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CHAPTER I Oriki: Ancestors and Roots

23 April 2022

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Among many of the !%st African peoples from among whom our ancestors were
seized, whenever a child is born, a birth poem or praise song is composed in its
honor. Among the Yoruba this birth poem is called oriki.
Some days later at the naming ceremony by which the infant is ushered formally into its place in human society, the child's oriki is recited publicly,first into
the ear of the child and then to the assembled community of family and neighbors. The first language a child will be required to commit to memory, the oriki
imprints the child with its complex historical, spiritual, and social identities.
I have called the oriki a praise song and birth poem, and so it is, but its functions are many more than those terms might imply. It is at once prayer, thanksgiving, celebration, and prophecy. It is a meditation on the meaning and
significance of the new human 's name. It is an evocation of the strong deeds,
character, and praise names of the infant's ancestors, and, perhaps most important, it is an optimistic attempt to project (and define) in desirable ways the
child's future personality and life prospects.
By evoking lineage, the oriki is ultimately about spiritual inheritance: that
eternal life force that has many names (Ase among the Yoruba, Magara
among the Dagon, Ike among the Igbo), which we receive from our ancestors.
A vital force of which we, in each generation, are only the contemporary incarnations. And which in turn we pass on to our children and they to theirs, so that
the lineage never dies.
So, as we have seen, oriki, while memory and history, is also character, at
once both individual and collective. Individual because each human being has
his or her own particular and unique oriki. Collective because being anchored
in lineage, it is fundamentally about group identity. l% Africans know that each
individual one of us is ultimately the sum of that long line of ancestorsspiritual forces and moral arbiters-who have gone before to produce us. The
psychic forces out of which we all come.
In this sense oriki is a salute to family. It is also an inheritance one acquires


at birth. No one composes his or her own. But although in the changed circumstance of our diaspora I have myself written this section, it is in its way a
kind of oriki, a salute to roots, origins, and family.
KwameTure
January 1998, Conakry
[We stumbled onto this earlier Makeba letter sometime after Kwame had
drafted his remarks on the oriki concept. He had not known of Miriam's
letter to Time magazine, but felt it to be a charming description of the
Xhosa version of the same concept and quite a coincidence. "That's definitely her. She loved her culture. Let's put it in." -EMT]
Dear Editor, Feb. 29, 1960
There was a slight error, which I do not think you will mind my
calling attention to. It concerns my African name. I would like to
spell it correctly for you:
Zenzile Makeba Qgwashu Nguvama Yiketheli Nxgowa Bantana
Balomzi Xa Ufun Ubajabulisa Ubaphekeli, Mbiza Yotshwala Sithi
Xa Saku Qgiba Ukutja Sithathe Izitsha Sizi Khabe Singama Lawu
Singama Qgwashu Singama Nqamla Nqgithi.
The reason for its length is that every child takes the first name
of all his male ancestors. Often following the first name is a descriptive word or two, telling about the character of the person, making
a true African name somewhat like a story.
Miriam Makeba

I was born in the house my father built for his family at 54 Oxford
Street at the bottom of the forty-two steps in the city of Port of Spain,
Trinidad. This is in the Belmont section of the city-at that time a centrally located, working-class African neighborhood where the land rose
sharply upward. To traverse this steep incline, the government built the
large concrete steps that became something of a popular landmark.
"Meet me at the top of the forty-two steps at nine o'clock, eh?"
At the bottom of those steps my father built his dream house, "for," as
my mother thought she understood clearly, "his new bride." Later, for me
and my cousin Austin, the location would prove ideal. It was in easy walking distance to the Savannah-a kind of Central Park-like open spaceand the Botanical Gardens, truly a place of spectacular, exotic, almost
magical natural beauty where small boys could explore and dream.
Among his varied talents, the late Adolphus Carmichael was by pro12
Oriki: Ancestors and Roots
fession a master carpenter. As was his close friend Mr. Frank Wilson,
while their other friend Mr. Serapio was a stone mason. So that the house
my father lovingly designed and the trio painstakingly erected was much
larger and more elegantly finished than any my father could have afforded
to buy. After which the three friends pooled their labor to build Mr. Serapio's equally impressive home, and then a house for Mr. Wilson. But of
the three, our house appeared to have been, by virtue of its unusual
design, the real novelty.
So much so, in fact, that the consensus in the communities of Belmont
and neighboring East Dry River was that "Mr. Carmichael had built his
family a mighty grand house, oui." Most astonishing to visitors was a system of movable walls that, when rolled back, created a single large room.
The space thus created was greatly in demand as a venue for weddings,
birthdays, and similar celebrations by friends, family, and neighbors. Consequently, music, dancing, and joyous gatherings of all kinds, good fellowship, and fetes, as Trinidad's Africans called them, were common in the
home where I was born. They were an integral part of the ambience of my
early childhood. Which may be why, to this day, like any good African, "Ah
jes' loves to party"-that is, when possible and appropriate.
Something else in the neighborhood almost certainly contributed
strongly to that aspect of my personality. At the top of the forty-two steps
was a "pan yard," which is the local term for the home base of a steel
band. Our resident band was called Casa Blanca, traditional rivals at carnival of the crosstown power who called themselves Invaders.
In those days, and almost certainly true today, no African neighborhood in Port of Spain could even think of holding its head up without a
steel band to call its own. Casa Blanca was ours. Win or lose, we supported
them at carnival. Two of our cousins even "beat pan" with Casa Blanca.
"Two distant cousins," Tante Elaine might sniff, not entirely sure she
approved of the raffish, combative, not at all respectable elements-
"the vagabonds and Bad-Johns"-who were attracted to the steel bands.
These were the same urban youth, the Trinidad equivalent of the "rude
bwai posses," who would later create reggae in Jamaica.
But nonetheless, the one year in my memory thar Casa Blanca took
first prize in the carnival "panorama," an annual battle of the steel
bands, the entire neighborhood erupted in leaping, dancing paroxysms of
pride and celebration. One "bigfete" for true, boy! Even the most obdurate, grimly "respectable" elements of the community were drawn into the
spontaneous exuberance. For the moment, the pan men were magically
and instantly transformed from "bad-Johns and vagabonds" to local
heroes. And their best musician, a brother called Patsy Haines, became
a neighborhood celebrity even before the announcement that he had been
elevated to the most elite possible level of panmanship: The news that he


had been selected to "beat" first pan in the Trinidad All Steel Percussion
Orchestra, orTASPO. Then, in the awestruck eyes of me and my cousin
Austin, Patsy walked the world in seven-league boots.
"Oh, God, boy," we exulted, "Patsy gone clear, oui?"
Those pan men were serious musicians and driven by more than
dreams of carnival glory; they practiced just about every night of the year
except for Sundays and the forty days of Lent. So that almost any night
of my life, from the day I was born until the age of twelve when l left the
island, I drifted into sleep to the beat of steel band music on the night
wind. Nightly, I floated off on a wave of distant rhythms from the top of
the forty-two steps, Casa Blanca's booming base lines pounding in my
head and throbbing in my blood. "Oh, God, boy!"
I cannot imagine that this constant, distant, almost subliminal music
and the frequent communal festivity inside the house can have failed to
imprint themselves on my developing consciousness in important ways.
The Igbo man Oloudah Equiano, the African who first addressed the
world in written English, began his 1789 masterpiece talking about his
Igbo homeland with the words, "We are mostly a nation of poets, musicians, and dancers." He could have been talking about the Trinidad of my
youthful memories.
Diaspora means survival. Like most African families of the diaspora, my
family is a collection of people who are ordinary in extraordinary ways.
I claim no special distinction for us. Like all our neighbors and friends in
the surrounding communities-whether in Trinidad, the Bronx, or Mississippi-we are simply the survivors of dispersal.
Although I was born in Trinidad, in a real sense it would be inaccurate-actually incomplete would be a better word-to call me Trinidadian.
Ultimately our roots are in Africa, but in a more immediate and recent
sense they truly are pan-Caribbean. Consider.
My mother's mother was born in Montserrat to an Irish planter and
his wife, an African woman, said to have been his former slave. But my
mother was born in the U.S. Canal Zone in Panama, from whence as a
child she returned to the care of maternal relations in "the Emerald Isle,"
as Montserrat is known, while her parents and older siblings left for New
York. (I think there was a problem with her birth certificate.)
Later, as a young woman, my mother went to the U.S. consulate in
Trinidad seeking to reunite with her parents in America. Again, that fateful, missing birth certificate delayed her long enough for young Adolphus
Carmichael to meet, court, and marry her. This naturally delayed the
reunion with her parents in New York for some years.
My mother's father, Mr. Joshua Charles, was born in Antigua. A
colonial policeman, he had been posted to Montserrat, where he met my

grandmother. He was then posted to Nevis, where, like thousands of
Caribbean black men, he was forced by economic conditions to work in
the building of the Panama Canal. Unlike most though, Grandfather
Charles brought along his young bride, which is how my mother and all
her siblings came to be born in the Canal Zone. After which, as I've said,
the couple with their older children emigrated to New York, sending my
mom to her grandparents in Montserrat. This little island of my grandmother's birth has an interesting history. It is called the Emerald Isle for
two reasons, the lush greenery of its forested mountains being only the
obvious one. The real reason is that its European population was overwhelmingly Irish Catholics, in headlong flight before Oliver Cromwell's
victorious Puritans. Anyone who watched television reports of the
destruction wrought by the Soufriere volcano in 1997 will have noticed
a succession of African faces answering to names like Houlihan, O'Reilly,
and O'Connell. Another of the ironies of colonialism.
On the paternal side-the Carmichaels-the story constitutes no less
of an odyssey. Cecilia Harris, my paternal grandmother, the first important influence on my life, was born in Tobago in 1877 and is believed to
have had Carib* blood. Her husband, Mr. Joseph Carmichael, was a tailor from Barbados, but I believe the couple met and married in Trinidad.
I never knew Grandpa Carmichael, according to family lore a stern,
circumspect, and exacting man, very black, very dignified. He was said to
be a man of few words with a well-developed High Victorian sense of propriety and rectitude. A typical "Bajun" of the old school in that regard.
Having established my own Barbadian connection, I think I can afford
to "lime" on them a little bit. Among Caribbean people, the popular,
slightly ironic name for Barbados is "Little Britain," a title that, however
mocking in its inspiration, was accepted by the Bajans with no little pride.
It could be apocryphal, but the oft-told story is that upon the advent of
World War II, the Barbadian legislature responded to news of Britain's
entry into the war with a famous telegram to Whitehall (or was it to the
monarch himself?): "Forward, Great Britain! Little Britain is fully behind
you." The kind of loyal colonial action of which, I suspect, Grandpa
Carmichael might have heartily approved.
Once you start the "ol' lime" it's hard to stop. I can't resist this one: I
once encountered a local historical explanation of the Barbadian national
character vis-a-vis the rest of the Caribbean that goes as follows.
Because Barbados is the easternmost of the Caribbean islands, it
became the first landfall for slave ships from Africa. When they landed for
freshwater and provisions, the Barbadian planters got first pick over the
cargoes. Wisely, they selected the "calmer, more civilized, cerebral, and
*Carib-the original inhabitants for whom the Caribbean is named.

peaceable" of the Africans. (You must remember this is a "Bajan" version. The Jamaican adjectives are "meek, passive, and enslavable," but we
shan't fan those particular nationalist fires here.)
As the story goes, the intellectuals, craftsmen, and skilled Africans collected in Barbados. Hence the relative courtliness, restraint, and civility
of which the culture so pridefully boasts. Among the Africans, the most
boisterous physical types-warriors, hunters, desperadoes of all kinds, the
rough and rebellious elements-ended up in places like Jamaica, Haiti,
and Cuba, which, according to my Bajan informant, is supposed to
explain their histories of bloody insurrection and the relative "coarseness"
of these cultures and societies even today. I still can't decide whether the
brother was serious or merely "sending me wide," as they say in cricket.
He cannot really have been entirely serious because this version is belied
by history. The three major and bloody African insurrections Barbados
experienced during slavery are eloquent testimony to the total failure of
Barbadian slaveowners' carefully calculated selection process.
Once I teased a Jamaican-born African about this version of history. To
my great surprise, he conceded at least a possibility. "Something much
like that could well be true," he mused. "When I was a kid, I thought all
Barbadians were stiff, close-cropped, very black men who always wore the
classic colonial expatriate attire-khaki short pants, khaki knee socks, and
sandals-taught Latin and Greek, and rarely smiled. Why? Because our
classics masters at school seemed invariably to be Bajan and to fit that
description.
"The first, Mr. Jackman, was such an exacting taskmaster and stern
disciplinarian that we christened him Tarquinius Superbus-Tarquin
the Tyrant-after the wicked Roman despot. The next Latin master,
Mr. Crick, was worse-'Boy, are you laughing with me, for me, or at
me?'-so we called him Tarquinius Superbus Secondem."
From all family accounts, Grandfather Carmichael was firmly in that
tradition. The two youngest of his eight children-my father and his sister Olga-were serious dancers. They just loved to dance and, as they got
older and bolder, apparently began to sneak out to dances sans parental
permission. But Grandpa Carmichael nipped that in the bud. One night
Tante Olga, then a young lady, was out dancing up a storm when the
hooked end of a walking stick snaked out onto the dance floor, ensnared
her neck, and escorted her captive out of the dance and all the way home,
the old gentleman uttering nary a word.
So there you have it: Montserrat, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Nevis,
Tobago, Panama, Trinidad, New York. We truly are African people of the
diaspora, which, of course, means people of dispersal. Which is exactly the
word for what went on in the eastern Caribbean. If you know the eastern

English-speaking Caribbean, you will understand why a family of such
disparate origins as ours could come together in Trinidad and be in no
way unusual.
The eastern Caribbean is an archipelago of small islands of mostly volcanic formation with limited natural resources except for its people,
which today are mostly African. In those days, Trinidad, the largest,
was a kind of commercial and administrative hub. Also, with its pitch
lake, nascent petroleum industry, and the American military base at
Chaguaramas, Trinidad was something of an economic magnet for people from the smaller territories. So much so that two of Trinidad's
national heroes-Uriah Butler and Elnora Frances, militant leaders in
the labor and independence movements, which were in full flood at the
time of my birth-had both been born in Grenada.
Which is how in this small, bustling city of Port of Spain, across the
Gulf of Paria from Venezuela on what was once called the Spanish Main,
my family, a truly pan-Caribbean aggregation-in whose veins were
mingled African, Irish, Carib, and so it is rumored, Sephardic bloodcame together.
In this heritage I assert for my family no particular distinction. The
story remains, even as I speak, a common one in the eastern Caribbeandisplacement and dispersal. Poor African people in constant motion
always in search of economic survival and a fair deal. Plucked out of
Mother Africa and transplanted into alien territories where they controlled neither land, nor wealth, nor ruling institutions of government. A
people of dispersal, of course. But dispersal only begins the process, it
does not end it. There is another key word-survival. A people of dispersal
and survival. Let the church say "Ahmen." Survivors-of the slave coffies
and slave dungeons, of the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage; of
slavery, whether of house or field, cotton or sugarcane; of colonialism; and
in our time, of the unending struggle for independence and full civil and
human rights. This journey is in itself no mean accomplishment. But more
than that, we survived intact, or at least far, far more intact than is generally understood and conceded.
So ... our people of diaspora and survival. Our people, whose only
resource was themselves, their labor, and their intelligence: the skills of
their hands and of the cunning of their minds. Carrying deep within
themselves a dynamic inheritance from Africa-a deep reverence for the
creator; an abiding, unshakable respect for self and kindred; a culture
generous in spirit, rich in music, dance, the power of sacred poetry and
eloquence; and the love oflanguage for its own sake and beauty. Naked
and chained we may have come, but we surely did not come defenseless.
ITT? did not come defenseless!
So, I claim no special distinction for my immediate family, for in

these things we were neither different from nor better than the neighbors
and friends in the surrounding communities in which my early years
were passed.
In 1936, Mabel Florence Charles, an adventurous young woman of fifteen years, left Montserrat for Trinidad to pick up the U.S. visa that would
reunite her with her parents in the Bronx. That fateful, lost birth certificate would once again intervene to interrupt the journey and delay the
reunion for another eight years, a marriage, and three children.
One day in 1937 she dutifully accompanied a girlfriend on a church
task, a visit to a respected church member, Ms. Cecilia, who had been
unwell. There she met my grandmother's three daughters, Elaine, Olga,
and Louise, and caught her first glimpse of the family's only surviving
son. That was scarcely an auspicious beginning because my mother professes to have been exceedingly unimpressed by that initial sighting.
Why?
She had caught the young man in what, in her eyes, was a profoundly
unmanly activity. In fact, she could hardly credit her eyes. This was
unheard of: not only was the young man ironing (a skill he had no doubt
picked up in his late father's tailor shop-he of the hooked cane), but the
garment being ironed was unmistakably a woman's dress!
(Quite obviously my father was a liberated male, evolved way beyond
that time and culture.) But in my mother's experience, men never did
women's work. They never ironed and only in the direst emergency ever
cooked-that is, if they even knew how to do so.
"My Lord, did you see that?" she giggled to her friend. "He was ironing his sister's dress, the sissy."
"I like her," my father pointed her out to his friend Frank Wilson a few
days later. The young men were on their way home from their work on a
house. "That's the woman I'm gonna marry."
"Better you chose you a different one," Wilson counseled. "She well
pretty but she look stuck-up, oui?You know how these light skin ones are.
Best you choose you a darker one."
"You think so? Look, you see these dirty work clothes I got on? Well,
one day, that same light-skin, stuck-up one going wash them and like it
too." My father promised with the confidence that was always part of the
personality I came to know.
The ill-started couple next met at a dance some weeks later, "and he
was ever so nice," my mom discovered to her great surprise. It probably
didn't hurt that he could really dance too. That night, my father walked
her home "and we held hands all the way."
In a relatively short time, the "dream" house being completed, and the
marriage celebrated, my parents set up housekeeping on October 8, 1939.

But the house at the forty-two steps-at least in the living arrangements-was proving less the honeymoon cottage of a young bride's
dream than it was the compound of an extended family, and a rather
close-knit extended family at that. The house came fully encumbered.
For, when the young couple began married life it was with the groom's
entire family in residence-my grandmother Cecilia; my father's three sisters, Elaine, Olga, and Louise; and Elaine's young son, my cousin Austin.
One can readily see how my moms might be forgiven if she felt somewhat outnumbered among all these formidable women of the Carmichael
clan. And from my mother's perspective, my aunts were probably ill disposed to share their only brother with another woman. And certainly, they
were not about to be replaced in his affections by any "small island
girl" who clearly was not good enough (as only a veritable paragon of
womanhood could possibly have been) for their only brother!
It was, from the get-go, an arrangement fraught with tension and the
inevitability of competition and conflict. Especially since my diminutive
mother has never been disposed to avoid confrontation, particularly
when right was on her side. (And from her perspective, it invariably was.)
And even though my father was indeed their brother, was he or was he not
indeed her husband? There was an obvious need for clarification here.
The oldest of the sisters, Tante Elaine Letren, was a divorced schoolteacher, a firm disciplinarian, and the undisputed leader-or at least
primus inter pares*-among the Carmichael women. Tante Elaine had the
proverbial will of iron and a strong sense of family prerogatives.
So, as I have come really to understand only after two marriages of my
own, the lines were drawn, with my poor father torn between equally
compelling loyalties and affections embodied by these two equally strongwilled women. I've always assumed that the presence of Grandma
Cecilia, a gentle, devout lady, served to hold off the final confrontation,
a crisis that, in hindsight, though clearly inevitable, was further postponed
by the arrival, in fairly rapid succession, of the children. Three in number:
first my sister Umilta, then in June of 1941 myself, like my father before
me destined to be the family's lone boy child, and then my little sister
Lynette.
As was our people's habit, the infant boy was elaborately, even portentously, named, in my case Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael.
Help him, Jesus. The Churchill speaks for itself. It being the depths of the
war, there must be literally thousands of African Caribbean men of my age
who answer to one or the other of the names of the "indomitable British
Bulldog." (Some poor devils even go through life encumbered with
both, as in Winston Churchill Jones.)
*First among equals.

The Stokely is another matter. I've never met anyone else who shared
the name by which I was known for the first half of my life. The christening atTrinity Anglican was unusual only in one important regard. The
godfather and the presiding clergyman were one and the same-the
Reverend Winston Lamont. He contributed the Stokely, the name of a legendary and dedicated teacher at Queens Royal College who had greatly
influenced the reverend when he was a student there. I have no idea
whether Stokely was his first or last name, or whether the schoolmaster
was native or expatriate British. But it is not impossible, however ironic,
that I could originally have been named for not one but two British gentlemen!
My cousin Austin keeps insisting-my aunts tend to corroboratethat as a small boy I found it necessary to further embellish what was
already an overgenerous portion of names. But, claims Austin, whenever
my name(s) were mentioned, I would invariably correct the speaker by
chirping, "Stokely Standiford Churchill 'Great Man' Carmichael." Of
course, I have no recollection of this. But it seems obvious that the little
boy was merely properly identifying the original owner of the name
Churchill and not necessarily claiming "greatness" for his little self.
However, by the time Lynette was properly weaned, the domestic tension and rivalry had apparently again become insupportable. As if on
cue, the errant birth certificate materialized. It had been hiding all along
among official government records in the U.S. Canal Zone. All this time
my mother had been a citizen of the United States. At the next confrontation-so to say, the straw that broke the camel's back-my mother
felt newly empowered to lay down her ultimatum.
"It's me or them. Who you love? Make up your mind for you are going
to have to choose."
"Hey, remember now, they are my sisters and my mother."
"So I have a mother and sister too. You know. They are in the Bronx.
I can run to my family too, y'know."
"Then what about the children ... and, what about me?"
"All of you are Carmichaels. I'm May Charles. You all can keep the
children for the time being. I'll send for them ... or you can bring them
when you come."
"When I come? Where I going, eh? I told you that I want to leave
Trinidad?"
"Well, you will have to choose ... 'cause I'm going."
So in October of 1944, leaving husband, young children, and the
ultimatum "You will have to choose," behind her, Mabel Florence
Charles Carmichael, aged twenty-three and looking much younger, set
out for God's Country. Not in search of a "better" life or the American
Dream, but in impulsive flight and as a personal declaration of inde20
Oriki: Ancestors and Roots
pendence from domineering in-laws. This was no mean journey during
wartime. Covering two days, it entailed first a seaplane to Puerto Rico,
then another to Miami, and over much of the next day, a propeller-driven
flight to La Guardia.
At a casual glance, the odds were not in her favor. In fact, the closer
one looked, the more heavily weighted against her the wager appeared.
My father, he who was enjoined "to choose," was an extremely familyoriented man, and his mother, sisters, and his children remained in
Trinidad in the home he had built with his two hands. As did his two
partners in the modest but growing house-building business, and also his
church. This was important, for my father remains one of the most
deeply and sincerely religious men I had ever met before I encountered
the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Then too my father was an inordinately social being. Although he never
drank, he loved to dance, he lived for carnival and "big fete." He loved his
culture. His economic place in the society, if modest, was at least secure.
It was, all in all, a great deal to walk away from ... all for the love of one
woman.
And if that were not enough, there were also the practical, not to say
legal, difficulties involved. Then as now, U.S. consulates in the black world
see their central mission as preventing too many working people of color
from getting visas to the United States. lfhe were to follow his wife legally,
a visa could easily mean a wait of some five years or more. Or, he would
have to take uncharacteristic risks-evading the law and becoming in
effect a criminal. He, up until then the most lawful and conventionally
respectable of men? Small chance. But that was the gamble my impetuous mother made. And won.
My father toughed it out for over a year and a half. Then, like the
Prince ofWales before him (a simile that came naturally to the lips of
Carmichael family historians), he would abdicate and give it all up to follow his heart and "the woman I love." There, however, the comparison
breaks down: of the two men, my father gave up much more of value but
certainly got a far, far better return as wives go than did the feckless
British nobleman, he of allegedly fascist sympathies. Not even close.
Hands down, my mother was the better woman.
So in June of 1946, the otherwise utterly law-abiding Adolphus
Carmichael signed on as an able seaman on a northbound freighter,
jumped ship in New York harbor, and reunited with his wife. My sister
was four, I almost five, and Lynette an infant. We were not to see either
parent again until I was almost eleven.  

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Ready for Revolution
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Carmichael ultimately sided with those calling for the expulsion of whites. He said that whites should organize poor white southern communities, of which there were plenty, while SNCC focused on promoting African-American self-reliance through Black Power.