Stokely: A Life, “a bio with brio”

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Stokely Carmichael During his sizzling odyssey across the global firmament, Stokely Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture, combining vestiges of two of his heroes, toyed with his ideological perspective, altered his dress style, and had a number of consorts, but his revolutionary zeal was immutable.

“Ready for revolution” was his mantra and verbal ringtone for callers; it was also the title of his autobiography that was completed by his friend and scholar Michael Thelwell.  For all of Ture’s untamed rhetoric and unrelieved bombast, particularly his cry of “Black Power” in 1966, his reputation began to fade by the early eighties and only flickered for a moment with his death in 1998.

Peniel Joseph has resurrected that “well-lived life,” as he has stated on several media appearances as he promotes Stokely: A Life (Basic Civitas, 2014), a thought-provoking biography in which the eminent historian invested ten years of his own life.  In his Preface, Joseph, whose Waiting Til the Midnight Hour—A Narrative History of Black Power in America established him as a voice of considerable scholarship, writes that the biography “represents an act of recovery.”  Ture, he avers, “helped to organize and participate in every major civil rights demonstration and development in America between 1960 and 1965…his erasure from America’s collective memory is tragic in that it impoverishes our understanding of the most important movement in our national history.”

This act of recovery is done with careful, meticulous attention and Joseph traces his subject chronologically from his birth in Trinidad, to his days at Bronx High School of Science to Howard University and onto his political ascendancy in the civil rights movement, particularly the leadership role he would later assume with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.

Ture, as Joseph describes with a glowing arsenal of adjectives, was a magnetic, charismatic activist who possessed all the energy and quicksilver intelligence of C.L.R. James and George Padmore, to mention but two of his homeland mentors, but it was during his tour of duty in the South and his audacious encounters with menacing rednecks that he earned his militant spurs.  “He was fearless,” Dr. Cornel West said of Ture during a recent appearance with Joseph.  “He was a bold freedom fighter in the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Dr. King.”

All of these indomitable icons are cited in the biography and Joseph uses them to highlight moments in Ture’s life, and his relationship with Dr. King is a signal one that he handles judiciously and perhaps nowhere more delicately than after Ture’s call for “Black Power.”

Joseph contends that Ture’s bold announcement catapulted him into the “political space last occupied by Malcolm X,” thereby casting him as a fresh foil for the civil rights giant.  But Ture, he concludes, “refused to play this role, going out of his way to praise the civil rights leader even as he forged a defiant path toward a political reckoning that frightened supporters and foes alike.”

Ture’s relentless verve and growing Pan-African insight would be continually nettlesome as the war in Vietnam became more intense, and he was among the first to voice opposition to the U.S. involvement.  Joseph deftly recounts Ture’s appearance at Ebenezer Baptist Church when Dr. King came out against the war.  The resolute Ture had given Dr. King the moral template in which to state unequivocally his disgust with America’s commitment to a pointless war at the expense of wealth that could be used to rescue countless number of citizens wallowing in squalor.

Obviously, this stance placed both Dr. King and Ture in the crosshairs of the government law enforcement agencies, and the volumes of FBI files at Joseph’s disposal provides at least a glimmer of the extent to which Ture was under surveillance.

Ture’s turn with the Black Panther Party, his later marriage of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, and his long sojourn in Guinea and potentially damaging contretemps with President Sekou Toure are discussed with a typical completeness and in many cases goes well beyond Ture’s autobiography.

More could have been said about the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, Ture’s travels to the Middle East, and his contacts with Native Americans but that would have greatly expanded the nearly 400 pages of an engrossing, almost year-by-year account of an irrepressible radical who was as unflinching in his fight against cancer as he was against the forces of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism.

Ture, Joseph declares at the start of the biography, is a “glamorous enfant terrible: telegenic, brash, equal parts angry and gregarious.  Whether dressed in three-piece suits, leather jackets, sharecropper’s overalls, or African dashikis, Carmichael came to represent the era’s multifaceted identity: a ‘hipster hero’ whose easy grace allowed him to consort effortlessly with both the dignified and the damned.”

Joseph writes with such power of intimacy as if he had met Ture, sat with him, traveled with him, rode with him during those daring escapes from the Klan in the South, and, moreover, the undying love Ture expressed for his people is dispensed here in return.  And this book, paired with Ready for Revolution provides about the best look we can expect on the life and legacy of an unrepentant revolutionary.

Unlike so many turgid biographies, this is a brilliant bio with plenty of brio.