The phrase black power, in the context of the 1960s, is often associated with the militant rhetoric of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (NOI). The two flashpoints of black nationalism are compelling, but as African and African Diaspora Studies scholar Cynthia Young describes in Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (2006), the focus on male dominated activism often obscures the importance of other grassroots activists who were inspired to radicalism in the 1960s. Soul Power challenges dominant narratives of the black power movement by centering the role of individuals and communities in more quotidian challenges to racial and economic inequality. Using cultural texts, oral histories, and archival materials, Young expands the definition of black power to include more quotidian means of social change, and places culture at the center of the revolutionary political project she identifies as the U.S. Third World Left. Soul Power traces the development and employment of Third World ideas and strategies through the cultural productivity of labor unions, the political theory and praxis of Angela Davis, and the representations of social movement organizations on film. Young places the onus on culture in this historical moment to argue for a more complex understanding of black power that incorporates the multifaceted activism of women, non-blacks, and other multiply marginalized actors working for racial and economic justice. Soul Power is an important addition to the historiography of American radicalism because Young challenges our very understanding of what radical social and political activity is and can be.
One of the most important additions to the literature of the black power movement that Young makes is the expansion of black power’s meaning. For Young, much of the literature theorizing and historicizing civil rights and black power, as well as other forms of activism in the 1960s, focuses too much on the “foregrounding of middle-class men and their organizations” (6). To challenge this vein of analysis, Young seeks out the transnational networks of ideas and activism known as the Third World Left. Emerging from both the New Left and black civil rights movements, the Third World Left adapted and renewed forms of radicalism that transcended political imaginaries of the United States. Soul Power traces these imaginaries through cultural texts that emerged from specific historical moments rather than the historical moments themselves. Cultural texts, as the primary site of Young’s analysis, are used to define the Third World as both a cultural form and a political designation that is accessible to people across economic, racial, and national boundaries. Using the Third World in this way also gives Young the ability redefine radicalism in a more equitable way. Being radical or endorsing radicalism in the Third World Left context is about countering the social, economic, and racial hegemony endemic to the United States and its imperial projects. Young argues that the Third World Left’s form of radicalism was not frozen in time or place, but contingent upon the specific historical spaces and moments from which it emerged because the “cultural and political forms under consideration had profound counterhegemonic effects in the social world,” (11). The radicalism of the Third World Left did not exist on the realm of overt militancy and calls for revolution, as did the more visible elements of black power, but on the plane of the everyday decisions people made to undo economic and racial inequality where they lived and worked.
The importance of the Third World designation emerges in the wake of social and political revolutions against the remnants of 19th colonial power. Vietnam, Algeria, and close to home, Cuba, were all sites of revolution that challenged the dominance of Western hegemony. In developing the meaning of the Third World as it was used in the U.S., Young points to the influence of the Cuban Revolution on the ideas and praxis of three black activists: Harold Cruse, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), and Robert Williams. Culture enters here as a central component to the development of the U.S. Third World left ideology precisely because of its importance to the reeducation of Cuban people under the Castro regime. Combined with anti-racist rhetoric, the political revolution occurred in the realm of the cultural as much as it did in that of the material. Films, literature, and music were as useful as guns and artillery. U.S.-based black activists turned to revolutions such as that in Cuba as a way to critique their position as internally colonized people. According to Young, “U.S. Third World Leftists struggled to define a radical, independent cultural and political identity [based on] the emergent precedents of Third World anticolonialism,” (52). Reaching beyond the border of the United States became a central component to the organizing practices of people and groups who identified with the Third World as a cultural and political signifier of radical independence. Articulating how the U.S. Third World Left developed as a cultural and political ideology sets the stage for Young’s analysis of the sites and cultural texts where these ideas were most prominent.
Historically, unionism in the post-McCarthy era is understood as a relatively conservative political activity. Young, however, highlights Local 1199, the Hospital Workers’ Union, in New York City as one group where the social and historical circumstances of its membership allowed for Third World Left strategies and ideologies to take hold. The diversity of the union (ethnic whites as well as U.S and foreign born blacks and Latinos) became its strongest asset precisely because, as Young describes, the cultural and political ideology harnessed under the banner of the Third World. Because the union was so diverse, cultural production was essential to the political unification of the membership. As Young says, “1199 non only crafted a unique ideological blend of militant antiracism, anticolonialism, and labor unionism but also transformed union organizing into a community ritual and a cultural event” (80). Organizing under the Third World Left banner meant that 1199 could transcend the limiting racial and economic politics that hindered other forms of labor activism. The Third World Left becomes a unifying tool precisely because of the cultural practices it employed, and through these cultural formations came political formations. Young’s articulation of this intimate connection is the basis of her work, and it stands as Soul Power’s most important contribution to our understandings of radicalism in the 1960s.
The remainder of Young’s Soul Power traces the connections of Third World Left ideas and strategies through film and intellectual production to show how the events and people pursuing anticolonial projects throughout the world influenced groups such as Newreel and people such as Angela Davis. Decentering the United States in the context of the changing Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s allows Young to articulate her argument that culture can influence, if not produce, counterhegemonic political activity in ways that isolated economic or anti-racist radicalism could not do. Choosing to engage in the Third World Left political economy gave activists in the U.S. a way to organize beyond the limiting factors of race and class to produce a powerful, if temporary, challenge to the dominant social and economic order. Soul Power is an incredibly insightful study of how culture, as a political force, can support the efforts of self-determination among multiplies marginalized groups. This text serves as an important addition to the historiography of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as well as the larger role of culture in the political formations of the United States since the mid-twentieth century.
Full citation: Cynthia Young, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).