Aretha Franklin, a pillar of postwar American music, passed away Thursday morning, at seventy-six. A few hours later, the artist Kadir Nelson sent a sketch to The New Yorker, which drew inspiration from “Folksinger,” a 1957 ink drawing by Charles White. “I wanted to draw her in a choir,” he said. “She was a preacher’s daughter, and so much of what she gave us came from the church, even after she moved beyond gospel.” Nelson, of course, wasn’t the only one who paid tribute, and you can read some of The New Yorker’s writing on Franklin, old and new, below.
“Prayer, love, desire, joy, despair, rapture, feminism, Black Power—it is hard to think of a performer who provided a deeper, more profound reflection of her times. What’s more, her gift was incomparable. Smokey Robinson, her friend and neighbor in Detroit, once said, ‘Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another, far-off magical world none of us really understood. . . . She came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.’ ”
“When Aretha sings ‘Amazing Grace’ in that church, it’s suddenly not a song anymore, or not really—the melody, the lyrics, they’re rendered mostly meaningless. A few bits of organ, some piano. Who cares? Congregants yelling ‘Sing it!’ None of it matters. I’m not being melodramatic—we are listening to the wildest embodiment of a divine signal. She receives it and she broadcasts it. ‘Singing’ can’t possibly be the right word for this sort of channelling.”
“This was the promise of soul: that pain granted depth, and that one was never alone but accompanied by a vibrant community that had crossed too many bridges in order to survive. Franklin was the queen not only of soul music but of soul as a concept, because her great subject was the exceeding of limits. Her willingness to extend her own vocal technique, to venture beyond herself, to strain to implausible heights, and revive songs that seemed to be over—all these strategies could look and sound like grace. She knew that we would need it.”
We have explored and examined the many issues, events and collective experiences of our time all through this year, 2016. As a people we have been challenged with disappointment; thunders of terror at the extra-judicial murders of our Brothers and Sisters; the continuing captured of them in enslavement camps by the millions;the covert oppression of children in schools that fail them or prepare them for imprisonment camps; and the failure of our government to makes us whole. As on this night in 1862, we search for the ‘North Star’ still. I impress my life and the spirit of this radio broadcast each week in the lessons of the N’Guzo Saba, striving to respect and honor Black Truth, our TRUTH.
Each week, we make a place, a sanctuary to say and claim that truth. In this coming year, we are faced with the gravest form of oppression and racism seen by none of us in our lives. Make no mistake, on the bed of a fledgling fascism they will make every effort to eviscerate our belief in our historical accomplishments, ourselves as a people, what is ours and what is owed. We must stand tall in the dancing glow of our Ancestors and stand strong and tall. We must be strategically vigilant and believe in our Truth and the possibilities of our people still.
OUR COMMON GROUND will continue to provide the sanctuary that offers clarity, armament, comfort and a secure place for our voice, with respect and passion. We are committed to serious analysis, seeking appropriate outcomes and input and answers. I recently passed my 35th anniversary as host of OUR COMMON GROUND, there will be changes but our mission will never waver. We are ALTERNATIVE ACTIVIST RADICAL RADIO and will continue in that tradition. WE least afford to let up in the face of what is coming. We must careful about how we adjust our lenses in lunging into the “new struggle” era. Credible, useful, accurate and clear examination and action is more necessary than ever. We are in a period of “post reconstruction” with the most visceral and evil forces controlling our public agency. We are a people who know how to survive. For our children we continue thus. As for our government, we may be unable to stop what will happen, however, we must stand on our Truth.
Throughout our history, the only thing that we have ever asked the OCG Family is do what you can (UJIMA, NIA) to help us grow and to bring more comrades to the Sanctuary.
Thank you for your support throughout the year. We return LIVE on January 7th.
Wishing for us the Victories of our Past and Abundance and Prosperity in our Future.
Executive Producer, Host
OUR COMMON GROUND
Date: December 31
*On This date in 1862 the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in Back communities in America.
The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, Black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. At the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863; all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God.
Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year. It’s been over a century since the first Freedom’s Eve and tradition still brings us together at this time every year to celebrate “how we got over.” This celebration takes many African American decendants of slaves into a new year with praise and worship. The service usually begins anywhere from 7 p.m. To 10 p.m. And ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. Some people come to church first, before going out to celebrate, for others, church is the only New Year’s Eve event.
There have been instances where clergy in mainline denominations questioned the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year’s Eve. However, there is a reason for the importance of New Year’s Eve services in the Black experience in America.
The African American Desk Reference
Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture
Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.
In a world where Donald Trump’s presidential nomination speech has been endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan—yet Black Lives Matter activists are accused of reverse racism for asking to not be murdered by police—what constitutes hate speech has become increasingly convoluted. In the aftermath of police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, gunmen Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were immediately linked by media outlets to black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), New Black Panther Party, Black Riders Liberation Party, and Washitaw Nation, despite their professions to have been acting alone. Not only did these depictions draw misleading lines to organizations that do not prescribe such acts of violence, they also overshadowed both mens’ backgrounds in cultures of military violence (Johnson joined the Army Reserves immediately after high school and Long was a former Marine sergeant).
In a desperate attempt to drive home a link to black nationalism and direct attention away from these other troubling vectors, some news outlets began referring to Johnson as “Micah X” (NOI members use “X” to replace their “slave names”). In fact his middle name was simply Xavier. Even progressive groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, play a legitimating role by identifying black nationalist groups as “black separatist hate groups,” leaving little room for meaningful distinctions between white supremacy and black nationalism. While groups such as the Nation of Islam have historically advocated for the separation of black communities, to assert that this position is simply the obverse of white supremacy—that is, black supremacy—overlooks the nuance of black nationalism. More importantly, it fails to account for the dramatically different relationships to power that black nationalist and white supremacist groups possess. White nationalism reinscribes and exalts the privileges of whiteness. Black nationalists council separation as an anti-racist practice and a method of empowerment in the absence of alternative avenues of power. To many black nationalists, this is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
The conflation of black and white nationalism is not new. In 1963 the New York Herald Tribune satirized what it perceived as the ironic similarities between white supremacists and black nationalists in a story entitled “Integrated Segregation.” Things “seem a trifle confused on the racial front these days. The segregationists are getting integrated and the integrationists are getting segregated,” the Tribune remarked. The article imagined a scene in which staunch segregationist George Wallace was explaining why racial segregation benefitted black Americans when “a Black Muslim popped up from behind, tapped him on the back and agreed with him.” Soon, the article predicted, the Congress for Racial Equality would “start picketing the N.A.A.C.P., while the Black Muslims set up an all-Negro chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”
To many black nationalists, separation from whites is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
Understanding black nationalism as simply the mirror image of white supremacy, rather than an anti-racist practice, has deep roots in American political discourse. And in our current moment of colorblind “post-racialism,” when race-specific remedies such as affirmative action or reparations are derided as reverse racism—and even modest demands from Black Lives Matter for criminal justice reform are decried as anti-white—black nationalism has been once again mischaracterized using a host of long-stale tropes. We would be better served, not by simply dismissing black nationalism as the underbelly of white supremacy, but by understanding it as a tradition that is both liberative and anti-racist; one that does not mirror white supremacy, but repudiates it.
W. D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, arrived in Detroit in 1930 and told black Detroiters that they “were not Americans but Asiatics.” This was part of a holistic alternative creation story that rejected the racist underpinnings of white American nationalism. Many of Fard’s followers were former followers of Marcus Garvey, left without an organization after the decline of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the late 1920s due to financial mismanagement and government infiltration. Garvey and the UNIA epitomized the goals of black nationalism, launching the most ambitious and successful Pan-Africanist vision in history. At its height, the UNIA had over 700 branches in 38 states, and its newspaper, Negro World, circulated throughout the African diaspora. Millions of black people were moved by Garvey’s message of racial pride embodied through the UNIA motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” The NOI borrowed many of its black nationalist tenets from the UNIA, combining them with religious symbols, practices, and theologies drawn from the plethora of new northern, black, urban religious and racial-pride movements spawned by the Great Migration. This blending spoke to the diverse backgrounds of many early NOI members: in 1951 nineteen out of twenty-eight Muslims interviewed reported having previously been members in other movements such as black Masonry, the Israelite Movement, God’s Government on the Earth (dedicated to Liberian emigration), the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, Repatriation Movement to Liberia, and the Black Jews.
As historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes, many of these movements were influenced by a Black Zionist tradition that drew upon the narrative of the book of Exodus to imagine liberation and deliverance for black people around the world. These freedom dreams not only provided what he calls a “narrative of slavery, emancipation, and renewal,” but also a “language to critique America’s racist state since the biblical Israel represented a new beginning.” Beyond providing a framework for denouncing American racism, black nationalists addressed the racist power structures that governed their communities by creating jobs, businesses, schools, and places of worship. Racial separation was not simply about black communities’ physical relationship to white people; it was about changing the structures of power that governed those relationships through self-determination, community control, and new relationships to self and one another.
By 1959 the Nation of Islam was a burgeoning movement well known within urban black communities in the North but still largely unknown to white America. That summer, as Malcolm X traveled to Africa as a guest of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes fame) and black journalist Louis Lomax presented the NOI to white audiences for the first time. In their sensationalist documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, NOI was compared to the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the Nation were referred to as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” Its cautionary message to a largely white audience was that white racism would inevitably produce its black variant. As Malcolm X later recalled in his Autobiography, the show was meant to shock viewers, like when “Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing . . . an invasion by ‘men from Mars.’”
The Hate That Hate Produced was critical in launching the Nation of Islam into the public eye. But it also offered white viewers a language for understanding black nationalism that both intensified and allayed their fears. While racism was a plague that undermined American democracy, it was not a distinctly white characteristic. As Charlie Keil, a young white civil rights organizer at Yale during the early 1960s explained to me recently: “The Hate that Hate Produced allowed [whites] to sort of categorize the Muslims—the Nation of Islam—and treat them a certain way. . . . [It was] some way of saying that this was not an autonomous self-starting movement, but a reaction, an overreaction to a history of oppression.”
Throughout the 1960s black nationalists were castigated as “supremacists” who promoted the very racism and racial segregation that liberals were fighting against. This was stoked by white nationalists who saw calls for black racial separation as consistent with their belief in the benefits of racial segregation. As George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, told Alex Haley in a 1966 interview: “Malcolm X said the same thing I’m saying.”
Rockwell was not the only one confused about the difference between racial segregationand racial separation. In a highly-publicized Los Angeles trial in 1962 after police killed an unarmed member of the Los Angeles NOI mosque, the Los Angeles Times reported the “unusual problem in seating of spectators . . . when women members of the sect refused to accept seats alongside white persons.” The court eventually overturned this seating arrangement, and the press described this as “desegregation.” Los Angeles NAACP president Christopher Taylor joined the chorus of the aggrieved by arguing that he would be against any type of segregation, regardless of who initiated it. This decontextualized, colorblind insistence that any race demanding separation was calling for racial segregation was central to mischaracterizations of black nationalism during this period.
Malcolm X set about clarifying the Nation of Islam’s advocacy for racial separatism through dozens of debates with prominent civil rights figures on college campuses across the country in the early 1960s. He debated James Farmer at Cornell, Bayard Rustin at Howard, Louis Lomax at Yale, and the NAACP’s Walter Carrington at Harvard. Almost every debate was themed around the question: “Integration or Separation?” As Malcolm explained at Wesleyan University: “We are just as much against segregation as the most staunch integrationist.” But he added that black people did not “want to be free any more; they want integration. . . . They have confused their method with their objective.” In other words, black nationalists were not opposed to racial integration as an outcome of freedom struggles, or even as an organizing strategy, but they saw it as deeply flawed as the movement’s principal objective. More importantly, they pointed out the racist presumption of integration, which took for granted that white society and its values were more desirable. As Malcolm once sardonically asked, Who is the white man to be equal to?
More than simply critiquing integration, the Nation of Islam emphasized the importance of community control, an idea that flourished in upcoming years with the emergence of the Black Power movement. As Malcolm explained: “segregation means to regulate or control. . . . A segregated community is that forced upon inferiors by superiors. A separate community is done voluntarily by two equals.” Recognizing the pervasiveness of racial segregation, nationalists sought control over the businesses, healthcare, education, housing, and policing in their communities. Indeed, the Kerner Commission’s grim 1968 assessment that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” was something understood within black communities for decades. Amidst this backdrop, nationalists called for greater autonomy. The distinction between segregation and separation was not a semantic pivot. It was a deeper analysis of power, and an assertion of self-determination.
Over sixty years since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board, it would seem that calls for racial separatism are a relic of the past. But that might be too hopeful. A 2014 UCLA study revealed higher levels of school segregation in many regions than in 1968, the year the Supreme Court decreed a more proactive approach to desegregation. Schools with less than 1 percent white students are now being referred to as “apartheid schools.” And while the South is no longer governed by Jim Crow laws, cities outside the South such as Chicago and Baltimore continue to be described by demographers as “hypersegregated.”
The denial of race is a fixture of racism. Black nationalists have often exposed the “colorblind,” coded racism of liberals.
Black critiques of school integration during the 1950s and 1960s were often decried. In the words of scholar Andrew Delbanco, novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston “consigned herself to oblivion” when she responded to the Brown v. Board decision by saying that she could “see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school affair.” After James Meredith enrolled as the first black student in the University of Mississippi’s history, Malcolm X told a courtroom that anytime a man “needs [an] escort of 15,000 troops to go to a college where he will be among people whose viciousness toward him is so deadly that he needs the Army there to protect him . . . that Negro is foolish if he thinks that he is going to get an education.” Education, not integration, should be the goal, both Hurston and Malcolm agreed. As Malcolm explained, “token integration” was pointless as long as there were “a couple million Negroes in Mississippi who haven’t been allowed to go to the Kindergarten in a decent school.”
Meanwhile, integration today is often illustrated through the exceptional accomplishments of a handful of black elites, most notably President Barack Obama, rather than evidenced by a substantial redistribution of wealth or educational and housing opportunities. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates, the role of “black faces in high places” is often to obscure the common conditions facing many African Americans. Instead, black elected officials serve as interlocutors speaking to—and on behalf of—black communities. Taylor writes poignantly of the 2015 Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” But this new period has unfortunately produced all-too-familiar outcomes for poor and working-class black people.
The long history of black nationalist leaders having official meetings with white supremacist leaders is another narrative often mobilized as proof of the essential symmetry of the two movements. In 1922 Marcus Garvey met with the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Edward Clarke, earning him swift denunciation by the NAACP. In 1961 Malcolm X and other NOI officials secretly met with the KKK in Atlanta to negotiate a non-aggression pact surrounding the NOI’s purchase of southern farmland. The following year American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell even appeared as an invited guest at the NOI’s Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago. When police in Monroe, Louisiana, illegally targeted and raided the city’s mosque with tear gas, rifles, and riot sticks, the Nation of Islam secured an interracial defense team: local black attorney James Sharpe, Jr., and Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, James Venable. As Venable explained when taking the case, “I hate to say it but a colored man doesn’t have a chance in a courtroom in the South.”
The decision by black nationalists to meet or coordinate with white supremacists was often driven by a combination of pragmatism and a deep cynicism about the authenticity of liberals. In the case of the UNIA, Garvey negotiated an agreement with Clarke to sell stock in black businesses such as newspapers, factories, and his Black Star shipping line, which ambitiously hoped to link a global black economy in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas before failing due to poor business management. And although Malcolm X would later denounce the Nation of Islam’s détente with the Klan, the organization’s motivation for doing so was plainly and only to secure the right to farm in the South without danger of violent reprisal. And in the case against eight members of the NOI in Monroe, Venable successfully won an appeal for several of those convicted.
Black nationalists were also not uncritical of the white supremacists with whom they interacted, a fact often downplayed or forgotten. After his meeting with the Klan, Garvey told a crowd: “Mr. Clark [sic] did not tell me anything new; he told me what I discovered seven years ago. He told me the thing that caused me to have organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association four and a half years ago.” When Rockwell, wearing full Nazi regalia, donated twenty dollars to a collection plate at Saviour’s Day, there was a smattering of reluctant applause. Malcolm X belittled him by adding: “You got the biggest hand you ever got.” Equally, black nationalists used white supremacists to draw attention to the hypocrisy of liberals. Following his 1922 meeting, Garvey claimed that Klan members were “better friends to my race, for telling us who they are, and what they mean.” Malcolm used a similar device in his folk metaphor of the liberal “fox” and the conservative “wolf.” When comparing John F. Kennedy to George Wallace, Malcolm said: “Neither one loves you. The only difference is that the fox will eat you with a smile instead of a scowl.” He even penned a 1964 editorial entitled “Why I Am for Goldwater” in which he drew upon the same fox/wolf metaphor and cynically suggested that with Goldwater, “black people at least know what they are dealing with.”
Critics on the left who see these as misguided political strategies have marginalized black nationalists by painting them as racial conservatives, and thereby emptied black nationalists’ critiques of their incisiveness. For example, Paul Gilroy accuses Garvey of “black fascism” and C. L. R. James even compared him to Hitler. Others have taken Malcolm’s cynical support for Goldwater at face value, rather than understanding his rhetorical move to draw parallels between openly racist politicians and ostensibly liberal ones whose policies nonetheless gut the black community.
Black nationalist groups such as the UNIA and the NOI have rightly been critiqued for their deep patriarchy, homophobia, and tendency to reproduce the other trappings of empire. As historian Michelle Ann Stephens notes of Garvey, his “vision of the sovereign state figured in the black male sovereign; the desire for home at a more affective level figured in the woman of color.” Likewise, anti-Semitic comments by Nation of Islam leaders such as Louis Farrakhan have certainly buttressed comparisons between white and black nationalists. Most recently, Farrakhan stoked this fire by praising Donald Trump’s refusal to take money from Jewish donors.
But although charismatic leaders are often the voices we hear most prominently, for many rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist groups, the lived experience of racial pride, religious rebirth, and doing for oneself is a redemptive, affirming, and even lifesaving practice. Many members joined the NOI after feeling alienated in integrated, more middle-class organizations such as the NAACP. As Lindsey X told an interviewer, what the NAACP “wanted never seemed real to me. I think Negroes should create jobs for themselves rather than going begging for them.” Malcolm X’s autobiography is only the best-known narrative of religious and political redemption. In a long-running feature in the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, entitled “What Islam Has Done For Me,” members offered their conversion narratives and testified to the transformative practice of Islam. Robert 24X of Paterson, New Jersey, contributed: “I was a young drug addict who had spent too much time in the hells of Harlem’s East Side . . . [before] everything came into focus for me. . . . I stopped smoking, using profanity, and eating improper foods. And I’ve passed my biggest acid test—no more needles in the arm.”
Instead of positioning black nationalism as a reactionary, conservative ideology that simply apes the violence and hate of white supremacy, we might learn from its lessons today. If asked about the xenophobia and dangerous comments of conservative firebrand Donald Trump in our current election, Malcolm X might well have pivoted us back to Hillary Clinton’s questionable record on race, one which Black Lives Matter activists have pointed out includes racist dog whistles such as her comments about “super-predators” lacking empathy, her steadfast support for the devastating 1994 Crime Bill, and campaign money taken from private prison corporations. And beyond the hollow political discourse of election cycles, we must avoid the pitfalls of incessant claims of post-racialism that insist that to see race is to participate in racism. As we have witnessed with the familiar “All Lives Matter” rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living in a time when people’s humanity is so denigrated that the mere valuation of life is taken by some whites to be a zero-sum game. The denial of race is a central fixture in the perpetuation of racism, and black nationalists have routinely called attention to the importance of racial pride while exposing the coded racism of liberals. Rather than draw facile lines between black nationalism and white supremacy, we are better served by understanding black nationalism as an anti-racist political tradition seeking to envision black American freedom and citizenship in a nation that has rarely devoted much effort toward either end.
Chicago, Illinois – Black men are demanding the city help them with the resources to help rebuild the community. These men are literally in the process of taking over abandoned property and training at risk youth to help fix up the properties that the city is trying to demolish.
Many of the properties are generally in pretty decent condition as far as the frame being solid brick and these men are saying they are not going to allow the city to tear down perfectly good homes.
A lot of the homes are boarded up and abandoned due to subprime lending where the Lenders/Bankers sucked the resources out of certain communities, left them in total disarray, foreclosed on the properties and resold many of them for pennies on the dollar to Hedge Fund Investors.
This happened by way if issuing Interest only mortgages where the borrower paid only the interest and no principal and when the term was up, they were forced to pay interest plus principle which the majority was unable to do therefore losing their properties while hedge fund investors bet against the people and walked away with tons of properties.
These investors slowly take over certain areas which are considered prime real estate and move the minorities out and gentrify the neighborhoods.
The men called on Alderman Michael Scott 24th Ward, Alderman Jason Ervin 28th Ward, and Alderman Walter Burnett 27th Ward and all the Aldermen across the city to help them make this happen.
The group said they are going all over the city and taking over the 20,000 properties that are sitting idle waiting to be torn down.
They then said that the people in the community want the buildings demolished however they don’t realize that for every building that is demolished, property taxes goes up.
The spokesperson Mark Carter said NHS, CIC and Globe Trotters organizations were supposed to help their parents and grandparents but instead they allowed the city to demolish their homes.
The men said the Mayor and Alderman sit back and watch these children get murdered in the communities and they refuse to sit back and do nothing about it.
He said they are demanding the resources be given to them and they can rebuild themselves.
The Psalm of Howard Thurman is the first feature-length documentary film on the life and wisdom of one of the world’s greatest spiritual treasures, Howard Thurman (1899-1981).
The film introduces audiences to Thurman’s uplifting story, his transcendent yet grounded presence, and his important voice for our times. The film aspires to be a psalm,a lyrical work of beauty and truth, and a creative utterance that moves, touches and inspires.
Keep open the door of the heart. It does not matter how may doors
are closed against thee.
ABOUT HOWARD THURMAN
A JOURNEY OF HEART, MIND AND SOUL
Thurman attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida. He later completed studies at Morehouse College, Atlanta in 1923 and the Rochester Theological Seminary, New York in 1926. In 1929, after serving his first pastorship in Oberlin, Ohio, Thurman returned to Atlanta to serve as Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Thurman felt that it was his immediate responsibility to inspire and encourage students in their individual quests for the truth.”
In 1935, while a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, led a pilgrimage of African Americans to Ceylon, Burma and India and met with Mahatma Gandhi. As a result of this trip, he formulated, a generation before Martin Luther King Jr., a non-violent approach to social change in America. This “love-ethic” informed one of Thurman’s best known works, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book which later influenced King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
At the close of the 1935 pilgrimage, looking down into Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass, Thurman experienced a vision of a church that would be open to “seekers of all colors and creeds.” He was compelled to see if “experiences of spiritual unity among peoples could be more compelling than the experiences which divide them.”
Hoard and Sue Bailey Thurman
Howard Thurman Birth Home, Daytona, Florida, USA
HOWARD THURMANwas born in Daytona, Florida in 1899. Early on, he developed a kinship with nature and a “hunger of the heart”–a curiosity into the meaning of life. He found refuge during times of loneliness and trepidation in an old oak tree in his back yard. It was while young Howard stood with his back placed firmly against the tree that he first felt the unity of all living things and engaged in what he would later call, “the religious experience.”
As a young boy Thurman was raised by a strong and affirming grandmother. She was a former slave who had a profound influence on what would become an essential part of Thurman’s thought–that if theology is to have any validity, it must justly deal with one’s life situation and must affirm one’s worth as a child of God.
Arleigh Prelow, director of Howard Thurman, shines a light on the story of one remarkable individual. Howard Thurman established the nation’s first interracial, inter-cultural and interfaith congregation and advocated tirelessly for community among disparate races and faiths.
THE SPIRIT AND WORK OF HOWARD THURMAN LIVES ON
PEDRO CESCA FALCI
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, HOWARD THURMAN CENTER BOSTON UNIVERSITY
“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
~Gabriel Garcia Marquez~
“Next to God we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth living.”
~Mary Macleod Bethune~
I remember that third Monday in October of 1995 in a way that still dances in my consciousness with a vibrancy and verve that remain palpable twenty-one years later. Everything about that day was imbued with purposeful vitality. The crisp early morning chill with its pretense of winter, the smell of morning-dewed pavement, the prattle and clank of cars playing a losing game of pothole slalom, the sight of trees and earth flamboyantly wearing their autumnal ensembles of browns, reds, yellows, oranges.
Inside my spacious one-bedroom Columbia Heights basement apartment, which as far as I was concerned only coincidentally served as the foundation for the luxuriously renovated row house above it, there was a ritualized vibration to the morning as the six other men — who had come from East St Louis, Chicago, Oakland, Pacoima, East Palo Alto and the Bronx — and I readied ourselves for our meeting with history. There are things you don’t understand about significant historical moments until after you meet them.
Like, for example, historical moments have a distinctive texture, sound, and smell, all of which pull you back to that moment whenever you are placed in contact with them. I recall the scent and sensibility of the Kush incense burning that morning, its aromatic smoke languorously raising itself up from the glowing amber orb like an ancestor coming to bear witness, as if to say — And, still I rise — the undulating ribbons of fragrant tinted air dancing to Marley’s irrepressible Redemption Song playing in the background just a notch under too loudly.
In 1995, Columbia Heights, a neighborhood in Northwest DC I called home was comprised largely of African (Black) and Latinx (Brown) folks. Which is to say, involuntary and voluntary immigrants trying in various ways to solve America’s racial and ethnic algebra, while dealing with poverty’s geometry of limited space and poor angles to create better opportunities, and who had little choice but to let poorly paying jobs work them for a living. There was just a smattering of white folks whose alabaster aspirations hung on the ledge of whispers that a Green Line Metro stop was soon to come and with it “new development.”
(Three things you can count on: Death, Taxes, and that when mediocre white folks — and their Black and Brown lackeys — in powerful political positions start talking development, whether in Africa, Latin America or in America’s urban centers, Black, Brown and poor folks generally are ‘bout to get did with no vaseline. Let’s call this the Ice Cube Rule aka the Heller Non-Lubrication Despoilment Development Clause or the HNDDC.)
In other words, my ‘hood was much like the neighborhoods the other brothers had come from; the kind of place that was paradoxically safe and unsafe, and where clarity about life critical caveats determined which experience was mostly true for you. It was the kind of place where irony, paradox, pathos, absurdity and resilience were the bridges for how most of us got over and got by. A brother in a suit coming home from work at might get robbed, while a tie-wearing white Mormon biking through the hood, kicking Joseph Smith style pretzel logic about a heaven that didn’t originally welcome Black folks, was as safe as Donald Trump at a Klan Rally.
For affluent and well connected whites doing their version of a drive-by, Columbia Heights served largely as an underground pharmacy as they passed through to quickly refill their prescriptions with the local street corner pharmacists, en route to their work on K Street and Capital Hill to further cement crippling inequities in wealth and opportunity into policy, the very policies ensuring there would always be street corner suppliers for their synthetic anesthetization, the very same suppliers that they lobbied to have incarcerated.
Columbia Heights was also where you could get some of the best Chinese food, pupusas, arepas and Peruvian chicken this side of a health code violation. A place where the discerning consumer could secure incense, oils, hats, faux Gucci wallets and purses, each with a different variation of the spelling of Gucci, books, a “previously owned” metro card with $3.45 on it for the bargain price of “whatever you feel is fair, patna” or an unlocked phone that may or may not have belonged to the dude a block down now furiously checking his jacket — all from the same person. Not surprisingly, it was the kind of neighborhood where after dark, pizza shops asked for your zip code before taking your delivery order. Capital may be global but in 1995 a lot of it didn’t cross east of Rock Creek Park after dark.
It was here in this Northwest DC nook where opportunity remained in a perpetual hunger strike sandwiched between the indifferent material affluence of the “Gold Coast” at one end of 16th Street and the disinterested political flatulence of the White House at the other that I learned a condiment, Mumbo Sauce, could also be a philosophy. No lesser authority than Wikipedia has gone on record as saying of Mumbo Sauce: “Its origin and ingredients are subject to great dispute.” Translation: the active ingredient in Mumbo Sauce is Nunya — None ya damn business.
If you weren’t native to the Chocolate City there were two concepts you had to grasp, without which you were forever to remain an interloper:Go Go and Mumbo Sauce. If your understanding is that Go Go is just music or that Mumbo sauce is just a condiment found in Chinese food joints of questionable cleanliness which also happen to sell French fries and chicken wings “fried hard” and offered with fortune cookies with messages written in Ebonics — Confusedcious say “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” — then you’re not ready — for an explanation, for the condiment, for the music, or to get your life.
Although advance scout teams of urban colonizers had already been dispatched to survey the area, in 1995, Columbia Heights had not yet become a haven for usual tribal whiteness perpetually in search for a heart of darkness experience and as an investment opportunity. These urban colonizers were, however, like the eventual Green Line Metro Stop, on their way. From the first clashes with the indigenous peoples with the “settlers,” gentrification was, is and has always been a type state sanctioned organized violence — a conquest with zoning codes. Gentrification is the developers’ version of a hydrogen bomb: destroy the inhabitants; leave the buildings standing. Early euphemisms like eminent domain and urban renewal were employed to sanitize the crime scene and conceal the evidence of the blunt force trauma inflicted upon poor communities, which happened most often were Black and Brown folks. Robert Moses, the patron saint of organized urban chaos, would be so proud.
The six other Black men in my apartment that morning having come from places like Columbia Heights — some of us from places much worse, and trust, there were much worse places in DC too — were intimately familiar with jagged contours of the structured economic and spatial violence that comes with living in neighborhoods with opportunities so necrotic they virtually solidified poverty as a genetic inheritance.
On this particularly beautiful Monday morning in my Columbia Heights abode with its generous pavement level view, in response in part to the incarcerating life possibilities for so many of our people face, we were animated by something profound in its giving beauty: a personalized redemptive dedication, which by now had been forged into a unified sense of purpose that seemed to be present in our every movement. Being the only one who lived in DC — having recently relocated there from Oakland that August — my apartment became base camp by default. (Initially, I hadn’t planned on attending the event; even then I had wearied of the notion of symbolic protest in a nation indifferent to substantive suffering.)
It is amazing what one remembers and how one remembers it. The various ways the constellation of memories shift and reposition themselves in the firmament of our consciousness over time. It seems as though small details about big moments retain such vividness, while really important things get hazier with time. I still hear the clinking and rattling of cereal bowls and spoons that morning but can’t recall the name of one of the three elders in our group. Can still see the collective side-eyeing of one brother, who shall remain nameless, for eating cereal like he was channeling dude from the Eddie Murphy movie, Life: “You gon eat dat cornbread?” Yet I don’t recall what I wore on that day.
I still chuckle when I reflect on the minor dust up that morning around who “drank the last of the damn juice and left the empty carton in the fridge?” Can still smell the fragranced collusion between steam, starch and freshly ironed shirts, which eventually overtook the incense and had my tilt smelling like a dry cleaners in the middle of a summer street festival. Still shake my head at the way brothers clamored for who had next on the ironing board, each of us trying to ensure that our style game was crisp. Still feel the echoes of the raucous laughter as an “old head” tried to convince us new jacks of the non wrinkle genius of polyester and the ingenuity of rolling ones clothes as a opposed to folding them (The latter point proved useful; the genius of polyester? Well…everything needn’t to go to the future, for example, misogynists, dinosaurs and double knit slacks).
Having watched the morning news, the eldest of the elders (he was seventy) suggested that we walk to the event rather than take the U Street Metro in order to avoid having to deal with the crowds. As we arose from my apartment the sun softened morning greeted us like the iridescent smile of a new love. Walking along 16th Street we synergized with some brothers from Howard University — HU! — who were similarly focused and forward leaning.
What began as seven Black men strolling with fierce determination had gradually swelled to an unofficial delegation of synchronized uneven legged strolls, shoulder dips and head bops — an embassy of blackness be-bopping and hip-hopping along 16th Street. One nation under the groove, strolling towards an appointment with history. Well, half a nation: there were only men.
And there we were: A gathering of men over a million strong: bold, bodacious and beautifully Black — a rainbow of resolute and defiant blackness against the backdrop of a cerulean sky, engaged in an ancient ritual of call and response with our better selves, compelled by an experiential double helix of individual impetus and shared destiny in a city that could still be called, without the slightest hint of irony, Chocolate.
This Monday was going to be a special. You could feel it. There was an emotional electromagnetic charge in the air. As you stepped onto the Mall the radiating waves of energy hit you, it felt as if you were walking into an air-conditioned department store after having trudged through heavy humidity. The vibrant sense of personhood, collective regard and shared purpose were unmistakable. So too was the extended self-love. The awareness of oneself as an extended being was invigorating.
The specialness of the day was confirmed for me early on, in a most ironic way. I was jaw jackin’ with the fellas and not paying attention, when I bumped into another brother, accidentally knocking his freshly, once bitten, hot link to the ground. He and I both slowly looked down at the hot link as if it were a fallen comrade mortally wounded in battle and then our eyes slowly rose to meet. There was an audible gasp that seemed to come from everywhere, at once. And then, there was silence. Absolute. Silence. Everyone standing around understood, clearly, that this was the kind of mistake that could get someone body bagged with the quickness — such is the capricious calculus of mattering when it comes to the sanctity of Black lives.
I thought: “Shit! I’m ‘bout to go down in infamy as the brother who ruined the Million Man March by causing a riot — over a hotlink! Imma be the Crispus Attucks of Hotlinks War of 1995.”
I apologized. Immediately. Profusely: Yo, did I mention I knocked a hotlink out of a Black man’s hand after he had taken only one bite? You know that first bite, where you stare at your food like you’re having a conversation with it: “I can’t believe you taste this mothaf%&kin good.” Civil Wars have been started over less. I remember the stillness. The rhythmic anxiety, the tension had a static cling feel to it. I awaited his reaction. I thought for a brief second if it came to it, I might have to throw hands. I looked at him and just kept it real, with myself, and God: Me throwing hands with this dude would be like spitting into a category five hurricane. No one will remember the spit but everyone will be a witness to the carnage afterwards.
He smiled. Then he chuckled, and said: “It’s all good homie. Shit happens.” I offered to buy him another link. He politely declined my offer, telling me: “Man, I aint ‘sposed to be eatin dis shit no way; my blood pressure be higher than a muhfucka.” (It’s important to note here by way of digression: if a brother says “motherfucker” you know he’s from those places where folks use cloth napkins and “do lunch” but if he says “muhfucka” you probably wanna check and see if someone in your crew, hell anyone in your crew, is strapped).
He added that since his wife wasn’t around he thought he and his son would sneak in a link — or two — and that, in a way, by knocking the hotlink out of his hand, the Million Man March was already saving his life. Everyone laughed — I laughed hardest because, well, ol boy was about six foot-three, 300, easy, and let’s just say I’m not — in a battle between an elephant and an ant the term battle is a misnomer. We hugged, and then he said to me: “I love you, Black man.” I returned the sentiment. Relieved. We all gave each other the universal Black man grip: the handshake, followed by the pull-in hug and the pound on the back. It was like that everywhere we ventured on the Mall that day, moving amongst what had to be on that day one of largest standing armies in the world. Just love.
As far as the speeches go, I don’t remember much about them. No oratorical gems or timeless aphorisms offering renewed understanding stand out. The cavalcade of speakers seemed earnest, but pressed. Trying to move the crowd while wearing a moment too big for you can be tough. History is so much harder to make when you’re trying so hard to make history. To be fair, you get a million Black men to DC to assemble around growth and development, there isn’t much more one can say that is going to have more of an impact than the visual essay inscribed by the sight of a million brothers.
Minister Farrakhan, one of most gifted orators of my generation and the only person in the country who had the platform, the courage, the vision and the credibility to call for this type of event, gave a speech that was too long and too galactic; seemingly more invested in the rhetorical stratosphere than the appreciating the gravitational pull of the moment. Keepin’ it real, at times the speech had the feel of Ozwald Bates struggling with the math portion of the SAT.
I recall thinking then that his speech required the Minister’s usual eloquence of vision, which is typically much more down to earth, which is where most of us brothers stood firmly. Patriarchy tends to require a lot of helium, and without women to create the kind of balance that tethers us to the real, we sometimes just float upwards until we run out of hot air and come crashing back to earth. Nature abhors vacuums but patriarchy apparently loves them.
The energy of love and togetherness on that day had the quality and sensation of the “warmth of other suns” Richard Wright had hoped for. Everywhere we moved among the million or so Black men, each of us perhaps hoping to win our most important battle–the one between who we were and the better selves we hoped would emerge victorious. Looking back now some twenty-one years later, some of us won on that day: did the work once we got home; others of us found our strides, eventually; others of us are still waging the battle, and still others of us succumbed to the comfort of our lower selves. (Take a fish out of polluted tank for a day or two and then put it back in the same polluted tank, the only thing likely to change is the fish’s level of disappointment and ennui.)
For our coterie of seven (the youngest among us a precocious nineteen year old from Oakland — a mentee of mine who used the word hella as a verb, noun, adjective and a diss with stunning precision — and the eldest of the elders, an ebullient but serious septuagenarian from Chicago, Ullysses “Duke” Jenkins — a mentor of mine — who has since become an ancestor), the most important part of that day occurred after we bounced from the gathering of a Million Black Men in search of some grub.
We were making our way back home from Adams Morgan after dinner at Caribbean restaurant whose name is as forgettable as was the cuisine I had that evening, when we noticed a bouquet of four beautiful sisters about fifty yards away walking down 16th Street towards us.
We saw them.
The sisters saw us.
Then they hesitated.
The four sisters seemed uncertain. As if they were trying to decide whether to stay on the same side of the street as us or cross the street to the other side. Perhaps their hesitancy derived from a shared algorithm created from all too familiar, all too real and all too unpleasant experiences with brothers playing out their own feeble versions of stop and frisk, taking liberties with Black women’s bodies and space. I can only guess. I do know there was a heavy silence among us, freighted with a kind of anxiety usually reserved for encounters with Five-Oh, it was accompanied by an unspoken acknowledgment that we needed these sisters to believe in us enough not to cross the street — on this of all days. (In some African societies during the male rites of passage, while it is the men who guide young boys through the rituals of manhood, it is the women who provide the final seal of approval of manhood before the boys are officially recognized as men.)
As the sisters approached, we parted like the Red Sea to let them pass. As they moved through us you could feel our heaviness, our anxiety, bourn of the damp weight of unfulfilled hope. We greeted them as they moved through us:
“How you Sistas doin’?”
“We fine. How you brothas doin’?” They sang.
“We cool,” we replied.
With that they passed through us giving us inspiration disguised as fresh air. You could literally hear us collectively breathe easy. And then, something generous happened: the sisters turned around and in unison said: “We love ya’ll. And we real proud!” And just like that our personal earths shifted on their axes. It got really quiet. I think I saw tears undulating down the side of one of the one elders’ face. I’m not sure because I looked away and then down. I don’t remember shedding a tear but I do remember having a saline problem with my eyes. What I remember clearly though is the feeling of deep gratitude and pride, of feeling substantial, meaningful.
We had spent a day amongst a Million brothers, yet it was these four sisters, who we didn’t know and hadn’t bothered to ask their names, who had in their own way given us what we needed most — their seal of approval. The general mantra was atonement these Black women had put me — and I believe the other brothers as well — in contact with a deeper understanding of our purpose.
The walk the rest of the way was comprised of footsteps on pavement echoing a quiet knowing: We — Black women and us — belonged to each other, not as an act of possession, but as an act of the willful acceptance of extended self-love anchored in shared tumultuous and triumphant social history, one rooted in earth and ancestry, watered in blood and love, the scarred bark of existence telling of the hurt, betrayals and emotional scar tissue, the tree rings still speaking of an ancient love still trying to find a way to continue grow in intemperate racial climates.
On occasion when I have had the opportunity to talk with other brothers who were there on that day what seems to have been lost in the remembrances of the Million Man March is just how much of that day was made possible because of Black women. Every aspect that made the gathering of a million Black men possible involved Black women at its radiating core. I saw sisters at the airport handing out care packages, others whom cheered us on as we made our way onto planes, trains, and buses, still others whom attended the March themselves. I heard numerous stories from other Black men about how a mother, or sister or an aunt, a girlfriend or a wife provided support of various kinds, paving the way for them to attend.
It is a truism not reflected often enough in our actions: that Black (African) life, love and the possibility of liberation all rotate on the axis of Black womynhood, its essence and its varied expressions. And yet time after time, with a kind of depraved indifference that can only be called suicidal, too many of us brothers have asked Black Women in variety of ways to subordinate their best selves, their images and their interests (which, paradoxically, are our best selves, best image and best interests too) to an illusory Black unity that pushes them to the margins — a sort of trickle down theory of social justice — that is neither rooted in our collective best interests or in the fullest appreciation of our collective humanity.
Separating Blame from Responsibility
A large part of our lives are squeezed into the contours of its spastic violence. From structural racism to institutional racism to micro-aggressions to systematized and structural racial animus, white misanthropy informs and disfigures the contours and context of both the behavioral and structural dimensions of our existence — it poisons the waters of our social ecology, literally and figuratively. Somebody say Flint, Michigan?
To acknowledge this is to identify the system’s ongoing culpability for our oppression. The question of our liberation, however, is more complex. It involves a kind of fission, splitting of the atom of oppression: separating blame from responsibility. Which produces some volatile and inconvenient truths around questions of our complicity with these systems of oppression and our responsibility for armoring and fortifying ourselves against these systems. Handling the fissile material of blame and responsibility is difficult and requires great care. On one hand, if mishandled in form of regressive respectability politics it can blow up in your face. One the other hand, if you get the fission right you can create enough atomic energy to power a people to liberation. Freedom is what you are given; liberation is what you take.
As we witness the re-intensification of the racial animus of Tribal Whiteness, it’s critical that we get the clarity around the questions surrounding the assignment of blame and responsibility. In other words, what has/is being done to us, currently and historically (culpability and blame) and what can we do about it (responsibility). In that regard, very few of the contemporary conversations have focused on what African (Black) people owe one another and I fear that we will miss, yet again, another opportunity to acknowledge the essentiality of placing African (American) women’s struggles at the core of our reinvigorated struggles for liberation.
Until we grasp that street harassment and police profiling, that dying while black at the hands of law enforcement and dying while Black and woman at the hands of Black men are both different expressions of a singular essence — a corrosive toxic oppressive dynamic — we will continue to run on a treadmill of misery wondering why we aren’t making any progress.
It takes a particular kind of patriarchal pretzel logic to assign value to Black women based on how they are dressed and then as Black men decry being profiled by white society because of how we are dressed. The latter employs a racist pretzel logic; the former a sexist pretzel logic. Discrimination and oppression are metastasizing cancers — they spread. Thinking that discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender will not impact our lives in other ways is like thinking cancer of the liver wont effect kidneys because they are different organs, forgetting that are housed in the same body.
Despite the depictions of us in the media and poorly sourced anecdotes about black men as enemies of Black women and predators, there are a lot of Black men who show up as fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, friends, and mates in ways that are meaningful and felt. There is both celebration and contradiction in the ways we understand Black manhood. Not enough of us Black (African) men recognize that the greatest threat to the cancerous system of white misanthropy is Black Love; that good character is the product of soul conversations between our spirits, our people, our soil and our destinies; that sane, secure and centered partnering is revolutionary; that committed and consistent fatherhood is a kind of divinity; and that respect for Black women and creating safe spaces for our children will fertilize revolutions for thousands of years after we have passed on.
It is these concern that brought me back to that historic day in October 1995. More specifically to thoughts about what we, Black men, owe Black women — and what we owe ourselves.
The Debt: What we our Black Women and Ourselves
In that spirit, at a bare minimum, we, Black (African) men, are indebted to African women for continuing to keep the worn and frayed fabric of the African (American) community sewn together with the threads of love and ancestral memory; for the many loving sacrifices they have made and continue to make for us; for the myriad times our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters, mothers, homegirls, wives and women-friends weaved their magic in our heads producing both braids and brains; clothed us and covered our backs; visited us in jails, hospitals, basketball courts and, sadly, morgues; for singing a healing and harmonizing song called forgiveness; for summoning the courage and the audacity to try and raise us up as men; for deftly demonstrating the courage to love us without knowing if that love would be valued, acknowledged, or reciprocated.
Black women should be able to move through our communities with impunity; should be free to swim in the ocean of feminine agency and power; to enjoy relationships that are centered, whole and healthy; to be heard on their terms; to be emancipated from the plantations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse; to be released from the prison-house of men’s definitions of who they are, who they should be, how they should dress, how they should act; to be seen as the personification of divine possibility rather than as objects of Black men who have not only lost their imaginations but their divine minds and ancestral memory. The truth of the matter is we need African women like plants need photosynthesis: for life.
Well over a million of us issued promissory notes to ourselves, to Black women, to our children, to our communities — to our collective future. We can do better. Let us remake a new world and let us start by remaking ourselves. Hor em Aket (The Great Sphinx) speaks to us across the ages reminding us that when we do the soul work to subvert our lower natures, our divine nature rises. We win this war because eventually Black Love will prevail and when it does white misanthropy will be about as strong as tissue submerged in an ocean.
Brothers, we signed a promissory note on October 16, 1995. Interest is accruing. Payment is due.
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid” — Audre Lorde
My consciousness is not arranged in such a way that I view any good person’s life as inherently more valuable than any other good person’s life. We all have value. We are all inherently valuable. The unjust arrangement of this world is premised on the notion that some humans are more human than others and therefore inherently more valuable. As I observe the posts, statuses, remembrances, reflections, tributes and energy devoted to ensuring Prince’s safe passage to the next realm. I am reminded that while no one life has more inherent value than another, a single life can be profoundly meaningful in its impact and influence. That is to say, one life can be so robust with meaning that it elevates the inherent value not of themselves but of humanity.
We are society very accustomed to biting on the style of an icon and leaving all the substance on the bone. Prince the man, the artist, the visionary, the philanthropist, the quiet activist are inextricably powerful in their meaningfulness because they all emanated from genius anchored in primordial excellence, a sense purpose and passion, ancient wisdom and an understanding that surpassed the colonization of knowing, all fused with a fierce sense of self determination, which like Harriet Tubman, was informed with a get free or die trying spiritness. You can’t get free, if you are too afraid to even acknowledge you are in bondage. Prince was/is clear.
Behind the iconic purple rain was an Oya like tornadic force powered by a prodigious work ethic, mastery of craft, a sense of excellence and a will to be good rather than to simply look good — that he was able to do both is part of his virtuosity too. In an age in which we aspire to be seen without having done anything worth looking at, in which one aspires to be stylistically robust but substantively bereft, in an era where we seem to have forgotten that subtly, allusion and refinement are demonstrations of genius in control of itself, its will and intent, fully aware of its prodigious fertility, conscious of what it is trying to birth. Prince stands as a reminder, a road map, a flashlight on a darkened path that being true to oneself, pursuing your purpose, your destiny may not make you famous, may not make you rich but it damn sure make you profoundly powerful.
What Prince possessed was not the manic individualism that is so characteristic of the ethos of American society but rather an ancient African ethos which speaks to a kind of expressive individualism rooted in a sociology of personhood, that asks us to improvise — speak our own special truth — within a shared cultural mosaic in such a way as to transcend and transform — improve — it without changing its fundamental essence. In many ways, Prince’s life was jazz personified, which is to say Black life set to a funky syncopated rhythm.
Few artist in my lifetime — ok, none — simultaneously embodied the times and presaged them the way Prince did. From the gender flexibility to the provocative dress to the saturation of sex to the empowering of sexuality as an element of spirituality to the narcissism to defining oneself on ones terms to understanding the sign of the times to the necessity of owning ones labor and ones worth. Prince stood firmly within a Black (African) tradition of artist as activist and philanthropist, in this regard Prince was/is closer to Harry Belafonte than Jimi Hendrix.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so too does print and television media, there is air and space to fill, so there will lots of hot air filling space from a media, fascinated by Black life but inured to the point of indifference about Black suffering, mostly about Prince’s art and it/his impact and likely be very little about the man — the Black man — the activist and the philanthropist. This is unfortunate because here there is much to be gleaned from Prince’s life, his work as well as his approach to life, to love, to liberation, and much to teach us about how to convert a life that was inherently valuable just because into a life that was so meaningful that it imbued humanity with additional value.
The image for which Prince became best known for is a stylized Ankh. The ankh is symbol that derives from KMT (the ancient African Nile Valley civilization best known as Egypt). The symbol represents that creative synthesis of complementary parts in fertile harmony; it represented the life giving power of masculine and feminine energy invested in creating eternal possibility, in generating life eternally. The eminent African psychologist Wade Nobles has noted that much of what is useful in African (American) culture is either overlooked or misunderstood due to our inability to understand the role and function of symbolism in African (American) culture. Even when he wasn’t using his name Prince was always speaking truth to power.
The prescient African novelist Ayi Kwei Armah rightly notes in his memoir, The Eloquence of the Scribes that: “ …Connections is a constant motif in all autonomous African culture, it comes from an ethos that says death cannot be the end; that beyond death remain connection, between those here and now, those who were once here but are now elsewhere, and those who, though not yet here, are destined to come some day….Bodies may connect visibly in the here and now; souls are connectors across the present with past and future time.”
Put another way, energy is neither created nor destroyed it merely changes forms. A profoundly meaningful Black man, a comrade in the struggle for a just, egalitarian and verdant world has departed: Next Woman, Next Man up. As Ella Baker, the Civil Rights activist said: “The struggle is eternal. The tribe increases. Somebody else carries on.” They always do — Will it be you?
Maa Kheru Prince, you did your work on the earthly realm; we look forward what your genius in collaboration with the other ancestors will provide us in the ancestral realm and in ours.
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life…