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Memoirs of a Revolutionist | The Nation

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Memoirs of a Revolutionist

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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.

About the Author

Norman Kelley
Norman Kelley's latest book is A Phat Death (Akashic), a novel. His next nonfiction book, The Head Negro in Charge...

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.

Growing up in Trinidad, Carmichael didn't see much of his parents, who moved to New York in search of work when he was 3, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. The only son of Mabel and Adolphus Carmichael, he was dubbed "little man" because of his dapper Sunday best outfit. In 1952, after the death of their grandmother, he and his sisters arrived in New York City, where they were reunited with their parents, who had had two more daughters. In his memoir, he remembers wondering:

What would living with my real mother be like? I was, you know, not familiar with the term nuclear family. In fact, the whole concept as defined in the West would have been contrary to the reality of the African extended family that I'd experienced at home or observed in the community. But that is what we Carmichaels were going to be now, a nuclear family.

Having left behind their large, spacious house in Trinidad, built by Adolphus Carmichael and his friends, Stokely and his sisters were introduced to New York apartment living, Bronx style, at 861 Stebbins Avenue. At first he thought the huge apartment building was their home. His parents laughed at his naïveté, but he soon discovered the joys of sleeping on the couch after years of having his own room. Later, the family settled in Morris Park, a predominantly white working-class neighborhood of the Bronx. The Americanization of Stokely Carmichael was largely uneventful, it seems. He became involved in the usual high jinks of young boys: nearly jumping out of a window upon watching too much Superman on TV after being cooped up all summer long; making zip guns; hanging out with gangs. An intellectually precocious child, he found American education a breeze compared with the British-based rigors he'd experienced in the Trinidadian school system.

By Carmichael's account, his introduction to radical politics didn't occur in SNCC but at Bronx Science, a magnet high school where he met young Communists, notably Gene Dennis, the son of a prominent Communist who had been imprisoned under the Smith Act. Although their friendship and Carmichael's inclusion in New York's left-wing social world (where he sang "Hava Nagila" at parties)

did not begin my political interest, it certainly focused it in a certain direction--the tradition of European radical writing and revolutionary theory. For the first time I encountered a systematic radical analysis, a critical context and vocabulary that explained and made sense of history. It explained the inequities and injustice I'd long been conscious of in the society around me and prescribed (even predicted) revolutionary solutions.

Yet he always felt that something was missing from American socialism, namely the black side of things. In other words, he was struck that this "systematic radical analysis" was rooted in the European experience and did not give much credence to or adequately present the black experience; it was "quite narrowly focused." Thinkers like C.L.R. James and George Padmore were dismissed as "Trotskyists" or renegades. Thus, he never joined any Communist or socialist organization.

The roots of Carmichael's transformation into Kwame Ture can be traced, rather, to Harlem's 125th Street, where he was introduced to the "stepladder" speakers, black orators who exhorted Harlemites from stepladders about blacks' history and their present predicament. Not only did he learn the history of black struggle and resistance; he picked up an important lesson: "the influence of style."

Important elements of my adult speaking style--the techniques of public speaking in the dramatic African tradition of the spoken word, can be traced to these street corner orators of Harlem. To them and the Baptist preachers of the rural South.

This would serve Carmichael well, for much of his legacy is rooted in the militant posturing and rhetoric of the post-civil rights period that began after 1965. While this style can exhort some blacks to great sacrifice against entrenched white supremacy, it often comes up short as a means of conveying the complexities of the world. It may explain why black politics often has a surfeit of charismatic leaders with authoritarian leanings; most black leadership has come out of the church (King, Adam Clayton Powell) or other quasi-religious groups like the Nation of Islam (Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan).

While studying at Howard University, Carmichael became, at 19, one of the youngest Freedom Riders during the early 1960s campaigns. A member of that school's Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), affiliated with SNCC, he joined a second wave of Freedom Riders in response to a first wave who had been brutally attacked while riding buses through the South. Arrested in Mississippi for attempting to integrate the trains, Carmichael and others, including CORE's James Farmer, spent more than a month in jail, first at Hinds County jail and then at the notorious Parchman Prison Farm. Suffering forms of torture that would have been denounced by Human Rights Watch had it existed then, he emerged as something of a celebrity and began to gain experience and exposure as a spokesman for the movement. This was needed to raise public awareness and money, but it also sowed the seeds of some SNCC members' cynicism toward "totalitarian liberals."

It was disjunctive, almost schizoid, and as it turned out, a token of things to come. Later, with us in SNCC, the same contradictions would surface. We'd be sending young field-workers, some of them coming out of hardscrabble sharecropper poverty, into trappings of enormous wealth and power, there to tell moving tales--we called them "war stories"--of our people's suffering and resistance. It was classic Americana, shades of runaway darkies and northern audiences.

Yet for every song and dance that was required by such liberals, there was a Harry Belafonte (another Caribbean!) who counseled and supported SNCC activists with no strings attached.

Nothing, however, produced greater ire toward liberals for the young activist than the cynical machinations of the Kennedy/Johnson Administration. Kennedy owed his narrow victory to the support of black voters, whom he had wooed during his campaign by calling Coretta King to express his concern over her husband's incarceration at a famously brutal Georgia prison. Yet President Kennedy and his Attorney General brother often treated the civil rights activists as if they were the violent racist segregationists depriving people of their rights. Carmichael took especial umbrage at Robert Kennedy's remark equating the freedom riders with the racists who attacked them as "extremists on both sides."

The Administration wanted the debacle of the Freedom Rides off the front page and into less confrontational, decisively back-page activities: voter registration. Carmichael argues that the "South's 4 million disenfranchised blacks might help offset" the loss of white Democratic votes. However, as a tactic and strategy for organizing black people, he felt that SNCC couldn't refuse the offer.

This tactic and strategy was largely successful and marked the beginning of the rise of post-civil rights black elected officials; but it also led to the unquestioning absorption of the black vote into the Democratic Party. And Carmichael was also front and center at the further manipulation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party by the Democratic Party. The roots of SNCC's radical change were grounded in its constant dealings with cautious white liberals, the opportunism of the Democratic Party and the fanatically entrenched racism of white Southerners (who mostly became Republicans later). Even Malcolm X, in his classic attack on the "farce on Washington," saw how the Kennedy Administration was trying to blunt the radical thrust of the "Negro revolution"--and SNCC was the tip of that arrow.

The great and admirable thing about SNCC was its willingness to go where action was needed and help ordinary black folk in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Cambridge, Maryland. Where King's SCLC emphasized moral suasion and hit-and-run demonstrations, SNCC--a cadre of organizers rooted in local communities working jointly with home-grown local leaders--preferred direct action to press for desegregation and voting rights. They were the "outside agitators" constantly denounced by unreconstructed Southerners who knew and understood "their" nigras better than any goddamn pointy-headed nigra intellectual. When one goes back and reads the chronicles of the civil rights era in such books as Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, David Garrow's Bearing the Cross, John Dittmer's Local People and Clayborne Carson's In Struggle, one is struck by the extent to which the South remained, more than a half-century after Reconstruction, a closed, virtually totalitarian society, especially in regard to the control and restriction of the black population in the region's "Black Belt" counties, notably those in Mississippi. Isolated and often miseducated into accepting white domination and violence as if it were the natural order of things, these communities were in desperate need of outside intervention.

The cry of Black Power, which Carmichael first used in 1966 at a Mississippi march that picked up from James Meredith's aborted "march" against fear after Meredith was wounded, put an issue on the table that neither whites nor "responsible" blacks wanted to address. People may have gotten upset that Black Power upended the etiquette of the civil rights movement, but Carmichael and SNCC had begun to question the efficacy of civil rights legislation and alliances when masses of blacks in the South and the Northern ghettos were still trapped in second-class citizenship and poverty. Carmichael and SNCC realized the upshot of what was transpiring: Blacks essentially had no ability to redress these grievances if they constantly appealed to white conscience and had to rely on the federal government. Hence they needed something that whites had, namely power, but a black version of it. However, the cry of Black Power was also a retreat from the kind of pivotal organizing work--voter registration, freedom schools, political mobilization--that SNCC had been carrying out in the bowels of the South. By encouraging a cult of the gun, which originally began as Malcolm X's legitimate call for black self-defense against racist violence, Black Power also opened the floodgates to undisciplined, even violent forms of protest that militant groups were unequipped to control. In cities like Watts, Newark and Detroit, urban blacks were showing what they meant by the slogan. In the parlance of soul music, a cultural contemporary of Black Power, "Papa had a brand new bag." Yet Black Power advocates like Carmichael were powerless to defend poor blacks against state repression, or channel black rage into a constructive political agenda. According to Carmichael, he had argued against the Panthers being characterized as a "revolutionary vanguard" because it would bring the heat of the state on black youths--and it did.

To a certain degree, opponents of Black Power, notably Bayard Rustin, were right in seeing Black Power as a cry of frustration, a throwing in of the towel, relinquishing programmatic endeavors that SNCC had been engaged in. Carmichael's 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (written with Columbia University political scientist Charles Hamilton), failed to articulate a plan or program beyond blacks banding together to get their own act together. Internally, SNCC was unable to control what it had started, since as an organization it had constantly vacillated between trying to be an organization with some structure and one with none and no leadership. As with most New Left organizations, the latter tendency won out.

There's a point in Ready for Revolution's narrative where Carmichael recedes and his alter ego, Kwame Ture, takes over. Ture (Carmichael's name since the 1970s) takes issue with the depiction of whites being booted out of SNCC or its ever being an integrated organization. He practically denies that there were whites in the organization because those who were melanin-challenged were not really "white" in the traditional sense of the word. Hence "our comrades stopped being 'white'" and thus could not have been expelled, booted out or made to leave. "So I meant it as a sincere compliment when I said there were no 'white' people on the SNCC staff." However, Dittmer's excellent Local People states that in December 1966 "SNCC had voted, narrowly, to expel all whites from the organization."

This kind of dissembling is to be expected of Ture. After all, he spent the last thirty years of his life in Guinea organizing for a Pan-African revolution that never bore any fruit--except, possibly, more Pan-African conferences. As Ture, he waxes hagiographic over his two African "fathers," his namesakes Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed president of Ghana, and Ahmed Sekou Touré, the president of Guinea, an African nation that devolved into a textbook example of despotism, an appalling caricature of the very Pan-Africanism that Ture espoused. These men, in Ture's eyes, could do no wrong, and the only time he's critical of African leaders--"hustlers, poseurs, and charlatans"--is when he's describing some of the liberationists holding up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, not Guinea. Ture alludes to the outcome in Guinea as the intrigues of foreign powers and the government's mismanagement of the economy. Thus the party (i.e., President Touré) had to "defend the revolution by any means necessary," but that line of reasoning usually justifies the carnage of internal repression.

While he doesn't exactly skim over his marriage to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, he doesn't reveal much about this remarkable woman or their relationship. As an "older woman," Makeba was the mango of young Carmichael's eye. Yet the passages in the book, like those about Nkrumah and Touré, read as one more paean to another glorious African, mythic but not very soulful or insightful. In fact, he's rather naïve about the consequences of Makeba's marrying him. When they were married, her American shows were canceled. A veteran target of racist attacks, who'd seen whites economically sabotage blacks in the South, he writes, unbelievably: "I could never have imagined my enemies would be so ruthless or so thorough. And so quick. I mean, the day after we got married? How low could you go?" The culprits, however, are only identified by innuendo. "Only one organized interest group comes to mind. But I have no hard evidence. And we don't want to indulge in conspiracy peddling, now do we? But it's pretty clear." He doesn't say, but could it be the "J people," the coreligionists of the people with whom he once sang "Hava Nagila"?

Carmichael and SNCC's brilliant organizational efforts in Mississippi and Alabama laid the foundation for developing an independent black political base, but they were tossed aside for the rhetoric of revolution. Instead of organizing or thinking through the problem of organizing for "hard" power--voting, economics, political representation--Carmichael began preaching a "soft" form of power: black cultural nationalism. In fairness, this was important, given that African-Americans had been systematically brainwashed into hating themselves.

Yet Carmichael's legacy of Black Power consciousness, along with that of Maulana Ron Karenga's cultural nationalist group US (i.e., "us" against "them"), had an unintended consequence. It spawned a racialized political mindset, a sort of "black orthodoxy," in which some African-Americans, especially those who reside at the bottom of the social well, tend not to think critically of those who engage in Head Negro In Charge (HNIC) politics at their expense. It has produced Kwanzaa and Afrocentricity rather than black political independence. Since the black elite has disengaged from mass-action politics over the past thirty years, the black rank and file has increasingly listened to Jackson, Farrakhan and HNIC wannabes like Al Sharpton (not to mention hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who is simultaneously selling sneakers and reparations). These men have eschewed a programmatic agenda in favor of a black-at-the-table politics that masks a private agenda of personal aggrandizement. They may wave the red, black and green flag of black unity, but, as Courtland Cox, one of Carmichael's comrades, said, "Blackness is necessary. But it is not sufficient."

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