Spurred by what I perceive as a “state of emergency” in Black America, in recent weeks I have been offering prescriptions for what people of African descent can do to combat and overcome decades of benign and blatant neglect in America’s “dark ghettos.” The irony, even tragedy, is that this discussion is occurring despite the fact that there is a Black Family in the White House. As the old folks used to say, “we sure ain’t what we wanna to be, sure ain’t what we’re gonna be but we sure ain’t what we were.” It was no accident that elders in the Black community held out such hope for the moment that Barack Hussein Obama would become the 44th President of the United States of America. As the words to the Black National Anthem attest, this moment has come at great cost and sacrifice. Unfortunately, the state of emergency that we have been describing clearly indicates that the stony road we have trod has yet to lead to the pinnacle of full freedom. There are still more rivers to cross before we reach social, economic and political equity/parity for dispossessed Black people in the “promised land.”
Moreover, we will not achieve this objective unless a critical mass among us unapologetically recommit to educating, organizing/mobilizing and empowering our people for the critical task ahead. “No one else will free us but us.” Toward that end, we must heed the dictum of my long time friend/counselor/advisor Dr. James Turner to teach our people to “be of the race and for the race.” The success of prior stages of the civil rights/human rights/Black liberation struggle has produced untold thousands, if not millions, of Black people in various positions of authority/influence/power and millions more who are living life better than anyone could have conceived a mere 50 years ago. The problem is that far too many of our folks are “of the race but not for the race.” They suffer from historical amnesia, having lost touch with the trials, tribulations, triumphs that propelled them into a life of relative success. Far too many of our people identify themselves as African Americans, people of African descent or Black, but have lost a sense of the power of Black consciousness. They lack a substantive knowledge of our origins as a people, a positive embrace of color, culture and heritage and an unrelenting commitment to utilize our economic and political power to achieve and maintain full freedom for the totality of our community.
Throughout our history, there have been creative explosions where awareness of self, culture/heritage and commitment to advance the race have flourished. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s was such a time; the era of the 60’s was another. Much of what we take for granted today, including calling ourselves “Black” or “African,” is directly attributable to the civil rights/human rights movements of the 60’s, particularly the rise of Black Power, Nationalism and Pan Africanism. As it became increasingly clear that the “gains” of the civil rights movement in terms of passage of milestone legislation would not immediately cure the ills of America’s dark ghettos, urban rebellions erupted across the country beginning with the insurrection in the Watts community of Los Angeles. Other major cities exploded thereafter. In an effort to provide an analysis for the lack of progress in eradicating the conditions in the urban inner cities, frontline activists/organizers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) advanced the concept of Black Power. On the face of it, this concept suggested that marches, moral appeal and legislation would be insufficient to achieve liberation for the masses of Black people; what was necessary was the acquisition of power to advance the interests and aspirations of Black people. Black Power became the battle cry encapsulating a range of demands from equity/parity in the American system through Black control of majority Black neighborhoods and cities, revolutionary transformation to separation and the establishment of an independent Black nation.
Most importantly, Black people (previously referred to and answering to Negro and Colored) rediscovered the power of Black consciousness. People began to reaffirm their African origins, donned dashikis and other forms of traditional African dress, cast aside straightening combs and curling irons, konkoline and Murray’s hair grease to go “natural.” The “Afro” and African braids became symbols of resistance to Euro-centric standards of beauty and an affirmation of “Black is Beautiful.” Black was not fad or fashion, it was a political statement expressing the determination of a people to have what Dr. Maulana Karenga called “identity, purpose and direction.” Black was beautiful and powerful.
Emanating from the call to Black Power, the Black consciousness movement spawned an incredible array of movements, associations, organizations and caucuses within majority organizations and institutions. This included the Black arts and culture movement; Black education movement that included the Black studies movement in higher education and independent education movement in elementary, secondary and higher education. It also spawned the creation of parallel professional organizations like the African Heritage Studies Association, National Conference of Black Lawyers, National Black Police Association, and National Black Officers in Law Enforcement, National Black Associations of Black Social Workers, Sociologists, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Nurses, Architects, and Engineers. As well as Black worker/labor organizations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Revolutionary Workers Movements in Detroit and elsewhere; Black elected official organizations like the National Conference of Black Mayors, National Conference of Black State Legislators, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials and of course the Congressional Black Caucus. Federal government workers formed Blacks in Government (BIG). In addition, virtually every predominantly White Church/faith denomination had a Black Caucus. Indeed, Black caucuses within predominantly White institutions became the order of the day.
Trace the history of almost any of these “Black” organizations or caucuses and you will most likely find that they originated in the era of the 60’s. What they had in common was a determination to root out racism as a deterrent to Black progress in their respective areas or institutions and a passion to pursue strategies utilizing group awareness, culture and pride as a basis for demanding improvement in the quality of life for Black people. That focus is missing today. Even though we call ourselves “Black” or “African” and have organizations, agencies and institutions that are similarly identified, the power of Black consciousness is largely absent. While most of these organizations still make the case fighting for Black people, the fire, passion and militancy is muted. “Saying it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” has lost its popularity and power.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the power of Black consciousness would be diluted by popular culture and its vital élan sapped by the successes it produced for a sizeable minority of Black people. In addition, the idea of Blacks preserving a distinct community came under withering attack as “separatist” and un-American by the forces of reaction on the right. Concepts like minority, people of color and diversity gained greater popularity because they appeared to be more inclusive and palatable. We heard less and less of Black people demanding policies targeted to the Black community that address issues disproportionately affecting Blacks. Under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, organizations like the NAACP even considered broadening their membership and concerns to include all people of color. The current President/CEO of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, has revived this troubling notion.
Let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with people of African descent identifying with the oppression of other people and joining in coalitions and alliances to promote social justice and social change. In fact, Black people have generally been in the forefront of advocating for others, especially when other groups have lacked a voice to advocate on their own behalf. It is for that reason that Blacks gain the reputation as the “conscious of the nation.” At a personal level, I could not have served as Executive Director of the National Rainbow Coalition, Deputy Campaign Manager for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign or Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights if I did not believe in building coalitions with other oppressed people and people of goodwill. I have always been equally clear, however, that the willingness to forge coalitions does not obscure the fact that the American body politic remains a pluralistic, highly competitive system where constituency based organizations and racial/ethnic groups identify their interests and organize to protect and promote their aspirations. Even multi-the missions of racial organizations like the NAACP and National Urban League are to improve the plight of a particular group – Black people.
It is entirely appropriate, even necessary, for dispossessed groups to organize their constituents to advance their interests. Last time I checked, La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, American Indian Movement or American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are not contemplating broadening their membership and focus to include people of African descent. They are open to bi-lateral or inter-organizational relations to devise common strategies to overcome common problems. That was why the National Rainbow Coalition, as originally conceived, could have been such a powerful vehicle. However, even though most of these groups affiliated with the Rainbow Coalition, they maintained their organizations as the primary instrument for advancing the aspirations of their base constituency.
People of African descent, Black people, should not be confused: “Charity begins at home and spreads abroad.” It is perfectly okay to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The state of emergency facing millions of Black people dictates that we rediscover the power of Black consciousness, not because we are opposed to any other group but because our salvation lies in “cherishing a friendly union with ourselves.” It must be “in-group identification for out-group association.” We must re-instill the concept of unapologetically and uncompromisingly identifying and promoting Black interests -- that which is important, advantageous, useful/helpful and essential to the survival, development and prosperity of the masses of Black people. In a pluralistic political environment where groups and constituencies are contending to advance their agenda, Africans in America had better be prepared to compete or perish. Some of us will make it, but unless we organize our collective power, millions of our sisters and brothers in distressed communities will be condemned to struggle for survival as abandoned people in the Promised Land.
We have come too far as a people to permit such a calamity to happen. What is required at this critical moment are organizations committed to restoring the power of Black consciousness in the Black community. We need organizations that will consistently educate and challenge our people to be “of the race and for the race” no matter what their profession, position or standing in society. Organizations that will remind us of the ever- present need to identify/define promote and protect Black interests as a matter of principle and first priority. Organizations that will work to build the kind of unity in the community that will enable us to use our collective power to cross the final rivers to full freedom in the Promised Land. To that end, it is my fervent hope that the Institute of the Black World 21st Century will play a leading role in facilitating the resurgence of the power of Black consciousness in Black America … and the Pan African world!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.