SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW: ‘Stokely: A Life,’ by Peniel E. Joseph

Source: William Jelani Cobb / The New York Times

In the iconography of black American history, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have long been understood as dueling poles of identity, one an apostle of contempt, urging a downtrodden race to renounce a nation that had rejected it, the other an exemplar of Christian idealism, committed to the redemptive power of forgiveness and common humanity. The America we inhabit now is both more socially integrated and segregated than it was in the tumultuous days in which the two men lived. A black president coexists with residential and educational patterns that are in some instances more racially separated than they were on the morning of the 1963 March on Washington. This circumstance is not entirely indicative of a failure of will. It’s partly a reflection of the fact that black aspirations for equality were far more complicated than the simple Martin versus Malcolm formulation, just as each man was far more complicated than his public depiction. If those years can be understood as a sort of test, black America looked at the multiple-choice question of identity and answered yes.

It’s difficult to grasp the route black America took to its present understanding of itself and its complex relationship to this country. In chronicling the life of the activist-intellectual Stokely Carmichael in “Stokely: A Life,” an insightful, highly engaging and fluently written biography, the historian Peniel E. Joseph has shed light on one crucial if largely overlooked part of that journey. In the aftermath of the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, Carmichael was understood as an heir apparent. His rhetoric midwifed the term “black power” into the lexicon, and he — lean, dark, defiantly Afroed — became the embodiment of the movement.

Carmichael appeared for a moment to have formulated the response to King’s question “Where do we go from here?” That his name is far more dimly recognized now than it was during those years is a testament not solely to the effacing powers of history but also to the impact of Carmichael’s own migrations, both intellectual and physical. That narrative is a compelling tale even apart from its broader implications.

Born in Trinidad in 1941, Carmichael moved to the United States at age 10. His father, Adolphus, worked as a carpenter and cabdriver, and his earnest immigrant’s belief in the American dream would eventually become the foil against which the younger Carmichael defined his radicalism. After an adolescence marked by interracial friendships and academic achievement at the Bronx High School of Science, he enrolled in 1960 at Howard University, a campus that became central to the growing student movement. It was there that he took an English class taught by Toni Morrison, fell in with a group of young activists and discovered his talents as an intellectual and organizer. In Joseph’s telling, Carmichael was chameleonlike, a figure who nimbly moved from debating the nuances of existentialist philosophy to endearing himself through common language to unlettered Mississippi farm workers. That skill set brought him to the fore of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — an organization he would go on to lead after defeating John Lewis, then the group’s president (now a congressman).

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