I am convinced that some of our greatest internal barriers to progress come from misguided ideologies promoted by some members of what we’ve come to know as the “Conscious Community.”
People that are politically or socially conscious are presumed to be in touch with the problems, resources, history and needs of the Black community. Such people and groups also develop ideologies which they believe effectively address and solve the problems we face. But ideologies are not perfect, and some are actually overly simplified, impractical, disconnected from the political or economic realities we face, or largely ineffective.
This article will address ultra-conservative and fundamentalist folk whose ideologies need to seriously be re-examined in light of what I just expressed.
People, like organizations and ideologies are works in progress. Therefore we should expect our opinions, solutions and analysis to be imperfect, and we should constantly work to rework and refine them based on the sociopolitical context in which we live.
Conservative Black Nationalists for example, naively think that simply amassing material wealth, businesses and land (Black capitalism) will end our oppression or go unchallenged by the white corporate powers that be. It’s as if such people don’t know that Black people have established all-Black, economically vigorous communities in America before that were ultimately destroyed by jealous and racist whites. Between 1863 to 1919 for example, 8 successful Black communities in the United States were ultimately destroyed by violent white mobs. These communities existed in New York City, Atlanta, Tulsa, Chicago, Rosewood, St. Louis, Knoxville, and Washington, D.C.
Conservative types of Nationalists also fail to hold systemic forces of oppression accountable because they’re too busy blaming Black people for every ounce of their suffering and dysfunction. Advocates of these ideas subtly hate and resent the very people they claim to represent and often take positions and support policies very similar to those of our enemies, rendering them useless to us. This group will turn us into a nation of middle class apologists for oppression who accommodate to oppressive forces rather than challenging them.
The second group I will call “fundamentalist nationalists.” Such advocates have almost no gender or class analysis. The only issue they identify is race. This group has a tendency to become violent with those people who disagree, they fail to understand forms of struggle that don’t involve armed revolt, and they often adopt an oversimplified “with us or against us” type of reasoning. This group isolates and attacks Black members of the LGBT community, women, and members of the Black religious community. In addition, they often fail to address the complexity of our problems by focusing solely on armed revolution and separation without considering practical short-range reforms and programs.
Clearly, differing beliefs and methods exist within the conscious community.
In fact this very term “Conscious Community” needs some clarification. It is quite popular these days. I use it myself. Generally speaking, it refers to those brothers and sisters with some useful degree of sociopolitical awareness, African-centered knowledge of Black history or the Black experience, and an understanding of white supremacy. In an ideal world, this term also describes people who fuse their knowledge and understanding of such things with programs, institutions, activism, and things designed to help Black people Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up!
However as we all probably agree, this is not an ideal world, but a REAL world, and definitions of “conscious community” are as confused and varied as members of this community itself. Nevertheless, I will go with this term for now, as it is an all-embracing term that provides general understanding.
I encourage us to spend some time being critical of this community which includes Black artists, writers, intellectuals, activists, organizers, students, workers, and national organization leaders and their members. The simple yet uncomfortable truth is that some members of this community – a community I claim for myself as well – are becoming a large part of our collective problem rather than a reassuring a liberating part of the solution for Black folk seeking empowerment and liberation.
Why is a serious critique of the Black conscious community warranted? Note the following compelling reasons:
- They/we sometimes attract huge followings and exert some degree of influence on their followers particularly understanding of key concepts like identity, oppression, solidarity, and resistance.
- In some cases, they/we are responsible for monies and other resources solicited and collected from our community, for the purpose of starting programs, institutions, and political movements
- Because they/we tend to be more articulate, fearless, and knowledgeable than most, the masses of our community tend to see us as trustworthy leaders and molders of community consensus and empowerment
- They/we play a major role in our people’s capacity to Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up!
Our people deserve the most sincere and committed brothers and sisters advocating on their behalf, raising consciousness, and cultivating Black resistance to oppression. While some clearly have an over-inflated sense of importance, members of this community are important for the reasons stated above, and then some. And because our integrity and the success of our efforts are so largely influenced by the conscious community, it is our duty to support those who speak, educate, organize and fight with us effectively.
However when such people are inaccurate, self-serving, or leading us in counterproductive directions or toward disastrous outcomes, we also have the duty to be critical. Neglecting to do so just because some individuals or organizations are popular, or even well-intentioned, is not patriotic or righteous – It is cowardly, foolish and counter-revolutionary, period. As Dr. King reminded us,
Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it political? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular – but one must take it simply because it is right.
With this guiding principle in mind, I offer the following ideas and practices that some members of the conscious community champion but are (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed and destined to set our movement backwards.
- Failing to emphasize and promote universally empowering qualities/virtues of personal development. The conscious community famously emphasizes our need to be culturally and historically connected, appreciative of Africa’s contributions to world civilization, and vigorous in exposing and challenging white supremacy. These are in my estimation, absolutely mandatory and pivotal to our collective development. However, we cannot forget the equally important role of personal development. We compromise all efforts at collective empowerment if we fail to promote and model the qualities and virtues of being organized in thought and practice, embodying a strong work-ethic, striving for academic and general excellence in all we do, developing good character and exercising self-discipline. These tools helped our ancestors to advance/develop themselves despite seemingly overwhelming societal oppression and persecution, and we do ourselves well to remember and emulate this. DuBois, Malcolm, and Ella Baker weren’t just dedicated opponents to white supremacy, they were also devout practitioners of personal empowerment, starting with themselves. Do the research and observe their meticulous time management, tireless work-ethic, and self-discipline. Do not allow ignorant people to deem these qualities “white” or counter-revolutionary. Realizing the importance of this point, I wrote a book entitled, Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. This book teaches our youth how to manage time, make solid decisions, avoid societal traps develop self-love and confidence, and the importance of education and excellence. It is a must read for teens and their families.
- The belief that knocking on doors, and/or holding rallies, marches and protests are the only legitimate forms of protest. We are now over a decade into the 21st Century. This is an exciting time when internet technology, smartphones and social media make the world smaller, more manageable, and this scenario radically improves our ability to conduct research and communicate. We simply cannot afford to stay in the Fred Flintstone era of activism. It’s time to leave “Bedrock” behind and explore the world that confronts us TODAY and in the future. We must continue the best practices of traditional activism while effectively utilizing the new tools at our disposal so that we can reach more people, and better expose, challenge, and defeat our enemies while empowering and liberating ourselves. Another fact that bears repeating: We must also realize that our enemies attack and oppress us in almost every major area of human activity and that they use multiple means to do so. We cannot successfully counter such a sophisticated multi-level attack by using one mode or weapon. If we members of the conscious community are serious about removing the shackles of ignorance and oppression, we need to recognize, support and participate in varied forms of consciousness-raising and resistance including but not limited to: blogging, social media, internet conferences, building alternative and African-centered institutions, in addition to using traditional forms of activism and education. White supremacy is a twenty-headed and twenty-hearted beast with body parts that regenerate themselves when damaged. We cannot defeat that beast with one sword or one tactic.
- Degrading, insulting, and using unnecessarily crass and vulgar language, against fellow members of the conscious community with whom we disagree. I don’t know when it became acceptable to demoralize and belittle other activists, intellectuals, leaders and community organizers simply because we disagree with their tactics or strategy. Elements of fundamentalist Nationalism exist among some members of the conscious community. This narrow-minded, dogmatic, intolerant, and simplistic mode of leadership/activism is dangerous and threatens to create violent and unproductive tribalism in our community. Fascism is NEVER fashionable. I find that many “conscious” people who claim to follow and respect brother Malcolm, tend to behave this way. Malcolm himself behaved this way, insulting Dr. King and other Black leaders with whom he had ideological and tactical disagreements. He later recognized his mistake, and attempted to correct himself by apologizing publicly to those he insulted, and by attempting to work with civil rights leaders he believed were sincere. We cannot on one hand proclaim to our community that we need “all hands on deck,” then on the other hand, insult and question the authenticity of those who have differing opinions or who participate in varied forms of activism. This of course, does not suggest we should allow opportunistic, self-serving Black collaborators of oppression to exist without challenge. To the contrary, we must challenge them vigorously. There is room in the struggle for several organizations, perspectives and approaches. The only thing we absolutely cannot tolerate in any circumstance, are insincere and opportunistic types whose lust for fame, money or recognition compromise our forward movement, and government informants. We must learn to disagree with fellow conscious folk in a mature and responsible fashion, that allows us to still work together and share resources and networks down the road. We can all agree that life for those of us in the Black liberation struggle is often uncomfortable, lonely, and highly-pressurized. We need support! Therefore, we should work on heightening movement morale, giving credit where due, promoting/supporting other people’s activities, and building sustained and productive relationships with fellow activists, rather than insulting them.
- Creating or promoting a climate of anti-intellectualism. Brother Malcolm wrote, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” If education (research, reading, studying, analyzing) give us the power and mobility to move forward and explore possibilities, then ignorance is our prison sentence of long-term solitary confinement allowing for isolation, deprivation, and the inability to exercise mobility and self-reliance. If you did not obtain a college education, you can still read, study and be analytical. If you are college-educated, realize your education did not start nor will it end with earning a degree. But however you acquire education, formally or informally, ACQUIRE IT! , Misinformed or dogmatic people who are heavy on opinion and light on study do us little good. We need people who can not only consume, understand and explain information, but who can also create, publish and put information into practical use. Not everyone will be an intellectual or scholar. Nor will everyone be a hardcore “boots-on-the-ground” activist. Our ancestors revered and respected knowledge and those who possessed it. Somehow, we’ve gone backwards on this issue. People can’t do the right things unless they know the right things.We will also have to agree that the purpose of research and study is not simply to accumulate a bunch of facts or trivia, but to gain information and the ability to use that information to understand the world, past and current events, and to positively impact present and future circumstances. I’m personally not impressed with people who can regurgitate tons of trivia. I’m more concerned with uncovering meaning and analysis, and discovering ways to use that information meaningfully.
We should support our radical intellectuals and activists. Instead of arguing over who is most important, we should encourage mutual respect and cooperation. Activists should read the work of radical intellectuals (alive and deceased) to better refine their analysis of the sociopolitical terrain. End this nonsensical hatred of scholars. If you’ve read or quoted Chancellor Williams, DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, John Henrik Clarke, Amos Wilson, Kwame Nkrumah, Huey P. Newton, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Khalid Muhammad, Sister Souljah, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, or Cheikh Anta Diop, you actively respect and utilize the work of college-educated Black folk and are hard-pressed to question their revolutionary credibility; Likewise, If you admire Frederick Douglass, J.A. Rogers, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Minister Farrakhan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou, or George Jackson, you appreciate self-taught organic Black intellectuals whose revolutionary credibility is also above reproach.
- Patriarchy and Homophobia. Most conscious brothers and sisters speak out against racism, police brutality, miseducation, poverty, war, and a list of other social ills. And yet some of these same people attack, insult, and exclude Black women and Black members of the LGBT community. We cannot continue to have organizations, movements or programs that exclude large portions of our community, and yet call ourselves “conscious.” This is both hypocritical and contradictory. The majority of our population is composed of women. They must be empowered just like men. A growing number of our community members are gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. As Black people, they need protection and empowerment too. Further dividing an already divided Black community only renders us more powerless, which serves the agenda of our enemies, who hate Black people regardless of our gender or sexuality. Furthermore, we need to realize that all types of Black people (including feminists and members of the LGBT community) fought and struggled to liberate us. Who are we to now exclude them from our family? This doesn’t mean we need to march in gay parades, join a Black feminist organization, or embrace lifestyles or ideologies we disagree with. It does mean that we should not ban them from our organizations, insult them or act as if they don’t exist.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Agyei is part of the Black Power Cypher, 5 Black Nationalist men across the country who are all educators and organizers. They host a live monthly internet show discussing issues of importance to Black people. He is also the Director of Education for a national Black Nationalist organization called “Souljahs of the People.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.