Making history: Joanne Griffith's 'Redefining Black Power' project comes to the Bay

Author Joanne Griffith:"This is the only way for us to keep memories alive."

"Joanne [Griffith]'s work is centered on one theme: not to offer information as a point of journalistic fact, but to act as a conduit for debate and conversation, especially around issues relating to the African diaspora experience." So writes Brian Shazor, director of the Pacifica Radio Archives, in the foreward to Griffith's new book Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America (City Lights Books, 206pp, $16.95). Griffith will be presenting her work, part of an interactive project to archive the state of African Americans in the United States in the Bay Area this week -- starting tonight (Wed/8) at the Museum of the African Diaspora.

This shouldn't have to be said, but in these times of reductive news media it does: Obama isn't the only black voice that needs to be heard, during this Black History Month or any other month. Inspired by the archives of progressive African American voice kept by LA's Pacifica Radio Archives, Griffith -- a leading progressive voice herself, having reported on issues from around the African diaspora for the BBC and NPR -- transcribes her interviews with leading thoughtmakers for the book, set up as a series of dialogues. Hear from political prisoner Ramona Africa why Obama is "the new crack," journalist Linn Washington, Jr. on media matters, green jobs leader Van Jones on hybrid activism. The president is used as a theme of the book, but the interviews use him as a lens to look at issues that range far beyond the White House.

Griffith and the other minds behind Redefining Black Power want these interviews to serve as a jumping off point for other unheard voices. Head over to the book's website and you'll find directions on how to add your point of view to those of the better-known activists and professionals already immortalized in the Pacifica archives. You can go to one of Griffith's upcoming readings (details below) for inspiration. Or better yet, read our recent email interview with her and then do that. 

SFBG: Explain where the interviews in the book came from. How did you become acquainted with the Pacifica Radio Archives. Why are they important for people to hear?

JG: The idea for the Redefining Black Power Project, of which the book is part, was born out of the historic audio held in the Pacifica Radio Archives; a national treasure trove of material charting America's history from a progressive perspective dating back to 1949. Within the collection are key recordings from the civil rights, black power and black freedom movement, including Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, and so many others. But it was one recording of Fannie Lou Hamer addressing the 1964 Democratic National Convention that sparked the idea for Redefining Black Power. The director of the Pacifica Radio Archives, Brian DeShazor, heard the tape and wanted to find a permanent way to preserve and share the voices held in the archives with a wider audience, and what better way than through the written word. Brian approached City Lights Books with the idea, and this book is the result, drawing on the voices of history to link us to the election of Barack Obama, one of the most significant moments in the social and political history of the United States. Through this project, we hope to preserve the voices, opinions and perspectives of African-Americans in this so called 'Age of Obama' for historians to digest and explore in years to come. 

How did I get involved? As a complete audio nut, I always make a point of visiting local radio stations wherever I travel in the world. Back in 2007, I was in Los Angeles, called KPFK to arrange a visit and was introduced to the Pacifica Radio Archives. Speaking with Brian DeShazor, we came up with an idea to share the historic collection with a UK audience and I've been doing this every Sunday evening on BBC Radio 5 Live in the UK for over four years. Because of this work and the extensive list of people I have interviewed over the years, Brian invited me to do the interviews for the Redefining Black Power project. Through this book, we delve into the role of the activist from different perspectives; the legal system, the media, religion, the economy, green politics and emotional justice. All were recorded between September 2009 and August 2011. To be clear though, this book is not an anthology of black leaders speaking on the Obama presidency. This is simply a taster of opinions on the subject, but everyone is encouraged to participate with their thoughts and opinions at and come out to the many events we're hosting throughout February, including here in the Bay Area at the Museum of African Diaspora from 7 p.m. on Wednesday Feb 8 and at Marcus Books in Oakland with guest panelists Hodari Davis from Youth Speaks and social justice activist Dereca Blackmon on Thursday Feb 9 from 6.30 p.m.

SFBG: Has there been an interview you've conducted in which your subject's answers have deeply surprised you? 

JG: Every interview had its own surprise; from Ramona Africa describing President Obama as 'the new crack' and why she refused to vote, to economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux revealing the financially precarious situations many African Americans find themselves in; from high foreclosure rates and high unemployment to the low levels of accumulated wealth for black women. Very sobering statistics. Michelle Alexander, too, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness really shocked me when she said that more African American men are currently incarcerated than were enslaved in 1850. 

However, it was Dr Vincent Harding, the man behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "Beyond Vietnam" speech that surprised me the most. A true veteran of the civil rights movement, he made the point that the election of President Obama was never the goal of the movement; instead he prefers to call the work "the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America." Put this way, it made me realize more than ever, that the work we do today is not in isolation, but part of a wider movement, stretching back all the way to slavery. And the work isn't over. 

SFBG: Your introduction ends with a quote from Kanye and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne album. What role, if any, does hip-hop play in the book?

JG: Hip-hop doesn't play a role in this book, other than this quote, but it will feature heavily in the next volume of Redefining Black Power which will focus on the reflections of black entertainers, writers, poets and performers on this moment in US history.  

SFBG: What would be the best way the United States could spend Black History Month?

JG: Black history -- regardless of whether it is the United States or the UK where I moved from or anywhere else -- should be acknowledged daily; this is the only way for us to keep memories alive and never forget where transformative change, like the election of President Obama, comes from. 

Listening to recordings like those held in the Pacifica Radio Archives with our youth would be a great place to start. I spent a couple of days with a group of students in Detroit, sharing the archive material and getting them to discuss their thoughts on the recordings; Audre Laude, James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, and others. Every one of them said they wished they had heard these voices before. It gave them a context to their own lives that didn't exist previously, while encouraging them to never give up; too many people have suffered for them to let less than favorable circumstances stop them now. 

SFBG: Who should read this book? How should it be used?

JG: Use it as a conversation starter to discuss issues in your own community. Parents, use it as a way to engage your children in history. Students, use it as a resource for papers on race and the Obama presidency. Most importantly, everyone, share your thoughts at This book is not the end of the project; we're only getting started. 

Joanne Griffith's Redefining Black Power author readings:

Wed/8 7 p.m., free with $10 museum admission

Museum of the African Diaspora

685 Mission, SF

(415) 358-7252

Thu/9 6:30-8 p.m., free

Marcus Books

3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakl.

(510) 652-3244



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