In December of 2009, Peniel E. Joseph, a Professor of History at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, published an article in the Journal of American History that described “a new sub-field” called “Black Power Studies.” In this article, “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field,” Joseph traced “the evolution of black power historiography” from the late 1960s to the present day. He began with a 1967 book called Black Power, written jointly by the activist Stokely Carmichael and the political scientist Charles Hamilton, and he ended with the historian Thomas J. Sugrue’s 2008 “history of the northern black freedom struggle,” entitled Sweet Land of Liberty.

In the years between 1967 and 2008, Joseph surveyed about two dozen works that addressed a wide range of topics in the subfield “Black Power Studies,” from particularistic expressions of Black Power in individual American cities like New Orleans, Durham, Newark, Baltimore, New Haven, and Philadelphia, to the gender dynamics, violent strategies, and community activism of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self Defense, to the uniquely southern roots of postwar, Black Power militancy. Above all else, to skim through Joseph’s historiography is to recognize that “Black Power Studies” is a dense and dynamic historical subfield, attracting a very broad swath of scholars with a diversity of particular interests. In many ways, this dynamism reflects the elusive and often contradictory history of Black Power itself, a multifaceted activist movement that was both cultural and political, insurgent and mainstream, radical and pragmatic, and local, national, and global in breadth.[1]

Nonetheless, intellectual diversity sometimes obscures more than it reveals. This multiple-book review will put Joseph’s historiographical essay, “State of the Field,” into direct conversation with four relatively new works in the growing sub-field of “Black Power Studies.” It argues that, while readers should applaud the impressive diversity of “Black Power Studies” as demonstrated by Joseph’s literature review and the content of these four works, they should also see this diversity as a sign of weakness—a symptom of the subfield’s lack of definition and chronic incoherence. In part, the historical subfield of “Black Power Studies” has attracted so many scholars as a result of the implacable vagueness that surrounds its central concept of “Black Power.” While the four writers covered in this review would probably agree with Joseph’s main argument that the Black Power movement somehow “fundamentally transformed American democracy in the postwar era,” none of them would agree on exactly what the Black Power movement either is or was, how that transformation actually took place, or how it should be evaluated by historians today. In this sense, the very idea of “Black Power” remains like a Rorschach inkblot. Writers stare into its nebulous shape, and they describe the image that they prefer to see. The authors of “Black Power Studies” may be staring at the same picture, but they are having completely different conversations.[2]

In “State of the Field,” Joseph assumes the existence of “Black Power Studies” as an established sub-field, yet his article works quite hard to prove its existence. This effort is partly self-serving. Joseph credits himself with coining the name of the subfield, and he identifies himself as its “founder” on his website. In the middle of his essay, Joseph writes two paragraphs that promote his own version of “Black Power,” a 2006 narrative history called Waiting Til’ the Midnight Hour. Finally, Joseph concludes his article with some thoughts about how future authors can make relevant contributions to the ongoing literature of “Black Power Studies;” and several of these reflections speak directly to his current projects. An example of this self-referential style is Joseph’s call for more biographies on “national leaders and icons of the movement” while simultaneously citing his upcoming work, Stokely Carmichael: Race, Democracy, and Postwar America, 1941-1969. In general, we should remember the many ways in which Joseph is invested in the acceptance of this particular historical subfield. Not only is he attempting to set down a standard genealogy for “Black Power Studies,” but he is also attempting to position himself as its leading proponent.[3]

Joseph presents an appealing historiography of “Black Power Studies” in his article. However, this lineage projects a sense of coherency upon a collection of works that are presently united by little more than their reactionary nature to an earlier discourse about black radicalism. First and foremost, Joseph views his 2006 narrative and 2009 article as works of revisionist historiography, correcting the assumptions of two generations of scholarship that “condemned the black power movement and its legacy.” In particular, Joseph writes against a scholarly tradition that drew upon harsh media criticisms that were contemporary with the post-1965 Black Power years. This critical tradition positioned Black Power “at the center of declension narratives of the 1960s.” Representatives of the mainstream, white press and moderate historians of Civil Rights drew upon the worst elements of Black Power in order to argue that the movement’s origins signaled a decisive break from the widely admired, nonviolent traditions of the Civil Rights Movement. These critics quoted the generally “violent rhetoric, misogyny, and bravado of its advocates,” the “polemical excess” of their public statements, their periodic “condemnations against whites,” the occasional fratricidal violence between Black Power groups, and the movement’s open embrace of controversial philosophies like Marxism, Black Nationalism, and racial separatism. Most of these critics defined Black Power as a post-1965 movement—a phenomenon which created and embodied a perceived decline in postwar liberalism, American democracy, and the political tradition of the New Left.[4]

As Joseph makes clear, the early literature on Black Power was perpetuated by white journalists and moderate historians who were unsympathetic to its causes. As a result, those who joined the reactionary movement of “Black Power Studies” were united less by an agreement about what Black Power was than an agreement about what it was not. To these authors, Black Power was not many things: it was not an excuse for liberalism’s decline, an anti-democratic movement, or a post-1965 phenomenon that began only when the Civil Rights Movement ended with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Black Power was not a cultural phenomenon devoid of political implications, a northern effort without southern expressions, or a local movement without national and international connections. Finally, though Black Power was racially separatist in certain ways, the movement was not “the racist philosophy” that Time magazine characterized it as in 1966.[5]

In forwarding the subject of “Black Power Studies,” Joseph and others were primarily concerned with revealing diverse expressions of Black Power that countered and expanded the traditional media narrative. In this sense, they were trying to see beyond the narrative rather than refute its evidence. For example, Joseph’s Waiting Til’ the Midnight Hour did not deny the original criticisms of Black Power outright. Rather, the survey acknowledged the Black Power movement’s “bombastic tones,” “provocative imagery,” “overly macho” posturing, “violence and misogyny,” “masculinist rhetoric,” and tendency toward a “media-driven spectacle.” The same can be said for Black Against Empire, an historical narrative of the Black Panther Party written by historian Waldo Martin Jr. and sociologist Joshua Bloom. Martin and Bloom did not deny the “sexism and misogyny” among the Black Panthers, the feuds between party members or Black Nationalist groups, or what they call the revolutionary, radical, or insurgent rhetoric that sometimes alienated outsiders.[6]

On the one hand, the mere acknowledgement of diversity can be a crucial step to analyzing an historical subject, especially when that subject has been as stereotyped by its first historiography as Black Power. On the other hand, expressions of diversity should not be the end goal of any sub-field. Practitioners of any field should seek to complicate their historical subjects with the ultimate intention of defining them. Eventually, “Black Power Studies” proponents will have to reckon with the field’s original criticisms more explicitly and in the light of their findings. However, Joseph’s recommendations for further investigation at the end of his article suggest that “Black Power Studies” is still emphasizing intellectual diversity for its own sake.

Indeed, Joseph instructs his readers to follow several, broad “interpretive tendencies;” and, therefore, fulfill his central prophecy that the postwar Black Power movement “touched every aspect of American society.” He recommends more attention on Carmichael’s personal history and more “critical analyses of the successes, failures, and legacy of the movement’s [other] iconic, as well as more obscure organizations and leaders;” more focus on “unacknowledged…strains of black activism;” more social “community studies…that feature previously overlooked and understudied groups;” more emphasis on the roles of black women; more on Black Power’s geographical contours into the South;” more on individual state, city, and neighborhood efforts; more on “interaction[s] between local, national, and global movements for black power;” more on the roles of white radicals; more on relationships between civil rights activists and militants; and more on the way that “class, regional, and religious divisions among African Americans shaped responses to black power.” And this list offers only some of the avenues of further research that Joseph suggests at the conclusion of his piece.[7]

Strangely, many of Joseph’s ideas about the direction of “Black Power Studies” run counter to his own presentation of the elusive phenomenon in his “comprehensive narrative,” Waiting Til’ the Midnight Hour. Joseph’s survey of “Black Power” focused on the intellectual and transnational history of what he interpreted as its leading spokesmen, a handful of globetrotting celebrity figures that included Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton.  While Joseph’s article pays tribute to an interpretive vision of Black Power that is “less about iconic leaders,” “more about…community organizing,” and emphasizes women as “central” to the movement, he did none of these things in his own book. He relegated grassroots community organizing and “survival programs” to the sidelines. Meanwhile, prominent female activists of the movement, like Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, and Elaine Brown, were presented as either marginal endnotes to the narrative or as owing their success to the enlightened outlook of male leaders like Newton. Moreover, Joseph positions short discussions of gender as interjections to the central narrative, and he excuses misogyny by invoking the future. “Over time,” he writes, “the role of women in the movement would undergo extensive debate, dialogue, and transformation.” While that time does not occur within the scope of Joseph’s narrative, we are led to believe an eventual discussion about misogyny excuses its prior existence. Most importantly, Joseph offers absolutely no reflection about how his own male-centered narrative of Black Power might serve to uphold or reinforce the movement’s masculinist orientation.[8]

To Joseph, “Black Power,” the alleged topic of the sub-field “Black Power Studies,” meant something far more particular than he had suggested in his 2009 article. Black Power was a largely male, international, intellectual, anti-imperialistic movement; it was based upon a handful of iconic personalities; it was largely urban and northern; and its timeframe stretched from early 1950s Harlem to Oakland in the mid-1970s. The movement was defined by direct connections between a few key Black Power activists and prominent leaders of so-called “Third World” countries like Cuba, China, Ghana, Algeria, and Vietnam. As the remainder of this article will seek to explain, none of the subsequent authors—Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Alondra Nelson, Joshua Bloom or Waldo E. Martin Jr.—had a similar understanding of what Black Power meant, despite the fact that they were all supposedly contributing to the same sub-field of “Black Power Studies.”

Waldo and Martin’s Black Against Empire is the work which most closely resembles Waiting Til’ the Midnight Hour; however, instead of a survey that presents “Black Power” as a primarily intellectual and transnational tradition, Waldo and Martin offer a survey of Black Power as an insurgent movement through its most famous expression, The Black Panther Party. Their survey mirrors Joseph’s in at least two respects: the central role of male heroes and a perfunctory acknowledgement and then quick excusal of misogyny and sexism. Waldo and Martin emphasize the roles of male celebrities in the Black Power movement, namely Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver. An un-critiqued photograph on page 167 concisely illustrates the masculine orientation of the party, with eight iconic male leaders seated on stage for a celebration in the Oakland Auditorium and absolutely no women. Like Joseph, Waldo and Martin are content to acknowledge sexism and misogyny throughout their narrative with periodic interjections, short sections labeled “Gender in the Vanguard Party” and “Gender Revolution.” Then, in a quote that is strikingly similar to something written by Joseph, Waldo and Martin excuse Black Power misogyny by invoking the future tense. “However, over time,” they write, “as more black women joined the Party, their work and leadership helped shape the entirety of the Party’s politics.” Here the reader is instructed to rest assured that things eventually get better, even if this narrative is not going to tell that story.[9]

But Waldo and Martin’s interpretation of Black Power is also radically different from Joseph’s. First, they do not reach back to early 1950s Harlem in order to find the movement’s origins. Their narrative goes only to the founding of the Revolutionary Action Movement in 1962, and yet it really begins with the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966. Second, the authors downplay the international dimensions of Black Power, confining these global connections to a short section entitled “International Alliance.” Instead, they play up sensational stories of violent confrontations between iconic, Black Panther leaders across the nation—men like Newton, Fred Hampton, and Geronimo Pratt—and police officers and SWAT team members. This is because, at its core, Black Against Empire defines the concept of “Black Power” completely different than Waiting Til’ the Midnight Hour.

To Waldo and Martin, “Black Power” is an “insurgent social movement,” defined by a characteristic militancy that is “revolutionary” because it is capable of “destabilize[ing] existing roles and relations.” Black Power militancy is not an unfortunate distraction to the movement that needs to be acknowledged and then superseded; rather, it is the very aspect of the movement that makes it special. The Black Panther Party was successful in what Waldo and Martin saw as its heyday years of 1968 to 1970 because of its militancy. Accordingly, the “Black Power” movement and the Black Panther Party began to fail in the early 1970s when its female leader, Elaine Brown, shifted from the previous tactics of “armed self-defense” to “social democratic politics.” Finally, Waldo and Martin conclude that “recent movements” have also failed because they have followed in this “social democratic” tradition; they have not sustained “the insurgency, advanced a revolutionary vision, or articulated a broader alliance to challenge established political power.”[10]

Historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, in his book Bloody Lowndes, presents a portrait of “Black Power” that is completely different from both Joseph and Waldo and Martin. Instead of focusing on intellectual, transnational, or militant traditions among male protagonists of Black Power, Jeffries’ analysis of the unique black “freedom struggle” in the extraordinarily oppressed, rural county of Lowndes, Alabama, emphasizes “grassroots insurgency” and “grassroots organizing.” Although Carmichael is a big personality of the work, his organizing in Lowndes is superseded by that of a pre-existing, local group called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). Instead of male celebrities and well-known groups like the Black Panther Party, Jeffries privileges unknown organizations and the role of countless “local activists” who opened their spaces—like their homes and churches—to activist efforts, while lending their free time to community programs like political education meetings and ride-shares to the county courthouse for voting. In contrast to Joseph’s global and international approach, Jeffries emphasizes a national diaspora, where local people like Simon Owens, Charles Smith, and John Hulett migrated to American cities like Mobile, Birmingham, and Detroit. Finally, Jeffries’ Lowndes movement “created space for nontraditional leaders, particularly women, to emerge.” Accordingly, his narrative privileges the many roles that women played in the Black Power struggle in Lowndes. These are not celebrities like Cleaver, Davis, and Brown, but largely unknown women like Lillian McGill and Josephine Waginer.[11]

Instead of an intellectual or militant tradition, Jeffries defines “Black Power” as a primarily political tradition based upon an ideal of local activism for community self-determination through an independent party. He calls this tradition “freedom politics.” Most importantly, Jeffries defines the tradition of “freedom politics” as a means that is distinct from its supposed ends. In this sense, the goal of achieving what Jeffries describes as “freedom rights” cannot be achieved without “freedom politics;” and an abandonment of “freedom politics” equates to an abandonment of “freedom rights.” This relationship is similar to Waldo and Martin’s views on militant insurgency—the end of which also signaled for them a clear end to the success of the Black Power movement itself.

For Jeffries, activist John Hulett makes a political compromise with a white judge named Harrell Hammonds. Although Hulett succeeds in getting elected as the Lowndes sheriff as a result of this deal—and although he becomes the first black person elected to county government—Jeffries interprets this backroom deal as a failure and abandonment of independent politics. It was one of the “decisions made by a handful of influential people who preferred undemocratic politics,” and it signaled the “decline of freedom politics.” Even while Jeffries admits that police brutality and mob violence against blacks largely ended during Hulett’s tenure as sheriff, he cannot see the election as a success because mainstream electoral politics runs contrary to his personal, narrow definition of Black Power. For Waldo and Martin, “social democratic politics” was a key failure of Black Power. For Jeffries, “social democratic” politics was a key to Black Power’s success, as long as it remained local, community-based, and independent of the mainstream electoral program.[12]

In contrast to all these previously discussed works, sociologist Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul addresses “Black Power” through one largely forgotten dimension of the Black Panther Party. Nelson discusses the party’s “health activism” and “health politics” through their various medical endeavors, primarily their establishment of People’s Free Medical Clinics or Care Centers (PFMC) across the nation, their initiation of sickle cell anemia screening tests and group education sessions, and their fight to block the creation of a racially targeted research facility called the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence in Los Angeles. One might assume that Nelson’s focus on “Black Power” is most similar to that of Waldo and Martin because she is also addressing the Black Panther Party. Or, one may assume that Nelson’s focus is closer to Jeffries’ because she tells the story of the Black Panther Party’s “health cadre [which] was mostly composed of black women,” and she claims to examine how “ordinary people experienced…pivotal societal transitions.” Last, one might assume that Nelson’s work echoes that of Joseph because she emphasizes several key transnational and intellectual inspirations of the Black Panther Party’s focus on health activism. Nonetheless, Body and Soul is different from all of these works in very fundamental ways.[13]

First, Nelson dedicates a portion of her study to the intellectual theories that underpinned the health activism of the Black Panther Party, but she does not draw on the same lineage as Joseph. For her, the crucial transnational figures are Ernesto Guevara, Frantz Fanon, and Mao Zedong, and the connections are primarily established through a dissemination of literature rather than face-to-face meetings between male leaders. Second, while Nelson’s story of health activism foregrounds both the role of black women and everyday people, she does not place quite the same emphasis on localism that Jeffries does. Yes, the health activism and health politics of the Black Panther Party revolved entirely around “local needs, reflected local priorities, and drew on and mobilized local resources,” but it did so under what Nelson calls a “national network.” People from the local communities—like doctors, teachers, volunteers—ran the programs, but there was always an inter-play between the Black Panther headquarters and its respective chapters—an interplay that did not take center stage in Bloody Lowndes, even though it was arguably present with SNCC. Finally, while Waldo, Martin, Jeffries, and, to some extent, Joseph, all trace the decline of “Black Power” to the early 1970s, this is where Nelson’s story actually begins. The health activism of the Black Panther Party is the very “social democratic” tradition that Waldo and Martin criticize. It begins in May of 1972, when leaders of the Black Panther Party amend the ten-point platform to include a statement on health activism. “By spring of 1972,” Nelson writes, “Party health activism was full-fledged.”[14]

When Joseph published his article, “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field,” he brought together a tradition of historical works that had something new to say about black activism after the Civil Rights Movement. He called this tradition “Black Power Studies.” In the conclusion of his piece, he set down possible avenues for more study. In doing so, he included just about every aspect of postwar black activism that he could imagine. This was a call for more diversity of scholarship. Six years later, the sub-field of “Black Power Studies” is still pursuing diversity for its own sake. There now exist historical monographs that define “Black Power” through intellectual, transnational, militant, local, political, medical, and various other criteria. In reacting against those first journalistic critiques of Black Power, these histories have acknowledged, lamented, and even embraced media criticisms. Of course, there is no doubt that this diversity of scholarship is something to be celebrated, yet it also presents a problem for the future of the field. Underneath this scholastic diversity lies very real and fundamental disagreements about what “Black Power” actually means; how scholars can learn to recognize it in both the past and the present; and, if “Black Power” does not exist anymore, then what factors really contributed to its decline?

New contributors to the sub-field of “Black Power Studies” might ask themselves, can the subject continue to boast male-centered narratives, like those written by Joseph, Waldo, and Martin, while simultaneously calling for more work on women’s roles? Can the sub-field continue to glorify its militant Golden Age, without condescending to the era of grassroots activism that took place afterward? Can it find a way to pay due homage to the local, without losing either the national or the global? Can it reconcile its contradictory desire to work within and reject mainstream American traditions like the two-party political system? I believe the answer to these questions is yes, with one important caveat. In order for “Black Power Studies” to keep moving forward, the central concept of “Black Power” cannot remain like a Rorschach inkblot. It cannot be whatever an author wants it to be; it cannot be left undefined and its definitions cannot be left unsupported. Otherwise, we might as well start calling the sub-field “postwar black activism that is not Civil Rights.”

Notes:

[1] Peniel E. Joseph. “The Black Power Movement: The State of the Field,” Journal of American History 96 (December 2009): 752, 756, 772.

[2] This central idea that the Black Power Movement “fundamentally transformed” liberalism and postwar American democracy is expressed at several points in the article: 753, 768, 775.

[3] Ibid. 752, 766-767, 774. Peniel E. Joseph, “Biography,” Penielejoseph.com, accessed 4 February 2016, http://www.penielejoseph.com/bio.html. The author of this biography writes, “Dr. Joseph is the founder of a growing subfield in American History and Africana Studies that he has characterized as “Black Power Studies…” Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in Americ (New York: Owl Books of Henry Holt & Company, 2007).

[4] Ibid. 751, 756, 758, 767, 773, 775, 776. Joseph writes, “The media framed black power largely through journalistic narratives that promoted the era’s iconography of militancy, violence, and dangerous sex appeal, while paying scant attention to the movement’s more quiet efforts to transform America,” (756).

[5] Ibid. 755. Time, July 1, 1966, 11.

[6] Joseph, Waiting Til the Midnight Hour, 135-136, 151, 224, 271, 303. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2013), 194, 218, 374.

[7] Joseph, “The Black Power Movement,” 772, 773, 774, 775.

[8] Joseph, “The Black Power Movement,” 766, 773-774;  Joseph, Waiting Til the Midnight Hour, 255 267-268, 274-276.

[9]Waldo and Martin, Black Against Empire, 95, 98, 167, 302-308.

[10] Waldo and Martin, Black against empire, 31-36, 199, 309-322, 342, 381,385, 394, 398, 406, 486. 309-322.

[11] Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 2, 4, 5, 37, 67, 74, 80, 83, 153.

[12] Ibid. 5, 8, 222, 234,244.

[13] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xiii, xv, 77, 96, 139, 140, 153.

[14] Ibid. 4, 17, 19, 51, 65, 74, 103, 114.

Sources: 

PENIEL E. JOSEPH. “The Black Power Movement: The State of the Field,” Journal of American History 96 (Dec., 2009): 751-776.

—. Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. New York: Owl Books of Henry Holt & Company, 2007. Pp. xviii, 416. Paperback $19.99. ISBN: 0-8050-8335-9.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, New York: NYU Press, 2009. Pp. xx, 372. Paperback $25.00. ISBN: 9780814743317.

ALONDRA NELSON. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 312. Paperback $18.95. ISBN: 978-0-8166-7649-1.

JOSHUA BLOOM AND WALDO E. MARTIN JR. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 560. Hardback $45.00. ISBN: 9780520271852.