Whenever I reference the African-American condition or specific issues confronting Blacks in a Facebook or Twitter post there is an outpouring of reaction. Inevitably the issue of “leadership” and condemnation of Black leaders makes its way into the conversation stream. It does not surprise me given the centuries’ old debates on the effectiveness of individuals who have been deemed spokespersons for the Black community or leaders of African-American civil rights organizations and Black churches. Still, I must admit that I am somewhat surprised by the absolute surrender of personal authority to confront social problems and the continued dependence on charismatic personalities to affect change.
For some time now I have operated from the perspective of what I can do within my talents and resources to make a difference. Having worked with and come to know many African-Americans who are regarded as the leadership elite of the Black community my view is less through rose colored glasses and more through the lens of human potential, success and failure. In other words, I see our Black leadership class for what it is – a group of individuals with good intentions, putting their best efforts forward but like all of us, flawed and often incapable of forging the change they vow is their intent. Given this reality, my approach has been to look inward and encourage others to do likewise.
One thing I believe I can state with near certainty is that the cavalry is not on its way and even with government assistance the African-American potential will remain unfulfilled if we do not invest our blood, sweat and tears in uplifting the race. For too long Blacks have pinned their hopes on the emergence of a modern day Moses to bring us out of a 400 year abyss, and when the prophet of the moment is eclipsed, falls short or is tragically killed we slip into a collective depression. What we fail to recognize is that within each of us exists the ability to confront problems African-Americans counter but to do so from the locus of our own neighborhoods and communities. We do not have to wait or yield to the direction of those deemed our leaders. Nor do we need permission to act. It is time we all made social change personal and do what we can within our own being to preserve and strengthen the Black community.
For me the best investment of my time is in writing my observations on race, politics and policy, speaking the truth when African-Americans are being disadvantaged and when circumstances warrant, and working directly with African-American boys and young Black men to further their opportunities. It is how I see myself contributing to the larger goal of full citizenship and equal rights. By taking this approach I accept that much of what I do will not be deemed glamorous and might never be acknowledged. That’s OK with me. Long ago I realized that celebrity was almost always a near fatal disease that corrupts and has a tendency to distract. And that Black progress over the last 50 years has been stymied by a cultural shift, a national phenomenon, of bestowing celebrity status on the intelligentsia. Rather than an organic process of leadership development we have succumbed to the 30 second sound bite, cable television appearance or fiery speech as defining leadership and have lost the opportunity to take the bull by the horns ourselves.
Each one of us has the ability to do something which results in collective progress. It could be reading to school children once a week or tutoring young people. The skills we have acquired should be passed on to the next generation and to do that requires a personal investment. Your time can help close a stubborn academic achievement gap that is more the product of low expectations and not low ability. Your energies would be well invested working with youth to help them confront conflict in a way that does not lead to prison or an early grave. Our senior citizens’ lives can be improved by someone simply checking on their welfare, helping with chores or giving assistance in home maintenance.
I simply believe that we can achieve significant improvements in the quality of life of African-Americans if individuals committed their best thinking and energies to address a myriad of issues, and when possible, lend their talents to existing organizations. While many believe that traditional Black advocacy groups are ineffective, they should still be approached and given the benefit of the doubt. It might be your involvement that helps a dormant group regain its footing. Our focus must return to our personal stake in Black progress and the means by which we can serve our community.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.