What Ever Happened to Black Power? (And Do We Care?)

A new Malcolm X biography has put black nationalism in the news again. Reniqua Allen looks back, and forward, at the political ideology he helped popularize.

By Reniqua Allen May 12, 2011

When Malcolm X was assassinated on a sunny winter’s day in 1965, many thought black radicalism would die with him. "Malcolm is our only hope. You can depend on him to tell it like it is and to give Whitey hell," one man told the New York Post. But the movement did not die in the Audubon ballroom that tragic day. It in fact catapulted, sparking talk of revolution in black America and third world nations around the world and blooming into a black nationalist movement that helped shape the politics of race for decades to come.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about Malcolm’s life and politics, due to a new biography, "The Reinvention of Malcolm X," by the late scholar Manning Marable. The book depicts an activist in constant metamorphosis, a man who went from being the target of the U.S. government’s anti-intelligence programs to being heralded on a postal stamp 35 years later. However, while the debate rages on about the reinvention of Malcolm, very few have questioned whether and how the black nationalist movement he helped foster matters today, or whether it should matter.

A Proquest search of The New York Times archives shows that the phrase "Black Power" turned up at least 615 times in the paper in 1965, as Malcolm died and the movement shifted and grew. In 2010, the number was zero. This highly unscientific study reflects how much the language, at least, has changed. But what about the ideas and the politics it represented?

"As a movement it’s part of our history, but its no more alive than the abolition movement," says Cedric Johnson, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, who wrote "Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics." "There’s people who still are fighting for ideals, but I don’t see it as a living breathing movement."

The black power movement rose to prominence as a counterpoint to engagement with the mainstream political institutions of America, particularly electoral politics. Student activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, popularized the political label "Black Power" in 1966, saying it was time for black people to unite and build their own communities. "The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks," wrote Ture and co-author Charles Hamilton in a seminal 1967 political treatise.

Ture and Hamilton went on to explain how self-determination and self-definition are essential prerequisites to revolution–and they did mean revolution, not merely change. The movement was often considered separatist and anti-white, but its adherents insisted it was just pro-black.

"We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relationship to the society, and to have those terms recognized," Ture and Hamilton wrote. "This is the first necessity of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend."

These ideas, which have stirred through black politics in one form or another since slaves first revolted, have influenced the politics of community empowerment ever since. The right to self-definition as a precursor to liberation has animated movements ranging from sexual freedom to disability rights. And black power itself came to dominate race politics in densely black urban communities like Oakland, Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit during its zenith.

Critics say the movement also brought with it a culture of sexism and violence. Moreover, it was said that the movement was more talk and machismo than real action and organizing. But it is nonetheless credited with some concrete achievements–assisting in efforts to elect black mayors and other government officials in places like Newark, Cleveland and Detroit; helping to institutionalize Black Studies departments on college campuses; the creation of the African-American holiday Kwanzaa, which is celebrated worldwide; and creating and fostering a cultural arts movement that produced artists like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni.

Despite these accomplishments, black power faded in subsequent decades, both as an ideology and as a movement. A testament to how much things changed is reflected in an early 1990s Ben & Jerry’s advertisement featuring Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. In the ad, Seale can be seen smirking at the camera as he sports the Panthers’ signature black beret, with a raised clenched fist in one hand and a container of vanilla ice cream in the other. This image of Seale, who also put out a collection of barbque recipes, was quite the contrast from the man who was on trial for inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and murdering an alleged police informant in the 1970s. Other signs of the movements’ shift with age are not as amusing, or stark; many of the leaders entered academia, started non-profits, or became politicians. Though younger generations occasionally have reignited the nonconformist, militant vibe in pop culture (like Public Enemy and Dead Prez), no one has quite captured the same spirit of political urgency.

"We are missing the militancy, the love for discipline and the love for blackness that it gave us," argues Oakland-based activist Lateefah Simon of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights. She says that while there are strains of the movement on the ground in Oakland, the city once known as home to the Black Panther Party is virtually bereft of viable black power politics today. "There is a lack of being unapologetically black, and I have not come across large, organized black power movements. The urgency, at least in this area, I don’t think is alive."

Baraka, who once famously declared "it’s nation time," argues that the urgency is gone because younger people and middle-class African Americans have replaced the idea of community with the ideal of the American Dream. "There are a whole lot of people in the younger generation that think things have always been like this–that it’s about them, personally, moving on up, like the show used to say, rather than understanding the struggle of the whole people," Baraka says. "The black middle class [also] doesn’t feel like their future is tied to the future of black America."

This is ironic, if true, since black youth and the middle class have been among the hardest hit during the economic downturn, and President Obama has yet to release a specific policy to address their needs. Unemployment for black youth is at nearly 42 percent, and 19 percent for black high school graduates–that same group that played such a prominent role in black power movements. The middle class is not faring much better. Black homeownership is steadily falling, foreclosure rates in the black community are the highest among any group, and in 2010 black college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed at almost twice the rate of white graduates. But an aversion to politics in the black middle class is also not a new assertion; it was a core critique of the black power movement from its inception.

Chawn Kweli, a spokesman for the controversial New Black Panther Party–a group whose leaders have been known for making disturbing statements like "I hate white people" and "kill every goddamn Zionist in Israel"–feels optimistic about the future of a new black power movement. He sees movement on the ground, and says events like the NBPP’s Day of Action, held in 60 cities in April, prove there is energy, though he admits it’s "not the same as before."

He says today’s movement may not be as visible, but the ethos of power through unity remains. "I can’t point you to an Afro or dashiki and say it’s a symbol of the movement, but I can say that the unity today is [a symbol]. Today, you can’t look at a person with a leather jacket and say that’s a Panther. It’s the brother with a suit, and that brother with a bandana, too."

In fact, some foundational ideas from the movement have endured within the black community–though with a strikingly different emphasis. Self-determination and personal control over one’s destiny are today central talking points for everyone from President Obama to Bill Cosby–hardly the revolutionaries Ture had in mind back in ’66.

Johnson argues that the self-empowerment rhetoric of today, however, has morphed the idea into a focus on personal and cultural responsibility, rather than using it as a tool to strike at the structural flaws Ture addressed. "The cultural stuff its amiable to the time," Johnson says. "It coincides with the idea of a New Democrat. It survives because it’s not troublesome. In the earlier period it was a general consensus that the system was to blame, [but then we were told] it was not systematic, it was cultural. Now [that opinion] is widely held."

Komozi Woodard, a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and a former minister of economics in Newark’s black nationalist movement, believes momentum for the black power of Ture’s day was lost after the movement made gains. "When black students won major victories in terms of admissions and financial aid, Black Studies courses and black professors, some of the basic reasons for their origins had been satisfied," he suggests. "Consequently, many student movements experienced demobilization."

So what would a re-mobilized black power movement look like, in an era with a black president and sprawling black suburbs? Baraka suggests it may have more of a focus on electoral politics and an increase in alliances and coalitions with other organizations. Simon, of the Lawyers’ Committee, sees more respect for women, who have always been a cornerstone of community politics but were often overshadowed by men in black power circles. She also believes an engagement with the queer community will be essential. In other words, a whole host of things that were anathema to the original ideology, which eschewed the white man’s political institutions, was deeply skeptical of alliances (Ture and Hamilton included a chapter titled "The Myths of Coalition") and featured some infamously homophobic machismo.

Perhaps that’s why Johnson is skeptical of a revival of any kind. "I kind of doubt that same history will repeat itself," he says.

Marable writes in his new biography of Malcolm that "no single personality ever captured him fully, in this sense his narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions, Malcolm X just being his best known." Perhaps the same can be said of Black Power, with no single person, event or era fully capturing the essence of an ideology that has been a part of black culture, in one form or another, since the 18th century. Perhaps it is an evolving part of black history, with peaks and zeniths, that is continually growing, revitalizing, and of course reinventing the narrative of the people.

Reniqua Allen is a freelance journalist who has worked with outlets ranging from PBS’s "Bill Moyers Journal" to Black Enterprise magazine. She is a Ph.D student at Rutgers University in American Studies, focusing on the intersections of the black middle class, pop culture and politics.