Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left
Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left
By Cynthia A. Young. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 328 pp. $22.95, ISBN: 10: 0-8223-3691-x).
Reviewed by Emilye Crosby, SUNY Geneseo
Cynthia Young's, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left, is a cultural history of the people and organizations that she labels the U.S. Third World Left during the 1960s (defined by Young as roughly 1955 through 1973). Young sets out to analyze "the ideas, art forms, and cultural rituals of a group of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and Anglos, who, inspired by events in the decolonizing world, saw their own plight in global terms. . . . [These] activists turned to Third World anticolonial struggles for ideas and strategies that might aid their own struggles against poverty, discrimination, and brutality facing peoples of color".(2) In the process, Young focuses on the ways these groups and individuals sought to break down the distinctions between politics and culture. In fact, she argues, "For this group, cultural production and political activism complemented rather than opposed each other." U.S. Third World Leftists were able to combine "aesthetic experimentation . . . informed by a commitment to a diverse set of political ideals" without sacrificing "such experimentation . . . to the exigencies of ongoing political struggle".(4)
Through her focus on "grassroots organizations, cultural producers, and union members," Young expands the definition of 1960s activists and highlights the contributions and participation of "the working class, women of color, and older people"(6). In the process, she critiques much of the historiography of the New Left and Civil Rights/ Black Power movements, for, she argues, putting too much emphasis on middle-class men and white students, for overstating the divisions between culture and politics, and for underestimating the struggles against capitalism and imperialism.
In stressing cultural history, Young's six chapters emphasize those "figures and organizations that produced literary texts, cultural works, forms of analysis, and activism that raised important issues for U.S. Third World Leftists more generally"(17). These include: the 1960 Havana trip by LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse, and Robert Williams as a way to explore "the impact of the Cuban Revolution on the U.S. Third World Left"; the ways that health care workers union 1199 "used cultural production" to consolidate a "racially and ethnically diverse workforce"; the ways that Newsreel, generally perceived as a New Left organization, engaged with some of the themes that are seen more clearly in the explicitly Third World Newsreel which succeeded it; an analysis of how Angela Davis's "intersectional approach to political analysis and activism" was informed by both "anticolonialism and Western Marxism"; and how members of the film group L.A. Rebellion produced films exploring the ways that black communities were "both subject to powerful forms of state violence and akin to Third World colonies" (15-16, 244).
Young does not profile the explicitly feminist organizations that were part of the larger U.S. Third World Left and she does not offer a distinct analysis of the oppression facing Third World Women. However, women are central actors in many of the organizations that Young highlights. Moreover, Young identifies numerous ways that the women and organizations featured in her book grappled with gender and she gives considerable attention to the impact of gender and gender oppression on these organizations, activists, and movements.
Readers of this website are likely to be particularly interested in Young's profile of Local 1199, the New York City health care workers union. Founded by white male leftists in the 1930s, it became a successful coalition of the Old Left and the U.S. Third World Left through a purposeful strategy of blending politics and culture, while simultaneously stressing both "workplace justice" and "antidiscrimination appeals" (57). When the mostly white union of drugstore employees began organizing hospital workers in the late 1950s, its leaders had to appeal to a workforce that consisted primarily of women and men of color. Women of color joined the union in overwhelming numbers, attended leadership training schools, and "assumed high-profile positions during 1199's recognition fights" (65). Young profiles several of these women, including Lillie Mae Booker, Hilda Joquin, and Doris Turner, who, like many of the hospital workers and union activists were migrants from the southern U.S. and the Caribbean. Though Turner eventually became president of the Union, Young points out that women still faced gender discrimination with men holding most top jobs and policy making positions. However, she argues that while "The concentration of women within the rank-and-file leadership may have made them less publicly visible, . . . it nonetheless provided them with a great deal of localized power" (67).
Women also held significant positions in the filmmaking groups, Newsreel, Third World Newsreel, and L.A. Rebellion, and were featured in a number of the documentaries and films produced by these groups. For example, Young suggests that Newsreel's evolution into Third World Newsreel is visible in the transitional film, Rompiendo puertas, featuring Operation Move-In, a squatters' rights movement. Rompiendo puertas profiles the women of color who responded to the death of a 15-year-old child by organizing around the larger problem of inadequate, unsafe, and over-priced housing. After taking over a building, the group established themselves as a "grassroots socialist collective" and the residents pooled "their money and labor power to repair dilapidated buildings" (141). According to Young, "the film's willingness to foreground the middle-aged and elderly Puerto Rican women as the leaders of this movement contests the sixties mythology that routinely centers white students and black civil rights workers" (142). Moreover, "the film's depiction of working-class Puerto Rican women represents an important political shift, one that contests any vanguard theory of political activism" (143).
Young goes on to detail the ways that women of color were central to Third World Newsreel and L.A. Rebellion and to explore the ways that some of their films portray women. For example, Teach Our Children, a Third World Newsreel documentary that connects the 1971 Attica prison takeover "with conditions in poor black and Latino communities," includes profiles of Carlos, an ex-convict and middle-aged family man, and his wife (164). Young argues that the film goes beyond a narrow focus on male incarceration by portraying "angry, articulate women, many of them mothers" (167). In fact, "Teach Our Children implies that her [Carlos's wife's] fight to keep her family intact is every bit as revolutionary as the actions of the Attica rebels" (167).
Without focusing primarily or explicitly on women and gender, Cynthia Young still has much to offer students of women and social movements in Soul Power. She makes it clear that women, especially women of color, played significant roles in the larger struggle to link "local racial and ethnic oppression to global patterns of Western imperialism and economic exploitation." They were among those who sought to build "coalitions across race, ethnicity, gender, generation, and national lines," while "drafting a new theoretical and political language" that included attempts to adapt "the rhetoric and
[pp. [NA]]tactics of Third World anticolonial movements for First World mobilization" (250). In the process, Young invites us to understand the important and far-reaching ways the U.S. Third World Left, in which women and people of color played crucial roles, shaped and contributed to a diverse, complex, and rich era of social protest.
Emilye Crosby is Associate Professor of History at SUNY Geneseo. Her book, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), won the 2006 McLemore Prize from the Mississippi Historical Society and received Honorable Mention for the 2006 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, Organization of American Historians.