By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Dr. Peniel Joseph Peddles Slick Marketing Constructs As “Black History”
By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“...branding is not history, branding is not policy. Branding is the manipulation of images, words and symbols to call up real and imagined memories that evoke a particular emotional response from an audience.”
The job of historians in the service of democracy should be to explain and clarify historical trends for ordinary people, to help us better understand where we are, where we came from, and where we're headed. But not all historians serve democracy. As long as there have been intellectuals a great many have made their careers spinning fables which obscure more than they reveal, histories that reinforce rather than challenge illegitimate power, ill-gotten wealth, and undeserved privilege.
Dr. Peniel Joseph is a young and highly acclaimed scholar. He's the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights, From Black Power to Barack Obama. But Dr. Joseph is no peoples' historian. In a recent appearanceon Dr. Jared Ball's Jazz & Justice show on WPFW-FM in Washington, Joseph declared one of the main threads of his most recent book was explaining the campaigns and career of Barack Obama as part of what he called the “radically transformative” outcome of the Black Power movement, which he traces through Malcolm X, Kwame Toure, the former Stokely Carmichael, and the 1980s electoral campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Chicago's Harold Washington.
Actually, for black politicians campaigning inside the black community, trying to brand your campaign as the fulfillment of the Freedom and Black Power movements is pretty standard stuff. The Obama campaign managed the neat trick of turning itself into two separate brands, one fungible inside the black community and another outside it as the multiracial apostle of “there is no black America, there is no white America.” When you went to Obama's campaign web site you were greeted with a gorgeous fuzzy photo of Barack, Michelle and the kids with the slogan underneath “Join the Movement.”
“When black historians accidentally confuse branding with history, they are fools...”
But branding is not history, branding is not policy. Branding is the manipulation of images, words and symbols to call up real and imagined memories that evoke a particular emotional response from an audience. Branding is the tool of marketers who sell us everything from new cars and prescription meds to lifestyles, whatever those are. When blackhistorians accidentally confuse branding with history, they are fools. When they do so deliberately they are charlatans and mercenaries. Advertising Age, the flagship magazine of the marketing industry doesn't have to fool anybody. It gave the 2008 Obama presidential campaign its 2008 Brand of the Year Award.
Dr. Joseph himself said that a nuanced view of Barack Obama's place relative to the Black Power movement would necessitate examining his policy positions, issue by issue. But when the show's host used the word “imperialism” to describe the actual policies to which Barack Obama subscribes, Dr. Joseph pronounced it a “totalizing” term, called it “sloganeering” which he said puts an end to any useful dialog. So in Dr. Joseph's world we can prattle on about the “radical transformations” of democracy engineered by the Black Power movement which resulted in the Obama presidency. But with fleets in every ocean and hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent, we can't talk about empire. What's wrong with that picture, huh?
When Dr. Joseph awards Barack Obama status as a direct descendant of the Freedom and Black Power movements, which were fundamentally pro economic justice and anti-imperialist he abandons the clarifying role of peoples historian for a comfy seat in the establishment chorus. Dr. Joseph is reselling black people somebody else's marketed image, somebody else's brand name screed as our history. Dr. Joseph is the fake Wizard of Oz telling us to pay no attention to that wealthy handful of corporations behind that curtain.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta. He can be reached at bruce,dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.