If Black Power’s Not Gone, Where Is It? [Reader Forum]

Victor Goode and Tim Jones-Yelvington add context and questions to the ongoing conversation about racial and political identities.

By Channing Kennedy May 16, 2011

Last week we ran a feature by journalist Reniqua Allen, "Whatever Happened to Black Power? (And Do We Care?)", which surveys the present and future of the movement. Reniqua digs in deep with leaders, scholars and torch-bearers; she doesn’t find a single answer, but does raise a lot of great questions. In an era when systemic racism can’t snag a headline, is a sense of political urgency impossible to recapture? Has the cultural frame turned the movement in on itself? How can new alliances be made with the exclusionary past still so close? It’s a comprehensive, provocative piece–and our commenters comprehend and provoke in turn.

Here’s CUNY Law School professor and Colorlines board member Victor Goode. Victor’s written for Colorlines about that other modern American racial movement, the Republican Party, and the ongoing efforts to delegitimize non-white political power and identity; we’re very glad to see him here in the comments providing some context.

One notable accomplishment of the black power movement that is so obvious that it escaped mention in the article is that it began with a redefinition of who we are. With the advent of the black consciousness movement we not only transformed ourselves from being Negro or colored to black, but this new sense of self identity has now evolved to African-American. Our "Negro" identity was limited and insular. Suddenly with our re-defintition we became connected with the world and the black diaspora spanning the six continents. This was not simply a public proclamation coming down from political leaders. It was personal to each of us and changed how we looked because it changed how we looked at ourselves.

What eventually evolved as a "black power movement" was more accurately a series of political movements that began to seriously grapple with the question of what self determination might mean given our political reality? As might be expected, there were many answers to that question, ranging from more conservative groups like the National Urban League that proclaimed that black power meant more black small business development, to the more radical revolutionary black nationalists that saw black power as a call to join the international revolutionary struggle against racism, colonialism and capitalism.

Needless to say any political movement that was cast under such a broad conceptual framework was bound to fragment and dissipate over time. But I think it would be a mistake to think of the black power movement as "over." There is an ebb and flow to struggle and resistance against repression. This was certainly true when one examines the socialist movement. While it was born in the late nineteenth century it flowed to it’s zenith with the creation of the Soviet Union and China–neither of which continue to embrace socialism. But, is socialism the ideology dead as a world movement? I think not, and I think there is evidence to prove this point.

Similarly I think that the black power movement is in a phase of dormant redefinition. Political movements respond to political conditions and while today the cutting edge of racial oppression is different in kind, it is not so different in effect.

In 1972, the National Black Political Convention in Gary Indiana made a failed effort to unite the many varied factions of the black movement. Through much rancor and disagreement the trend that eventually dominated the convention was that of black electoral political empowerment. Today we are living with the results of that choice, both positive and negative.

But when one looks at the historical range of the African American struggle to redefine liberty, equality and freedom from within our own condition we see that it covers our entire existence on the North American continent. Black "nationalism" was simply one phase of this longer struggle. Whether the continuation of that struggle re-claims the term "black power" remains to be seen. But whatever form the next phase of this struggle takes it will certainly owe much to the political seeds that were sown by the black power movements of the 1960’s.

By the way, friends of mine who were in SNCC tell me that it was Willie Ricks, a SNCC field organizer who first coined the phrase "black power." Stokley Charmichael heard about it and began incorporating it into his speeches. The rest is history.

And superstar Colorlines commenter Tim Jones-Yelvington asks how a movement can renew if it ignores its new people:

[…] I’m also a little leery about the twinge of adultism in sweeping generational statement’s like Baraka’s. … I am worried about how it glosses over the leadership roles black youth activists are taking in groups and organizations working on school-to-prison pipeline issues, on issues affecting Queer street youth of color, on issues of community health and safety, among other issues, and I think it’s important to pay attention also to research initiatives like Cathy Cohen’s Black Youth Project that are centered in the voices and experiences of black youth and provide a more nuanced picture.

[…] As I strive to be an ally to youth as well as antiracist organizers, it feels important to me to complicate this idea that black youth are all disengaged. I worry sometimes that our narratives about youth apathy–which exist in different ways in multiple communities–actually create what they are trying to describe, because young people hear them and internalize them. I think "movement moments," moments of mass mobilization, critical mass, happen in waves and it’s the hard work that small groups of young people are currently doing that helps make those movements possible.

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