Is “Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975” the coolest book ever published?
Yes, it is. Just out from the stellar Seattle publisher Fantagraphics, “Listen, Whitey!” is a gorgeously designed and smartly written coffee table book by Pat Thomas, a music journalist and A&R man for the music industry. It offers page after page of reproductions of flyers, album covers, advertisements and photographs from the black power era, documenting in fantastic detail the time, starting in the mid-1960s and lasting roughly 10 years, when a lot of black Americans had had enough of the peace and love of Martin Luther King Jr. After 400 years of brutality, they began to feel rage. And when King was killed, that rage exploded.
Actually, as Pat Thomas explains, that rage may have exploded well before April 4, 1968. “Listen, Whitey!” reveals that radicals infiltrated the civil rights movement as early as 1966, the year that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland. A Life magazine cover (featuring Elizabeth Taylor) from June of that year has a call-out to the story inside: “PLOT TO GET ‘WHITEY’: Red Hot Young Negroes Plan a Ghetto War.” In 1966 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s chairmanship went from John Lewis to communist agitator Stokely Carmichael. Thomas doesn’t discuss this in his book, but Lewis was not pleased with the transition. He knew things were about to take a violent and ugly turn. After King was killed, Carmichael marched through Washington, D.C., encouraging people to riot. They did, causing 12 deaths and $27 million in damage.
A central focus of “Listen, Whitey!” is the way that records, both musical and spoken word, were used to further the revolution. Author Pat Thomas has done major archeological work to unearth albums from the era; for people like me who love classic record designs from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s heaven. Reproduced in beautiful full color are albums by the Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, and Archie Shepp (“Attica Blues”), among others. The book is a joy to leaf through.
One of the most interesting finds is the Black Forum label. Black Forum was a part of Motown, but it is barely mentioned in Motown’s official histories. It was a hard-core revolutionary label that Motown founder Barry Gordy was a bit skittish about. Amongst its offerings: Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey!” (Newton was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1967) and “Langston Hughes & Margaret Danner: Writers of the Revolution.” In fact, “Listen, Whitey!” is worth the price just to see some of these album covers. You’re not likely to find Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Times,” complete with a machine gun on the cover, in today’s K-Mart. Or “Burn Baby Burn,” the “uncensored version of the Los Angeles riots” that is “an educational album and is not designed to incite violence.” Even iTunes might not sell “Ain’t No Ambulance for No Nigguhs Tonight,” a spoken word album by Stanley Crouch. Yes, the same Stanley Crouch who is today a journalist, traditional jazz defender and scold of kids with baggy jeans.
Crouch himself offers a good example of America’s genius ability to absorb “revolutionary” programs and tame them — especially when they originate from members of our own family. I was fortunate to have a father who worked for National Geographic and traveled the world. He traveled to Africa in 1969, the apex of America’s black power movement. Inner-city Washington had been destroyed by riots in 1968, but dad always emphasized how deeply, soulfully, irreversibly and wonderfully American blacks are. He wasn’t a radical chic liberal talking peace and love, but a deeply educated man who saw the simple fact that America was not America without blacks, and that blacks are American down to their cells. “When people in Africa see one of these guys,” he said of the Black Panthers, “they don’t see an African. They see an American.” In an interview in the early 1990s, Stanley Crouch — once featured on the cover of the “Ain’t No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight” album — said the exact same thing.