In honor of Amiri Baraka

By Lynn Koh
Jan 23, 2014

I met Amiri Baraka only once, at a small gathering of activists in Oakland.  It was hard to believe that a world-renowned artist would take the time to meet with some community organizers and to listen to the campaigns we were working on.  He gave an interesting analysis of what Obama's election had meant and predicted correctly how terrible and reactionary the right-wing would be.  And in the end, he encouraged us to do what we do best -- organize.

Baraka's radicalization came when he visited Cuba, and he remained an internationalist throughout his life.  Indeed, what would the anti-war movement have been without Black -- and [email protected] and Asian -- radicals?  And how can we once again think racial justice and anti-militarism together as common sense?

I'm posting a short review of Peniel Joseph's 'Waiting Til the Midnight Hour' -- a history of the Black Power movement, a movement on which Baraka made his own exuberant mark.  Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka.

In "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour," Peniel E. Joseph shuttles back and forth between the breadth needed to depict the panorama of black radicalism and U.S. politics in the 60s and early 70s and the focus needed to unravel some of its more complicated dynamics. Joseph's book covers all the pivotal developments you would expect -- Malcolm X's radicalization and split with the NOI, Carmichael's orientation around pan-Africanism, the Panthers, the significant political trials -- in a book that is only 300 pages.  But there are still plenty of surprises.  Cuba looms large in Black Power's early development, as a pole of attraction for black radicals such as Robert F. Williams inspired by the Cuban Revolution and a precursor to the internationalism and pan-Africanism that would come into its own within the decade. Joseph recovers some events and protagonists that have been less remembered, such as the Detroit Walk for Freedom, a "mass demonstration cosponsored by northern militants and allies of Malcolm X, on the cutting edge of early Black Power militancy," and William Worthy's Freedom Now Party.  The author also makes an effort to consistently draw attention to gender politics and its centrality to the images and rhetoric deployed by several Black Power leaders.

Overall, the rough contours of the narrative trace the movement of black militants from the periphery to the center of the nation's race consciousness.  The early chapters repeatedly describe black militants as on the fringe of the black liberation movement -- both ideologically and in terms of influence -- while by 1967 "Black Power, rather than civil rights, framed the public perception of [racial uprisings]."  At the same time, perhaps the most interesting part of the book is its analysis of the alignments and fractures within the Black Power movement as various groups attempted to chart a way forward from a rapidly changing, explosive social situation.  In the first years of the 60s, the political climate seemed to create splits based on so-called "respectability," between the Black Power movement's forerunners and the civil rights estalishment; for instance, the alliance between Reverends Franklin and Cleage fell apart because of Cleage's openness to radicals with a tendency to criticize Franklin's close ally Martin Luther King, Jr.  Later on, though, Joseph describes the main splits as occurring around the opposition of black nationalism and Marxist class struggle, whether as SNCC vs. the Black Panther Party (BPP), BPP vs US Organization, or within the circle of activists promoting African Liberation support work, while the Black Panther Party was torn apart by Cleaver and Newton's disagreements on whether violent revolution or political base-building were on the immediate agenda.  At the same time, there are glimpses of uncertain, hopeful alliances, in the African Liberation Support Committee, the Meredith March, the campaign to Free Huey, the 1972 Gary, Indiana convention, and, Joseph would argue, the person of Malcolm X.  Most of these alliances would end up scuttled by underlying tensions.

In the aftermath, it seems far too easy to observe that any movement that could have the power and breadth needed to overturn the deeply entrenched structures of white supremacy in this country would have required constructive interaction among all these forces.  The passions animating the conflicting visions of black liberation made this process extremely difficult, yet without those passions perhaps no black power movement would have existed.  Today's political climate pushes many revolutionaries into the progressive milieu, which facilitates collaboration while at the same time making it difficult to remain oriented around radical politics.  In the late 1960s perhaps revolution was also a distant possibility -- certainly the 70s and 80s made it so -- yet the idea that Black Power could reshape the society in the immediate future made it even more urgent to answer the question of what vision to unite around.   

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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