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Shaped by his upbringing

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Stokely Carmichael attended the historically black Howard University.

He spent the first 11 years of his life in a typical Trini home on Oxford Street, Port-of-Spain, where pan, calypso, Carnival, family parties and British colonial schools helped to shape Stokely Carmichael into a Civil Rights organiser who understood people of all races on all socio-economic levels. 

Peniel E Joseph, the author of Stokely: A Life, our SAS Book Club choice of the month, says that it is Carmichael’s Trinidadian upbringing in a predominantly black culture that cultivated an appreciation for both African and Anglophone roots, and gave him his unique political position between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. When he arrived in New York City and began going to school there, Carmichael did not find the colonial school order that he found in Trinidad. It was, Joseph describes, “socially chaotic.” 

This was not the experience Carmichael’s father wanted for his children. So the family left their small apartment in South Bronx and moved to a predominantly white neighbourhood in Morris Park. They were the first black family to move into this part of the Bronx that was mostly inhabited by Italian families. Carmichael was only the second black student in his school, but he had no problem fitting in with the children.

Carmichael would make a name for himself organising voters for the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) partly because he had a history of relating to many different races and ethnic groups. 

“For Stokely the worlds of Morris Park and Harlem became social and political laboratories where he fashioned distinct identities for separate audiences,” writes Joseph.

Joseph also says, “Carmichael imbibed black America’s customs, traditions and rhythms through black culture. A naturally gifted mimic and perceptive observer, he absorbed American black language, idiom and vernacular through a set of personal experiences that shaped his outlook.”

He listened to all types of music—including his father’s calypso records—and he never forgot his Trinidadian roots. He enrolled in Howard University, which is a historically black university. There he enlisted in four “intense” years of Civil Rights activism. 

He was considered a voracious reader. Joseph says he had a “sharp mind and endless reserves of confidence”—no doubt because of his Trini roots. 

There was a vast difference from spending a childhood in a place like Trinidad with its British colonialism and spending a childhood in the US with its history of prejudice and outright racism handed down from a very long history of slavery.

In university, Carmichael also came in contact with many foreign students, particularly from African and Caribbean countries; his roommate was from Jamaica. He impressed his professors. His easy humour, sense of commitment and respect for elders made him popular with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as well. Martin Luther King Jr was said to be very impressed with Stokely Carmichael. 

He made many waves in the Civil Rights Movement, and then he began to see the bigger picture: a larger struggle for the rights of black people on a worldwide scale. He changed his name to Kwame Ture and became involved in Pan-Africanism. 

Stokely Carmichael was a fascinating individual who reflected his Trini roots in every step of the struggle for black rights. He is a fascinating study of roots, power, leadership and personality that transcend the Civil Rights Movement and Pan-Africanism. Joseph’s book Stokely: A Life is a telling tale of how culture defines who we are, the causes we take up and the type of leader we become.

Discussion questions

1. Stokely Carmichael was known to have a sense of humour and he often started some very serious speeches with a humorous anecdote. How can humour be effective when trying to make an important point? 

2. How do you think that Stokely Carmichael would have been viewed in history if he had not changed his name to Kwame Ture and become involved in the Pan-Africanist Movement?


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