It’s important to examine how we, as Americans, currently learn about Black history and culture—especially with the national battle against critical race theory at nearly every level of the American government. What we have often been taught in school and from various media outlets is that Black history is comprised of three parts: Slavery, the Jim Crow era and the work of Martin Luther King Jr., who "singlehandedly ended racism" with his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Of course, this explanation is oversimplified and a little facetious. Many, like myself, have had the opportunity to seek out a more in-depth study of Black history through various means. Ultimately, though, the average American is woefully undereducated not only in Black history but also in Black culture and the role Black people have played in American society since our forced introduction to this country in 1619.
One of the ways we can see how Black people have influenced American life is by examining our artistic, literary and musical contributions to mainstream society. So many aspects of American culture, from jazz, R&B and hip hop music to specific aspects of our American vernacular, have strong roots and history in the Black community. In his new book, The Kevin Powell Reader: Essential Writings and Conversations, author, essayist and political activist Kevin Powell explores how Black identity is intertwined with American culture. The 441-page anthology is a timeline of people, places and events that helped shape the landscape of the Black experience and, ultimately, American culture.
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With 30 years of experience and analysis through a wide scope of his "interests as a human being, as a Black person and as a man,” Powell has witnessed how race, racism, gender and sexism have affected American society in music, sports, politics and social justice.
“I was very struck by how much American social culture and its connection to Black history is covered in The Kevin Powell Reader,” Powell tells EBONY. “It's humbling to have been a witness to so many things, including Hurricane Katrina, the presidential election of Barack Obama and the explosion of hip hop."
Powell authored three works about Tupac Shakur—from his cultural impact, his music and his death—for VIBE magazine alone. Powell's intimate conversation with Shakur in 1995 for Vibe shares how the rapper held a mirror to the racist reality that often held back Black youth, ironically shared from behind bar cells inside New York City's Rikers Island. The rapper's death a year later was one of the first of a hip-hop icon from gun violence, an occurrence that has become an all-too-often strain on our Black American pop culture tapestry: Takeoff was killed in a shooting in 2022, Nipsey Hussle was gunned down in 2019, Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002, and the list goes on. Powell connects the deaths of these cultural icons with the inherent violence of what Black men have to go through in America. His writing also probes the shift in social consciousness after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the consequential pushback on wokeness that is now too prevalent in American debate.
While it may not seem that the musical and comedic stars of decades past were making a statement, their very existence was a fight for equality, fair representation and platforms where talented Black people are celebrated and appreciated for their work. For thinkers like Powell, who have captured their contributions, it's evidence of what it means to be Black and iconic and to have an everlasting impact on our society.
“It was impossible not to write about our times, from back then to now, and in doing so I began to see some of these folks are figures for our times,” Powell says. That perfectly sums up his 2020 Washington Post Magazine piece on Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial candidate who proselytized the gospel of voting rights that influenced the state's senate elections in 2020. Although Abrams spoke on ethical matters, she was treated to a rock star entrance at the “Paradigm Shift 2.0: Black Women Confronting HIV, Health and Social Justice” luncheon, a testament to the power of politics in the cultural realm. “I just have always tried to document people I felt were real, honest and unafraid to say the truth, their truth,” Powell surmises.
Powell says he leaves it to others to decide what of his work is valuable, The Kevin Powell Reader in itself is a testament to so many who have changed the landscape of our culture and created pathways for future generations to continue the journey, in which he himself is included. “Back in the 1990s, I was as young as the folks I was documenting, be it Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu,” he says. “It was all happening really hard and fast, and I did not fully appreciate what was being documented until many years later. I feel very lucky to have seen so much, and to still be here and to have captured so much with words."