Time for a New Dance
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975, a new documentary film about the last generation of black American radicals, concludes with a voiceover from the singer Erykah Badu. After viewing a chronological sequence of archival interviews with prominent members of the black power movement and listening to accompanying commentary by contemporary artists and intellectuals, we are given a perfect summation of the film’s ostensible ambitions by the songstress: black people must tell their own stories. Whenever outsiders try to tell black America’s stories, Badu explains, “we get our noses blown off.” As she delivers this colorful message the haunting melody of the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” plays softly in the background, highlighting the folkloric underpinnings of her observation. Badu’s comments are important for two principal reasons: First and foremost she identifies the centrality of narrative art—one of the many aspects of culture—to group consciousness; secondly, she gives us, perhaps unwittingly, a basic standard by which to judge the success of the film and the movement it covers.
For reasons that are never fully explained, members of the Swedish media apparently developed a fascination with black political struggles in North America during the 1960s and 1970s. The filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has edited original Swedish television footage about the black power movement into a narrative history of the period. Since people like Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael do most of the talking throughout the film, it might seem reasonable to conclude that The Black Power Mixtape is an example of black people telling their own stories. Obviously, however, the images in the film have been selected for us by Olsson, a Swede. In other words, we see what he permits us to see.
Still, those familiar with the pompous, overblown rhetoric characteristic of the period know full well that the most prominent figures of the black power movement, many of whom appear in the film, were all too eager to fulfill white fantasies about the horrors of black American life. Thus we cannot blame Olsson entirely for the barrage of sociological clichés that, for the most part, constitute his well-intentioned film. The bleak archival footage of black daily life in Oakland, Miami, and New York City—1970s Harlem, in particular, is depicted quite vividly as a drug-ravaged hell hole—simply attests to the claims made in the film by black artists and so-called spokespeople that black America is defined by its suffering. Black radical polemics about life in America are thus taken as accurate reflections of reality.
Members of the black power movement were young activists and despite all the brouhaha about Negroes with guns, their chief weapon was really propaganda. These were some good talkers, some slick-tongued, media savvy brothers and sisters, or, as my grandfather likes to call them, jive turkeys. Their vision of black American life as an endless battle with violent, soul-crushing racism was simplistic, but for the last forty years or so it has functioned as what you might call the official narrative. Even those who claim to be alienated from this mainstream line of thought do not challenge its basic underlying premise—that black American identity is predicated primarily on a common set of political circumstances, most of which are attributable to racism.
Today’s black neoliberals and progressives, presumably part of the target audience for The Black Power Mixtape, may instinctively reject the singular image of blackness in America offered by sixties radicals, but they have no clear, affirmative conception of African-American identity of their own. In fact, as works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow make clear, the post-Civil Rights Era has seen the gradual implementation of more subtle—though no less insidious—forms of institutionalized racism; meanwhile, the rise of a larger, increasingly assimilationist black middle class makes it seem that many younger African-Americans have no use for even a collective political identity, hence the rise of so-called post-blackness. From this incredibly naïve standpoint something like The Black Power Mixtape becomes a fascinating, though terribly remote, little history lesson, a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come.
The seeds of the seemingly inevitable dissolution of African-American identity were planted by the pseudo-intellectuals of the black power movement, all of whom failed to articulate a conception of black solidarity on cultural grounds. Blacks who made this argument—notably Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Harold Cruse, all born in the second decade of the twentieth century—were either completely misunderstood or dismissed as effete and conservative. In reality, these intellectuals were the more radical nationalists. They argued that more than anything black Americans, like other ethnic groups, shared a basic cultural affinity, having come out of the slave experience with our own collective body of folklore, humor, cuisine, worship styles, fashion, vernacular speech, dance, and music. The remarkable complexities of this culture, especially its various musical idioms, would seem to contradict the claims made by black militants that African-American life was all police brutality, race riots, drugs, and welfare.
Moreover, one could reasonably assert that our particular form of Western culture was also the only distinctly American one. This is a radical idea even today when so much of traditional African-American culture continues to be pilfered and bastardized in the interest of maintaining the illusion of a superior white, or at least nonblack, mainstream. Indeed no black intellectuals in America have offered a more robust and comprehensive formulation of African-American identity than Murray, Ellison, and Cruse. Black American militants could not build on this intellectual tradition, however, because they accepted the ideological framework of the system they claimed to oppose, which construed blackness as simply a political problem.
Badu’s last words illustrate something that has always been true: it is the storytellers, the tastemakers, the artists submerged in the collective unconscious of a people, who have the power to enrich the community’s vision of itself. With the black power movement and its aftermath, we see what happens when there is an intellectual and creative vacuum, when there are not enough people prepared or willing to do this challenging work. The void is filled by con-artists, self-promoters, and charlatans. These people merely cheapen and confound the community’s self-image. Today the hunger for serious art that reflects the enduring values of black American culture—rather than mere political realities or folk art conventions—persists. However, it’s worth noting that such stories do not simply benefit their intended audience. As Abiodun Oyewole, one of the members of the Last Poets, points out at the beginning of The Black Power Mixtape, America survives on black creativity. So long as we’re here, the country cannot fall apart, “because we’ll pick up the pieces and turn it into a new dance.” So who knows but that, on some frequency, the next dance will speak for you?
Justin Mitchell writes for Ply magazine and the Black Ballot Weekly Report.