Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Episodes 1 and 2 (Ark Media, Inkwell Films, McGee Media, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a two-hour presentation of the first half of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s four-hour, four-part miniseries awkwardly titled Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, whose unsurprising basic thesis is that things have vastly improved for African-Americans since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but there are still major barriers to full equality for African-Americans and social, economic and prejudicial disadvantages continue. In some ways the series seems to be a continuation of the classic Eyes on the Prize, the 14-part portrayal of the history of the civil rights movement, continuing from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frustrating last years (contrary to the title, it does not begin at or after his death) in which he attempted to highlight racism in the North by an open-housing campaign in Chicago in 1966 and found himself criticized by both whites (mostly the sorts of working-class whites who have been the bulwark of racist backlash from the 1960’s to the election of Donald Trump as President) and Blacks (the “Black Power” types who rejected nonviolence as a tactic but weren’t all that clear what they were going to replace it with). The story as presented here traces, among other things, the history of the black panther as a visual symbol of Black liberation and power; it actually began in 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, when Black civil rights activists faced with a terror campaign by whites against any Blacks who tried to register and vote decided to start their own political party. Since Alabama had a law saying that every party had to have a visual symbol for the guidance of voters who couldn’t read, and since the Democrats were symbolized not by a donkey but a rooster, the Lowndes County Black activists (including a young man from New York named Stokely Carmichael) at first thought of a white dove of peace. When their constituents felt that wasn’t a powerful or assertive enough symbol, they seized on the black panther because panthers are actually native to that part of Alabama and people were familiar with them and knew they were part of the same biological family as cats and were therefore peaceful until angered or attacked, in which case they would strike back ferociously. The later Black Panthers founded in Oakland in 1966 admitted they took the black panther symbol from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (in fact they used the same drawing of one), and Gates’ portrayal of them follows largely along the lines of the previous PBS documentary on them, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

The Panthers became famous for carrying guns, but their initial use of them seems to have been more along the lines of the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico: they didn’t (at least at first) have revolutionary fantasies of overthrowing the U.S. government but they did want to be able to confront the police on equal terms and essentially monitor police actions against the Black community and organize for self-defense against racist police attacks. Gates’s presentation is wide-ranging and mentions not only Black politics but Black culture as well, including the rise in popularity of Black soul music in the late 1960’s (though this had really begun with the success of Motown Records in the early 1960’s and the extent to which Motown had built a white audience for their sort of Black pop-soul), and an odd montage of Black artists who became popular in the late 1960’s includes Jimi Hendrix, who was Black (actually part African-American and part Native American) but became popular playing not soul, but psychedelic rock, a form usually associated with white musicians and white audiences. The real change Gates seems to be highlighting in the late 1960’s is that Black music became rougher, as the pop-soul grooves of Motown got replaced by the edgier funk sounds of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and other groups whose music would be the basis of disco and rap (excuse me, “hip-hop” — when Gates gets to it he uses the kinder, gentler “hip-hop” term throughout; as I’ve noted in these pages before, it’s “hip-hop” if you like it and “rap” if you don’t), and a number of records, like James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and Aretha Franklin’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” explicitly communicated messages of racial pride. (One of the most powerful cultural sequences in this film is a concert clip of Brown getting his audience to yell back, “I’m Black and I’m proud!”) The first episode, “Out of the Shadows,” is about the late 1960’s and includes, among other bizarre phenomena, Richard Nixon’s attempt to co-opt the “Black Power” slogan by advocating “Black Capitalism” — meaning Black entrepreneurship and the birth of a Black middle class. (Ironically, one of the negative effects of racial integration had been the virtual destruction of the Black middle class; under segregation an entire Black infrastructure of professionals and business owners had sprung up to service the Black community — remember that the great New Orleans jazz musician Sidney Bechet, a mixed-race Creole lumped in with the Blacks under the segregation laws, came from a family of dentists — only when integration came in the Black professionals couldn’t compete with their white brethren and their infrastructure, which had helped keep Black neighborhoods stable, crumbled almost overnight.)

The second episode, “Moving On Up,” takes its title from the theme song of The Jeffersons — the first TV series to feature an actual family headed by a Black capitalist, and an irascible, fiercely independent Black capitalist at that — and once again fixates on the interchange between Black politics and culture. Gates focuses largely on the election of Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta and the success of other Black politicians at the local level, and the bitter irony that Blacks were being elected mayors in cities like Detroit and Cleveland precisely at the time they were being de-industrialized and their tax bases wiped out while the major industries that had sustained them were being moved to the South, Mexico or China. “Who’d want to be the mayor of a garbage dump?” one of Gates’s interviewees said bitterly. The show features the controversy over mandatory school busing in Boston in the 1970’s and the fierce resistance faced by African-American students being bused in to integrate high schools in working-class white neighborhoods — the ostensible reason for this was so Blacks could share in the better educational opportunities offered in schools in white communities, but picking the poorest white neighborhoods to integrate offered little hope of that, while well-to-do whites were still sheltered from having to have their kids in racially integrated schools — and the venom with which the white working class attacked the Blacks who were being brought into their neighborhoods not only recalled the depiction of Martin Luther King’s housing integration marches in Chicago a decade earlier but, once again, vividly depicted the racist backlash of working-class whites that has been a dominant force in our politics from Nixon through Reagan through Trump. Indeed, it’s almost certain that Gates’s depiction of Reagan’s Presidential victory in 1980 was colored by an attempt to parallel Reagan and Trump; he mentions the “welfare queen” Reagan repeatedly mentioned in his  (whspeeches, collecting benefits under 90 different names and 30 different Social Security numbers (she really existed, but she was a scam artist and was eventually prosecuted as such; she was not representative of most of the people on welfare, but Reagan portrayed her as if she was), and also showed a poster for Reagan in 1980 with the slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again” — which served for Reagan, as it later did for Trump, as a promise to white America to return the country to the days when white dominance was taken for granted and, no matter how poor you were, if you were white you could at least take comfort in the fact that you weren’t Black.

Gates’ program ends with the rise of hip-hop — a form of music I personally find not only aesthetically ugly but downright immoral (the fact that two of its biggest stars, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., were assassinated by gang members associated with their commercial rivals says all you need to know about the fundamental evil behind this so-called “music”) — and suggests it was the response of a frustrated inner-city Black community to the Reaganite assault. He charts the form from its early days being distributed on cassette tapes passed from hand to hand (and often subjected to repeated duplication until the words became virtually inaudible) to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (the first rap record that became a major hit) and a record that when it came out was taken as an anthem of Black liberation and which now seems as a great example of The Road Not Taken by hip-hop, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (from an album chillingly entitled It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back). Had hip-hop maintained the social consciousness of “Fight the Power” it might have developed into a very interesting and moving counter-cultural form (though a decade before Public Enemy there had been the Last Poets, an exciting Black spoken-word group, their lyrics declaimed over a background of African or Latin American percussion, who were actually depicted in episode one and were arguably the first modern rap group). Instead it became a politically and morally reactionary form, with “gangstas” bragging about how much “bling” they’d acquired, how many women they’d raped and how many Queers they’d beaten up. Gates makes some sporadic attempts to integrate (pardon the pun) the history he’s telling with his own life story; he begins the show by saying, “My grandparents were colored. My parents were Negro. I am Black.” (Presumably his kids are African-American.) He also talks about getting into Yale via affirmative action and rising to teach at Harvard, and how many of his classmates became elected officials or rose to other prestigious positions — clearly the backlash against affirmative action symbolized by the Bakke case and the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the white Allan Bakke had been the victim of reverse discrimination because he hadn’t been able to get into medical school at UC because of racial set-asides affected him personally as well as being endemic of the whole point of his program, which is that any progress in the standing of African-Americans in U.S. society seems to provoke a racist reaction that elects Republican Presidents like Nixon, Reagan and Trump.