With a Black man now holding the office of President of the United States, the topic of “Black Power” might seem a strange choice as the subject of a symposium of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). In fact, it could not be more timely or appropriate. Lest we let our memories stray too far from the period when self-determination and empowerment occupied a generation’s collective consciousness, we risk forgetting and undervaluing the important contribution the Black Power movement had not only upon our community but the entire nation.
For too long the Black Power movement has been defined by protest imagery that neither considers the breadth or depth of a period when young Blacks asserted their rights as American citizens and expressed their contempt for obvious contradictions in our democracy. It was a period when scholarship and intellectual engagement was the basis of a movement that inspired its adherents and influenced other causes, such as anti-war and environmental advocacy. Since the late 1960’s there have been varied interpretations of Black Power and new scholarship in academia on the subject. Still, it is an era often wrongly characterized as violent, reactionary or anti- American; when in fact, it represents a period in which young people sought to confront the inconsistencies in the American narrative and force the nation to reconcile its oppression of Blacks with the uplifting rhetoric of its historical documents.
The National Museum for African American History and Culture should be applauded for taking on the subject and engaging scholars on the meaning and significance of “Black Power.” In this age of Obama when mainstream news outlets and some scholars revel in a so-called “post-racial” America, the electoral success of Barack Obama needs to be put in proper context. The impact of the Black Power movement on Black political progress, including the election of the first Black President, has been ignored in popular culture as has its influence on generations of Blacks. The two day gathering of women and men who defined that era was an important bookmark in the ongoing development of a truthful account of the period.
One of the most refreshing things we have learned at the NMAAHC two day symposium on Black Power is efforts to enlighten teachers on the subject and provide a fresh perspective for inclusion in curricula. Even today it is safe to assume that most secondary school textbooks either marginalize the Black Power movement as a fringe outlier of the more acceptable civil rights movement or dismiss it outright by not even mentioning the period. The movement is likely treated as a caricature, with gun-toting, Afro wearing “radicals” presented as its defining image. Textbooks and popular writings have done a disservice to scholarship by habitually treating the core leadership of that era, Carmichael, Steele, Seal, Davis, Brown, Hampton and others, as nothing more than loud-mouthed extremists. Our national understanding of the Black Power movement has been limited by a persistent diminishment of its agenda and leadership.
The irony is that the elevation of Barack Obama does not wipe away the inconsistencies in the American story that still need to be addressed and the ongoing struggle for full inclusion and participation. The fact that the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian institution, took on this subject over the last two days is commendable. “Black Power,” and its many manifestations, is a topic worthy of continued discussion in our community during this celebratory moment around the election of the nation’s first Black President. We need to be constantly reminded that the election of Barack Obama is not the complete fulfillment of our long struggle for human rights in this nation, albeit an undeniably important milestone. We still have tremendous work to do to address inequities in our nation that prevent Blacks from receiving the full benefits of citizenship. Though our relative status in the United States has improved from the era when “Black Power” became a rallying cry for a generation marginalized by Jim Crow and war, the institutional framework that precipitated great disparities in access and opportunity has yet to be fully exorcised of its policy demons.