Sunday, September 19, 2004

mau-mauing the children of the surfing class

60s' revolution factional infighting, infiltration by FBI agents provocateurs: a recent review of Scot Brown's Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism may be of interest to Pynchon readers puzzling through the 60s revolution factional politics in Vineland. Excerpts from the review:
Moving beyond the "good sixties, bad sixties" narrative, scholars have begun to complicate the narrative of the Panthers and other proponents of Black Power, placing them in local, national, and historical contexts. Historians such as Komozi Woodard and Robert Self have broadened this approach beyond the Panthers, showing the place of cultural nationalism in the African-American freedom movement. Their work has begun to break down the misleading interpretation of Black Power as a declension from the earlier Civil Rights Movement. Self and Woodward instead argue that both ideologies were and are deeply intertwined expressions of African-American aspirations for liberation.

....Brown also provides an excellent analysis of the troubled relationship between US and the Black Panther Party (BPP). Both groups drew inspiration, politically and ideologically, from Don Warden, who founded the Afro-American Association in the Bay Area in 1962. Warden espoused a community-based ethos of activism that saw value in describing "the African American dilemma in cultural terms" (p. 28). Warden's critique of integrationism resonated with Karenga, who for a time became the group's LA representative. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who studied with Warden at Oakland's Merritt College, also soaked up Warden's critique of the non-violent civil rights movement, although they went in another direction.

According to Brown, "the rivalry between the two organizations set in motion a binary discourse grounded on false assumptions. The choice between African culture as represented by images of military resistance and a central value system and rituals is a manufactured one.... nuances of this sort were replaced by sectarian allegations as the US/Panther conflict became intensified" (pp. 115-16). This insight forms one of the book's major contributions to our understanding of the complexity of Black Power, and challenges historians to avoid the sectarian divisions that trapped the two groups in a vicious cycle of organizational jealousy and destructive violence.

Brown depicts the January 1969 shootout between members of the US Organization and the Black Panther Party, which resulted in the deaths of Panther activists Alprentice 'Bunchy' Carter and John Huggins, as the pivotal and tragic turning point for US. He does not provide a definitive answer as to precisely what transpired on the UCLA campus that day thirty-five years ago, but perhaps it is impossible to do so. What Brown does show is how the violence forced US to shift tactics, which limited the group's overall effectiveness. In defense of Karenga, US members closed ranks and virtually abandoned political organizing, as well as cultural and artistic programs.

The role of the FBI in this affair, though critically important, also remains unclear. During the 1960s and 1970s, the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) undertook repeated efforts to disrupt organizations on the radical left. In the case of the US/Panther conflict, Brown uses previously published FBI documents to show how the FBI actively worked to sow discord between US and the BPP by drafting a letter, ostensibly from a member of US, stating that US planned to kill LA Panther leaders. The FBI intended that "this counterintelligence measure will result in an 'US' and BPP vendetta" (FBI file, quoted on p. 95). Brown is unable to determine the full extent of the FBI harassment, especially concerning the UCLA shootings. Was Maulana Karenga right to blame the struggles of US and his failing leadership on the stress caused by COINTELPRO (p. 126)? Brown, unfortunately, does not provide a clear answer to this question; thus, historians will continue to debate the role of the FBI in the demise of Black Power.

....Brown has made a significant contribution by placing Karenga's cultural nationalism in both historical and global context, reminding us that the ideologies of the Sixties had deep, often global roots. The author has also helped to reconfigure the Black Power declension narrative by showing how US was, at times, able to promote cultural identity and mobilize political action within a volatile but, at times, stable coalition. The fact that Afrocentricity and the holiday of Kwanzaa have not only survived but thrived suggests that Black Power was and is far more than a destructive outgrowth of the civil rights movement.

Vineland, p. 230:
Long might the automotive idyll have gone on had the PR3 Exterior Bureau, in its search for allies in the world at large, not initiated talks with the Black Afro-American Division, who all wore shiny black Vietnam boots, black-on-black camo fatigues, and velvet-black berets with the off-black wide-point stars on them ChiCom-style just to lounge around in, who showed up by invitation at the clifftop republic and got into an all-day argument with its indigenous, whom they kept referring to as children of the surfing class.