Revolutionary Times: Black power and its soundtrack

EntertainmentMusicGreenwich VillageRachel CarsonPete Seeger

Listen, Whitey!: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975

By Pat Thomas (Fantagraphics), 192 pages, $39.99.

 

Without the rich cultural heritage of African-Americans, life in the U.S. would resemble Rachel Carson Silent Spring: A dead zone, the silence broken now and again by the hissing of lawn sprinklers and whirring air conditioning units. Such are the thoughts inspired by Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 by Pat Thomas (Fantagraphics).

In the foreword to Listen, Whitey Stanley Nelson correctly notes about the decade that Thomas captures so well: "What makes this period unique is that so much of its content was revolutionary. This was a time when the idea of revolutionary change was legitimate, and revolution itself, at least to young people … seemed to be around the corner."

The revolution seemed imminent because the portents were everywhere one turned in those years, and Thomas seems to have captured every single one of the portents in his explosive book. He allows us to see and hear the oppressed flexing muscles and tossing anger directly into the faces of their perceived oppressors. It was a time of trying out bold ideas and, of course, a time of overreach. And when it was over it left everyone involved exhausted, scarred and if not jaded then less inclined toward saving the world and more inclined to party like it was 1999.

Until then, as Thomas' book makes clear, the push for black power was the Greek chorus in America. This chorus, made up of hundreds of people whom Thomas brings back to life, would brazenly demand retribution be made in the present, not in some fairy land future. The images in Listen, Whitey evoke pride and fearlessness, and no group symbolized that more potently than the Black Panther Party. We see figures like Huey P. Newton (an Adonis-like photograph of him adorns the book's cover), Bobby Seale, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. In their prime, they appear unconquerable. Their images and antics — played out in the evening news — sent shivers through white society, tinged with guilt over the sins of their forefathers. Was a revolution going to take place? Would we be slaughtered in our sleep?

The title of Julius Lester's 1968 book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama!, summed up the zeitgeist. Thomas offers the story behind Lester's book, which he wrote while working alongside SNCC's volatile chairman H. Rap Brown. Thomas takes it further, though, showing how Black Panthers like Newton "reportedly threatened Lester in print" for not going far enough. Thomas also puts Lester within the deeper context of the Greenwich Village folk scene, where he'd found a home in the early 1960s as a singer of traditional songs and contributor to Sing Out! magazine. He even co-authored a book with Pete Seeger about Leadbelly's 12-string guitar methods and recorded two albums of his own topical songs for Vanguard. Who would know the full Monty on Lester without Listen, Whitey?

The visually arresting book is filled with these sorts of treasures. Figures like Lester, Bernice Reagon, Elaine Brown, Carl Stokes, Fred Hampton, Last Poets, Eugene McDaniels, Gil Scott-Heron, Eddie Harris and "Bama, the Village Poet" get their props, as do many others. It's the best of both worlds, a coffee table book with real scholarly heft. Music is the main focus of Thomas's book (hence, the "listen" in his title, and the fact that a companion soundtrack has been simultaneously released), but the text is driven by the spirit of discovery he felt while researching all things related to Black Power. Much of what he found has never been available, and some has not been available since it was first released.

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