The Basics of Effective Protest Strategy

 

sas protest2{The following is a chapter from my book, “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook,” which I wrote to teach Black student activists how to organize on college campuses. The information addresses college protest movements but can be applied to community organizations as well.}


 

The Anatomy of a Movement

By “movement,” I’m referring to a sustained and organized struggle on behalf of a group that demands concessions from an agency/institution. This assumes an adversarial or contentious relationship between two parties like the BSU (Black Student Union) and the university for example. The BSU wants a certain thing or set of things which the university can provide but refuses to for any number of reasons. Therefore the BSU launches a movement or campaign to get the concessions it wants.

I began this book expressing disappointment with those BSUs around the country that have become social clubs rather than the agents of resistance and empowerment they were founded to be on college campuses. My hope is that this book will inspire a return to that original BSU spirit. This chapter will equip your organization to take its rightful place in the tradition of BSUs by acquainting you with the “anatomy” so to speak, of a protest movement.

We might say that a campaign is composed of 8 general parts: Irreconcilable Discontent, Research, Propaganda, A Call to action, Presentation of demands, Outreach & Alliance Building, Confrontation, and Negotiation.

Irreconcilable Discontent: This refers to a mentality or psychological state which leads people to create a movement to confront the university or any other power structure. People may experience discontent with a situation for several years but never do anything to resolve their conflicts because they have “made peace” with it in one way or another. They might rationalize that this “is just the way things are,” or that “we can’t win” or refuse to seriously address the issue out of fear or personal discomfort.

But irreconcilable discontent takes place when an incident occurs that is so egregious, so blatantly insulting or oppressive that people overcome their fears and skepticism and feel compelled to respond in organized fashion. For example, Black people have resented the ominous presence and brutal activities of police in our communities for decades. We detest police harassing Black motorists, stopping and frisking our youth, and shooting us down in the streets. We know this is unjust and criminal; we know that the officers responsible go free and resume their presence on the police force.

Yet despite our discontent we reconcile with such practices, telling ourselves to “let the system do its job,” or that “God will punish them.” As demonstrated in our response to Trayvon Martin’s murder on February 26, 2012, and his murderer’s subsequent exoneration, we participate in a few marches or petition drives, hold some press conferences and rallies, and eventually go back to business as usual.

Irreconcilable discontent means “the straw has broken the camel’s back,” we come to the realization that “Enough is enough,” and we are compelled to act in an assertive manner (even to the point of breaking oppressive rules/laws and refusing to cooperate with societal convention).

In Montgomery, Alabama, Black people in the 1950s were accustomed to sitting in the segregated section of the bus. We were accustomed to paying our fare, then exiting to board the bus via the back door. Often the bus drivers pulled off with us standing there. We didn’t like this mistreatment. We were discontent for sure, but we mumbled under our breath, accepting that this obvious form of injustice was “just the way things were” at that time. Of course some individuals refused to comply with these laws, but Blacks did not collectively wage a movement.

But when innocent and well-respected seamstress and longtime activist Rosa Parks was roughly taken off the bus and arrested for not complying with the law, Blacks in Montgomery became irreconcilably discontented. And this sense of outrage led to a 381 day bus boycott that nearly brought the bus company to bankruptcy and led to a court decision banning bus segregation.

Successful campaigns or movements almost always begin when our people feel a sense of outrage so intense that they are ready and willing to take action. Astute leaders recognize such moments and begin organizing this widespread anger and frustration into a sustained and organized movement for social or political change.

Research: At some point, organizers and activists begin researching to determine who is responsible for resolving the issue, methods they can take to bring attention to the issue, and what specific demands they will make to the parties that have the power to resolve the issue.

Call to Action: Having defined the issues, and “opposition force” responsible for resolving them, the organizers and activists issue a call to action to the masses, directly calling upon them to move beyond discontent and into organized action. During this early phase of your movement, you will hold meetings with your group to effectively explain how this issue affects your members, why they should be outraged, and give them a sense of their power to resolve the issue.

Presentation of Demands: After concluding your research to clarify the issues involved and party responsible, you formally present your grievances and demands to the responsible party. You can do this in several ways, including a petition, letter, or verbally at a meeting with the person you identify as the responsible party. This is obviously the main goal of your movement, namely to get your demands satisfied. In the best case, the opposition agrees to your demands in writing on its official letterhead. This is not very likely to happen immediately however, as powerful organizations tend to underestimate your seriousness or validity of your cause and do not respond well to changing their policies or practices.

Outreach & Alliance Building: Anticipating a long struggle, your organization contacts other groups and leaders for support and resources to aid in your movement. This lends greater numbers and therefore strength to your cause. You want to identify campus and community organizations to support you. If you’ve been building relations with these people in advance (as I suggested earlier) this step will prove easier and more successful.

Propaganda: In an effort to heighten and dramatize the tension surrounding the issue, organizers use propaganda. Through informational fliers, press conferences and rallies, they use colorful language and imagery to expose the contradictions involved, highlight the specific injustice(s), and call for the responsible parties to take corrective action. Your propaganda should powerfully describe and detail the injustice, identify your grievances and demands, and explain how and why your demands went unmet.

During this phase it’s important that the organization identify an individual as their opposition or responsible party. A corporation, university or other institution might be responsible, but you must put a face on that institution, as people cannot effectively confront an abstract “company.” Your research should have discovered one person (a CEO, university president, or elected official who is representative of the organization you’re going to confront). During this phase, you’ll want to write editorials in your college, organization and community newspapers and give press conferences detailing your issue. You want everyone to clearly understand what you’re fighting for and how it impacts you and others.

Confrontation: In this phase of the movement or campaign the disgruntled organization directly confronts the individual (representative of the institution) believed to be responsible for creating or at least resolving the issue. Naturally, this only occurs if your grievances and demands are initially unmet. To encourage sympathy from outside observers and to develop proper momentum, you should begin with simple, less intense and more “respectable” tactics (petitions, meetings, rallies, newspaper articles) and if necessary, become increasingly more intense, dramatic and aggressive.

If the opposition does not respond to these tactics and you’re compelled to engage in more assertive measures, other people not involved in your movement will more likely understand and support your cause as being fair and reasonable. They will also be more likely to view your opposition as being unreasonable and unfair. This perception and sympathy may come in handy later in your campaign when you need all the outside support you can get. When your tactics become more aggressive, the court of public opinion will be more sensitive to your cause. If you conduct your most assertive action too early in the campaign, and the opposition does not flinch, your campaign loses momentum and it may be close to impossible to regain it.

Confrontations typically consist of specific tactics. These may include petitions, letter-writing campaigns, rallies, building takeovers, marches, and mass phone calls of complaint/concern to the individual/institution, demonstrations and protests.

Petitions are concise letters that clearly specify the issues involved, your grievances and demands, and the person/institution you deem responsible for addressing your issue. These letters have space at the bottom for your supporters to sign in agreement with your petition demands.

The strength of a petition lies in the number of people that sign it. It shows that your organization has a large and diverse base of support, and puts pressure on the opposition to take your matter seriously and to resolve it. Because each person that signs your petition reads it first, a petition is also an excellent way to inform the public about your organization and the issue you’re fighting for. Petition drives often result in people joining or becoming supportive of your organization. A petition puts the opposition on notice that you are in disagreement with a policy, procedure or situation so that they cannot claim ignorance later. It also creates a documented record of your dispute. A well orchestrated petition drive will often lead to a meeting with the opposition and in the best case, concessions from the opposition. Online petitions which you can create for free on websites like Change.org, Petitiononline.com, or ipetitions.com are powerful petition tools, because people can “sign” them with a click of a button and you can arrange it so that every time a person signs, a copy of the petition is emailed to the person you designate.

Letter-writing campaigns constitute another good tactic because they get people involved in your movement and demonstrate your wide base of support. With this tactic, you provide people with a sample of the issues, injustice involved, and your grievance/demands and allow them to craft a brief letter supporting your cause. These days, you would most likely use email to accomplish this.

Rallies are (usually) outdoor meetings held in a high-traffic area on campus or in the community. You have various leaders and activists from your group and others speak on your movement and what you’re fighting for. Your primary goal is to educate the public and generate support. For added effectiveness, you can have tables at your rally site where people sign your petitions or receive more information about your organization. These types of events tend to attract media coverage which promotes your movement to people who know little to nothing about it. You’ll want to invite powerful and informed speakers who are respected by the community and list their names on your fliers promoting the event. Their followers and supporters will come to hear them speak which helps you gain even more supporters. Effective rallies are informative and dynamic. The audience should be encouraged to chant (i.e. “No justice, no peace!” “A people united will never be defeated”) sing protest songs hold signs and applaud loudly.

Building Takeovers are forms of protest that are very dramatic, controversial, attention-grabbing, and usually illegal. But because this involves disrupting a place of business and because it is intimidating to workers in the building, this tactic is risky. It can create enemies among innocent workers who may not understand or agree with your issue, brand your organization as violent or coercive, and lead to destruction of property or even minor injuries. Takeovers are generally banned by institutions so you face the very real likelihood of arrests. This tactic MUST be well-organized and you must clearly communicate dos and don’ts for your participants or this can backfire in very negative ways for your movement.

Marches involve a large number of people walking in unison to a designated place where an organization usually holds a rally. Marches are accompanied by colorful signs with headlines that dramatize your issue. You can organize singing and chanting as people march or do a silent march. These are excellent for generating media coverage and attracting the attention of passers-by who wonder what all the commotion is about. Because they involve large audiences, march conveners should make sure the event is well-organized. You must inform participants beforehand what route they will use, what the destination is and what the issue is. Also, you should have a spokesperson on hand to speak with reporters and answer questions.

Mass phone calls are self-explanatory. You provide hundreds of people with the work phone number of your opposition figure (calling their home or cell phone might be seen as a form of harassment) and a few basic scripts to read when the person (or their assistant) answers. Each person calls and explains his/her concern about your issue. Then they ask what this person plan to do about it. This is a legal and completely easy way to disrupt the individual’s work day while reinforcing your issue. When done correctly, this tactic ties up your opposition’s phone lines and makes it difficult for them to conduct business as usual. Even if no one answers, your callers can leave a message. This pressure tactic demonstrates your strength and wide base of support. It also subtly pressures them to resolve your issue. I like to call this tactic ‘Holding the phone lines hostage.”

Demonstrations represent another dramatic tactic which draw media coverage for your issue and involve great fun. You can think of a demonstration as social theater. People using this tactic dramatize the said issue in very creative and engaging ways designed to describe (in exaggerated fashion) exactly why and how the institution, policy or practice is oppressive, exploitive or simply unfair.
Students protesting a tuition hike might stage a demonstration in which a college class has a professor lecturing to only three students who happen to be wealthy and pampered. This is designed to illustrate the organization’s belief that the proposed tuition increase will significantly reduce the student population and make the college affordable only to affluent students.
A BSU protesting a policy that ends affirmative action on their campus might stage a funeral scene. Pallbearers solemnly carry a casket marked “Black Students at this university.” Once inside the mock funeral home, the preacher begins to deliver a moving eulogy for Black students on campus, noting that the removal of affirmative action “killed” the presence of Blacks on campus. Nearby, in a mock court scene, we see a prosecutor grilling the university president and accusing him of “murdering” affirmative action. A Black-student jury pronounces him guilty and the university president is led out of court in handcuffs. As you might imagine, these demonstrations dramatize the perceived injustices involved in ways that are more fun and sensational than would be the case in a rally or petition. They also guarantee media coverage and depict the opposition in a negative light. By definition, demonstrations involve the skillful use of propaganda.

Negotiation: Usually the last phase of a successful campaign involves a series of meetings between a BSU representative (usually the president and a Vice President) and a representative of the opposition. At this point, the institution has suffered great embarrassment in the media and tremendous pressure from the BSU and its supporters. In an effort to continue operating normally and end its public embarrassment and increasingly aggressive BSU protests and demonstrations, the opposing institution is now compelled to sit with your organization to bring the movement to an end by making concessions.

In most cases, the negotiating phase involves some degree of compromise and flexibility from the protesting organization. Sometimes budgetary considerations or other realities make some demands untenable or impractical. In these cases, the BSU will have to determine which demands are most important and non-negotiable. After these meetings, all agreements made verbally must be put in writing and signed by a person with the authority to grant the requests and the BSU official. It is important to establish reasonable dates by which these changes will be implemented, or the university has wiggle room to renege on their agreements.

In conclusion, please realize that no movement or campaign unfolds in one specific manner. This anatomy of a campaign I provided cannot possibly account for or anticipate every single nuance of a struggle. It does however acquaint you with the general things you should consider and for which you should prepare.

_____________________________

 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-SpanNY1 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 truself143@gmail.com.

Truth for our Youth Official Press Release

OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE FOR AGYEI TYEHIMBA’S NEW BOOK

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Agyei Tyehimba, Author, 872-222-6764
Truself143@gmail.com

TRUTH FOR OUR YOUTH
A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens
by Agyei Tyehimba

Distinguished by his passion and commitment, Harlem-born educator, author and activist Agyei Tyehimba has mentored and empowered at-risk teens and their parents for the past two decades.

In TRUTH FOR OUR YOUTH: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens
(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Paperback; $12.95; April 4, 2014), Agyei Tyehimba draws from this solid background in youth development. Over the course of 234 fun and engaging pages, he teaches young people that they can successfully navigate the awkward and challenging terrain of adolescence (regardless of their place of origin, family income or ethnicity) by employing pivotal information, skills, and habits.

Blending teen-friendly language with engaging activities and practical techniques taken from his professional experience, Agyei Tyehimba’s book will inspire and edify teens while equipping their parents and teachers to collaborate in the process.

About the Author:

Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem. 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. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a  consultant and public speaker providing advice on youth development. Agyei earned his Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master of Arts degree in Afro American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

TRUTH FOR OUR YOUTH: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens
by Agyei Tyehimba
Paperback
April 4, 2014 – $12.95 – ISBN: 978-1497420434
Visit the website at: https://www.createspace.com/4472824

Source:
Agyei Tyehimba

Date:
May 25, 2014

Links:
About “Truth for our Youth”
Order Agyei’s Book on Amazon

The Problem With Black Exceptionalism

TEAMWORK

In April of 2014, I released my third book, “Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens.” Every time I appear on a radio show to promote my new book, I’m asked why I wrote it. My answer is generally the same every time and I think it’s important enough to share with you, as it speaks to issues much larger than my book.

I’m tired of how we as a community promote Black exceptionalism: “my child got accepted here,” “my child won a scholarship,” “I’ve accomplished this or that.” “She’s the first Black something or other…” Black people usually can point to any number of individual superstars and high achievers. But for every one child or adult that is exceptional, hundreds of thousands more are low-performing, content with mediocrity, and destined for lives of poverty and failure.

I was an exceptional young person, and my parents were proud of me. My children are exceptional youth, and I’m proud of them. But being “exceptional” in a context wherein the masses of your people are suffering and failing, is a bittersweet reality; It reminds me of the early days in Michael Jordan’s career when he would drop 40, 50, and 60 points in a game and his TEAM would still lose.

The presence of “exceptional” Black schools, people, and institutions should be acknowledged as signs of hope and pride. But Black exceptionalism has a dangerous side as well. To the same degree that we (and the media) celebrate and promote Black success and achievement however, we sometimes tolerate and ignore mass Black FAILURE.

Furthermore, we can sometimes forget (or fail to understand) that neither Black success or dysfunction are organic or innate, but the partial result of empowering experiences, institutions, and personal initiative on one hand and systemic institutions of oppression which collectively work to stunt, deprive, and cripple our intellectual, cultural, institutional, and creative capacity on the other.

And I don’t even have enough space here to address how some of us who deem ourselves “exceptional” often become arrogant, competitive, self-absorbed, vulgar careerists who are detached from community concerns…..

These oppressive systems I refer to subtly persuade us to tolerate our collective oppression by pointing to this or that exceptional or accomplished Black person who “beat the odds.” In effect they tell us, “Don’t be upset that the majority of the schools your children attend are criminally low-performing, staffed by new or inexperienced teachers, and setting your children up to become prison laborers or menial/semi-skilled workers, because 98% of the students that attend So and So Academy or This and That Institute graduate and go on to college.”

The problem of course, is that such schools can only physically accommodate relatively low numbers of students, so the majority of our children must settle for the inadequate schools (which are the majority of them) and thus, inadequate educational opportunity. The old “No Child Left Behind” motto is an absolute mockery. In truth, most of our children are left not only behind, but so far behind that they will never catch up (without radical educational interventions and innovations).

In this way, those who work to keep us entrenched in economic and political impotence, defend their ruthless system by suggesting that while the system is imperfect, IT is not fundamentally flawed, but is a meritocracy that fairly rewards and recognizes people that work hard, follow the rules and are well…..exceptional. In other words the system is not the primary problem, YOU BLACK, BROWN, AND POOR PEOPLE ARE!

It is perfectly understandable why we Black folk spend so much time highlighting our exceptional kinfolk. We’ve survived centuries of emotional scarring and psychological torture. We were groomed to be poor, docile servants, and the education system was designed to insure this reality. It’s easy to sell us messiahs and exceptional men and women when so many of us fall to incarceration, drugs, and the countless other traps laid for us.

Certainly life cannot simply exist of complaints, losses, suffering and failure. Such a life would quickly become demoralizing. We should be proud of and continue to support our individual superstars. But we must also work tirelessly to build a CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM! Because while our individual superstars break records, win awards, and accumulate riches and accolades, our TEAM IS STILL NOT WINNING, and we fail to adequately understand and challenge those factors responsible for our collective LOSING!

To soothe ourselves from becoming too depressed, we live vicariously through examples of Black “success” on television shows, in the media or we place a certain relative on a pedestal. It’s as if we’ve conceded that “I don’t make the grade, but I can feel accomplished by associating myself with someone who does.” Why not take that same energy to enrich ourselves and our family/community members? Many times the only things separating us are discipline, hard work, and motivation. We cannot buy into the false concept that certain people were “born” to be accomplished and important. Nor can we support a small minority of our people and allow the vast majority to fall by the wayside. As we know, without proper guidance, our exceptional youth can turn into entitled jerks, and those remaining can become demoralized, satisfied with mediocrity, and never tap into their true potential.

Do some people have more “natural” ability in certain respects? Yes. Do others struggle in certain respects? Yes. But good coaches have high expectations for the entire team! They also create routines and structures to make sure every team member is well-prepared and performing at their highest level.

I wrote my new book to expose our youth to concepts, skills and habits that are empowering and that many don’t receive from home, places of worship, or school. It is a basic and easy to follow playbook and framework designed to move us from Black youth exceptionalism to the thinking/preparation required for a championship team. My goal is not simply “no child left behind,” but also “no child in front by themselves.”

___________________

 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-SpanNY1 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 truself143@gmail.com.

The Troubling State of Black Youth in America!

book cover

Recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report entitled “Race For Results: Building a Path to Opportunity For All Children. This report – like so many others – reinforced through empirical data what we already know…..Not only do Black youth face tremendous barriers to success, but they face more of them at a greater rate than ANY other category of youth! The report studied 12 various factors and used results to develop a possible index score of 1000. African-American youth ranked the lowest of all youth studied, with an index score of 345 out of 1000. 

Highlights of the Report

Among other things, the report finds that:

  • 66% of Black students graduate from high school in 4 years
  • 17% of Black 4th graders scored proficiently in reading
  • 14% of Black 8th graders scored proficiently in mathematics
  • 72% of Black adults aged 19-26 in school or working
  • 26% of Black adults aged 25-29 who have an associate degree or higher
  • 37% of Black children live in two-parent households
  • 50% of Black children live in low-poverty neighborhoods

The U.S. Government’s Findings

The U.S. Government’s last Civil Rights Data Collection (2011-1012) found that Black students are punished more severely and routinely than their white counterparts. According to the survey, only 5% of white students were suspended from school annually, compared with 16% of Black students. School suspension typically leads to less instructional time and more opportunity for young people to get involved in wasteful and counterproductive activities.

This government study additionally suggested that Black students are more likely than others to receive instruction from new and less experienced teachers.

And while neither report addressed this, Black youth in america have the largest rate of teen pregnancy, incarceration, and  uncompleted high school education.

Clearly Black youth, and by extension, Black people are in a very disturbing situation. Certainly we can address this in a number of ways. Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a special initiative for Black and Latino males a few years ago. President Obama announced his My Brother’s Keeper initiative this year to also address the issue of disadvantaged Black boys.

I am no elected official or person of great wealth or status. But I am an educator, activist and writer. And my way of addressing this issue is to equip our youth with the habits, skillstruth for youth cover, and attitudes they need to be successful an empowered. This is the inspiration behind my new book, Truth For Our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens.

To be clear, anyone can have a sudden epiphany and write a book and then work feverishly to promote it for material gain. On the contrary, I have been educating Black and Brown youth (and their parents) for decades and have taught parents how to advocate for their children in public school and rid schools of incompetent and uncaring administrators. I also worked with colleagues to create a new middle school 14 years ago and have facilitated countless hours of life management and enrichment workshops for young people of color in some of this nation’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods. I am no Johnny-come-lately or new kid on the block with a get-rich-quick scheme seeking to prove myself or become more marketable. This book is an extension and reflection of a my life’s work. I write this not to “toot my own horn” or in a spirit of braggadocio, but to establish my qualifications and intentions for those that don’t know me. This is especially important on social networks like Twitter and Facebook where many people have only “virtually” met. LOL.

Public policies and school reforms have their place. Concerned elected officials and competent teachers and school administrators have an important place. But as I mentioned in a previous article, budgetary constraints, partisan rivalries, and an anti-Black conservative education agenda compromise many of these efforts.

As the Ghanaian proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We cannot however, trivialize the primary element of our village when it comes to preparing our youth for success. No legislation,news reports funding, or public pronouncements will make a significant difference if informed and loving families don’t exercise their authority/responsibility to teach young people the habits, attitudes, and skills required for their own empowerment. My book is a tool parents/families, community groups, and youth development specialists can use in this effort. Please read this blog about the book and consider purchasing it and spreading the word.

spread the word

___________________________

Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

Truth for Our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens

truth for youth cover

 I am happy to announce that I released my third book Truth for Our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for TeensIt is my hope that parents, teachers, youth development specialists, and after-school programs will purchase this book, read it, and disseminate its principles in the community. In this post, I want to explain my reasons for writing the book and let you know more about the project.

I’ve read hundreds of self-help, motivational, and self-empowerment books throughout my life. The majority of them targeted adults. I’m speaking of books like Who Moved My Cheese, The 48 Laws of Power, Think and Grow Rich, The Law of Attraction, The Secret, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and many others.

But as an educator and someone dedicated to empowering young people, I saw no books that targeted our teen population. And when those books finally arrived, most were written by people with no background in education or youth development. Others focused mainly on young ladies or young men, and centered on dating and etiquette. Moreover, the majority of these books had little reference or relevance to youth of color. And yet, Black and Latino youth, who are among the most at-risk and vulnerable citizens of the United States, REALLY need to learn about empowering themselves!

I began writing a book that would provide our youth with a blueprint to help them navigate the confusing (and sometimes dangerous) world of adolescence in an effort to help them realize their full potential and lead empowered and fulfilling lives.

The result is Truth For Our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book For Teens. It is written in teen-friendly language, contains charts, activities and relevant graphics, and it imparts useful information like:

  • How to build self-confidence and self-love
  • How to manage time
  • How to deal with peer pressure
  • The importance of investing in yourself
  • Avoiding common “traps” in life
  • How to make good decisions
  • How to choose friends wisely

And much more! The book has two parts. Part I (10 chapters) focuses on information for teens. Part II (5 chapters) focuses on information for parents/adults. As the caretakers of young people, parents or adults must work cooperatively with youth, because youth empowerment is a team effort. Part II gives parents the basic information and framework they need to help youth soar.

This is now my third book, and in my opinion, the most important. This society does little to empower Black and Latino youth. WE are charged with making sure they know who they are and where they come from, and making sure they develop the attitude, skills, and habits to be leaders and problem-solvers long after we’re gone. While this book is no cure-all, it is a tool to assist in this effort. The book will be available soon and I’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, please click here to enjoy a free chapter which focuses on peer pressure, and visit (and “like”) my Facebook author page.

_____________________

Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

 

Removing the Veil: The Humanizing and Cautionary themes of Dubois and Baldwin

dubois baldwin Many regard The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois as classic literature. Indeed, both works are referenced, purchased, and deemed socially relevant several years after their original publication dates. Furthermore, both books transcend typical description by exploring and informing various disciplines including history, psychology, literature, sociology, and political science.

Perhaps the value of these books owes itself to the insight they provide into the black experience in racist America, and into the white American psyche that creates and maintains racism for its benefit. This paper argues that Dubois and Baldwin made passionate pleas in their respective works, one appealing to the conscience and reason of whites to demonstrate Black humanity, the other extolling white hypocrisy while calling for Black identity and self-determination. Taken together, these works represent attempts to reconcile blacks and whites with each other in the cooperative spirit of creating an America that lived up to its lofty ideals.

Writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk provides a history of the black experience from the Reconstruction to the turn of the century, and in doing so, encompasses such topics as black religion, music, labor, politics and education. Yet, we might argue that his main interest is to humanize black people in the eyes of his white contemporaries. His title itself suggests this aim, (that Blacks do in fact, have souls) and Dubois alludes to this in the forethought of his book.[1]

In the first chapter entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Dubois introduces his concept of the “veil,” to describe how white society creates barriers to black advancement. This veil, suggests Dubois, “only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”[2] While that veil clouds blacks’ self-perception, Dubois suggests that the veil of race also prevents whites from viewing black people as they truly are. What results then is a distorted view that blacks are ignorant, child-like, and inhuman. Setting this foundation in the beginning, Dubois then sets out to help white America see black people as they truly are, to expose them as his title suggests, to the souls of black folk.

http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month/videos/web-dubois-and-the-niagara-movement#

He does this convincingly, arguing that the black condition following the Civil War might appear trivial or “weak,” but is in fact, the burden blacks bear, fighting both to be true to their own culture and to reconcile themselves with American values and expectations.  As if pleading with white America not to judge the descendants of slaves too harshly, he reminds them of the intense poverty they suffered and how generations of educational neglect left them illiterate and unsophisticated. [3]

In the second chapter, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” Dubois explores the period after the Civil War until 1872, highlighting both the achievements and defects of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He recalls how former slaves fought in the Union army, created mutual aid societies, and struggled to educate themselves with and without Bureau support. His account squarely documents the tenacity of black people, and the seriousness with which they took their own lives and freedom. DuBois’ testimony to black humanity and agency despite societal handicaps continues throughout the book. In his chapter Of the Training of Black Men, for example, he discusses the development of industrial and common education for blacks in the south, noting the remarkable progress made amongst black college graduates and professionals in just five decades.[4]

In the last chapter “Of the Sorrow Songs,”  DuBois  poetically describes the power and history of the Spirituals, which he characterizes as “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”[5] Thus, he provides a counterargument for whites at the time that portrayed blacks as being content with their captivity and abuse. Again, DuBois uses his broad knowledge of history to humanize black people by illustrating their contributions to American music, their industry (he recalled how the Fisk Jubilee Singers used their concerts to raise money to support Fisk University), and their humanity.

Finally, DuBois summarizes his appeal to white America on behalf of black humanity when he cites black contributions to America: “Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro People?”[6]

If DuBois used The Souls of Black Folk, to prove blacks’ worthy of full and unrestricted American citizenship, if he removed the veil so whites could accurately see the humanity of black people, then Baldwin removed the veil for the purpose of showing black people and whites themselves who they really were.

Published during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time, is considered an excellent commentary on race relations at the time. He provides a brutally honest and highly reflective examination of white racism and its debilitation of blacks. In his first essay, My Dungeon Shook, Baldwin speaks to his black contemporaries, insisting that black people know and embrace their heritage, unashamedly claim all the rights and privileges owed them as American citizens, and that they refuse to internalize the racial stigmas ascribed to them by whites. Speaking to the latter point, Baldwin counsels,

The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to you inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear. [7]

In this sense, Baldwin removes the proverbial veil in an effort to edify the psyche of blacks and simultaneously, to expose the maliciousness of white racism in America. He also explains the power dynamics of racism, as when he describes how whites create ghettos for the purpose of curtailing the mobility, ambition, and life choices of black youth.[8] Clearly dissenting with the popular notions of acceptance and integration at the time of his writing, Baldwin insists that blacks reject attempts to be accepted by whites or integrated into their society.

His second essay in the book, “Down at the Cross,” removes the veil again, but this time, to expose the contradictions and hypocrisies of white society. It is as if Baldwin wants to peel away layers of illusion, reminding whites that they are not the righteous demigods they portray themselves to be, but that their superiority is based on mythology that both deludes them and debases black people.  As Baldwin suggests, “the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards.”[9]

Baldwin is particularly critical of Christianity, both its black and white manifestations. Seeing it as yet another way to negate and restrict people, he cites as evidence the “Curse of Ham” (which suggests that black people are divinely cursed despite their best efforts) and that notions of heaven and hell amounted to “blackmail.”[10]

Baldwin takes some time to describe his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Although he agrees with some of the nationalist pride and unity exhibited by the group, he nevertheless views their biological determinism and claims to superiority to mirror similar negative elements of Christianity. He concludes by rejecting racism and discrimination in all its forms, calling our attention to the need for interracial cooperation, and the need to transcend our self-imposed labels and barriers. Similar to DuBois, he removes the veil preventing blacks and whites from truly understanding themselves, one another, and the role both must play toward creating social justice in America. Of course, as suggested by his title, Baldwin’s book is more of a cautionary tale than DuBois.’ He reminds us that what is at stake is our mutual existence.


[1] Dubois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” In Three Negro Classics, 209. New York: Avon Books, 1965

[2] Dubois, 215.

[3] Dubois 218

[4] Dubois, 279.

[5] DuBois, 380.

[6] DuBois, 387

[7] James Baldwin, “Baldwin: Collected Essays,” 293,  New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998

[8] Baldwin, 293.

[9] Baldwin, 300.

[10] Baldwin, 307.

About My New Book “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook”

Book cover

If oppressive corporations can spend so much time, resources and energy to advertise and promote their (largely toxic) products to the public, I see no reason why the people cannot  promote  products which provide guidance and clarity to the public. In this spirit, I present you with an excerpt of my new book, The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook. “BSU” refers to “Black Student Union,” and this book is a manual for how to effectively organize for Black Student Unions on college campuses. At the same time, much of the information in this book (distilled from my own experiences as a BSU leader, and my studies of student activism) is equally helpful for non-collegiate community activists and organizations. To my knowledge, this is the first book of it kind which specifically shows student activists the ins and outs of organizing.

This book will be available for purchase in another week. My hope is that all Black people interested or involved in grassroots organizing in addition to BSU members will purchase this labor of love and spread the word. Some of the key chapters include, Leadership Training, Meetings, Programming, Propaganda, Alliances, Utilizing Media, Building Morale, Making Decisions, The Anatomy of a Movement, and Maintaining Archives.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 13, “The Anatomy of a Movement,” where I identify and describe 9 stages of a social/political movement. This excerpt addresses the first stage which I call “Irreconcilable Discontent.”

Irreconcilable Discontent: This refers to a mentality or psychological state which leads people to create a movement to confront an oppressive power structure. People may experience discontent with a situation for several years but never do anything to resolve their conflicts because they have “made peace” with it in one way or another. They might rationalize that this “is just the way things are,” that “we can’t win” or simply refuse to seriously address the issue out of fear or personal discomfort.

But irreconcilable discontent takes place when an incident occurs that is so egregious, so blatantly insulting or oppressive that people overcome their fears and skepticism and feel compelled to respond in organized fashion. For example, Black people have resented the ominous presence and brutal activities of police in our communities for decades. We detest police harassing Black motorists, stopping and frisking our youth, and shooting us down in the streets. We know this is unjust and criminal; we know that the officers responsible go free and resume their presence on the police force. Yet despite our discontent we reconcile with such practices, telling ourselves to “let the system do its job,” not “Rush to judgement” or “Trust in the Lord.”

As demonstrated by our lukewarm response to Trayvon Martin’s murder on February 26, 2012, and his murderer’s subsequent exoneration, we participate in marches or protests, hold some press conferences and rallies, respect others’ request that we act “responsibly,” and eventually go back to business as usual. Irreconcilable discontent means “the straw has broken the camel’s back,” we come to the realization that “Enough is enough,” and we are compelled to act in an assertive manner (even to the point of breaking oppressive rules/laws and refusing to cooperate with societal institutions and conventions)….. “

In closing, I leave you with this thought I recently posted on Facebook:

“No Justice, No Peace” is a common chant activists proclaim during rallies and protests. It implies a causal (cause-effect) relationship between the existence of justice and the existence of peace and harmony. However, we betray this logic if we respond diplomatically after repeated acts of injustice, or continue to collaborate with the systems/agents that oppress us. If we don’t change this dynamic soon, we’ll be chanting “No justice?….No Problem!”

___________________

Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, please visit his page at the Great Black Speaker’s Bureau.

Themes of Liberation and Justice in Classic Black Literature

literature

Some elements of contemporary African-American literature  – with its focus on erotica and gangsterism –  constitute a sharp departure from the rich history of literature Black people produced from the 18th to 20th centuries. Classic poetry, slave narratives and novels both demonstrated Black humanity and intelligence while providing strong critiques of the American sociopolitical order.

Mainstream (white) America questions the value and relevance of Black literature (which makes sense given that it questions the value and relevance of Black people) , but this essay will demonstrate that the Black experience in America, and Black people’s efforts to express themselves, advocate for themselves, and challenge/critique the systems of oppression confronting them, have resulted in an important and indispensable counter-narrative. This counter-narrative challenges the assumptions and perspectives of the traditional white, privileged, and male-dominated narrative on every level of human thought and existence.

Beginning with the poetry of 17th and 18th century writers like Phyllis Wheatley and Joshua McCarter Simpson, we discover that enslaved or formerly enslaved Black writers were discontent with their captivity and that they exposed and challenged whites’ religious contradictions and hypocrisies. In fact, these two tendencies, detesting oppression and exposing the contradictions and inhumanity of oppression, are dominant themes historically repeated within a wide scope of Black literature in America.

Three years before American independence, Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved 20 year-old living in Boston became the first major African-American to publish a book of poetry in America. Given the belief that Blacks were intellectually inferior, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Wheatley’s publication provided an wheatleyexample of Black literary acumen and accomplishment. While she did not typically write on social or political topics, Wheatley’s short poem On Being Brought from Africa to America, skillfully exposes the hypocrisy of a Christian yet slaveholding society, subtly critiques whites for denigrating “pagan” Africa and Blacks’ hue, and gently reminds whites that all people are peers under God and all could be redeemed through religion (Sherman, 1).

Toward the middle of the 19th century, Black poetry became more overtly political. Such protest poetry was greatly influenced by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slaves seeking refuge in the North to be returned into slavery. Federal marshals and other law enforcement agents received fines if they did not return runaway slaves they captured, and any regular citizen caught aiding a fugitive slave faced fines and imprisonment. This act made the institution of slavery more deeply entrenched as it eliminated the north as a refuge of freedom for slaves and essentially broadened slavery from a southern issue to a national one.

Infuriated, slaves, free Blacks and abolitionists became bolder in denouncing the “peculiar institution.”  This sentiment was reflected in the work of enslaved poets like Joshua McCarter Simpson whose poetry openly disputed the legitimacy of slavery and in some cases, advocated escape. His poem “Away to Canada” for example, satirizes and mocks his slaveholder’s abstract notions of “freedom” and “Satan.” Simpson’s life in bondage causes him to view such concepts in tangible and physical ways. Hence for Simpson, freedom is associated with escaping the plantation, and his owner is the embodiment of “Satan” (Sherman, 7).

Continuing this tradition of social critique were the slave narratives, memoirs former slaves wrote which detailed the horrors of slavery and provided a critique of the institution. Commenting about the significance of slave narratives Henry Louis Gates notes, “In the long history of human bondage, it was only the black slaves in the United States who – once secure and free in the north, and with the generous encouragement and assistance of northern abolitionists – created a genre of literature that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate” (Gates, 1). These narratives also provided credible testimonies to debunk the myths (later popularized by scholars like U.B. Phillips) that slavery was humane and beneficial to Blacks.

Born in the 18th century, Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative provides a counter-narrative to that typically communicated by white peers of his time. Reflecting on his childhood in what is now Nigeria, the author recalls the existence of courts, trade, medicine, gender inclusive military units and skilled labor in addition to the importance of hygiene and sanitary habits (Gates, 30-37). Like many slave narratives written between the late 1700s and the early 1800s, Equiano’s recalls his journey toward Christian redemption, in addition to the horrors of the slave experience. Equiano’s testimony, like those before him and many to come later, disproves the notion of Black intellectual inferiority, African savagery, or “humane” slavery. Written in antebellum times when the abolitionist movement was prominent, 19th century narratives like that of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs sought to generate money and sympathy for the struggle to eliminate slavery. Abolitionists used narratives like theirs as recruitment and fundraising tools; their objective was to expose sympathizers to the horrific conditions of slavery and to inspire them with stories of slaves that escaped to freedom and educated themselves. Consequently, such narratives emphasized the brutality, family separation, and the auction experience, characterized by slavery.

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845) continues the tradition of reflective and critical slave narratives. Through describing his experiences as a slave in Maryland, Douglass vividly documents the social prescriptions placed on Blacks, the unbridled brutality of slavery, and the religious hypocrisy of whites that proclaimed Christianity even as they owned other human beings. Arguably, no other individual captures and embodies this last theme more consistently and forcefully than Douglass. In the appendix of his narrative Douglass forcefully states his disdain with white Christian hypocrisy: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity” (Gates, 430). As if to reinforce his disgust with white religious hypocrisy, Douglass concludes his narrative with a poem entitled “A Parody.” The last stanza provides an excellent summary of his views:

We wonder how such saints can sing,

Or praise the Lord upon the wing,

Who roar and scold and whip, and sting,

And to their slaves and Mammon cling,

In guilty conscience union (Gates, 434)

Douglass’ sarcastic reference to slaveholders as “saints,” the contrast he identifies between white prayers and white brutality, and his bold declaration that whites worship Mammon (the god of greed) rather than the God they profess, are a scathing indictment of religious hypocrisy among white slaveholders.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was one of the first written accounts of an enslaved woman. Harriet Jacobs’ recollections of sexual abuse, along with the

Former slave Harriet Jacobs whose famous slave narrative described the uniquely horrific treatment of enslaved women

Former slave Harriet Jacobs whose famous slave narrative described the uniquely horrific treatment of enslaved women

threat of being separated from her children, strongly resonated with white northern women. In fact, Jacobs targeted her revelations to this demographic (Gates, 13). In addition to describing the brutality of slavery, Jacobs’ memoir provides a counter-narrative of enslaved Black women, who were typically portrayed as being licentious. In contrast to this depiction, Jacobs refuses her owner’s sexual advances, and retains control of her body and sexual prerogative. Her counter-narrative humanizes enslaved women by describing how they confronted both racial and sexual oppression. As Henry Louis Gates notes, she explains “by vivid detail precisely how the shape of her life and the choices she makes are defined by her reduction to a sexual object, an object to be raped, bred, or abused” (Gates, 12).

These slave narratives provide counter-narratives proving that slavery was inhumane, hypocritical, exploitative  and dehumanizing. They refute the suggestion that Blacks were unintelligent and indifferent to their captivity. At a time when many Black people suffered from forced illiteracy, these written narratives speak for the millions of slaves they could not tell their story, and provide documentation of these experiences for posterity.

The Reconstruction period in America brought great hope for newly freed Blacks, at a time when the federal government sought to literally “reconstruct” southern infrastructure damaged during the Civil War, to reunite the Union by re-admitting the former confederate states, and to facilitate a movement in which Blacks would enjoy the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. For the first time during their sojourn in America, Blacks voted, ran for and secured political offices, received formal education, and enjoyed legal protection.

White mob violence and northern political concessions prematurely ended this America project of inclusion by 1877 however, giving rise to what Rayford Logan termed the “Nadir Period” of African-American history between 1877 and 1901. During this period Blacks found themselves disfranchised, stripped of due process (by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case), and victimized by Jim Crow laws that curtailed their social, political, and economy mobility.

Again, Black literature adjusted to the hostile political terrain, this time by responding in the 19th century with masking and trickster literature. Such literature simultaneously provided coping mechanisms for Black writers and subtle expressions of Black liberation.

This speaks to the enduring quality of black expression. For intensified racial hostility did not cause Blacks to stop proclaiming their humanity and denouncing their oppression, it simply caused them to do so in more nuanced ways. Trickster stories also provide significant testimony that Black and white people, due to differences of culture and experience, viewed the world through different lenses, resulting in a uniquely Black literary tradition. According to Joan Sherman, “The fact that various African-Americans at different times celebrate, or mask, or reject their blackness and race heritage significantly modifies their art. Emotions of despair, bitterness and anger in antebellum verse, or hopeful accommodation later on, or irony in dialect verse distinguish black from white poems on the same subjects” (Sherman, 4).

Perhaps the definitive poem on masking, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” (1895) both defines and describes the practice. Dunbar hints that the mask worn by blacks serves a dual purpose: it displays false emotions to appease whites and also hides emotions that might incur their wrath. Frances Harper’s uplift novel Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted (1892) explores the complicated experiences of

Frances Harper was a poet, abolitionist, author and early advocate of Black women's empowerment.

Frances Harper was a poet, abolitionist, author and early advocate of Black women’s empowerment.

educated and race conscious Black and biracial characters while imploring Blacks to “embrace every opportunity, develop every faculty, and use every power God has given them to rise in the scale of character and condition. . .” (Harper, 282). Yet she also crafts scenes in which enslaved Blacks wear the masks of ignorance, indifference, or frivolity to outsmart whites. In one scene, two slaves appear to be engaged in a lighthearted conversation about butter and eggs at the marketplace. Later, we learn that their banter is actually coded language they use to discuss developments in the Civil War (Harper, 9). In another scene, a fellow slave describes how Jake eavesdrops on whites’ discussions of the war and disguises his objective by behaving with exaggerated buffoonery (Harper, 11). In subtle and fictitious fashion, Harper uses these characters to provide a counter-narrative: that Black people like all members of humanity are concerned about issues that affect them, and clever enough to advocate for their interests and against those of their persecutors in a clandestine fashion.

Trickster tales were another subtle literary vehicle employed by some Black writers of the 19th century, again demonstrating Blacks’ indefatigable tendency to express their unique experiences and challenge the validity of their oppression.

Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories embodied this tradition, and Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899) and later book The Conjure Woman and conjure womanOther Conjure Tales were important contributions to trickster literature. His main character Uncle Julius is an elderly formerly slave living on a former slave plantation in post-slavery North Carolina. Uncle Julius is a trickster character always telling fascinating stories to entertain the white carpetbaggers he works for. Of course, Julius tells these stories with a hidden agenda to obtain food, information or some other resource from his employers.

In the “Dave’s Neckliss” story, Julius plays on the guilt on the awkwardness felt by his employer’s wife Annie to procure the couple’s leftover ham. At one point, he describes how Dave, a Christian slave, was confronted by his owner about rumors that he could read the Bible. When Master Dugal questions him, Dave admits the rumor is true. Sensing punishment -as reading was commonly prohibited for slaves – Dave mentions that he’s learning about the sins of stealing, lying, and coveting. As these prohibitions support the master’s property interests, he doesn’t punish him, but permits him to keep reading and invites him to preach about these principles to fellow slaves (Chesnutt, 125-126). Dave wisely manipulated the situation to escape punishment and gain greater power on the plantation. Uncle Julius was cunning, but no more so than Chesnutt himself. Far from telling stories about sly slaves, the author uses these tales to provide social critique concerning the brutal and dehumanizing effects of slavery and racism. His subtle trickster literature earned him an audience with white upscale readers of periodicals like Atlantic and Harper’s Monthlies. Using the trickster tradition allowed Chesnutt the platform to educate influential whites about the black exploitation without offending their sensibilities.

This powerful Black counter-narrative continued well into the mid 20th century. Drawing from her background in cultural anthropology and Black folk culture, Zora Neal Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Literary peers like Alain Locke and Richard Wright criticized Hurston for writing a novel that did not overtly confront American racism, and which – through its use of Black dialect – appeared to highlight “inferior” Black folk culture. Yet, Hurston weaves a story of one woman’s struggle for self-discovery, self-acceptance and growing independence. The protagonist Janie Crawford, yearns for romantic love in post-slavery Florida, but unfortunately marries men seeking to define and control her. Even the marriage to her ideal partner “Teacake,” ends tragically when she is forced to kill him in self-defense. Nevertheless, Janie returns to her Eatonville a confident woman who refuses to define herself according to the expectations of love interests, relatives or townsfolk. Hurston’s novel explores the divisions between rural and urban Blacks, men and women, and light and dark-skinned Blacks in addition to the struggle of Black women to define themselves in a world crafted by men. Janie, like many Black women in the thirties struggled against the limited labor role cut out for them as embodied in her grandmother’s statement that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston, location 538). Their Eyes provides a counter-narrative with its independent female protagonist, setting in all-black towns, and willingness to embrace and even privilege Black folk culture. It also illustrates how the legacy of slavery impacted Black relationships and social and gender roles.

When Richard Wright published Native Son (1940), many critics considered it the quintessential protest novel. Set in a Chicago slum during the 1930s, Wright’s jarring scenes and vivid language powerfully described the despair and frustration many Blacks faced in America during the Great Depression. Bigger Thomas is Wright’s heavily conflicted and bitter protagonist who exhibits a tremendous capacity for being destructive: “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (Wright, 10). Indeed, Bigger ultimately murders his white employer’s daughter Mary, then sexually assaults and kills his girlfriend Bessie. Bigger feels no remorse for his belligerence; instead, he draws a sense of identity and power from his violent acts.

What possible message can Wright communicate with an incorrigible protagonist like Bigger? Wright communicates this through the words of Bigger’s communist defense attorney Max, who suggests that “Excluded from, and unassimilated into our society, yet longing to gratify impulses akin to our own but denied the objects and channels evolved through long centuries for their socialized expression, every sunrise and sunset makes him guilty of subversive actions” (Wright, 400). Wright’s counter-narrative is also a cautionary tale. He seeks to shock white America out of its pleasant illusions concerning race relations. Bigger symbolizes the collective Black community seething with rage against a system that restricts their freedoms, denies their humanity, and brutalizes them with impunity. Wright warns white America to restructure its institutions and behavior to resolve these issues or face the inevitable retributive violence and destruction to follow. At a time when Blacks were seen as problematic, Wright suggests that racism, Black poverty, and Black bitterness were white structural problems that whites had to resolve. He also implies that the violence and destruction would inevitably spill over to affect whites in America.

This abbreviated sampling of Black experiences and perspectives and the social correctives developed therein, profoundly impacted the American intellectual and political discourse. African-American literature articulated a counter-narrative which enriched, informed and sensitized American culture and politics for centuries.

At a time when America is increasingly populated by people of color and when the majority of these people continue to suffer mass unemployment, poverty and alienation, Black literature is both an indispensable and irreplaceable intellectual resource.

_________________

Works Cited

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940

Chesnutt, Charles. The Conjure Woman and Other Related Tales. Durham: Duke, 1993

Harper, Frances.  Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Oxford Ed., 1988

Sherman, Joan. African-American Poetry of the 19th Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992

———African American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997

Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Kindle Book, Amazon, 31 January 1995.

________________

Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

Exploring the Theme of Racial Uplift in the “New Negro” and “Black Moses”

Left to Right: Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey

Left to Right: Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey

The “New Negro” cultural renaissance of the 1920’s was as much a social consciousness as it was a literary and artistic movement. Writing about this sensibility among Blacks, Alain Locke characterized it as being race-conscious, assertive and uplifting.[1] Of course, such sentiments appeared in black literature prior to the 1920s; Nineteenth Century writers like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and George Moses Horton for example, captured similar themes in their writing. Several socio-economic factors facilitated the New Negro cultural renaissance, and explain its appearance during the 1920s: the depression of cotton-based southern agriculture due to the boll weevil; blacks’ large-scale migration from the brutality and wage exploitation of whites in the south; increased racial hostilities which culminated in race riots throughout the country and the “Red Summer” of lynching in 1919; and finally, World War I black soldiers’ disillusionment upon returning home to face racist brutality and job discrimination, even after courageous service to their country.[2] The New Negro Movement was far more than a period of prolific literature; it represented the mass cultivation of black consciousness and racial uplift. Critics might argue that the movement was ineffective. It produced no significant anti-Jim Crow or lynching legislation, nor did it improve wage earnings or economic mobility for black people. Yet, this article argues that the New Negro cultural renaissance, including the Garvey movement, cannot be measured in terms of such benchmarks. The movement’s greatest accomplishment was its push for racial solidarity and race pride among blacks, who historically were stigmatized and degraded by years of revisionist history and racist propaganda promoting their alleged inferiority and lack of accomplishment. Two books, Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation, and E. David Cronon’s Black Moses: The story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, support this premise. In his important compilation The New Negro: An Interpretation, Alain Locke suggests that the “Old Negro” was treated as an object of history, and a stigmatizednew negro book one at that. In contrast, the New Negro would no longer “see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem,” but articulate his own feelings and concerns through creative and literary expression.[3] In short, Locke viewed self-expression and artistic autonomy as key components of the New Negro movement. He emphasizes this point, and the centrality of Harlem as a New Negro center, when he writes, “In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.”[4] Locke himself defines the New Negro Movement largely in psychological terms, as an attitude or sensibility.[5] In this sense, he seems to agree with his contemporary James Weldon Johnson who writes, “The final measure of the greatness of all people is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.”[6] Referring to whites’ racist beliefs about black ability, Johnson adds, “nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.”[7] Both Johnson’s and Locke’s approach to black literature within the New Negro Movement was understandably vindicationist. Locke aimed to debunk the myth of black inferiority.  The way to achieve this in the 1920s was to expose the world to a diverse array of talented black essayists, novelists, and poets that unquestionably mastered conventional literary styles. Toward this end, both Locke and Johnson compiled and edited books with works by such writers. Yet, the intent of this approach was not simply to secure white validation, but also to instill pride and a sense of accomplishment among the black community.[8] Locke insinuates this tendency in his essay “Negro Youth Speaks,” for example, when he produces a virtual “roll-call” of prominent black writers, poets, sculptors and musicians.[9] Locke sometimes sends seemingly contradictory messages in The New Negro, praising black writers for race-conscious expressions, and then applauding them for their “detached artistic vision,” and for not producing “racially representative work.”[10] Perhaps Locke is not ambivalent here. We might argue that Locke’s assessment of the New Negro Movement mirrored the dual consciousness described by DuBois – a yearning to be seen as American while arguing the existence of a distinctly black cultural apparatus. E. David Cronon, in his Garvey biography Black Moses, situated the Garvey movement within the larger context of the New Negro movement, arguing that black mosesGarvey’s vision in fact, helped to create the “New Negro.”[11] In one of the first books to explore Garvey’s activities in detail, Black Moses details the trajectory of Garvey’s rise, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) philosophy and agenda, the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and factors leading to Garvey’s downfall. Cronon then proceeds to chronicle Garvey’s activities within the UNIA, including his dramatic rise and fall. Nevertheless, Garvey, like Locke and his fellow proponents of the New Negro Movement, had a tremendous influence on race pride and solidarity amongst black people. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association clearly articulated these themes in its manifesto. According to this document, the UNIA would promote race pride, assist the needy, and establish schools for black students and develop businesses serving the black community.[12] Garvey’s intentions were not fully realized. By 1923, Garvey  unfairly received a five year prison sentence for using the mail fraud concerning the advertisement and sale of stocks in his struggling Black Star Line shipping fleet (We later learned that Garvey was set up by a government informer whose only “proof” was an empty envelope.) In 1927 the United States deported Garvey to Jamaica, and both he and his organization faltered. Garvey’s attempts at commercial enterprise, the creation of schools, and repatriation back to Africa failed. He exercised poor judgment in meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in 1923, and his later references to “African Imperialism” confused his general message. His attempts to resuscitate the UNIA in Jamaica and later London both failed, and Garvey died without seeing his ambitious goals come to fruition. With these issues in mind, Cronon asserts that, “This latter-day Moses achieved little in the way of permanent improvement for his people.”[13] It is questionable whether any leader or organization can affect “permanent improvement” for their followers, as social conditions, financial circumstances, and collective consciousness are dynamic rather than static. Yet, Garvey’s impact cannot be denied. Cronon himself was moved to write of Garvey: “His peculiar gift of oratory, a combination of bombast and stirring heroics, awakened fires of Negro nationalism that have yet to be extinguished.”[14]  We might argue that Garvey’s greatest contribution to the spirit of the New Negro Movement was not tangible legislation, institutions, or industry, or material progress for black people, but an attitude of black pride and solidarity, an attitude that was consistent with, and a complement to, the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. Cronon would admit, “Marcus Garvey’s success in capturing the imagination of the black masses cannot be ignored by the thoughtful student of history. The enthusiastic response to Garvey’s persuasive program of black nationalism shows beyond all question that the Negro masses can be reached through an emotional appeal based on race pride.”[15] In comparison, New Negro sculpture, poetry, and novels did not produce many tangible gains either. What they did do was provide black people with a counter aesthetic, and a sense of purpose, history and destiny. Similarly, Garvey’s flamboyant parades, ambitious projects, and Pan African Nationalist rhetoric (all promoted internationally via his Negro World newspaper) helped to create a foundation that later organizations built upon. While his actual UNIA membership is difficult to determine,[16] there is evidence that Garvey’s ideas influenced the African independence movement of the 50s,[17] the development of Black theology, later Black Nationalist organizations, and the Rastafarian movement. Alain Locke and E. David Cronon’s books are instructive. They demonstrate that in regards to the movement for black liberation, racial consciousness and uplift are just as important as more tangible gains. Moreover, the cultivation of this consciousness is a prerequisite for any sustained and successful liberation movement.


[1] Alain Locke, The New Negro, ed. (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 10-12.
[2] E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), 21-33.
[3] Locke, 3-5
[4] Locke, 7
[5] Ibid.
[6] James Weldon Johnson, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922),
[7] Ibid.
[8] Locke, Forward.
[9] Locke, 49.
[10] Locke, 50.
[11] Cronon, 71.
[12] Cronon, 17
[13] Cronon, 4.
[14]Cronon, 4.
[15] Cronon, 203.
[16] Cronon, 205-206.
[17] Cronon, 216.
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Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

Not Another Protest Novel: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as an Unconventional Literary Narrative

watching God

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Zora Neale Hurston

The literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance produced a proliferation of Black prose and poetry that demonstrated both black writers’ ability to master traditional literary styles and devices, and to define and articulate a distinctly black cultural aesthetic throughout the 1920s and 1930s. renaissanceParticipants in the Renaissance – motivated by themes of black uplift, racial pride and solidarity – privileged and came to expect writing that promoted these themes. Works that did not overtly illuminate and challenge American racism or those that were perceived to illustrate black inferiority or folk culture often were criticized as being irrelevant. This article will demonstrate that Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, expanded and provided nuance to Harlem Renaissance literature, by including voices and exploring themes often neglected by other works of this period.

Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is often considered a pivotal work of the Harlem Renaissance, although ironically, it appeared when the famed literary “rebirth” was in its decline. Their Eyes is the story of one woman’s self-discovery, self-acceptance and evolving independence, situated in rural black communities within Florida during the 1920s and 30s. While the novel was not autobiographical, it was likely influenced by Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, Florida, and her anthropological interests in rural Black folk culture.

Interestingly, two prominent black male writers, Richard Wright, and Alain Locke, however, wrote scathing reviews, accusing Hurston of constructing insulting and minstrel-like black characters that met white approval and failed to provide social critique. In a 1937 New Masses review, Wright wrote:

“Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh . . .In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race” (Wright, 22-23).  

Similarly, Alain Locke writes:

“It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension,let us now get over oversimplication!” (Locke).

 Both critics were likely motivated by their own personal politics and as male writers. Therefore, they may have suffered from literary blind spots, failing to appreciate Hurston’s unique literary contribution to black literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God offers an unconventional narrative, differing from contemporary black novels of its time in that: 1) the story takes place in all-black communities that are rich with black folklore, and absent any significant white presence  2) Hurston skillfully and abundantly employs the use of black southern dialect (capturing differences in characters’ education, place of birth, and class status), and the protagonist is an independent black woman, operating in a male-dominated world, yet capable of thinking and acting in ways that defy male expectations and societal conventions (particularly as they concern male and female relationship roles).

janie crawford

Haile Berry as Janie Crawford in 2005 film adaptation of the novel

Contrary to the reviews of Wright and Locke then, Their Eyes, although certainly not a novel of protest, did address important themes within the rural black community in subtle and nuanced ways. This is most apparent in how Hurston depicts the protagonist Janie Crawford. The story begins with Janie returning to her place of birth, amidst the judgmental stares and gossip of her neighbors. Janie proceeds to her destination unfazed. When her best friend Pheoby Watson mentions the town gossip surrounding her Janie and urges Janie to respond, she is dismissive and indifferent: “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth the trouble. You can tell ‘em what Ah say if you wants to” (Hurston, location 416). The remainder of the book proceeds in this fashion, with Janie recalling her childhood up to her last marriage. By making Janie the chief narrator, Hurston literally centers the book and its characters around the perspective of a woman.

The themes of love and marriage take on important roles in the novel and merit primary attention. Janie Crawford survives three marriages, two of them dysfunctional, and all of them characterized by domestic violence, a man’s attempts to define, restrict and control her, and her refusal to allow them. Following the advice of her well-meaning but jaded grandmother Nanny, Janie reluctantly marries Logan Killicks, a significantly older and successful farmer. It would be easy for readers to resent Nanny for arranging Janie’s marriage without her consent. But Hurston embeds a freedom narrative through Nanny,  explaining the role that slavery played in shaping her perspective: “Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t  for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can stop you from wishin’ (Hurston, location 559). Nanny warns her granddaughter about the limited labor role men have for women, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see,” (Hurston, location 538) which seems prophetic when Logan began to see Janie as more of a farm hand than a wife. Yet Janie is no helpless victim. When the opportunity to leave him presented itself, Janie did, and went off with Joe Starks, an ambitious man from Georgia.

Janie’s marriage to Joe started well, but soon soured as Joe became more possessive of Janie, as evidenced through his attempts to control her movements, friendships, and physical appearance. Like Logan, Joe viewed Janie as his personal laborer, forcing her to work in the town store he established in the town of Eatonville, Florida. Like her marriage to Logan, Janie’s marriage to Joe provided material security, but no romantic love. Once again, Janie stands up to an oppressive husband, publicly embarrassing him in response to one of his typical demeaning remarks. Joe dies (from being humbled as much as from any physical affliction) leaving Janie with property and money.

Her last marriage to “Teacake,” is the only one in which Janie’s husband accepts her for who she is and generally views her as a peer rather than a possession or laborer. Hurston complicates even Teacake’s comparatively healthy relationship with Janie, by demonstrating that Teacake too, abuses her and possessively agonizes over her attractiveness to other men. While saving Janie from drowning during the hurricane,  a rabid dog bites Teacake, which causes him to become “mad.” Teacake later attempts to shoot Janie, leading her to ironically murder her one true love, in an effort to save herself.

Another unique aspect of Hurston’s novel is location. The entire story is situated in all-black southern towns where black people and their experiences push the story forward. Janie’s second husband Joe Starks, actually establishes a new black town of Eatonville, Florida and becomes its mayor. Again, the novel does not fall within the protest genre, yet Hurston’s location of the story within black-led communities, suggests an appreciation for black self-reliance and autonomy, two themes ironically heralded by both Richard Wright and Alain Locke. Their Eyes Were Watching God provides an authentic portrayal of these black southern towns precisely because of Hurston’s use of black dialect, in the story. The dialect of the people in her original town, Eatonville, and the Everglades, slightly varies, demonstrating that the black folk in these towns were unique and different. From place to place, black folk used different expressions, and spoke in slightly altered dialects. Hurston also illustrates class differences: the townsfolk for instance, spoke in a different dialect than did Joe Starks, who we presume had a higher degree of education.

Their Eyes Were Watching God thus marks an important departure in conventional women’s literature of its time, as the female character acts in her own interests, and refuses to define herself according to her relationships with men or the expectations of neighbors. In a final note of empowerment, we also learn that Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, is inspired by Janie’s story, and vows to spend more quality time with her own husband Sam.  Given the themes of black self-sufficiency, the relevance of black folk culture, and Janie’s resistance to patriarchy, Their Eyes Were Watching God is every bit as paradigm-challenging and reaffirming as more overtly political works in the 1930s and 1940s.

 Works Cited

Wright, Richard New Masses, 5 October 1937: 22-23

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Kindle Book, Amazon, 31 January 1995.

Locke, Alain Opportunity, 1 June 1938

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Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.