The Color of Water

Define Black Power: when/where/who/why/with what results?

The color of water chapter four

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"A movement among Black Americans emphasizing racial pride and social equality through the creation of Black political and cultural institutions: "Black Power . . . calls for black people to consolidate behind their own, so that they can bargain from a position of strength" (Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton).


In 1966, when James was nine, "black power" struck fear into his heart: "I thought black power would be the end of my mother. I swallowed the white man's fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole." His mother worked as a typist at Chase Manhattan Bank from 3pm to 2am, and didn't have time, James remembers, for "identity crises." His mother considered the achievements of the civil rights movement to be her own, but, at the same time, her "contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard." She drummed into her children's heads: "What's money if your mind is empty! Educate your mind!" One night, after visiting Jacqueline, or "Jack", James remembers two black men snatching his mother's purse. His mother let the incident slide right off of her back. For James, however, this only emphasized the danger his mother was in, so when he left for summer camp and boarded a bus, realizing that the man standing next to his mother outside was a Black Panther, he felt fearful; he tried to warn her, and when the son of the Black Panther sat down in the seat in front of him, James punched him in the face.


He presents the historical backdrop of the Black Power movement, and clearly felt that his mother was in danger in their presence; a feeling that was reinforced when he witnessed two black men robbing her of her purse. He knew the state of race relations, and his love for his white mother only contributed to his confusion: "partly because of my own growing sense of self, and partly because of fear for her safety, because even as a child I had a sense that black and white folks did not get along, which put her, and us, in a pretty tight space."

When James punched the son of a Black Panther because he feared for his mother's safety, the action expressed a clear alliance with his mother, and not with the Black Power movement. In other words, he allied himself with his sense of family and love, as opposed to what he would later refer to as the superficial blanket political statement the color of one's face often led one to assume. The action exhibited his personal confusion, but, at the same time, the way divisions that relied on race could be transcended. The idea of "love" was crucial.