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.
Joining and in some ways exceeding a recent list of Black Power-era scholarship, Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People is the first up-to-date chronicle and intellectual history of what the author calls “Pan African nationalist schools.” National in scope and well attuned to local and international contexts, We Are an African People pays particular attention to organizations and institutional builders-cum-activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, offering “a sympathetic yet critical analysis of Pan African nationalism’s ideological groundings… [and] a host of theoretical and practical weaknesses [that] plagued the quest for independent black institutions” (p. 18). Rickford combines intellectual rigor with dense archival research, packaged in higher level argumentation, yet the prose is accessible. The result or aim is not simply an examination of “Black Power through the lens of independent schools,” but rather the fertile political ideas generated by their discourses and as “a valuable means of accessing contemporary efforts to model a postrevolutionary future,” set against Rickford’s own political and intellectual biography. As Rickford explains, “I had aspired to open an Afrocentric academy as a symbol of my commitment to black nationalist development…[as a member] of the African-American middle class…. Probing the genealogy of my own bourgeois nationalist origins led to an analysis of the late Black Power ideologies in the age of neoliberalism. We Are an African People is the product of that inquiry” (pp. ix-x). Though Rickford’s political coming-of-age may necessarily be the coming-of-age of Black Power scholarship, the book under review offers much to digest and consider beyond the intellectual biographies of either the author or his topic.