Revitalizing Black History Month
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court deemed separate to no longer be equal.
Overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson segregation ruling, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement and its violent clash with white resistance toward the integration of black people into privileged American society. This immense struggle and the emergence of Black Power over the 1960s was the topic of discussion at the lecture given by Tufts Professor of History Dr. Peniel Joseph last Thursday, Feb. 11.
Joseph was invited to speak at Colby by African American Studies Professor Cheryl Gilkes as the opening event for Black History Month in light of his new book published this year, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. "Dark Days, Bright Nights affirmed what I have been saying about 1965 as a turning point is American history that changed the face of America," Gilkes said. The founder of "Black Power Studies," Joseph works to uncover the many dimensions of events and personages in the Black Power movement that have been clouded by one-sided misconceptions.
The 1960s in America, in terms of black history, was defined by the dichotomies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. But in speaking of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Joseph sought to dispel their iconographic masks of the dreamer and the radical to show how the two activists were not so at odds, but how Malcolm X's "envelope-pushing rhetoric" gave King room to maneuver.
In discussing Civil Rights and Black Power, Joseph challenged the conception of Black Power as the Civil Rights Movement's "evil twin" to reveal Black Power as a multifaceted movement. Jena Hershkowitz '12, who attended the lecture, said, "[Joseph] acknowledged the nuances of the Black Power revolution that are not normally recognized."
Black Power, Joseph explained, is conceived by many as the slogan of "gun-toting black militants" looking to fight the system in place, but Joseph pointed out that "Black Power," first used with political connotation by Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee leader Stokely Carmichael, is not about overturning a system, but merely the desire to take part in it, to see "black faces in higher places."
Joseph's "lifelong fascination with social justice" is evident in the energy of his speech, which held the attention of his audience. His quick succession from one event to the next and references to specific towns and organizations not immediately known to most perhaps made his lecture somewhat inaccessible.
"He assumed the people he was talking to were young historians," Beatrice Nakiryowa '13, a lecture attendee, said. However, Joseph's interest not only in the past but also in the present was clear when he spoke of the post-racial society we have yet to become.
"America," he said, "has a poor historical memory." He said that there was a popular notion that Obama's election would mean the end of racism, which is not so. And the movement into post-racial discourse risks turning a blind eye to issue of race that still exist in America.
In rewriting the history of Black Power, Joseph seeks to reinvent its connotations both past and present, and his lecture here on campus for Black History Month serves as a reminder that this is a time not solely to commemorate past events, but a time to acknowledge the continued struggle in the present--the high African American incarceration rates, the widespread black poverty in America--and revitalize the nation's dedication to change.