Toward a Constructive
Definition of Black Power
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who
profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation,
are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They
want rain without thunder and lightning.... This struggle
may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be
both moral and physical; but there must be a struggle.
What Is Black Power?
There has been and still is much debate among the critics of Black Powerregarding the precise meaning of the words. The term "Black Power" was firstused in the civil rights movement in the spring of 1966 by Stokely Carmichael todesignate the only appropriate response to white racism. Since that time manycritics have observed that there is no common agreement regarding itsdefinition. In one sense this fact is not surprising, since every new phenomenonpasses through stages of development, and the advocates of Black Power need timeto define its many implications. But in another sense, this criticism issurprising, since every literate person knows that imprecision, the inability ofa word to describe accurately the object of reality to which it points, ischaracteristic of all languages. The complexity of this problem is evident inthe development of modern analytical philosophy. We are still in the process ofdefining such terms as "democracy," "good," "evil," and many others. In fact theability to probe for deeper meanings of words as they relate to variousmanifestations of reality is what makes the intellectual pursuit interesting andworthwhile.
But if communication is not to reach an impasse, there mustbe agreement on the general shape of the object to which a termpoints. Meaningful dialogue is possible because of man's abilityto use words as symbols for the real. Without this, communicationceases to exist. For example, theologians and political scientistsmay disagree on what they would consider "fine points"regarding the precise meaning of Christianity and democracy,but there is an underlying agreement regarding their referents.
The same is true of the words "Black Power." To what "object"does it point? What does it mean when used by its advocates?It means complete emancipation o[ black people fromwhite oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.The methods may include selective buying, boycotting,marching, or even rebellion. Black Power means black freedom,black self-determination, wherein black people no longer viewthemselves as without human dignity but as men, human beingswith the ability to carve out their own destiny. In short, asStokely Carmichael would say, Black Power means T.C.B., TakeCare of Businessblack folk taking care of black folks' business,not on the terms of the oppressor, but on those of the oppressed.
Black Power is analogous to Albert Camus's understanding ofthe rebel. The rebel says No and Yes. He says No to conditionsconsidered intolerable, and Yes to that "something within himwhich is worthwhile ... and which must be taken into consideration."To say No means that the oppressor has oversteppedhis bounds, and that "there is a limit beyond which [he] shall notgo." It means that oppression can be endured no longer in thestyle that the oppressor takes for granted. To say No is to rejectcategorically "the humiliating orders of the master" and by sodoing to affirm that something which is placed above everythingelse, including life itself. To say No means that death is preferableto life, if the latter is devoid of freedom. "Better to die on one'sfeet than to live on one's knees." This is what Black Powermeans.
It is in this light that the slogan "Freedom Now" oughtto be interpreted. Like Camus's phrase, "All or Nothing," FreedomNow means that the slave is willing to risk death because"he considers these rights more important than himself. Thereforehe is acting in the name of certain values which ... heconsiders are common to himself and to all men." That is whatHenry Garnet had in mind when he said "rather die freemen,than live to be slaves." This is what Black Power means.
A further clarification of the meaning of Black Power maybe found in Paul Tillich's analysis of "the courage to be," whichis "the ethical act in which man affirms his being in spite ofthose elements of his existence which conflict with his essentialself-affirmation." Black Power, then, is a humanizing forcebecause it is the black man's attempt to affirm his being, hisattempt to be recognized as "Thou," in spite of the "other,"the white power which dehumanizes him. The structure ofwhite society attempts to make "black being" into "nonbeing"or "nothingness." In existential philosophy, nonbeing is usuallyidentified as that which threatens being; it is that ever-presentpossibility of the inability to affirm one's existence. The courageto be, then, is the courage to affirm one's being by striking outat the dehumanizing forces which threaten being. And, as Tillichgoes on to say, "He who is not capable of a powerful self-affirmationin spite of the anxiety of non-being is forced intoa weak, reduced self-affirmation."
The rebellion in the cities, far from being an expression ofthe inhumanity of blacks, is an affirmation of their being despitethe ever-present possibility of death. For the Mack man to acceptthe white society's appeal to wait or to be orderly is to affirm"something which is less than essential ... being." The blackman prefers to die rather than surrender to some other value.The cry for death is, as Rollo May has noted, the "most matureform of distinctly human behavior." In fact, many existentialistspoint out that physical life itself "is not fully satisfying andmeaningful until one can consciously choose another value whichhe holds more dear than life itself." To be human is to findsomething worth dying for. When the black man rebels at the riskof death, he forces white society to look at him, to recognize him,to take his being into account, to admit that he is. And in a structurethat regulates behavior, recognition by the other is indispensableto one's being. As Franz Fanon says: "Man is human onlyto the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on anotherin order to be recognized by him." And "he who is reluctantto recognize me opposes me. In a savage struggle I am willing toaccept convulsions of death, invincible dissolutions, but also thepossibility of the impossible."
Black Power, in short, is an attitude, an inward affirmation ofthe essential worth of blackness. It means that the black man willnot be poisoned by the stereotypes that others have of him,but will affirm from the depth of his soul: "Get used to me,I am not getting used to anyone." And "if the white manchallenges my humanity, I will impose my whole weight as aman on his life and show him that I am not that sho goodeatin that he persists in imagining." This is Black Power, thepower of the black man to say Yes to his own "black being,"and to make the other accept him or be prepared for a struggle.
I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have oneright alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through mychoices.
Black Power and Existential Absurdity
Before one can really understand the mood of Black Power,it is necessary to describe a prior mood of the black man in awhite society. When he first awakens to his place in America andfeels sharply the absolute contradiction between what is andwhat ought to be or recognizes the inconsistency between hisview of himself as a man and America's description of him asa thing, his immediate reaction is a feeling of absurdity: Theabsurd
is basically that which man recognizes as the disparity between what he hopes for and what seems in fact to be. He yearns for some measure of happiness in an orderly, a rational and a reasonably predictable world; when he finds misery in a disorderly, an irrational and unpredictable world, he is oppressed by the absurdity of the disparity between the universe as he wishes it to be and as he sees it.
This is what the black man feels in a white world.
There is no place in America where the black man can go forescape. In every section of the country there is still the feelingexpressed by Langston Hughes:
I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.
I can remember reading, as a child, the Declaration of Independencewith a sense of identity with all men and with a senseof pride: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all menare created equal; that they are endowed by their creator withcertain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty andthe pursuit of happiness." But I also read in the Dred Scottdecision, not with pride or identity, but with a feeling of inexplicableabsurdity, that blacks are not human.
But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race werenot intended to be included, and formed no part of the people whoframed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understoodin that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguishedmen who framed the Declaration of Independence wouldhave been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles theyasserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind ... they wouldhave deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.
Thus the black man "had no rights which the white man wasbound to respect."
But many whites would reply: "The Negro is no longerbought and sold as chattel. We changed his status after the CivilWar. Now he is free." Whatever may have been the motives ofAbraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching thewar, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln wasclear on this:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and isnot either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Unionwithout freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it byfreeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is anotherone which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughtsabout black people.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringingabout in any way the social and political equality of the blackand white racesthat I am not nor ever have been in favor of makingvoters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office,nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition tothis that there is a physical difference between the white and blackraces which I believe will forbid the two races living together onterms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannotso live, while they do remain together, there must be the positionof superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am infavor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
And certainly the history of the black-white relations in thiscountry from the Civil War to the present unmistakably showsthat as a people, America has never intended for blacks to befree. To this day, in the eyes of most white Americans, the blackman remains subhuman.
Yet Americans continue to talk about brotherhood and equality.They say that this is "the land of the free and the home ofthe brave." They sing: My country 'tis of thee, sweet land ofliberty." But they do not mean blacks. This is the black man'sparadox, the absurdity of living in a world with "no rights whichthe white man [is] bound to respect."
It seems that white historians and political scientists have attempted,perhaps subconsciously, to camouflage the inhumanityof whites toward blacks. But the evidence is clear for those whocare to examine it. All aspects of this society have participatedin the act of enslaving blacks, extinguishing Indians, and annihilatingall who question white society's right to decide who ishuman.
I should point out here that most existentialists do not say that"man is absurd" or "the world is absurd." Rather, the absurdityarises as man confronts the world and looks for meaning. Thesame is true in regard to my analysis of the black man in awhite society. It is not that the black man is absurd or that thewhite society as such is absurd. Absurdity arises as the black manseeks to understand his place in the white world. The black mandoes not view himself as absurd; he views himself as human.But as he meets the white world and its values, he is confrontedwith an almighty No and is defined as a thing. This producesthe absurdity.
The crucial question, then, for the black man is, "Howshould I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson?"That he is a person is beyond question, not debatable. But whenhe attempts to relate as a person, the world demands that herespond as a thing. In this existential absurdity, what shouldhe do? Should he respond as he knows himself to be, or as theworld defines him?
The response to this feeling of absurdity is determined by aman's ontological perspective. If one believes that this world isthe extent of reality, he will either despair or rebel. According toCamus's The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is the ultimate act ofdespair. Rebellion is epitomized in the person of Dr. BernardRieux in The Plague. Despite the overwhelming odds, Rieuxfights against things as they are.
If, perchance, a man believes in God, and views this worldas merely a pilgrimage to another world, he is likely to regardsuffering as a necessity for entrance to the next world. UnfortunatelyChristianity has more often than not responded to evilin this manner.
From this standpoint the response of Black Power is likeCamus's view of the rebel. One who embraces Black Power doesnot despair and take suicide as an out, nor does he appeal toanother world in order to relieve the pains of this one. Rather,he fights back with the whole of his being. Black Power believesthat blacks are not really human beings in white eyes, that theynever have been and never will be, until blacks recognize theunsavory behavior of whites for what it is. Once this recognitiontakes place, they can make whites see them as humans. The manof Black Power will not rest until the oppressor recognizes himfor what he isman. He further knows that in this campaign forhuman dignity, freedom is not a gift but a right worth dying for.
Is Black Power a Form of Black Racism?
One of the most serious charges leveled against the advocatesof Black Power is that they are black racists. Many well-intentionedpersons have insisted that there must be another approach,one which will not cause so much hostility, not to mentionrebellion. Therefore appeal is made to the patience of blackpeople to keep their "cool" and not get too carried away by theirfeelings. These men argue that if any progress is to be made, itwill be through a careful, rational approach to the subject. Thesepeople are deeply offended when black people refuse to listenand place such white liberals in the same category as the mostadamant segregationists. They simply do not see that suchreasoned appeals merely support the perpetuation of the ravagingof the black community. Black Power, in this respect, is bynature irrational, i.e., does not deny the role of rational reflection,but insists that human existence cannot be mechanized or putinto neat boxes according to reason. Human reason thoughvaluable is not absolute, because moral decisionsthose decisionswhich deal with human dignitycannot be made byusing the abstract methods of science. Human emotions must bereckoned with. Consequently, black people must say No to alldo-gooders who insist that they need more time. If such personsreally knew oppressionknew it existentially in their gutstheywould join black people in their fight for freedom anddignity. It is interesting that most people do understand whyJews can hate Germans. Why can they not understand whyblack people, who have been deliberately and systematicallydehumanized or murdered by the structure of this society, hatewhite people? The general failure of Americans to make thisconnection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inabilityto see black men as men.
When Black Power advocates refuse to listen to their would-beliberators, they are charged with creating hatred among blackpeople, thus making significant personal relationship betweenblacks and whites impossible. It should be obvious that the hatewhich black people feel toward whites is not due to the creationof the term "Black Power." Rather, it is a result of the deliberateand systematic ordering of society on the basis of racism, makingblack alienation not only possible but inevitable. For over threehundred years black people have been enslaved by the tentaclesof American white power, tentacles that worm their way intothe guts of their being and "invade the gray cells of their cortex."For three hundred years they have cried, waited, voted, marched,picketed, and boycotted, but whites still refuse to recognize theirhumanity. In light of this, attributing black anger to the call forBlack Power is ridiculous, if not obscene. "To be a Negro in thiscountry," says James Baldwin, "and to be relatively consciousis to be in rage almost all the time."
In spite of this it is misleading to suggest that hatred is essentialto the definition of Black Power. As Camus says, "One envieswhat he does not have, while the rebel's aim is to defend whathe is. He does not merely claim some good that he does notpossess or of which he is deprived. His aim is to claim recognitionfor something which he has." Therefore it is not the intentionof the black man to repudiate his master's human dignity, butonly his status as master. The rebellion in the cities, it wouldseem, should not be interpreted as a few blacks who want somethingfor nothing but as an assertion of the dignity of all blackpeople. The black man is assuming that there is a common valuewhich is recognizable by all as existing in all people, and he istestifying to that something in his rebellion. He is expressing hissolidarity with the human race. With this in view, Camus's reinterpretationof the Cartesian formula, "I think, therefore I am,"seems quite appropriate: "I rebel, therefore we exist."
It is important to make a further distinction here among blackhatred, black racism, and Black Power. Black hatred is the blackman's strong aversion to white society. No black man living inwhite America can escape it. Even a sensitive white man cansay: "It is hard to imagine how any Negro American, no matterhow well born or placed, can escape a deep sense of anger and aburning hatred of things white." And another nonblack,Arnold Rose, is even more perceptive:
Negro hatred of white people is not pathologicalfar from it. It is a healthy human reaction to oppression, insult, and terror. White people are often surprised at the Negro's hatred of them, but it should not be surprising.
The whole world knows the Nazis murdered millions of Jewsand can suspect that the remaining Jews are having some emotionalreaction to that fact. Negroes, on the other hand, are either ignoredor thought to be so subhuman that they have no feelings when oneof their number is killed because he was a Negro. Probably no weekgoes by in the United States that some Negro is not severely beaten,and the news is reported in the Negro press. Every week or maybetwice a week almost the entire Negro population of the UnitedStates suffers an emotional recoil from some insult coming from thevoice or pen of a leading white man. The surviving Jews had one,big, soul-wracking "incident" that wrenched them back to groupidentification. The surviving Negroes experience constant jolts thatalmost never let them forget for even an hour that they are Negroes.In this situation, hatred of whites and group identification are naturalreactions.
And James Baldwin was certainly expressing the spirit of blackhatred when he said:
The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginningand neither can this be overstateda Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy himfor that is what it isis utterly gratuitious, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
Copyright © 1997 James H. Cone.
All rights reserved.