Volume 51   Number 3 Summer 2018

From our Members

New World Era: Culture, Self-Determination, and the Sociopsychological Construct of Black Power

Written by Tarell C. Kyles, Pacifica Graduate Institute,

Introduction: Black Power as a Sociopsychological Construct

From early maroon societies and the initial sociopsychological stirrings of Back to Africa movements, to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the PGRNA (Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika) there has always been an aspect of the collective consciousness of U.S. born Africana peoples that has directed community thought and behavior towards projects of unity, autonomy, self-defense, armed struggle, and self-determination. I posit that Black Power as a social movement emerged from the collective consciousness of U.S. born Africana peoples as an explicitly decolonial response to the racial violence and oppression of the state. In this light, Black Power may be seen as not only a social movement, or a unifying slogan, but as a generative sociopsychological cultural construct.

The community benefits of Black Power have been myriad. The synthesis of race consciousness, unity, empowerment, and self-determination within Marcus Garvey’s UNIA led to the most massive organization of U.S. born Africana peoples in the nation’s history. The organization’s periodical, The Negro World (with high profile contributors like Carter G. Woodson), educated hundreds of thousands of U.S. born Africana individuals, families, and communities at a time when quality, (not to mention culturally relevant) education was in many cases withheld from them.

In the 1960s, Black Power organizations like Stokely Carmichael’s SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement), and later the Black Panther Party, began to form, offering grassroots and community-based education, self-defense, and food-based programs to communities all over the country. The psychological and material benefits and impacts of Black Power were international, interracial, and intercommunal. Black Power inspired Latino, Asian, and Native American decolonial/resistance groups. Its impacts upon various communities could constitute their own separate studies.


Black Power and Decoloniality

Black Power is an explicitly decolonial response to the racial violence and oppression of the state. Various thinkers, including The Black Panthers, often posited that U.S. born Africana peoples were internally colonized. In his Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality (2016), Maldonado-Torres explains that, coloniality may refer to “the logic, metaphysics, ontology, and matrix of power created by the massive processes of colonization” (p. 10). He adds that coloniality may also manifest as, “a decadent and genocidal modern/colonial attitude of indifference, obfuscation, constant evasion, and aggression, typically in the guise of neutral and rational assessments, postracialism, and well-intentioned liberal values (p. 8). Decoloniality then, may refer to, “efforts at rehumanizing the world” (p. 10), those efforts that seek to reunite and heal oppressed and traumatized peoples, as well as, “the production of counter-discourses, counter-knowledges, counter-creative acts, and counter-practices that seek to dismantle coloniality and to open up multiple other forms of being in the world (p. 10). As a sociopsychological cultural construct, Black Power is decolonial in that it asserts the humanity and the agency of U.S. born Africana peoples. Throughout its various manifestations it has offered up its own counter-discourses, counter-cultural products, counter-knowledges, and counter-practices. Black Power challenges coloniality in attempts to “Free the Land” while promoting cultural identity, autonomy and self-determination within U.S. born Africana communities. Next, we will turn to brief examinations of some of the sociopsychological contours of the Black Power construct

Culture, Empowerment and Self-Determination

Culture arises within the intersection between people and their environment. The shared meanings of culture arise through the intersubjectivity developed in activity settings” (O’Donnell & Tharp, 2012, pg. 22). Cultural nationalism was and remains one of the most salient manifestations of the Black Power construct. In 1966, Black Power luminary and one of cultural nationalism’s staunchest advocates, Amiri Baraka published, Home, a collection of essays including, “Black Is a Country” in which he advanced the notion that U.S. born Africana peoples constitute a nation within a nation (Joseph, 2011, p. 120).  Understanding the psychological significance of culture is essential to the examination of Black Power as a sociopsychological construct, in great part because culture has been, and continues to be, such a visible and defining feature of U.S. born Africana life.

Historically, the construct of Black Power has empowered people to resist and disrupt structural sources of oppression, rather than turn their attention inward, mobilizing them to change themselves and better adapt to situations of oppression. In theory,

“all approaches to empowerment should promote awareness of the systemically embedded nature of inequality and mobilize people to collective action. In practice, though, conventional articulations of empowerment strategies within social psychological science fall short of this promise, frequently through a failure to acknowledge or consider systems of power that constrain individual action” (Hardy & Leiba-O’Sullivan, 1998).

Self-determination, or the process by which a person or a group controls their own life, or in this case community life, has been associated with “three innate psychological needs--competence, autonomy, and relatedness--which when satisfied yield enhanced self-motivation and mental health and when thwarted lead to diminished motivation and well-being” (Ryan, Deci, 2000, p. 68). Through its insistence on U.S. born Africana political, cultural, and economic autonomy, as well as its declarations of Black historical accomplishments to illustrate a trajectory of competence that pushes back against racist stereotypes, and the shared cultural legacies of Africana ancestry, Black Power challenges the dominant ideology. “Dominant ideologies disempower people by obscuring the extent to which present realities are the direct results of ongoing historical violence and by co-opting people to endorse and reproduce the ideological systems that contribute to their own domination” (Philips, Adams, Salter, 2015, p. 374).

Sense of Community and Collective Identity

Within the sociopsychological cultural construct of Black Power, self-determination takes on a collective character. “We” becomes a commonly used pronoun, culturally harkening back to the Nguni Bantu (southern Africana) concept of Ubuntu, which is often translated as, “I am, because We Are.” In this context, self-determination arises from and informs a sense of community. Identity-based discrimination and oppression are collective phenomena; this suggests that people who experience discrimination-related stress or trauma can draw upon their shared or collective identity as a coping mechanism. Black Power functions in this capacity, by facilitating shared emotional connections, as well as explicit soul or spiritual connection based upon cultural traditions and shared experiences. This includes the perception of a shared reality. “Drawing upon a community with similar histories of discrimination and oppression gives credence and substantiation to one’s own experience of bias” (Dalton, 2007).

COINTELPRO and Critiques

Despite the positive psychological impacts of Black Power, the construct and its resultant social movements have suffered from issues of gender imbalances, and misogyny, as well as flawed conceptualizations of U.S. born Africana people as a monolith. Additionally, internal inconsistencies have rendered the construct vulnerable to cooptation, and neutralization in confrontations with the coloniality of the state. The now infamous government initiative COINTELPRO, employed violence, psychological warfare via infiltration, and political subterfuge to erode community. “Across settings, a common domination strategy has been to deny people from oppressed groups the opportunity to build communities of support. This practice not only destroyed potential bases for solidarity, but also deprived enslaved people of an important source of relational and ontological security upon which to base acts of resistance” (Philips, Adams, Salter, 2015, p. 370).  More recently the FBI’s report on “black identity extremists” has caused alarm among many who liken it to the racialized domestic warfare of COINTELPRO.

Conclusions: The Resurgence of Black Power and Further Considerations

In the wake of highly publicized police terrorism in U.S. born Africana communities, the sociopsychological cultural construct of Black Power is experiencing a resurgence. Though organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have managed to remain relevant for decades, new organizations such as the New Era Nation have taken up the mantle of Black Power. The community-based chapters that constitute the New Era Nation (a contemporary Black Power organization which began in Detroit in response to publicized killings of U.S. born Africana people by police, and other community issues in the city of Detroit), utilize the core aspects of the construct. New Era represents both types of communities commonly recognized within sociology and community psychology (Dalton, 2007, p. 172). While individual chapters represent grassroots, people-centered organization within cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Atlanta, the New Era Nation itself represents a more relational community. The potential for Black Power to catalyze a paradigm shift away from racism, dehumanization, and oppression towards pluralist, humanized, culturally relevant and dignified models of being in the world is immense. Black Power has been largely misunderstood, often inspiring fear, as all paradigm shifting concepts initially do, yet, with further development, the construct could move us towards psychological models that support critical community theory and practice rooted in culturally emergent understandings of the complex relationships between the individual and the communal psyche.


Dalton, J., Elias, M., & Wandersman, A. (2007). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Hardy, C., & Leiba-O'Sullivan, S. (1998). The power behind empowerment: Implications for research and practice. Human relations, 51(4), 451-483.

Joseph, P. E. (2007). Waiting'til the midnight hour: A narrative history of Black power in America. Macmillan.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016) Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality.

O'donnell, C. R., & Tharp, R. G. (2012). Integrating cultural community psychology: Activity settings and the shared meanings of intersubjectivity. American journal of community psychology, 49(1-2), 22-30.

Phillips, N. L., Adams, G., & Salter, P. S. (2015). Beyond adaptation: Decolonizing approaches to coping with oppression. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3(1), 365-387.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.