February 3, 2010

Black Power Revisited

History professor Peniel Joseph examines a turning point for race relations in America

By Helene Ragovin

Each February—fresh on the heels of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday—Americans witness Black History Month, a time when the tumultuous story of the civil rights era is revisited. Yet, says Tufts historian Peniel E. Joseph, there is a significant failing in the way that story has been rendered in the popular imagination—and some significant misrepresentations, too.

Black Power activists “imagined what would happen if black people ran these institutions. The movement’s overall thrust was radical, but there were pragmatic and moderate sides, too,” says Peniel Joseph. Photo: Tom Kates

“Now, 40 years later, we definitely look at civil rights as a political and moral good, but we really have robbed it and shorn it of the real contestation that went on at the time,” says Joseph, a professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences. Popular re-telling of the era often glosses over white opposition outside the South to desegregation, and the suspicion and hostility many whites held toward King’s anti-war stance and Poor People’s Campaign.

Chief among the misrepresentations is that of the Black Power movement—what Joseph calls “the most misunderstood social movement of the postwar era.”

The phrase first grabbed national attention in 1966, when Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told a crowd in Mississippi, following his 27th arrest in connection with civil rights activity, “What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”

Black Power has become characterized in our collective memory as “the civil rights movement’s evil twin,” associated primarily with race riots, gun-toting Black Panthers and the politics of racial separatism, Joseph says. But at its essence, it really was a “movement for social, political, economic and cultural self-determination by African Americans,” he says.

Joseph examined the history of the Black Power movement from 1955 to 1975 in his first book, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt, 2006), and continues his work in the newly published Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (Basic Civitas Books, 2010).

In fact, he says, there was an intimate connection between Black Power and democracy, and ignoring that has diminished recognition of the movement’s influence on American politics and society over the past 40 years—a particularly significant omission in light of the Obama presidency.

“One of the arguments that my work makes is that Black Power really has this fundamental dialogue with democracy and democratic institutions, and even as it criticizes American democracy, it draws from that tradition, at least in part, in its own attempts—whether through protest, politics or poetry and prose—to try to transform democratic institutions,” Joseph says.

Black Power, Then and Now

The legacy of Black Power, Joseph says, reverberates today in grassroots efforts to alleviate poverty and promote tenants’ rights, and in the establishment of Black Studies programs, departments and cultural centers at American universities and colleges, for example. On a global level, it has encouraged social transformation and anti-colonial struggles in Africa and throughout the developing world.

“When I think of Black Power, it’s very multi-faceted,” says Joseph. “At one level, it’s about dashikis and demonstrations. For some activists, it’s about a version of Black Power that is very Pan-African; for others, it’s going to be about three-piece suits, having access to corporate power and economic power. It’s not about shaking up the system of liberal democratic capitalism—their revolution is about a kind of radical reform: What if black people were in charge, representative of their numbers, of all institutions in society?”

And that’s why the election of Barack Obama “is connected not just to civil rights but to Black Power,” Joseph says. “Black Power activists did imagine what would happen if black people ran these institutions. The movement’s overall thrust was radical, but there were pragmatic and moderate sides, too.”

The Historian’s History

The first week of January saw two of Joseph’s books published: in addition to Dark Days, Bright Nights, there was Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), an anthology he edited. He is also at work on a biography of Carmichael, the civil rights and later Black Power activist.

Joseph, who arrived at Tufts last September, describes himself as an “author, historian and activist,” and he is foremost among those who have developed the sub-discipline of Black Power studies within the wider field of Africana studies.

At 37, Joseph is too young to have witnessed the Black Power/civil rights era firsthand. But he grew up immersed in history, with the idea that the past does, indeed, very much affect the present.

His mother, a hospital lab technician and member of the 1199 Hospital Workers Union whom he describes as “a real historian and intellectual in her own right,” emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. She raised Joseph in Queens, N.Y., and throughout his childhood, he learned the history of Haiti and the Caribbean.

“On one level, I got Haitian and Caribbean and Pan-African history from her,” Joseph says. “But at the same time, growing up in New York City, I was around African Americans—and I was born [in the U.S.] and consider myself, and am perceived as, an African American, too. I was getting history from being connected to my mom and to my surroundings. It was a good mix.”

He also cites as an early influence the PBS documentary series on the civil rights movement Eyes on the Prize, which first aired in 1987. (Joseph’s office in East Hall is across from the former office of the late Tufts history professor Gerald Gill, who was a consultant for the documentary.)

Race loomed large among current events as Joseph came of age. “New York City was a very tough city in terms of race in the 1980s,” he recalls. In 1986, for example, in the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach—not too far from the neighborhood where Joseph grew up—an African-American man was killed trying to escape a mob of white teenagers.

It was also the time when New York elected its first African-American mayor, David Dinkins; when the country struggled over the establishment of the King federal holiday; when Jesse Jackson ran for president and addressed the 1984 and 1988 Democratic conventions.

“I remember watching Jesse Jackson on TV with my mom, and he was talking about the ’60s, about [the murdered civil rights workers] Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman; about Malcolm and Martin and Bobby Kennedy—and it made me very much interested in terms of who these people were and how we had gotten to this point,” Joseph says.

“That’s part of why I do what I do,” he says. “All of those things got me interested in history.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

Article Tools

emailE-mail printPrint