While in high school, I was in the Air Force Junior ROTC program with the intention of enlisting in the Air Force or the Navy after graduation. The Navy was part of the choice because my boyfriend, at the time, was riding the high seas aboard the USS Detroit and I wanted to be a sailor just like him. During my last year in the program, which was also my senior year, I decided to bypass a military career after realizing that I did not want to conform to the armed services’ strict code of discipline, mainly because I considered myself ‘too Black’. As a matter of fact, one day in ROTC class, I was completely uninterested in learning about aircraft used during World War II, so I read Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks while waiting for the bell to ring. Of course, the instructor told me to put the book away and pay attention but one of my Black classmates said out loud that she thought the book was racist. She drew this conclusion on the title alone; not knowing that the author and this collection of short stories were highly celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance and critiqued in university Literature classes, even to this day.
My love for Black culture and history came from a simple point of being tired of reading about white people. I didn’t have “long blonde tresses flowing down my back with eyes the color of oceans and skin the color of snow”, so it was difficult to relate to any of those stories. Due to my family’s involvement in the Strike City protest during 1960s Mississippi coupled with listening avidly to Hip Hop artists such as Public Enemy, X-Clan, and KRS-ONE, I spent more than enough time in the two story library in my hometown checking out those tattered copies of Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. Eventually, I moved up to the hardcore stuff that wasn’t found at the library but rather at bookstores. The pages of my copies of The Isis Papers by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing and The Destruction of Black Civilization by Dr. Chancellor Williams are yellowing on my bookshelf, both of them purchased from a Black bookstore called Ebony Images which has been defunct for about fifteen years now. Out of the 300 or so books that I own, about 95% of them are about the Black Experience, whether fiction or nonfiction.
As humorous as it is now, my parents were dead serious about being ready to bail me out of jail after moving to Memphis for college. They just knew that I was going to be arrested during protests and cussing out white people for just being white. While that didn’t happen, I did learn to use my mouthpiece, in many classes, hotly debating other white students about issues of race, much to the peculiar delight of my white professors — a few of them complimenting my critical perspectives and encouraging me to continue voicing my opinions. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if they were being sincere or patronizing me so I didn’t embrace their accolades. Despite that, I kept voicing my opinions because I deemed it necessary to represent for the people at the predominately white University of Memphis. Because of the books I was reading, I was always prepared to counter most white people’s viewpoints on racial issues, however, my greatest debates about Blackness have been with Black people.
Black Power is a concept that most of us in the Black community have relegated to signature features of appearance and a certain period in our history when the Panther party shouted it during protests with balled fists in the air. Even though the term was not coined by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), it was perhaps popularized when he used it in Mississippi during a protest march organized by James Meredith in 1966. In explaining his comment ‘We got to get us some black power’, Carmichael was making a call for black people ‘to define their own goals and to lead their own organizations’. Through a sophisticated media spin, however, anything connected to the idea of Black Power was immediately diluted to deliberately suggest that it was wholly about inciting riots and violence against white people. This branding worked quite well on us as many Black people tend to shy away from the concept to this day.
Contrary to that spin though, Black Power has nothing to do with hating white people (there was a White Panther Party comprised of white people who stood in solidarity with the Black Panther Party) but more about a powerless people assuming control of ourselves in an effort to rebuild collectively and individually. It’s not as if we’ve moved beyond the time when law enforcement intentionally profiles Black people & our neighborhoods or white men shoot unarmed Black teens or major corporations discriminate against Black applicants because of their names. When examining a snapshot of us in this country, there is still a persistent educational achievement gap between black and white students some fifty years after Brown vs the Board of Education. Our spending power is approximately $1 billion dollars but roughly only 1% of that money is reinvested in the Black community. Black households continue to lag behind in wealth attainment and the disproportionate Black male incarceration rate can be easily regarded as the ‘new slavery’. Lastly, but definitely not least, too many Black neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore are suffering from atrocious murder rates. Even though we are bearing witness to a rare time in history where a Black man sits as POTUS, Black people are still facing a severe identity crisis as we have internalized and manifested so much of society’s distorted image of us.
I think that Black Power, in the 21st century, is about embracing our culture fully while making a sincere effort to deconstruct those aspects which may need revamping or discarded altogether. Although that’s vague, the point I’m making here is that many things in our culture served us at one point in time but may not benefit us now. We have to be willing to look at ourselves critically and assess how to overcome the obstacles that are hindering us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, economically, as well as sexually. Molefi Asante has pointed out that Black people have been freed from slavery 149 (as of Jan 1st of this year, 150) years after being enslaved for 246 years. There was not an attempt to provide mass psychotherapy for our newly freed ancestors so they passed down a host of generational strongholds that continue to burden us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. By studying our history and holding it up to the light, we can recognize those strongholds readily and work towards tearing them down. Trust me, Black Power is just as critical in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century. Will the concept need restructuring? Maybe. Maybe not. We won’t know unless we sit down as a community to dialogue on how Black Power will function today.
To Be Continued….