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Whatever Happened to Black Power?

Whatever the race or creed or culture, the ones with a nose for power are a minority. But if powerlessness has stamped any entire body of Americans, they would be this nation’s blacks–who “came here in the most powerless position you can come here,” as Monroe Anderson has just reminded us, and have been “free to pursue power in the legal sense only in the last 25 years.

“Basically,” Anderson goes on, “you have a first generation coming of age.”

Anderson belongs to this generation. When he was young, when blacks were winning such rudiments of power as the vote, the civil rights movement impressed him as consisting of “Negroes trying to prove to whites we’re not all those stereotypical Negroes they’re thinking of.”

Imagine Anderson at Indiana University in the mid-60s, a black from Gary adrift in a white, rural sea. “I was going through total culture shock,” says Anderson, who was the single black in his freshman class in journalism school. Imagine the galvanic effect on him when Young Turks took up the chant of “Black power!”

“When I saw Stokely [Carmichael] and those folks with fists raised on TV I became an instant convert,” says Anderson. “Although I didn’t have any idea what it was about, it just felt right.”

But a few years went by, and Anderson reluctantly concluded that the brothers with the raised fists had no idea what it was about, either. There was no program. They could rant at the white power structure until every last cow in Indiana wandered home and they’d never dent it. The black-power movement hadn’t the foggiest notion about how to empower blacks.

Anderson was a journalist by now, making stops at the National Observer and Ebony before putting in ten years with the Chicago Tribune. When he didn’t move up the ladder, Anderson figured his color was probably holding him back; but he’d convinced himself that the power game wasn’t for him, anyway.

“Coming from a working-class background as I do,” he says, “and coming from a powerless segment of the community, you get these myths and you latch on to them. That quote about power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As though power’s a terrible thing. Or the quote about rich people not being happy. You latch on to these things because you have no money and no power. So you anesthetize your existence, basically.”

Today Monroe Anderson is director of station services at Channel Two. It’s a position of some power, and as it happens, his thinking on power has evolved over the years. Absolutely nothing, however, organized those thoughts like a talk he heard earlier this month. He was out in LA for the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists–a burgeoning society 15 years old. And one of the sessions he attended was designed for blacks in middle management and addressed by a black business consultant from San Francisco named Ron Brown.

Brown, a doctor of psychology whose specialty is the dynamics of the multicultural work force, is by all accounts a spellbinder. A quarter century after Stokely Carmichael said power tasted delicious, Ron Brown finally told Anderson how to get it. You need, said Brown, a “gut definition” of what power is. Brown’s own: “The ability to impose your personal preferences over the behavior of other people.” Or, if that sounds too domineering, “Getting what you want done.”

The ones that Brown called “major players” in a corporation understand power in their gut. Most middle managers do not, Brown told his audience of middle managers, and most middle managers are not major players. He’s found the black managers he’s worked with focusing on salary, on status and recognition–on anything but power itself. “Basically,” says Anderson, distilling Brown, “we’ve been such a powerless people we don’t even understand what it’s about.”

Anderson reflects, “Because historically blacks have been discriminated against, we’re raised with our parents telling us you have to be twice as good as the whites to get ahead. Brown said we bought that lock, stock, and barrel. And meantime, they [whites] spend 2 or 3 percent of their energy on that [proving they’re competent] and 90 percent on networking. What you want to do is talk to everybody in the corporation and have them singing your praises.”

As Brown spoke, Anderson’s life flashed before his eyes. “I saw 20 years of my career and all the mistakes I had made. Every time I had trouble I saw instantly why. I realized that all those people who zoomed ahead of me as I plodded along–that this is exactly what they did. At the time I attributed it merely to their being white.”

We spoke briefly with Brown by phone. “Since we’re not getting coaching or mentoring, there are certain nuances we’re not picking up,” Brown said. In hindsight, Anderson can see the nuances more clearly. He can see the value in taking up bridge. Or golf.

Brown stressed the importance of corporate golf outings. But I don’t like golf, said someone from the audience. Golf isn’t the point, Brown explained. The point is the guys who run the company finding out who’s on their team.

Too many black professionals, said Brown, are ambivalent about the places where they work. Maybe they should be; after all, for years a lot of these places never did much for blacks. But if you take a job, say, with the New York Times, you’d better love the New York Times and let everybody know you love the New York Times or you’re not going anywhere. And why should you, if your boss can’t be sure you even like the paper?

Someone else spoke up. If we do the things you tell us to do, we’ll be kissing ass! So what, said Brown. To us he said that “kissing ass” is a negative way of putting it. Better to call it “effective subordination of self,” which is a skill. “Basically,” says Anderson, laughing as he speaks, “he was saying that having dignity without power is not having a lot. That’s the read I had on it. Dignity and a dollar-twenty-five will get you a ride on the CTA at rush hour.”

Although Monroe Anderson had never heard power discussed so usefully before, he had already acquired a taste for it. Becoming a husband and father had hinted to him that “money wasn’t such a terrible thing to have.” And then there was that splendid, futile gesture he made to help heal the breach in Chicago’s black community–when he left Newsweek magazine to take the job of acting mayor Eugene Sawyer’s press secretary.

Typically, Anderson was thinking of doing good, not of throwing his weight around. “Although I had people tell me there was power involved in the job, it was just a concept, a theory that was very abstract,” he says. “I had no idea what power was.”

He quickly learned. “I got to a point where my neighbors were coming to me when a pothole needed to be filled or a streetlight was out and I could make a call and make it happen.

“It was a wonderful feeling.”

And Sawyer?

“I think he was in awe of the power he had,” says Anderson. “I don’t think Harold Washington was comfortable with power originally. Sawyer definitely wasn’t. [But] when you watch Richie, it’s as comfortable to him as a two-year-old suit.”

When properly exercised, Anderson has come to understand, power is the ability to accomplish. He wishes more blacks understood that. “If you watch what black leaders in this town do . . .” he says with regret. “The Nike boycott is a great example of it. Instead of calling the boycott right off the bat, PUSH could have gotten on the phone to Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Spike Lee and said ‘We have a problem with Nike. Who should we talk to and work this out?’ But we’re so used to a position of powerlessness we call a meeting and when it doesn’t go exactly right we call a boycott.

“The only power we have is the power to obstruct . . .”

The Mystery of the Get-Laid Line

How it happened. How the Reader came to run a display ad for Traffic Jam last week that proclaimed: “Zazz’s 2nd Annual Singles’ Party: Get laid . . . early and often. Benefit for the Sun Times’ Charities.”

This Reader hit the streets on Thursday. The next day a letter from Traffic Jam general manager John Mau, written in cold panic, ran in the Sun-Times. “Please be advised,” said Mau, “that the copy on this ad was neither approved nor endorsed by Traffic Jam, the Sun-Times or Jeff Zaslow.”

We don’t want to hop on Mau, but he doesn’t seem to have left anyone but the Reader to blame. So here’s the Reader’s story. At the end of every week, Mau writes the copy for the next week’s ad in longhand and faxes it to the Reader. It’s picked up by Peter FitzGerald, a production assistant here who comes in on his own time to make up the Traffic Jam ad (a form of free-lancing common at the Reader). The ad formally enters the Reader’s hands as camera-ready art.

FitzGerald got last week’s copy, complete with the “Get laid” line (we’ve seen the fax), all of it appearing to be in Mau’s hand, and he made the ad. Usually, FitzGerald faxes the finished ad back to Mau for him to check, but when he’s short of time he doesn’t and last week he was short of time.

Ad manager Don Humbertson tells us nobody at the Reader looks very closely at camera-ready ads, besides which anyone spotting “Get laid” wouldn’t have batted an eye. “It wouldn’t have raised any flags, especially from those guys,” says Humbertson. “They’re having a party at Traffic Jam, home of Butthead Beer. It’s party time!”

But Mau swears to us that he didn’t write that line of copy, even if it looks like it’s in his handwriting. He tells a harrowing tale, in which “missing checks,” dubious employees who “knew they were going to get the can,” and a sabotaged fax all figure. And when on Sunday he happened to pick up Traffic Jam’s copy of the fax, thereby stumbling on the treachery (“I thought it was funny but I didn’t want it in there”), he personally slipped a corrected ad under the Reader’s door. Here we confront the deepest mystery of all; nobody over here ever saw this correction.

We told Mau we probably would write something but we did not intend to dwell on the mishap as it did not strike us as a major situation. It did not strike Mau that way either.

“The Sun-Times isn’t exactly the Christian Science Monitor,” he reasoned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.