Black Power, like many things associated with the 1960s, blossomed, burst, and broke apart into fragments of meaning and intent that to this day suggest wildly different things to different people. It started out as a slogan. In short order, though, it morphed into a movement—one that its partisans and sympathizers viewed as a natural extension of the civil rights revolution of the early sixties, and that its detractors denounced as a debilitating, if not irrevocable, departure from the integrationist vision of racial harmony.
African Americans—the ones staking this alternately exhilarating and hypothetical claim on genuine social power in a polity that systematically denies it to them—saw in the slogan the possibility for radical social changes even as it encouraged the traditionally conservative value of self-determination. Meanwhile, many white Americans thought Black Power was a euphemism for black hatred, or at least white exclusion. And just as many African Americans believe that they had never before—or since—felt so good about being themselves than they did at the high tide of Black Power’s tour through the cultural zeitgeist, before the movement receded in the bleary, malaise-ridden days of the mid-seventies.
These stark dichotomies sound eerily familiar in the early days of Black Lives Matter (BLM), whose summer of tumult this year coincided with Black Power’s fiftieth anniversary. As with Black Power, BLM began as a slogan emerging from frustration with the pace of progress in American race relations. The phrase Black Lives Matter, like Black Power, bristles with non-deferential insistence on simple justice—in this case, the urgent need to redress the basic lack of judicial and moral accountability for the deaths of unarmed young black people through excessive police force. The slogan’s movement-defining crucible came in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. But the phrase itself—together with many of the currents of self-organized black protest that informed the uprising—went as far back as the acquittal, in 2013, of a mixed-race neighborhood-watch officer named George Zimmerman, who mounted a self-defense strategy while on trial for fatally shooting seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Shortly after the Zimmerman verdict, Alicia Garza, an Oakland-based activist and organizer, posted “a love letter to black people” on Facebook with “black lives matter” as its recurring motif.
I admit it: I love seeing people lose their shit whenever I tell them that my uncle helped invent Black Power.
Black Power’s breakthrough is now the stuff of sixties social myth. Its creation moment came on the night of June 16, 1966, in Greenwood, Mississippi, when Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), the Trinidad-born, Harlem-bred, Bronx-raised chairman of the epoch-making Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), appeared before a crowd of local residents and journalists, along with the demonstrators who had come to Mississippi to replace activist James Meredith on what had been his solitary “Walk Against Fear.” Earlier that month, Meredith had set out to traverse the state before he was shot and wounded by a sniper. On that June day in Greenwood, Carmichael had been arrested and released by police, and as cameras snapped, he proclaimed with heavy perspiration and iron purpose:
This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested. I ain’t goin’ to jail no more. The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying, “Freedom Now” for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power . . . We want Black Power! . . . [Crowd shouts “Black Power” back] . . . “We want Black Power!” . . . [Crowd shouts back].
That antiphonal chant of “Black Power” is to this day a kind of reductive shorthand for a transformative moment whose true impact and motives were disputed from the beginning. Some—mostly, but not exclusively, white—saw rage and menace implied in Carmichael’s sound bite and believed it signaled the beginning of the end of the civil rights movement’s integrationist phase. Others—mostly, but not exclusively, black—insisted Black Power was not synonymous with white hatred, but marked a necessary, inevitable transition point in the movement toward political and economic empowerment.
Over the next decade or so, Black Power became less a coherent movement than a catchall phrase applied to anything that related to, or was redolent of, the overlapping cultural and political strains of black nationalism. This took in everything from the Black Panther Party (whose public displays in black berets and leather uniforms belied the fact that they were less rigidly nationalistic in their overall vision than other militant groups) to campaigns for more black studies courses on college campus to the increasing ubiquity of the Afro hairstyle. You want to talk about heightening contradictions? Even Richard Nixon adopted “Black Capitalism” as a centerpiece of his appeal for African American votes in his 1968 campaign for president, securing support for his re-election campaign four years later from Floyd McKissick, the former national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, who was among the first of the traditional civil rights leaders to rally behind Carmichael’s call. And if this isn’t a great enough cultural incongruity of postwar capitalism and black nationalist politics, consider that Nixon’s best-known black supporter in that same 1972 reelection campaign was none other than James “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” Brown.
Black Power galvanized African Americans toward greater self-esteem and enduring achievements in the arts, while goading employers to hold to their promises of ushering greater racial diversity into the ranks of their workforces. Still, as the movement took root more broadly among other communities of color (with allied slogans such as Chicano Power), Black Power continued to invite suspicion among whites who were sympathetic to the civil rights cause that they were being excluded from further participation. Indeed, this charge became so common in certain respectable white-liberal outlets of opinion that Charles Hamilton, the political scientist who, with Carmichael, cowrote the 1967 book-length explication of the movement, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, was moved to challenge it in his afterword to the 1992 edition:
No matter that some explanations focused on the denial of these charges and attempted to discuss the concept in terms of viable pluralist American politics. No matter that painstaking efforts were made to point out the years of inability of blacks to enter viable coalitions with other groups, coalitions that would recognize and respect the legitimate needs and complaints of black Americans. Many Black Power advocates tried to make the case that blacks have always understood the necessity for coalitions, but all too often those efforts were thwarted, and blacks, because of their relatively weak status, were unable to do much about this.
This retrospective parsing affirms the contentions of Harold Cruse, author of the seminal 1967 critique of twentieth-century African American political and cultural activism, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, that however provocative or incendiary Carmichael and others made Black Power out to be, the movement carried a strong message of cultural conservatism and economic self-help. Black Power, Cruse insisted, was more “reformist” in its intentions than casual readings of the movement had let on.
As Cruse wrote in his “Postscript on Black Power” in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: “While the slogan cast a revolutionary sounding theme and a threat of more intense revolt across the land, the substance was, in fact, a methodological retreat to black social reforms. In pragmatic America the slogans catch the imagination while the implicit substances are glossed over and ignored.” And in anticipation of the subsequent lack of coherent ideology associated with the movement, Cruse was later moved to ask, rhetorically, “What is the program [for Black Power]?” What he foresaw happening over time among black activists were variations of the ongoing arguments of previous decades, between “integrationism (civil rights, racial equality, freedom)” on the one hand and “nationalism (separatism, accommodationist self-segregation, economic nationalism, group solidarity, and self-help)” on the other.
And indeed, these differences of vision played out not just in politics, but also in literature, art, fashion, and music. Ancillary disputes over the uses and valences of Black Power continued on with (as Cruse implied) as little reconciliation of the integrationist-nationalist dichotomy as there had been in the early twentieth century, when W. E. B. Du Bois argued tactics and objectives with Booker T. Washington (on his assimilationist right) and Marcus Garvey (on his separatist-nationalist left).
The Return of the Recursive
Black Power, in other words, carries a huge, complicated, and deeply unresolved legacy. Even today, fifty years after Carmichael’s rousing chant broke through the Mississippi night, America’s mainstream still can’t—or won’t—figure out what to make of it. During this past summer’s Olympics, for instance, National Public Radio anchor Renée Montagne interviewed John Carlos, the 1968 bronze medalist in the 200-meter race who, along with gold medalist Tommie Smith, created an unforgettable furor by standing on the awards podium during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem with head bowed, shoes removed, and gloved fist raised. Montagne referred to this defiant gesture as a “Black Power” salute, but Carlos, now seventy-one, felt compelled to broaden its intent to encompass “humanitarian” issues of poverty and injustice:
MONTAGNE: Although at the time, with that clenched fist, it was read by many as a Black Power salute. And this at a time . . . CARLOS: I don’t think—I don’t believe it was read by many as a Black Power salute. I think what happened was—I think they were influenced by headlines, by the right-wing press that was put out there relative to us being black militants or we trying to burn down America and burn down the Statue of Liberty, which was total nonsense. MONTAGNE: So it wasn’t, in your—for you or Tommie Smith, a Black Power salute. CARLOS: The only black power was our black butts running down that track. That was the power right there in itself.
Though he’s certainly earned the right to call the salute whatever he wants, why does a legendary badass like John Carlos feel compelled to mitigate, if not altogether apologize for, whatever qualms were suggested in a white journalist’s reference to Black Power? What did Black Power do to deserve to be treated as a combustible device, even after all this time?
Protest and Politesse
And could we be asking the same thing about Black Lives Matter someday? While initially attracting much good will and racially diverse support, especially in the wake of the 2014 police-related deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, BLM has had to deal with its own issues, including a relative lack of definition compared with traditional civil rights organizations.
Black Lives Matter now has as wide-ranging a presence in the public sphere as Black Power did a half-century ago.
There have been disputes within the movement, notably when one BLM activist, Aislinn Pulley, declined an invitation to the White House in February for a multi-generational meeting of activists that two other BLM leaders accepted. In August, a coalition of sixty organizations calling itself the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) answered criticism of BLM being rudderless by drafting “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice.” This manifesto sought to supplement BLM’s original, urgent call to curb excessive police violence with a set of specific, detailed policy goals aimed at ending institutional racism, restructuring domestic priorities, and investing heavily in predominantly black communities. Faced with the need to move beyond slogans, M4BL offered a blueprint for reversing policies that have demeaned and exploited generations of African Americans. Few, if any, of these proposals drew as much attention from the mainstream press as the document’s attack on Israel as an “apartheid state.”
And in an event that reflected, however dimly in impact, the Smith-Carlos Olympic protest, San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem before several pre-season NFL games in what he said was a gesture of solidarity with BLM protests against police violence. More athletes, black and white, joined Kaepernick in his protest, while more Americans (most, but not all of them white) expressed varying levels of antagonism toward Kaepernick and those who likewise kneeled or sat during the anthem.
As with other events that spun off from the initial mobilization of BLM, the Kaepernick protest pried open a deeper well of discourse about racism. But the outrage expressed by both those who saw treason in such gestures of defiance and those objecting to M4BL’s criticism of Israel has been absorbed into a wave of white resentment and backlash against BLM, even as the list of black victims of excessive police force grimly, shockingly expands. During the first week of July 2016, the point-blank multiple shooting death of Alton Sterling as he was pinned down by two white Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers was followed a day later by the police shooting of Philando Castile as he was driving through a St. Paul, Minnesota, suburb with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter. Street demonstrations organized by BLM immediately followed both incidents in several cities. The peace of one such march in Dallas, Texas, was shattered when a black sniper, unaffiliated with BLM, killed five police officers in an ambush. BLM protesters were arrested in other cities. Conservative pundits and police unions used the Dallas shooting, and the subsequent shooting deaths of three officers in Baton Rouge in retaliation for Sterling’s killing, to demonize BLM and its supporters. Police forces reinvigorated their own Blue Lives Matter protest, a countermovement formed in 2014. Even some African American activists wondered if the turmoil signaled the end of BLM itself.
The short answer to such concerns is: Not yet. We are not the same America that we were fifty years ago—and Black Power, whatever its mixed legacy, deserves some credit for that. BLM still has many white sympathizers, both online and in the streets. And many of its activists are entering electoral politics and experimenting with new grassroots regional organizing tactics in order to address concerns other than police brutality.
Still, BLM now has as wide-ranging a presence in the public sphere as Black Power did a half-century ago—and, the M4BL’s agenda notwithstanding, the younger movement is just as amorphous in definition. How can BLM sharpen its presence, achieve its aims, and, perhaps, avoid the misperceptions that still dog Black Power? Answering that question requires us to look forward—and backward, if only to clarify some history.
A Stone of Hope
I admit it: I love seeing people lose their shit whenever I tell them that my uncle helped invent Black Power. Granted, I’ve read enough books—Cruse’s magnum opus chief among them—to split hairs over the movement’s true genesis, books that chronicle the many incarnations of Black Nationalist and Pan-African ideology sweeping through the African American community during the twentieth century. I’ve also read Richard Wright’s Black Power, the novelist’s 1954 work of reportage that chronicles the burgeoning African independence drive and its implications for the civil rights movement in America.
My educated guess is that Chuck Stone, my mother’s eldest sibling, also read Wright’s book in the twelve years between its publication and the speech he helped write with, and for, his boss, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Democratic congressman from New York. And if relatively few people acknowledge Wright’s polemic today, fewer still seem to recall the baccalaureate address that Powell, at the time a powerful, charismatic, and controversial congressman representing Harlem, delivered May 29, 1966, at Howard University that urged listeners to “seek black power . . . what I call audacious power.”
Chuck had come to work for Powell in the mid-1960s as special assistant and speechwriter at the congressman’s pinnacle of influence on Capitol Hill. I know my uncle wrote part, if not most, of that speech because “audacious” was his favorite word in the English language. It also denoted a quality he valued in Powell, what the speech lauds as “a noble arrogance of power” desperately needed to “build black institutions of splendid achievement” and “mobilize [African Americans’] wintry discontent to transform the cold heart and white face of this nation.” As chairman of the House’s Education and Labor Committee between 1961 and 1967, Powell helped craft and pass some of the most crucial legislation on the liberal Democratic agenda during the peak years of the civil rights movement. And the Howard address acknowledges the transformative effect of those laws. But my uncle and his boss believed it was time for black Americans to move beyond nonviolent protest and become active players in the nation’s political and economic life.
“We must,” Powell urged the Howard audience that day,
stop blaming “Whitey” for all our sins and oppressions and deal from situations with strength. Why sit down at the bargaining table with the white man when you have nothing with which to bargain? . . . You cannot compromise man’s right to be free, nor can you sit down and “reason together” whether man should have some rights today and full rights tomorrow. . . . Human rights are God-given. Civil rights are man-made. Civil rights has been that grand deception practiced by those who have not placed God first, who have not believed that God-given rights can empower the black man with superiority as well as equality.
Stokely Carmichael (who got his B.A. in philosophy from Howard in 1964) was among the alumni absorbing Powell’s call for transformation at that ceremony. A few days after the speech, Carmichael phoned Powell’s Capitol Hill office and asked for a copy of the baccalaureate address. My uncle told me he took that call and, for decades afterwards, would recall hearing Carmichael over the phone repeatedly murmuring almost like a chant to himself during their conversation, “I like that part about ‘black power’ . . . I like that ‘black power’ part.”
Carmichael’s posthumously published 2003 autobiography, Ready for Revolution, makes no reference to Powell’s Howard speech. Peniel E. Joseph’s 2014 biography, Stokely: A Life alludes at one point to Carmichael ignoring Powell’s “boastful, if accurate reminder” of the Howard speech, but says nothing further about the address or its wider impact. Cruse, however, gives originator’s credit to Powell, whom he characteristically describes as “a leading member of the radical wing of the black bourgeoisie.”
The same could be said of my uncle at that time, though Chuck Stone was more widely known as “the angry man of the negro press”—a reputation he’d built as editor and columnist for three historically black U.S. newspapers, the New York Age, the Washington Afro-American, and the Chicago Defender, between 1958 and 1964. My uncle was as captivated as Powell’s Harlem constituency apparently was by the lawmaker’s unapologetic flamboyance and freewheeling lifestyle away from both his capitol office and his Baptist preacher’s pulpit in Harlem.
But there were those in Powell’s own party who thought he was having way too much fun, especially in those years when what was expected from black spokesmen was decorum and modesty. In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his chairmanship. Two months later, the full House of Representatives voted 307 to 116 to exclude him altogether from their ranks. The official reasons were professional misconduct. Chuck, till his death at age eighty-nine in 2014, maintained there was one big reason for Powell’s downfall—and it was that he helped conceive, advanced, and to a considerable extent embodied, the agenda of Black Power.
The sting of Powell’s exclusion was still with my uncle as he wrote and published, in 1968, Black Political Power in America, a book that was part polemic, part political science thesis, and part historical survey. It conveyed Chuck’s vision of Black Power as it could be realized within the political system. He framed his book partly in response to what he witnessed as a congressional aide and as editor of the Defender, battling Chicago’s bare-knuckled power structure (he was fired from the Defender for his persistent attacks on then-mayor Richard J. Daley and his formidable machine). And as he recounts the backroom machinations of urban ethnic politicking, his counsel to his African American readers was largely “Go and do likewise.” Black Political Power in America issues a clarion call for African Americans to follow the example of the Irish, Italians, Poles, and other ethnics in the United States and establish their own power bases, locally and nationally. It has long been out of print and thus outdated on many levels. Yet when coming across it now, I think my uncle’s book offers some useful counsel to contemporary activists and many others who wonder what could be next for Black Lives Matter.
You want to talk about heightening contradictions? Even Richard Nixon adopted “Black Capitalism” as a centerpiece of his 1968 campaign.
As proof of how far he was willing to dream back in 1968, my uncle dedicated the book to his then two-year-old son, Charles Stone III, “who his father can now hope will achieve the highest political office.” For the record, my cousin became a filmmaker whose credits include Drumline (2002), Paid in Full (2002), and Mr. 3000 (2004). But at least somebody with brown skin fulfilled that hope before my uncle died.
My uncle was also prescient in his book’s eleventh chapter, “The South Shall Rise Again—With Black Votes,” about the long-term impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on broadening the presence and, ultimately, the significance of African American voters in the South and elsewhere. That chapter’s penultimate paragraph predicts: “In the South, black people will soon be able to elect governors, U.S. senators, and state legislators as they are able to fearlessly embrace Black Power and make it work for them.” To a great extent, he has been proven right, and there’s no doubt that we will continue to see a steady stream of prominent black elected officials in the future. Yet I wonder why it’s somehow easier for me to imagine another black person in the Oval Office in what remains of my lifetime than it is to see a black governor of, or U.S. senator from, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana—or my native state of Connecticut.
Getting Mad vs. Getting Real
Part of the reason, I think, is that street demonstrations, boycotts, and other tactics associated with the glory days of the civil rights movement remain the default for African American activism over and above the kind of political organizing my uncle promoted in his book. After almost fifty years, the passages in Black Political Power in America retaining the hardest punch are those that, like the Powell speech, tweak traditional civil rights tacticians for confining themselves to “activities outside politics (demonstrations, marches, sit-ins) rather than within the framework of the political system.” Chuck goes on in a blunt-edged, declamatory style familiar to those who remember his columns both in those three black newspapers and in his later, legendary tenure as senior editor for the Philadelphia Daily News:
Civil-rights demonstrators make good marchers, but poor politicians. Civil-rights leaders can get up a good boycott, but they can never get out a good vote. Civil-rights laws provide equality of opportunity, but do not ensure equality of results. [Italics added.] Equality of results is what the science of politics is concerned with.
His old boss Powell was, of course, the unofficial hero of Black Political Power in America. But the book also submits other examples, contemporary at the time, of success stories within what it labels the “White Power Structure.” Though critical of Massachusetts senator Edward W. Brooke for “obscuring the fact—as much as possible—of his race” in becoming an influential member of what used to be known as the “liberal Republican” wing of our national politics, Chuck nonetheless credits “Mr. Non-Negro Politics” for “polish[ing] the tarnished gold of the ‘American dream’” in becoming, in 1967, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
The book also provides a useful and mostly admiring biographical portrait of the now unjustly forgotten J. Raymond Jones, whose savvy ascension to leadership in New York City’s Tammany Hall won him the nickname “The Fox.” Chuck is more mixed in his assessment of longtime Chicago congressman and Daley loyalist William L. Dawson (“Mr. Establishment Negro Politics”), chastising him on the one hand for deferentially serving the Daley machine while also grudgingly acknowledging the wisdom of Dawson’s dictum, delivered to his constituency: “Don’t get mad. Get smart.” And that, as far as my uncle was concerned, meant one thing: voting. One wonders if the former senator from Illinois who became U.S. president knew of Dawson’s prescription when, during the recent Democratic National Convention, he told delegates and a national audience aroused to catcalls at hearing quotes from the other convention’s nominee, “Don’t boo. Vote.”
In evoking the echoes of great names from the past as well as recovering the stirring rhetoric of a political movement in transition, Black Political Power in America still has much to offer contemporary readers looking for examples to follow and learn from. And yet I must also confess that some of my uncle’s trademark anger now comes across as misdirected, especially toward the legislative record of Powell’s friend and sometime mentor, president Lyndon B. Johnson. At one point, Chuck writes that “Johnson introduced and supported less legislation and fewer programs favorable to negroes” than his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, which sounds less like measured historical fact and more in line with the pique progressives of all colors trained on LBJ at the end of his administration, as it sank into the quagmire of Vietnam. Coming across such passages made me wish that my uncle had found a way to include in his research Ralph Ellison’s 1968 essay, “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,” which credits Johnson for being a “political genius . . . who knows better than most of us that politics is the art of the possible, but only of the possible, and that it is only by fighting against the limits of the politically possible that he can demonstrate his mastery and worth.”
At the time, my uncle likely believed Ellison’s idiosyncratic and certainly more moderate vision of racial progress was antithetical to what he believed to be Black Power’s more assertive energies. Yet he, like Ellison, was no revolutionary firebrand, but a political pragmatist who believed that Black Power would find ways of reconciling its contradictory radical-conservative-nationalist impulses and channeling its volatile energies toward a new American political reality, much as BLM hopes to now. Black Political Power in America found further hope for this transformation in the 1967 elections of black mayors Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, and Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio. The intervening decades saw some justification for Chuck’s optimism; more black mayors and U.S. representatives, a couple of black senators and governors and, yes, that previously cited Illinois-senator-turned-POTUS Barack Obama.
But Chuck’s dream of an enduring and entrenched black power system in cities and states throughout the United States never materialized, in large part because the circumstances that enabled ethnic power bases in major cities no longer exist. The charts displayed throughout Black Political Power showing ethnic growth emerging in tandem with the voting clout of strong ward-boss-led political machines seem like quaint relics in a Citizens United universe now dominated by PACs and organized money—which, as FDR said, is as dangerous to democratic processes as an organized mob. I like to believe, however, that in the spirit of what he and Powell had put forth in that Howard address, my uncle would now urge BLM and its supporters to continue building local political networks with candidates and agendas that would chip away at corporate hegemony. At the same time, I’d also suggest that their legacy might (if this doesn’t sound too far-fetched) help create smarter, more inclusive, and built-tough-for-the-New-Millennium versions of the old-school political machines that at their best promoted cultural unity, encouraged cooperation with others, and, over time, enabled progress.
In this spirit, I also wish my uncle managed to incorporate into his book the worldview of a man whose work he’d later come to deeply admire: Ralph Ellison’s friend and literary soul mate, Albert Murray, whose 1970 classic of socio-cultural insurgency, The Omni-Americans, submits, from its title onward, what remains the most cogent and enthralling repudiation of oversimplified categories of black and white in this country. As Murray writes in the introduction:
To race-oriented propagandists, whether white or black, the title [of his book] makes no sense: they would have things be otherwise. But the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated in one way or another.
In the essay that gives the book its “nonsensical” title, Murray makes the still-provocative claim that immigrants who came to this country and would establish the white ethnic enclaves Chuck cites in his book as sources of political power “were so unjustly despised elsewhere” that they “not only discover a social, political, and economic value in white skin which they were never able to enjoy before but also become color-poisoned bigots.”
But, he adds:
Even as they struggle and finagle to become all-white—by playing up their color similarities and playing down their cultural differences—they inevitably acquire basic American characteristics [which is to say, Omni-American] which are part Negro and part Indian.
Such transcendent and (yet) logical perceptions of our collective identity sound as daring now as they did back at the hinge of the seventies. To militants of that time as much as to the activists of today, Murray’s insights may seem at best indulgences. African American lives seem as under siege as they did a century ago when Murray was born. Yet for all the rough, brash assertiveness that Stokely Carmichael and my uncle and other Black Power advocates voiced in the late sixties, they each sought varied degrees of the kind of inclusiveness that, as far as Murray and his friend Ellison were concerned, would already exist if all Americans of whatever background, age, and status were but willing—or, as my uncle would say, audacious—enough to embrace it. Put another way, if we somehow woke up and got hip to Murray’s persuasive depiction of our common culture, we wouldn’t have these arguments over whose life matters more than anybody else’s. And in the process, we’d likely make those police officers imprisoned by the reductive dualities of black and white be much more careful about what they do and whom they serve.
This reckoning may not be as close as any of us would wish it to be, especially in our politics. But just because it never happened before doesn’t mean it never will. Just ask the author of The Audacity of Hope, who, as of January, will no longer be a two-term African American president.