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Black Power Movement: Empowering and Creating a Strong Racial Identity for African-Americans

By Joy Min, Rafaella Ribas, Brittany Welch

<Reading Summary>

The 1950s and 1960s were very important decades in regards to civil rights activism and more specifically the Black Power Movement. In Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that although the movement did not have the most permanent successes as seen by the return of the ethnicity paradigm in the 1980s, this was one of the first, “new social movements–the first to expand the concerns of politics to the social, to the terrain of everyday life” (96).  The Black Movement acknowledged that race incorporates politics, economics, and culture; overall, it heightened racial awareness and meaning by drawing media attention through highly dramatized demonstrations. Early on in the civil rights era, the emphasis was on racial integration and equality whereas later, more radical, separatist black power ideologies emphasized the black community and the black aesthetic, which derived from a rich cultural heritage.  Omi and Winant state, “the black movement redefined the meaning of racial identity, and consequently of race itself in American society (99).

In The Art of Protest, T.V. Reed discusses the black power movement, specifically the Black Panther Party, in regards to its theatrical or performative tactics as a spectacle in the mass media.  There is an interesting dynamic between the “black power theater and black power as theater” (Reed 50).  Radical leader, Malcolm X was known for his dramatic speeches, which in turn, inspired playwright, Amiri Baraka, who created many black nationalist plays and inspired other to follow his lead. This black power theater then rolled over into the black power movement itself; many of the Black Panther’s demonstrations were televised, staged events, revealing, “highly dramatic, stylized confrontations, often involving guns and the police” (Reed 42).  While the Black Panther party was violent at times, the media overemphasized this violence, ignoring the good and charitable acts of the party. Regardless, these performative tactics attracted attention as well as illustrated the black aesthetic within the black power movement, allowing blacks to unite around a common identity with their own theater, dance, poetry, sports, food, and more.

In New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, William L. VandeBurg details this concept of the black aesthetic and how it was appropriated or co-opted by the white mainstream. The black aesthetic was tightly tied to the concept of “soul,” which is the “essence of the separate black culture” (VandeBurg 195). In other words, it is an energy or mystique that helped define the black culture as its own separate group. There was soul food, soul music, and even soul talk. Not surprisingly, corporations tried to take terminology that was popular within the black community and use it in advertising to market to black consumers. This “black talk” made its way from the black community to the white mainstream and even to Hollywood. To fight this appropriation, the black community tried to preserve its language by making it a “moving target” (VandeBurg 218). Even white rock & roll itself (Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, and Vanilla Fudge) was essentially the appropriation, or even copying, of the gospel and blues soul music of the black community. Overall, corporations tried to capitalize on many aspects of this newly revived black culture.

<Screening Summary>

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The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 by Goran Hugo Olsson is a documentary that uses the mixtape format as the title indicates, to show the people, society, culture, and style that fuelled an era of spasmodic change. The film consists of footage shot by Swedish reporters from 1967 to 1975. From the end of 1960s to the early 1970s, Swedish interest in the U.S. civil rights movement and the U.S. anti-war movement peaked, and often, the Swedish media portrayed the Black Power Movement in a very negative light, showing only the worst moments that would make them seem as terrorists and violent. So some Swedish television journalists traveled to the United States to show the country as it really is.

The documentary starts with speeches that talk about how the United States doesn’t represent everyone in America, but only the ones in power. And the voice over by Erykah Badu(2010) says, “Because we want peace, we want to work with pride. That’s all we want. To say that we are wrong, to defend ourselves, is idiotic. Shame on America for that. Shame on any person who judges someone for defending himself for his family,” right after the speeches given by a few leaders of Black Power Movement. This shows how the media has been portraying the Black Power Movement as violent and dangerous, when in reality, all they are trying to do is just protect themselves from danger. This documentary shows how they just wanted to free themselves from inequality and be represented equally, but the media emphasized the violence to manipulate the public and the rest of the world outside of the United States. In the film, it even shows how in 1970, J. Edgar Hoover stated that the Black Power Movement’s Free Breakfast Program is the most dangerous internal threat to the U.S., and that by itself can show how oppressed the African Americans were.

The Swedish journalists also interviewed Angela Davis, who was falsely accused of murder. The police blamed Davis as the owner for the gun that was used for killing, when it wasn’t even hers. And in fact, even if it was hers, someone else could have used it, but they just put this blame on her, highly likely because of her race. Later in the film, there is a voice from a radio station saying, “niggas are moved into the white neighborhood, we better expect some bloodshed,” showing the degree of extreme racism during that time.

The film also includes the interview with Merill Panitt, the Editorial Director of TV Guide, where he talks about how the anti-Americanism in Sweden is “emphasizing only the negative aspects of America,” and that “we[Americans] have a more realistic perspective of what’s going on in America, whereas people abroad do not see any of the positive aspects in America, and only see the bad news.” This, again, emphasizes how European nations, especially Sweden, had a distorted view of America through media, and by showing this reality in the film, the journalists were trying to capture what is actually going on.

Overall, the documentary was well made, with a good use of voice over from current times mixed in with the interviews and footages from the past. However, the documentary was a bit hard to follow at times, because it was a little difficult to follow who was speaking when, and who that person is. Often in the film, they would show a scene from the past and have a voice over from someone in current times, so it may be hard for someone who doesn’t have much knowledge about this topic to understand the film completely. But it was unique in its own way, because most of the documentaries that we watched in class, such as Jesus Camp or Trekkies, were very organized and structured, with the whole documentary from the same time period. In comparison, The Black Power Mixtape, since it was a compilation of the footages, it was somewhat less organized, but worked well the purpose of the film, which was to show the United States as it really is. So what is better than compiling all the original speeches and happenings from the actual time period?

<Discussion Summary>

Due to the fact that the readings were quite dense this week, we started our discussion by writing down questions we still had about the Black Power movement.  We first addressed some basic issues and then discussed more broad and relevant matters to the movement such as the effectiveness of using a violent approach. Moreover, we also talked about some general responses towards the screening, with particular emphasis on Angela Davis’ explanation regarding the fact that they did not plan to be a violent yet that is how it turned out to be, given that they had to defend themselves while fighting for their people’s rights.

What do we mean when we say that Black Panther Party was engaged in a theatrical performance?

1

In class, we have discussed how creating a spectacle, which is meant to be looked as just as theater is meant to look at, which goes along with role playing and recognizable characters such as the iconic Radical leader, Malcolm X and Angela Davis. Along with iconic characters were the style icons belonging to that movement, which consisted of the berets, which can be traced back to the French Revolution, the raised fist representing the Black Power salute, their slogans “Power to the People”, and the natural hair also known as the Afro hairstyle. Furthermore, stylistic icons belonging to the Black Power Panthers also reflected in the way they dressed, which consisted of a military influence: black pants and black leather jackets, which resembled a uniform, signifying that they were prepared to fight.

In sum:

2

Was soul exclusive of Black Panthers?

3

Black is defined through ethnicity and by their cultural traditions and norms, especially regarding soul: music, food, and even soul talk. However, as discussed in class, soul was not exclusive to the Black Panthers. Though Black Power refers to a larger cultural movement that tried to advance the notion of black self-empowerment, soul refers to a larger version of that. For instance everyone could listen to Marvin Gay’s records, yet not everyone bought into this Black Power ideology and certainly not all the black power people were part of the Black Panther Party.

Is peace more effective for social change? If they had responded completely non-violent would they have achieved any change?

4

It is true that not all activists use violence. In fact, a lot of the violence encountered in the Black Power Movement was a reaction linked to Martin Luther King’s civil right movement and their very disciplined commitment to non-violent responses. However, those activists retained from violence and they still suffered hostility from the militants, therefore black activists saw non-violence as “having been tried yet still failing”, and for this reason their approach was quite different. Moreover, aggression has shown to be the most effective alternative in capturing the media’s attention, even though it portrays them in a poor lighting as media representations of the movement played up on violence and aggressive tactics.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a group of people who has been suffering oppression by white people for a long period of time; therefore they justify and even categorize the violence present in their movement as a self-defense mechanism. In class we’ve discussed how The Black Panther Party was influenced by Karl Marx and the idea of vanguard party—they thought they were the enlighten ones who saw oppression for what it was and could lead the rest of the African-Americans out of their “false consciousness” into revolution. Thus, they saw themselves at the cutting edge of Black resistance and therefore hoped everyone would get on board with them.

5

Besides the readings, we also talked about our reactions to the documentary we have watched in class. There was a particular scene that disturbed many students, which was when we saw images of children chanting about having guns and going after the police. At first that seemed very aggressive and some people in class shared how taken back they were while watching that scene. However, others argued that when that scene is put into context and we are able to analyze it as a whole, we could better comprehend that the chanting had more to do with a responsive reaction than with a direct attack.

6

Another scene that we discussed was when Angela Davis was interviewed while still in prison, and was asked if she knew the extent of the violence within the movement. Her explanation was that they had never planned to be a violent, yet that is how it turned out to be, because when one is attacked and deprived from their basic rights as a human, one must defend oneself. Therefore she classified the violent acts as self-defense. However, in class we argued that while non-violence responses seem to be ineffective, so does self-defense mechanisms—at least to some extent, given that revolutionary powers cannot go against the state for they will most always lose. Which led us to question whether the movement was a failure?

7

As we can see, it is extremely difficult to measure a movement’s success, however we can argue that it wasn’t a complete failure given that it raised awareness to the oppression suffered by black people, which is in fact an effective step towards eliminating or at least diminishing inequality between black and white people. Finally, the black power movement was a global phenomenon that provided a new perspective to all Afro-Americans in regards to their social struggles; thus whether it was a success or not, it definitely did unify them in favor of cultural/national liberation.

Works Cited

“And the Gold Medal for Hypocrisy Goes To… David Cameron.” Kevin Mcguire, 28 Aug. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

“PBS Independent Lens – The Black Power Mixtape (2011).” PBS Independent Lens – The Black Power Mixtape (2011). N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

Reed, T. V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

Van, Deburg William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print.

#repub13. Twitter.com. 6 November 2013. <https://twitter.com/search?q=%23repsub13&src=hash&f=realtime>

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