I consider myself very blessed to have grown up in an era when the global political consciousness of Black people was much keener than it appears, to me, to be today. There was a prevalent consciousness among the leadership and the general population that it was everyone’s responsibility to end discrimination, resist marginalization and improve opportunities for the race.
In fact we had “race men and women” in our midst, and the title was a sort of badge of honor. Jim Crow had to go. During World War II, I remember my mother returning home from the beauty parlor, proudly displaying the double “V” for victory hair style. The double stood for victory at home and victory abroad. We could be patriotic citizens and do so without sacrificing the interests and integrity of our own community interests.
The essential contributions that young Black men and women who lived in very different parts of a world dominated by notions of White supremacy and White skinned privilege were becoming patently clear. An alliance formed by this experience and association between Black people from the United States, Africa and the Caribbean was the seed bed for what eventually would evolve into a Pan African Consciousness. Before long, this spirit was reciting expectations and demands for post war racial justice and the end to the systemic racial abuses being universally experienced by Black people.
It was a time when our conscious response to injustice was much less patient and arguably much less accommodating than it has become over time.
I remember that the brutal murder of Emmett Till, in 1955, evoked more outrage and concern among all strata of Black folk than the current pattern of near daily killings of Black people by police and assorted vigilantes evokes today. Have we become so successful until we are numbed and desensitized by the routine injustices that currently frame Black life? Perhaps the better question is whether we have become so sensitized to the injustice encountered in our quest for progress until we have forgotten the importance of preserving the highest regard for “our collective success.”
Recently, I watched, on television, the first African American President of the United States and a public celebrity laugh at an “N-word” joke while participating in a major media event that was given worldwide exposure. I read news stories of the leaders of African nations ceremoniously burning hundreds of millions of dollars of ivory and rhino horn as a statement regarding the evils of poaching. The greater evil for me was that there was no accompanying concern recited for the development of plans to improve their economies and eliminate poverty and thus creating a life line as an alternative to poaching. So the impression stands that the elephant and the rhinoceros are more important than the existence of the creation and maintenance of an opportunity structure to sustain the life and development of our people.
That experience was followed by the story of the organization and the successful effort to fly lions from South America to South Africa where the lions would be maintained in preserves and thus escape the terrible conditions of their previous zoo environment. While the lion is getting all the attention, there are student demonstrations and protests going on in South Africa, where students are protesting to have access to educational opportunities that will enable them to led meaningful 21st century lives. This is not the old South Africa; this is “our South Africa.”
In Somalia we see young African men being defined as pirates and criminals, while they seek to defend their international waters and preserve their right to survive by fishing those waters. Their efforts and strategies to resist the invasive practices of international fishing vessels and others who would use their waters to dump toxic waste and engage in other environmental crimes resulted in the Somalis’ being classified as pirates and the invaders being classified as victims. This is a classic example of renaming the victim.
The pathology in our own communities cannot and should not be over looked and ignored. In this presidential election season, while the importance of the Black vote for a Democratic Party victory cannot be denied, we are being less astute than were the previously mentioned soldiers and political leaders of the World War II era. In spite of the acknowledged importance of the Black vote, we have not even framed a set of demands or expectations to be received in exchange for our support. What have we learned about political power in the last 50 years? We clearly have abandoned the words of Fredrick Douglass who told us that “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, following the tragic racially motivated murder at the Emanuel AME Church, the confederate flag is ceremoniously lowered from the State House grounds with the assurance that it will be enshrined at some other hallowed spot at considerable public expense. President Obama comes to the funeral and sings a chorus of Amazing Grace, and, before the accused even enters a plea, the public conversation is framed to focus on forgiving him. Since when did forgiveness become one of the philosophical undergirding principles of justice? So why does forgiveness trump justice when Black people are murdered by misguided White racist youth? Why is such a predominant and arguably misguided societal response acceptable to Black leadership?
It is painfully frightening for me to see how, if I were 15 years old today, as I was at the time when Emmett Till was murdered, I would probably interpret my political climate. The killing of Black youth would be a normal occurrence. I would probably think that the erosion of community strength and solidarity that has taken place between then and now was also just a normal condition. Underperforming schools and the over incarceration of Black People would just remain the way things have always been. It would be normal to see elders feel unsafe and to, at times, fear children in their own communities. It would be unusual to hear the voice of Black elected officials advocating strongly for a Black cause, but not unusual to hear them loudly and critically address the consequences of our victimization as our responsibility and perhaps even recite them as our shortcoming. It would probably be as strange as “all get out” to see a Black newspaper for sale in my community or to find one in my house. This, I’d suggest, is a poor definition of progress.
As I am privileged to continue on this journey, I take a moment to thank the Creator for all of our ancestors who left to us a legacy of struggle and accomplishment. I say thanks to the elders in the barber shop who lead conversations that help lead communities and mold young men. I say thank you to Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. I thank Drs. Ben, Clark, Van Sertima, Diop, Wilson and King. I raise the names of important others like Senghor, Cabral, Mondlane, Mandela and Sankara. I thank them as well as other named and unnamed who dared to assume the difficult mission of repairing the damage done to their people by destroying the shackles of racial discrimination and injustice that bind the captive and the captor. They were not mere role models; they are the warrior class who have left us an invaluable record of service and a template for future service.
I conclude this article with the mantra that I heard recited with great frequency as I grew up: “All motion ain’t progress; before you go backwards, stand still.” May the struggle continue with even greater care and deliberation.
Dr. William Small, Jr., is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University++++++++