This film–a very timely look, particularly with what’s going on now, at this very moment–is quite a detailed look at the real Martin Luther King and the real Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the sheets pulled off everybody, this film is almost an intellectual nudist camp, allowing the viewer to absorb an-often sordid story that, as Ronald Reagan (!) warns at the beginning, isn’t pretty. Yep, King’s extramarital sextape is real, and the FBI did try its best within its own twisted bounds of evil legality to destroy him. Along the way, the viewer sees King’s trajectory through the eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the radical King, the one only the Left or Black nationalists talk about. The filmmakers punk out at the end, though, choosing not to sift through the detail of the assassination itself and not explaining the larger and smaller intelligence agencies, or philosophies thereof, at work. (The Black context of King’s death is here, in what seems to be a 1969 episode of Black Journal, when the national black public-affairs television show and the wound were both still fresh.) The oral-history-format (just voices, no speaking-heads until the very end) and extensive use of file footage, from newsreels to television shows, is combined with the fine-tooth-comb research of David Garrow and others. This is the proper documentary to watch as America’s scabs are bleeding.
David Masciotra. Foreword by Michael Eric Dyson.
London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 198 pp., $27.
This time-shifting mini-biographical tribute to Jesse Jackson Sr. reminds us why he is so exasperating and inspiring to so many. In thematic chapters, Masciotra goes back and forth from the 1960s to 2020, reminding the audience that knows (50-plus) and the audience that doesn’t (under 50) that he’s been here all along, connecting the eras of Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter, from Aretha Franklin to Megan Thee Stallion. Displaying a good understanding of how hegemonic mass media works, the author does an excellent job showing and explaining why the uncontrollable, indefatigable, undefeatable Jackson consistently doesn’t fit the MSM program and perhaps only will after he transforms into a series of sometimes-accessed, highly-edited film and video clips. Jackson’s service to humanity, his always-public witness to injustice and his full membership in 20th century and 21st century public memory are all unapparelled among the currently living, regardless of motivation or rumor of motivation. He is the ultimate insider-outsider and the remarkable half-century of history of world human rights struggle he brings to the table cannot be duplicated by this current army of Millennial and post-Millennial Ivy League-educated “social justice activists,” no matter how concerned and committed they want to be. They will never have Jackson’s nerve because that only comes through walking through America’s fire repeatedly and nakedly, of being unafraid to publicly be who you really are, mistakes and all, regardless of who publicly hates you and for how long. Masciotra shows the Rainbow/PUSH founder constantly at a table prepared for him in the presence of his enemies. The fact that he often seems to be the agenda he is looking for at any table doesn’t seem so negative here in his Winter, especially after you total up the psychological, spiritual and social cost, the steep price of destiny’s frequent-flyer ticket. He breathes, so he leads until he leaves.
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.
To Protect and Serve Who? Organizing a Movement to Abolish Police Violence.
City Lights Open Media Series.
San Francisco: City Lights Books.
16 pp., $5
Mumia Abu-Jamal, the imprisoned journalist known worldwide for his writing and speaking, has, not unsurprisingly, hand-typed a document about fighting as he battles to get the needed medication that could cure his Hepatitis C. A memorable pamphlet responds to the current moment with both stationary (historical) and fluid (current) thought, and this one doesn’t disappoint. In his first pamphlet in nearly three decades, the former Black Panther Party member attempts a tutorial for the Black Lives Matter movement. The radical writer gives a revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement that centralizes the blood and anger of young people. He reminds his symbolic charges that movements come from oppression and will guarantee violent resistance. A brief-but-serious examination of the cost of struggle as Black America heads into the 50th anniversary of both the Black Power movement and the founding of the Black Panther Party during 2016, Abu-Jamal continues to step into the role of social historian legends Lerone Bennett Jr. and Howard Zinn, in his own, deceptively simple agitprop style.