If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. – Carter G. Woodson
I saw this coming for a long time, we African Americans are finding ourselves at an interesting juncture in history. We’re proud of our progress, but uncertain about our gains and our collective future.
Some of these questions are functions for demographics: African Americans are no longer the largest minority group in the country– non-whites of Hispanic origin are.
But the changes are deeper than demographics.
Our media is no longer black owned. Most contemporary black media is more for capitalistic profit than anything else. When I was growing up, our family always had copies of Ebony and Jet, and later Essence. I pored over these magazines, reading about Black America’s celebrities, but also about our intelligentsia and pressing issues facing our community. The 2012 version of my beloved magazines rarely focuses on such substantive issues.
We have a black president. Lots of people have pointed out the significance of Barack Obama rising to the most powerful position in the United States’ Government. It is an unprecedented accomplishment, but it is also part of a larger trend. He, like Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and others are taking black leadership to influential positions of power beyond so called ‘black seats.’ This is how historically we’ve gotten elected to congress: a candidate is elected from a predominately black area and beholden to a nearly all-black constituency, e.g. Shirley Chisholm, who helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.
The challenge is that President Obama’s role is to represent the needs of a broad base of constituents, not just African Americans and its stirring up a great deal of controversy surrounding the attention given to black issues.
Our long stand institutions and organizations are in decline. The black family is one of the key institutions that is in decline. While the numbers are hard to come by, or to measure against historical data, there is a troubling number of children growing up without a stable community of loving influence due to reasons of incarceration, early and unexpected pregnancies, addictions, and home removals.
People are also questioning the future of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), many of which have sadly closed shop or lost their accreditation in recent years.
It is not only our families and our schools, people are also publicly questioning the role of other black institutions, including the black church. To be fair, not all African Americans are Christians, nor must they be, but there is a rich history there that is being threatened by contemporary preachers. Some seem more concerned about gaining riches and influence than tending to their flocks; and others seem to be promoting intolerance (and homophobia) more than righteousness.
Our organizations are struggling. Even though the NAACP is fighting to address the new Voter ID laws that threaten to disenfranchise us once again, there aren’t many prominent grassroots movements on the national scene connected to any mainstream black organizations. With the exception of the black sororities and fraternities membership levels are low—for the Urban League, the NAACP, and definitely the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This is not just a function of numbers. It’s also about their relevancy to contemporary challenges.
We lack influential leaders with legitimacy. Without strong institutions, we have less and less leaders who are widely seen as legitimate within the community. I have long bemoaned the dearth of African American leadership, or cringed at those representing us. While I appreciate their contributions in the past, I am largely unimpressed that some of the same folks are still carrying the mantle today, e.g. Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakan and Jesse Jackson, because we need visionary leaders who will tackle contemporary problems. PS Did anyone else notice that these are all men? Where is our next Mary Church Terrell or Dorothy Height?
There is a widely circulating myth that racism no longer exists. Despite the media hype around a ‘post-racial’ America, I think most African Americans agree with me that racism is still alive and well. Trayvon Martin and other similar incidents of violence and marginalization simply bring this to the fore.
So, where are we? Where are we going? How do we advocate to get ourselves there?
Here are a few of my suggestions:
1. Our history must be preserved and promulgated. Serena Williams recently claimed her fifth title in Wimbledon, but every black child should know that before there was Venus and Serena, there was Althea Gibson. These stories are important for creating a sense of self-worth and hope among youth. It can also help them realize that their are many career paths where they can attain success beyond the entertainment industry and professional sports.
We also should be making a more concerted effort to preserve African American heritage: excavating sites, capturing oral histories and turning places like Idlewild into national historical sites, or supporting archives that keep their history alive.
2. We need to focus on the family. Not that I am one to be quoting James Dobson, but it’s true. As African Americans, we also know that there are many models of healthy families, including inter-generational and other communal models, that don’t involve 2 parents and 2.5 kids. We should be at the forefront of hosting thoughtful symposiums on assisted reproductive options and adoption, etc.
From a more traditional standpoint, black social institutions should come also together more to create avenues to introduce young singles to one another, provide mentoring for young couples and offer skillbuilding on what it means to be a loving mate.
3. Black Space must be created. There must be other platforms, beyond theroot.com for black people to discuss and learn more about the challenges facing our community, locally and globally. This should take the form of both fiction and non-fiction (remember how much you learned from watching Living Single and A Different World?) Our media already has two examples for our future that should be replicated widely: the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (ABG) and Melissa Harris Perry (MHP) a MSNBC commentator. ABG bypasses the conventional pitfalls of Hollywood and uses YouTube to deliver a product that is relevant and widely accessible. MHP offers a refreshingly nuanced and witty analysis of issues, in a way that has a clear intersectional lens.
4. Financial capital must be built. First, black people should be encouraging black entrepreneurship and supporting black-owned businesses. We need more Madame C.J. Walkers. These businesses in turn should be supporting the black community, supporting after-school programs, offering scholarships to trade schools and colleges. Second, black people need to boost our financial literacy; we should become savvy about our investments and saving vehicles.
We should stop allowing predatory lenders into our low-income communities. Our institutions should help by providing an alternative to these establishments, and offer low-interest micro-loans to cash-strapped families.
We must also learn the difference between being rich and being wealthy. Our insistence upon always looking ‘put together,’ having ‘swag’ and ‘stuntin’ is preventing us from storing wealth up for the next generation. Believe me, I believe in looking nice, but why do some two year olds have five or six pairs of Jordan’s, but not a college savings account? It’s about getting our priorities in order.
5. We need to be proactive about addressing our problems. HBCUs should be doing ground-breaking research on how to address diabetes, HIV/AIDs, hypertension, and sickle cell anemia. Our universities should also be designing a curriculum that is conducive to single parents and working adults. They should be collaborating with businesses and non-profits to create innovative job-trainings programs that helps lift the working poor out of poverty, like this program in Austin, Texas. Pastors and churches should be involved in addressing not only the spiritual needs of its congregants, but also working to address larger community issues in tandem with our other institutions.
6. We have to be honest with ourselves about our situation. A) We need to exercise more and eat healthier food.
B) We need to stop blaming our low-incomes for our malaise. Historical fact: black people in America have always been poor and while it does create additional challenges worth noting, this has not prevented us from raising generation after generation of notable leaders. Poverty has nothing to do with the innate ability we’re all endowed with. The difference is that families used to insist upon excellence from their kids and communities used to hold people to a higher standard, and now we just shake our heads and go: “tsk tsk tsk that child has no home training.”
C) We have to confess that by and large we’ve been apathetic lately and failed to keep our ‘eyes on the prize.’ The purpose of the Civil Rights Movement was never merely about access to white drinking fountains or country clubs, as it was about demolishing African Americans political and economic marginalization in the country. From this frame of reference, the Black Power Movement was building upon this quest, seeking the right for us to define ourselves and hold ourselves responsible for our own social uplift. They tried to create our own schools, rather than legislate for someone else to fix it. The Hip Hop Movement, in my opinion, brought attention to these and other social blights (police brutality and unjust incarcerations etc.), but without articulating a way forward. These challenges are persistent today.
7. We have to embrace change.Our HBCUs should be preserved, but also challenged to adapt. Historically, they created the medical schools and law schools that educated most of our doctors, dentists and lawyers. However, all indications show that most of the leading careers in the near future will be in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), so why aren’t more HBCU’s bolstering their engineering programs and encouraging innovation in science and mathematics, like Spelman has done?
Our universities should also be creating programs that are geared towards addressing our pressing social issues and global needs like green energy, as well as environmental racism. I, for one, would also love to see more HBCU’s with International Relations undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
8. We must look after our own. The downside of integration is that blacks from all socioeconomic backgrounds are not in regular contact with each other anymore. Following on the wisdom of bell hooks and Michael Eric Dyson, I will not make the classist argument that the ‘low income’ needs the ‘upper class,’ but rather that we need each other.
Carter G. Woodson was clear in his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, that well-educated blacks have unfortunately often turned their backs on their people. As he stated: “At that time men went off to school to prepare themselves for the uplift of a downtrodden people. In our time too many Negroes go to school to memorize certain facts to pass examinations for jobs. After they obtain these positions they pay little attention to humanity.”
So this gap is persistent, but it’s also growing and becoming more endemic as African Americans deal not only with a low-income class, but with a growing ‘underclass’ of people, as William Julius Wilson’s research has shown.
9. We have to stop creating further schisms within our community. We need to accept one another and stop assaulting people based on their complexion, hair type and assessments of who is ‘ really black’ and not an ‘oreo’. Along those same lines, we need to end the contemporary phenomenon of ‘ghetto-centricity,’ where the ‘hood’ is posited as the only place of authentic African American experience.
10. We need to focus more attention on addressing white-privilege. Our challenges isn’t just racism, it is the global valuing of Euro-centric knowledge and experiences and norms over all others that has to be addressed. More black scholars should be contributing to critical race studies and expanding ideas about white privilege.
This should not merely be an academic exercise. Scholars should be collaborating with our social organizations to find out how we can educate all US citizens from a very early age about systemic/structural/ institutional racism.
The point is African Americans have come a mighty long way, but we still have further to go.
Let us march on till victory is won.