Tracing the Lasting Influence of Black Power

By | May 19, 2017

It’s time to dispense, once and for all, with the old narrative that the “good” Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early ’60s was replaced by the “bad” militants who followed. Black Power!, an exhibition at the Schomburg Center, aims directly at this myth, arguing in the introductory wall text that, in fact, the Black Power movement “had a more significant impact on issues of identity, politics, culture, art and education than any prior movement in African-American history.” Some 40 years later, we see that Black Power was in fact many movements, and that its politics and aesthetics have been so integrated into American culture, especially activism, it’s hard to imagine a time before them.

Taking on a subject as expansive as Black Power has its trade-offs. The exhibition at best operates as a sampler, offering the visitor dozens of images and objects that will hopefully inspire further exploration. The didactics have to tread a careful line between giving enough context to support the many narratives and not overwhelming visitors with reading. Curator Dr. Sylviane Diouf, with exhibition manager Isissa Komada-John, responded to this challenge by inviting scholars to write miniature thematic essays to prime viewers for the corresponding thematic sections in the show, such as “Spreading the Word,” “Coalitions,” and “The Look.” The effect is something like a one-hour introductory course on the subject.

And there’s the need to balance what visitors expect to see with exposure to new and underexplored facets of Black Power. On one hand, the exhibition presents the usual, iconographic images: heroic photos of Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis, the Black Panther newspaper. The sounds of James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Malcolm X’s speeches pipe into the gallery. But the great contribution of the show, and an argument for more like it, is the display of lesser-seen images, each of which could inspire a research paper, book, or exhibition of its own. (Hyperallergic)

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