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A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power

Nationalist sects like the Black Muslims, the Black Jews, and the Moorish Temple Science movement speak to the wretchedness of the ghetto, particularly to the wretchedness of the ghetto male, in a way that the civil rights movement does not. Thus while the free and easy sexual life of the ghetto may excite the envy of outsiders, the Black Muslims correctly see it as a disrupting influence and preach a strict, “puritanical” sexual ethic. In a society in which women dominate the family and the church, the Muslims stress the role of the male as provider and protector. “Protect your women!” strikes at the heart of the humiliation of the Negro male. Similarly, the Muslims attack the hedonism of the ghetto. “Stop wasting your money!” says Elijah Muhammad. “…Stop spending money for tobacco, dope, cigarettes, whiskey, fine clothes, fine automobiles, expensive rugs and carpets, idleness, sport and gambling…. If you must have a car, buy the low-priced car.” Those who see in the Black Muslims no more than “the hate that hate produced” mistake the character of this movement, which joins to the mythology of racial glorification a practical program of moral rehabilitation. As Lawrence L. Tyler has noted (Phylon, Spring 1966), the Muslim style of life is “both mystical and practical,” and it is the combination of the two that “has definitely provided an escape from degradation for lower-class Negroes.” If anyone doubts this, he should consider the Muslims’ well-documented success in redeeming, where others have failed, drug pushers, addicts, pimps, criminals of every type, the dregs of the slums. In subjecting them to a harsh, uncompromising, and admittedly authoritarian discipline, the Black Muslims and other sects have organized people who have not been organized by nonviolence, which presupposes an existing self-respect and a sense of community, or by any other form of Negro politics or religion.

Black Power represents, among other things, a revival of Negro-American nationalism and therefore cannot be regarded simply as a response to recent events. Black Power has secularized the separatist impulse which has usually (though not always) manifested itself in religious forms. Without necessarily abandoning the myth of the Negroes as a chosen people, the new-style nationalists have secularized this myth by identifying the American Negroes—whom many of them continue to regard as in some sense Negroes of the diaspora—not with “the Asian Black Nation and the tribe of Shabazz,” as in Black Muslim theology, but with the contemporary struggle against colonialism in the third world. Where earlier nationalist movements, both secular and religious, envisioned physical separation from America and reunion with Islam or with Africa, many of the younger nationalists propose to fight it out here in America, by revolutionary means if necessary, and to establish—what? a black America? an America in which black people can survive as a separate “nation”? an integrated America?

Here the new-style nationalism begins to reveal underlying ambiguities which make one wonder whether it can properly be called nationalist at all. Older varieties of black nationalism—Garveyism, DuBois’s Pan-Africanism, the Nation of Islam—whatever their own ambiguities, consistently sought escape from America, either to Africa, to some part of America which might be set aside for black people, or to some other part of the world. The new-style nationalists, however, view their movement as a revolution against American “colonialism” and thereby embark on a line of analysis which leads to conclusions that are not always consistent with the premise that American Negroes constitute a “nation.”

Clearly, the rhetoric of Black Power owes more to Frantz Fanon and to Che Guevara than it owes to Marcus Garvey or DuBois, let alone to Elijah Muhammad. Last August, Stokely Carmichael presented himself to the congress of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity in Havana as a conscious revolution. Claiming to speak for the black people of the United States, he is reported to have said:

We greet you as comrades because it becomes increasingly clear to us each day that we share with you a common struggle; we have a common enemy. Out enemy is white Western imperialist society; our struggle is to overthrow the system which feeds itself and expands itself through the economic and cultural exploitation of non-white, non-Western peoples. We speak with you, comrades, because we wish to make clear that we understand that our destinies are inter-twined.

The advocates of Black Power, it should be noted, do not have a monopoly on this type of rhetoric or on the political analysis, or lack of it, which it implies. The New Left in general more and more identifies itself with Castro, Guevara, Régis Debray, and Ho Chi Minh; many of the new radicals speak of “guerrilla warfare” against “colonialism” at home; and in fact they see the black militants, as the black militants see themselves, as the revolutionary vanguard of violent social change. The congruence of the rhetoric of Black Power with the ideology of the more demented sections of the white Left suggests that Black Power is more than a revival of Negro-American nationalism, just as it is more than a response to the collapse of the civil rights movement in the North. Black Power is itself, in part, a manifestation of the New Left. It shares with the white Left not only the language of romantic anarchism but several other features as well, none of them (it must be said)conductive to its success—a pronounced distrust of people over thirty, a sense of powerlessness and despair, for which the revolutionary rhetoric serves to compensate, and a tendency to substitute rhetoric for political analysis and defiant gestures for political action. Even as they seek to disentangle themselves from the white Left, of which they are understandably contemptuous, black militants continue to share some of its worst features, the very tendencies that may indeed be destroying what strength the New Left, during its brief career, has managed to accumulate. The more these tendencies come to dominate Black Power itself, the gloomier, presumably, will be the outlook for its future.

BECAUSE BLACK POWER has many sources, it abounds in contradictions. On the one hand Black Power derives from a tradition of Negro separatism, self-discipline, and self-help, advocating traditional “nationalist” measures ranging from cooperative businesses to proposals for complete separation. On the other hand, some of the spokesmen for Black Power contemplate guerrilla warfare against American “colonialism.” In general, CORE is closer to the first position, SNCC to the second. But the ambiguity of Black Power derives from the fact that both positions frequently coexist—as in Black Power, the new book by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, chairman of the political science department at Roosevelt University.

This book is disappointing, first of all because it makes so few concrete proposals for action, and these seem hardly revolutionary in nature: black control of black schools, black-owned businesses, and the like. Carmichael and Hamilton talk vaguely of a “major reorientation of the society” and of “the necessarily total revamping of the society” (expressions they use interchangeably) as the “central goal” of Black Power, and they urge black people not to enter coalitions with groups not similarly committed to sweeping change. But they never explain why their program demands such changes, or indeed why it would be likely to bring them about.

In order to deal with this question, one would have to discuss the relation of the ghetto to the rest of American society. To what extend does American society depend on the ghetto? It is undoubtedly true, as the advocates of Black Power maintain, that there is no immediate prospect that the ghettos will disappear. But it is still not clear whether the ghettos in their present state of inferiority and dependence are in some sense necessary for the functioning of American society—that is, whether powerful interests have a stake in perpetuating them—or whether they persist because American society can get along so well without black people that there is no motive either to integrate them by getting rid of the ghettos or to allow the ghettos to govern themselves. In other words, what interests have a stake in maintaining the present state of affairs? Does the welfare of General Motors depend on keeping the ghetto in a state of dependence? Would self-determination for the ghetto threaten General Motors? Carmichael and Hamilton urge black people to force white merchants out of the ghetto and to replace them with black businesses, but it is not clear why this program, aimed at businesses which themselves occupy a marginal place in American corporate capitalism, would demand or lead to a “total revamping of the society.”

On this point the critics of Black Power raise what appears to be a telling objection, which can be met only by clarifying the Black Power position beyond anything Carmichael and Hamilton have done here. In a recent article in Dissent (“The Pathos of Black Power,” January-February 1967), Paul Feldman writes:

A separatist black economy—unless it were to be no more than a carbon copy of the poverty that already prevails—would need black steel, black automobiles, black refrigerators. And for that, Negroes would have to take control of General Motors and US Steel: hardly an immediate prospect, and utter fantasy as long as Carmichael proposes to “go it alone.”

But a related criticism of Black Power, that it merely proposes to substitute for white storekeepers black storekeepers who would then continue to exploit the ghetto in the same ways, seems to me to miss the point, since advocates of Black Power propose to replace white businesses with black cooperatives. In this respect Black Power does challenge capitalism, at least in principle; but the question remains whether a program aimed at small businessmen effectively confronts capitalism at any very sensitive point.

STILL, SMALL BUSINESSMEN, whatever their importance outside, are a sensitive issue in the ghetto and getting rid of them might do wonders for Negro morale. Not only that, but Negro cooperatives would help to reduce the flow of capital out of the ghetto, contributing thereby, if only modestly, to the accumulation of capital as well as providing employment. A “separatist black economy” is not really what Black Power seems to point to, any more than it points to exploitive Negro shopkeepers in place of white ones. “In the end,” Feldman writes, “the militant-sounding proposals for a build-it-yourself black economy (a black economy, alas, without capital) remind one of…precisely those white moderates who preach self-help to the Negroes.” But Black Power envisions (or seems to envision) collective self-help, which is not the same thing as individualist petty capitalism on the one hand, or, on the other hand, a separate black economy.

Black Power proposes, or seems to propose, that Negroes do for themselves what other ethnic groups, faced with somewhat similar conditions, have done—advance themselves not as individuals but as groups conscious of their own special interests and identity. The Irish advanced themselves by making politics their own special business, the Italians by making a business of crime. In both cases, the regular avenues of individual self-advancement were effectively closed, forcing ethnic minorities to improvise extra-legal institutions—the political machine in the one case, crime syndicates in the other. These were defined as illegitimate and resisted by the rest of society, but they were finally absorbed after protracted struggles. Those who urge Negroes to advance themselves through the regular channels of personal mobility ignore the experience of earlier minorities in America, the relevance of which is obscured both by the tendency to view the history of immigration as a triumph of assimilation and by the individualism which persistently blinds Americans to the importance of collective action, and therefore to most of history.

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