Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.

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