PBS has recently finished up their miniseries, “Many Rivers: The African Americans.” Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the miniseries offered an overview of Black American history from the era of slavery and colonization until Barack Obama’s election in 2008. It was an interesting look at a fascinating aspect of American history, and featured plenty of historians both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. With the series wrapping up, however, I find myself asking questions about the present and future of Black American history. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, I found it to be both an excellent analysis of Black American history and a showcase of where most of the (popular, at least) scholarship is at this moment. But I do find myself wondering where the field of Black American history can go from here, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In particular, the final episode of the series, from 1968 until the present, seemed to me to need just a tad more. While it gave a good analysis of the Black Power movement, and also addressed the issues of Black Americans in the inner cities in the 1970s and 1980s, something felt a bit…off about it. It would be more accurate to say that something felt missing. I suppose I’ve felt a bit of concern about the direction of post-civil rights Black American history, tinged with plenty of hope for the future of the discipline.
As some of you are probably aware, there’s been quite the turn in Black Power historiography in the last decade, spearheaded by historians such as Peniel Joseph (Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour), Devin Fergus (Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980), Komozi Woodard (Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics), among others. The main theme of these and other works is that historians and the public alike must get away from associating Black Power with just male bravado, brash talk, and caches of weaponry. While they’ve gone a long way towards making clear that Black Power was a multifaceted movement with plenty of links to both the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements, it remains to be seen how Black American historiography will deal with the late 1970s and the 1980s. This period marked the collapse of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition and the rise of an energized New Right-led Republican Party. But for Black Americans, it also marked an ideological crossroads which, examining the field, is just starting to be given serious consideration.
That’s not to say it’s invisible in the scholarship and forbidden among historians until now. Next to my laptop is the third (and sadly final) edition of Manning Marable’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, which covers from 1945 until 2006. His chapters on the post-Black Power era (that is, after 1975) discuss Black America’s relationship to a conservative nation supportive of President Ronald Reagan’s policies on a variety of fronts. Cedric Robinson’s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders also examines some of this time period, reviewing what happened when Black Power activists decided to involve themselves with Black political leaders. Nonetheless, this historiography needs a bit more fleshing out. It’s especially imperative we as historians do this because, otherwise, the seemingly abrupt end to Black Power in the middle of the 1970s doesn’t make much sense. It’s one thing to ask questions about what happened to the major players among the Black Panthers, US organization, and cultural nationalists. It’s another question entirely to ask, “What were the ideological currents in Black American thought at this time?”
In this vein it’s worth examining the other Black leaders in the Civil Rights movement who, by the late 1960s, are almost forgotten about to get to the excitement of Black Power. Bayard Rustin’s known for this 1965 essay “From Protest to Politics” in Commentary magazine, but he still provides plenty of insight into post-1965 Black intellectual currents. And I suspect there’s a great deal more waiting to be written about Black conservatives in this era too, notably Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell. I stress that they must be taken seriously because Black Americans were searching for a variety of methods that could be used to further help the Black community adjust to an era of austerity in the 1970s, and new economic and tax policies under President Reagan in the 1980s.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying, “I wish “Many Rivers” examined these thorny issues more.” Again, they did an excellent job talking about the rise of Black politicians in the 1970s, and briefly discussed the search for a Black Agenda during that same era (something which made me too excited and led to a fascinating Twitter exchange with Michigan political science professor Robert Mickey). Furthermore, I fear that too much is being written about Black Power. Next week I’ll devote more time to some recent (and upcoming) books and articles that deal with Black ideology beyond Black Power from 1965 until 1975, but for now I’m just trying to gather my thoughts on what, I feel, is my responsibility to push intellectual history, and Black American history, beyond the Civil Rights/Black Power paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s.
 I acknowledge I’m simplifying a great deal of 1980s political, cultural, and intellectual history here, but it’s only for the sake of convenience and space.