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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Stokely Carmichael and Black Power Photographs by Gordon Parks Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Looking at Parks’ photographs I see Carmichael with much greater clarity than I was able to as a high school student. Parks is clearly doing more than just recording the movement, he is participating..."

Stokely Carmichael and Black Power By Curran Hatleberg.
Stokely Carmichael and Black Power
Photographs by Gordon Parks

Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA, 2022. 176 pp.

When Stokely Carmichael moved forward to speak, the crowd greeted him with a huge roar. He acknowledged his reception with a raised arm and clenched fist. Realizing that he was in his element, with his people, Stokely let it all hang out... “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” The crowd was right with him... “BLACK POWER!” they roared in unison.” 

— Cleveland Sellers

These various threads – the rejection of integration, Black unity for social and political advancement, the breaking of psychological barriers to self-love, and self-defense as part of the movement toward freedom – united in Black Power. 
— Lisa Volpe

In my junior year American History class, while we were studying the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. McCracken (by any measure an amazing human, he taught American History at my high school in Denver during the 1980s, at a school situated in a neighborhood crippled by a violent war between the Crips and the Bloods) brought Kuwame Ture to us to talk about his work as a Civil Rights leader. Kuwame Ture is best known by his birth name, Stokely Carmichael, the former being a name he adopted when joining the Nation of Islam. Perhaps not as well-known as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, or Marcus Garvey, Carmichael was nevertheless a dynamic and powerful force during the Black Power movement of the 1960s. He was charismatic, passionate and articulate, and used his resources to envision a new society without brutal oppression of Black and Brown people. Carmichael began his work as a Civil Rights advocate in the early 1960s when he became a member of the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, one of the groups that organized the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965). He worked tirelessly to register Black Americans to vote, advocated for the Black Power Movement, and was even appointed Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. Carmichael also helped organize some of the earliest protests against the Vietnam War. It probably goes without saying that he was also targeted by the American government as an agitator. Under the Hoover administration he was victim of a misinformation campaign in which the FBI convinced some members of the Black Panther Party that Carmichael was actually a secret agent working for the CIA. Carmichael eventually split from the Panthers after his first travels to Africa in 1969 which ultimately launched an interest in Africa and Pan-African identity that would fuel the rest of his career. He spent the next 30 years working with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), a political action group advocating for a unified African continent.

1978, Manual High School, Jarrell McCracken, Talks About Experiences In India, where he spent 10 weeks in a summer seminar. Credit: Denver Post 

I think it is incredible that Mr. McCracken brought Stokely Carmichael to work with our class — just imagine what Tucker Carlson would say. Even more incredibly, Mr. McCracken and Carmichael had been friends for years, after first working together as colleagues organizing during the Civil Rights Movement. Mr. McCracken spent weeks prepping us for Carmichael’s visit, and not only encouraged us to embrace the political and social history he represented, but also gave us prompts to challenge his ethics (Carmichael once famously said that the only place for women in the Civil Rights Movement was prone).

I had all this in mind when I first opened the new book produced by the Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl (part of an ongoing series from the two organizations), Stokely Carmichael and Black Power, a collection of photographs by Gordon Parks recording the charismatic leader in his youthful prime. In the photographs, Parks appears as an embedded journalist following Carmichael throughout his days of work; he was on assignment for Life magazine and traveled with Carmichael from the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1967. Richly printed, the book also includes reproductions of pamphlets, posters and manifestos printed by Carmichael’s office. The book was printed in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and includes contributions by Gary Tinterow (Director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Lisa Volpe (Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Cedric Johnson (Associate Professor of Black Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois, Chicago), and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. (Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation).

Looking at Parks’ photographs I see Carmichael with much greater clarity than I was able to as a high school student. Parks is clearly doing more than just recording the movement, he is participating. Thus his pictures are full of the same charisma, passion and poetry as the leader he photographed brought to Black communities across the States. Collectively, the photographs offer an insightful portrayal of Carmichael, as we see him lecturing and teaching, operating a printing press, preparing for television interviews, leading community discussions in family homes, shooting pool, laughing and loving, being hustled across the street by a security detail, meeting children and trying to galvanize and unify a new generation of Black people. These photographs reveal the young leader easily connecting with people and communities, and capture him as a multidimensional, thoughtful, engaging and articulate man. Carmichael has a clear aptitude for politics and community organization and appears clean-cut (often in a suit and tie), well-educated and tirelessly working for his cause. It’s hard to believe that the Hoover administration pursued the same man. Parks’ pictures feel effortless, his representations of Carmichael show the photographer’s own commitments, developed with tremendous empathy, admiration and a keen eye for interesting and unexpected camera compositions.

The accompanying essays provide a thorough background and context for understanding the photographs and help to realize this book as an essential historical record. Lisa Volpe’s essay, “Black Power and Acts of Love,” looks at Parks’ relationship to other prominent Black leaders and helps the reader understand why he felt drawn to Carmichael. In earlier portrayals the photographer made of Malcolm X for Life magazine, he tried to represent the charismatic but controversial figure as much more humane and dignified than the threatening firebrand portrayed by white dominated media. Indeed, Volpe tells us that after Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Parks wanted to find a new black leader to promote with his photographs. After some difficulties in relating to Muhammad Ali, Parks found that figure in Stokely Carmichael. When they first met, Parks was 53 years old and Carmichael only 24, but despite generational differences, the two felt a tight bound in their experiences as Black men fighting for a new society and future, unified in the trauma they faced on a daily basis.

Repeatedly, the authors tell us that Carmichael is credited for coining the coalition Black Power. Before Mr. McCracken’s class, I was taught there were two wings to the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King represented a movement like Gandhi, peace and non-violence in any circumstance, while Malcolm X promoted Black Power. And we were taught Black Power was a violent revolutionary movement that wanted to take down white dominance with guns. Stokely Carmichael and Black Power writes the history of the Black Power politic movement quite differently. Black Power was primarily a get-out-the-vote movement, but also believed turning the other cheek was the wrong choice and that Black people should own their constitutionally defined rights for self-protection. Not quite the same history, is it?

Looking back to Mr. McCracken’s class, I do remember Carmichael as a natural storyteller — the whole class was riveted as he paced around the cafeteria with a microphone and talked about his experiences during the 1960s. Mr. McCracken must be dead now, but nevertheless I want to offer him my deepest gratitude for providing all his students with this kind of opportunity. Truthfully, going to school each day during the gang war often felt terrifying — the cops were constantly there, and I even witnessed a shooting on the front steps — but Mr. McCracken provided us with a remarkable opportunity to see the gang violence plaguing Denver in an entirely new light, as part of a deep history of repression and violence perpetrated against Black Americans. I was a shy teenager, but mustered the courage to ask Carmichael a question, “What advice can you offer to help us solve the problems still dividing our communities today?”

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.