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The past is never dead: Revisiting Black Power

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

LAWRENCE – Fifty years on, the time is right for a reappraisal of the Black Power movement in America.

That’s what University of Kansas scholar Ayesha Hardison has in mind with the first in a series of essays for what she intends to be a book on the subject.

In this case, she has contributed a chapter titled “Stalled in the Movement: The Black Panther Party in 'Night Catches Us'” to a new book titled “The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside the South” (New York University Press, 2019) edited by Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis with Komozi Woodard.

It’s an examination of the 2010 film “Night Catches Us” from director Tanya Hamilton. Set in the mid-1970s, it stars Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) and Anthony Mackie (the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Falcon) as former Black Panther Party members coming to terms with the organization’s dissolution.

Hardison, associate professor in both the departments of English and in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, said that, when the film premiered, “I didn't know what to think about it.”

“I wasn't sure if it was fictional or if it was drawing on a particular history. And I didn't know enough about the history to evaluate that, but it was a film that kept coming back to me. As I started delving into my current research, it was a film I thought I needed to go back to and determine what it tells us about this historical moment. What the film became, for me, was a kind of narrative about constructing truth in history.”

Hardison said that, after researching the Panthers in Philadelphia, where “Night Catches Us” is set, she concluded the film was deeply grounded in history.

“The director pays homage to a photo that was circulated adversely in the newspapers about Black Panther members in Philadelphia at the time,” Hardison said. “Hamilton draws on the history of the national organization, too. So in that way, the film is very much grounded in historical events.”

“Night Catches Us” portrays the organization’s community advocacy programs, including its food giveaways and legal aid, as well as surveillance by state and federal agencies.

Beyond its historicity, Hardison writes, the film places the Panther experience into the rather unique perspective of its aftermath.

“It's a subtle, quiet film,” Hardison said. “But I see it as very moving because it’s really dealing with mourning and loss that's both personal for the characters and for the community, because it is about a cultural moment. It is also about the loss of that history for contemporary audiences.”

Hardison and her fellow authors in “Jim Crow North” argue that the civil rights and freedom struggles of African Americans are too often confined to the South in America’s historical memory.

“The book highlights the North as a critical site of not only racial oppression but civil rights protests and activism, which largely gets projected onto the South exclusively,” Hardison said.

The time is right for a reappraisal, she said.

“Various aspects of the civil rights and Black Power movements are having major anniversaries,” Hardison said. “It’s the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and last year was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. So now is an apt time to revisit those events, to memorialize them or to reconsider them. In addition, we can reflect on these past movements’ relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged in the last several years.”

The issues of the 1970s have hardly been resolved, Hardison said.

“A couple of years ago was the deadly white-nationalist march in Virginia, and recently the arson destruction of black churches in the South,” she said. “These things are echoes of a history that seemed very distant. But 50 years isn't that distant. Some people still have firsthand memories of these things, although younger generations don’t.”

Hardison said she’s working on other chapters for a larger book project, “thinking about contemporary narratives of the civil rights and Black Power movements.”

To work through the political investments underlying commemorations of this era, and to work against various degrees of forgetting and erasure, Hardison said she wants to consider “different types of texts.”

“In addition to film,” she said, “I’m reading novels as well as looking at different kinds of material culture – calendars, specifically. I’m thinking about the ways we tell stories about the civil rights movement and how our contemporary moment reflects not only our understanding of that history but also how the construction of that history shapes our current notions of citizenship and access, education and discrimination, our voting rights and police brutality.”

Photo: Kerry Washington in “Night Catches Us,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.