As an uncertain and turbulent political era begins in the United States, the need for assertive and potent resistance has never been stronger. Rafael Torrubia’s new work Black Power and the American People provides both a comprehensive history of the movement – and a powerful call to arms for today’s activists.
Just a scant few days ago, the White House’s new press secretary, Sean Spicer, told assembled members of the press corps, ‘sometimes, we can disagree with facts.’ Aside from providing a motto for one of the most dubiously legitimate presidencies ever to colour the American historical record, Spicer’s commendably dystopian affirmation only hinted at a persistent problem in the American psyche. Not only have many American commentators historically been keen to disagree with the facts delineating the path and progress of their nation, but America as a whole has traditionally struggled to reconcile essential facts of its existence, creation and historical evolution within its collective psyche.
Despite the plethora of examples available, from campaigns for women’s rights, through labour reform and LGBT equality, this struggle has perhaps never been more evident than in America’s relationship with its racialised past. Bluntly, America has a deeply uncomfortable relationship with its citizens of colour.
When I first set-out to write Black Power and the American People, the notion of America’s first African-American president, let alone a two-term president, was still uncemented. Now, verging on a decade later, we witness the inculcation of one of the country’s most divisive and retrogressive presidencies, which has coloured its first days in office with attacks on women, citizens of colour and, yes, scientific fact, with almost breath-taking speed.
America, as always, has resisted the violence of the state against its citizens. Prior to Trump’s occupation of the White House, America resisted most iconically through the work of the Black Lives Matter movement. For their efforts, Black Lives protestors have been castigated as rioters, thugs and dangerous revolutionaries. Yet their struggle to force an acknowledgement and enforcement of the basic validity of human life, regardless of skin colour, has a long precedent.
In a manner not dissimilar to Black Lives Matter, the historical emergence of the Black Power movement in America had, until comparatively recently, been presented as the aberrant symptom of a radicalised era’s feverish politics. By turns separatists, thugs, demagogues and naïve idealists, Black Power adherents and their campaigns were treated as the briefest strike of a match to a tinderbox already stoked by decades of American oppression. Fast to flare, faster still to burn out.
It always seemed strange to me that a movement which tackled the fundamental facts of American racial oppression could be presented as having a comparatively short genesis. Yet it was – nonviolence, various advocates and historians argued, was too slow, its victories insufficiently tangible, or too partial to satiate young hotheads fired up with lust for a new society. The history of the civil rights movement, the story of American resistance, they contended, more or less began and ended with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The American Civil Rights Movement was, for all intents and purposes birthed with Brown Vs, Board of Education in 1954, before expiring in ungraceful fashion in the jungles of Vietnam and the ghettos of the urbanised North. In this tale, the ultimate exemplars of this degeneration were Black Power adherents, most immediately represented by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Now, thanks to the work of countless talented historians, from Peniel E. Joseph to Jane Rhodes, we know that this framing had as much to do with the beliefs of previous scholars and journalists, as with historical fact. Yet the historical emergence and development of Black Power remains cursed with a relatively short chronology. Black Power and the American People is my attempt to remedy that, to contribute to the revitalisation of America’s understanding of the facts of its racial history, by tracing the long history of Black Power sentiments and their implications for the creation of identities of resistance and empowerment in the face of oppression, segregation and persecution. From the folk-narratives told on the plantation, Black Power and the American People charts a course through the iconoclasm of the Harlem Renaissance, the battleground of the American campus, the struggle and skill of the Negro Leagues, the drama of the boxing-ring, the killing fields of Vietnam and the cold concrete of the penitentiary, right up to the soaring sounds of Detroit techno and the electric imaginings of Afrofuturism.
Throughout their nation’s history, Americans of colour have not merely resisted, but their presence, resistance and existence within American life has inexorably enriched, conditioned and developed America’s historical and cultural landscape.
There has never been a more essential time to be cognizant of America’s complex and diverse history. Never a time to more clearly recognise the powerful contributions of ordinary men and women to the creation of racial justice, unity and resistance against the systemic violence and racism of the American state. Black Power and the American People helps us trace the inspiration, elaboration and sustenance of but one strand of America’s vibrant heritage of dissent. From its earliest inceptions, divisions and discriminations, Americans of colour have put their lives on the line to contest their place within the American nation, and within its history.
I hope you read the book, and I hope you enjoy it, but, at every turn I would urge you to embrace the uncomfortable facts. Take strength from them. Go forth and make your own in the knowledge that a history of creation, resistance, subversion and dissent stands at your back. Make yourself disagreeable, and make the facts of the world you want to see absolute.
Words by Rafael Torrubia
Black Power and the American People is available to order here; receive 50% off when you quote the promotion code BLACK17