Black Power, Barack Obama and Peniel E. Joseph’s Defense of American Democracy
by Anthony Monteiro
Corporate media (and corporate academia) appear to have anointed Peniel E. Joseph as the emerging Black scholar on Black Power and its aftermath – which is cause for dismay. Joseph “‘liberates’ Malcolm and Kwame from the events and ideas that shaped them and their own philosophical reflections upon them. At the same time he frees himself to do what he wishes with their legacies.”
Black Power, Barack Obama and Peniel E. Joseph’s Defense of American Democracy
by Anthony Monteiro
“Joseph’s narrative eviscerates the Black Power movements’ radical critiques of American empire.”
Peniel E. Joseph’s Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama is an interpretive narrative of how the Civil Rights and Black Power movements transformed American democracy creating democratic possibilities leading to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Joseph tells a compelling story centered upon the biographies of Malcolm X., Stokely Carmichael, (Kwame Ture) and Barack Obama. Joseph tells us, “ Barack Obama’s election represents, in contrasting and converging instances, a validation of the legacy of both the civil rights and Black Power movements (208)”; and, “His rise speaks to the very possibilities of American democracy (209.)” He declares, “American democracy’s very aesthetics were fundamentally (my emphasis) transformed on January 20, 2009. (216).” Obama does not escape criticisms from Joseph. He accurately insists “Obama paints an overly optimistic picture of race relations and social progress in order to give whites an inordinate measure of credit (198).” Furthermore, “The very programs that Obama supports rarely provide legitimate and unbiased relief for poor blacks.” As to Obama’s single significant foray into race in his Philadelphia speech Joseph points out ,“Obama’s speech absolved the nation of collective blame for past generations’’ sins (192). For Joseph, however, “Obama represents possibilities of post World War II American democracy” (166). American democracy, in Joseph’s understanding, has almost inexhaustible transformative possibilities. This claim is stunning, almost breathtaking, in light of the rise and consolidation of repressive and anti-democratic forces, especially after 9/11.
“Joseph presents them as only ‘militant activists,’ without presenting the extent and depth of their thinking.”
The text consists of an introduction and three biographical chapters. The introduction presents Joseph’s reimagining the black power movement, situating it as emerging from within the civil rights movement and an equal contributor with it to expanding democratic possibilities in the United States. He takes mainstream civil rights historiography to task for neglecting the Black Power Movement and construing it as an evil, anti-white, black nationalsit and anti-civil rights force, which tragically undermined the Civil Rights movement. Joseph, though, gives mild support to Black Nationalism and the Black Panther Party, against some of their mainstream civil rights historians. The next three chapters are interpretive biographies of Malcolm X., Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Barack Obama. The biographical chapters, especially those on Malcolm X. and Kwame Ture break no new ground in our understanding of their lives and political activism. Joseph, however, presents them as only “militant activists,” without presenting the extent and depth of their thinking, especially as it relates to questions such as revolutionary change, Pan Africanism, socialism, feminism, revolutionary and cultural nationalism and other burning political and ideological issues of their time. He fails to contextualize their worldviews within the global capitalist contexts, the militarization of US foreign policy and what Malcolm and Kwame perceived as the crisis of US imperialism. Joseph seems to adopt the convention of white historiography and biography of situating black figures as essentially activists who lack deep philosophical and ideological understandings and convictions. Moreover, their activism is actualized primarily as unintended consequences. Absent cogent worldviews, they fail to envision alternative logics and futures to those proposed by liberal democrats and even white progressives.
“Joseph fails to contextualize their worldviews within the global capitalist contexts, the militarization of US foreign policy and what Malcolm and Kwame perceived as the crisis of US imperialism.”
Peniel Joseph invites readers to suspend their consciousness, knowledge of events, for many their participation in the civil rights and black power movements, their existential engagements in that moment, and personal relationships with Malcolm and Kwame Ture and accept his interpretative framework. Moreover, rather than view events in their totalities, he asks that we see them through the narrow and limited lenses of an intellectual seeking recognition from American mainstream academics. And more than anything the reader is asked to share the ideological positionality of the aspiring Black petit bourgeoisie, for whom Obama signifies democratic possibilities and integration into ruling elite circles.
Joseph’s text leaves the impression that these iconic figures gave emotional speeches but did not think in philosophical and ideological terms. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if that is the case, then it is left to Joseph to give theoretical and political meaning to their activism. Hence, Peniel Joseph, the scholar, exercises freedom to make sense of these lives. He ‘liberates’ Malcolm and Kwame from the events and ideas that shaped them and their own philosophical reflections upon them. At the same time he frees himself to do what he wishes with their legacies.
As a biographer, Joseph, possesses a flare for the fictive and storytelling that makes the book for many what reviewers call a good read. Yet, he fails to tell the whole story. In the end we are left with a black power movement and Malcolm and Kwame that neatly fit the American narrative of democracy, freedom, progress and optimism.
“Joseph never defines American democracy as it is deployed in the text.”
Thus, a first question to be asked is what are Joseph’s philosophical assumptions about democracy. American democracy and democratic transformation are philosophically foundational to the architecture of the text. Joseph never defines American democracy as it is deployed in the text. In fact, it turns out being a general and nebulous phrase. However, it is clear that what he is talking about is American liberal or bourgeois democracy. Yet when Joseph uses the concept American democracy he implies that he is addressing a unique species of political organization that transcends ideology, economics, class, race, and gender. American democracy, after all, possesses inexhaustible potentialities of transformation. It is almost a thing unto itself. It has the enduring capacity to appropriate its most committed opponents and include the marginalized, devalued and excluded. This is the view of democracy presented by people who defend American capitalism and empire. The claim of a unique American democracy, side by side with white supremacy and free market capitalism, are the anchors of American nationalism. The static and dogmatic view of American democracy that underpins American nationalism is not connected to the realities of American history, political economy or foreign and domestic policies, especially in the post war period. Nor does it account for the transformations of American democracy brought on by the exigencies of American empire and imperialism. As Du Bois would remark at the onset of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the US now represented a lethal threat to democracy and freedom throughout the world. It remains so today, only more so. As a nation, we long ago crossed the Rubicon from a democratic republic to empire. The spokespeople for the empire speak of it as an empire for liberty and democracy; an empire constructed to liberate humanity and bring democracy to the world’s peoples.
“The class and international objectives of Malcolm and Kwame Ture are the diametrical opposite of Peniel Joseph and Barack Obama.”
A second question is, how does Joseph’s class and ideological position and his personal aspirations shape his views of American democracy, the Black Power movement and the Obama Presidency? It seems clear to me that he sees the world from the standpoint of the black petit bourgeoisie. That is, that social formation within 21st century black America that views itself and its class possibilities as tied to American democracy, free-market capitalism and American empire. The election of Barack Obama represents not only what Joseph insists is the transformation of American democracy but also signifies the possibilities of their integration and participation at the highest levels of the American system. In this respect the class and international objectives of Malcolm and Kwame Ture are the diametrical opposite of Peniel Joseph and Barack Obama. Moreover, his narrative eviscerates the Black Power movements’ radical critiques of American empire. In so doing he reduces them to mere bourgeois liberals.
In several instances Joseph indicates that Malcolm and Kwame Ture desired to see a radical democracy brought into being. Yet Joseph never defines what he means, and what they meant by radical democracy. Radical democracy is people’s democracy; it is power to the people functioning to transform in fundamental ways the economic, political, racial, and gender relationships in society. Radical democrats seek to redistribute wealth and call for redistributive justice and reparations. It is often a stage in the movement towards the socialist remaking and transformation of the economy. This is what the revolutionary wing of the Black Power movement stood for. In the end, this is what Martin Luther King Jr. came to embrace. The period 1966 to 1972 saw the convergence of forces that opened up possibilities for a radical and left united front, emerging from the left wing of the Civil Rights movement, headed by Martin Luther King, and the radical wing of the Black Power movement, represented by personages like Kwame Ture, the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis. In large measure, the rise of Reaganism was the counter revolutionary response to this possibility.
“It is probable Malcolm and Kwame would have rejected Obama’s domestic and foreign policies and by now would be calling for African American unity to challenge the Obama agenda.”
Joseph correctly asserts that Barack Obama is the beneficiary of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements. But all sectors of society benefited from these historic movements. Black folk, the vanguard of these movements, perhaps less than most. The irony is that after winning the Presidency Obama’s Administration has continued the COINTELPRO type measures of spying and infiltrating progressive movements. He is, thus, governing in ways that undermine everything these movements fought for. By leaving in place much of the George W. Bush Administration’s apparatus for violating the civil liberties of anti-war and peoples movements, Obama almost guarantees they will not reappear in the 21st century. Joseph points out that a centrist Obama politically and ideologically rejects all of the basic assumptions of the Black power movement and certainly of it’s radical and progress wings.
One could imagine (if we separate them from everything about their histories) that Malcolm and Kwame might have extended critical support to Obama candidacy. However, it is more probable they would have reject his domestic and foreign policies and by now would be calling for African American unity to challenge the Obama agenda. It is highly probable they would have supported Cynthia McKinney’s presidential candidacy.
The final chapter of the book is a biography of Obama lifted primarily from Obama’s two books, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Joseph insightfully locates Obama’s candidacy in fraudulent claims concerning racial progress and racial transcendence. He shows Obama embracing the basic tenets of the discredited Moynihan report that in the sixties was condemned as anti-black, anti-black woman and anti-poor. He shows Obama navigating the color line, between white denial of continued racism and black aspirations for new initiatives against racism. He shows Obama most often performing to assure white voters that he transcends the black community and Black solidarity. What is not said, yet must be said is that the Obama project from beginning to end is an enterprise constructed upon cultural and political bad faith. The campaign and now his Presidency seek to convince especially Black folk that he is not a representative of US imperialism and empire. Bad faith, in the end, is denial; being untruthful to oneself to such a degree that one does not act. Collective bad faith is when an oppressed people refuse, because one of theirs is in power, to acknowledge their actual situation. The bad faith of Obamism is linked to a strategic political and ideological project to rebrand US Empire, to make it appear democratic, progressive and having transcended race. Lazy historiography proceeds from assumptions, such as assumptions about democracy and then proceeds to fit historical events to justify those assumptions. This too is a form of bad faith.
“The Obama project from beginning to end is an enterprise constructed upon cultural and political bad faith.”
To conclude, we have entered a new stage of ideological and political struggle within Afro-America and the nation generally. This struggle takes on profound class dimensions as a new black bourgeoisie attempts to politically and ideologically consolidate its positions in the US elite and at the leadership of Black folk. And to do this at the expense of the class interests of the Black working masses and working and poor people generally. Elite universities, major publishing houses, newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and major research institutions are geared up to support the revisionist history and ideological commitments to American democracy and empire by these new black bourgeois scholars and intellectuals. The Black left must prepare to defend the progressive, radical and indeed revolutionary legacies of the struggles of the 1960s and 70s. And in the 21st century to go beyond them through struggle and educate the masses of our people and win decisive elements of them to the cause of radical democracy, social justice, peace and social progress. Radical intellectuals and activists must act from conscience and good faith. With Amilcar Cabral we must proclaim, “Tell no lies claim no easy victories”. The moral imperative for this time proceeds from the words of Black Abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, “Let your motto be Resist, Resist, Resist.”
Anthony Monteiro is a professor of African American Studies at Temple University. He can be contacted at tmon(at)comcast.net.