no interest in branding Foucault a white supremacist. He recognizes fully, however, that Foucault’s European pedigree and his at times impenetrable prose have long helped white academe police and indeed racialize the boundary between who counts as a credible “theorist” of prisons and who doesn’t. “While Foucault emphasized the 18th-century European prisoner as the normative carceral subject,” Berger writes, “his arguments about the constrictions of regulatory power could be found in Black Panther writings generally and Soledad Brother particularly.” Even if we chose to ignore an oversight in Foucault’s footnotes, Berger’s broader point remains unequivocal and clear: black thought mattered.
Drawing black thought from the archive remains critical to countering dominant white narratives, and thus critical to a Black Power method. And perhaps the most durable post-civil rights myth about black people concerns their seeming predilection for crime. At some vaguely determined historical moment, usually “The ‘60s,” as the story goes, African Americans got free from white supremacy and instead fell victim to their own discernible “culture of poverty.” Fattened by the Great Society and emboldened by urban rebellions, Black America became (or perhaps always was) less interested in hard work, more committed to welfare, and pre-disposed, when not sharply checked, to criminal behavior.
In The Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner seeks to dispel what we might call, for shorthand, this “Fox News” rendering of Black America. He foregrounds those “invisible black victims” who deserve “a fair hearing,” those African Americans who worked hard, who feared drug dealers and thieves, and who demanded expanded law enforcement and incarceration. Focusing on 1970s Harlem, Fortner argues that African Americans, motivated by what he calls “indigenous values,” pushed ever further for greater personal responsibility among black Americans and harsher law-and-order approaches from white officials. Fortner maintains that, in spite of our collective memory of a fiery black left, everyday black people during the Black Power era preserved a deep-seated antipathy for crime and a commitment to working through established modes of governance. He contends that, if we’re to contextualize properly African American gains after the civil rights movement—to understand Black Power in its ideological fullness—we should include the establishment of the highly punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973, what Fortner calls the black silent majority’s “greatest legislative victory.”
Fortner’s book represents brilliantly the contours and costs of bourgeois Black Power as a scholarly approach. Repeatedly, he professes disdain for white liberal “do-gooders” (his term). One gets the impression from Fortner, in fact, that white sympathy represented a greater threat to black people than state violence. Even more substantively, Fortner casts black anti-crime politics as proof of “indigenous values.” This term proves central to the book’s projection of black respectability, and to its deeper aim of rescuing “Black America’s” reputation from the taint of poverty culture. To be sure, it remains a matter of considerable debate whether there is a “Black America,” at all. There can be no argument, though, that projections of a black “we” have long served as a defining feature of black nationalism in general and Black Power in particular.
Its apparent Black Power politics aside, Fortner’s book makes several “mainstream” and, indeed, liberal interpretive moves. First, there is no radical Harlem to speak of in Fortner’s account. The only blacks with a structural understanding of poverty stand no further to the left than Kenneth Clark or William Julius Wilson. Even when observers occasionally link vice in black communities to mafia activity or absentee land-lording, Fortner privileges those black voices that choose to reduce crime to normative explanations about individual dysfunction. In ways quite comforting to the average viewer of Fox News, Fortner’s black New York makes no excuses for its bad behavior.
As a final point on The Black Silent Majority, both the book’s nationalist and liberal tendencies flow from its archival dependence on the black press. Black newspapers could not credibly be considered “white” sources, of course. They were, however, businesses. As such, black papers, especially the longer-lived ones like the New York Amsterdam News, tended to veer toward bourgeois visions of black community. In the realpolitik of interracial America, black newspaper owners colluded routinely with white powerbrokers to secure much needed resources for working- and middle-class African Americans. That collusion almost always included assertions of bourgeois black unity, a condemnation of the black poor, and a professed commitment to those forms of state violence white Americans most widely found acceptable. In this way, excessive force in black-on-black policing is no byproduct of the 1970s; it’s as old as segregation itself.
A more persuasive treatment of black politics and culture animates two other books that also explore the black 1970s: Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination and Gayle Wald’s It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television. Black autonomy, we learn from these works, flourishes and fails in equal measure through its fractures.
Rickford shows how an array of black independent schools brought distinct approaches to “decolonize” the minds of black children. Liberation schools explained the continuity between the struggles against Jim Crow and those against police brutality. They also linked subpar public education to the housing and infrastructural failures plaguing black communities. Whether run by cultural or revolutionary nationalists, Pan Africanists or Marxists, the schools sought to prove, in Rickford’s, words, “that black people could develop alternatives to the oppressive social institutions that dominated their lives.”
“Black Power” is not some dusty or even hallowed slogan trapped in the past. It resides in the here-and-now as a set of living political and civic commitments.
With an unshakable grip on materialist analysis, Rickford casts Black Power as a discourse used to solve the material problems of white racism. To merely survive economically, Pan-Africanist schools, in particular, needed to encourage cooperative economics and incentivize donations by trafficking in cultural fictions, or what Rickford describes as “Tropes of Negritude and African Personality.” Schools had to “reclaim a homogeneity that never existed,” he explains. Certain philosophies of Black-Power belonging in schools began to replicate elements of European thought; they prescribed, as Rickford succinctly puts it, “cultural and behavioral solutions for structural maladies.”
Through a mastery of Black Power as an analytic, not just a topic, Rickford historicizes what Michael Fortner simply takes for granted. He writes about the schools as “indigenous structures.” But for Rickford, “indigenous” is a claim to unity—to essence—not a state of being. Indigeneity served as an argument meant to protect black institutions from discriminatory zoning, predatory policing, and any number of white attacks on the schools’ bottom line.
Understanding the precarity of Black Power institutions means, in effect, being able to balance and detail structural factors alongside individual and group dynamics. It also means valuing and giving sustained scholarly attention to what might seem to be fleeting moments. In It’s Been Beautiful, Gayle Wald explores the history Soul!, a little-known Black Power news and entertainment program that lasted for five seasons on public television. Soul!’s guests brought viewers a wide variety of black political thought and creative arts. It featured the talents of Latin@ performers and intellectuals as well as gay artists and writers, two groups not usually associated with popular renderings of Black Power.
The creative genius of Soul! flowed, first, from its creator and host, Ellis Haizlip. Equally important was the show’s freedom from corporate sponsorship. As a public television program, Soul! could have Haizlip, who was openly gay, make sexual orientation an acceptable part of black politics in public. One hour-long show, featuring a spritely, 30-something Louis Farrakhan, included asking the minister very pointed questions about the role of secular black professionals in bringing about the Nation of Islam’s distinct vision of an independent black country. Haizlip followed up his question, even more remarkably, with a second query about the place of homosexuality within the Nation, particularly as it related to the organization’s prison ministry. Rather than spoil the exchange (which is available on YouTube1), I’ll only point out that this and so many other conversations on the show provide for Wald and her readers a truly revelatory window into an era that even Black Power experts thought they knew. Wald, an eminent scholar in the field of African American literature, confesses her own surprise at learning that even Black nationalism was forced to answer to “emerging queer and feminist critiques.”
Soul! offers Wald and the show’s viewers what the author calls a “powerfully affecting archive.” From file footage she opens up an unseen side of the ‘70s. Not only is Black Power (and really nationalism of any color) far suppler that we thought, but, through Wald’s handling of Soul!, it becomes clear that the vagaries of funding for television have had a profound impact on our very memory of “The Movement.” We recall Soul Train, The Jeffersons, and Good Times from ‘70s TV because, with their commercial backing, their reach remained broad, their place on television more secure. Their message, by virtue of that same sponsorship, however, was less imaginative, and certainly not, despite our nostalgia, revolutionary.
The public funding of Soul! gave Haizlip the power to exercise his creative autonomy, but it also meant subjugation to what Wald simply calls, “the racial state.” Haizlip’s experiment in revolutionary television eventually succumbed to defunding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, attacks from the Nixon Administration’s broader efforts to undermine public affairs programming, and undue pressure from white critics concerned about black militancy elsewhere on Soul!’s host network. In spite of the show’s eventual cancellation, Haizlip’s attempt to create a viable black counter-public raised for Wald powerful questions that affirm the value of Soul! as an archive. What good are black shows, Wald asks, if “the visibility of black people on television has no necessary or stable relation to social change?” For a brief moment, it seems, The Revolution might well have been televised.
Blackness in the public view can be a tricky thing to historicize, but in describing his book as “an act of recovery,” Peniel Joseph, in Stokely: A Life, tries to do just that. Joseph argues that, as perhaps America’s most visible Black Power icon, Stokely Carmichael belonged to an imagined succession of charismatic black male leaders that included Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King, and, most notably, Malcolm X. As Joseph details, Carmichael seemed to inflate his own importance. And, as often happens with “movement” men, Stokely’s critics in the media and federal law enforcement took such inflations even further. Carmichael fanned myths about his own influence to advance his at times noble political aims. White observers, in turn, heightened public and police paranoia about Carmichael to justify the time and resources spent monitoring his movements and public statements. Carmichael’s importance, Joseph suggests, rarely extended beyond the symbolic. But that, the author contends, is historically significant in its own right.
Stokely may have suffered from a chronic shortage of economic resources, constituents, and discernible political victories, but he was also, in Joseph’s words, “the last icon of the racial and political revolutions … associated with the 1960s.” Joseph’s recognition of Carmichael-as-symbol spurs the author to bear down on Stokely’s own inspirations, his shifting sense of purpose, and his complicated, if at times opportunistic, alliances with prominent figures. Mirroring Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Joseph’s book exhibits a keen awareness of Carmichael’s manufactured public persona. Casting Carmichael as what one critic described as “a peculiar kind of literary invention” and “an activist who lacked the political support and organizational backing of everyone except the media,” Stokely, as a book, provides one of the strongest accounts, to date, of the making and unmaking of a Black Power celebrity.
The book also offers, however, a shining example of what can happen when one elects not to employ a Black Power method. Its declarations about “recovery” notwithstanding, Joseph’s book lets archival white supremacy overwhelm the work’s more subversive potential. Even as it attempts to interrogate Carmichael’s star status, Stokely relies too heavily on the policing and news sources most responsible for Carmichael’s outsized public image. The result is a profoundly imbalanced story. Just two years of Carmichael’s life, 1966 and 1967, take up 8 of the book’s 16 chapters. When the American surveillance state and the white press stop paying as much attention to Carmichael, Joseph essentially follows suit. The author reduces the last 30 years of, now, Kwame Ture’s life to a single chapter.
Stokely Carmichael, unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X, was not assassinated in the late 1960s, but, at times in Stokely, it feels he may well have been. Joseph’s reliance on government and corporate news sources forces him to deny readers the chief benefits of biography as a genre, namely the chance to understand, largely through aging, the unseen universality of a figure widely considered iconic. For Carmichael’s closing decades, much of the world lying beyond the white gaze remains unseen. Describing Stokely’s attendance at Fannie Lou Hamer’s funeral in 1977, for instance, Joseph explains that, “Carmichael’s respect and love for Hamer … remained a hidden feature of his legacy, as did the deference he paid to scores of anonymous black women and men in Mississippi, Alabama, and … Africa.” These are precisely the kinds of personal and, indeed, political details a book like Stokely is meant to explore in depth, but doesn’t. Even more curiously, Joseph describes Carmichael’s silence around Sékou Touré’s jailing and the torturing of dissidents in post-independence Guinea as “[carrying] long-term costs that could only be judged by history.” Such an accounting should be, by definition, the task of the historian.
Through a preoccupation with marketable individuals, so-called “Black Power Studies” has, to various degrees, abandoned key elements of Black Power’s insurgent methodology. It has made the black left increasingly at home in the world of trade publishing and made shows of non-white “diversity” integral to the corporate multiculturalism of elite foundations and higher education. The late Manning Marable’s centrist treatment Malcolm X or Joseph’s Stokely stand in for our broader political moment. We live in a time when an actress in blackface could play Nina Simone, or when Pauli Murray’s name gets added to one Yale residential college just so John C. Calhoun’s doesn’t have to get removed from another.
Today’s market engagement with Black Power feels, on one level, like earlier commitments to black capitalism. But given that this commodification is now overwhelming parts of the historical narrative itself, we are bearing witness to an even more dramatic domestication of black radicalism. In spite of the great work by Wald, Rickford, Berger, and others, our struggle with corporate history teeters on the edge of erasing the queer, female, incarcerated, and non-English speaking people from our common history of black nationalism. If capital has anything to say about it, we can plausibly expect Stokely!, a summer blockbuster starring Will Smith. Such calamities, and worse, are indeed possible under white supremacy.
But take heart. We can avoid the hazards that have accompanied the mainstreaming of black radicalism by resolving to incorporate those people who usually fall out of liberal and conservative imaginaries about Black Power. In Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century, Rhonda Williams attests that, “for all those who became icons, there are many more who have contributed to the struggle.” Concrete Demands offers a synthetic account of the movement as a whole, starting over a decade before James Meredith’s march and highlighting strains of Black Power politics among working-class women, government employees, underworld gamblers, and others. Whether shouting “Black Power” in the streets or whispering it in the quiet halls of the American workplace, Black Power’s adherents, Williams explains, “placed less faith in white goodwill and paid more attention to the structures of power.” This attentiveness to structure inspired black nationalists of every stripe and degree to make every manner of American institution more attentive to black interests. Echoing the work of Alondra Nelson on hospitals, Joyce Bell on social work, Martha Biondi on colleges, and other experts on Black Power’s afterlife, Williams avoids treating black nationalism as the dark underside of white nationalism. It suffers none at all from myths about “indigenous” autonomy or rugged individualism. Rather, as Williams explains, “self determination” meant, at least in part, refusing to release “government from its responsibility to black people and communities.”
It’s a lesson James Meredith could have used long before he ever got shot. Hoping to prove the courage of a lone black man and releasing the government, at least symbolically, from its protective responsibility, Meredith took to the road by himself. Thankfully, he survived and, thankfully, he was wrong. Fifty years ago, it took not one, but many fearless thousands—men and women, queer and straight—to march against fear. They forced the White House to deploy armed registrars to the South for the first time since Reconstruction, and, ultimately, they gave us Black Power. We will only get to keep it by exercising similar commitments. Collective courage and collective action, of both the scholarly and political kinds: history has rarely been made, or for that matter written, any other way.