Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Notes: Waiting 'til The Midnight Hour - A Narrative History of Black Power in America by Peniel E. Joseph

At the risk of over-simplification, the 20th Century movement demanding equality for African-American people had two main focal points, "Civil Rights" and "Black Power". While the former has gained widespread acceptance in mainstream society, and its' leaders are considered to be heroes, the latter remains consistently more contentious. As a result the development of this important movement has resulted in fewer books, and films, magazine articles and its' role, development, struggles, triumphs, failures and characters remain less well-known than their Civil Rights equivalents. Peniel E. Joseph's, Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour - A Narrative History of Black Power in America makes a significant contribution to the telling of the battle for equality by describing in detail the too-often-forgotten story of "Black Power".

In just over 300 pages of riveting, and meticulously researched narrative, Peniel Joseph sketches the roots, development, key players, main events, organisations and characters of the radical end of the Black struggle. The opening chapters focus on the roots of the movement, in which the radicalising influences that made many activists abandon non-violence firstly as a creed, and finally as a tactic, are traced. One of the strengths of the book is that he nicely explores the inter-relationships between the Southern struggle against Jim Crow, with the building fury in the Northern ghettos of LA, Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia - which are often studied in isolation from one another.

The book tells the stories of countless activists, organisers, theorists, agitators, and revolutionaries in many locations, but there are three who dominate the narrative; Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton. Malcolm is described here as a pivotal character in voicing and organising the radical alternative to Civil-Rights, and his career is traced in detail. Carmichael's rise from a voting registration worker in Mississippi, through his tempestuous tenure as chairman of SNCC, to becoming first the voice of Black Power, and then his various revolutionary ideological shifts towards African-ism is very well told. The final chapters deal with the outright military revolutionary struggles associated with Newton, Cleaver and the Black Panthers. The collapse of the Black Power movement is then traced, before demonstrating that while the 70s killed it as a movement; its cultural, social and political influence remains potent - symbolised most visibly by use of the correct racial terminology, African-American.

Although billed as a 'narrative history', and concerned with relaying the story of the movement, Joseph's analysis and personal sympathies are apparent. It is clear that in his view King's pursuit of the Beloved Community through righteous non-violence was an appeal to a conscience that white America simply didn't have. This week we learnt that even Atticus Finch turned out to be a filthy racist in the end - something which Civil Rights activists would have deplored but Black Power fighters would suggest is simply realistic. The essence of the difference between the two movements is brought into stark contrast -one sought to manoeuvre America into allowing Black people to fully participate in its life. The other saw American life as irredeemably corrupt and racist, and so instead sought to seize justice by whatever means necessary. If Peniel is occasionally too uncritical of his three central protagonists, he is consistent in his presentations of the critiques of Martin Luther King Jr, and all he represented. The politeness he generally reserves for King himself, he certainly does not for Kings followers and successors! In so doing he sometimes seems to present the two strands of the struggle as more diametrically opposed than was perhaps always the case - neither giving enough credence to the ongoing radicalisation of King's last year, or to more moderate voices within the radical camp. These flows are hinted at in the book, but it would have been interesting to read more about these relationships.

One especially fascinating aspect of Waiting Till The Midnight Hour, is Joseph's chronicle of the ideological developments in radical African-American circles in the 1960s. Following on from Clayborne Carson's definitive history of SNCC, Peniel Joseph shows that while radical protesters rapidly rejected the conciliatory Christian-Ghandianism which had characterised the great Southern showdowns from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma; they had no clear ideological map in front of them and underwent incredibly rapid changes in world-views. The time-frame in which SNCC changed from a multi-racial Civil Rights organisation to a Black-only Black Powerhouse, was incredibly tight. As such, while rejection of the Jim Crow South and the Ghetto-ised North united them against defined targets, and rejection of pacifism united them tactically; ideologically the Black Power movement fragmented into all manner of different directions and emphases. Joseph's work tracking these developments, influences and key players is meticulous and superb. He shows how the different ideological trajectories which at their heart place either race or class at the foundational issue led different strands either towards Pan-Africanism on one hand or Marxism on the other as ideological underpinnings for their revolutionary intent.

 "Black Power" remains a controversial and complex phenomenon in African American history, and the pursuit of racial justice. Understanding it, and tracing why it evolved as it did, is an essential element in understanding so much of contemporary America. Peniel E. Joseph's, Waiting 'Til Midnight Hour, is an excellent place to go to do just that.

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