VOICES FOR THE FUTURE:
Appreciating the Past in Order to Understand the Present,
While Planning for the Future
From Chapter Six: From Black Rage to a Blueprint for Change
"We must reinforce argument with results."
Booker T. Washington
In the final decade of the 20th century, the smoldering anger of African Americans is beginning to take shape on various levels. Middle-class Black professionals are finally seeing corporate America's glass ceiling. And many have quit in order to form their own companies.
For the most part, the anger and frustration of Black folks has been expressed primarily on the level of ideas from the fiery rhetoric of Khalid Muhammad to the pointed challenges of Dr. Molefi Asante and others. We have talked about building strong communities, electing progressive young Blacks go office, and calling for national boycotts, but we don't seem to stay angry long enough to effectively set any of these ideas in motion.
The violencehomicides and suicidescoming out of that very same anger is being directed against ourselves. This is not to deny the rare occurrences of a Colin Ferguson, the Black man who walked onto a New York rush hour commuter train and opened fire on innocent suburban commuters. Ferguson said that he was provoked by New York's entrenched racism. In Indianapolis, Mmoja Ajabu, the leader of the Black Panther militia who had been organizing "soldiers," delivered an ultimatum to the city to make government more responsible to Black residents of Indianapolis or face bloodshed. At this point, there has been no bloodshed, violence and anger remain.
Whenever there is a rebellion or riot in the African American community, it has never been the result of some calculated plan of assault seeking revenge on Whites. Often the violence is sparked when a Black youth is killed under suspicious circumstances by a White cop or White mob. In a least one instance, the violence erupted in response to an outrageous miscarriage of justice by an all-White jury. The violence has never occurred because of low performing schools, inadequate health care, or because of the institutional racism that continues to disfigure the lives of far too many African Americans.
There has never been a premeditated use of violence by Blacks against Whites in this country. In fact, the only organized use of violence or acts of terrorism against Whites has come from other Whites, from lynch mobs and from assassinations that dot the pages of American history. The current right wing militia shootouts, bombing of churches, synagogues, abortion clinics, and the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building are illustrations. Nonetheless, it is the Black community that is most often projected as dangerous and explosive. We are told that Black men are the ones who are naturally prone to violence.
I interviewed Gary Webb author of Dark Alliance who examines the CIA and the crack cocaine explosion in this country. The CIA and other government agencies may very well have known of condoned drug trafficking in the Black community. The judicial system consistently fails poor people. The response to this increasing rage bears notice. In Indianapolis, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith is concerned that Black Panther leader Mmoja Ajabu's call to arms may give young Blacks an excuse to wage violence. He concedes that Ajabu's goals are valid and considers him very intelligent.
The continued aggression against Black people feeds the anger. Rather than eliminate oppression, Americans are encouraged to examine how Black people respond to that oppression. Then African Americans are condemned for their incorrect response. When Mayor Goldsmith said that Mmoja Ajabu may incite Blacks to commit violence, he was ignoring the fact that one out of four Blacks in Indianapolis live below the poverty line; the average African American family nationwide earns $17,000 a year less than the average White family. The Mayor ignores the litany of unresolved social ills that are the real reasons for the rage that simmers in the Black community.
In the final analysis, African Americans don't need to invent an excuse for violence. The relentless aggression against Blacks is reason enough. In contrast, it is interesting to note, that the Oklahoma bombing of a US federal office building, which killed more than 500 people in the biggest act of terrorism ever on American soil is attributed to "angry white men," not animals or monsters. They're not even characterized as domestic terrorists. However, when Timothy McVeigh was indicted and convicted of this heinous crime, there were those who offered as an excuse the Waco shootout, saying that was the event that drove him to fatalistic despair.
What followed in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing was the nation's attempt to understand what could have provoked this tragic occurrence. At the same time, this very same nation freely dismisses the anger of Blacks as simply irrational. Americans deny that African Americans have any basis for anger. Of course, the denials are set in motion by how Americans discuss race. An America Online survey conducted during the Spring of 1997 showed that 81 percent of the people surveyed opposed racial and gender preferences in hiring for public jobs and admission to public colleges. However, the question was designed to reassure White males that their renewed racist vigor meets the approval of the American public. The question simply asked, do you favor preferences based on race and sex. To ask about preferences without placing the question in a historical as well as political perspective leaves little choice. Most people felt compelled to vote no.
In the African American community, the debate takes on a very different tone as we ask two significant questions. Should Blacks and women be protected from racism and sexism? Is it still necessary to protect people from racism and sexism? Had AOL asked these questions the survey results would have been dramatically different. But the choice of questions by AOL was not an oversight or mistake on their part. The question was designed to help shape the discussions about race in America toward a conservative perspective. In fact, conservatives attack equal opportunity by using the language of the civil rights movement.
Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch say the time has come for all Americans to have equal opportunities in obtaining jobs, contracts, and admissions to universities. They use the language of equal opportunity to make the point that measures taken to repair the damage done by centuries of racism are unnecessary and perhaps illegal. In the Black community it sounds like another attempt to use the law to protect white privilege!
When President Clinton toyed with the idea of making an apology for slavery, many White Americans did not understand why they needed to apologize; after all, they had not been personally responsible for the enslavement of Africans. Americans are, for the most part, careful to frame discussions in ways that will hide or absolve their guilt. For example, the economy of the old South is often referred to as a plantation economy when, in fact, it was a slave-based economy. The plantation was built on the backs of Africans. As Dr. Claud Anderson makes clear, free Black labor produced white wealth.
For decades, Whites have benefited from a society with special privileges and preferences. Let us be real clear about racism. We are not simply talking about hating your neighbor. Racism is a system in which special advantages are set aside for certain racial groups. During segregation, it was illegal for a Black-owned cab to pick up fares outside the Black Pitts Hills district of Pittsburgh. In other works, the law protected white-owned cab from fair competition. The larger economic pie was set aside for Whites only. As a result of that kind of social engineering, many businesses that exist to this day owe their start-up and growth to America's racist legacy.
Businesses like the major department store chains boast of their humble beginnings and hard work, but they are in fact the beneficiaries of laws and social policies that set aside bank loans, real estate locations, sales territory, as well as education and training for Whites only. And now, decades after white privilege, many Whites cannot find one reason to apologize for the consequences of the very system that put their privilege life-style in motion.
Since special benefits and privileges of Whites remain the most significant obstacles to harmony between the races, any plea for racial harmony must begin with Whites giving up their privilege and sharing all of this nation's resources. Otherwise, the appeal will remain a shallow political ploy. Presently, few Whites are ready to give up their special privileges and play fair. For African Americans the message is clear. Our future is in our own hands. Our challenge is to use our minds, our talent, and all of our resources effectively. We must use them in ways that speak directly to the needs of the African American community. Very often we have responded with what can be called "an emotional response" to our history. Often, I hear the anger nightly from callers around the country. However, we are now at a point in which emotionalism will no longer be sufficient. The future of African Americans will be defined by our carefully developed strategies from past voices and the actions we take.
Shouting or screaming to express anger may be gratifying on an emotional level. It may allow you to vent and release some degree of stress, but shouting and screaming is woefully inadequate on a political and economic level. Remember the old axiom, "success is the best revenge." If we are angry because the D.A. won't indict a White cop or any member of a White mob in the death of an unarmed Black youth, as in the killing of Johnny Gammage in Pittsburgh or the murder of Yusef Hawkins in New York, in addition to marching in protest and calling the local talk shows to vehemently express our outrage, why not identify and vote for a new D.A., one who is committed to the African American community? Stay angry long enough to organize the anger into votes.
Dick Gregory made this point one evening to a small group that included Minister Kevin Muhammed of the Nation of Islam, Rev, Al Sampson from Chicago, Joe Madison, a talk show host from Washington, DC, Rev. Al Sharpton, and myself. We were talking about the CIA crack cocaine connection in South Central Los Angeles. Dick gestured to the New Yorkers in the room and said, "If you guys are really upset in this town, prove it by electing Sharpton Mayor" (Al had recently announced his mayoral candidacy). He had a point. How do we express our anger in a political contest? The answer is quite simple. Stay angry long enough to organize something. Turn the anger into energy. Allow the rage to empower your blueprint for meaningful action. And remember, this call for strategic thinking is part of the historical experience of Blacks in America.
Langston Hughes called on the young Black artist of his era to change social conditions through the force of their art. He was referring to how generations of African Americans were encouraged and literally taught to "take low" to protect themselves from a hostile White society. These self-defeating ideas had power because they were subtly passed along for generations by people we loved and trusted. On this eve of a new century, however, it is time to reorganize and uncover the source of the old whispering that, even to this day, suggest that limited goals and extreme caution for the best blueprint for success.
This cautious life-style has historical roots. When I was a teenager hanging out in the community center in the Brooklyn housing project where I grew up, I was, along with many other kids, often counseled by the African American adults who supervised the center. They would urge us to get an education, stay out of trouble, and make our parents proud. Invariably, they would ask, "What do you want to be when you finish school?" When I said I wanted to be an art director in the advertising industry, these well-meaning adults would scold me. They would tell me I should prepare for civil service exams or plan to pursue something more realistic. One of them even snapped, "I wish my son would come home talking about being an art director. I would break his neck." Many African Americans heard this advice from Black and White adults. The best known example is Malcolm X, whose junior high school teacher told him that his dream to become a lawyer was simply impossible and nothing more than faulty thinking and planning on his part. It was Elijah Muhammed whom Malcolm credits for restoring his sense of self-worth.
The "take-low" philosophy survived even as we began to achieve these "unrealistic" goals. It was simply updated to fit the realities of each generation. It went from "you can't do it" to "now that you're here, don't rock the boat." Don't seek or expect recognition and don't be too ambitious. This advice was internalized, because the people who offered it were not enemies (except in the case of Malcolm whose White teacher was trying to break his spirit). For the most part, the people passing along this advice were family, friends, and neighbors, and they were passing along a survival tradition.
For many African Americans, the effects of those ideas linger on and are still being passed along. Black politicians say they cannot identify too closely with the African American community as their careers reach new heights. Black professionals avoid political causes, and Black entrepreneurs desire nice little businesses, "nothing too big, just enough to feed my family and pay my bills." Each generation of African Americans is told in one way or another to expect that their success will be less than other racial groups.
We must replace negative thinking with a new perspective. Alice Walker is correct when she says, "No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow." We must develop and utilize all of our skills; nothing less is acceptable. In school we are expected to learn reading, math, history, and science; we must continue to learn throughout life. Geoffrey Holder illuminates the need to develop yourself as he has become a dance, actor, painter, cook, choreographer, and clothing designer.
Consider also the experience of Rhythm and Blues Hall of Famer, Lloyd Price. His career began at age 17 when a local disc jockey invited him to a New Orleans recording studio and asked if he could come up with a good original song. Without hesitation Lloyd replied, "Yes I can." He was then introduced to the piano player who would accompany him on the audition tape, a heavy set youngster named Antoine Domino that everyone called Fats. As Fats began to play, Lloyd began to sing, making it up as he went along. "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" became the first R&B record to sell one million copies. It was the first F&B crossover record and Lloyd's first in a string of 11 million selling gold records.
Lloyd's success began with the words "yes I can." If our thinking becomes strategic, we will create change. We must not allow our outrage, justifiable though it may be, to diminish our creativity. Strategic thinking demands that we focus on clearly defined goals. "It's Nation Time" was a popular phrase during the 1970's. This slogan took on an added dimension when we began to understand that it took skill and resources, as well as emotional stability, to build a nation or community. "It's Nation Time" became a call for African Americans to summon the best of our traditions and talents in order to create a new society. Even when a people are under attack, a new reality or a new society will come as a result of how effectively the people counter the attacks.
W.E.B. DuBois' voice for the future says that "There is in this world no such force that can deter man. The human soul cannot be permanently chained."
Bob Law is Vice President/Programming of WWRL in New York City. He is also the host of NIGHTTALK, the nationally syndicated radio talk. He was chairman of the citywide (NYC) Coordination Committee for the incredibly successful October 16, 1995 Million Man March and host of the actual event. He is founder of the national Respect Yourself Youth Organization which has been operating for over two decades.
Mr. Law has founded the Namaskar Capital Assistance Program which develops and manages a loan program for Black-owned businesses. He has launched and led Recycle Your Black Dollars tours and campaigns to enhance African American businesses.
Bob spearheaded the lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for the miseducation of our children. His work has led to Saturday Academies nationwide which emphasize academics and culture. His Agenda 2000 health, business and personal development seminars and retreats have been sold-out events. Bob Law is a sought after motivational and empowerment speaker.