U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Partisan Review Tackles Black Power

The release of Black Power by Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton provided an intriguing end point to 1967. As I’ve argued elsewhere, that particular year was a watershed in Black intellectual thought. For most Black intellectuals in the United States, the post-1965 era (that is, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act) took on an air of urgency. Figuring out the position of Black Americans within the political, social, and economic framework of the United States was paramount. For Carmichael and Hamilton, the answer was Black Power. Responses to the book reflected a surprise with the book’s political answers, as well as a continued unease with the concept of Black Power. What I’d like to do in today’s blog post is offer some quick thoughts on responses to Black Power—and, as the title of today’s piece indicates, not just start with book reviews but examine how liberals and leftists in 1967 debates the merits of Black Power as an ideology. In particular, the responses from Partisan Review to the ideology of Black Power show just how seriously liberals and radicals took the idea in the late 1960s.

            Partisan Review devoted considerable page space to the idea of Black Power. Martin Duberman wrote an essay on the topic in the Winter, 1968 issue of the magazine. He argued that the definition of Black Power “depends on whom you ask, when you ask, where you ask and not least, who does the asking.”[1] What is perhaps most intriguing about Duberman’s essay is his sympathy for the Black Power movement, in light of what he sees as a weakened American radicalism overall. He wrote that if there was a chance for a real radical coalition to be created in the United States, one that could be taken seriously as a political force, then advocates of Black Power would have something to join. As it was, Duberman wrote, “no responsible observer believes that in the forseeable future a radical coalition on the Left can become the effective political majority in the United States; we will be fortunate if a radical coalition on the Right does not.”[2]

            Duberman’s analysis is indicative of a larger debate amongst the Left in the United States going into 1968. Where Do We Go From Here? should not just be remembered as the title of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book. Nor should it be seen as just a question for Black Americans in the late 1960s. It also applied to American liberalism, and the radicals from the Left who attempted to push liberals on issues of race, economic inequality, and the Vietnam War in 1967-1968. What is also intriguing about Duberman’s take on Black Power is that he argues that it was, in a comparison with the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century, a transition from moderation to revolution. Again, sympathy for Black Power shines through Duberman’s section on this comparative historical model: “Thus, if one views the Garrisons and Carmichaels as “extremists,” one should at least place the blame for that extremism where it belongs—not on their individual temperaments, their genetic predispositions, but on a society which scorned or toyed with their initial pleas for justice.”[3]

            His next section on anarchism and Black Power is intriguing, because he goes from sympathetic to very critical. Duberman traces the individualist rhetoric of many Black Power advocates to a much older tradition of liberal. “SNCC may be scornful of present-day liberals and “statism,” but it seems hardly to realize that the laissez faire rhetoric it prefers, derives almost verbatim from the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill.”[4] Nor did Duberman see much promise in the focus of the broader New Left on “participatory democracy and on community organizing,” seeing the nation’s political future much more tied in bigger government. “Consolidation, not dispersion, is currently king,” Duberman wrote.[5] Duberman’s essay is, therefore, an example of how those already tied to American liberalism were trying to make sense of Black Power. His work both shows sympathy and understanding of Black Power’s quest for political power, and a “tut-tut” when it comes to they and the larger New Left’s haphazard drive for that power.

            The Partisan Review continued a dialogue about Black Power in the very next issue. In “Black Power: A Discussion,” several prominent writers for the magazine added their thoughts to what Black Power meant as a political and cultural concept. The series of essays were meant as a response to Duberman’s piece in the previous issue. For the moment, I’d like to zero in on Charles Hamilton’s response to Duberman’s essay. Hamilton does credit Duberman with making cogent points on some elements of Black Power, Hamilton still argued that “Duberman…cannot quite come to terms with the concept of Black Power.”[6]

            Hamilton also argued that, when analyzing Black Power and what its advocates wanted, it was important to get beyond the charismatic leaders most often quoted in newspapers. “What Duberman and many other social scientists and journalists and numerous “ghetto-watchers” do not know is that there are many things of a constructive, Black Power nature going on in the black communities. These things are not just rhetoric—in articles or on platforms—but are actual developments.”[7] Hamilton also takes pains to argue that, while Black Power does borrow a bit from self-help ideology, it also takes a great deal more from another element of the Black American intellectual tradition. “What we see in much of the Black Power position is a combination of a little of Booker T. Washington (self-help and cast down your buckets where you are) and a lot of W.E.B. DuBois (militant insistence on equal rights and the development of a Talented Tenth).”[8]

            The response by Hamilton is just a slice of the responses many Black academics and intellectuals had to discussions by liberals and the Left on the issue of Black Power. Of course, Duberman’s wasn’t the only response to Black Power that’s worth considering. Christopher Lasch (there’s that man again!) also reacted to Black Power in the pages of the New York Review of Books, and Norman Mailer also added a reply in this issue of Partisan Review.[9] Nonetheless, there’s a lot to think about here in terms of the idea of Black Power, and what liberals and radicals considered it to mean in 1967.

[1]Duberman, Martin. “Black Power in America.” Partisan Review. Winter 1968, p. 34-48, quote on pg. 34.

[2] Duberman, 38.

[3] Duberman, 43.

[4] Duberman, 45.

[5] Duberman, 47.

[6] Hamilton, Charles. “Black Power: A Discussion,” Spring 1968, Partisan Review, p. 205.

[7] Hamilton, 205. It’s also interesting to think about this comment in light of the recent explosion of works on Black Power, many of which have begun looking at the movement beyond the traditional narrative of Oakland, Chicago, and the big personalities. See Devin Fergus, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of Modern American Politics, 1965-1980 as one example.

[8] Hamilton, 208.

[9] Just a sample from Mr. Mailer’s piece: “Schooled in treachery, steeped in centuries of white bile, there are avalanches and cataracts of violence, destruction, inchoate rage and promiscuous waste to be encountered—there is well a question whether he (Black men) can build his own society at all, so perverse are the conduits of his crossed emotions by now. Norman Mailer, “Black Power: A Discussion,” Spring 1968, Partisan Review, p. 220-221.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    An fyi: The current issue of JAH has an article on how Robert Kennedy worked with/subverted black power interests in NYC, circa 1966, in relation to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area—helping to empower the community in a way that would help it avoid a Watts-type riot. The article is sympathetic to RFK’s effort, even while pointing out some weaknesses. Citation:

    Tom Adam Davies, “Black Power in Action: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Politics of the Urban Crisis,” JAH 100, no. 3 (Dec. 2013), 736-60

    – TL

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