Who can recall the late Stokely Carmichael’s first name and not associate it with the two most incendiary words of the 1960s, Black Power? Carmichael was one of many individuals present at the creation of the black student movement, the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights struggles of the Deep South and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He was also one of the movement’s most polarizing figures. In the eyes of many civil rights activists, especially white liberals, it was Carmichael more than anyone who contributed to the dissolution of the grand alliance–civil rights Negroes, labor, church, liberals and the Democratic Party–that sent the movement crashing into Black Power, thereby provoking white backlash. But for others, like Carmichael himself and many blacks of that era, it was time for “black liberation” and not token integration.
For better or for worse, Carmichael’s legacy is primarily associated with that Molotov cocktail phrase, and in many ways he is emblematic of the black left’s decision to “serve the people,” as SNCC activists did in the South. Yet the former head of SNCC and the “prime minister” of the Black Panther Party helped usher in a new era of black politics that moved away from problem-solving in favor of “symbolic” or “expressive” politics. This form of politics, in which either the ideology of blackness or flamboyant rhetorical skills replaced organizing and programs, has been the guiding principle of what purports to be black politics since the late 1960s. One only needs to look at the likes of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton to judge its effectiveness.
Carmichael, who died at his home in Guinea in 1998 as Kwame Ture, has posthumously left a chronicle of his life and times, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “co-authored” by an old running buddy and comrade, the Jamaican-born novelist Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. In a surprisingly muted and engaging tone and style, the late activist recounts his childhood, political coming of age and being “ready for revolution.” Perhaps because he knew that he was stricken with a terminal disease, Carmichael is quite gracious toward those whom years ago he would have denounced as “Uncle Toms” at the raising of a clenched fist. He peppers the storytelling with African-American colloquialisms and excursions into patois that echo his native Trinidad, the South, the street, the church and the bush. Reading the book, in fact, is like sitting down with the last of the “grand old men” of the movement and having him give you the back-story as to what was going on. It adds to the historical record the memoirs of a legendary but later reclusive historical actor. It is passionate about politics and struggle, poignant in regard to Carmichael’s love, respect and admiration for ordinary black folk (“mah people, mah people”), and he is dead-up hilarious in describing the twists and turns on the road to revolution, though evasive and delusional in other matters.
Born in 1941 to working-class, West Indian parents (father a carpenter, mother a seamstress) who hailed from Trinidad and moved to New York, Carmichael was a nonnative American citizen, an outsider in his adoptive home. Yet as a son of the African diaspora he was also a part of a tradition to which Afro-Caribbeans had contributed mightily, the tradition of black radicalism that also numbered men like Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Martinique’s Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Puerto Rico’s Arturo Schomburg and women like Malcolm X’s mother, who was also a West Indian. Unlike segregated African-Americans, Caribbeans like Carmichael’s parents had grown up in majority-black countries where they hadn’t been totally indoctrinated into accepting a subservient position. Although most of the British Caribbean world would not be decolonized until the 1960s, Afro-Caribbeans, as British subjects, were used to running at least some aspects of their own show. They had had, in other words, a taste of power.