By Professor Joshua Myers, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, Howard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies
Future generations may find that the most significant of the recent “50th anniversary” celebrations was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) 2010 celebration in North Carolina. Other celebrations have had important meanings and there are many still to come, but this celebration sparked the founding of the SNCC Legacy Project (SLP) as an organization to document (correct) the historical record. SLP’s continuing work is premised on the need to connect struggles of the past to present conditions, in ways that might reveal new insights about how we imagine and struggle for a different future. While these struggles have not ceased, the question we might raise is not simply whether or not there is activity in today’s environment, but rather how this activity is inspired by and constitutes the same sort of deep interrogation about the “nature” and “possible meaning of human existence” that occupied the centers of inquiry in previous moments. In other words, before we can profitably predict the way forward or comment about what is being done now, the more significant questions about the very meaning of struggle, the very meaning of liberation, and the very meaning of our own humanity seem very critical ones to ponder. We might celebrate not simply the continuity of activity, but the continuity of a tradition, where resistance is framed by deeper registers that loudly proclaim that the current order of things represented, as described by Cedric Robinson, “an unacceptable standard of human conduct.” And that this order perhaps can only be what it has been.
Continuity, however, is not a product of osmosis. It is a result of intergenerational transmission of knowledge. In the unfree conditions that characterize African America, such transmission has to be actively sought. As a response to the inevitable commemorations of the “50th anniversaries” of the “Black Power Era,” the SNCC Legacy Project’s Black Power Chronicles was born. Black Power Chronicles is conceived as an act of self-determination. It is an attempt to wrest history away from those who have interests in portraying the legacy of Black Power in ways that mute or transmogrify its continued salience. It is aimed at restoring a narrative about Black humanity that rests on the assumption that it was this humanity—its philosophies of life and freedom—that framed the impetus to resist. And nothing else. Beyond the recitation of facts, dates, and events, our memories of Black Power are more usefully construed by excavating such foundations for imagining and enacting differences in how humans interact, how social orders come into existence, and what it means to free ourselves. “Objective” history, if even possible, is for us meaningless, unless it is enlivened by how its subjects moved through the world, on their own terms, with their own visions of liberation. As such, the Black Power Chronicles project is the first step in developing an archive of Black resistance that is framed by how Black folks acted upon the world, rather than how they were acted upon.
Spread across numerous cities, Black Power Chronicles has five broad objectives. Along with the construction of a space for the intergenerational transmission of knowledge between the elders and youth, it aims to “organize, document, interpret and present the stories of the Black Power Movement,” assess the impact and interpret its value, and to develop both accessible content on the movement as well as a comprehensive archive of materials related to it. In line with these objectives, the DC chapter of Black Power Chronicles, organized by Howard classmates and SNCC veterans, Karen Spellman and Courtland Cox has been working diligently to chronicle Black Power in this city. It includes a coterie of activists, community workers, elders, artists, and intellectuals committed to the reframing of the historical legacy of Black Power. Given the unique opportunity to develop this project and build community with this group, Spellman has urged us to ensure that Howard students are brought into this process.
I echo her call. DC Black Power Chronicles encompasses many areas that match the skills that Howard students possess. There are committees devoted to conducting oral histories, documenting chronology, exploring the Black Arts movement, and the political impact of Marion Barry’s administration. Further, students might find that they can support efforts to build curricula, develop documentary footage, and a host of other technical and new media solutions that they could bring to these spaces.
And yet, beyond these important functions, lies the importance of “sitting at the feet” of our elders. The beauty of our traditions as Africans is that they often pass from mouth-to-ear, those foundational moments in our lives can be documented and lived anew in the words that reach us directly. Therein lies the ultimate value of this work: human connection. Last Friday, Professor Shauna M. Kirlew of the Department of English and I experienced the first extended oral history of the project, with Dr. Floyd Coleman, the artist, activist, and former professor in Howard’s Department of Art. Coleman’s deft ability to connect the past and present, and to frame the meaning of resistance and art left us speechless and transformed. This continuous transformation is at the core of what I imagine the SNCC elders’ ultimate purpose in the conception of this project. Our hope is that you are willing to risk being transformed so that we might continue a radical tradition that will transform us all.
Students wishing to participate are invited to our next committee meeting at the African American Civil War Museum at Vermont and U St. on November 16th at 7:00pm. You may also contact me at email@example.com for additional information.