“WHAT HAPPENS TO A DREAM deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?” Langston Hughes asked in 1951, “Or does it explode?” An answer came when the Black Power Movement burst upon the American political and cultural landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Movement took on significant dimensions in many realms — politics, public policy, education — but nowhere was its impact more tangible than in the culture, especially music. Movement activists utilized more than speeches, proclamations and marches to motivate their followers: rhythmic, expressive, improvisational music also propelled the struggle. Unlike the gospel-fueled Civil Rights Movement, Black Power had fewer ties to the church than to the street. Its rhetorical models included the self-aggrandizing rhymes of Muhammad Ali and the militant sloganeering of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, while its urgent resilience found a danceable counterpart in the soul music of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and hundreds of others.
But that was the tip of the iceberg. The explosion of black militant activity in the late 1960s was the shadow substance that informed every dimension of black life, from the Black Panthers to Soul Train. Yet these varied manifestations have long been too far underground, too disparate to make coherent sense of. Pat Thomas’s new book provides an intervention. Listen, Whitey!: the Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 recovers the works of many musicians and activists whose messages were originally deemed too radical for mainstream consumption. They may still be.
The title of the book, Listen, Whitey!, is a misnomer of sorts. Certainly the artists depicted here wanted all of America to hear their outrage, and to take heed of their threats of an uprising. But they were speaking to their own people as well, as the Last Poets so effectively described in their song “Niggers are Scared of Revolution.” Basically, when it came to Black Power, everyone was listening.
One of the advertisements reprinted in the book reveals just how broad the audience for this material was. A promotional advertisement for the Last Poets’ album This is Madness, printed in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, claimed “If you are white this record will scare the shit out of you.” As if that were not startling enough, the ad continued with the pitch: “If you are black this record will scare the nigger out of you!” We can safely assume that this kind of material is unlikely to appear in Rolling Stone today. This kind of documentation highlights one of Listen, Whitey!’s strengths: its breadth of explorations of Black Power’s influence on everything and everyone from Motown, to jazz poetry and performance, to comedians, to radio DJs, to the rock music counterculture. In short, Listen, Whitey! delivers Black Power as Americana.
The book is meticulously detailed, reflecting Thomas’s skills as a researcher (and record producer), yet conversational in tone, balancing the voice of a rock critic with the heft of a historian. For each chapter, organized along themes ranging from spoken word poetry to political manifestos to radical chic populism, Thomas interweaves narrative history and critical commentary with a bold, contemporary design that presents not just a mu...read more