Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.
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.
The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the culmination of decades of archival research and international collaboration among scholars, led by David Eltis and colleagues. Though the data for the book are available online for free (www.slavevoyages.org), the repackaging of that data into 189 visually stunning maps and nine tables, complemented by some forty-two vignettes, has earned the creators of the Atlas a vast amount of praise and numerous awards. Like the human genome project, which focused on DNA sequencing through international collaboration and pooling of data, the Atlas is a testament to the value of collaborative effort, and book reviewers and endorsers have called it “monumental,” “marvelous,” “superb,” “sophisticated,” “erudite,” “groundbreaking,” and of “immeasurable value.” It is possible that the Atlas’s accolades, however, may inspire too much self-congratulation and not enough humility toward the human lives transformed into data sets. Both the genome project and the Atlas are based on decades of research, but both also have limitations. The genome project, for example, has identified most genes, but the sequencing is not fully understood; we know comparatively little about the full functions of their proteins, and the human genome of most individuals remains uniquely unmapped. The Atlas, likewise, has mapped the economic contours of transatlantic slaving using available data, but there is a great deal of missing data; it cannot account adequately for the first century of slaving or for the illicit and contraband commerce in African bodies around the so-called Atlantic world. More important, its arithmetic methodology cannot represent the lost potentials of African lives. The sense of finality suggested by the authors of the Atlas or their public relations team should not, therefore, be accepted unconditionally.