Black Power Revisited: A CBFS Interview

Stokely Carmichael, 1967 (Flickr)

Conversations in BlackFreedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on Black Power Revisited, scheduled for March 3rd, we are highlighting the scholarship of four of their guests.

Robin J. Hayes is an award-winning filmmaker who directed the documentary Black and Cuba. A Yale alumnus who studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she produced the Off-Off Broadway play 9 GRAMS, which was directed by Emmy/Obie winner S. Epatha Merkerson. Her book, Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power, and a Diaspora Underground, was released in 2021. Hayes is currently developing several projects including the Screencraft Film Fund semi-finalist, Inside Exile, about iconic Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Neal Cleaver.

Edward Onaci is Associate Professor of history at Ursinus College where he teaches African American history, modern US history, women’s global political struggles, social movements and music in Africa and its diaspora, and more. Dr. Onaci’s instruction also makes use of creative resources and high impact tools, such as Reacting to the Past and Digital Liberal Arts projects. His approach encourages students to take ownership over their personal and group studies, produce their own knowledge, and apply what they learn in class to their current lives and future ambitions. His book, Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State, was released in 2020.

Monica M. White is Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches courses in environmental justice, urban agriculture, and community food systems. She is the first African American woman to earn tenure in both the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Her research investigates Black, Latinx, and Indigenous grassroots organizations engaged in the development of sustainable, community food systems as a strategy to respond to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility. She is the author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.

D’Weston Haywood is an historian of 20th century American history at Hunter College, City University of New York. His book, Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement was published in 2018. Haywood’s work includes forays into an innovative scholarly and pedagogical praxis he calls “Sonic Scholarship.” This strategy works to generate new ways to analyze history, test Hip Hop as an analytical framework and scholarly methodology, and bridge academic and popular discourses. His first project in this regard, “The [Ferguson] Files: A Sonic Study of Racial Violence in America,” is a musical compilation of poetry, rap, and research that examines episodes of racial violence involving police killings of unarmed Black people that took place between 2014 and 2015.

CBFS: Can you tell us how you came to write on the topic of your book? 

Robin Hayes: Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power and a Diaspora Underground is based on the dissertation I completed at Yale, where I was the first person to earn a joint doctorate in political science and African American studies. I was inspired to adapt it into a narrative history by the international diffusion of Black Lives Matter and how the social movements for Black Power and African independence are directly influencing young racial justice activists. For example, inspired by Malcolm X, Black Lives Matter leaders addressed the UN about racial inequality in America. I was also moved to write this work by the massive cultural impact of Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther, which further demonstrated that people of African descent and their allies find diasporic reconciliation uplifting and heartening. 

Edward Onaci: This book began with my academic and personal interests in political movements in Africa and its diaspora, particularly those that have emphasized land and including Black revolutionary nationalists in the United States. As I researched in African and African American history, I started to see the name Republic of New Afrika (RNA). At some point, I read Huey P. Newton’s letter to Robert F. Williams, then the elected president of the RNA’s Provisional Government. Upon reading his letter, I developed questions to which I saw no answers within the available scholarship. The absence of a thorough historical investigation struck me as an opportunity to learn about the RNA on a personal level, to contribute new research to the growing body of Black Power histories, and to highlight the main ideas of this movement to the activist networks in which I was working and developing relationships.

Monica White: As a sociologist and scholar of social movement history, I sought to provide both a historical context to the urban agriculture that swelled in the 21st century and to relate it to its longstanding practice by African Americans such as my parents, who joined the Great Migration, leaving agricultural Alabama and North Carolina for Detroit, and yet always grew food in our backyard. They joined millions who gardened as a strategy of resistance and resilience, for community health and wellness. I began to explore the engagement of Black Detroiters in the urban agricultural movement, past and present, and to relate it to the importance of self-provisioning in the Black Freedom Struggle. The role of Black farmers has been missing from our stories of Black resistance. Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement recovers that history, a vital precursor to the contemporary efforts in which I had become involved. 

D’Weston Haywood: I wrote Let Us Make Men: The Twentieth-Century Black Press and a Manly Vision for Racial Advancement to uncover the gendered dimensions of Black political thought, organizing, and resistance, which called for a proper Black manhood, clarion calls that were critical to the success and limits of the twentieth-century Black freedom struggle. Yet, I found that this empowering and problematic masculine discourse emerged from a well-known and powerful but unassuming, quotidian source—Black newspapers and their publishers. By foregrounding the discursive and ideological work of Robert S. Abbott through the Chicago Defender, W. E. B. DuBois through the Crisis, Marcus Garvey through the Negro World, Robert F. Williams through the Crusader, and Malcolm X through Muhammad Speaks, I show how and why it was the Black press that shaped the twentieth-century Black freedom struggle to wage a fight for racial justice and Black manhood. 

The book grew out of my own experiences as a newly minted college graduate. Founding and leading an academic enhancement and mentoring program for “at risk” young Black men in Durham, North Carolina, I was grappling with socio-historical problems too complex for me to understand at the time. Initially convinced that we shared a common outlook on the world, I then saw there were key differences revolving around class, ideology, and conceptions of proper manhood. The experience was profound and led me on a quest to know how people arrive at their gender identity and the webs of meanings and politics that go along with this. 

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your work that our readers might not be familiar with? 

Robin: What I have been hearing from readers, especially the younger generation, is that they’re surprised to learn the Black Panther Party had an international chapter in Algeria. The chapter was led by the organization’s Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, who was on the run after a violent confrontation with Oakland police officers, and Communications Secretary Kathleen Neal Cleaver, who was also Eldridge’s wife. They arrived shortly before the historic Pan-African Cultural Festival, which welcomed artists, musicians and activists from throughout the diaspora. After the festival, the independent Algerian government officially recognized the Black Panther Party as a liberation movement and their members were given political asylum. Soon, Eldridge and Kathleen were joined by other fugitive panthers—some of whom arrived by hijacking planes. In the book, I detail how and why members of the international section clashed with the Party’s leadership in Oakland, including Chairman Huey P. Newton, and serious allegations made against Eldridge Cleaver.

Edward: Readers may benefit from learning about Tamu Kanyama and Nkechi Taifa. Both of them joined the New Afrikan Independence Movement as college students and have since devoted their lives to the liberation of African people. Kanyama’s life story demonstrates the very real and difficult outcomes that so many freedom fighters experience. She was one of the RNA-11, a group of New Afrikans who survived a raid and shootout with police and the FBI in 1971. The eleven were arrested and several charged with the murder of a police officer. Although Kanyama was not implicated in that death and was soon released from her incarceration, her husband, Hekima, spent almost a decade in Mississippi state and U.S. federal prisons. Mama Tamu writes about her life and the circumstances surrounding the violence of that event in her book 1148 Lewis Street: A Long Journey. Taifa began her New Afrikan independence work as the coordinator of the National Committee to Free the RNA-11. A lawyer and an educator, she also taught in DC area African-centered schools and has advocated incessantly on behalf political prisoners, even as she championed the cause of reparations and helped co-found the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Like Kanyama, Taifa has told her own story through her book Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice

Monica: It was actually many events: times when figures with which we are familiar—Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, WEB Dubois, Harry Belafonte, Fannie Lou Hamer, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)—connected the call for freedom to the call for land, recognizing food production as a strategy of resistance through resilience. As Fannie Lou Hamer, the founder of Freedom Farm Coop, which owned 680 acres in Ruleville, MS, was known to say, “As long as I have a pig and a garden, no one can tell me what to do.” Belafonte was a critical part of her fundraising efforts. Garvey believed that the Industrial Farm was a critical component for a free Black community. King castigated the racist policies of the USDA in a speech in 1968. In his speeches and writings, Malcolm X articulated land access as critical to the call for freedom and justice. Dubois described agriculture and cooperatives as critical to development of a liberated Black community. By recovering this history, we can advance this larger conversation amongst people we have considered to be disparate figures and relate it to contemporary strategies.

D’Weston: My book recasts familiar historical actors as pivotal newspaper publishers, and examines their efforts to deploy the Black press to theorize a deep relationship between race, manhood, citizenship rights, the state, and liberation. I reexamine Malcolm X from another critical angle rarely considered. A towering figure of his day known mostly as a firebrand, spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and caustic critic of white supremacy and the Civil Rights Movement, this public image was a carefully constructed persona that he fashioned, obscuring one crucial role—he was a student of, among other things, public relations and the power of television. In other words, the sensational public interviews and speaking engagements for which he became (in)famous are records of his calculated efforts to capitalize on and deploy television as the new mass media of the era, one distinct from newspapers, in order to help the Nation of Islam promote its political ideology and particular brand of Black masculinity to much broader audiences than Black newspapers could reach. This reshapes our understanding of one of the most well-known episodes in the dawn of Black Power—his feud with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and the dramatic ideological transformations he would undergo, following the feud. Altogether, this reframes the rise of Black radicalism through the rapid changes in both the Black freedom struggle and media landscape of the 1960s, it also reveals the high cost of Black men’s fusion of, and battles over, media and manhood.

CBFS: Considering the current movement for Black lives, how does an understanding of this history help us understand and even act in our current world? 

Robin: Understanding how and why Black social movements connect across borders—and the benefits those movements reap from these connections—gives us a clear perspective on the transnational nature of the Black Lives Matter movement today. Although African independence and Black Power activists found it useful to have critical conversations about their different histories and cultures, ultimately those dialogues were constructive and served to enhance their vision of racial justice as a global human rights project. Within the US, as the Black community is becoming more gloriously diverse with African American, Caribbean American, Afro-Latino, and African participants, we have another opportunity in this cycle of social movement contention to build bridges and coalesce in service to the freedom and equity we all need.

Edward: The history of the New Afrikan Independence Movement provides us with an opportunity to think carefully and critically about the goals of Black-led political activism today. First, it asks us to rethink the foundational relationship between African people and the United States of America. The relationship is between settler colonizers and their foreign captives. As captives, African and African descendants lived under laws that explicitly proscribed their human and civil rights to the point that, even with the advent of multiple constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, and the eventual election of an African-descended US president, they continue to experience a power deficit that is unique to their historical circumstance. This legacy of captivity requires continual questioning and analysis. Second, this history reminds us that land is the basis of political power. It provides us with an opportunity to determine what it means to pursue land and political power in a settler colony-state. Finally, the history of New Afrikan independence struggle challenges the belief that a corrective for oppression is the election of people “who look like me” to positions of power. Instead of attempting to gain representation within a system that New Afrikan’s deemed oppressive, they have argued that self-determination and self-government were better suited to helping solve Black people’s problems in the United States and overturning oppression internationally. 

Monica: The movement for Black Lives is part of the larger Black Freedom Struggle and as such, food sovereignty is necessary. As Civil Rights activist Reverend Wendell Paris says, you can free yourself when you can feed yourself. 

D’Weston: Among other things, the book highlights the ways in which media has long served as a powerful tool of white supremacy, and thus remains one of the structures Black freedom struggles must not only resist, but also work to access. The book reveals how foundational gendered ideologies are to how we formulate identity, leadership, rights, discourse, and power. Fully understanding the historical and political implications of these points can help activists counter movements and laws, which are fighting for a certain masculine politics, particularly the redemption of white manhood and a white nationalist state.

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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His research is on radical theatre and environmental movements, politics, and ideas.