Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama

by Peniel E. Joseph

BasicCivitas Books, New York | 2010 | 277 pp | $26.00

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

peniel joseph

President Barack Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office a year before the books about him and his historic victory began to surface and some of them were predictable and inevitable. Dr. Peniel E. Joseph’s Dark Days, and Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama is not among such expected treatises. He is less concerned about how Obama won, his political philosophy, the nature of his governance, or whether he will he be another one term president, than his relationship to Black Power.

To illustrate this connection, Joseph, for the most part, examines extensively the lives and contributions of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). For him, these two stalwarts of Black Power are primary antecedents to Obama’s ascendancy. “Despite their volatile images,” Joseph writes, after presenting vivid descriptions of the two icons, “Malcolm and Carmichael played crucial roles in America’s extraordinary journey from Black Power to Barack Obama.”

Other than his Introduction, which is extended in his opening chapter, the book is, in effect, three lengthy chapters—one on Malcolm, one on Carmichael, and one on Obama. There is no attempt here to disclose any new information about Malcolm and Carmichael in his year-by-year dissection, but perhaps inadvertently Joseph uncovers some very interesting facets and facts of their lives that will certainly please even those well-informed readers and scholars.

Joseph reminds Malcolm scholars of the great leader’s comment upon learning that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. “You know, I, too, am a man of peace, but I never could accept a peace prize in the middle of a war,” Malcolm said.

Oddly, Joseph, who goes to no end in drawing parallels between Obama and the Black Power advocates, misses an opportunity here in view of Obama’s Nobel Prize, which I don’t recall if he discusses at all. (We have to cut him some slack on this point since the event happened after he submitted the manuscript, although as early as the Winter of 2009, Obama was rumored to be among the contenders).

In his 53-page exegesis on Carmichael’s life and legacy, Joseph observes that Carmichael was reticent to “acknowledge the depth and complexity of his political journey (even in his own autobiography) at times contributed to the lack of serious scholarly interrogation of his extraordinary life.” This chapter should serve Joseph well in his promise to write a Carmichael biography, in the same way his book Waiting ‘til the Midnight Hour is absolutely invaluable to this book’s narrative.

The third longest section on Obama recounts much of what the media has dispensed to Americans over the last two years about the presidential campaign and the ultimate triumph. “If Barack Obama’s election permanently altered the aesthetics of American democracy, then the civil rights and Black Power era provided the historical context for this watershed moment,” Joseph notes. But he is mindful to add several caveats to this progression, which he insists is not “linear,” but rather “reflects the arduous road toward racial justice and reconciliation that was littered with as many false starts and betrayals as it was celebrated with improbable victories and climatic marches.”

This is the young scholar at his most insightful and imaginative thinking, and all the potential displayed in his first two books bears even more fruit, although without the exhaustive and detailed analysis that he is capable of. Even so, how wonderful to see the ideas and commitment of the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, Luke Tripp, and journalist William Worthy given such prominence in his research, particularly of several obscure, but important political formations.

It is unfortunate that the same amount of attention was not given to some of the unheralded but significant players such as Dr. Ron Daniels, when Joseph offers an account of the National Black Political Assembly; or Elombe Brath, when he recalls the demonstrations at the United Nations following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

And something more should be said about the importance of the National Negro Congress, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress as predecessors of the civil and human rights movements, only one of which Joseph gives a passing nod.

A few careful readers will also be disturbed by a plethora of errors of commission, and none more disconcerting than the botched and mangled names of A. Philip Randolph, Emmett Till, Jim Crowley, Nikita Khrushchev, Juan Almeida, Irv Kupcinet, Betty Shabazz, and most egregiously, one wonders what source he relied on to call the renowned Trinidadian Marxist, Cyril Lionel Robert James, Cedric Lewis Robinson James? And, it should be noted, that before Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid there were attempts by Eldridge Cleaver, Charlene Mitchell and Dick Gregory.

These minor but annoying distractions, however, should not and will not diminish Joseph’s great writing and his thoughtful reimagining the Black Power through the prism of Malcolm’s and Carmichael’s splendid odysseys and Obama’s monumental victory. Joseph continues to be a fascinating thinker who dares to probe the nation’s political transformations and the tricky contours of American democracy.

We eagerly look forward to what should be a definitive work on the charismatic Carmichael, a subject that gets an engrossing introduction in these pages.

Herb Boyd is the author of Baldwin’s Harlem.

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