Covenant, Convention and Context
By Julianne Malveaux
The history of the Black convention goes back more than 175 years, to Philadelphia’s Negro National Convention on Sept. 15, 1830. The convention drew 40 Black people from nine states, including Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That event spawned the American Society of Free People of Colour. The convention was sparked by the question of a 16-year-old free Black man, Hezekiel Grice, who wondered if Blacks should just leave the United States because of the “hopelessness of contending against oppression.” He thought there ought to be a forum to discuss the matter. Grice’s question was the spark that led to a series of conversations within the Black community between 1830 and 1864. In the guide accompanying the PBS series “Africans in America,” it is noted that the crescendo of meetings had escalated to the point that “colored conventions are almost as frequent as church meetings.”
Black folk are still meeting. Seeking. Trying to find solutions to the same oppression that young Hezekiel Grice articulated. To be sure, that oppression is not as stark, the conditions not as dire. But statistics continue to reveal the breadth of difference between the African-American experience and the mainstream American experience.
For the past seven years, Tavis Smiley, the television and radio personality, has been bringing African-Americans together to continue the movement Grice began in 1830. Smiley’s one-day forums, titled “The State of the Black Union,” feature a group of Black thinkers who publicly discuss and debate the condition of the Black community. I was honored to serve as a panelist in the 2005 and 2006 SOBU conventions. Smiley has asserted, appropriately, that it is enough simply to talk about the African-American condition. But last year, in response to sentiment from his audience that Black folk needed to do more than talk, he produced The Covenant With Black America. The book combines insightful essays, data and action items, which will hopefully help answer the pressing question that Black folk too often ask, “What we gonna do?”
Smiley is to be congratulated for moving from convention to covenant. Certainly such calls have been issued before, but the combination of technology, personality and commitment have produced a piece that people can work with as they talk about the next steps for Black America. To be sure, this is not a perfect document. It troubles me that the document never addresses our impact on the country’s foreign policy landscape. And as one of the SOBU panelists noted, there is an insufficient focus on the family. Further, while Smiley made much of the fact that “not a word in this document mentions Democrats or Republicans,” there are political wedge issues — like abortion and gay marriage — that go unmentioned.
Still, this is a document that will spark discussion and hopefully motivate action. And, it may well be one of several covenants that emerge from African-American gatherings. The challenge has always been to move beyond the gathering, to get past the good talk and finally move towards good action. Higher education professionals have an obligation to put this movement of covenant and convention in the context of the current conditions of Black people and others who find themselves at the periphery of the American dream. Why do people throng to meetings to hear thinkers dissect the conditions of African-American people? What are the outcomes of such conversations? Is talk enough? Is the community too diffuse and diverse to move to collective action?
Should the academy play some role in gathering and galvanizing people around key issues? Do the academicians who participate in such gatherings have a responsibility to provide context and curriculum around this work? At Princeton, Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. have produced a curriculum to accompany Smiley’s covenant. Should others adapt or adopt this curriculum?
Or is this talk of covenant replicating work already done in Black studies departments? If that is the case, what is the nexus between the academy and the populist platform? Can this translate into a basis from which politicians and civil leaders are judged and held accountable?
There is considerable excitement around The Covenant With Black America. It is an important step toward mobilization and action. But there has always been excitement around gathering and resolution, convention and covenant. How will the context of covenant be measured a year from now? How was the Negro convention movement measured nearly two centuries ago?
The talk continued after the initial 1830 National Negro convention. And it will continue after The Covenant. Will African-Americans move, this time, from talk to action?
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