Saturday, April 05, 2014

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 5: "Black Power"

To say that American whites have a very limited understanding of African-American freedom struggles in American history would be an understatement.

Peniel Joseph in "Rethinking the Black Power Era" The Journal of Southern History 75/3 (Aug 2009) explains that the Black Power era is still poorly understood in mainstream historiography. In fact it was a critical and multifaceted part of the freedom movement:

Black sharecroppers in Lowndes County, Alabama, urban militants in Harlem and Chicago, radical trade unionists in Detroit, Black Panthers in Oakland, Philadelphia, and New Haven, and female antipoverty organizers in Baltimore and Durham, North Carolina, all advocated a political program rooted in aspects of Black Power ideology. A broad range of students, intellectuals, poets, artists, and politicians followed suit, turning the term Black Power into a generational touchstone that evoked hope and anger, despair and determination. These efforts spanned rural and urban America and beyond to global cities such as Dar es Salaam, Algiers, London, Havana, and Stockholm. Best remembered for its racially specific character, the movement nonetheless transcended racial boundaries and inspired "rainbow radicalism" that produced some of the era's leading multicultural coalitions. If Black Power frightened mainstream America, it produced a mixture of intrigue, awe, and anxiety in the New Left by forcing white radicals to confront racial privilege and power in painful and unprecedented ways.

... Standard interpretations of the period separate Black Power militancy from civil rights struggles, ignore the diverse makeup and pragmatic goals of its local character, and render women's contested role in the movement invisible. [my emphasis in bold]
He also argues that the Black Power movement was rooted particularly in the 1950s and connected with events like the now little-remembered Bandung Conference. "The 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, Ghanaian independence in 1957, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 galvanized black radicals waging war in the civil rights movement's long shadow," he writes.

The State Department's website includes a historical sketch of the Bandung Conference (Asian-African Conference), 1955 (quotes as of 04/05/2014):

In April, 1955, representatives from twenty-nine governments of Asian and African nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia to discuss peace and the role of the Third World in the Cold War, economic development, and decolonization.

The core principles of the Bandung Conference were political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality. These issues were of central importance to all participants in the conference, most of which had recently emerged from colonial rule. The governments of Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka co-sponsored the Bandung Conference, and they brought together an additional twenty-four nations from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Because the decolonization process was still ongoing, the delegates at the conference took it upon themselves to speak for other colonized peoples (especially in Africa) that had not yet established independent governments. The delegates built upon the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, worked out in negotiations between India and China in 1954, as they sought to build solidarity among recently independent nations.
The State Department's sketch also discusses Bandung in relation to the US civil rights movement:

The United States Government initially viewed the Bandung Conference, and the nonaligned movement that emerged from it, with caution. Observers in the United States expressed concern that the meeting was a sign of a leftward shift in the ideological leanings of the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia. Moreover, the conference revealed two contradictions in U.S. foreign policy with regard to decolonization in the Third World. First, the United States Government found itself caught between its desire to support decolonization and self-determination in Southeast Asia and Africa and its reliance on the colonial powers of Western Europe as allies against the communist Eastern Bloc. Cooperation with Britain, France and the Netherlands was vital to U.S. policy in Europe, but supporting decolonization would be tantamount to opposing those allies. Second, the conference coincided with a fundamental shift in U.S. race relations. The 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision had declared school segregation unconstitutional, but the process of ending the Jim Crow laws in the American South was long and difficult. Many countries around the world, particularly newly independent nations, followed the U.S. civil rights movement with interest and questioned the extent to which U.S. rhetoric of equality and self-determination matched the status of civil rights in the United States. U.S. leaders worried that the anti-colonialism of Bandung and the discussion of global racial politics taking place there could turn anti-American or anti-Western. [my emphasis]
The US still considered the People's Republic of China a complete pariah nation in 1955. So it was a particular concern for the Eisenhower Administration that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was a delegate to the Conference. The State Department article notes, reasonably enough, that "Zhou Enlai took a moderate line in his speeches to the delegates."

African-American author (and native Mississippian) Richard Wright reported on the conference and published a book on it, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956). He also had a book called Black Power (1954).

Jeffrey Folks wrote about Wright's perspective on Bandung in "'Last Call to the West': Richard Wright's 'The Color Curtain'" South Atlantic Review 59/4 (Nov 1994). The title of his piece comes from an all-caps passage in Wright's book: "THE LAST CALL OF WESTERNIZED ASIANS TO THE MORAL CONSCIENCE OF THE WEST!" Folks discusses how Wright's experiences as a black American influenced his response to the Bandung Conference:

The sympathies that Wright brought to Bandung had been formed very early in his life. Margaret Walker goes so far as to single out Wright's early experiences in the South as the primary determinants of his personality. As Walker writes: "He reflects almost in totality the mirror image of racism in the South as it is seen in both black and white men". As elsewhere in his writing, Wright both analyzes and reacts passionately to the racial issues he encounters at Bandung. Whether he suffered from a "flawed personality" as a result of "the psychic wound of racism" is a question of interpretation; certainly, he struggled with and against his psychological ambivalence all his life. In both Black Power and The Color Curtain Wright in fact assumes a close analogy between his Southern experience and the colonial experience of Africa and Asia. In certain passages of Black Power it is difficult to determine whether he is writing about Africa or the American South, for Wright's views on Africa and Asia as well are often reminiscent of what he wrote concerning African American experience in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), where in his foreword he stressed the movement toward urbanization of twentieth-century African Americans. Socially conditioned by "what we see before our eyes each day," African Americans inevitably become westernized (12 Million 48) yet they have at the same time "never been allowed to be a part of western, industrial civilization" (127).
Joseph notes of the Black Power movement in the United States:

Far from experiencing a decline in the late 1960s, Black Power activism surged and became a defining organizing principle for the African American community. Carmichael, Black Panthers, urban riots, Tommie Smith's and John Carlos's defiant Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and Angela Davis's towering Afro defined the movement in the popular imagination. Beyond 1968's enduring iconography of revolutionary protest, Black Power thrived well into the early 1970s as movement leaders and organizations embarked on an ambitious effort to transform American domestic and foreign policy agendas by enlisting, at times successfully, the aid of black elected officials.

However, the movement's major impact resonated in the grassroots activism of thousands of community organizers, students, trade unionists, prisoners, intellectuals, low-income women, and preachers who adopted Black Power's ethos of self-determination as an organizing tool. From Harlem to Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina, out west to Los Angeles and the San Francisco and Oakland Bay Area, Black Power transformed American race relations. [my emphasis]
Joseph also has a 2006 book, The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era and a 2007 one, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.

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