West tells me that I need to check out a forthcoming book on Hoyt Fuller by Jonathan Fenderson. It’s now on the list.
Civil Rights For Beginners (2016).
Paul Von Blum. Illustrations by Frank Reynoso, et. al.
Foreword by Peniel E. Joseph.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389897; ISBN-13: 978-1934389898.
161 pp., $15.95.
Malcolm X For Beginners (1992).
Text and Illustrations by Bernard Aquina Doctor.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389048; ISBN-13: 978-1934389041.
186 pp., $16.99.
Black Panthers For Beginners (1995).
Herb Boyd. Illustrations by Lance Tooks.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 193999439X; ISBN-13: 978-1939994394.
154 pp., $15.95.
Fanon For Beginners (1998).
Text and Illustrations by Deborah Wyrick, Ph.D.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389870; ISBN-13: 978-1934389874
184 pp., $15.95.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Although the Black Power movement officially began months earlier, with Stokely Carmichael, stalwart of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, publicly using the term in Alabama, for this writer the Black Power movement started when two brothers met in Oakland and, borrowing a symbol that SNCC was politically organizing with, developed a 10-point program for Black liberation. Under Carmichael, SNCC stood with the Congress of Racial Equality as the Black Power wing of the Freedom Movement, with an emphasis on organizing Black people to see themselves as members of self-determining Black communities, of miniature Black/African nations in the land of the thief, home of the slave.
Providing art and information to The People—like Fannie Lou Hamer, formally uneducated but politically astute—was a priority for the Black Power Movement. Africana Studies, an idea that had just begun to be implemented in American academia, was still being written in the streets in blood, footnoted with broken glass and Molotov cocktails.
The “For Beginners” books series, originally published by Writers and Readers, are books for The People. The company describes what it produces as “documentary comicbooks.” Being a little more precise, what they create, actually, are well-researched introductory books about complex topics and personalities illustrated by drawings that oftentimes mimic comicbook style. These four books listed were chosen to highlight and celebrate the Black Power movement through their collective analysis and unique presentation. (Although, it is known that this idea is far from new: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a white liberal group, published “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story” in 1957, and Julian Bond published an anti-Vietnam comicbook targeting the Black community ten years later.)
The publisher allows description and explanation on its authors’ terms. Von Blum’s book, for example, takes the entirety of Black history and describes it through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement, reminding the reader that Ida B. Wells sat down and refused to move on a train before Rosa Parks was even a gleam in one of her parents’ eyes. It mentions unheralded actors such as the Southern Tenants Farmers Union, which held a sit-in in the U.S. agriculture secretary’s office in 1934. Doctor’s book on Malcolm is a wonderful text-collage combo (done in the pre-digital era!) that is not afraid to go for the symbolic image: seeing a tiny Malcolm being held in the palm of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”’s “Sophia” (Bea), his white lover, makes the statement. Doctor provides an impressionistic history of Malcolm—a story of Black ideas that override chronology (and unfortunately, sometimes biographical facts) and ideological complexity.
Out of the four, the two that stand out overall are Boyd’s BPP and Wyrick’s Fanon. Wyrick blasts the complex Fanon into understandable chunks of intellectual peanut brittle, explaining and dissecting, critiquing and footnoting. Her thoughtfulness, care and talent shows through, since her own illustrations do a wonderful job of supplementing and complementing her deceptively simple text. Her closing chapter on Fanon’s multifaceted legacy, and her beautifully crafted first-person epilogue, is alone worth every tree that was sacrificed to make this book. Boyd’s snappy, bouncy prose style is more than equaled by Tooks’ energetic, playful art. (This reviewer wishes that the publisher would have made Von Blum follow the Boyd/Tooks model, instead of providing dry, trying-to-get-tenure academic text punctuated by even drier art by the Civil Rights book’s main artist, Reynoso. Liz Von Notias, sadly a supplementary artist for the text, provides the narrative’s more vibrant, alive drawings.) Boyd quotes from most of the Panther scholarship that existed at the time of publication, creating a mosaic of first-person recollections from Panthers as well as its public enemies and private informants. The sections on sexism within the BPP and the Huey Newton/Eldridge Cleaver split is very strong, as is the tracing of police plant Gene Roberts from Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity to the Panthers.
With the exception of Von Blum’s Civil Rights, which was published this year, the major problem with these books is that they desperately need updating. For example, at least a score of studies, anthologies, memoirs and biographies have been published on the Black Panther Party since Boyd and Tooks, and Boyd himself is the co-editor of “The Diary of Malcolm X,” a 2014 book that, like “Blood Brothers,” the recent Randy Roberts/Johnny Smith narrative history on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, must be incorporated into Doctor’s almost 25-year-old “For Beginners” text. The books also can be editorially uneven; for example, some titles have indexes and some don’t. That sloppiness should not be tolerated.
In spite of these flaws, these books need to be supported by The People. (With the eight-year White House national experiment with being adjective-less “Americans” almost over, it’s time for Black America to go back to its socio-historio-cultural basics.) They need to be purchased and passed out to the Black masses, of any age, who, like the high school seniors and college freshmen the “For Beginners” series is apparently targeted to, may be intimidated by “serious,” “scholarly” texts. Google Search, Wikipedia and YouTube need not have the first, and last, word when it comes to African/Black leaders and movements. As unlikely as it seems, mass political education of The People might only be a few million “documentary comicbooks” away.
It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television.
By Gayle Wald (with photographs by Chester Higgins).
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
288 pp. $25.95 (trade paperback).
This book understands the right story to tell—one of, in author Gayle Wald’s words, “a fragile alliance of liberal and radical interests, both public and private”–and, thankfully, arrives at the right places. “Soul!” (1968-1973), a nationally distributed public television program that could loosely be described as the radical sister of the more commercial “Soul Train,” fired the imagination and reflected the multi-faceted sensibilities of its Black community of viewers. Using largely untapped wells of research about the early days of American public television vis-à-vis Black America, Wald relates a nuanced story of how the condescension of white American public television officials seeking to provide an outlet for the angry Black community in the late 1960s led to a (largely) Black-controlled showcase of the Black Arts Movement on (largely) Black aesthetic terms. It is the restrained approach, however, of choosing as this book’s scholarship basis intellectual sources outside the “soul” of Black/African folks that makes this book strangely appealing and more than a little irritating.
“Soul!” (episodes of which can be found online) was first a product of Black insurrection. Reacting to that outpouring of anger and violence, white funders, somewhat accidentally, allowed a Black producer, Ellis Haizlip, to have his way. WNET-Channel 13 (now known as Thirteen), then and now the New York-based flagship station of the PBS collective, wanted a companion show to “Black Journal,” its Black newsmagazine. The initial and white idea of a “Black Tonight Show” developed under Haizlip into a Black Arts salon that was cooler than the “The Flip Wilson Show” and Don Cornelius’ large Afro. Wald wisely includes as much of Haizlip’s life story into this book as she can fit. (A documentary film on the “Soul!” producer, done by his niece Melissa Haizlip, is struggling to get funding.) The letters of support “Soul!” received are well used in Wald’s book; they show the involvement of the Black community instead of just describing the appreciation of an audience.
“It’s Been Beautiful” builds somewhat on Devorah Heitner’s “Black Power TV,” a pioneering 2013 intellectual narrative on the early days of East Coast Black public affairs television, and does so with great intellectual gusto. Wald, a professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University, rightly uses the New York-based “Soul!”—a program that would feature, for example, Nikki Giovanni interviewing James Baldwin or a studio performance of The Last Poets, or Earth, Wind and Fire—to find “a key TV text of the era or as a cultural project joined by common cause to 1960s and 1970s political struggles.” The show’s arc matches its era: Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed two weeks before the grant to create the show was submitted, and it was cancelled because PBS’ funders, facing the onslaught of the Nixon era and the fading of the Black Power movement, wanted to create programming that would have Blacks and whites interacting.
Chapters Three and Four—which dissect “Soul!” as a program, along with its performers and producers—are worth the price of the book alone. Wald does not shy away from explaining Black American culture in all its glory and anger. But she doesn’t seem to want to dig into the African, non-Western roots of what she is seeing and describing. She correctly emphasizes the ideological and cultural diversity of the performances, and explores the unity-without-uniformity cultural and political ideology present at the time, but doesn’t want to go in-depth into how Africans in America came to create those products and their ideas in a world drenched in white supremacy and anti-African-ness. Instead, Wald chooses to emphasize the gender and sexual orientation undercurrents of the visual text: “’Soul!’ created a television space where Black people—imagined to include Latinos of various hues who were seeking alternatives to whiteness, Black women marginalized by nationalist conceptions of both the public and private spheres, and Black gays and lesbians rendered as ‘unnatural’ and ‘freakish’—could see, hear and almost feel each other.” For example, she seems more interested in Haizlip’s negotiation of his public gayness than the undiluted African thought processes that produced him and his approach to Black art and the Black community. Wald is not ignorant of African-centered thought; she doesn’t think it’s intellectually relevant enough to examine when quotes from Black Arts Movement stalwarts will do.
The 21st century public television landscape is deeply complicated in ways that this book’s bell-bottom era forecasts. The fact that, for example, on “The PBS NewsHour,” one will find in 2015 occasional in-depth discussions of African and African-American artists and their work is the realization of public broadcasting’s assimilation goals. (After reading Wald, the cross-cultural appeal of PBS’ “Tavis Smiley” could been seen as a page out of a memorandum written by the 1970s PBS executives.) And the 2015 decision by the Sesame Workshop to sell first-run rights of “Sesame Street” to premium cable outlet Home Box Office shows that funding and producing these non-commercial programs are still challenging, even for PBS’ signature programs. So Wald accomplishes with her detail the goal of all scholars: to be both historical and current.
Wald’s and Heitner’s approach to analyzing Black media—focusing on the televisual performance and its socio-political and socio-cultural implications, grounded in European-approved disciplines of American (film) studies, (Black) feminism, queer studies, et. al.—provides both a fascinating read and important scholarship. (Anyone interested in continuing their newly-established tradition should seriously consider studying PBS’ “With Ossie and Ruby,” an almost-forgotten treasure of a Black cultural container similar to “Soul!” in important ways. A study from those perspectives would be fascinating, and perhaps a scholar will one day attempt it.) Ultimately though, Black people need scholarly narratives of these Black cultural television programs from the unapologetic point-of-view of African-centered thought and philosophy.