WAITING 'TIL THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, by Peniel E.
Joseph. Henry Holt, 399 pp.
A familiar story about the 1960s goes something like this: Between the Montgomery bus
boycott in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, a movement took shape that not only challenged the second-class citizenship
of African-Americans (especially those living below the Mason-Dixon line) but spoke a new language of civic morality. It won
some important victories, consolidated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year.
then something went wrong. Perhaps it was the rising tide of black expectations. Perhaps it was white backlash -- especially
in parts of the country outside the benighted South, since it was easier to pretend that racism had its home there than to
face de facto segregation elsewhere.
Then there was the whole complex matter of black and Jewish relations in the civil
rights movement, which did not grow less tense when a handful of intellectuals on each side told the other: "You know what
would really do you some good? If someone told you exactly what we think of you. So here goes ..."
Thus began what
is sometimes called "the disuniting of America" -- a phrase that grossly overestimates just how unified the culture was in
the first place.
It is one of the great strengths of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour by Peniel Joseph -- a
young historian who teaches African studies at Stony Brook University -- that it avoids the usual tale of the decline and
fall of the civil rights agenda. Nor is it, for that matter, an uncritical celebration of the rise of Black Power after 1965
as its successor.
Midnight covers not quite two decades, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. But the
author is clearly influenced by an understanding that both integrationism and separatism have had their role in the shaping
of African-American politics, going back at least to the early black nationalism of the 19th century. Rather than champion
one strategy over the other, Joseph takes each as a given.
He concentrates instead on narrative history, or what might
better be called (in less academic terms) storytelling. He zeroes in on the formative moments and guiding personalities of
the movement -- conveying the arguments over strategy without getting too bogged down in sectarian differences. The writing
is nimble without being facile. The author is often willing to face the more discreditable facts about the movement, giving
the book a tough-mindedness necessary for coming to terms with the past.
A case in point is his treatment of the Black
Panthers -- a group it is easy either to glorify or to demonize. By the early 1970s, it was both providing social services
in black neighborhoods and running extortion rackets to shake down local businesses. Joseph's admiration for Panther founder
Huey Newton's obvious intelligence is balanced with candor about his failings as a leader.
"Haunted by substance abuse,"
Joseph writes, "Newton's revolutionary politics atrophied into a quest for material wealth and personal pleasure, punctuated
by intermittent moments of sobriety.... Newton's star was on the descent at the exact time that the Black Panthers came closest
to approximating his early vision of a radical community organization to meet the needs of the people rather than the whims
of political leaders."
But the brisk confidence of the narrative voice at times has the effect of leaving an important
problem with the slogan of "Black Power" somewhat out of focus. That expression -- coined by Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1966 -- was more a catchphrase than a concept.
It summed up the feeling that
formal equality in the law books meant almost nothing without the power to make good on it in the economic, political and
cultural spheres. But that implied no definite course of either long-term strategies or short-term goals.
Did a demand
for Black Power mean separatism? If so, what kind? Neighborhood control of schools? Racially conscious capitalism (as in,
"buy in your own community")? Stockpiling weapons to prepare for building a black republic in Mississippi? Did it permit alliances
with other ethnic groups - perhaps inspired by some more or less Marxist-Leninist vision of "people's war" against Babylon
Amerika? Or did it mean electing black politicians to office? Should the emphasis be, rather, on reconnecting with African
cultural traditions? If so, which ones?
As Wait 'Til the Midnight Hour shows, the movement included variations
on each of these (contradictory) positions -- tried on in succession, in some cases by a single individual. As a historian,
Joseph chronicles the mutations and internal conflicts of Black Power. But he stops short of grappling with the idea that
the movement itself may have been deeply befuddled from the very start. That is not a criticism of Black Power, by the way.
Rather, it indicates how profoundly American the movement was - guided by vast, if formless, ambitions that left it indifferent
to ordinary logic.