"The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life." - Huey P. Newton

Black Power with shades of gray

Scott McLemee is the editor of "C. L. R. James on the Negro Question."

August 20, 2006

WAITING 'TIL THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, by Peniel E. Joseph. Henry Holt

A familiar story about the 1960s goes something like this: Between the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, a movement took shape that not only challenged the second-class citizenship of African-Americans (especially those living below the Mason-Dixon line) but spoke a new language of civic morality. It won some important victories, consolidated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year.

But then something went wrong. Perhaps it was the rising tide of black expectations. Perhaps it was white backlash - especially in parts of the country outside the benighted South, since it was easier to pretend that racism had its home there than to face de facto segregation elsewhere.

Then there was the whole complex matter of black and Jewish relations in the civil rights movement, which did not grow less tense when a handful of intellectuals on each side told the other: "You know what would really do you some good? If someone told you exactly what we think of you. So here goes ..."

Thus began what is sometimes called "the disuniting of America" - a phrase that grossly overestimates just how unified the culture was in the first place.

It is one of the great strengths of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour" by Peniel Joseph - a young historian who teaches African studies at Stony Brook University - that it avoids the usual tale of the decline and fall of the civil rights agenda. Nor is it, for that matter, an uncritical celebration of the rise of Black Power after 1965 as its successor.

"Midnight" covers not quite two decades, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. But the author is clearly influenced by an understanding that both integrationism and separatism have had their role in the shaping of African-American politics, going back at least to the early black nationalism of the 19th century. Rather than champion one strategy over the other, Joseph takes each as a given.

He concentrates instead on narrative history, or what might better be called (in less academic terms) storytelling. He zeroes in on the formative moments and guiding personalities of the movement - conveying the arguments over strategy without getting too bogged down in sectarian differences. The writing is nimble without being facile. The author is often willing to face the more discreditable facts about the movement, giving the book a tough-mindedness necessary for coming to terms with the past.

A case in point is his treatment of the Black Panthers - a group it is easy either to glorify or to demonize. By the early 1970s, it was both providing social services in black neighborhoods and running extortion rackets to shake down local businesses. Joseph's admiration for Panther founder Huey Newton's obvious intelligence is balanced with candor about his failings as a leader.

"Haunted by substance abuse," Joseph writes, "Newton's revolutionary politics atrophied into a quest for material wealth and personal pleasure, punctuated by intermittent moments of sobriety.... Newton's star was on the descent at the exact time that the Black Panthers came closest to approximating his early vision of a radical community organization to meet the needs of the people rather than the whims of political leaders."

But the brisk confidence of the narrative voice at times has the effect of leaving an important problem with the slogan of "Black Power" somewhat out of focus. That expression - coined by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1966 - was more a catchphrase than a concept.

It summed up the feeling that formal equality in the law books meant almost nothing without the power to make good on it in the economic, political and cultural spheres. But that implied no definite course of either long-term strategies or short-term goals.

Did a demand for Black Power mean separatism? If so, what kind? Neighborhood control of schools? Racially conscious capitalism (as in, "buy in your own community")? Stockpiling weapons to prepare for building a black republic in Mississippi?

Did it permit alliances with other ethnic groups - perhaps inspired by some more or less Marxist-Leninist vision of "people's war" against Babylon Amerika? Or did it mean electing black politicians to office? Should the emphasis be, rather, on reconnecting with African cultural traditions? If so, which ones?

As "Wait 'Til the Midnight Hour" shows, the movement included variations on each of these (contradictory) positions - tried on in succession, in some cases by a single individual. As a historian, Joseph chronicles the mutations and internal conflicts of Black Power. But he stops short of grappling with the idea that the movement itself may have been deeply befuddled from the very start. That is not a criticism of Black Power, by the way. Rather, it indicates how profoundly American the movement was - guided by vast, if formless, ambitions that left it indifferent to ordinary logic.


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