Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Legitimized Blackness? Kwanzaa, Citizenship, and Newark

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Legitimized Blackness? Kwanzaa, Citizenship, and Newark

Article excerpt


Time to get together time to be one strong fast black energy space one pulsating positive magnetism, rising time to get up and be come become, time to be come time to get up be come black genius rise in spirit muscle sun man get up rise heart of the universes to be future of the world be come rise up

--Amiri Baraka, It's Nation Time

Like much of America in 1968, Newark was grieving. Grieving perhaps for its past that had seen its most beloved leaders gunned down and left for dead; grieving for its present as a once thriving city turned gray with ashes and stained red from blood; grieving as its young boys were shipped off to lands they never knew, to kill people they knew nothing about; grieving as drugs were frying the brains of its youth that were ready for revolution but not reality; grieving as Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the South publicly and the North privately; and most of all grieving because the future was so uncertain in a place that was still sweeping away half-lit embers from a rebellion that took too long to come.

But it's no wonder that Newark was grieving. With adjectives like "urban blight," "ghetto," and "slum" used to describe the once thriving manufacturing city that had been so violently struck by a race rebellion in 1967, it was clear Newark was in despair. When the Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorders, more popularly referred to as the Lilly Commission, released their report on the cause of the rebellions in February 1968, they found that black Newark residents were largely unhappy, with only 20% responding that the city was a "good place to live in" (Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorder, 1972). They cited housing, unemployment, discrimination, and police brutality as major causes of African American discontent. With this report backed up by claims from government-funded studies, local newspaper accounts, and interviews, it was clear that Newark had been shattered, burned, and left for dead--and African Americans were feeling the effects the most.

Native Newarker and internationally renowned poet Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones) felt the pain that was in the air in Newark during this time when he wrote "It's Nation Time." The poem, which was a call to action for people to "rise ... get up ... be come ... the future of the world" (Baraka, 1991, p. 240) resonated with many Newark residents who were ready to change their conditions. African American activism had long been a part of civic and social culture in Newark (Price, 1981), but the rebellion, along with activist Stokely Carmichael's call for "Black Power" across the nation, seemed to increase the urgency for social action. Baraka had just settled back in Newark to establish a Black Arts Movement after splitting from Allen Ginsburg and the Beat poets and leaving his white wife and children. During this time, he decided that he wanted to focus his energy not only on art, but also on a movement that would help black residents gain social, political, and economic power in a city where they made up the majority but held no political power. After being arrested during race rebellions in 1967 that were sparked after a cab driver was allegedly beaten and jailed by city police officers, he became convinced that conditions in Newark were favorable for revolutionary change--and that Black Nationalism was the perfect vehicle for that change. As Carmichael and Charles Hamilton called for black people to redefine who they were (Ture & Hamilton, 1992, p. 35), Baraka became more interested in cultural nationalism, a growing faction of the nationalist movement spearheaded by Mualana (Ron) Karenga, head of the Us Organization in Los Angeles, California.

Cultural nationalism advocated the notion that cultural freedom through a return to Africanness was essential before political revolution could be achieved. (Karenga, 1967, p. 4). Although some nationalists, like Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, dismissed the viability of cultural nationalism (Foner, 1970, p. …

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