Black Power is a Love StoryRoundup
tags: African American history, Angela Davis, black power, radical history, George Jackson
Berger is professor of comparative ethnic studies and associate dean for faculty development and scholarship in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey.
The Black Power movement never escaped the outrage that birthed it. Even now, decades after its heyday has passed, Black Power is remembered for its anger. The iconic photos of the movement are often severe: urban unrest, Black Panthers in berets and leather jackets, fists clenched and mouths open in protest. Angela Davis, the Black Power activist launched to prominence during her two years as a political prisoner, has said that images of her from that time period show her either “as a conspiratorial and monstrous Communist (i.e., anti-American) whose unruly natural hairdo symbolized black militancy (i.e., anti-whiteness)” or as “a charismatic and raucous revolutionary ready to lead the masses into battle.” Images of Davis as either a danger or a hero accentuated her militancy. Both sets of images, she wrote in a 1994 essay “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” left her wanting: “violated on the first account, and deficient on the second.”
Rather than outrage, however, the emotion most befitting Black Power is love. Certainly, Black Power marked a more radical approach to the freedom pursuit than what many civil rights activists demanded. Emerging out of the work left undone by the civil rights movement, Black Power asserted the centrality of shifting the terms of order—of changing who had power and how power was expressed. An ambitious blend of sacrifice and determination, love was the key dimension allowing Black Power activists to struggle against powerful interests that opposed them.
Beginning in the 1960s and lasting until at least the 1980s, Black Power was both a paradigm and a movement. It focused on transforming the nature of power in the United States precisely because it began where the civil rights movement stalled: after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts had been signed but when racism still defined U.S. institutions of housing, education, healthcare, and law. Black Power advocated self-determination and solidarity, encompassing everything from food cooperatives to prison rebellion, labor organizing, and reproductive justice. Across these divergent issues pulsed a beating heart of love for Black people and for the possibility of change.
Love has long been associated with Christian pacifist tradition, an unquestionably large influence on the Southern civil rights movement that Black Power is often said to have displaced. But the love I speak of here is not turn-the-other-cheek endurance. I refer instead to the love that characterizes Black politics. The late political scientist Cedric Robinson observed that from slavery to the present, the history of Black radicalism has been characterized by “the absence of mass violence.” Even the more militant outbursts—19th century slave rebellions, 20th century urban uprisings—did not utilize indiscriminate violence. The philosopher Cornel West has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Feminist bell hooks wrote a trilogy about love, and spoke of it often as the foundation of pedagogy and ethics.
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