For many, me included, it is time that we as Black people in America critically examine the effectiveness of the leadership that we are providing to empower ourselves and other Black people in the Diaspora. There was a time, not too many years ago, when American Black leadership was viewed favorably as a leadership model for ambitious, struggling and hopeful Black people throughout the world. The confidence and hope attached to the earlier Jessie Jackson Campaigns for President and to the election of Barak Obama as President of the United States of America has been dimmed by a sad reality which emphasizes the distinction between winning elections and implementing transformative policies. Our success has in some very graphic ways highlighted the important distinction between political participation and political empowerment.
Today, we can all say in one sense that we have “been to the mountain top” and we have seen and experienced the delusional and contradictory experiences of Promised Land second class citizenship. In many ways, we are no closer to enjoying the benefits of full citizenship than we were a half a century ago. In fact, it could be argued that collectively, we as a people are further removed from the security of the political, economic and civil rights gains that we were fighting for in the 60’s.
From 1964 to date, we have secured the passage of major pieces of legislation intended to secure civil rights, voting rights, fair housing opportunities and health care improvements. We have broken new ground in the political arena by electing a President of the United States, the selection of successive Black U.S. Attorney Generals, more Federal Court Judges and just about more of everything else. To date, we are wrestling with the consequences of the erosion of many of those gains, and we are also wrestling with our failure to insure that there was a “sustainable trickle down benefit” associated with the victories that we were celebrating. We were entirely too eager to accept the success of a few as a mask for the unchanging misery of the many. President Clinton put on some dark glasses, played his Saxophone and got an immediate pass as the first Black President of the United States. That pass enabled him to then impress the “real leadership” of the Democratic Party by publicly insulting Sister Souljah, at a major public meeting and proceeding to implement draconian welfare reform measures, a North American Free Trade Agreement, implement policies that helped create the private prison industrial complex that is responsible for the mass incarceration of Black and poor people in this country. While all of this was going on, Black leaders let America ignore one of the major humanitarian crises of the 20th century: the genocidal conflict in Rwanda and Burundi and the destruction of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Our tacit endorsement of the policies contributing to these conditions must be seen as a major failing on the part of Black leadership everywhere.
What I have described are not events and developments that can be confined to an isolated period in United States social and political history. These events and their aftermath must be seen as an integral part of the political world in which we live and have lived for a long time. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we, as Black people selfishly address the challenge to define our role and place on the world stage. If we fail to so act, then we must accept responsibility for our behaviors which support our continued marginalization on that world stage.
In spite of our expanded access to the halls and chambers of power, we find ourselves, in 2015, encountering a host of not very creative schemes to restrict voting opportunities. We also continue to see the major indicators of Black political success dwarfed by the realities of the documentation that says Black people continue to be under educated in our public schools, over and disproportionately incarcerated in our penal colonies and under employed in the world of meaningful and productive labor. All of this “nonprogress” has been and is being woven and rewoven into the social and political fabric of American society. The capital “T” in this tragedy rest uncomfortably in the fact we, too a large degree have failed ourselves by accepting symbolism for substance and by substituting and accepting the success of few as a mask for the empowerment of the masses. In failing ourselves so comfortably, we have not only failed each other, but we have failed future generations of Black people; who now like Sisyphus, must begin to roll the boulder up the hill all over again.
It is a mistake to assess the political progress of Black people on a review of events and development occurring entirely in the United States I put forward the proposition that we as Black Americans will never know sustainable collective political power that is greater than the power enjoyed by our Mother land. It was the Post World War II struggle for universal Black rights and the postcolonial struggle for the liberation of Africa which produced the broadest gains for Black Rights and Black international solidarity in the history of the modern world. It was this connection that also lent special importance to the empowerment of American Black leadership and the “Civil Rights Movement” here in America. These bonds for obvious reasons must be re-solidified.
Black Americans have failed to nurture and/or pay adequate attention to issues impacting the development of the African Continent and African descendent communities on the global stage. There is an insufficient connection on all material levels between Western Black political consciousness and the political development of the African Diaspora. This creates and insures the space for others to capitalize on the vacuum and in so doing insure the perpetual marginalization of Black people on a global scale.
Let me offer a self-test. Ask any high school or college aged person to name two sitting presidents of any country on the continent of Africa. As the questioner, you should be prepared to name a third president. How many of our current or advancing cadre of Black leaders, in America, can structure a paragraph detailing the significance of the life and work of: Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, Haile Selassie, Joseph Mobutu, Chris Hani, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyeree, or Jomo Kenyatta?
Can they discuss the leaders of the” Negritude Movement” or Black leaders, to include women, from our domestic struggle for empowerment. The names of movement leaders other than those of Dr. King and Malcolm X are lost to too many of us? Can we ourselves have an intelligent conversation about the military activity on the Continent that is currently being developed as the “Africa Command”?
Let us not accept one word answers, but let us not fail to grade ourselves as well… even if we do so silently.
The point to be made here is that we as Black people, however well intended, cannot effectively traverse the treacherous path which leads from a status of alienation and dehumanization, to a platform which supports and encourages marginalized participation, into the circles of “true self-empowerment” without being fully aware of the struggles and circumstances attendant to each phase of the journey. We must be able to preserve and protect that knowledge in order to be able to understand and re-tell the story. Unless we can establish expectations and qualities in ourselves and in ourselves as leaders, which make the struggle of this day as important as tomorrow’s victory, we will always exist on the margins of some other persons “plantation”. Independent of the labels and the short term celebrity that others have and will assigned to us, “we are not yet free”. Until we change our scope and focus, we will still be carrying their water, we will do their perilous bidding and we will be proud to wear their old clothes.
So it is in these times, that I call for a serious examination and reevaluation of what we are accepting from ourselves as Black leadership. In the process of that examination, no one should expect to receive or to be given a pass. Leadership of every stripe and of every level must stand for examination and stand to be accountable. Perhaps a good place to begin is with a question for our personal reflection and contemplation:
What exceptional effort have we under taken, lately, to empower Black people and to resist the forces of oppression that operate in our lives and our future? Here is another chance to grade ourselves, even if we choose to do so silently… for the moment? Listen to the Black Youth of America before answering the question.
Dr. William Small, Jr, is a retired educator and a former member and Chairman of the recently fired Board of Trustees at SCSU.