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Stokely: A Review of ‘Our Premier Interpreter’ of Black Power Studies

Stokely: A Review
Jared A. Ball

“Now what if I could have heard Stokely Carmichael yelling ‘Black Power’ for the first time? I write rhymes to the rhythm of my heartbeat, pretending these high-hats is shells dropping to the street.”
Skipp Coon

Peniel Joseph once upon a time proclaimed himself the “father of Black Power Studies” leading at one point Bob Brown to raise the question, “if you are the father, who then is the mother?” (1).  Though he has now rephrased that to “founder” the initial paternalism in the original claim cannot itself be scrubbed from Joseph’s continued approach to Black Power, and with it, ideas of revolution.  Stokely: A Life is more of the same pattern established in his previous Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (2010); paternalistic, dismissive diminution of even the idea of revolution or more, his seems like the lamentations of an aggrieved parent disappointed at what could have been had the child just grown out of its previous political state of nature.  Joseph calls his focus on Stokely Carmichael an “act of recovery” (2) though it seems to be more a resurrection for the purpose of further condemnation. Carmichael, the previous evil (read “threat to national security”) now resuscitated serves to reaffirm the current good (or at least better) and functions also to establish an acceptable interpretation of the past and of formerly threatening people, groups and ideas.

There is always the question of intended audience when considering publications of any kind.  Here it would appear again that those who Stokely intends to reach are perhaps the fully uninitiated, mainstream best-sellers-list-making, mostly affluent White audiences.  Perhaps worse still the targets are those who might actually be inspired to continue or increase a political struggle around Ture’s actual ideas, analyses or programmatic suggestions.  In the case of the former it is to be expected and is not a primary concern.  However, Joseph’s (self)promotion, especially in those circles who have impact on African/Black (potentially) radical communities, makes the latter particularly problematic. Compounding the potential damage are the accolades bestowed by such luminaries as Gerald Horne who says, “… Joseph has long been acknowledged as our premier interpreter of Black Power,” or Robin D.G. Kelley who says that, “Joseph brings Ture’s radical ideas into clear focus…” (3).  However, perhaps if we use this misplaced praise as important points of departure we can salvage some value.  That is, how does “our premier interpreter” interpret Black Power?  How does Joseph bring “Ture’s radical ideas into clear focus?”

Initially, there is, as I’ve argued previously (4), Joseph’s attempt to define Black Power along Nixonian lines where Black Power and, therefore, notions of progress can be determined by the existence of Black individuals with high incomes and some amount of Black elected officials. Joseph had already established his approach to Black Power in Dark Days… where in a previous radio exchange with him I argued and continue to contend that to justify a support for the politics of Barack Obama and the process by which he was elected Joseph must and does accept the redefinition of Black Power developed by Richard Nixon.  That is, just as Nixon sought to separate Black Power from its most radical internationalist, anti-capitalist, pan-Africanist origins and applications by redefining power strictly on capitalist and mainstream electoral political terms Joseph accomplishes the same by previously describing the very corporate Barack Obama as an extension of Black Power and now, here, by concocting a post-civil rights collective Black political maturation that grew up appropriately and independently to adopt a mainstream political behavior.  In each case the most threatening elements of Black Power are dismissed entirely or incorporated as a kind of pre-civilized prologue in an ever-progressing part of the national tale.  In fact, as if to confirm this view, Joseph does tell us that Ture’s story is indeed a “uniquely American one” (6).

Then, in Stokely, Ture’s radical ideas are “clarified” as the ideas of a stubborn “professional revolutionary” who refused to keep up with an ever-maturing Black political public opinion.  One method of this clarification is Joseph’s confining his focus to Ture’s early life, diminishing and distinguishing in particular his final decades by consistent reference to them as being filled with a creeping unpopularity, and by also suggesting that Black people willingly chose to collectively move away from Ture and his ideas.  Stokely Carmichael was rightfully popular primarily because he “helped to transform American democracy in the 1960s” but there is no real need to consider Kwame Ture whose “democratic vision receded… worn down by white backlash” as he became “mesmerized by a global vision that combined revolutionary pan–Africanism with Third World anti-imperialism” (7).

Joseph cannot clarify Ture’s evolving politics in part because Joseph finds them of little value and is perhaps not politically or intellectually situated in such a manner to give insight or add depth to the range of ideas engaged by Ture.  Mostly, of course, much like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1991), by the time he gets to that part of the man’s chronology the book is finished.  He simply, strategically, leaves his focus on Carmichael leaving no time for Ture.  Even in a friendly review written by William Jelani Cobb some of this is recognized:

Joseph’s perspective on this is scarcely cloaked. Choosing to title the biography  “Stokely” is an implicit rejection of the phase of Carmichael’s life that began when he   left the United States and became Kwame Ture, adopting the names of the African heads of state Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Indeed, the last 30 years of his life — the years largely spent abroad before his death in 1998 — are dealt with in a single chapter and an epilogue. (8)

Supporting his method Joseph includes as referenced interviews in his book about the “life” of Stokely Carmichael only two with the man after 1973 and none that took place in the 1990s.  This fits Joseph’s narrative that Ture’s politics rendered him out of favor and out of touch with everyone, including most Black people.  Certainly, however, this does not mean Joseph’s narrative is correct in either its description of Ture’s fading popularity or why any would have occurred.

Ultimately, in each case, whether previously reinterpreting Black Power or now re-clarifying Ture’s ideas, particularly in describing his fading popularity, Joseph functions to also obliterate context by diminishing the role of the state in any or all of these processes.  Joseph seems to work with tremendous effort to diminish the impact of the state on all that happened to the individual and the Black national collective.  Joseph does make routine reference throughout the text, even when briefly considering Ture’s final years, to a constant FBI and state surveillance but only makes one passing reference to COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program) which had specifically targeted Carmichael as a threat to national security.  Joseph routinely describes the FBI’s surveillance of Ture post-1970s as more comical and unnecessary which serves Joseph’s approach by allowing him to avoid having to fold into his analysis of Ture any real consideration of the state itself, why Ture or those like him would have been threats, or what states do in response to those so deemed.  Joseph can then avoid any confrontation with all the documented histories of state-sponsored media campaigns to discredit threats, to promote preferred political (and academic) figures and to crush even the idea of transmitting the ideas with which Ture worked to successive generations of, in particular, Black youth.  Joseph’s repeated and sporadic references to seemingly natural and, therefore, acceptable collective shifts away from Ture make possible his eventual simple and dismissive summary of Ture’s ideas and (potential) impact:

 As Kwame Ture, his radicalism appeared largely anachronistic in a post-civil rights global landscape where former militants reinvented themselves as political reformers, entrepreneurs, and elected officials.  Long after Black Power’s heyday, Ture insisted that America, far from being a purveyor of freedom and democracy, was in fact an empire. (9)

Not so incidentally, there is no comparison made between these “former militants” and those who Joseph ignores, the not so former militants, the exiled, the still-imprisoned or the assassinated.  Joseph omits and, therefore, erases any possible consideration of the role played in these shifts by the most powerful state in world history and its war against various liberation struggles.  But there are no political prisoners today in Joseph’s narrative.  In Joseph’s narrative of Ture’s life there is no discussion of COINTELPRO so there need not be any discussion of a conscious attempt by the state to destroy people and movements represented in Ture.  Certainly radicalism will appear as “anachronistic” once the people are literally scrubbed from the streets and their ideas scrubbed from media and scholarly analyses.  Claiming, even merely suggesting, that these shifts occur absent outside influence, especially given the overt nature of the state’s efforts and subsequent exposure (even via Senate hearings), is disingenuous and severely flawed.

And precisely how can anyone suggest Joseph’s work is an attempt to clarify Ture’s ideas given his total erasure of Kwame Ture’s own autobiography?  Joseph does not bother to mention the book never mind explain how his is an advance.  There is no critique of Ready for the Revolution (2005) explaining what limitations there are in that text or how they are overcome in his own.  But why bother with what the man sought to leave as best he could as his final statement when, in particular, doing so upsets the current attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable? For Ture to become the lesson Joseph would like him to be, for Ture to become the conduit through which today’s Black leadership (political, intellectual, economic, etc.) can be seen as legitimate in their existence or justified in their behavior Ture’s own ideas must first be made history.  So after spending most of his time focused on Ture’s early life, recounting with no particular illumination what had already been more interestingly and thoroughly covered by Ture himself, and peppering the text with variations of his trance-inducing theme that Ture was attempting a “radical transformation of American democracy” – as opposed to smashing American empire – Joseph can work into his “Epilogue” that:

Barack Obama’s inability to comprehend the full meaning behind Ture’s anti-imperialism while he was a student at Columbia in the early 1980s reflects a generational transition that Carmichael helped spur.  Ture defiantly proclaimed the inevitability of a worldwide socialist revolution even as a majority of the most well-known civil rights activists of his generation pragmatically adapted to new political realities that Obama would soon embrace as a national politician and the nation’s first black president. (10)

Ture’s political evolution, or his receding “democratic vision,” cannot by Joseph be interpreted as an advance.  The moment Ture moves beyond voting for the lesser of evils is the moment his use shifts to that of providing the appropriate antithesis of what is meant to replace him.  Joseph does not offer the more honest assessment that Obama represents the culmination of a Nixonian process of safely reorienting Black people away from the Tures and toward the eventual Obamas.  As Robert Allen once described, “{Nixon declared} that the country must give black people a better share of economic and political power or risk permanent social turbulence… ‘By this,’ Nixon said, ‘I speak not of black power as some of the extremists would interpret it… but … the power that comes from participation in the political and economic processes of society.’”  In short, as Allen summarizes, “black capitalism” (11).  So the shift “Carmichael helped spur” was the state’s conscious effort to replace his once more popular political standards, positions, analyses with those more suitable to existing power.  Barack Obamas had to be cultivated from among the population in part by assassinating, imprisoning (some to this day) and exiling (again, some to this day) so many others, thereby forcing “most well-known civil rights activists” to adapt “pragmatically… to new {and imposed} political realities.”

Stokely… does not clarify Ture’s ideas nor is/should Joseph be seen as anyone’s “premier interpreter” of Black Power.  Ture’s own autobiography (with any of its imperfections), his online video/audio speeches and lecture tapes, hip-hop mixtape tributes, even some symbolic inclusion in existing sub-cultures, all do better in clarifying what Ture meant by a pan-Africanism defined by its application of scientific socialism.  Ture’s 1996 lecture, for one example, in solidarity with Elombe Brath and his Patrice Lumumba Coalition – still captured by some of us on audio cassette and which can be found also online – shows Ture still able to draw a crowd (which certainly had more Black people in them than most of Joseph’s book talks) and him expertly explaining the historical evolution of his ideas.  There he can be heard explaining his perspective on the natural development of pan-Africanism and the inevitability of that goal being realized.

There is a debate in that same year with Molefi Asante organized by students at the University of Cincinnati and captured on C-SPAN which shows another packed house many there to hear Ture brilliantly debate the efficacy of pan-Africanism under scientific socialism for the liberation of African people versus that of Afrocentricity.  Here again, even weakened and unable to stand, Ture with great humor and intellectual dexterity returns to appropriate relevance concepts of African unity, armed struggle and value of revolutionary consciousness.  And in 1998, equally ignored by Joseph, is Brian Lamb’s extended C-SPAN interview with Ture in which, once again, we get clear, detailed and fully-formed exhortations from Ture about his life, politics, ideas and contemporary updates to his analyses.  These few examples and many others all do perfectly fine in clarifying Ture’s ideas about armed struggle, the continued reactionary impact of the state and its minions and his broader ideas about history, philosophy and political theory.  These and other examples do far more to clarify and make plain Ture’s role as public intellectual or his continuing popularity which Joseph and his apparent political allies tirelessly attempt to deny, diminish, erase.

Even in popular culture from the United States and Great Britain we get more accurate reflections on the concept of Black Power than from our supposed leading “interpreter.”  From the recently published BBC radio documentary, Black is a Country (2012), we can hear a young Carmichael already referring to the U.S. as a “barbaric country,” and rather than hearing Joseph’s strained refrain of “transforming American democracy” we hear instead of Black Power as “a call to arms and self defense… a call to new consciousness and peoplehood” and that it “was the fire that ignited the Black Arts Movement” whose goal was in part the creation of “a new aesthetic, new identity, new community…”  And even more recently in the new HBO documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (2014), we are exposed to a more honest reflection upon the impact of Carmichael and Black Power, as well as, the attempt by Nixon to redefine it as previously described.  But unlike Joseph’s redesigned narrative here the Black community rejects Nixon, rejects James Brown too, and fully attempts to embrace the concept of Black Power as it was intended; as a threat.

Interpreters can be dangerous.  Our current “premier interpreter” would have us rethink Black Power and Kwame Ture as simultaneously immature antecedents to and having been realized in the current politics represented by a Barack Obama.  He wants us to read his “critical biography” because Ture is “today largely forgotten” and requires Joseph’s “act of recovery.”  But this is an act of resurrecting the condemned, recovery for future distortion or loss.  It is solely a restoration to reconcile the present and distort the future.  It is to remind those already outside his existing influence so as to limit his potential future impact.  For whom does Ture need to be recovered?

Ture is far from forgotten within the circles he worked or by the countless communities he sought to and still inspires around the world today.   He is remembered in the radical hip-hop commercial media – much like “commercial” scholars – routinely ignore.  He is referenced countlessly by progressive journalists and scholars and can still be found to have thousands of online video “spins” and is referenced in countless online audio mixes, various non-commercial media outlets and is found still in the iconography of old, young and future radicals and revolutionaries.  The still-imprisoned Mumia Abul-Jamal described well why we are right to be concerned about who interprets our revolutionary histories in his 2007 Foreword to the reissue of Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (also demonstrating that in many circles Ture needs no “act of recovery”):

It’s amazing how those of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries still rely on the  words of the white supremacist corporate press – a true enemy of the Black liberation movement if there ever was one… In the decades since the revolutionary era, we have seen how so-called radicals become liberals and, in current parlance, “neoliberals” (not to mention neoconservatives). (12)

Finally, an interpreter is only necessary when the initial message is unclear or unintelligible.  Ture’s was neither.  In fact, in the omitted autobiography Ture makes perfectly clear what he saw happening in this country and that support for its currently-constituted institutions was simply impossible.  His was not a call for a Black president, nor was it support for capitalism of any kind.  Ture was incapable of being put back into Joseph’s preferred box of trying to “radically transform American democracy” for to Ture no such thing even existed.  Ture described this country as, “Not democracy.  Not even plutocracy, but outright kleptocracy… Where both political parties are totally owned subsidiaries of an increasingly predatory, cynical, irresponsible, and immoral corporate sector…” (13).  Better still, in that same omitted C-SPAN interview, Ture was similarly clear:

Black Power, of course, has not been arrived at.  We don’t have Black Power yet.  We
have some way to go before we get to arrive at Black Power.  Some people get
confused and think that individual African electoral politicians equals Black Power.  I
don’t know how they come to that conclusion.  You can have an African mayor of New
York and the conditions of the African masses not only do not change but can in fact
 become worse… (14)

His could not be a call for the next Black president or elected official.  Not the Ture who made clear that “Black visibility is not Black power.”  His was not a call for getting reading to give up and “pragmatically” redefine what it means to be radical.  No.  His was a simple and irreconcilable call.  “Organize…” and be “ready for the revolution.”

Endnotes:

  1. This question was raised by Bob Brown, long-time activist and friend of Kwame Ture, during a presentation on Ture at Morgan State University, March 1, 2011.
  2. Peniel Joseph, Stokely: A Life (New York: Basic Civitas, 2014), p. xiii
  3. Ibid. Advance Praise page.
  4. Personal communication, WPFW 89.3 FM Washington, DC., March 25, 2010, archived online at: https://imixwhatilike.org/2010/03/25/defining-black-power-dr-jared-ball-debates-peniel-joseph/
  5. Joseph, p. 325.
  6. Ibid., p. 324.
  7. Ibid
  8. William Jelani Cobb, “Evolution of an Activist,” The New York Times, March 21, 2014, archived online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/books/review/stokely-a-life-by-peniel-e-joseph.html?_r=0
  9. Joseph, p. 323.
  10. Ibid., pp. 325-326.
  11. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 1992), pp. 227-228.Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2007), p. ix.
  12. Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2007), p. ix.
  13. Stokely Carmichael and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2005), p. 781.
  14. “Life and Career of Kwame Ture,” April 15, 1998, C-SPAN, archived online at: http://www.c-span.org/video/?104471-1/life-career-kwame-ture
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