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What to Watch: The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975

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In the early 2000s, Swedish film director Göran Hugo Olsson was working on the documentary “Am I Black Enough for You” about 70s soul musician Billy Paul. While researching he found an archive of 16 mm tapes in the building of Swedish Television, the country’s broadcasting company. The footage had been shot by a group of Swedish television journalists sympathetic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US. In 1967 they’d traveled to America to document the lives of both ordinary black Americans as well as those politically involved in the struggle for equal rights.

This footage, nearly 85 hours of it, sat in a basement for 30 years. In the 70s, Olsson was a student in Sweden. It was a time when his generation developed an interest in the Vietnam War and America’s role in it. This was the time of author Stieg Larsson’s political activism, when he was a photo journalist working with revolutionary groups in the Horn of Africa. There was something in the air and the group of filmmakers had caught it. Years later, Olsson was, once again, inspired by it, which led him to create The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975.

Deciding “to riff on the popular ‘70s ‘mixtape’ format,” Olsson was careful not to cut the footage into pieces. Instead he kept the interviews at length and assembled them in chronological order.

The first public figure we see is Stokely Carmichael, someone I’d never heard of before this film. Carmichael could be considered a bridge between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers. He started out as a leader of a nonviolent student organization, taking part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, a group that originally relied on civil disobedience. Soon, he’d lost patience with MLK’s message and found a new role model in Frantz Fanon. After reading Fanon’s seminal text, Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael took the organization in a radical direction, adopting instead, Black Power ideology.

Co-producer Danny Glover, whose production company helped secure funding for the film, when he saw the footage, was taken with how clearly it showed the link between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Highlighting this connections, and following the flow of history, the film moves naturally from Stokely’s words to those of the Black Panthers’.

There are echoes of Stokely in the footage that follows. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Information, gives a speech about the presidential nominees in San Francisco in 1968, Bobby Seale, the Chairman, explains the all-encompassing nature of the organization, and Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense, in 1971, released on bail after his arrest on allegations of manslaughter, discusses the “abusive” and “oppressive” treatment he experienced while in jail.

For anyone familiar with Europe’s views of the American criminal justice system, it will come as no surprise that the Attica prison riot, fueled in part by the prisoners’ desire for better living conditions, and the murder trial involving Angela Davis, whose ancillary role as owner of guns used in a hostage situation, put her in the precarious position of defending her life.

Adding a contemporary component to the film is commentary from black thinkers today. Those featured in voice-overs are musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and Questlove of The Roots. Throughout the film they, along with poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole and academic Robin Kelley discuss their memories of and experiences with the figures and moments in the archival footage.

The Black Power Mixtape takes an often-unquestioning and sympathetic view of its subject. However, this fact is stated in the opening of the film with text on the screen: “It [The Black Power Mixtape] does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” While it shouldn’t be taken as a sole account of this time period, the film is both a fascinating and educational contribution to the documentation of American history. For anyone looking for a place to start — but not a place to end — The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is a fantastic primer.

Official Website
Watch Instant on Netflix (available for streaming at the time of this posting)
Stokely Carmichael’s essay “What We Want” (PDF)
Okay Player Interview with Film Director Goran Olsson

::[Dig Deeper]::
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by Malcolm X
“These are the major speeches made by Malcolm X during the last tumultuous eight months of his life. In this short period of time, his vision for abolishing racial inequality in the United States underwent a vast transformation. Breaking from the Black Muslims, he moved away from the black militarism prevalent in his earlier years only to be shot down by an assassin’s bullet.” [via IndieBound]

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
“By turns shocking and lyrical, unblinking and raw, the searingly honest memoirs of Eldridge Cleaver are a testament to his unique place in American history. Cleaver writes in Soul on Ice, “I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation.” What Cleaver shows us, on the pages of this now classic autobiography, is how much he was a man.” [via IndieBound]

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
“Eloquently tracing the birth of a revolutionary, Huey P. Newton’s famous and oft-quoted autobiography is as much a manifesto as a portrait of the inner circle of America’s Black Panther Party. From Newton’s impoverished childhood on the streets of Oakland to his adolescence and struggles with the system, from his role in the Black Panthers to his solitary confinement in the Alameda County Jail, Revolutionary Suicide is smart, unrepentant, and thought-provoking in its portrayal of inspired radicalism.” [via IndieBound]

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
“With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.” [via IndieBound”

The Black Panthers Speak edited by Philip S. Foner
“For over three decades, The Black Panthers Speak has represented the most important single source of original material on the Black Panther Party. With cartoons, flyers, and articles by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, this collection endures as an essential part of civil-rights history.” [via IndieBound]

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
“The Wretched of the Earth (published 1961) is Frantz Fanon’s most famous work, written during and regarding the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial rule. As a psychiatrist, Fanon explored the psychological effect of colonization on the psyche of a nation as well as its broader implications for building a movement for decolonization.” [via Wikipedia] Jean Paul-Sartre’s preface.

Quality by Talib Kweli (2002)
“Talib’s elation here strikes as sophisticated, distinguishing itself from the materialistic acquisitions, drug binges and sexual conquests that pass for contentment on many hip-hop albums, with a spiritual center attained through an on-record intellectual honesty and emotional transparency that’s still rare in a culture that feeds off inflated stereotypes of machismo posturing and stands on the political platform of fatalism and resignation. In fact, Kweli’s unabashed positivity and emotional vulnerability feel almost transgressive to these ears. Even when he confronts the ills of society, as he does on the wrenching “Where Do We Go” and “Stand to the Side”, there’s a certain optimism and belief that by illuminating the darkness through hip-hop, we can hope to transcend the pain.” [via Pitchfork]

Written by Gabrielle

January 10, 2012 at 5:54 am

retro reads :: uncle tom’s cabin

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uncle tom's cabin / harriet beecher stowe / 1852

with the latest literary kerfuffle over an alabama-based small press, NewSouth, Inc., removing the word “n****r” from mark twain’s the adventures of huckleberry finn and the adventures of tom sawyer, my mind was brought back to an amazing book i’d read over the summer: uncle tom’s cabin. we’ve all heard of it, it was assigned to many of us in high school, but still many others have sidestepped this american classic. i was one of them.

mark twain is known for his scathing, sarcastic tone; he’d used ‘n****r’ not out of conviction for the slur but because he was an astute critic of his time. however, twain’s books were published after slavery had been abolished and while commendable, no doubt it’s important to keep alive the past in order to shed light on the present, it was harriet beecher stowe who wrote a harsh portrayal of slavery during its reign.

harriet beecher stowe was born in litchfield, connecticut in 1811 and grew up to be an activist, fueled by religious beliefs. she was the daughter of a prominent new england preacher and devoted to women’s rights but she’s best known for her contribution to the abolition of slavery. first published in 1851 as forty weekly segments in national era, an abolitionist paper, it was then published as a novel in 1852, 13 years before the 13th amendment rendered the practice of human bondage illegal in the united states. it sold 10,000 copies the first week and 300,000 within a year—an extraordinary performance for the mid-nineteenth century. the book, and its author, were, and still are, given credit for sparking the civil war; as the popular anecdote goes, when stowe met abraham lincoln he said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war,” referring to the belief that she energized the abolitionist movement. aside from writing her convictions, her and her husband supported the underground railroad by temporarily housing runaway slaves.

uncle tom’s cabin follows closely the lives of three slaves: eliza, a young woman of “passing” color, her husband (nominally since law forbade slaves to marry), george, and tom—uncle tom—the older slave given elder status within the confides of his situation. both eliza and tom are property of a man known for his comparative leniency and his wife who encouraged literacy among her slaves. tom and his family, which included a devoted wife and young children, lived in a shed out back behind the main house. eliza lived in her master’s house with her son, harry, who she was allowed to keep as such. george, the father of the boy and an intelligent man who, in this day and age, wouldve been an executive, was, unfortunately, the slave of a neighbor—a hard man with little regard for his chattel. although eliza and tom had it better than most, the last thing the life of a slave had to offer was a guaranteed arrangement. and so, as soon as eliza’s owner found himself in some fiscal trouble, he—granted, with heartbreak—sold eliza, harry, and tom to a less-than-reputable trader not known for keeping promises of mercy to concerned sellers.

eliza happened to hear of the deal from a closet a few hours before it was to happen and, at the first chance, warned tom. her husband, who, a few days earlier, decided to try his hand at freedom and buy his family when he’d raised enough money, was being hunted by his irate owner. tom, loyal to a fault, decided to stay—hence part of the reason for the negative connotations conjured up by the mention of ‘uncle tom’. eliza, on the other hand, in the middle of the night, takes her kid and runs north.

one of stowe’s reasons for writing the book was to fight the recently-passed fugitive slave act of 1850, a law that made it illegal for northerns to harbor slaves who’d run from the south. stowe, faithful to her christian notions, saw the ruling as inhumane and hoped for a speedy repeal. it’s telling that one of the heroes of the story is a group of quakers just over the border who help the fleeing cast.

one reason for reading classics is to better understand a culture—either your own or someone else’s. uncle tom’s cabin is, unarguably, an important piece of american history, both for what it says about it and for the part it played in it. i went into this book thinking i understood the horrors of slavery, that i could imagine all the awfulness of it in my head, but stowe’s unrelenting rendering of the institution hit me viscerally. i could feel the anguish of parents and children ripped apart from one another because whites didnt acknowledge their humanity. although criticized in modern times, most notably by james baldwin in his essay everybody’s protest novel, for creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes of blacks, and besides my own skepticism for the same reasons, i found stowe’s assassination attempt on slavery heartfelt, sincere, and worth reading at least once in one’s life.

[dig deeper] ::
good bad books / an essay by george orwell / tribune, november 1945

A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called ‘the good bad book’: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. . . . Perhaps the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other.

this essay is available in all art is propaganda: critical essays by george orwell

[cultural reference] ::
simon legree: the worst slave owner in the book and the last owner—for good reason—tom has. because of uncle tom’s cabin’s religious element, simon plays the devil to the slave’s angel.

uncle tom: current day use of this term is a slur, meaning a black man who will do anything to be seen positively by whites; but the character didnt start out that way. when uncle tom’s cabin was written, uncle tom was a rebuttal to the depiction of blacks in minstrel shows. for one, he was a dedicated family man who had an intense love for his wife and children.

sold down the river: the origin of this phrase is more interesting than its common use—often simply a sense of betrayal—lets on. it comes from the mississippi region during slave times to mean the selling of a slave further down south where they were sure to meet with harsher conditions. the earliest known reference in print is from the repository, a local paper in ohio, in may 1837, which said, “One man, in Franklin County has lately realized thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river.”

[sources] ::
uncle tom’s cabin on sparknotes

Written by Gabrielle

January 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

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