Black Power


The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was one of the leading organizations advocating Black Power.
(Source: J.C. Albert and S.E. Albert, eds., The Sixties Papers [Praeger, 1984], 105)

Black Power was a political movement that arose in the middle 1960s, that strove to express a new racial consciousness among Blacks in the United States. Robert Williams, who revived the Monroe, NC chapter of the NAACP and later entered exile in Cuba and China, was the first to put the actual term to effective use in the late 1950s. Williams, who was also the first to publish the poetry of Ray Durem, used the phrase "Black Power" in the American political context.

The movement stemmed from the earlier civil rights movements, but its meaning was vigorously debated. To some African Americans, Black Power represented racial dignity and self-reliance (i.e. freedom from white authority in both economic and political arenas). To others, it was economic in orientation.

Led in some ways by Malcom X, who supplied the rhetoric, style, and attitude, the Black Power Movement encouraged the improvement of African American communities, rather than the fight for complete integration. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense were truly the vanguard of the Black Power Movement. In addition to Robert Williams, Stokely Carmichael played a key role in the formation of the ideas of Black Power. Carmichael made Black Power more popular, largely through his use of the term while reorganizing the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) so that whites would no longer possess leadership responsibilities.

Some African Americans sought cultural heritage and history and the true roots of black identity as their part of the movement. This was thought of as the "consciousness" aspect of the Black Power Movement. The classic phrases belonged to the musicians: "Free your mind and your ass will follow" (George Clinton/Funkadelic) and "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud" (James Brown). The recognition that standards of beauty and self-esteem were integral to power relations was also a significant aspect of the movement.

Other interpreters of the Black Power Movement included Harold Cruse and Amiri Baraka who dealt with the cultural-nationalist perspective of Black Power as related to the artistic realm. In his essay "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal explains the effects of the Black Power Movement on the Black Arts Movement (Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future). He writes, "the political values inherent in the Black Power Concept are now finding concrete expression in the aesthetics of Afro-American dramatists, poets, choreographers, musicians and novelists." Like those who emphasized "consciousness" the artists of Black Power likewise emphasized the central importance of self-representation and productive autonomy.

One main point of the Black Power Concept was the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. At times this included a call for revolutionary political struggle to reject racism and imperialism in the United States. As the Black Power Concept began to grow, it also began to build resistance and condemnation from whites and from several African American organizations, including the NAACP, because of the anti-white message associated (often unfairly) with Black Power.

When the Black Panther Party began to grow in the late 1960s, it became the largest Black organization advocating Black Power. Eventually because of the continual condemnation of the theory of Black Power as a separatist and anti-white movement, along with the destruction of the Black Panthers in the early 70s, the Black Power Concept seemed to disappear. Yet, scholars of African American art and politics still see the idea of Black Power as a strong effect on the consciousness of Black America today, though its institutions have been destroyed and the radical politics largely discredited and defused. In essence, the focus on cultural autonomy and self-esteem of the Black Power Movement has survived and, not surprisingly, grown in strength.


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