Nov. 2, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 5

"In general, there has been a huge gap in the historiography of the 1960s," according to Cynthia Young, who will appear at the Nov. 15 "Writers Among Us" event.

Taking a Leftward Look at the 1960s Legacy

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

So, is there anything left to say about the Sixties? Plenty, according to Assoc. Prof. Cynthia Young (English).

While the decade's social, political and cultural activism would appear to have been covered exhaustively by historians, novelists, filmmakers and TV shows - to say nothing of music albums - Young says the story has only been partly told, and not necessarily correctly.

"In recent years, the 1960s have been demonized by conservatives," says Young, who is director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program. "But in general there has been a huge gap in the historiography of the 1960s: It's been told in terms of the white, middle-class experience and their participation in Students for a Democratic Society, or other anti-war groups; even the depiction of the modern civil rights movement is cast in binaries - Martin Luther King Jr. versus Malcolm X."

Another major misperception about Sixties activism, adds Young, is that it was primarily a domestic phenomenon. In fact, she says, many African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos found inspiration in ideas and strategies coming from writers and activists who were anticolonialists in the "Third World." This cross-pollination led to the formation of what Young refers to as the "US Third World Left."

These narratives form the basis of Young's new book, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a US Third World Left. Young will discuss Soul Power on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101 as part of the "Writers Among Us" series celebrating BC faculty authors.

In one chapter, Young recounts a 1960 trip to Cuba by author-activists LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse and Robert F. Williams as a means of exploring the Cuban revolution's impact on the development of the US Third World Left. Another chapter examines the work of legendary and controversial activist-philosopher Angela Y. Davis, especially in regard to the impact of anticolonialism and Western Marxism on her approach to political analysis and activism.

Young also explores the evolution of the Health Care Workers Union 1199 in regards to the role that cultural production played in consolidating a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. Other chapters of Soul Power describe the influence of radical film movements on the era.

"When you look beyond the familiar stories of the 1960s, there are so many unknown actors, like the middle-aged women who were active in union-related causes," says Young, "or young filmmakers who led community workshops and chronicled the local stories of oppression and exploitation that everyday people were facing."

For Young, the 1960s are something more than a nostalgic or academic indulgence. She was born to an interracial couple - her mother the daughter of an Irish coal miner, her father the son of a black electrician - who, she says, "understood themselves to be living Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream."

As a youngster in 1970s suburban Cleveland, where interracial unions were still rare, Young became aware of the scrutiny given her family. The experience shaped her keen interest in the many facets of identity, whether personal, racial, social or political, themes about which 1960s writers, artists and activists had lots to say.

Young believes there may be a new reassessment of the 1960s in the offing, one that will view the period in greater detail and with more historical detachment.

"There's an extremely vibrant conversation that is ongoing with a host of recent conferences, edited volumes and now monographs that complicate our view of the 1960s. Many of the first histories of the Sixties in the US were written by people 'who were there' - activists who saw themselves as on the front lines of Sixties activism."

"Consequently, their take was profoundly distorted by their personal experiences and the backlash that followed the Sixties, which made it difficult to decenter themselves and sideline the backlash long enough to tell many other important stories from the period."

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