Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).

Long the bogeyman of much of civil rights scholarship, Black Power now experiences its second coming – or at least a dramatic reconsideration. Through biographies, urban case studies, and intellectual histories, a coterie of scholars and activists have been challenging the received wisdom of Black Power as divisively misguided at best, maliciously damning at worst. Such monographs urge us to reconsider not just Black Power but civil rights and race more generally. They call into question the standard dichotomy between a peaceful Southern civil rights movement and a violent Northern Black Power movement, by documenting the lengthy international(ist) history of Black Power as a movement with multiple strategies, tactics, and entry points.

Peniel Joseph’s Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour should finally put to rest the simplistic presentation of Black Power that has reigned since those two words collided in a popular but widely maligned slogan. Midnight Hour provides a sweeping history of Black Power that stretches from the postwar period through the 1980s. In no ambiguous terms, Joseph challenges the popular presentation of Black Power as “a cautionary tale featuring gun-toting militants who practiced politics without portfolio, vowed to die in the name of revolution, and who dragged down more promising movements for social justice” (302). As Joseph shows in his deft study, part of the wildly different interpretations of Black Power may emanate from the dramatically disparate projects carried out in its name. In his lyrical blend of original research and expansive historical synthesis, Joseph highlights the cultural nationalists, Pan-Africanists, guerrilla insurgents, revolutionary socialists, and aspiring politicians who embraced the mantle of Black Power. Part of the trouble, then, is also part of the appeal: Black Power was an elastic concept through which a myriad of black-centered political initiatives could be carried out or justified.

Building off the impressive scholarship emerging in the past decade, Joseph notes that Black Power the phenomenon predated Black Power the movement. Indeed, he devotes more than a third of the book to the “forerunners” of Black Power, the various artists, intellectuals, and organizers who would give shape to the Black Power movement. Shaped by the process of global decolonization, the predecessors to the Black Power movement include such luminaries as militant activist Robert Williams, stalwart Reverend Albert Cleage, feisty journalist William Worthy, and the irrepressible Malcolm X. Malcolm, in fact, looms large in Joseph’s history of Black Power, “frozen in memory as the era’s progenitor, a martyred people’s champion whose confident exterior, fiery speeches, and perpetual youth would symbolize the historic progress and unfulfilled promise of Afro-America” (295). But Joseph does not simply interpret the posthumous impact of Malcolm’s words; he traces the orbit of Malcolm X, those he influenced and those he was influenced by, to show the concrete impact of Malcolm as a cutting-edge thinker and organizer, not just an abstract symbol. Indeed, two of the main cities Malcolm lived in – Detroit and New York – loom large as central nodes in fostering the development of a radical movement that would grow to be called Black Power.

Such a heavy focus on the progenitors of Black Power offers perhaps the most analytically useful aspect of Joseph’s text: he clearly situates the self-defense proponents and revolutionary nationalists not as ahead of their time but as reflecting the urgency and political desires of the grassroots. In that, the spokespeople, often spokesmen, of Black Power gave voice to rather than inspired the revolutionary fervor of the grassroots, which explains how a Black Power movement could emerge seemingly overnight, quickly supplanting “civil rights” as the dominant paradigm of black activism. Thus, besides Malcolm X, the shadowy Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and SNCC veteran Stokely Carmichael each form significant threads in the tapestry of Black Power. (Indeed, readers of Midnight Hour will not be surprised to learn that Joseph is currently at work on a biography of Carmichael.)

From the forerunners to the legacies, Joseph carefully documents the expressions of Black radicalism across the country (with a nod as well to the international impact). From door knocking in the rural South to the shop floor radicalism of the North and beyond, Midnight Hour shows the long interest among a slew of black insurgents in building a national movement with radical, often global, goals. Joseph parses the distinctions between the various tendencies that constitute the development and growth of Black Power: cultural nationalism, revolutionary nationalism, Marxism, and race-conscious political liberalism. As a result, Joseph notes, Black Power as a movement was in some ways undone by the very forces it was able to bring together through its broad affirmation of working in the collective black interest. The exciting potential and pragmatic difficulty of developing such a united front are shown in the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, which in many ways serves as the book’s denouement. For Joseph, this meeting “reflected the maturity of Black Power radicalism after its eclipse of the civil rights old guard and its newfound domination of community activism and politics” (277). Despite their unified affirmation of “Nation Time!” as a political slogan, the politicians, Pan-Africanists, pundits, and others present did not combine their diverse agendas into a concrete program. But given the divergent agendas and ideologies of the participants – each appropriately finding their needs met by some iteration of Black Power – the mere convening of such a historic gathering is perhaps more surprising than the failure of a broad strategy to emerge from it.

Of course, the movement did not simply collapse in on itself: the FBI and various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies deployed a range of nefarious schemes aiming to crush any dissent – and the black liberation movement bore the brunt of such repression, with tactics ranging from petty arrests to character assassination to murder. Joseph pays careful attention to FBI surveillance throughout, both in using bureau documents as sources and in noting how the government’s machinations impacted the movement.

Joseph critiques Black Power masculinity and chronicles the emerging Black feminist movement. But the main theorists and leaders of Black Power we meet in the text are men. To be sure, this reflects the gender politics of the movement, but figures like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Assata Shakur, and Kathleen Cleaver merit more attention than they receive here. There are other surprising holes. While poet, playwright, and nationalist-turned-communist Amiri Baraka emerges as a central figure in Joseph’s narrative, James Forman plays a minor role. But next to Baker, Forman was arguably the person most responsible for developing the political and organizational infrastructure of SNCC, and, through the Black Manifesto, he was an early advocate for reparations for slavery (in his case, from religious institutions) and a fellow traveler in black Marxist circles. In another example, Milton and Richard Henry factor heavily as forerunners to Black Power but their later effort, the Republic of New Afrika, receives minimal attention.

In his attempt to rescue Black Power from its dominant portrayal as gun-toting thuggery, Joseph downplays the militant groups which contributed significantly to the politics of the period. To be sure, the equation of Black Power with a masculinist image of gun-wielding Black Panthers limits our understanding of the era. But the militant expressions Black Power merit more attention than they have received to date. The turn to actual violence (rather than just the widely noted symbolic statements and threat of violence) by offshoots such as the Black Liberation Army comprises a more pronounced element of Black Power throughout the 1970s than historians have chronicled to date. This remains not just a raw subject but a volatile one, given the 2007 arrest of eight men for an alleged BLA action that occurred in San Francisco in 1971. But the militant wing was more than the BLA; it included insurgency behind prison walls and the proto-armed struggle of other revolutionary groups of the period. Their story remains a vital and largely unexplored territory of Black Power history. Several of these groups argued that the capacity for armed struggle was especially necessary to reflect the colonial status of black people in the Americas – for them, oppression was national, not racial. While Midnight Hour provides a valuable service in assessing the development of Black Power, further studies are needed on the emergence of Black Power as an anti-colonial phenomenon.

Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour mainstreams Black Power, bringing the controversial actions and ideologies to a mass audience in ways few historians have done. Thankfully, Joseph does this without sacrificing rigor. The text provides the signposts and contours of Black Power from the 1950s through the 1970s in a way that makes it suitable for a wide audience. Midnight Hour succeeds as narrative history because it brings together an impressive and expansive list of sources – oral histories, archival research, secondary sources – to construct the arc of Black Power. It includes many of the significant events and key players without attempting to tell the full story. Still, although focused on the more influential people and groups, Joseph weaves useful anecdotes which reveal the far-ranging impact of Black Power. The cumulative impact of such storytelling drives home the tremendous, almost ubiquitous impact Black Power once held. While the activist-minded reader might hope for a longer and richer epilogue on Black Power’s legacies, its strengths and lessons, Joseph’s text makes it plain that this movement has had significant, enduring ramifications. As Joseph notes at the end of his tome, the “final word on the Black Power era has yet to be written” (302).

Reviewed by Dan Berger
University of Pennsylvania

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