Black History isn’t our Corpse, it’s our Resurrection!

Each February, we Black folks take four weeks to celebrate and delve into our rich history. This takes many forms including fancy dinners, fashion shows, special exhibits in libraries/museums, wearing t-shirts bearing the likeness of famous Black leaders and thinkers, lectures and much more.

An entire online industry has emerged via YouTube featuring debates, interviews and presentations from college trained and self taught scholars regarding African history.

Thanks to groups like the Amen Ra Squad and the House of Consciousness, more Black youth are exposed to the work of John Henrik Clark, George G.M. James, Ben Yosef-Jochanon, Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Williams, Cheik Ante Diop, and other pioneering historians of ancient African history.

This thirst for history is a welcome development with much needed benefits, especially for our teens and 20 somethings who represent the future of our people.

All over the country, Black youth are beginning to slowly wake up. The stigma of being African or Black is slowly dissipating. The myth of white superiority and its twin imposter, Black inferiority, is fading as well. But danger lurks behind this growing appreciation for our history.

Our youth, who gravitate to the “Knowledge of self” Movement (rightly so) do so because it provides them a sense of pride, belonging and status. As their more experienced and wiser elders, we must guide them to avoid the pitfalls that await them in the arena of research.

One danger is our youth getting the message that studying our history is solely for the purpose of developing racial or cultural pride.

They also face the risk of confusing historical knowledge  with the regurgitation of names, dates, and other “facts.”

A third danger we must address is that our youth will mistakenly reduce our vast historical experiences to the narrow confines of Nile Valley civilizations or debates over the legitimacy of Hebrew Israelite, Moorish, and Islamic history/contributions to world civilizations.

The last and final danger is that young neophytes to Black historical inquiry will have their heads buried so deeply in books of the past, that they rarely look up to recognize and engage the present circumstances swirling around them.

In response to these dangers, I offer our youth the following observations:

  • We study our history or that of others to have an accurate understanding of the world and our role in it. We seek meaning, clarity and truth in our studies. As mistreated and subjugated people, we do not have the luxury of acquiring “knowledge for knowledge sake,” using it to be or feel important, humiliating and “defeating” other brothers and sisters, flaunting our knowledge or to fraudulently separate members of our community from their hard-earned money. Some in our community have reduced history to a street hustle, bully pulput, or intellectual gladiator sport. This is shameful, and it must stop!
  • History is not a trivia game. Simply spewing tons of terms, dates and events does not constitute solid historical research. That is an oversimplified and elementary view of history. The more relevant and useful historical approach develops accurate analysis, evaluates and creates theories/blueprints, and poses solutions.
  • While Africa is the undisputed birthplace of humanity and cradle of civilization, our experiences do not end in Africa or simply with history.  If everyone focuses on Kemet, religion, astronomy or mythology, who will conduct equally important studies in sociology, psychology, education, physics, biology, agriculture, medicine, military science, etc.? Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, brother Malcolm and others told us that we are a sleeping nation. Therefore we must study and master everything that a nation needs.
  • We cannot view History as a corpse or body of dead information when in fact, it is the source of our RESURRECTION! This implies that we must begin to conduct research with the intention of solving our problems today.

Our young Intellectuals – formally trained or self-taught – must see themselves as connected to the Black Liberation Movement. Their scholarly talents and discipline must include serious efforts to rescue, defend and empower our people. When you view presentations/debates on YouTube, pore through thick books, and take methodical notes, do so with every intention of ending the suffering and mistreatment of your people and helping them protect and advance themselves.

I can think of one way to start becoming more action-oriented. Expand your reading to include writers of the 20th century who explain how we are oppressed and how to get free! Add the works of DuBois, Cyril Briggs, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, brother Malcolm, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Paolo Friere, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture, George Jackson, bell hooks, Ella Baker, Dr. King, Amos Wilson, and other brilliant Black intelectuals-activists to your personal library.

Don’t focus so much on debating and chllenging others, but on teaching  important lessons from the past that inform us today; Help us identify and eliminate our self-defeating behavior; Study, modify and create blueprints, theories and institutions for our unification and liberation. Find ways to be useful and relevant; Create institutions that outlive you; In short, get your heads out of the African sands and help to organize and rebuild the cities we occupy today!

______

Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

Black People: STILL America’s Best Kept Secret?

Whenever we endeavor to write history, and to use historical developments to generate and define the context of contemporary developments, we truly engage in a necessary yet complicated  task. The task is necessary because we understand that all present-day circumstances and events find their roots in those preceding them. It follows that identifying and analyzing these historical events allows us to better understand and engage things taking place today.

What makes this task complicated is that people record and analyze history. These people do not exist in a vacuum, but are connected to social classes, privilege (or the lack thereof) and with them, ideological biases and slanted perspectives.These biases and politically loaded perspectives often lead historians (professional and novice) to focus on some events and people at the exclusion of others. Indeed, much of what is called “U.S. history,” is in fact  an amalgamation of privileged, wealthy, white,male narratives.

This disturbing realization pushed formally trained and self-taught 19th and 20th century Black intellectuals like J.A. Rogers, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, Ellen Watkins Harper, and innumerable others (who would come later) to do groundbreaking research and storytelling to illuminate and give meaning to the Black experience in the United States from the informed perspectives of Black people.

A peoples historyThe repeated erasure or misrepresentation of Black perspectives/experiences likewise pushed radical and sympathetic white intellectuals like Howard Zinn for example, to publish books like “A People’s History of the United States,” in which he recalled U.S. history from the perspectives of poor, Black, female, and indigenous people rather than whites with status and privilege. In many cases, Black and some white scholars alike have not only provided alternative historical narratives, but corrected blatantly inaccurate versions. To note that there are numerous examples of this fact is an understatement.

For example, prior to DuBois’ classic “The Black Reconstruction,” mainstream scholarsBlack Reconstruction and the public commonly believed that the attempt to politically empower Black people after the Civil War failed completely because newly freed Black folk were ignorant, violent, and “not ready” for the responsibilities of freedom. DuBois convincingly proved that the Reconstruction could boast achievements like public education and a more democratized government. He also proved that Black people played an active and impressive part in their own advancement, contrary to popular belief.

Prior to Herbert Aptheker’s book, “American Slave Revolts,” scholars believed and taught that enslaved Africans were content with the brutality and labor exploitation they  regularly faced, and that the institution of chattel slavery was not as inhumane, violent, and oppressive as it actually was. Aptheker destroyed both arguments by documenting widespread reports of violent slave revolts throughout the South. His logic was simple and effective: If Africans were “happy slaves,” and slavery itself was not inhumane, why would enslaved folk secretly organize and use weapons (at great risk to themselves) to kill slave owners and flee their captivity?

This same dynamic also exists in the Diasporan context. For years, mainstream political economists and historians attributed Africa’s poverty and civil woes to African mismanagement and “primitive” intellect and understanding of politics and economics. Guyanese scholar-activist Walter Rodney’s anti-imperialist classic,europe underdevloped africa “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” took serious issue with white scholarship on this matter. Rodney demonstrated how European colonialism/imperialism – and its practices of exacerbating local indigenous conflicts, crafting labor and trade agreements unfair to African societies, and robbing the continent of its natural resources at gunpoint – was the true culprit explaining both Africa’s underdevelopment and Europe’s capitalist expansion and political empowerment.

As a graduate student who would later become Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, Eric Williams also challenged misrepresentative white scholarship on the question of European advancement. Prior to Williams’ masterful book, “Capitalism eric williamsand Slavery,” white scholars cited Europeans’ superior intellect, assertiveness, technology and business sense as the explanations for Britain’s 17th-19th century wealth and political stature. Williams shattered these pompous claims by explaining how the enslavement of African people led directly to the economic development of British shipping companies, insurance companies, its sugar, cotton and wool industries and even the British industrial revolution itself!

We have discussed how white scholars have misrepresented and attempted to erase the Black experience. We have also noted how white America in general attributes Black failure to the incompetence of Black people without providing any understanding of white supremacy’s role via brutality, enslavement and propaganda.

But our indictment against privileged and biased white scholarship can’t stop there. As if depicting Black folk as ignorant and primitive fools responsible for our own poverty and underdevelopment wasn’t enough, they have also trivialized or omitted (As Rodney and Williams demonstrated) the indispensable role Black people played in global and national wealth in addition to freedom movements in the United States. To hear some traditional white scholars tell it, Black people played minimal roles in the Abolitionist, Reconstruction, Suffrage, Communist, Free Speech, Anti-War, or Feminist (First or Second Wave) Movements in this country!

Case in point: I recently read an otherwise well-written and informative article attempting to connect an impressive current campus movement for inclusion, diversity, safety, and environmental concerns, to the Free Speech Movement started at Berkeley 50 years ago. This claim has some validity, and is well-argued I might add. However in writing his narrative, the author glosses over the overwhelming significance of the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Black student activists (and later white activists) of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This is odd, considering that no other mass social justice movement politicized, mobilized, and organized students, intellectuals, and community folk to challenge oppression during the mid 50s and early 60s to a greater extent.

From the historical records we have available to us, it is safe to say that the Civil Rights Movement radicalized, energized and to some extent, gave birth to and set precedents for the Free Speech Movement and Anti-war Movements in the 60s. This is important to note because both the Free Speech and Anti-war Movements were largely middle-class white student movements. By citing these as the reference points or benchmarks of student activism in the U.S., we ignore the agency of Black students, pastors, menial workers and intellectuals that preceded them. Hence yet again, the Black presence is ignored or trivialized, even by a sympathetic and well-meaning writer. No story of mid-20th century college student activism is complete without mentioning the Black Power and Black Arts & Consciousness Movements (led by Black students, intellectuals and community folk) with its bold demands for Black solidarity, economic development, anti-imperialism. self-defense/self-reliance, Black pride, Black cultural expression, and Black political and artistic perspective and aesthetics.

These social justice and freedom movements radicalized college students of every stripe, and led to a critique of western capitalist education, calling for colleges to prepare students to empower and liberate their communities beyond the college campus, and to be more inclusive and democratic. This in turn led to the creation of Black Studies Departments around the country, which inspired women, Latinos, and other ethnic and marginalized groups to follow suit.

If we are going to tell the story, tell it accurately. Talk about the indispensable significance of Black resistance, ingenuity and struggle, and how it politicized and energized other oppressed or neglected American citizens to take up their own struggles for expression, dignity and freedom. No matter how you slice it, Black people have always been the “radical conscience” of the United States. More than anyone, WE, this nation’s most despised, rejected and oppressed, have always been the people to call America out for refusing to practice what it preached. The shameful display of our suffering and brutality in an effort to realize rights and privileges denied us by a nation we built has created the blueprint for white feminists, the gay community, and countless other ethnic groups, oppressed people and movements. We are not arrogant or myopic enough to believe we are the only examples of resistance and social justice; And yet we tire of being a footnote in the history of this country and the world. And it is a damn shame that as we approach year 2015, with a Black president and all, BLACK PEOPLE ARE STILL AMERICA’S BEST KEPT SECRET!

________________________

 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 published “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook,” a leadership and organizing manual for Black Student Unions on college campuses. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, Huffington Post Live, 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. Currently, he lives in New York City and in addition to speaking and writing, provides consultation in the areas of activism and community organizing.

Enough of the Feel Good Black History!

triviaHistorical approaches, like most other things, are subject to change and nuance. Of course history itself (past events, activities and individual expression) doesn’t change, but the manner in which we interpret it, our aim in researching it, or the manner in which we use it, inevitably does.

This article explores the relevance of Black historical research and will provide a critique of what I call “Feel Good” Black history.

In scholarly circles, we refer to the study of how history as been conducted, written and interpreted as “historiography.” If you follow the historiography of “Black or African-American Studies,” you will notice that it has changed over time.

Early pioneers of the field like J.A. Rogers, concerned themselves with “contributionist” or “vindicationist” Black history that focused on proving our worth and humanity through listing important Black figures, significant dates and African/Black contributions to world civilization.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this emphasis on Black contributions was necessary because white society constantly spread the propaganda that Black people “Were nothing, had nothing, and contributed nothing.” The “First Black to do this,” or “Did you know” type of Black history was crucial and relevant in years past, because we had to challenge myths of Black inferiority and incompetence to whites, while resurrecting the crushed spirits and psyches of our own people.

While racism and anti-Black sentiment still exist, things are more nuanced today. With the abundance of research and archaeological evidence we now have, no one (barring members of right-wing white supremacist groups) can reasonably argue that Black people have not accomplished important things or contributed meaningfully to society.

After WWII and continuing to this day, Black history became more sophisticated and analytical.

As times and needs change, so does historiography. It is safe to conclude that the majority of Black children, youth and adults today know something about Black intelligence, accomplishment and pride. This is an important and lasting harvest of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Today we are familiar (even if only in an elementary sense) with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., even Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. We know or at least have heard that “Black is beautiful.” The election of Barrack Obama as the nation’s first. “Black” president the media dominance of Oprah Winfrey and the widely-recognized writing brilliance of Ta-Nahisi Coates are, (at least symbolically) convincing evidence of Black achievement and ability that no one can reasonably discount.

Therefore in the 21st century, it is not enough to simply quote or highlight famous Black (usually male) leaders, produce a list of Black “firsts”, or cite Black trivia. Doing so actually represents a digression or backwards step since we already have a tons of evidence and scholarship in this regard.

We live at a curious time where despite the presence of a Black president, Black million and billionaires, thousands of Black elected officials, successful Black entrepreneurs, scientists, attorneys, professors, writers, and entertainers, WE ARE STILL OPPRESSED, MARGINALIZED AND MISTREATED.

Our children don’t receive the education they need in chronically low-performing public schools; Police officers and white vigilantes still murder us with impunity; Privatized U.S. prisons keep millions of us in captivity and enrich themselves from our nearly free labor while doing so, most of us have no or very little assets, we die younger and more frequently than any other group in this country, and our rate of unemployment is astronomical (typically double that of whites).

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we don’t need feel-good history – the type that is heavy on pride, vindication and proof of our greatness, but light on analysis and utility.

Much of what passes for Black history today (particularly on social media like Facebook) is oversimplified and obsolete. What we need right now and going forward are get-right, get-empowered, get problems-solved, get-free Black Studies!

Anything involving or affecting Black people should be under examination. And we must overcome our oversimplified definitions of history or relevant Black Studies.

This means we must change our concept of history from that of trivia, highlighting exceptional Black people, emphasizing Black contributions and attempting to prove our humanity or value to white people. These objectives are fine for Black elementary school children. From middle school on however, Black or Africans Studies should involve  seriously studying the Black experience in various class dimensions, locations, religious and political contexts, and in every important sphere of our existence.

We must do this earnestly and in a critical manner with an aim of better understanding the problems we face, and resolving or correcting them.

No individual, organization, movement, or ideology is above critique. We need solutions, clarity, direction and answers in addition to studies that celebrate and affirm us. And simply put, feel-good Black history doesn’t provide all of these dimensions.

As we begin to shift our focus away from feel-good applications of history, we can focus on more functional uses:

  • Comparing and contrasting different leaders, organizations and theories of liberation.
  • Studying important but obscured people, organizations, and movements in our past. History is not simply the study or achievements of great men, exceptional folk, members of the Black middle class, urban areas or mass national organizations!
  • Developing Black political-economic agendas and establishing financial and other institutions to achieve them.
  • Debunking myths, ineffective methods, inaccurate analysis, and self-defeating thoughts/practices among ourselves.
  • Clarifying misunderstood or misinterpreted ideologies, individuals or movements.

Too many of us are metaphorically riding donkeys when we should be exploring space. Too many of us are metaphorically using morse code in an era of laptops, tablets, smartphones and the internet. Let’s get our heads out of the sand and engage in studies of our experience that are useful and relevant to our condition, because being liberated and empowered is the one sure way to actually FEEL GOOD.

_______

Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at 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.

Keeping Our Ancestors Ideas Alive

African genius

One weekend in 1980, for an infraction I no longer remember, my mother disciplined me by banning me from watching television, or going outside. I could handle The TV prohibition; what crushed me was not being able to see my friends, play basketball at the local schoolyard, or enjoy the sunshine and people in Harlem.

Bored out of my mind, and tired of writing poem after poem, I desperately searched for a new activity that would help my adolescent prison sentence go by faster. I thought of the box which stood high atop my bedroom closet. The box belonged to my father who was not fond of anyone going through his things.  I always looked at that box and wondered what it contained, but never had the nerve to ask or explore for myself. But solitary confinement has a way of prompting you to think thoughts and take actions you wouldn’t under normal conditions. So I nervously climbed on top of a tall storage trunk, extended my right arm to its full length and cautiously felt around the contents of the mysterious box. To an outside observer the scene would’ve been comical I’m sure. You would’ve thought I was stealing a gold brick from Fort Knox or trying to crack a sophisticated safe!

But there I was, balancing on my tip-toes on top of a rickety trunk, determined to satisfy my curiosity and avoid getting caught by my dad. I felt a number of things, and not being able to actually see the items, I clumsily used my fingertips as my guide: some scissors, a roll of scotch tape, scattered paperclips….so far my valiant expedition yielded no treasure. My fingers walked to the right side of the shoe box and I felt what I believed to be a book. I became excited – loving books as I did – and snatched up the object, nearly tumbling to the floor.

It was indeed a book, tattered, faded and yellowed by age and oxidation. When I tell you I devoured Malcolm X Speaks, I do not exaggerateI couldn’t put the book down, and finished it in one day. My father always spoke very highly of brother Malcolm to me, but malcolm x speaksnow I read his actual words, and I was sold on Black Nationalism. Throughout high school and college, I spoke to every brother and sister I could about this great and visionary leader. I sought out and read any book I could find about him and listened to hours upon hours of his speeches. As corny as it sounds, I vowed in 7th grade to learn everything I could about Malcolm X and to implement his ideas to the best of my ability.

As I became older and more informed, I learned that Malcolm was not alone; Indeed, he drew from and built upon the ideas and legacy of a vibrant  Black Nationalist tradition dating back to David Walker, Henry Highland Garnett, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Martin Delaney, and Edward Blyden in the 19th Century, and figures like Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, and Elijah Muhammad in the 20th Century.

The point of all this is to highlight the need for us to keep the spirit of our defiant and noble ancestors alive. We do them and their work an immense disservice when we fail to learn about them, their ideas, and their struggles. Their names and ideas should stay on our lips and in our minds. We should analyze/debate their ideologies and ideas and be critical of their limits and shortcomings. We should incorporate their ideas and strategies into our own efforts to uplift Black people throughout the world.

There is no need to start political empowerment from scratch or “reinvent the wheel.” While it is true that methods must change with times and conditions, it is also true that there is “nothing entirely new under the sun.” Our valiant ancestors of various political and spiritual beliefs developed serious blueprints we can still utilize and modify today. So when adversarial whites quote one of their past greats to reinforce a point or idea that goes against our interests, we can confidently counter with the equally valid perspectives and ideas of our own greats. In these ways, we resurrect our ancestors and keep their spirit and work alive, rather than reciting their names during Black History Month.

This is not to suggest that we reject the wisdom or examples of non-original people. However we have no cause to privilege their ideas over our own. Marx, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Smith were brilliant thinkers and they remain worthy of study. But they were ultimately men with opinions, not infallible gods of truth or knowledge. God blessed us with centuries of thinkers and leaders, men and women every bit as brilliant, and in some cases more so. We must not allow their ideas to die or remain obscured, nor fool ourselves into thinking their vision is any less valid or applicable than anyone else’s. With few exceptions, many of the issues we struggle with today, our ancestors addressed as well, and often more effectively than we do.

Marcus Garvey understood the need to embrace and proclaim our ancestors…. to keep their memory, ideas and work alive and accessible. He urged us go keep their ideas on our lips and minds and to draw from our own great tradition of leadership. I close with an  excerpt of his classic piece, “African Fundamentalism:”

The time has come for the Blackman to forget and cast behind
him his hero worship and adoration of other races, and to start
out immediately to create and emulate heroes of his own. We must
canonize our own martyrs and elevate to positions of fame and honor
Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to
our racial history.

Sojourner Truth is worthy of sainthood alongside of Joan of Arc.
Crispus Attucks and George William Gordon are entitled to the halo
of martyrdom with no less glory than that of the martyrs of any
other race. Jacques Deselines’ and Moshesh’s brilliancy as
soldiers and statesmen outshone that of a Cromwell, Napoleon, or
Washington: hence they are entitled to the highest place as heroes
among men.

Africa has produced countless numbers of men and women, in war and
in peace, whose lustre and bravery outshines that of any other
people. Then why not see good and perfection in ourselves? We
must inspire a literature and promulgate a doctrine of our own
without any apologies to the powers that be. The right is the
Blackman’s and Africa’s. Let contrary sentiments and cross
opinions go to the winds. Opposition to Race Independence is the
weapon of the enemy to defeat the hopes of an unfortunate people.

__________________

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.

Five Important Overlooked Figures in the Black Liberation Struggle

unsung heroes

We Live in an Encouraging Time!

Notwithstanding the continued legacy of white supremacy, anti-Black propaganda, and racial oppression, we  live in a time where we have more access to our true history more than ever before. Black intellectuals unearth more pieces of our historical jigsaw puzzle via books and articles. The Internet search engines point us to pictures, documents, and multimedia clips  to supplement the information provided even in the most deficient social studies textbooks and mainstream media outlets.

Yet history is broad, and even with these encouraging developments important people, information and experiences remain obscured in our historical narratives. For example, we can all name some significant figures in the Black Liberation Struggle, but our list often contains the same celebrated names recycled redundantly across generations. Therefore, we must reclaim our history and its meaning by expanding our pool of references and actively utilizing their ideas and best practices.

Objective of This Article

This article identifies and attempts to explain the significance of five important figures in Black history whose influence often is obscured. This is not a complete or final list by any means. For various reasons these five people resonate with me, but I encourage you to create your own list.

history quote

Our rich history contains hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of individuals we need to learn from and whose examples we need to build upon. In this spirit, I do not wish to contribute to the “roll-call” approach to history or the tradition of hagiography where we recite the names of great people we idolize; My aim here is to explore the meaning and enduring impact of ordinary people that thought or did extraordinary things so that we can draw inspiration and clarity from them.

Toward a Living and Relevant Understanding of History

 History is not an old or irrelevant regurgitation of  old experiences or people (no matter what our ill-equipped and uninspired history teachers believed) but a living reminder that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and consequently no need to completely “reinvent the wheel” in our quest for meaning, direction, and resolution.

History is a living thing, and the only thing “dead” about it are the minds and imagination of those who fail to appreciate this fact.

Five Under-appreciated and Utilized Figures of the Black Liberation Struggle

callie houseCallie House: Born in 1861 in Tennessee, Callie House was a mother, wife and washerwoman who created the  National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association in 1894. As the organization’s leader, House spearheaded efforts to lobby the U.S. government to provide financial and social service reparations for formerly enslaved Black people. While Blacks debate the validity of reparations today, House and her supporters saw reparations as a moral, practical and civil rights issue. She traveled throughout the south educating former slaves about their right to reparations and pensions as compensation  for their years of unpaid labor in the slave South.  House hired a lawyer and sued the U.S.Treasury Department for $68,073,388.99 in cotton taxes traced to slave labor in Texas. The case was eventually dismissed, but her organization did provide charitable aid to many Black families. Threatened by her amazing grassroots organizing abilities and uncompromising leadership (not to mention the enormous amount of money it stood to pay Black people), government agencies monitored her mail and her activities. Falsely accused of using the postal system to defraud the public (the same tactic used years later to neutralize Marcus Garvey), House received a one-year prison sentence. Her fearless and outspoken leadership despite limited education and financial means challenges the concept that only exceptional men can lead movements and forces us to acknowledge and appreciate the issue of reparations with renewed vigor.

cyril briggsCyril Briggs: We are familiar with Marcus Garvey as a champion of the “New Negro” race pride Movement in Harlem, but he was not alone.

The Caribbean-born Communist intellectual Cyril Briggs was a contemporary and critic of Marcus Garvey. His Harlem-based organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, fused Communist analysis with Pan-African and Black Nationalist ideologies. His magazine The Crusader reached approximately 36,000 readers nationwide and while his organization never became national or global like Garvey’s, his focus on Black self-defense, anti-imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and racism, along with his critique of Black nationalism’s rigid aspects foreshadowed later groups like the Black Panther Party.

You can get a glimpse of his penetrating analysis and indomitable spirit by reading his article “The American Race Problem” written in 1918 or  “Summary of The Aims and Program of The African Blood Brotherhood,” written in 1920. The relevance of his insights to our contemporary times is simply amazing.

charles houstonCharles Hamilton Houston: Most current social studies textbooks make mention of the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case which declared racial segregation in american public schools unconstiutional. We often don’t know that this case was actually one of six cases aimed at dismantling school segregation; nor do many of us know that the famed NAACP legal Committee that engineered this legal victory began their methodical legal campaign against school segregation nearly two decades before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board in 1954. Known as “The Man that killed Jim Crow,” Harvard Law School graduate, civil rights attorney, and legal scholar Charles Hamilton Houston outlined the NAACP’s long-term legal strategy to end Jim Crow practices in American schools. Drawing from the 14th Amendment and the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision which supported racial segregation (it permitted such segregation so long as whites provided “separate but equal” facilities for Black people), Hamilton’s brilliant strategy involved three components. 1. He pressured states to provide separate but equal colleges for whites (knowing this option would prove too expensive), 2. He attacked the myth that the presence of Black students might lower white school/social standards, and 3. He proved that racial segregation psychologically damaged Black students.  

Not only did Houston become an expert on these legal issues, he wisely trained a cadre of Black attorneys to help with the campaign. One Houston protegé – Thurgood Marshall – later won the Brown vs. Board case and became the first Black Supreme Court Justice in 1967.

Hamilton embodies our need to think strategically, plan long-term movements, and use the law when possible to fight for our liberation. His famous quote directed to Black lawyers says it all: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”

ella bakerElla Baker: No meaningful discussion of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950-60s can omit the courageous contributions of  the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Seasoned activists and organizers like James Forman, Cleveland Sellers, Stokely Carmichael (Later Kwame Ture), future D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Diane Nash, William Strickland, and Judy Richardson honed their skills through SNCC and changed the course of history in various respects.

SNCC owes its existence to longtime activist and civil rights organizer Ella Baker who began her political activities in the 1930s.

She was a national NAACP leader in Harlem and was later picked by Dr. Martin Luther King to be the Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

Baker challenged sexism and the male-dominated culture of the famed civil rights organization, along with its top-down style of leadership.

Supportive of the college sit-in movement, Baker organized a student activist conference in 1960 at which SNCC was born. Originally formed to be the student wing of King’s organization, sncc Baker encouraged student activists to lead their own group and address the issues/tactics of their choice. SNCC patterned their philosophy after Baker and introduced a new model of leadership and organizational structure  during the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast to older movement leaders, SNCC members traveled throughout the South helping poor and often uneducated Blacks in various communities to develop their own indigenous leadership rather than imposing SNCC politics and policies on them.

Baker’s mentorship of SNCC yielded tremendous results as SNCC went on to participate in the freedom rides, create freedom schools, and establish an independent Black political party for rural Blacks in Mississippi. Ella Baker’s insistence on gender equality, inclusive rather than elitist leadership, and her willingness to mentor rather than command young activists mark her as a woman ahead of her time and a source of inspiration for us today.

Robert F WilliamsRobert F. Williams: Malcolm X typically receives credit for advocating Black self-defense during the 50s and 60s. Sadly, he was assassinated before he could realize his evolving political ideas.

Yet there was another individual during the same time frame that advocated and practiced armed Black self-defense….and lived to the ripe old age of 71 to talk about it!

A veteran of the U.S. army, Williams served as a NAACP leader in North Carolina during the 1950s. Upon realizing that nonviolent strategy made Black people perpetually vulnerable to racist white brutality, he organized the Black Armed Guard to provide armed self-defense for Black people in his city.

In 1959, after his new beliefs became known publicly, NAACP Director Roy Wilkins suspended Williams from leadership office.

After dispersing a Klan mob with gunfire from Black men he trained, and a highly contested attempt to integrate a public swimming pool, Williams incurred the wrath and scorn of white residents. In 1961, after being falsely accused of kidnapping a white couple (that he actually protected from an angry Black mob) Williams and his wife fled  to Cuba, fearing indictment by the courts and murder at the hands of white vigilantes. Their interstate travel involved the FBI which promptly listed Williams on their “most wanted” list.

His defection to Soviet-backed Cuba during the cold war period caused the United States great concern and embarrassment as it contradicted America’s false image as a global beacon of freedom and human rights.

Williams soon aired a radio show in Cuba called “Radio Free Dixie” which became very popular with Blacks in the American South. He used these broadcasts and his newspaper The Crusader to denounce American racism and to call for armed revolution. He published his book Negroes With Guns While living in Cuba, which became a huge influence on

Cover of Williams' influential book "Negroes With Guns."

Cover of Williams’ influential book “Negroes With Guns.”

many young Blacks in America including Huey P. Newton. Eventually Williams and his wife Mabel left Cuba for China, and they returned to the United States in 1969. Authorities cleared him of all charges and he died in 1996 after many years as an educator and community activist.

These courageous and visionary individuals combined intelligence, activism, and dedication to Black liberation and social justice. Whether we know it or not, we benefit from them and many others we don’t often hear about. And hence we benefit by learning about their activities and ideas and building upon them.

_______________________

Additional References

My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry

Race, Africa, and Empowerment for the “New Negro”: Contrasting the Racial Ideology and Political Programs of Marcus Garvey and Cyril Briggs by Agyei Tyehimba

“The American Race Problem” by Cyril Briggs

Summary and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood by Cyril Briggs

Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation by Rawn James Jr.

Negroes With Guns by Robert F. Williams

Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson

Robert F. Williams: “The Man They Don’t Want You To Know About” (video)

____

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.

Urgent Message to Youth Throughout the African Diaspora

children7

Note: My formal educational background is in sociology, education, and Black Studies/History. I’ve worked as an educator and youth development specialist for over two decades. In this capacity, I’ve helped to create a middle school, created overnight college tours, presented life management workshops, conducted college preparation activities, created educational materials for rites of passage programs, and coordinated paid summer internships based on teen career interests. I’ve spoken with and counseled hundreds of Black and Brown youth from 5th grade to high school and was privy to their academic and life challenges and triumphs. I’ve facilitated workshops for parents and listened to their (often tear-filled) concerns regarding their children’s’ behavioral or academic progress or lack thereof. I’ve seen shy awkward youth blossom into confident and masterful young adults, and watched in horror as equally bright teens squandered their intelligence and talent and became victims of drugs, gangs, and prostitution. I state these things to establish some level of credibility in the area of youth development in hopes that parents, educators, members of spiritual communities take my following words to young people seriously and urge the youth within their sphere of influence to read and absorb/implement them.

__________________

This message is for all youth composing the African Diaspora. The African Union african-diaspora-map3defines this term as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.” Of course, we would be foolish to speak of a Diaspora without including  our continental African brothers and sisters born and still living in the Motherland.

 A brief history lesson

Much scholarly evidence exists proving that the original people of ancient Africa (prior to European contact) created the foundations of art, law, medicine, spirituality, music, math and science which through migration and contact with others, spread throughout the world designating Africa as the “cradle of civilization.”

Early non-African historians from the fifth through 13th centuries – notably the Greek historian Herodotus, and Muslim historian Leo Africanus – wrote favorably of early African societies, noting how scholarly and advanced they were. Between the 13th and 17th Centuries European exploration of African coasts were common.

By the 16th century, the transatlantic slave trade was underway, dragging millions of Africans from their native land and dispersing them in the Caribbean islands, South and North America. Later by the 18th century, Europeans and others began exploring the African interior and raiding the continent for  gold, rubber, labor, and other natural resources.

African societal rivalries and Europeans’ advanced weaponry along with religious propaganda spread by Catholic priests laid the foundation of Africa’s continuous colonization for centuries thereafter.

DIOP

Senegalese historian anthropologist, physicist, and politician Cheikh Anta Diop was one of many important Black scholars that proved Africa’s ancient contributions to civilization.

Africa’s role as educational/spiritual center of the world thus gave way to its role as the chief source of cheap raw materials, mineral resources and labor for European industrial growth. The false concepts of White supremacy and racism paralleled these developments as European nations sought to justify their greed and brutality toward Africa through enslavement and colonization. In a complete change of history, Europeans begin referring to African people as “primitive, “uncivilized” and “pagan.” These developments changed the course of world and social history until this day, as African people were dispersed throughout the world and generally relegated to the lowest rungs of the political, economic, and social orders wherever we existed.

African Independence

african leaders

Sampling of African Independence Leaders. Top left: Patrice Lumumba, Congo. Top Left: Sekou Ture, Guinea Bottom Left: Julius Nyerere, Tanzania. Bottom Right: Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana.

During the post WWII period many African nations – led by individuals who received the benefit of formal education college educated and were enlisted to fight on the side of their colonial powers during WWII – participated in the African Independence Movement. One by one, former subjugated nations defeated the colonial powers like France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. After many centuries of external domination, African nations were now free to run their own affairs (though in many cases conformer colonial powers still manipulated the affairs of such nations from behind the scenes- a dynamic referred to as “Neocolonialism”).

The Present

It is vital that you understand this history in order to properly understand the present. Today, though most of us are not literally enslaved, many of us throughout the world find ourselves living in conditions of poverty, injustice and oppression. In America for example, after hard-fought victories against enslavement and “Jim Crow,” and the election of our first Black President,we still have a higher rate of infant mortality, poverty, and incarceration than other Americans. Also we, like people of color in other nations, still suffer from European/white propaganda teaching us that we are ugly, unintelligent, naturally violent, lazy and hopeless. I refer to this as the “Wizard of Oz Syndrome” which you can read about here. In summary, I argue that we were systematically made to believe that we are not capable, to shrink away from taking our rightful place in the world, and to believe we lacked humanity and compassion. Far too often our own behavior demonstrates that we are victims of this insidious syndrome.For example:

  • No respect for learning
  • Accepting overcrowded, filthy and disease-ridden living conditions as normal or “good”
  • Embracing a criminal lifestyle and boasting about incarceration
  • Disrespect for elders
  • Premature and unhealthy sexual practices
  • Indifference/disregard with preparing for the future
  • Seeing value in objects and possessions rather than one’s self
  • Willingness or desire to inflict harm upon members of one’s own community
  • High instances of suicide, homicide, and severe depression
  • Belief that other groups of people are smarter, more attractive or “better” than one’s own

Message to Youth

I’m sure you can see how such beliefs and practices damage our communities and our future. Given this, I’m calling for you, the youth of the African Diaspora, to reclaim your greatness, honor your ancestors and take hold of your future in the following areas and ways:

Pan-African Consciousness

The legacy of white propaganda and our forced dispersal all over the world caused us to not only to lose sight of our own value, but to look upon our Diasporan brothers and sisters as enemies rather than those responsible for exploiting our labor and stealing our wealth in the first place.  In our ignorance we developed prejudices and hatred toward Africans, South Americans, African-Americans, Asians,the original people of Australia, our people in the Caribbean, and Black people throughout the world. Indoctrinated by the miseducation provided by our former slave owners and colonial masters, some of us fought wars against each other on their behalf and tried desperately to adopt their ideas and practices. You must educate yourselves to see past this trickery and begin to recognize each other as distant relatives separated at birth.

The world is composed primarily of original people of color. Unifying around our common experiences and common oppressors and forming economic and political bases of power will prove most beneficial for all of us in the future. Because we’ve embraced different ideologies and political views and some of us have become mirror reflections of our oppressors, this task is difficult but not insurmountable.

Health

Without good health, nothing else matters. People of color die prematurely at rates that are disproportional to other people. I myself just had a stroke two weeks ago so this topic is VERY important to me. In addition to having a healthy diet heavy on fruits, grains, and vegetables and light on animal products, You MUST exercise regularly, to build and maintain a healthy heart and other muscles. Don’t forget your mental health also. You must find healthy ways to release stress in your life and get proper medical attention when you need it. This naturally means you should avoid drugs that damage your body and mental health. “Fun” now will cause pain later. This includes cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. In addition, you must practice safe sexual habits. The presence of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases means you should use condoms when having sex or risk harming your or other people’s lives.

Learning/Self-Development

As a young person your life should include preparation for adulthood in addition to fun and recreation.  Many countries make basic education mandatory for this reason. Being a capable worker or business owner in the future requires you to have certain skills like reading, mathematics or science. Responsible citizenship requires you to 1. Read and understand newspapers, books, laws and important documents of your country; 2. Know basic geography in order to locate and understand other places in the world 3. Have strong writing skills so you can write editorials in local newspapers for example 3. Develop public speaking and critical thinking ability to educate other people, protest injustice, debate your ideas with other people, or run for local/national political office in your country.

In addition to these forms of education, you will also need to develop good character in order to be a fair-minded, compassionate, and responsible adult. Then there are very specific non-academic skills you must learn to function effectively in society. Some of these skills might include:

  • Cleaning your household
  • Defending yourself
  • Prioritizing issues
  • Budgeting money
  • Learning other languages
  • Solving problems
  • Organizing people
  • Conflict mediation
  • Understanding economics
  • Self-defense and military strategy
  • Time management
  • Logic and Debate
  • Critical Thinking
  • Effective communication
  • Economics
  • Hygiene and grooming
  • Cooking well-balanced, delicious and nutritious meals
  • Creating a business
  • Conflict mediation
  • Anger management
  • Agriculture
  • Technology

Politics

I’m not referring to formal politics involving campaigns and elections (although that is important) but to identifying problems in your community or nation and working with others to solve them in constructive ways. The world is forever in need of capable, dedicated and informed individuals to lead organizations, create schools and businesses, and overcome poverty, illness, and injustice.

There is plenty of opportunity for you to become involved in leadership. For example, you can become a doctor, lawyer  business owners, engineer, scientist, historian, teacher, civic and union  leader and the list goes on. Every nation and society no matter how small or impoverished has produced such leaders and organizers. Yours has too, and you should consider continuing that tradition. I would strongly suggest learning about your nation’s leaders throughout history (along with those in other parts of the world).

Healthy Thinking

You are no good to yourself or anyone else if your thoughts and actions are negative and self-defeating. Nor will you be successful if you don’t believe in yourself and have a negative personality. I have developed a list of life lessons for young people, which you can view in text form here or as a slide show here.

Conclusion

I’ve given you much to think about here. My hope is that you will take these words/ideas as seriously as they were intended. Regardless of your place of birth, language, gender, level of education or family income, you are capable of improving yourself, your village or city, and of changing the world for the better.

Refuse to believe the  lies our former slave owners and oppressors taught us! They developed these lies to keep us divided and powerless!. Stand up and take your rightful place in the world. Learn about the world around you and prepare yourself to play an important role in it. Draw inspiration from young Kelvin Doe in Sierra Leone, Taylor and Kennedy Everson in Kenya,  Bilaal Rajan in Canada, or Shanoah Washington in the United States, all young people who’ve made a difference with their lives.

I’ve provided a very basic set of ideas The challenge is or you to improve upon and implement them. My generation and those before it have done much to protect AND jeopardize the future of this planet. The challenge is for you to do and be better than us so that you can improve the future of this planet and the future of our people!

__________________

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.

Race, Africa, and Empowerment for the “New Negro”: Contrasting the Racial Ideology and Political Programs of Marcus Garvey and Cyril Briggs

garveybriggs

The first two decades of the 20th Century constituted a watershed moment in African American history; Approximately 750,000 southern Blacks migrated to Northern cities seeking better economic opportunities and refuge from the brutality of the Jim Crow South. Joining them was a large number of Caribbean migrants; In 1917 the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia led to the creation of the Soviet Union which inspired black soldiersoppressed people around the world; Proud African-American soldiers fought bravely in WWI believing their sacrifice had earned recognition as American citizens. This “New Negro” attitude which developed among Black people in the post WWI period was met with unbridled racial hostility in the form of lynching and race riots in over a dozen cities.

Within this matrix of developments during the pre and postwar periods, existing Black organizations and newly created ones worked to translate the New Negro attitude into programs that would articulate and address Blacks’ grievances.  Marcus Garvey and Cyril Briggs (both Caribbean immigrants who would establish their headquarters in Harlem), appealed to similar demographics and concerns, but advanced decidedly different methods of advancing Black liberation. Garvey drew from Pan-African thought and Black Nationalism, while Briggs fused Pan-African ideas with Black Nationalism and Communist ideology.  For them, issues of racial solidarity, the role of an independent Africa, and a program for economic empowerment were central concerns that guided much of their propaganda and political action. This paper will explore how both of these leaders articulated and attempted to manifest such themes.

Racial Identity and Solidarity

Race consciousness and pride constituted the cornerstone of Garvey’s ideological infrastructure. In fact, it is impossible to responsibly speak of Marcus Garvey without referencing this component of his thinking. Garvey traveled widely around the world prior to

UNIA nurses march at 1922 parade in Harlem

UNIA nurses march at 1922 parade in Harlem

his 1916 arrival in the United States. His observations of similarly oppressive and exploitative conditions for Black people throughout Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America influenced his belief that the Black race received such persecution because of their “blackness.”[1] The 1920 UNIA Declaration of Rights refjlects this belief:  “We are everywhere discriminated against and made to feel that to be a black man in Europe, America and the West Indies is equivalent to being an outcast and a leper among the races of men, no matter what the character and attainments of the black man may be.”[2] His perspectives on the matter of race however ideological they would become for Garvey were largely forged through his personal experiences.

Garvey believed that Black people suffered injustice and oppression primarily due to their racially proscribed designation of being inferior and not accomplished. His famous proclamation “Up you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will,” reflected this position. Garvey envisioned a race of proud, successful Black people who would one day prove themselves equal to white men by establishing a record of accomplishment that equaled those of white men. He reasoned that Blacks would never realize true freedom and empowerment until they were able to collectively demonstrate their competence and power in the world.[3]  For Garvey this specifically meant that Blacks must “produce scientists, statesmen, philosophers, leaders, creators, similar to those of the white race.” He continued that “when he can lay down a proper system of civilization, which is the standard of the white man, the prejudice from which he now suffers will disappear as the mist before the dawn of day.”[4]

A key impediment to Black accomplishment identified by Garvey was Blacks’ acceptance of the psychologically damaging beliefs that they were incorrigible, unattractive, unworthy and ill-fated. Thus a key objective for Garvey was to instill racial pride within his followers and the larger Black community. This approach he believed would eliminate Blacks’ subservience to whites and at the same time, provide them with anegro world much-needed capacity for self-reliance and the creation of a global and national Black “empire.” Garvey then used his organizational newspaper The Negro World, to both inform his readers and provide them with the inspiration to build their own “empire.” His efforts did not go unnoticed by Government officials, and there is evidence to suggest that Garvey’s objectives and effective manner of conveying them to Blacks through The Negro World concerned federal agents. One agent, C.B. Treadway wrote a letter in 1919 noting that “Such literature as this is causing a great deal of unrest among the negroes. . . and particularly those negroes who are trying to find some grievance against the white people.”[5]

Perhaps the best example of Garvey’s position on race is his famous editorial “African Fundamentalism.”

The time has come for the Negro to forget and cast behind him his hero-worship and adoration of other races, and to start out immediately, to create and emulate heroes of his own.We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor black men and women who have made their distinct  contributions to our racial history. Sojourner Truth is worthy of the place of sainthood alongside of Joan of Arc; Crispus Attucks and George William Gordon are entitled to the halo of martyrdom with no less glory than that of the martyrs of any other race. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s brilliancy as a soldier and statesman outshone that of a Cromwell, Napoleon and Washington; hence, he is entitled to the highest place as a hero among men. Africa has produced countless numbers of men and women, in war and in peace, whose lustre and bravery outshine that of any other people. Then why not see good and perfection in ourselves? [6]

Garvey’s race first ideology included strong elements of race purity. Suspicious of white patronage or agendas, he believed that Black organizations should consist of exclusively Black leadership and members. His rejection of race amalgamation extended into personal as well as political affairs, causing Garvey to criticize interracial organizations and marriages, and Blacks that were “mulatto” or had biracial parentage.[7] In 1919 in fact, Garvey was sued by Cyril Briggs for referring to the African Blood Brotherhood  leader as a “White man passing for Negro.”[8] His extreme belief in race purity would eventually lead Garvey to find common ideological ground with white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, leading to him to invite white supremacist leaders to address the UNIA and to his bizarre and ill-advised meeting with Klan “Imperial Giant” Edward Young Clarke in 1922.[9] Garvey’s position of race amalgamation naturally made him critical of Black contemporaries like Harlem Renaissance satirist George S. Schuyler, who believed racial oppression would diminish with racial amalgamation  To Garvey such an idea was unthinkable:

Some Negro leaders have advanced the belief that in another few years the white people will make up their minds to assimilate their black populations; thereby sinking all racial prejudice in the welcoming of the black race into the social companionship of the white. Such leaders further believe that by the amalgamation of black and white, a new type will spring up, and that type will become the American and West Indian of the future. This belief is preposterous. I believe that white men should be white, yellow men should be yellow, and black men should be black in the great panorama of races, until each and every race by its own initiative lifts itself up to the common standard of humanity, as to compel the respect and appreciation of all, and so make it possible for each one to stretch out the hand of welcome without being able to be prejudiced against the other because of any inferior and unfortunate condition. [10]

Like Garvey, Cyril Briggs also embraced race as a primary explanation of Blacks’ oppression and suffering. His organization, the African Blood Brotherhood published its Aims and Objectives which clearly demonstrates Briggs’ emphasis on racial solidarity and consciousness. Among other things, this document called for a liberated Race, absolute race equality, the fostering of racial self-respect, and a United Negro Front.[11] In his 1918 article “The American Race Problem,” Briggs explains racial subordination, critiques prevailing solutions to this problem offered by fellow Black leaders, and offers his own solution to the problem. Clearly then, Briggs acknowledged race, and like Garvey, called for race pride and solidarity among Black people. In fact, like Garvey, crusaderBriggs saw himself and his organization as being interested solely in the affairs of Black people. For example, in a 1920 Crusader article Briggs notes that the sole purpose of his organization was the “liberation of Africa and redemption of the Negro race.”[12]

Briggs however, did not support race purity as Garvey did. While his organization was composed solely of Black people, Briggs’ communist leanings made him amenable to interracial cooperation, particularly among workers. Admittedly “inspired by the national of the Russian Bolsheviks and the anti-imperialist orientation of the Soviet state,” [13] Briggs’ embraced a class analysis in addition to a race analysis. This led Briggs to be explicitly critical of capitalist exploitation and imperialism in addition to racial oppression and to champion Black worker activism and labor rights. Consequently he called for interracial worker solidarity or cooperation with “Class-Conscious white workers.”[14]

abb flier

An ABB flier and application calling for Black self-defense

Nevertheless, Briggs saw himself as an advocate for Blacks and addressed himself to the larger Black community, seeking as he called it, “a radical change in the Negro’s pattern of thinking.” He therefore urged Black people to organize for “Negro” liberation and fused this with a communist-influenced call to develop cooperative enterprises, join  labor unions, (as doing so would increase their standard of living and benefits), and create a “Great Negro Federation” composed of trained and dedicated Black people to provide (presumably armed) protection to fellow Blacks.[15] Like Garvey he called for Blacks to organize along the principle of “race first” without ignoring “useful alliances with other groups.”[16] A June 1920 editorial entitled “The African Blood Brotherhood” summarized the thinking and strategy of Briggs. Among other things, he advised Blacks to support Black businesses, refrain from divisive complexion discrimination among themselves, instruct their children in Black history, and challenge the false ideas that Black people were lazy, unintelligent and servile. In contrast to Garvey, he also spoke of the need for Black people to identify and work with other oppressed groups, to study modern warfare, and to affiliate themselves with labor movements of all stripes.[17]

Unlike Garvey, Briggs and his organization did not enjoy widespread appeal among the Black community. Briggs himself admitted that the African Blood Brotherhood never exceeded 3000 members nationally, most of whom were concentrated in Harlem.[18] Briggs attributed this to the ABB not having the emotional appeal, flamboyance, or ability to pay its organizers like the Garvey Movement [19] though we might also add Briggs’ lack of charismatic appeal in contrast to Garvey, largely because of his severe stuttering.

The ABB’s failure to take root on the mass level is also explained by communism’s similar failure to gain mass acceptance in the Black community during the 1920s. As a neglected and disputed component of American citizenry, Blacks were often compelled to “prove” that they too were American citizens that upheld “American” ideals. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 led to a “Red Scare” in America from 1917 to 1919.  Former Communist Party member Murray Levin described this as  “a nation-wide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life.”[20] Coupled with intense feelings of patriotism resulting from America’s successful involvement in WWI and the equally intense American hostility toward immigrants and organized labor during this period, references to communism, union activity, and radical politics which many deemed explicitly unpatriotic and threatening to American life and values. Evidence of this climate was the Espionage Act of 1917 which when amended in 1918, limited and punished speech and writing critical of the American government or its involvement in WWI. In addition, the law gave the United States government the authority to censor mail and other documents perceived to be in violation of the act. Those convicted of violating this act could receive prison sentences of up to 20 years.[21] Given the communist hostility and persecution fostered in America during and after WWI, Black people had strong incentive to adopt a similar suspicion of communist ideas and activities.

At the same time, some Black people rejected communism due to their critique of communist analysis and practice. Some felt that communism did not sufficiently address Black issues or interests, a legitimate critique given that communism made its way to America via European immigrants unfamiliar with the racial animus or brutality that Blacks encountered in America.[22] Referring to this aspect of Communism, Mark Solomon notes, “The distinctive dimensions of the black experience were not understood; the special needs and demands of African-Americans were ignored.”[23] Mark Naison in Communists in Harlem During the Depression, provides an alternative explanation of communism’s failure to resonate with Black leadership in Harlem during the 20s. According to Naison, many black organizations and leaders eschewed worker solidarity as impractical given rampant racial discrimination and viewed socialist revolution as untenable.[24]

For these and other reasons Briggs’ organization was limited in magnitude and did not receive mass support like the UNIA; it proved incapable of implementing its larger aims and political objectives, leading scholar Mark Naison to harshly characterize the ABB as “little more than a discussion group,” and claiming that “one can find no evidence of an (ABB) organizing strategy, or program of action.[25] However, Briggs’ magazine The Crusader which he founded in 1918 grew to a circulation of 36,000 [26] and proved highly effective as an instrument of racial and political propaganda.

The Role of Africa

While references to Garvey’s campaign as a “Back to Africa” Movement are oversimplified at best, Garvey’s affinity for Africa and desire to see it free and governed by Black people are indisputable. Two “Objects and Aims” of the 1918 UNIA constitution pay special attention to assisting Africa, and Garvey viewed its emancipation and “redemption” as being of critical importance to Black liberation worldwide. Speaking at his Harlem headquarters in August of 1921, Garvey made this point clear and unequivocal:

I understand that just at this time while we are endeavoring to create public opinion and public sentiment in favor of a free Africa, that others of our race are being subsidized to turn the attention of the world toward a different desire on the part of Negroes, but let me tell you that we who make up this Organization know no turning back, we have pledged ourselves even unto the last drop of our sacred blood that Africa must be free. The enemy may argue with you to show you the impossibility of a free and redeemed Africa, but I want you to take as your argument the thirteen colonies of America, that once owed their sovereignty to Great Britain, that sovereignty has been destroyed to make a United States of America. George Washington was not God Almighty. He was a man like any Negro in this building, and if he and his associates were able to make a free America, we too can make a free Africa.[27]

Garvey’s call for the “redemption” and reclamation of Africa certainly preceded him.  As Tony Martin notes, Garvey’s Pan-African ideals such as “Africa for Africans” paralleled those of his antecedents including Martin Delaney, Henry McNeil Turner, Edward Blyden and J. Theodore Holly.[28]  Like them, Garvey was a champion of African repatriation. Garvey’s ideals concerning African repatriation were both symbolic and political.  He identified Africa as Blacks’ ancestral yet displaced home and argued a “natural order” philosophy stipulating that every race of people should be sovereign citizens within their place of origin. Furthermore he believed that an Africa free of colonial control and ruled by Black people would protect and empower Black people the world over, “serving a similar role for Blacks as Israel does for Jews.”

Cyril Briggs’ appreciation of Africa is implied in the name of his organization the “African Blood Brotherhood.” That he would include such nomenclature at a time when Black people referred to themselves as “Negroes” and tended to disassociate themselves from references to Africa is telling (Even Garvey himself used the term “Negro” in his organizational name).Yet the ABB leader shared more than a romantic affinity for Africa. He recognized the vast continent as Black people’s “motherland,” understood its history of white colonization, and listed as one of his objectives to develop a “worldwide Negro federation” entrusted to reclaim, liberate, and develop Africa, even to the point of creating a “Pan-African Army” to “drive respect and terror into the hearts of the white capitalist-planters.”[29]

In the first two years of The Crusader’s publication, Briggs used his editorials to call for liberating Africa from white colonialists and to advocate for repatriation to Africa. So skeptical was Briggs that Blacks would ever receive justice in America that he wrote, “The ultimate, equitable, peaceful solution of this country’s race problem is by all signs a chimera and an idle dream. Thus it is Glory and Necessity both that call us to the mother land to work out a proud and glorious future for the African race.”[30] Here, Briggs takes a position similar to that of Marcus Garvey. . . namely that Blacks themselves must work to liberate and control Africa.

By 1919 and 1920 Briggs’ position became radicalized, as he began to call for the international spread of communism as an effective challenge to the oppression of other nationally oppressed people including Africans. [31] Briggs move from a Black-led liberation of Africa to an interracial one was no doubt influenced by communist ideas spurred on by the Bolshevik Revolution. However, even with his ideological inclusion of interracial cooperation, Briggs still called on Blacks to lead the charge for African liberation. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this point than an advertisement in a February 1920 issue of The Crusader calling for Black people to enlist for service with the African Blood Brotherhood in their effort toward “African liberation and Redemption.” By 1921 the ABB founder even softened his original position that Blacks could never find justice in America when he conceded that multiracial nations (i.e. America) might be able to coexist peacefully once capitalism was defeated. [32]

Interestingly, as Briggs adopted increasingly more radical positions concerning the liberation of Africa, Garvey – likely affected by the “Red Scare” environment of America during the time and his desire to obtain American citizenship began to distance himself from radicalism even to the point of speaking directly against it. Garvey was never particularly fond of communism, referring to it as “a dangerous theory of economic and political reformation because it seeks to put government in the hands of an ignorant white mass who have not been able to destroy their natural prejudices towards Negroes and other non-white people. While it may be a good thing for them, it will be a bad thing for the Negroes who will fall under the government of the most ignorant, prejudiced class of the white race.”[33] However, Garvey did for a moment, support the military liberation of Africa, as evidenced in a 1919 speech when he declared, “It will be a terrible day when the blacks draw the sword to fight for their liberty. I call upon you 400,000,000 blacks to give the blood you have shed for the white man to make Africa a republic for the Negro.”[34] Garvey, like Cyril Briggs, even displayed admiration for the revolutionary activity then underway in “white” Ireland. [35]

black sar line

Stock certificate for the Black Star Line

Beginning in about 1921 however, Garvey’s militant and anti-establishment rhetoric subsided and was replaced by a more conservative and patriotic tone.  The Bureau of Investigation, a forerunner of the FBI, noticed the change leading one agent to note, “For some unknown reason all the officials of the Black Star Line and Garvey’s other organizations seem to have undergone a change of mind. They are very patriotic in their speeches and have eliminated all the antiwhite talks and in its place are preaching loyalty to the U.S.A.”[36]

Economic Empowerment

One Garvey theme that never changed was his emphasis on Black self-reliance and industry. Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s gospel of self-reliance through industrial development, the last of the UNIA’s Aims and Objectives was “to conduct a world-wide Commercial and Industrial Intercourse for the good of the people.” Like Washington, Garvey was pro-capitalist and believed that Blacks would gain respect, protection and equality through making themselves commercially indispensable and prosperous. But Garvey expanded Washington’s vision, insisting that they aspire to positions of political leadership and challenge America’s racial oppression of Black people. Referring to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, Garvey would write, “No leader can successfully lead this race of ours without giving an interpretation of the awakened spirit of the New Negro, who does not seek industrial opportunity alone, but a political voice. [37]

Yet unlike Briggs who decried American capitalism and called for Black cooperative enterprises, Garvey envisioned and in fact created several businesses using the traditional capitalist model. Rather than attacking the underlining philosophy and impact of capitalism, Garvey defended and embraced it as a model for Blacks to emulate. This can be explained by Robert Hill’s suggestion that “For Garvey. . . success was measured solely according to the criteria of white Europe’s achievements, despite Garvey’s being the most outspoken black opponent of continued European domination of Africa in the postwar period. Paradoxically, he held up to blacks the system of European civilization as a mirror of racial success.” [38]

His embrace and absorption of white values sometimes led Garvey to take positions that seemed counter-intuitive  Hence much to the chagrin of communists and union workers, Garvey would state, “It seems strange and a paradox, but the only convenient friend the Negro worker or laborer has in America at the present time, is the white capitalist. The capitalist being selfish is seeking only the largest profit out of labor–is willing and glad to use Negro labor wherever possible on a scale `reasonably’ below the standard white union wage.” Garvey went so far as to praise white corporate chiefs as points of reference rather than as those guilty of greed and labor exploitation: “The glittering success of Rockefeller makes him a power in the American nation; the success of Henry Ford suggests him as an object of universal respect, but no one knows and cares about the bum or hobo who is Rockefeller’s or Ford’s neighbor. So, also, is the world attracted by the glittering success of races and nations, and pays absolutely no attention to the bum or hobo race that lingers by the wayside.” [39]

In fact, Garvey’s admiration of political strength, military might, and technological advancement often blinded him to the gross exploitation and abuse that accompanied such. During WWII, long after the peak of his influence as a mass leader, Garvey was quoted as saying, “We were the first Fascists, when we had 100,000 disciplined men, and were training children, Mussolini was still an unknown. Mussolini copied our Fascism.” [40]

We might speculate that Garvey perhaps underestimated or failed to fully appreciate the hegemonic nature of capitalism and its ability to absorb and dissipate self-reliance based small business initiatives. The evidence shows that in addition to mounting opposition from other Black leaders (Briggs among the most vocal) and disenchanted UNIA members, financial mismanagement, unacceptable political moves (like meeting with the  Klan in 1922) and questionable business ventures eventually became the straws that broke the back of Garvey’s movement and eventually led to his arrest and deportation back to Jamaica.

Nevertheless, Garvey’s vision for Black self-reliance was not completely unrealized. In 1919 the UNIA established the Negro Factories Corporation which created a “chain of co-operative grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, a tailor and dressmaking shop, a millinery store, and a publishing house.” [41] The UNIA newspaper The Negro World began publication in 1918 and grew to have a circulation of between 30,000 to 60,000 subscribers. To accommodate its worldwide scope, the paper was translated into French and Spanish. Following this was the creation of the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, the African legion (a paramilitary unit composed of male UNIA members) and the Black Cross Nurses. Perhaps his largest venture, The Black Star Shipping Line incorporated on June 23, 1919 in the state of Delaware with a total capital stock of $500,000. [42] Created both to demonstrate Black industrial accomplishment and to more practically transport passengers, raw materials, produce and goods to Black businesses throughout the Diaspora, and to facilitate Black repatriation to Africa, the line purchased its first ship the SS Yarmouth in September of 1919. [43] The shipping line was suspended by 1922 due to financial mismanagement, the purchase of structurally inadequate ships, and Garvey’s imprisonment for mail fraud regarding the sale of the line’s stock, it did represent in a symbolic sense, the potential for Black commercial achievement and was a great source of inspiration for Blacks throughout the world.

Briggs’ position on both capitalism and economic empowerment differed vastly from that of Marcus Garvey. Whereas Garvey drew economic ideals from the capitalist model, Briggs was influenced by communist thought. In accordance with his communist ideology, Briggs’ ABB fought for industrial development, higher wages for Negro labor, shorter hours, and better living conditions. [44]

In Briggs’ estimation, capitalism was just as inimical to Black liberation as was racism or imperialism: [T]he corporate power that stood behind the imperialist conquest of Africa was the enemy of the black masses of this country … Since the oppression of Negroes in America … was analogous to the total and systematic political, economic, and cultural oppression of blacks in the colonies of Africa and the West Indies, the battle against that oppression had to be both anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

While Garvey would applaud the material achievements and tenacity of white business titans, Cyril Briggs criticized their achievements as consequences of worker exploitation and corporate greed. In the October 1919 issue of The Crusader, he explained that Carnegie for example “accumulated his vast wealth by the inhuman and grinding exploitation of other men and of weak women and children.” Linking his analysis directly to communist thought, he encouraged his readers to “read Karl Marx’s work on ‘Value, Price, and Profit’ which demonstrates “in unanswerable logic…that labor receives only enough of the wealth it creates to live and reproduce its kind for further capitalist exploitation.” [45]  In addition to challenging Carnegie’s depiction as a noble philanthropist, Briggs more importantly explained that capitalism was innately exploitative and that the working class could never hope to gain wealth or power through laboring for the bourgeoisie.

Naturally then, the ABB leader would be highly critical of both Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey’s pro-capitalist self-reliance approach to Black empowerment. In a 1918 article entitled “The American Race Problem,” he observed, “Whether it was the advice to “buy pigs” or the declaration that white men would learn to respect and honor Negroes as soon as Negroes acquired sufficient property and education it was all diametrically opposed to human nature, the lessons of history and the facts
in the case.” [46] If Black people sought white respect or economic power by working harder or attaining bourgeois achievements, they were misled in Briggs’ opinion.

The New Negro attitude that emerged during the WWI period swept through America and had profound effects upon Black leaders and organizations in Harlem, and people throughout the world. Influenced by the large migration of Black southerners to northern cities, Caribbean intellectuals to America, Black soldiers’ triumphant return from war and the violence they faced upon their return, and the Bolshevik and Irish revolutions, leaders like Marcus Garvey and Cyril Briggs created organizations, analyses, and action programs to protect and advance Black interests. Both  concerned themselves with African liberation and Black redemption and both created highly effective newspapers to inform and articulate their positions to Black people.

Both of these leaders – like the New Negro mood itself – experienced pinnacles and valleys of popularity and influence, and were marginally successful in certain political endeavors. However, both produced blueprints, ideas, and a spirit of resistance that influenced Black politics and activism years after their deaths.  Garvey’s dogged insistence on Black solidarity, self-reliance, and self-determination would greatly influence the Nation of Islam and give birth to the Rastafarian Movement, while Briggs’ complicated blend of Black Nationalism and communism would anticipate and inform organizations like the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army and Revolutionary Action Movement in the 60s and 70s .[47]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 “African Blood Brotherhood.” Wikipedia. 2003. 28 May 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrian_Blood_Brotherhood.com>.

“Hon. Marcus Garvey Comments on Establishment of Irish Free State and Efforts of Hindus and Egyptians to Gain Their Independence – Points out Meaning to Negro Peoples of World,” Negro World, Saturday, 14 January 1922.

“Summary of the Program and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood,” Leaflet in the Comintern Archive, RGASPI, f. 1515, op. 1, d. 37, ll. 13-14.

Briggs, Cyril (1919 – 1920) The Crusader (Vol. 2). New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987.

Briggs, Cyril, Program of the African Blood Brotherhood, Communist Review, London, v. 2, no. 6 (April 1922), page 2.

Briggs, Cyril. (1918 – 1919) The Crusader (Vol. 1). New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987.

Briggs, Cyril. ( 1920-1922) The Crusader. (Vol. 3-6). New York & London: Garland, Inc., 1987.

Cronon, E. David, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Garvey, Marcus “An Appeal to the Conscience of the Black Race to See Itself,” 1923, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=740

Garvey, Marcus, “African Fundamentalism,” Negro World, 6 June 1925.

Garvey, Marcus, “If I Were a Negro (by a White Man),” Black Man, 1 (January 1934)

Garvey, Marcus, “Negroes Sharpen Swords for War of Races, Says Garvey,” New York World, Friday, 31 October 1919.

Garvey, Marcus, ed. Amy Jacques-Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey The Journal of Pan African Studies 2009 eBook, page 35, http://www.jpanafrican.com/ebooks/eBook%20Phil%20and%20Opinions.pdf

Garvey, Marcus, ed. Robert Hill, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Papers, (1826-1919), Vol. I, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Garvey, Marcus, ed. Robert Hill, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Papers, (1924-1927), Vol. VI, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Garvey, Marcus, Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy, The Majority Press, Dover: Massachusetts, 1986.

Kuykendall, Ronald A., “African Blood Brotherhood, Independent Marxist During the Harlem Renaissance,” The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2002.

Naison, Mark, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Rogers, Joel A., 1937 interview with Marcus Garvey, in Negroes of New York series, New York Writers Program, 1939, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

Rovira, Carlito, “Harlem and Socialism: Recovering the History,” February 2, 2010, PSLweb.org, http://www2.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=13615&news_iv_ctrl=1261

Solomon, Mark, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

Footnotes 

[1] Marcus Garvey, “The Negroes Greatest Enemy,” In the UNIA Papers, Volume 1, p. 5.

[2] “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” Philosophy and Opinions, Vol. 2, p. 136.

[3] The UNIA Papers, Volume V, p. 129.

[4] Marcus Garvey, “If I Were a Negro (by a White Man),” BM 1 (January 1934):7

[5] Letter from C.B. Treadway, Special Agent-in-Charge, to Frank Burke, in UNIA Papers, Vol. I, p. 479.

[6] Marcus Garvey,  “African Fundamentalism,” Negro World, 6 June 1925

[7] E.David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey, p. 191.

[8] Race First, 239-241.

[9] Ibid., 188-190.

[10] Philosophy & Opinions, p. 20.

[11] Summary of the Program and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood, p. 1.

[12] The Crusader, June 1920, 7.

[13] Letter to Draper, 1.

[14] See point 7 of the ABB Summary of its Program and Aims.

[15] See “Program of the ABB”, p. 3-4.)

[16] The Crusader, June 1920, 22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Letter to Draper, 2.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression, p. 29.

[21] “Senate Accepts Sedition Bill,” New York Times, May 5, 1918, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B01E1DD103BEE3ABC4D53DFB3668383609EDE, (Accessed, June 15, 2012).

[22] Carlito Rovira, “Harlem and Socialism: Recovering the History,” February 2, 2010, PSLweb.org, http://www2.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=13615&news_iv_ctrl=1261, (accessed June 19, 2012)

[23] Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 4.

[24] Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, 1.

[25] Ibid., 7.

[26] Cyril Briggs, Letter to Draper, 2.

[27] Marcus Garvey, Speech Delivered at Liberty Hall in NY City during the Second International Convention of Negroes. August 1921, cited in Philosophy and Opinions, 59.

[28] (Race First, pg. 111).

[29] (Cyril Briggs, Program of the African Blood Brotherhood, Communist Review, [London], v. 2, no. 6 (April 1922), page 2.

[30] The Crusader, April 1918, 8.

[31] Ibid., February 1920, 5.

[32] Ibid., April 1921, 8.

[33] Marcus Garvey, Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy, (The Majority Press, Dover: Massachusetts, 1986,) 134.

[34] “Negroes Sharpen Swords for War of Races, Says Garvey”, New York World, Friday, 31 October 1919

[35] See “Hon. Marcus Garvey Comments on Establishment of Irish Free State and Efforts of Hindus and Egyptians to Gain Their Independence – Points out Meaning to Negro Peoples of World,” Negro World, Saturday, 14 January 1922, p. 2.

[36] See UNIA Papers, General Introduction, lxxx.

[37] See Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey edited by Amy Jacques-Garvey, The Journal of Pan African Studies 2009 eBook, page 35, http://www.jpanafrican.com/ebooks/eBook%20Phil%20and%20Opinions.pdf, assessed June 30, 2012 and the Marcus Garvey Papers, Vol. 1 pg. lxvii)

[38] The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Papers, Vol. 1 Introduction, p.li

[39] “An Appeal to the Conscience of the Black Race to See Itself,” 1923, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=740, assessed July 8, 2012.)

[40] 1937 interview reported by Joel A. Rogers, “Marcus Garvey,” in Negroes of New York series, New York Writers Program, 1939, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

[41] Black Moses, 60.

[42] Certificate of Incorporation of the Black Star Line, Inc., in The UNIA Papers, 441.

[43] Black Moses, 53.

[44] “Summary of the Program and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood,” Leaflet in the Comintern Archive, RGASPI, f. 1515, op. 1, d. 37, ll. 13-14.)

[45] Cyril Briggs, The Crusader , October 1919, 13.

[46] Cyril Briggs, “The American Race Problem,” The Crusader [New York], v. 1, no. 1-4 (Sept.-Dec. 1918) p. 4)

[47] Ronald A. Kuykendall, “African Blood Brotherhood, Independent Marxist During the Harlem Renaissance,” The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2002, p. 5.

_______________________

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

zora

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.