When we typically think of the term “sellout”, our brains rapidly flip through pictures or memories of media-celebrated Black folk that support ultra conservative, right-wing policies. These typically include: eliminating effective Affirmative Action initiatives, scapegoating poor Black people, attempting to reduce or eliminate public assistance, supporting increased U.S. military presence and actions abroad, defending or trivializing the epidemic of police brutality against Black bodies, insisting either that racism no longer exists or that fellow Black folk largely exaggerate its existence.
We view such individuals negatively and for good reason: the positions they take and the policies they support promote Black criminalization, defend and justify racist thought and practice, attack measures designed to stimulate relief or social equality, and dismiss/disregard legitimate Black suffering and grievances. In their opinion, we overly sensitive Black folk are too eager to accept handouts, and too lazy or pathological to exhbit the character and motivation needed to resolve problems we cause in the first place. They add a dose of patriotism to support their false claims, proudly describing the United States as a nation where “everyone can rise if they just work hard enough and exhibit personal responsibility.”
But these misguided individuals are not our only collective problem. I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend manifest itself on city streets and reach viral proportions on social media. This is not a particularly new trend, but it has, in my opinion, become more pronounced and influential in the last few years. I’m referring to (drum roll please) …. the shocking trend of Black politically conscious folks (often self-proclaimed followers of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X) taking reactionary and counter-revolutionary positions that actually benefit the architects, beneficiaries, and practitioners of white supremacy!
Because their ideas and teachings make Black people more vulnerable to victimization and because they threaten to set the Black Liberation Movement backwards, one wonders if such people represent a new breed of (unintended) Black sellouts. This article will identify some of these curious positions or practices, and explain how each works to the advantage of white supremacists rather than the Black masses whom they’re supposed to benefit.
I humbly suggest that we attempt to educate such folk to their complicity in our oppression, and if need be, expose them in an effort to neutralize their deliberate or unconscious sabotage of an entire people and liberation movement.
- Patriarchy: Sexism or the oppression of our sisters is unacceptable and backwards. How do we justify fighting oppression outside of our community, yet reinforce it within our homes, organizations, and communities? Our liberation movement cannot substitute one form of exploitation for another, nor limit or attempt to proscribe the strength, leadership, and development of our sisters. Suggesting that Black women only play traditional (male-defined roles), that their grievances are invalid, or that they are to blame for eroding Black family values and wayward youth is blatantly sexist. What nation do we build, what enemy do we vanquish, what empowered communities do we create when we oppress or muzzle one-half of our population? Taking positions that reinforce divisiveness, in-fighting and domination only serve the interests of those who divide and conquer us already. This has no place in the thoughts or actions of a conscious Black person. Black girls and women have traditionally been the unsung sheroes in our history, providing on-the-ground labor, education, activism, and leadership, yet standing in the shadows of Black men, due to religious or biological fallacies we inherited from our oppressors. Then we have “conscious” Black men who routinely beat sisters behind closed doors and have the audacity to justify such actions by quoting “king of the castle,” or “Head of the household” logic. Our entire community must be healed, empowered, and primed for success, not just men. Valid critiques of feminist ideology are necessary and important. Complete disregard of sisters’ voice, experiences and value however, is unacceptable.
- Using violence against other Black folk with whom we disagree. We know from the days of Cointelpro under Hoover’s leadership, that the enemy used divide and conquer tactics to arouse resentment and acts of violence between Nationalist groups. Killing ourselves in this fashion clearly works to the advantage of those who want to neutralize radical Black resistance. No responsible, well-studied or disciplined individual would ever resort to such actions. In this era however, this is highly possible given the bravado and rigid dogma of certain groups. We must learn to mediate our conflicts nonviolently.
- Assuming unqualified authority: While it is true that everyone has opinions and the right to express them, it’s equally true that not all opinions are valid. Valid opinions, positions, or theories are those supported with fact, experience, and sound analysis. The rise of the internet and social media now provides anyone with a free platform to share his/her ideas or theories with people all over the world. As one does this, they gain “friends” or followers. This may give someone the false impression that their popularity equates to authority or legitimacy. However, if the person in question hasn’t paid their dues (i.e. established credibility in the community, created a quality body of work, participated in activism, writing, institution-building, leading, community organizations/political struggle, educating and solving problems, study and research, etc.), they are not qualified to speak with authority or give grand proclamations on these issues. Any person who sincerely wants to represent, lead, advance or help to organize Black people should love and respect us enough to render quality service and take the time to adequately prepare themselves to do so. And we should be deeply suspicious of those who don’t. As I posted on Facebook, “I believe it’s important and necessary to welcome advice or opinion. But ultimately I tend to trust and respect the advice/opinions of people who’ve demonstrated success or accomplishment regarding the topic in question. Informed opinions hold more weight, are usually more relevant and more helpful to me. I would appreciate both perspectives on escaping slavery, but would take Harriet Tubman’s advice more seriously than that of someone who did not participate in liberating African people. Harriet make 19 successful liberation trips and helped over 300 slaves escape to their freedom within a ten-year period! You get the point, I’m sure. Be very careful of people that want acclaim or recognition or who have much to say, but have not qualified themselves through study, experience and accomplishment. This is a sure recipe for DISASTER. Always we must ask, what have you done? What are you doing? What are you working on now? There are many “false prophets” so to speak.” Moreover, people that truly feel strongly about social and political issues should demonstrate this by being involved in these issues beyond simple Facebook and Twitter posts. If you decry miseducation of our youth, don’t let your activism end with a social media post. Become a teacher, create a school or afterschool program, or create an organization to challenge the public school system. If you feel strongly about Black Liberation, become meaningfully involved and engaged.” In another social media post I noted, “The next time someone pontificates about injustice, miseducation, poverty, violence or any other social vice, ask them the million dollar question: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT? We have more than enough commentators and cheerleaders. What we need are more players and coaches!” My position on this subject should not be misinterpreted as elitism. One need not be a college graduate, expert on a subject, or have a certain income level to be meaningfully involved and engaged. Our history is replete with examples of informally educated, non-celebrity, and/or poor people whose conviction and courage led them to educate, organize, build institutions, and participate in liberation movements.
- Lack of critical thinking/analysis: There is a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism within some elements of the Black “conscious community.” We simply cannot effectively dismantle white supremacy if we don’t study the forces/individuals behind it and their methods. We cannot responsibly ask people to join our cause or organization without explaining to them how and why they are oppressed, who is responsible for their subjugation, and what we can do about it. Pronouncements and declarations are not enough; We must develop an accurate analysis of white supremacy and how it operates, then be able to communicate that effectively to members of our community, then organize our people and provide them with inspiration and tools to overthrow the devils internally and externally. All of our most effective and revered leaders and activists understood this including (but not limited to) Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Dr. King, Ella Baker, Kwame Ture, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, and so on. All understood that our people must know how societal systems work to keep us powerless and divided. This – along with developing an empowering knowledge of self – is the foundation to developing political consciousness. There is no way around it…we must study and know our enemy, how he thinks, operates, and where he is weak. Read “The Art of War,” observe how athletes view film of their opponents. Why then, would some in the conscious community ignore such a pivotal element of liberation? Sound analysis requires serious and sustained study. Some simply don’t want to do this tedious and unglamorous work. It is much easier to simply make authoritative proclamations or give the community orders without sufficient context or substance. The other reason for this I suspect, is that some of these overnight commentators are in fact, agents, informers and provocateurs working to mislead, disrupt, and sabotage radical Black movement. Being well-informed and analytical doesn’t mean that we become paralyzed in abstract discussions of “the white man,” because we still need to eliminate certain behaviors in our own community, build our own institutions, and develop harmony and solidarity. No matter how much we may choose to ignore agents and systems of white supremacy, they definitely don’t ignore us! To the contrary, they study our loyalties, music, family structure, spending habits, and political and cultural influences thoroughly. And this partly explains why they are so effective in subjugating our communities and organizations! Does anyone remember Cointelpro? Watch this video clip of a former Black FBI informant discuss how well our enemies studied us during the 60s and 70s.
Black Liberation is not a leisurely game of pool, or some ego-driven contest for bragging rights. We’re talking about a movement to free ourselves where safety, liberty, progress, and the future of our children are involved. Play Chess, not checkers. Listen and observe closely. Make moves that are strategic. Discard opinions/positions if you realize they are reactionary or don’t hold weight. Ask “Who does my political positions benefit or challenge?” If we fail to do this, some of us who presumably work to advance Black people, might actually be doing more to advance our enemies’ interests than our own. And this – whether done intentionally or not -might just comprise a new (and deeply ironic) form of selling-out.
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 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.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.