The Chronicle Review

The Many Meanings of a Fist

May 18, 2016

Twitter via AP
West Point cadets pose for a photo that was the subject of an investigation because of its racial symbolism.

A picture of 16 black female cadets raising their fists triumphantly went viral on social media after sparking an internal investigation at the United States Military Academy. West Point sought to determine whether these graduating cadets violated a defense department ban on "partisan" speech via a physical gesture with ties to black-power-era militancy and contemporary antiracist activism.

The raised fist has experienced a renaissance of late, as black millennials politicized by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, outraged by racist policing in Ferguson and Baltimore, and united in their deft use of social media have shown an increasing willingness to adopt both the shield of Martin Luther King Jr.’s disciplined nonviolence and the rhetorical sword of Malcolm X in a quest for social justice. Through its popularization of the raised fist as a symbol of generational insurgency, the Black Lives Matter movement has ensnared the West Point cadets.

They said it was merely a celebratory gesture, with no partisan or political intent, and within days officials agreed, saying the cadets’ actions demonstrated "a lapse of awareness in how symbols and gestures can be misinterpreted and cause division." But it is worth noting the unlikelihood that West Point would have investigated at all if the cadets in the photograph had been white. The situation reminds us how the raised fist is at once a symbol with powerful historical resonance and one that can shift in its meaning and intent.

June 16, 2016, will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic evening when Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called for "black power" in Greenwood, Miss. The term scandalized whites, who interpreted it as a violent provocation even as it galvanized blacks who correctly understood it to be a more complex call for radical self-determination. Sharecroppers, students, welfare recipients, prisoners, preachers, and politicians adopted the term, helping to animate a movement whose ideological, geographic, and political diversity remains shrouded by its equally potent symbolism.

The raised fist became shorthand for public identification with the new black consciousness. Carmichael, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, and the Black Panthers became icons of radical popular culture, and in imitation political revolutionaries around the world offered raised fists in defiant opposition to a spectrum of evils they argued were rooted in the economic and racial exploitation of the third world — as did terrorists seeking to justify themselves under the mantle of revolution.

The powerful demonstration at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos — who made the black-power salute in solidarity with the international struggle against racism as they accepted gold and bronze medals — represented the high point of the raised fist as subversive symbol. Smith and Carlos were pilloried in the white press, kicked out of the Olympic Village, and became mainstays on the black-college lecture circuit.

AP Images
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos raise gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
By the early 1970s the expression was popular enough to be adopted by a broad range of black political actors, not just the Communist and prisoner-rights activist Davis, but also the civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson; Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Ind.; and the "Black Art" poet Amiri Baraka. As black-power radicalism came of political age, at times publicly cultivating a more pragmatic side that always existed alongside its revolutionary cries, the raised fist gathered new layers of complexity.

It became an expression of racial, cultural, and political solidarity, a salute exchanged between women and men, boys and girls who retained a cultural memory of the riotous upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s even if they were too young to have directly participated. On the first wave of black television shows ushered in by the civil-rights and black-power revolutions, characters deployed the raised fist as both a greeting and an expression of racial pride.

As fears of a black revolt in America diminished, a raised black fist became less threatening. Television shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons frequently caricatured expressions of militancy and white and black audiences now cheerfully laughed at a symbol of radicalism that had lost its potency.

The raised fist was relegated to the shadows. A mainstay within black-radical circles, among community activists, and at bookstores, conferences, and cultural centers, the gesture had traveled a long way from its heyday, when it was ubiquitous enough to be featured on afro picks, a defiant reminder of a seemingly buried past.

Then hip hop rediscovered black political radicalism. The popularity of such groups as Public Enemy and X-Clan and movies like Malcolm X and Panther introduced the expression to a new generation of young people around the world, and in the process helped give new life to symbols of black militancy whose power had seemingly peaked in Mexico City in 1968.

The raised fists now associated with Black Lives Matter have followed a similar panoramic trajectory. Just as black-power activists introduced the term "institutional racism" and linked domestic racial oppression to global structures of capitalism, war, and inequality, Black Lives Matter has emphasized that the criminal-justice system is a gateway to racial, economic, and gender oppression.

The cadets' use of the gesture reflects the tumultuous racial and social climate of the age.
From the outset its founders — three women — and movement participants have been determined to focus on a range of intersecting issues that boil down to this: reclaiming the control, protection, and liberation of black and brown bodies from harassment, violence, segregation, unemployment, disease, and death. The movement has highlighted the violence against black women not only at the hands of law enforcement but also in American society in general. It has also drawn attention to critical issues facing black queer and transgender communities, voices that have historically been marginalized both within and outside of the African-American mainstream. In that way, Black Lives Matter has galvanized a cross-section of Americans, especially young African-Americans but also large segments of white and Latino allies.

The raised fist has once again been reimagined. Like Promethean fire, its current expression links the black activist past and present, connecting history with contemporary social movements, united in a common desire to illuminate and highlight what King characterized as "the fierce urgency of now."

This is the maelstrom that the 16 West Point cadets stepped into. We should take them at their word that their raised fists were nothing more than a celebratory gesture, one shorn of political intent. Yet their decision to enact the gesture speaks to an awakened political consciousness, one that reflects the tumultuous racial and social climate of the age of Obama and Ferguson. Indeed, the ensuing outcry over this portrait and the investigation illuminate just how far America is from achieving the postracial society envisioned in the aftermath of Obama’s election in 2008.

Sometimes the depth and breadth of symbols, especially those related to America’s complex racial history, have meaning that transcends individual intent. The raised fist is such a symbol, one whose ultimate meaning, however fraught and contested, remains a harbinger of an undiscovered country where black lives do indeed matter and whose most important feature, King remarked, was "the right to protest for right."

Peniel E. Joseph, author of several books on the black-power movement, is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.