The Black Power movement turns fifty this year. Two new digital exhibitions, Black Power! The Movement, The Legacy, and Ready for the Revolution: Education, Arts and Aesthetics of the Black Power Movement explore the multiform and ideologically diverse movement that deeply shaped black consciousness and identity and left an immense legacy that continues to inform the contemporary American landscape.
The two exhibitions, part of a major Black History Month initiative, are a first-time collaboration between the Schomburg Center and Google Cultural Institute whose mission is to bring “ together millions of artifacts from multiple partners, with the stories that bring them to life, in a virtual museum.” Thanks to Google’s immense international reach, museums and other institutions can present their “treasures or hidden gems” to a wide audience.
As the curator of the Black Power exhibits, I enjoyed the experience. Google’s builder-friendly platform enabled me, with no programming skills, to create the exhibitions in real time, changing, adding, and deleting as many times as needed. With the help of a high-resolution zoom viewer, the wonderful images of the fifteen photographers who participated in this project came to life—in minute details—in a way that was new to me, although they had been part of my life for months.
For the past year, I have been working on a "physical" exhibition on the Black Power movement. It will be open at the Schomburg Center in September. The catalog, published by The New Press, will be released in August. Together, the digital and on site exhibitions and the book present photographs, essays, testimonies, flyers, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, posters, and audiovisual segments to help contextualize and interpret this creative and revolutionary youth-led movement.
Black Power was not confined to the United States, nor was it "black" only. Latino, American Indian, Asian American and white progressives were an integral part of the movement, which was also a global phenomenon. Reaching well beyond America's borders, it captured the imagination of anti-colonial and other freedom struggles in the world and was also influenced by them. From Great Britain to Israel, from India to New Zealand, marginalized populations rallied around slogans fashioned after “Black Power,” and organizations modeled or named after the Black Panther Party. The Black Power cultural nationalism of natural hair and African-inspired fashion; the political activists’ raised fists and berets; and the concept that black was beautiful, resonated throughout the country and beyond.
Yet Black Power is one of the least understood movements in the country, its achievements largely dismissed or minimized. Perceived mostly as a violent episode that followed the non-violent civil rights movement, the Black Power has been eclipsed in the general public’s memory by the former, even though it has shaped issues of identity, politics, criminal justice, culture, art, and education for the past half century. And, not to be forgotten, following in the Black Power’s footsteps, American Indian, American Asian, Latino, LGBT, and women groups affirmed themselves and demanded change.
To understand African American history, and ultimately American society today, it is imperative to understand the depth and breadth, and the achievements and failures of the Black Power Movement.
Photographs by Bob Fitch, Stephen Shames, and Darryl Cowherd.