Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama

Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama
by Peniel E. Joseph
Basic Books

Review by Reginald Harris

The subtitle of this new book by Tufts University History Professor Peniel Joseph at first seems counter intuitive, intentionally provocative—or just plain wrong: From Black Power to Barack Obama? Isn’t our first African-American President proof of the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream and a refutation Malcolm X’s vision of America as a racial nightmare? Noted for his cool, calm demeanor, President Obama seems the philosophical and temperamental opposite of the incendiary Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Turé) with his raised fist and 1966 declaration, “What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!” As civil-rights veteran John Lewis famously said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma,” not what emerges from the fires and uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Joseph refutes such an antagonistic vision of the civil rights and Black Power movements in Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, enriching and complicating our understanding of both. He uses politico-biographical chapters on the lives of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael to illustrate how elements of Black Power grew parallel with, and as a counter force to, the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1970s, and how both prepared the United States for a figure such as Barack Obama.

Civil rights and Black Power grew out of postwar freedom surges. In the South, civil rights activists responded to racial segregation by advocating for voting rights and the end to Jim Crow. Black Power activists embraced militant anti-racist protests that included combative demonstrations. In spite of the differences between the two movements, many activists found themselves drawn to, and participating in, both. Both movements sought to re-imaging the very shape and tenor of American democracy. Ultimately both helped to transform contemporary American race relations. But the failure to acknowledge Black Power’s immediate roots in the postwar freedom struggle . . . perpetuates the mythology that the movement represents nothing more than the civil rights era’s destructive, violent, and ineffectual sibling . . .”

Contradicting the standard image of the movement as only interested in violence, Joseph shows how Black Power was as much about politics and influence at the ballot box. He declares such Black Power-related institutions as the development of black studies programs in the academy, and the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, as important elements of the groundwork for Barack Obama’s arrival on the political scene. Indeed, some right-of-center criticism of President Obama can be seen as a recognition of, and reaction against, him as part of this Black Power continuum. How much of the use of “Community Organizer” as an epithet against Obama during the 2008 campaign, for example, was an echo of the reaction against the grassroots work done by Malcolm X, Carmichael, and the Black Panthers in Oakland, California during the 1960s and ’70s?

Although Joseph points out correctly that, “while Obama invoked the civil rights era throughout his campaign, he largely ignored Black Power,” Dark Days, Bright Nights does not focus deeply on why this silence might be considered ‘smart politics’ when attempting to attract white voters, or the continuing racism that continues to plague ‘post-racial America.’ Indeed, as Joseph himself writes, “Obama has enjoyed the benefits of both the civil rights and Black Power movements while maintaining a safe distance from both.” As Joseph points out, however, “Obama’s election has successfully fused powerful aspects of both civil rights and Black Power movements . . . his speeches, books, and interviews discuss democracy and the potential for civic renewal in the broad, sweeping language preferred by King…{his} campaign and confident personal demeanor mimic the swagger and audacity of Black Power-era militants. His long, lanky frame suggests (aesthetically at least) the lean, upright silhouette of both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.”

Some early sections of Dark Days, Bright Nights suffer from occasional passages of repetition, and much of the ground the Malcolm and Stokely chapters cover will be familiar to readers of Joseph’s previous book, the excellent Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. However, in connecting and contrasting President Obama to these two men, Dark Days, Bright Nights ultimately succeeds in showing the endurance and surprising success of many Black Power initiatives, and how much the President is a validation of the legacy of them both. One only wonders, however, if it was Barack Obama that Jesse Jackson was imagining when he declared, “It’s Nation Time!” at the National Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972.

Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for 10 Tongues: Poems (Three Conditions Press, 2001), Reginald Harris is Poetry in the Branches Program Coordinator for Poets House in New York City.