Message to the People: Where are the progressives in today’s black activists?

Mar 28, 2006 at 9:11 pm

When speaking of modern socio-political advocacy recently during the annual National Council for Black Studies conference, University of Illinois Professor Sundiata Cha-Jua stated that “we must encourage our students to give financially and physically to the movement.”

Sundiata’s statement raised a rather troubling question. Was he not putting the cart before the horse if he was speaking of a progressive, leftist movement whose purpose is to re-imagine and construct a new, more egalitarian society? If he was speaking of such a movement among blacks in America (and he most certainly was), then I would argue that we cannot encourage our students to give to such a project, for it does not exist.

Sundiata delivered a paradigm of black ideologues that emerged after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that he separated into four categories: Conservatives, Revolutionary Nationalists, Cultural Nationalists and Liberal-Pluralists. Of course, these categories are not new — many of us have utilized them in one way or another. What they prompted me to think about was how I would label many of the black folk who are actually politically and socially “active” today. I’ll call them “activists” because I believe that title (like “Reverend”) now rightfully evokes images of opportunistic characters who prey on suffering people for personal gain.

My first category is also the Conservatives. This group espouses the “I’ve got mine so you get yours” mentality. Nothing is wrong with the country’s structure — it’s all about individual hard work. Simplistic, selfish … and flawed.

Next, there are three groups of Nationalists: Fundamentalists, Neo-Fundamentalists and Culturalists. I am always surprised when I encounter a Fundamental Nationalist who still lives in America. This is the “we all need to go back to Africa because we cannot live with white people in peace” crew.

The Neo-Fundamental Nationalists don’t believe blacks and whites can get along either, but their strategy to resolve the problem is a bit different. They think the U.S. government should set land aside within the country where black people can live separate from whites. Of course, blacks would be in total control of this country within the country. This is the nation of Islam model. Clearly, there has not, is not and will never be widespread support for either of these approaches among African Americans.

Finally, the Cultural Nationalists are easily identified. They believe black authenticity is defined by a romanticization of the African past, a requisite name change and wearing kente cloth, dashikis and kufis. There are really two groups here — the committed folk wear this gear all the time and often assume African names.

 The pseudo (fake ass) Cultural Nationalists only pull the gear out for show at the Black Family Conference or its equivalent a day or two a year. The ones who actually get into this thing are usually little more than demagogues stuck some 4,000 years in the past who think ritualistic dogma and knowledge of a few Kiswahili words are all you need.

Moving on, I’ll keep Sundiata’s Liberal-Pluralist moniker also. This group houses most black elected officials who get into office or retire from the old “movement” and make putrid deals with corporations and other seedy entities. Vernon Jordan, Kwame Kilpatrick and former King protégé Andrew Young immediately come to mind.

Now we have the really scary guys — the new crop of local and national Celebrity Activists. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have shown these fellows the way. For them, activism is a business — it pays. Poor Martin. He unwittingly carved out space for these hustlers. In the end, he anticipated their bastardization of his legacy … but his epiphany came too late.

In the last installment of his three-volume biography of King, “At Canaan’s Edge,” Taylor Branch recounts that shortly before his death, King lamented that “ Young had given in to doubt, Bevel to brains, and Jackson to ambition. He said they had forgotten the simple truths of witness … the movement had made them, and now they were using the movement to promote themselves.” Amen.

Not a progressive movement among them. Unfortunately, this is what we’ve become.

Remember, until … whoa, I almost forgot! Currently, a large group of our people has no real “political” ideology at all. They are the “activists” and followers who are slaves to hip-hop culture, its fodder and emptied out “street” rhetorical stylizing. They’re not hard to spot either. This is the bunch still worrying about cruising and concerts. I think I’ll rap on them next month.

So, remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong … aw, you know the rest.

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at U of L. Contact him at [email protected]