Black Power: The Politics of LiberationBlack Power: The Politics of Liberation by Stokely Carmichael

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his 1992 Afterword, Charles Hamilton penned a response to the prevailing criticisms that Black Power was responsible for “highlighting racial divisions”, “eschewing coalitions with whites”, attempting “to kick whites out of the civil rights movement”, and being “anti-white, defeatist, and bitterly rejecting the civil rights movement’s traditional goal of integration”. While the rest of the afterword holds a patient and intellectual argument for the continued necessity of Black Power, one can sense in his retort that these critiques were particularly blistering for Hamilton and that he had argued the point many times before.

“No matter that some explanations focused on the denial of these charges and attempted to discuss the concept in terms of viable pluralist American politics. No matter that painstaking efforts were made to point out the years of inability of blacks to enter viable coalitions with other groups, coalitions that would recognize and respect the legitimate needs and complaints of black Americans. Many Black Power advocates tried to make the case that blacks have always understood the necessity for coalitions, but all too often those efforts were thwarted, and blacks, because of their relatively weak status, were unable to do much about this. Where were the viable coalitional partners in the 1930’s when black organizations (the NAACP and the National Urban League, most prominently) virtually pleaded with their white allies to include agricultural workers and domestic servants–not only blacks, but all such workers–in the social insurance provisions of the landmark Social Security Act of 1935? Those allies deserted them. Where were the coalition partners when blacks were persuaded not to push for the end to racial discrimination even while liberals urged blacks to support (as blacks did) a meaningful Full Employment Bill? And, when the 1960’s arrived, where were the enlightened allies when the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sought to challenge the white racist Mississippi State Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention? In each instance, the message was clear: Black Americans were not politically strong enough to convince their potential allies to go along with them. The message was equally clear that the fundamental interests of blacks would be subordinated to those interests of more powerful forces in the society.”

The sentiment of this passage along with others expressed by Hamilton in the afterword provides a reworked closing argument for rethinking the role which Black Power should play in the present era. In recounting the mistakes in he and Ture’s initial analysis and trajectory, he provides a lens through which we might view the events of the past and the future anew. He speaks to the scenario in which Black Power might have seemed philosophically different for those who are working towards its establishment. Whereas they may have had a socialist orientation and the goal of a more open society attached to their original outlook, it might be just as easily argued that black capitalism and black power are one and the same. This turned out to be the most gripping and transformative portion of the text for me because I was able to evaluate two recent political phenomena in the context of theories explored in the original text: Obama’s election and charter schools.

During the course of the election of Barack Obama, we saw a sweeping proclamation of a grassroots uprising; a coalition of Black, Latino, White, LGBT, and all other manner of liberal left leaning forces creating a groundswell tide that were to sweep President Obama from his humble roots as a community organizer and member of the founding advisory board at Public Allies through state and federal Senatorial roles direct into the White House. I am not going argue the point whether there are any significant “roots” remaining in that “grass” for I think we have other outlets which have vetted that point thoroughly. I will examine where black people stand nearly 4 years hence.

For 4 years, we have had challengers both in and outside of our community whom have shouted down the naysayers with cries of “He’s not simply the President of Black America. He’s the President of all America.” A hollow argument at best. If we examine this statement in the context of the chapter “The Myths of Coalition”, we are able to clearly see how the same coalition which beseeched us to “get on the bus” when many in our community were initially mistrusting of organizing around a black candidate and were ready to vote for any available Clinton have now deserted us in our pleas with the President to attend to the needs of our community. Are we markedly different from any other special interest group in need of social uplift? No. But we have been conned into accepting a weakened position as window decoration for a mythic coalition of American populism.

On charter schools, we have not fared much better. Whereas once we were organized around the goal of improvement for the conditions of our neighborhood schools as discussed in the chapter “The Search for New Forms” regarding such a case at I.S. 201 in Harlem, we have now created an educational crap shoot. If you cannot locate a viable school in your neighborhood, you can search out one of the many available magnet, private, or charter options perhaps a few buses or trains away. Less the case with private schools although it can happen, even when you settle on a magnet or charter school, your child could be in a few years before you realize that their skills are either not improving or regressing and perhaps by then the state will release a new report card and the Sun Times will do a “special investigation” to tell you that you rolled a 7 instead of an 11.

Individual gain in a capitalist system will inevitably be purchased at a social cost. The arguments in the charter movement are largely positioned in artificial opposition to each other. Every so often a test case will bubble to the surface at one of these schools which will show that a child from a broken home or damaging neighborhood environment can still be educated to succeed when given the right tools in their educational space to reach those goals. Still when we question why the tools in all schools are not simply improved to offer a greater supply of children the same success, we often hear the argument that the school is not a parent or that education does not end at its doors. Which is it? Can we save more students through education or not? We will never be able to have it both ways no matter how much mental justification we afford ourselves for accepting this as “just the way things are”. Douglass, DuBois, Harrison, Garvey, and Shabazz all stood in agreement on the matter.

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