“Call and Response: Black Power 50 Years Later” at Brooklyn Historical Society

“CaBrownstonephoto_Wikimedia_publicdomain_Smallll & Response: Black Power 50 Years Later,” a panel discussion, which took place at Brooklyn Historical Society on June 14, 2016, featured the perspectives of five people with very diverse life experiences and approaches to the meaning of Black Power from a 21st century vantage point. The panel reflected on the movement, which thrived primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, and considered ways to use historical perspective to inform methods for organizing in the contemporary #blacklivesmatter movement. The speakers included 86-year-old Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry, social activist, pastor, and founder of the African People’s Christian Organization; 30-year-old DeRay McKesson, a civil rights activist and politician; long-time activist, educator, and radio host, Bahir Mchawi; Board member at Black Women’s Blueprint, Inc., Janeen Mantin; and Dante Barrett, a writer, organizer, and Executive Director of Million Hoodies. The  inter-generational dynamic was immensely interesting and allowed for a great deal of comparison.Professor Robyn Spencer of Lehman College facilitated the conversation, setting it in motion by encouraging reflection on the history of the Black Power movement. The movement, as she described it, “elicited fear and discomfort” among many, mostly White Americans when it was launched (albeit rhetorically) in 1966 by Stokely Carmichael. This notion of the Black Power movement as a misguided and destructive group, which often led and continues to lead to these feelings of fear, is distorted. Most Black Power organizations retained the right to self-defense, but only a small number of Black Power groups, including the Black Panther party, openly advocated for “proactive revolutionary violence.”[1] Additionally, the Black Power movement made many positive contributions to the movement for Black liberation. For one, the movement yielded the first generation of Black urban political leaders. It produced a significant cultural impact through the Black Arts Movement in poetry, dance, and theater, and also importantly encouraged the embrace of black beauty, from “Afros” to berets. The movement also brought attention to the police brutality that occurred specifically towards Black individuals. In fact, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense at its inception named its goal to be monitoring police behavior after countless instances of brutality and mistreatment towards Black individuals.[2]

The Black Power movement, while an important part of the movement for Black liberation in the United States and globally, was not perfect. As Audre Lorde notes in her essay “Learning From the 60s,” the Black Power movement did not achieve many of its goals. She reasons that this is because “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”[3] During the movement, Lorde felt that “over and over again,” she was asked to justify her existence and work due to her gender and sexuality.[4]

At the start of the panel discussion, Rev. Dr. Daughtry was called to the podium to present a documentary clip which displayed the contributions of Black Power activists to the black liberation movement. Aspects of this clip, to me, resembled the rhetoric and actions at the forefront of the current movement for racial justice, #blacklivesmatter..

Though the #blacklivesmatter movement is accepted to a greater degree by non-Black society than was the Black Power movement, the contemporary movement does also elicit similar feelings of fear and discomfort among non-Black Americans with particular investments in White supremacy (i.e. White supremacy serves them emotionally, physically, and/or materially). These feelings are exemplified by events of violence and backlash such as the anti-Black, white supremacist Charleston shooting and the rising popularity of Donald Trump with his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

As another example of the resemblance, the documentary shown at the start of the conversation depicted one Black Power protester holding a poster which read “Stop Killing Our Children,” a statement directed at White police. Police brutality and its specific effect on people of color is an issue plainly centered in the #blacklivesmatter movement, as it was in the Black Power movement as well. Of course, contemporary instances of racist police brutality are not new; yet they have been made more visible in this era by the #blacklivesmatter movement’s intentional visibility of young victims of police brutality like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown.

A final commentary on the Black Power movement came from Rev. Dr. Daughtry, who recalled the mechanisms for empowerment by participants of the movement. For one, their “hair grew out” and “the things that we were ashamed of were displayed.” Twitter has been an important vehicle for political and social mobilization in this movement, and one of the many hashtags that has come from this mobilization in the past years is #naturalhair. There are also countless articles about Black natural hair posted on HuffPost Black Voices, signaling that as today’s Black Americans become mobilized as they did in the Black Power movement, they are beginning to again relinquish the hold that Eurocentric beauty standards have had on their appearance ideals–an action which saves money, time, energy, and builds confidence.

After touching on similarities between the movements, Professor Spencer shifted the conversation to each activist’s personal experiences with racial justice activism. McKesson, Mantin, and Barrett spoke about their life experiences as contributing to their current political activism. Barrett remarked that he “always understood what power looked like” as he was raised by only his mother. He grew to understand for himself that the “personal is political.” This slogan, used as a political argument from the 1960s, underscored the validity of connecting personal experience to broader social and political structures.[5] Mantin echoed this philosophy in proclaiming that, for her, “the experience of activism is the experience of self.” McKesson, on the other hand, who endured a difficult childhood, recounted a series of spontaneous jolts into action such as when he drove to St. Louis, a city where he knew virtually nobody, after Mike Brown was killed, in order to join the protests and marches there. McKesson later remarked that protesting is “telling the truth in public.” He was recently, he believes unlawfully, arrested and released from jail seventeen hours later in Baton Rouge for retelling this truth and protesting peacefully after the murder of Alton Sterling by a police officer.

From the sharing of these personal journeys, the panelists began to discuss methods for thinking of personal activism and movement building. McKesson prompted the audience to consider how organizing communities sometimes use hardship, especially that induced by political or social injustice, as currency for the greater “authenticity” of social justice work. Though McKesson himself has experienced a number of these hardships himself, he mentioned that he is not sure if they make him a better or worse organizer, and thus is unsure about the reliability of this authenticity mindset.

Towards the end of the discussion, Professor Spencer brought up the topic of gender in both movements to build Black power, at which point the only female panelist, Janeen Mantin, a Board member at Black Women’s Blueprint, pointed out that there were no other female panelists. She suggested that this was problematic, and brought the group to a larger discussion about black women and other non-straight cis male people’s place in both movements. At this point, it became evident that the younger panelists recognized the struggles of female, queer, and transgender individuals, while the older panelists may not have possessed the same framework due to the time period during which they organized.

To end the discussion, Basir Mchawi, Lecturer at Queens College, made a timely call for a common intergenerational language, and for “people to people relationships around the African world.” This panel was one opportunity for this intergenerational language to begin to form, as young and old activists spoke to and learned from one another, and did so in front of an audience likely comprised of many activists and historians themselves. I hope to see more intergenerational activist conversations of this sort in the future.

 

[1] Peniel Joseph, “The Black Power Movement, Democracy, and America in the King Years,” http://www.penielejoseph.com/BlackPowerMovementDemocracy.pdf

[2] 2012. “Monitoring the police to ensure accountability.” New York Amsterdam News, October 11. 45. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 12, 2016).

[3] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 138.

[4] Lorde 143.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_personal_is_political