Claiming “Street Power”: Poetry and Performance in the Early Black Power and Gay Liberation Movements

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 2:30 PM
Regent Room (New York Hilton)
Andrew Lester, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
This paper examines the ways that black power and gay liberation activists in the mid-1960s developed their political positions and worked out questions of identity politics through literature and performance. It argues that in the cultural politics of both movements, black and gay activists alike invoked similar themes in their cultural productions and street performances: police surveillance and brutality, economic exploitation, and issues of gender, sexuality, and identity. Future Black Panther Party (BPP) cofounders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton made black arts movement poetry central to their early political work in Oakland between 1965 and 1966. They recited and publicly performed this poetry as a tactic both to appeal to young working-class black men and to protest the Vietnam War, racism, economic exploitation, and police brutality. Early activists in Vanguard, a mid-1960s gay liberation organization in San Francisco, also fashioned dissident gender and sexual identities through their poetry and street performances protesting economic exploitation and police brutality. Activists in both movements thus incorporated poetry and street performance in their refusals to submit to police intimidation or to reproduce the terror that police evoked. By deploying cultural productions in performances of protest and embodying the identities whose contours their poetry defined, activists from these movements also complicated simple distinctions between their lived experiences and representations of them.
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