Chad Sanders, in his book “Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph,” provides an unintentional sequel to Holt’s work. Sanders takes the story into the post-civil-rights era, delving into the psychological costs — and the lessons — that the early movement bequeathed to those born after the struggles of the 1960s.
Together, the two books create a vivid portrait of the tough fight for freedom and the challenges that integration has created for Black Americans.
Holt, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, takes us through the life-endangering marches, sit-ins and voter registration drives undertaken for the sake of freedom. His book serves as a corrective for those who perceive the freedom struggle as an undifferentiated blur of events and symbols that magically sprang up out of nowhere in the mid-1950s. Holt recalls the sometimes successful protests against Jim Crow segregation launched by ordinary Black people before the “classic” civil rights movement, in some cases nearly a century earlier. Paraphrasing the activist Angela Davis, Holt notes that “depicting the Movement as merely the work of heroic individuals risks leading future generations to misrecognize their own capacity to act collectively to achieve social justice.”
What separated the civil rights efforts of 1955 to 1965 from their predecessors and accounts for their effectiveness, Holt argues, were a variety of factors, including 1 million Black Americans serving their country in World War II and afterward having a stronger sense of their rights. The war also accelerated the movement of many Black residents from the South to the North to fill defense and other jobs, radically shifting the nation’s racial demographics. Those changes, together with a massive shift in Black support from the GOP to the Democratic Party during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, “diminished the white South’s political stranglehold” on change. In this new landscape, particularly following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional (and which followed decades of legal challenges to Jim Crow), real change seemed possible.
Which is not to say it was easy to achieve. “The Movement” provides sobering reminders of how fierce and even deadly the resistance to change was; for example, peaceful protesters in the South — some of them children — were attacked with fire hoses possessing “enough force to knock bricks loose from buildings.” At other times, obstacles to freedom were provided not by the movement’s enemies but by its supposed allies. Weeks after signing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, fearing a walkout by Southern Democrats at the party’s convention in Atlantic City, twisted arms to prevent delegates’ support of the freely elected, interracial members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. (Up to that time, participation in the Mississippi Democratic Party was open only to Whites.) And sometimes difficulties arose from disagreements within the movement’s own ranks, as when many began to question its commitment to nonviolence.
Nonetheless, of course, the civil rights movement achieved monumental victories that forever changed the lives of Black Americans and greatly influenced similar movements by other oppressed groups. In chronicling the movement, Holt, the author of “Children of Fire: A History of African Americans” and “The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century,” highlights important figures whose names are less often heard. We read of Robert Moses, Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian and James Bevel, and learn that the rightly celebrated King “was as much follower as leader” at the time he was selected by a group of ministers at age 26 to lead the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks’s defiant act and arrest — the scenario that brought him to national prominence. Holt carefully tracks the path of the movement, discussing, for example, the shift from sit-ins aimed at desegregating lunch counters to voter drives in such bastions of racism as Mississippi. “The Movement” lends shape and clarity to a messy, glorious period in American history.
“It was not immediately plausible to a majority of black southerners that integration as such would be an effective solution to the inequities they confronted on a daily basis,” Holt writes, a passage that might have served as an epigraph for “Black Magic.”
Sanders is a writer for television who previously worked at Google and YouTube and as a tech entrepreneur. He grew up outside Washington; his father is a lawyer, and his mother was an executive at Verizon for most of Sanders’s childhood.
From an early age, Sanders lived in a mostly White neighborhood and attended school with mostly White children. And so, like many Black children in post-civil-rights-era America, Sanders encountered the harsh side of integration, its lessons seeping in despite the best efforts of fiercely protective parents. Sanders recalls being told in kindergarten by his blond best friend, “Black people kind of look like poop.”
As a member of his high school’s winning basketball team, Sanders was invited to parties, discovering that his classmates’ parents would allow no more than two Black kids at a time in their homes. “In my loneliest moments, I wore my badge as the token Black with pride,” he writes. “I was never lost enough to think I was white. I didn’t even want to be. But at my worst, I let myself slide into competing with other clever, charismatic Black kids who came into ‘my’ space.”
Sanders attended historically Black Morehouse College, where he “almost forgot white people existed” and felt a freedom he had never known; in this environment, even when friends teased him, he “felt loved” rather than “attacked or bullied or othered.” After graduating he worked for Google, finding himself, once more, struggling to fit in among Whites. Consciously changing the way he spoke and dressed, he adapted to his environment — but felt miserable. Eventually he began to act more like himself, talking the way he normally would and speaking his mind, with the surprising result that he received stellar performance reviews and promotions. The lesson he learned was that success lay in embracing his Blackness and all it had taught him. His book is an attempt to share that lesson.
“If you can survive your Black experience, you have learned so much that is useful that cannot be taught or bought. I call this Black Magic,” Sanders writes. “But I’m young and unwise. My perspective is limited. I look to others who have seen more, done more, and overcome more, to test this theory.”
Each chapter of “Black Magic” covers a phase or aspect of life; chapter titles include “Grade School,” “College” and “Work.” Sanders begins each with an autobiographical reflection, followed by the texts of his interviews with successful African Americans in fields including business, technology, science, activism and sports. (He interviewed more than 200 people for the book.) Sanders asks his interviewees to describe their early lives and careers and the challenges they have faced. To read their stories is to see that the psychological toll of integration and “code-switching” — to say nothing of old-fashioned racism — is widespread and very real. Asked about the cost of displaying “various personalities” to fit into different environments, one subject responded, “Three years on the couch with my therapist twice a week.”
Sanders asks his subjects about the advice they would offer others — what their forms of “Black Magic” are. Occasionally the advice is frustratingly general (“You gotta use the thing that others might use against you to benefit in other areas”), but often it is thought-provoking and useful: “You have to recognize that you have something in common with everyone. If you take a narrow view of what you have in common with people, you fall into a trap.”
Above all, “Black Magic” is an expression of an exciting and much-needed philosophy, and readers may be encouraged to mine gold from their own tough experiences.