Saturday, November 22, 2003

Years ago, when I was studying at the University of Southern Mississippi, I took a course on American Intellectual History. As I recall, we had to choose a figure from said history as the topic of a major essay. I chose Stokely Carmichael against the advice of my professor (who shall remain nameless: I don't want it to look as if I would criticize, even in a mild way, one of the most important influences I've ever had). Her argument was that he wasn't much of an intellectual. My argument was that not only was he, but he was, through his life and actions, a sort of microcosm of a broad sweep of intellectual history from the 50s to the 80s. I won. She let me write the paper.

I'm a much better writer now (although you can't tell from the blog), but I was on fire when I wrote that paper. I noted Carmichael's peculiar, Carribean-immigrant version of being a red diaper baby (early exposure to red politics), his early activism and swift rise in the Civil Rights Movement's nonviolence (he was, in some ways, the apple of King's eye for a moment or two), his shift to becoming a leader of the more radical Black Power! faction (a phrase he helped coin), and his (logical, to my mind) progression into actual African post-colonial politics (at which point he changed his name to Kwame Ture).

Now I see there's an autobiography out: Ready for Revolution. Man. It's what my paper should have turned into. I'm having a "road not taken" moment. Bear with me.

One reason I was so fired up about Kwame Ture is that I met him. He came to speak at USM (apparently he had a niece there) and I shook his hand and he signed a copy of one of his pamphlets (also called "Ready for Revolution"). He was a good looking man. He had really remarkable eyes and a really nice handshake (I swear I can still feel it: It was at once powerful and intimidating and soothing and warm). I thought, when I looked at him, "I'm looking at history!"

Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture may not be the most famous or influential figure to have emerged out of the 1960s movements, but if you would like to learn more about the era and the its intellectual crosscurrents, I reckon you could do a good deal worse than to check out his autobiography.

POSSIBLY FLAWED ANECDOTE #1: After Carmichael emerged from a Mississippi jail calling for "Black Power!", someone asked MLK,Jr. what he thought about the implied turn from nonviolence. King replied that a veteran like Stokely no doubt had good reasons to say what he said, and he may be right.

POSSIBLY FLAWED ANECDOTE #2: Carmichael helped start a new political movement in Lowndes County, Alabama. Their symbol was a black panther (this was before the Oakland Panthers, if I recall correctly). Reporters started calling the party "the Black Panthers" and Stokely didn't care for it. He noted that the symbol of the Alabama state Democratic Party was (and still is) a white chicken and asked if the reporters would feel comfortable referring to them as "the White Cocks".


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