IT'S WORTH taking a moment to note the things that Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 is not. It is not a definitive account of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, nor does it pretend to be. Neither is it a history of Black Power, the Black Panther Party, or the rise of Black Nationalism. It's worth being knowledgeable about all these things before dipping into Listen, Whitey!, a book whose scope is intensely specific: Fantagraphics' visually sumptuous hardback is a document, both visual and written, of the recordings, relics, and pop culture ephemera of that era—one that's meant to be definitive, with willful emphasis on the obscurities of the era. We get a look at recordings by members of the Black Panther Party, the politically minded vinyl albums released by Motown and Stax, a quick glimpse at the recordings of white performers (John Lennon, Bob Dylan) about Black Power, and significantly more.
It's also worth nothing the things that Pat Thomas, the author of Listen, Whitey!, is not: an established writer (this is his first book), and black. In an interview with The Stranger, Thomas said that being white allowed him an outside perspective, which only strengthened his research, "in the sense that my book has no agenda... This is going to make me sound like I'm speaking for blacks, which I don't want to do, but black militant history is maybe more controversial within the black community in some ways than it is with the whites, who experienced it from the outside."
As an A&R rep for Water Records, Thomas reissued several of the recordings discussed in the book. His approach is that of a collector, and this lends Listen, Whitey! a fan's fervor. While this is a strength for the most part—his detailed examination of the records released by Motown's Black Forum label, for instance, is marked by record-nerd enthusiasm—it's also sometimes at odds with the glossy, immaculately designed volume. You'd expect to read Thomas' writing in a publication like Goldmine or Ugly Things, not in a coffee-table book.
Still, Thomas's comprehensive knowledge of the subject is admirable, and Listen, Whitey! will urge you to learn more. You'll want to hear the tracks by Elaine Brown that Thomas flips over; you'll want to track down a copy of Imamu Amiri Baraka's It's Nation Time (I guarantee you will never be able to find one); you'll want to dip into the discography of Gene McDaniels, who co-wrote the legendary "Compared to What" but also boasts a lengthy catalog of both lightweight pop and intense political material.
Luckily there's a companion album on CD and vinyl issued by Light in the Attic Records: Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974 is actually a better place to start than diving headlong into the book, which can sometimes read like very lengthy, expensive liner notes. There's marvelous stuff you haven't heard before, like the Watts Prophets' proto-rap "Dem Niggers Ain't Playing" or Stokely Carmichael's impassioned "Free Huey" speech, whose fiery rhetoric condemns the white man for genocide of the Native Americans. Thomas transcribes this speech in the book, but it doesn't compare to hearing Carmichael speak it himself—and this is more or less the case with everything in both the Listen, Whitey! book and album. Start with the album—it will make you want more, and that's where the book comes in.