When I was a graduate student at Cornell University, I became fascinated but equally frustrated by the Civil Rights-Black Power movement nexus in North American historiography. On one hand, historians presented the African American Civil Rights movement as a watershed phenomenon unto itself and which forever changed the course of North American politics and race relations; on the other hand, the Black Power movement became its demonic inverse and thus reduced to an aberration led by fragmented groups of gun-toting, dashiki-wearing, Kiswahili-speaking nationalists.
The more I read, the more I became frustrated with, essentially, the same characterizations about the Black Power period of the 1960s and 1970s, but the stubbornness of those narrative accounts also fueled my fascination. The individuals, families, organizations, and African diasporic networks of culture and politics fascinated me, but, more importantly, many of the same (kinds of) individuals belonged to both movements and shaped or, otherwise, equally informed the other. In essence, the dialectic between the two freedom movements in the second half of the twentieth century was more symbiotic and simultaneously distinct than previously thought, and this realization prompted a number of young scholars, including myself, to reconsider the nexus and the demonization of the Black Power movement.
Studies of the Black Power period have focused on key individuals, such as Amiri Baraka, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Malcolm X, and Robert Williams, or on political and cultural organizations (e.g., Black Panther Party, US Organization) in terms of re-examining twentieth century African American nationalism in urban and rural settings. Historians like Scot Brown, Komozi Woodard, Timothy Tyson, James Smethurst, Peniel Joseph, and Hasan Jeffries are among those who have provided critical perspectives on the Civil Rights-Black Power period. Few scholars, however, have focused on the confluence of cultural nationalism, education, economic self-sufficiency, the arts, and organizational culture during the Black Power period. My book, A View from the East, attempts to do just that. It uses the case of The East—a central organization of the Black Power movement—to locate and analyze the theoretical and pragmatic underpinnings of cultural nationalism in African American freedom and educational movements, organizational culture, and local politics.
A View from the East offers a detailed account of the development, operations and significance of the East Organization. Those who have studied the African-centered education movement and are familiar with events that shaped the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Experimental School District in New York City know of The East as the parent organization of Uhuru Sasa Shule (Freedom Now School). Taking the reader inside The East to explore dynamics of the organization and the personalities that shaped it, I contextualize them historically within the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and explore continuities between the two movements. For instance, 1967 marked the publication of Dr. King’s Where Do We Go from Here and also the emergence of the community control and independent Black school movements in urban centers across the country. These two movements grew almost simultaneously from the Freedom School efforts of the Civil Rights movement and an earlier tradition of establishing independent Black educational institutions predating the U.S. Civil War. The community control of public schools and the independent Black school movements of the 1960s situated themselves on what Dr. King called “political and social action” marked by a nebulous distinction between schooling and education, decision-making power and parental involvement, and divergent arguments advanced by African American educators and activists who advocated the transformation of urban schools and “making them work” and others who supported the idea of and forged independent Black schools. Former Civil Rights activists transformed by the Black Power movement and Black nationalists of the period constituted the latter group of independent Black school forgers in the 1960s, and quite a number of these schools still exist today.
In many ways, I was able to build upon previous scholarship but also update and contextualize some of them in ways that could not be done during a time period so proximal to the events that took place. Using the optics of the East Organization as revealed through oral histories with the grassroots who embodied it, the documents they wrote and published, and my own investigations of primary documents, A View from the East furthers our understanding of the intersections between cultural nationalism, education, and institution building in twentieth century African American life and culture. At the heart of The East was Uhuru Sasa Shule, an independent African-centered school whose curriculum and pedagogy were rooted in Kawaida philosophy and concepts of education for self-reliance adopted from Julius Nyerere’s writings and decolonization project in Tanzania. In addition, The East became a center for promoting organic food cooperatives, clothing cooperatives, publishing, and the arts. On weekends, it served as a literary salon and hosted concerts by Black musicians; many of the great jazz artists and poets performed there. By revealing the inner workings and pragmatic culture of The East, readers are treated to a complex portrait of an organization that transcended the demonization of the Black Power period and boundaries between political agitation, education, institution building, creative and artistic production, and pan-African liberation support. Indeed, the influence of the East Organization emanated throughout New York City and beyond, touching individuals and groups in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. It is hoped that historians and students of the 1960s and 1970s, African diasporic freedom movements, and African American cultural and social history will find this book as fascinating as I found its research and writing.