The Role of Identity in the Black Power Movement


In discussing the growth of the Black Power Movement, many of the readings this week highlight the role of self-determination and identity in the movement. A few commonalities between this week’s readings include the notion of self-determination, the growing pride in being black, and the similarities between black Americans and colonized peoples across the world.

This assertion of self-determination called for black leadership of a black movement, concerning or angering many white Americans; however, the authors of this week’s readings repeatedly stress that the movement was not anti-white, but that there were multiple reasons for excluding whites from the movement. One of those reasons, as the SNCC “The Basis of Black Power” outlines, was the undeniable disconnect between the experiences of white and black people. As the SNCC authors note, “the white people coming into the movement cannot relate to the black experience” (B&B, 131). Along with this, white involvement in black movements served to reinforce negative stereotypes about black Americans, including that of the inability of black activists to organize without white help. Along with this was a constant issue of white paternalism. The SNCC writers assert that “whites who come into the black community with ideas of change seem to want to absolve the power structure of its responsibility for what it is doing, and saying that change can only come through black unity, which is the worst kind of paternalism,” reinforcing ideas of black inferiority (B&B, 132). Additionally, SNCC leaders felt that “a mystique must be created whereby Negroes can identify with the movement,” meaning that a black movement with black leadership would create an important sense of community (B&B, 133). The notion of self-determination did call for black leadership; however, this was to prevent the reinforcement of negative stereotypes and white paternalism, as well as to establish a stronger sense of community and collective understanding in the movement. As Malcolm X described, self-determination was not anti-white; rather, it only “means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community” (B&B, 121).

In addition to self-determination, the movement encouraged an identity that included increased pride in being black. This was a rejection of assimilationist integration rhetoric, which, as Karen Miller explains, “employed a racially neutered lexicon of “disadvantaged,” “underprivileged,” and “less fortunate” to articulate a vision of “minority” absorption into the “American mainstream” and cast blackness as disability (Bloom, 124). This rhetoric is clear in the McCone Commission Report on Watts, which repeatedly describes issues faced by black Americans as ‘disadvantageous’ circumstances. Saying things like that there was “devastating spiral of failure that awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core,” the rhetoric of this report reinforces black inferiority, and describes blackness in a negative way (B&B, 125). The Black Power movement refused this notion of blackness as a handicap; instead, they asserted one should be proud to be black. Miller says, for example, that “the confrontational stage of organized black student activism treated concerns increasingly at odds with the concept of assimilationist integration,” as students were overtly proud to be black and more openly voiced their opposition to injustices (Bloom, 141). The Black Arts movement also highlighted the need for a proud black identity, noting that black Americans “are constantly forced to see ourselves through white eyes… [causing] spiritual and psychological harm” (B&B, 138).

One final part this assertion of identity involved the empathetic relationship felt by members of black nationalist and pride groups to colonized peoples across the world. SNCC, for example, states that “we feel that SNCC and the civil rights movement in general is in many aspects similar to the anticolonial situations in the African and Asian countries,” as both shared a white paternalism by the radical whites seeking to help disadvantaged minorities, reinforcing ideas of white superiority (B&B, 135). In relating to colonized peoples, the SNCC writers also call out American hypocrisy, noting that “it is very ironic… that aware whites in this country can champion anticolonialism in other countries… but when black people move toward similar goals of self-determination in this country they are viewed as racists and anti-white” (B&B, 136). 

The Black Power Movement focused on the right for self-determination. Additionally, the movement involved a growing identity marked by pride and a connection to people colonized by Western powers throughout the world. These notions of self-determination and identity are discussed by many of this week’s readings.

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