Black Liberation and Community College

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is most famous of the black radical groups that  emerged during the sixties. The Panthers “patrolled the police” to ensure that Oakland PD (which has had a longstanding reputation for odious community-law enforcement relations) did not trample the rights of citizens in their interactions with black residents.

Huey Newton, one of the group founders, left us with an interesting revolutionary ideology. He publicly exercised his 2nd amendment rights and argued  for armed self-defense against state agents who victimized the black community. Maoism (a third-world variation of socialism) influenced the Panthers’ politics and they successfully related civil concerns of Black Americans with the North Vietnamese fighting American imperialism.

Our library was limited, and I did not want to burden students with book expenses, so we used underground resources to learn about the Black Panthers. These sources are no longer accessible, as seen in these dead links below.  This fifteen-minute clip is from “Eyes on the Prize” but PBS blocked it on copyright grounds:

We used a copy of Revolutionary Suicide  from an anti-imperialism website published in American prisons. That being said, it also has been taken down due to copyright.

I leave these dead links here not to disdain intellectual property, but show what barriers make it difficult to teach radical history in marginalized communities. My students were young, colored, or both, so I wanted to impress that the Black Panthers were just like them. I asked my students to focus on the 10-point plan and discuss these ten points in depth and ask questions like: why these issues; why this language; is it feasible, etc? But I also focused on how education played a role in the formation of the Panthers. We used these materials because it was what our community could afford to provide. Similarly, the Panthers created a liberatory praxis with the tools their community could provide. Our ingenuity to learn reflects their ingenuity to develop revolutionary resistance. 


The Short Civil Rights Movement

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

This idea comes from a lecture on the “short” civil rights movement, from 1960-1965.

The lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 helped lay the foundation for the youth sit-in protests which began in 1960. By this time, the three predominant activist Civil Rights organizations were the NAACP (especially with their legal strategy) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (led by MLK) and the Congress of Racial Equality (a pacifist organization from WWII-period).

In May 1961, CORE initiated the Freedom Rides. The rides tested to see if federal desegregation laws would be enforced in interstate transportation in states where segregation was the local practice. They quickly found out that the answer was NO:

The mixed success of these efforts led to future fruit. SNCC representatives like Bob Moses came to MS and soon were involved in the 1964 Freedom Summer. As northern students volunteered to register black voters, the deaths of three activists in Philadelphia, MS forced a national spotlight on the horrendous political conditions in the south and, along with the 1965 Selma protests, helped create the political capital to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As for Dr. King and the SCLC, their efforts to force change in Albany, GA floundered when national media could not be attracted to watch the protests. So, in 1963, the “Project C for Confrontation” led to the abuse of child protestors by Police Chief Bull Connor and helped develop the national consciousness for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act are some of the most important pieces of legislation passed in American History. However, almost as soon as this legislation passed, black uprisings in the urban north soured many white moderates on additional Civil Rights legislation. This sentiment could not stop the impending social revolution. But still, the Civil Rights Movement crested at a federal level around this time.

Black Images in an Age of Spectacle

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

This post emerges from a Harlem Renaissance lecture. In Philly, I was introduced to Guy Debord and his consumer spectacle frameworkIn Society of the Spectacle, he claims:

“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor, the formation of classes, had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning.

The sacred has justified the cosmic and ontological order which corresponded to the interests of the masters; it ha[s] explained and embellished that which society could not do…

The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence.”

So, the “sacred” which had previously been used to justify and normalize social relations is replaced in secular 20th century western society with the “spectacle:” the mass media-driven productions which justify and normalize contemporary social relationships. This is noticeable through the promotion of select Black celebrities by mass media sources.

Louis Armstrong is very prominent black entertainers of the early 20th century. Armstrong initially made his name as a blues trumpeter in Chicago, Eventually, he transitioned into film and became a star in Hollywood. Louis Armstrong was dogged his entire career by accusations of Uncle Tom-ism for his cozy relationship with whites–even when he had to accept perceived racial slights to retain access to institutions (like the movie industry) antagonistic to black Americans. In many ways, his power arose from his acceptability and entrenchment within white power circles.

Jack Johnson literally drove distraught white Americans to incite race riots after beating white boxer James J. Jefferies during the “fight of the century” on July 4, 1910. His domination of the boxing world was seen by many as a threat to white supremacy. He was eventually sent to prison for travelling across state lines with his soon-to-be second wife (his white girlfriend) under the terms of the Mann ActThe lengths which white authorities went to imprison Johnson reflects his notoriety among white American boxing fans.

So, despite efforts of black publishers like T. Thomas Fortune to report on the educated entrepreneurs and professionals who increasingly began to comprise the black elite, the most well-known black celebrities in the white community at the turn of the 20th century were musicians and athletes. These roles reflected the limited opportunity for black Americans to break into the white-dominated culture industry–Armstrong was an exceptional talent who played limited roles in films because the culture industry rarely developed starring roles for black talent; Johnson drew thousands of additional spectators to boxing because he was caricatured as a dangerous threat to racial order that white boxers had to defeat; their public personas justified and normalized the subjugation of the black community to the desires of whites and the American state.

In some ways, the Harlem Renaissance challenges this characterization of black culture within the spectacle of mass media as describe by Debord. At a time when most blacks lacked formal education, the literary figures who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance were erudite and cosmopolitan; however, the Renaissance was split between those who sought to demonstrate the best of respectable black society and those who claimed to represent the authentic experience of the black working class.

However, just like contemporary black artists who work within the culture industry, these two viewpoints were put in competition with one another once within the narrative framework of the larger societal spectacle. Elite artists who sought to prove black respectability were horrified by what they deemed to be vulgar, uncouth artistic renditions of black cultural life. On the other side, elite artists who sought to accurate reflect a broader experience of black life bristled at the rigidity of their peers who could not see the value in including base representations of Blacks in the broader culture.

During the Harlem Renaissance, there were a couple thousand of college graduates in the country, yet the significant majority of participants in the Renaissance had college education. Whether their work was interested in respectability or not, works like “City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher reflect an interpretation of the black working-class which appealed to assumptions white Americans had about the nature of black Americans.

While some argue that Renaissance participants were unconcerned with creating art to please white OR black interests, but competition over resources necessitated that Black artists developed work which would be of interest to consumers of the mass media spectacle, and elite black artists often appropriated the voices of less visible members in the community to complicate the narratives shown within the segregated spectacle. In short, art created for a mainstream audience reflect the sensibilities of the clientele.