Thursday, May 30, 2013

The decade after the deaths of Martin and Malcolm raises questions related to black radicalism, rage and black identity

The decade after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was bunched with massive conflict.  It was a period filled with deep angst after the shedding of a dream.  Inner cities were consumed with a lingering blues that made it hard to believe in freedom.

The time between the deaths of Martin and Malcolm left the black community dazed by what was left behind.  Some held firm to the promise of equality after integration.  Others fought hard to find space among those unwilling to share a bite of the American dream.

The benefactors of affirmative action were left enraged by their continued struggle after making their way to class privilege.  Ellis Cose wrote about it in his book Rage of the Privileged Class: Why Are Middle Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?  Cose cites a large group of well educated, competent, and prosperous black people who are frustrated.  They feel the disdain of white people who see them as weak and unintelligent. They feel the resentment of unsuccessful blacks.  They endure the complexion-based discrimination of blacks against blacks, while fighting the assumption that all blacks are criminals.

The black community swayed between black pride and self-hatred.  The quest for revolution was met with condescension among those dedicated to promise of integration.  Afros and dashikis were exchanged for low-cut fades and three piece suits. The pursuit to claim a unique racial identity was viewed as a barrier in finding space to fit into the American melting pot.

The decade after the deaths of King and Malcolm witnessed the unfolding of Roots.  Alex Haley made It trendy to claim pride in being connected to the motherland.  Massive imagines of blacks dancing and singing to African beats was juxtaposed against the need to fit.  It was a period of striving blended with a need to claim African roots all while fighting the inner city blues.

It was the decade of black exploitation films.  The rage of the inner cities led to the rise of a counterculture unwilling to bow to the demands of white privilege.  It was the age of redefining black identity by celebrating ghetto culture.  Keeping it black meant more than the celebration of African pride.  It meant keeping it gangsta.

Richard Majors and Janet Billson talk about it in the book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. They related the mask of cool used by inner-city youth to defend themselves against the injuries of ghetto life.  The pose is yet another way to define authentic black identity.  Does anyone know what that means?

The decade after the death of King and Malcolm forged a deep wedge among a people seeking to define what it means to be black.  Some embrace the culture of the ghetto.  Others find solace in claiming African roots.  Others seek to melt into the larger culture through education, politics and by celebrating the privilege of middle-class social identity.

Lost in most dialogue related to study of race and class in America is a clear focus on the decade after the death of King and Malcolm.  It was an era of protest fueled by police brutality.  Most studies of the decade leave people bewildered by black protest.  Few stop to consider why they were fighting the police while demanding rights many felt had been achieved.

What motivated Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to start the Black Panther Party?  Why was Angela Davis arrested?  Why did Assata Shakur escape prison and flee to Cuba?  What is the truth behind the arrest of Mumia Abu-Jamal?  What hasn’t been told, and why is the Fraternal Order of Police fighting so hard to keep people from hearing the rest of the story?

What is the politics behind the telling of the story?  What happened with the Wilmington 10?  What happened in Watts to start that riot?  What happened in Detroit in July 1967 that left 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed? 

Why did black people burn down their own neighborhoods?  Why did it happen after major Civil Rights victories? Something was wrong in Newark, NJ where Assata Shakur was arrested. 

What led to the armed standoff between Philadelphia police and the group MOVE on May 13, 1985?  Another decade of indifference fueled even more discontent in America’s inner cities. A police helicopter dropped two one-pound bombs on the roof of the house occupied by members of the group. The fired destroyed 65 houses and killed 6 adults and five children.

It’s a period that deserves to be studied.  Underneath the assumptions of guilt are motives and fears that stirred a revolution.  What are those untold stories, and how do each help facilitate views of racial identity and pride?

These are some of the questions that led me to bring Mumia – Long Distance Revolutionary to the Carolina Theatre.  I hope you can join us for the beginning of a broader conversation related to the decade after the death of King and Malcolm.

There’s so much to learn.  Let the learning begin.

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