Afrocentricity, Alondra Nelson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Authentic Blackness, Authenticity, Black Freedom, Black Panther Party, Black Power, Black Studies, Blackness, Bobby Seale, Community Control, Eldridge Cleaver, Free Breakfast, Harold Cruse, Huey Newton, Kwame Touré, Michael Eric Dyson, Nathan Wright Jr., Peniel Joseph, Policy Brutality, Robin D. G. Kelley, Stokely Carmichael, Whiteness
This year marks a half-century since the official shift of the Civil Rights Era from the traditional Civil Rights leadership of the Black Church toward one of “Black Power.” Between Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Touré’s famous 1966 speech, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s founding of the Black Panther Party that October, and riots that began with Watts in L.A. the year before, this was a pivotal year in American and African American history. Of course, as historians and other scholars like Peniel Joseph and Alondra Nelson have illuminated in recent years, while 1966 was a pivotal year, it was not a departure from a long history of the Black freedom struggle, but part a continuity. For Joseph and Nelson (not to mention, Robin D. G. Kelley and Michael Eric Dyson), Black Power was a continuation of radical ideas and actions in order to stand in opposition to American capitalism and racism as an intertwined system of oppression. The roots of which go at least as far back as Black sharecroppers and their union organizing efforts during the Great Depression, if not in fact to the radicalism of Martin Delany of the 1850s.
These wonderful scholars are absolutely right to dump the simplistic narrative of Black Power as a symbol of/departure from the struggle for civil rights or as a philosophy that advocates violence against Whites, especially Whites in law enforcement. They are also more than right to point out how Black Power and the Black Panther Party did way more good on a policy level than most Americans would ever give their leaders credit for. Fred Hampton and Newton and the Free Breakfast for School Children Program that started in Chicago and Oakland between 1969 and 1972. The People’s Free Medical Centers (PFMC), Free Ambulance Service, and other direct community involvement to provide free access to health care and screenings for thousands of impoverished Black families. Free food programs for the destitute.
But more than that. The idea that Black communities could work to provide services and opportunities otherwise denied to them by American society was to be a major takeaway from this era of the overall Black freedom struggle. And of course, the idea that police served as an oppressive occupying force, and that Black citizens had every right to defend themselves against police brutality. Though direct armed struggle with law enforcement was in the Black Panther Party toolbox, the notion of policing the police, community control over schools, a community using its available resources, is still more positive than negative. These remain implementable ideas that have and do provide an outlet to the daily grind of racial discrimination and deep poverty in so many parts of the US.
Culturally, the freedom struggle as expressed through Black Power and the Black Panther Party, particularly by leaders like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Amiri Baraka, and Kwame Touré, was one of what we know would call Afrocentricity today. This was/is far more than wearing Afros, daishikis, sea shells and beads (or for that matter, black turtlenecks and tight pants). It would mean advocating for and getting universities (both predominantly White universities and HBCUS) to adopt Black Studies programs. It would mean influencing a whole generation of Black artists (the arts, music, and cinema) to adopt a “I’m Black and proud” stance in their work, from Marvin Gaye and the Lost Poets and Gil Scott Heron, to movies like Shaft and that first mainstream miniseries, Roots.
The Black Power Generation (kind of like Prince and The Revolution that tried to incorporate a mesh of messages between 1979 and 1986), for all of the elements that survived Huey Newton and his purges of the 1970s and early 1980s — not to mention their continuing influence in American pop culture, in Black intellectual thought, and in Black movements in general — was hardly perfect. Some, like the late Kwame Touré, promoted Black Power as a sort of authentic Blackness, a kind in which one had to buy all of the options on the table in order to be authentic. The “Uncle Tom” accusation or its equivalent was thrown at Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, Arthur Ashe, and others whose support of Black Power was less that full-throated. Not to mention, the tensions between leaders within the Black Panther Party and among African American intellectuals who attempted to ride the wave of Black Power, as nearly forgotten Black intellectuals Harold Cruse and Nathan Wright, Jr. noted in the late-1960s.
That lingering legacy of Black Power is part of its appeal and one of its limits — the ability to redefine ourselves and retell our history in a way that brings nuance and truth. But nuance and truth are not always absolutes. In many respects, Black Power over the generations shares a similarity with Marxist thought and action. Just as Marxism represents a dialectical opposition to capitalist oppression, Black Power has always represented a dialectical resistance to Whiteness and the racist/capitalist oppression that comes with Whiteness. It just doesn’t represent the only form of resistance there is, at least not as Newton, Touré, and others lived their resistance. Black Power is more than resistance, and more than just an amorphous idea standing in opposition to Whiteness. It’s just not the only form of Blackness there is. My own upbringing would be a further testimony to this (to be continued…).