I humbly apologize if the title of this essay seems arrogant. By no means do I believe myself to be all-knowing on any topic. I admittedly don’t have all the answers nor all the questions.
My background as an educator, activist and community organizer however, does provide me with an informed perspective regarding social change. Over the course of this essay I hope to share some information on this topic from the vantage point of a community organizer.
To begin, we identify three types of people and assume each is sincere and authentic:
- Those who recognize the ruling empire as fundamentally sound, though unjust in certain respects. They observe flaws in the oppressive empire and seek to repair and reform it. They may confront the empire’s unfair practices through civil disobedience, economic boycotts, petitions for legal relief, moral appeals to the empire’s sense of “fair play,” or other forms of organized resistance. Such people ultimately wish the empire was more fair, inclusive and beneficial for themselves and others. We will call this group the “Reformers.”
- Those who see the ruling empire as fundamentally unjust and oppressive at it roots. They do not make morality-based appeals to the empire because they believe that the empire has no morality or ethics. In their opinion, the empire only values power and domination. Such people believe the empire cannot truly be reformed or improved; No rehabilitation or reform is sufficient. Therefore they seek to disrupt, and dismantle the empire, its laws, values, practices, and institutions, and to replace it with a more humane and effective system of government. As such, they use education, refusal to validate or cooperate with the empire, denunciation of empire values, practices and domination, and violence to eventually overthrow the empire altogether. They want land, wealth and power to create a free and non-oppressive society. We will call them the “Revolutionaries.”
- Those who believe the society has done and can do no wrong. These folk therefore have no critique of the empire and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Members of this group are content with the empire, usually because they benefit from it or believe they will, if they simply “Work hard enough.” As such, members this group often apologize for and defend the empire, even though the empire often exploits and oppresses them like nearly everyone else. We will call them “Clueless Sheep.”
At this stage of my life, I invest limited energy in the “Clueless Sheep” group. My interest primarily lies with the reformists and the group I most identify with, the revolutionaries.
I think that people who actually are or consider themselves revolutionaries sometimes fail to appreciate the reformists. To a revolutionary, such folk mean well, but are politically naive. Revolutionaries will note that reformers’ activities fail to identify and address fundamental societal issues and instead create surface programs that win limited concessions from the empire.
Revolutionaries reject what they refer to as simplistic and ineffective “band-aid approaches” to social change. They also decry reformist solutions that involve appeals to or collaboration with agencies or institutions of the empire. They ask questions like:
- Why are you addressing societal symptoms rather than the underlying causes of those symptoms?
- Why do you participate or cooperate with the empire’s corrupt elections and corporate-contolled political parties?
- Generating economic power through acquiring property, building Black businesses, establishing Black investment clubs or doing business with commercial banks legitimizes Wall Street and capitalism. How can you justify collaborating with the very bourgeois system/institutions responsible for our poverty and financial exploitation?
I confess that in the not-so-distant past I too, raised questions like these. I too saw Black reformists as being politically naive (and to some degree still do).
Yet “revolutionaries” often forget some important points: The vast majority of Black folk are reformist. Due to the legacy of cointelpro, most view Black revolutionary politics as “crazy,” impractical, “extremist” and overly dogmatic. Many reformist Black folk view equate Black revolutionary thought and practice with getting imprisoned, being a hunted fugitive of the law, and ultimately assassination (and those thoughts aren’t all invalid).
These perceptions -accurate or not- mean that the Black revolutionary community already comprises a tiny minority of the community. Furthermore, the tendency toward referencing complex socialist philosophy/terminology, belittling reformists and their politics, and failing to engage and work with them, doesn’t improve relations or perceptions between the two.
If revolutionary Black folk truly want to significantly influence and radicalize the thinking/politics of the Black community, we must do a few things differently. We can start a revolution by:
- Interacting and working with our less radical brothers and sisters (not just fellow revolutionaries) around common areas of interest. Most people begin to trust you more after working with you and observing your personality in real time. Working on the same issues gives you time to have important discussions with members of our community with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye.
- Removing the political jargon and advanced revolutionary theory when we speak with our people.”Make it plain.” We are not teaching a graduate course or presenting at a scholarly university conference. We are holding court with our brothers and sisters on our jobs, at rallies or meetings, and in the neighborhood. We must find ways to engage our people, not piss them off, portray ourselves as arrogant assholes, or cause them to tune out. A basic way to do this is to use anecdotes, analogies and references our people can relate to. Brother Malcolm (whose persuasive power was legendary) masterfully used analagies and anecdotes in his conversations/speeches which is one reason he impacted and transformed so many people. Remember how all adult characters in the “Peanuts” cartoon sound muffled and impossible to understand? This is how we sound to people when we over-intellectualize.
- Remembering to have conversations rather than monologues. No one likes to be lectured to. No one appreciates when one person dominates a discussion. Revolutionaries should do more active listening and less pontificating, uh lecturing… I mean… speaking. When we hear someone’s experiences, dreams and perspectives, we better understand them and also people are more receptive to our ideas.
- Training ourselves not just to be critical, but to show appreciation and respect for the work, accomplishments and sacrifice of our reformist brothers and sisters. We can have differences of opinion regarding ideology/methods, but still give reformist Blacks’ the credit and respect they deserve…
- Refusing to diminish the importance of reformist tactics, movements or people. Through their experiences in trying to”fix” or improve the empire, Black reformists often endure police brutality, unfair arrest and imprisonment, and other forms of mistreatment that radicalizes them! Stokely Carmichael began as a reformist college student leader and evolved into the Pan African revolutionary Kwame Ture.
- Remembering to meet people where they are in the liberation struggle. Be patient and empathetic with people and don’t expect them to think or organize the way you do. Political growth is a process that takes time. Also don’t forget the time when you didn’t know all you do now.
- Acknowledging that our liberation will not come from one approach, but several. This type of flexible thinking allows us to join coalitions, appreciate the work of others, and have greater opportunity to influence people beyond our own political circles.
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 lead. 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.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
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.