The experience of the last five weeks shows that Wall Street “occupiers’ fear of liberal co-optation is fully justified.” Media mogul and debit card finance capitalist Russell Simmons escorted Kanye West and Al Sharpton into the Zuccotti Park occupation mix, in yet another attempt “by the soft liberal Left to co-opt anything that has any degree of revolutionary potential.” Cooptation efforts are to be expected. However, “If the Simmons and Sharptons of the world are to be combated a more genuine Black leadership must emerge from the ranks of Black people.”
“All we are left with is a memorial that will permanently impose itself, as spectacle, preventing actual discussion of the man or his ideas.”*
This week’s dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. was a quintessential display of what Guy Debord called “spectacle.” In his words, what we prefer to refer to as “media” is really the communication of “orders” whereby “those who give them are also those who tell us what [to] think of them.” These orders, Debord says, “permeate all reality,” and form a “crushing presence” so as to assure that “no place [is] left where people can discuss the realities which concern them…” And by so doing we are left with only the “unanswerable lies [which] have succeeded in eliminating public opinion.” In fact, Debord says, the “spectacle” is “the end of history [which] gives power a welcome break.” Such displays as we witnessed this weekend operate under the orders of ending critical thought and radical reflection and gave us a parade of characters who, as Debord also says, are the “experts [who] serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status.”
And just who were delivered by General Motors, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, Boeing, Phizer, Tommy Hilfiger and AT&T? Well, of course, the big prize delivery was the president himself and with at least 4 of his previous top campaign contributors also sponsoring the monument (GE, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs) it was clear his re-election bid was to be a primary function of the spectacle. And why not? Banksters and war profiteers don’t sponsor events meant to commemorate anti-war and wealth redistribution. So no, Dr. King could not be present at his own memorial, spectacle erases memory to preserve an ignoble present. And Obama played his role beautifully. He implicitly accepted, as he has always done, the simultaneous honor of being the culmination of King’s movement and its refutation. How else can a movement reach its conclusion and still require so much work, as the president reminded us, to achieve its goals? How else can a movement achieve the highest office and still be told by its leader that those who put him there have not worked hard enough? Only in America can so much work, for so many centuries, with so much blood, loss and suffering produce so little for so many. But this, for a president seeking re-election as opposed to a genuine product of a revolutionary movement, has to be the message even when all involved know that none of this has anything to do with King or his ideas. And while some delivered impressive comments all of the speakers let Obama get away with it.
The usually conservative, anti-progressive, anti-gay friend of Eddie Long, Bernice King was strong in calling out the fact that the distribution of wealth in this country is sickeningly disparate, while her brother Martin Luther King, III warned against an erasure of his father by a selection of “idol over ideas” and “brand over belief.” But the cavalcade of usurpers of King’s throne and their sponsors washed away any good those comments could have done. Jesse Jackson, still fraudulently adorning himself in King’s blood, told us yet again to “keep hope alive.” Andrew Young again reduced persistent poverty to a lack of “financial literacy” among Black people and said explicitly that a refusal to vote for Obama in 2012 was a turning over of gains won by King’s movement to the Republican party. And Al Sharpton, again, made White middle-class liberals look like revolutionaries by reducing their “occupations,” and worse King’s plans for permanent protests in 1968, to a slogan of “we will occupy voting booths” next year for Obama.
So by the time the corporate sponsors spoke themselves and after all the choirs sang all we are left with is a memorial that will permanently impose itself, as spectacle, preventing actual discussion of the man or his ideas. In fact, the words “Black” and “racism” make zero appearances at a memorial dedicated to a man who spoke of the essentialness of Black pride and an end to White supremacist notions of race. So having served the state and its media apparatus the “experts” this week assured that all that was and is Dr. King will be “crushed” beneath the orders they’ve communicated; orders that discourage the radical interventions that come, as King said, with a “divine dissatisfaction” with the world as it is.
Dr. Jared Sexton joined us this week to discuss to his work in Amalgamation Schemes and the politics of multiracial identification in an anti-Black world. As Sexton has written, “Multiracialism cuts its teeth on the denial of this fundamental social truth: not simply that antiblackness is longstanding and ongoing but also that it is unlike other forms of racial oppression in qualitative ways— differences of kind, rather than degree, a structural singularity rather than an empirical anomaly.” We also paid a brief tribute to professor Derrick Bell and his continuing influence.
October 7, 2011
It would be difficult to argue that the filmmakers of the recently-released documentary Black Power Mixtape did not intend the irony that came with some concluding comments from singer Erykah Badu. Her point was that Black people had to document and tell their own stories or disappear. That these comments came at the end of a Swedish film about Black Power, a film that both inspires and frightens a Black radical sensibility, made those comments stand out even among the many powerful statements made by those captured in the film. The fact that in 2011 Black people still struggle to tell their own story and, most importantly, to tell the story of the Black radical tradition encumbers this Black Power Mixtape documentary in ways the filmmakers are perhaps ill-prepared to realize.
The film comes at a time when, says Dr. Quito Swan – author of Black Power in Bermuda (2009) – we are in a moment of heightened “commercialization of Black Power” which often “includes a ‘sanitizing’ of revolutionary, anti-capitalist elements of Black Power while alternatively linking the Movement to ‘master narratives’ of ‘Black progress.’ The Black Power Movement (BPM) has in some spaces been softened to a definition more akin to that of Richard Nixon’s than of Stokely Carmichael and in others it has been entombed as ancient history museum artifact as was the case a couple of years ago at the Smithsonian. The message is clear; while the Black Power Movement was too big then and too iconic today to be ignored, it must only be viewed as a relic of history not as a programmatic guide for improving the world today. Praise the movement in its time only. The ideas, strategies and tactics that once challenged the world and inspired millions are of no use in 2011 despite the fact that every single solitary thing those women and men fought to eradicate is still here and worse than ever.
This is essentially the shortcoming of the film. Even the term “mixtape,” while probably inadvertent, is inappropriately applied. In an email communication with one of the film’s promoters I was told that this term was selected because the filmmakers, while working on a project about 1970s soul music, stumbled upon all of this Black Power footage and that the documentary features contemporary Black American musicians. But the mixtape, in the context of Black American history, has a specific relationship, origin and application – unlike any other – that is also lost in this discussion. The mixtape emerged as what is often described as the Black Power era came to an end. It was rap music’s original mass medium and served during its emergence in the 1970s as it does today as a site of anti-colonial music and journalistic content, a liberated mass medium for still-oppressed communities to express themselves. It is also a contested site in that it today suffers higher degrees of corporate co-optation where major companies use mixtapes to surreptitiously adorn themselves in the robes of the legitimating underground while actually promoting their own musical property.
The value of Black Power Mixtape, particularly in its rare footage of many of the era’s brightest leaders, is far outweighed by what has to be considered the film’s light or lazy research. For instance, why are there no contemporary interviews in the film with the political heirs of the Black Power Movement? The contemporary interviews with Angela Davis focus on her historical role as a Black Power era icon but say little of her current work or the relevance of her analysis in 1975 to 2011. Kwame Ture is similarly left in 1968 despite having lived another 30 years and leaving any number of admirers and members of his organization – still in existence – the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, none of whom are interviewed in the film. In fact, other than professor Robin Kelley’s short but powerful comments, the only interviewees representing today’s generation are the slightly more left-than-normal musicians like Talib Kweli, Questlove and Erykah Badu. Those carrying on the ideological and programmatic work of the Black Power Movement seemingly do not exist.
In the film a young Stokely Carmichael says that the assassination of Dr. King was the state’s “declaration of war against us.” But the question remains, even after a film about Black Power, “who called off that war and when?” The film, in its absence of attention to those still doing Black Power and those still incarcerated for having done Black Power, answers emphatically, that Black Power isn’t here now and apparently isn’t necessary.