The Critical Thought of Malcolm X

May 18, 2014
The Critical Thought of Malcolm X

African American Breakthrough Series

The month of May marks the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential voices and leaders of the twentieth-century. The African American Breakthrough Series is proud to celebrate the life and achievements of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s legacy is expansive and profoundly insightful and instructive. To ignore his body of work would be to leave us intellectually impoverished, socially stagnated, and politically immature.

Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, Stand Them Up

Unquestionably, Malcolm X was the most radical voice of the second half of the twentieth-century, speaking truth to the white power structure in America and to the black people. His trenchant analysis of America, grounded in race, was informed and undergirded by a social morality in contradistinction to American Christianity and the prevailing norms of white society.

Malcolm reasoned and spoke on behalf of the oppressed, the victims of the American system. “You understand,” he said, what I’m saying if you realize it’s being said through the mouth of a victim; the mouth of one of the oppressed, not through the mouth and eyes of the oppressor.” And further, in speaking to the same white audience at Harvard, he declared, “If you think we’re sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform, then you won’t understand what I’m talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say if you were standing here.”

Hence, Malcolm sought to redefine morality, reasoning that the morality of the oppressor could not be the morality of the oppressed. He observed, for example, that the “American press made the murders look like saints and the victims like criminals.” In brief, his social morality can be summed up in the expression: Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, and Stand Them Up.

Central to his social morality was the moral imperative of duty. That is to say, African Americans had a moral obligation to know their history, to work in unity to improve their lives and community, to defend themselves against unwarranted violence, and to liberate themselves from white oppression.

 Wake Them Up

Malcolm X believed that African Americans had a moral duty to know their history. He argued that slavery had stripped blacks of their identity and culture, and identity. He declared, “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy… When you let the black man in America know where he once was and what he once had, why, he only needs to look at himself now to realize something criminal was done to him to bring him down to the low condition that he’s in today.”

For Malcolm, the African Americans needed to rediscover their culture, and in recovering their cultural they would recover their true identity. Accordingly, he called for a cultural revolution which he believed would serve as a moral and social cleansing force for blacks. “This cultural revolution,” he asserted, “will be the journey to our rediscovery of ourselves. History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the level of the lower animals.” When you have no knowledge of your history, you’re just another animal; in fact, you’re a Negro; something that’s nothing.”

Clean Them Up

As mentioned elsewhere, Malcolm X believed that it was imperative for blacks to address and overturn their moral weaknesses. This he argued was a prerequisite and condition of political and social development. “The white man”, he advanced, “wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, and ignorant. As long as we stay in these conditions we will keep on begging him and he will control us. We can never win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves.”

Thus, inasmuch as American society had “become overrun with immorality…the only way for black people caught us in society can be saved”, Malcolm stated, reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try to be godly.”

Further, Malcolm advanced the proposition that “the community must reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy, and wage an unrelenting struggle against police brutality.” Note that channeling Frederick Douglass, he argues that blacks had a moral responsibility, a duty, to struggle against their oppression and exploitation.

Still further, Malcolm asserted, “The Afro-American community must accept the responsibility for regaining our people who have lost their place in society. We must declare an all out war on organized crime in our community; a vice that is controlled by policemen who accept bribes and graft must be exposed. We must establish a clinic, whereby one can get aid and cure for drug addiction.” Put differently, he sees blacks as complicit in their oppression and criminogenic condition if they refuse to act or accept primary responsibility for cleansing their communities of crime and vice.

And finally, Malcolm X advocated for strong and moral adult modeling for black children.   “We must”, he asserted “set a good example for our children and must teach them to always be ready to accept the responsibilities that are necessary for building good communities and nations. We must teach them that their greatest responsibilities are to themselves, to their families and to their communities.”

Stand Them Up

In Malcolm’s view, African Americans morally duty to provide and protect their families and communities. First and foremost he maintained that blacks had to defend themselves against unwarranted violence by meeting this type of violence with violence. He argued:

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent in defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to b violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

Still further, Malcolm saw nonviolence in the face of violence as ineffective and immoral. He opined:

Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro. Any Negro who teaches Negroes to turn the other cheek in the face of attack is disarming that Negro of his God-given right, od his moral right, of his natural right, of his intelligence right to defend himself.

Moreover, the use and advocacy of violence by African Americans, as a means of defending themselves against violent attacks, was consistent with Malcolm’ view of blacks asserting their manhood and affirming their human dignity. He believed that it the constant victim of brutal attacks.” Hence, by employing violence in defense of themselves, blacks were doing what other races, namely the white race, had done in to defend their lives and their humanity.

Summing Up

In summary, the social morality of Malcolm X expands and challenges our prevailing notion of morality with respect to violence, collective responsibility, knowledge of history and culture, and self-defense. This relational view of morality places a greater obligation on African Americans to protect and defend their collective interest and each other.

To be sure, Malcolm railed against the personal vices and corruptive elements in the black community. However, even the personal vices required a collective effort. Hence, he argued the black community had to “reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy.” This is just one of the salient lessons we must takeaway from Malcolm X’s social morality.

In light of the condition and predicament of African Americans at this moment in history, Malcolm X’s social morality is much needed.

The Social Morality of Malcolm X

May 15, 2014
The Social Morality of Malcolm X

African American Breakthrough Series

The month of May marks the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential voices and leaders of the twentieth-century. The African American Breakthrough Series is proud to celebrate the life and achievements of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s legacy is expansive and profoundly insightful and instructive. To ignore his body of work would be to leave us intellectually impoverished, socially stagnated, and politically immature.

Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, Stand Them Up

Unquestionably, Malcolm X was the most radical voice of the second half of the twentieth-century, speaking truth to the white power structure in America and to the blacks masses. His trenchant analysis of America, grounded in race, was informed and undergirded by a social morality in contradistinction to American Christianity and the prevailing norms of white society.

Malcolm reasoned and spoke on behalf of the oppressed, the victims of the American system. “You understand,” he said, what I’m saying if you realize it’s being said through the mouth of a victim; the mouth of one of the oppressed, not through the mouth and eyes of the oppressor.” And further, in speaking to the same white audience at Harvard, he declared, “If you think we’re sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform, then you won’t understand what I’m talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say if you were standing here.”

Hence, Malcolm sought to redefine morality, reasoning that the morality of the oppressor could not be the morality of the oppressed. He observed, for example, that the “American press made the murders look like saints and the victims like criminals.” In brief, his social morality can be summed up in the expression: Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, and Stand Them Up.

Wake Them Up

Malcolm X believed that African Americans had a moral duty to know their history. He argued that slavery had stripped blacks of their identity and culture, and thus morality. He declared, “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy… When you let the black man in America know where he once was and what he once had, why, he only needs to look at himself now to realize something criminal was done to him to bring him down to the low condition that he’s in today.”

For Malcolm, the African cultural and a cultural revolution, based on African cultural, was a moral and social cleansing force for blacks. “This cultural revolution,” he asserted, “will be the journey to our rediscovery of ourselves. History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the level of the lower animals.” When you have no knowledge of your history, you’re just another animal; in fact, you’re a Negro; something that’s nothing.”

Clean Them Up

As mentioned elsewhere, Malcolm X believed that it was imperative for blacks to address and overturn their moral weaknesses. This he argued was a prerequisite and condition of political and social development. “The white man”, he advanced, “wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, and ignorant. As long as we stay in these conditions we will keep on begging him and he will control us. We can never win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves.”

Thus, inasmuch as American society had “become overrun with immorality…the only way for black people caught us in society can be saved”, Malcolm stated reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try to be godly.”

Further, Malcolm advanced the proposition that “the community must reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy, and wage an unrelenting struggle against police brutality.” Note that channeling Frederick Douglass, he argues that blacks had a moral responsibility to struggle against their oppression and exploitation.

Still further, Malcolm asserted, “The Afro-American community must accept the responsibility for regaining our people who have lost their place in society. We must declare an all out war on organized crime in our community; a vice that is controlled by policemen who accept bribes and graft must be exposed. We must establish a clinic, whereby one can get aid and cure for drug addiction.” Put differently, he sees blacks as complicit in their oppression and criminogenic condition if they refuse to act or accept primary responsibility for cleansing their communities of crime and vice.

And finally, Malcolm X advocated for strong and moral adult modeling for black children.   “We must”, he asserted “set a good example for our children and must teach them to always be ready to accept the responsibilities that are necessary for building good communities and nations. We must teach them that their greatest responsibilities are to themselves, to their families and to their communities.”

Stand Them Up

In Malcolm’s view, African Americans in were morally obligated to provide and protect their families and communities. First and foremost he maintained that blacks had to defend themselves against unwarranted violence by meeting this type of violence with violence. Therefore, he argued:

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent in defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to b violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

Still further, Malcolm saw nonviolence in the face of violence as ineffective and immoral. He opined:

Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro. Any Negro who teaches Negroes to turn the other cheek in the face of attack is disarming that Negro of his God-given right, od his moral right, of his natural right, of his intelligence right to defend himself.

Moreover, the use and advocacy of violence by African Americans, as a means of defending themselves against violent attacks, was consistent with Malcolm’ view of blacks asserting their manhood and affirming their human dignity. He believed that it the constant victim of brutal attacks.” Hence, by employing violence in defense of themselves, blacks were doing what other races, namely the white race, had done in to defend their lives and their humanity.

In summary, the social morality of Malcolm X expands and challenges the prevailing notion of morality, not just on violence, but equally important on the responsibility of a people, African Americans in particular, to know their history and culture, to assert their manhood, and to defend their human dignity. This relational view of morality places a greater obligation on African Americans to protect and defend their collective interest and each other.

To be sure, Malcolm railed against the personal vices and corruptive elements in the black community. However, even the personal vices required a collective effort. Hence, he argued the black community had to “reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy.” This is just one of the salient lessons we must takeaway from Malcolm X’s social morality.

Honoring Malcolm X

May 13, 2014
Honoring Malcolm X

African American Breakthrough Series

The month of May marks the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential voices and leaders of the twentieth-century. The African American Breakthrough Series is proud to celebrate the life and achievements of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s legacy is expansive and profoundly insightful and instructive. To ignore his body of work would be to leave us intellectually impoverished, socially stagnated, and politically immature.

Revisiting Malcolm X

Malcolm X came to the forefront of America’s consciousness in the Age of the second Black Awakening. He was born Malcolm Little in May 19, 1925, at the height of the first Black Awakening, also called the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro, Marcus Garvey Movement. By the time he was a teenager, the KKK killed his father who was a member of the Marcus Garvey Movement, his mother was placed in a mental institute, and his family split apart and place in foster care.

Malcolm’s transformation from street hustler and ex-convict to world renown leader and spokesperson for the African American nationalist movement is a personal narrative demonstrating what can be achieved even in wretch conditions and among the possible the disposed, a powerful lesson for black men.

Malcolm’s prophetic thought, incisive political and social analysis, and ethical grounding and insights, gives us a much needed compass and blueprint to navigate the ideological confusion: political ineptitude, economic catastrophe, and social decay- which has griped not just African Americans, but the 99 percent.

The Moral Focus of Malcolm X 

The subject of Malcolm X invariably turns to his political philosophy and his advocacy of violence. Yet, his emphasis on the morality of blacks and their ethical codes of behavior undergirds his nationalist philosophy. Anticipating Amilcar Cabral, Malcolm pushed for African Americans to overturn their moral weakness as a prerequisite and condition of political and social development. Cabral brilliantly observed:

 

We refer here to the struggle against our own weaknesses. Obviously, other cases differ from that of Guinea; but our experience has shown us that in the general framework of daily struggle this battle against ourselves — no matter what difficulties the enemy may create — is the most difficult of all, whether for the present or the future of our peoples. This battle is the expression of the internal contradictions in the economic, social, cultural (and therefore historical) reality…We are convinced that any national or social revolution which is not based on knowledge of this fundamental reality runs grave risk of being condemned to failure.

Similarly, Malcolm believed in the moral imperative of cleansing the black community of its vices and anti-social behaviors. “The social philosophy of black nationalism,” he asserted, “only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils, destroying the moral fiber of our Community.” In light of the manifold destructive vices and behavior which has taken root in too many black neighborhoods and which has reached a tipping point, Malcolm’s social philosophy is much needed and serves as the starting point for any uplift or rebuilding effort.

And, again, anticipating Cabral, Malcolm insightfully called for the elevation of the moral standards in the African American community. Cabral in advancing the moral case revolution in the African country Guinea, said: “This shows us, to a certain extent, that if national liberation is essentially a political problem, the conditions for its development give it certain characteristics which belong to the sphere of morals.”

Likewise, Malcolm in explaining his philosophy black nationalism of declared, “We ourselves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful.” Thus, Malcolm’s declaration remains one of the major challenges for black leadership and the black community. Ignoring his call for moral uplift and daily practice has exacted a heavy toll on African Americans, especially black males (high levels and involvement of gang violence, entrenched criminality, youth prostitution, and glorification of criminal life). To be sure, this has contributed to the arrested the development of the African American Movement for social change as well as a significant segment black youth and young adults.

Malcolm X and the Lessons of Morality

Malcolm X left us a rich body of material on ethics and morality. In our breakthrough series, we will explore the many lessons and instructions which can be extracted from Malcolm’s work. Clearly, as indicated above, he was concern with the state of morality in the black community, believing it stunted and stifled the development of black people.

Thus, one of the profound and powerful takeaways from Malcolm’s moral focus is what Cabral so insightfully and elegantly stated: “if national liberation is essentially a political problem, the conditions for its development give it certain characteristics which belong to the sphere of morals.” Malcolm asked blacks to get their communities in order by raising the moral standards and moral codes which inform their behavior. And, as Cabral stated, Malcolm understood that the political development of African Americans and the advancement of the Freedom Movement was predicated on African Americans overcoming and overturning their moral weakness.

As we will discuss in a later post, Malcolm X expanded the moral sphere beyond individual vices and personal corruption. Absence of cultural knowledge and political cowardliness and timidity (refusal to defense oneself and people) he saw as moral offenses. These are the lessons, unlearned and ignored, that we must return to. In studying and employing these lessons, we honor Malcolm X, our shinning black prince and prophet.

Remembering Martin Luther King in the Scales of History

April 13, 2014
Remembering Martin Luther King in the Scales of History

African American Breakthrough Series

Consistent with the Kwanzaa principle Kujichagulia, we are proud to celebrate the history and contribution of African Americans.  Our breakthrough series highlights the ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, of African Americans, which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans and advanced human civilization.  This article reflects on the teachings and legacy of Martin Luther King 46 years after his sacrifice that infamous day, April 4, 1968.

Why We Need Martin Luther King Jr., Voice Today

As a Christian who drew from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, it is prophetic that Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr.’s sacrifice Day would come in the month of April, which is associated death of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.  Today, more than ever, it seems we need to resurrect the voice and insights of King to bring clarity and direction in resolving the interlocking crisis of race and class which stands in the way of King’s Beloved Community and America realizing it potential as a just society.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to America and indeed the world cannot be overstated.  King left both an activist/spiritual and moral/intellectual legacy that has been employed in freedom struggles around the world.  For example, Egyptian activist used and referenced to Kings teaching during the uprising at Tahrir Square at the height of the Egyptian Revolution, which overthrew the dictator, Hosni Mubarak.  Freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela drew inspiration and direction from King.  And, recently Rune Kier – Danish Ministry for Climate, Energy and Building, penned an article entitled: Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, the European Union still could learn a lot from his words. Moreover, King’s influence continues to span the globe as noted by BET.

Martin Luther King’s Legacy

MLK as an activist will be remembered for the freedom marches he led and helped to organize in the South, which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting rights Act.  These two landmark pieces of legislation served to benefit all American citizens and moved America closer to adherence to its principles and statement set forth in its founding document, The Declaration of Independence.

Too, MLK’s I Have A Dream Speech, cemented his name in history and inspired a generation and a nation to reimagine a new America, unburden with the corrosive debilitating effects of discrimination and hatred, driven by love and the unity of all races, and full of opportunity for everyone based on their human potential and character.  The “Dream” speech made Americans, in particular African Americans, more hopeful that change was possible and America could be a “colored blind” society.

During the last three years of his life, which were the most radical and threating, King called for a revolution in values and launched and all-out assault against the triple dangers of racism, materialism, and militarism.  This stands as one of the enduring contributions of MLK.  What is often overlooked in discussing King is his critique of America, which is still much in play and relevant today.  The angst that many Americans are feeling about race, war, and their financial well-being, for example, can be traced to Kings critique of the triple evils devouring America.

More than a critique, King believed that the triple interlocking evils of racism, materialism, and militarism, were at the root of human suffering, both in America and abroad, and he believed that these three evils had to be confronted and overcome in order to transform America into a truly human society where it could fulfill and realize its historical promise and potential.

First, King saw racism as a cancer which spread beyond America.  “Racism,” he asserted, “and its perennial ally—economic exploitation—provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.”  Liking racism to a disease, King further stated, “History has shown that, like a virulent disease germ, racism can grow and destroy nations.”  And, unlike the craven speech and posturing today, which tires to dismiss racism as a thing of the past in favor of a “post-racial” society, he gave a sobering diagnosis and prognosis of racism:

For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated.  The surgery to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed.  As a beginning it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease.  The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always face it is equally real.

Second, King was critical of American capitalism, believing that it turned people into things, consequently fostering values dehumanized relationships and delimited America’s potential.  As writer and elder stateswoman Grace Boggs notes, “in his major writings and speeches in the last two years of his life (Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos? and Time to Break Silence), King began to project a new kind of radical revolution that would begin the shift from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

Boggs further observes that King rejected priority of technology over people and technology as an equalizer as is touted today.  In fact, prophetically, he saw that the technology of today- iPhones, ipads, texting, twitter, Facebook- to name just a few would untether our relationships and make us less human and less empathetic.

Moreover as Boggs points out King believed that technology, “diminishes people because it eliminates their sense of participation. Thus, King warned repeatedly, “Enlarged material powers,” spell enlarged peril if there is no proportionate growth of the soul…When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  And, he punctuated his concern the seductive attraction to technology, stating: Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material growth has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.”

Next, King argued that the third triple evil, militarism, was the death knell of America.  “A nation,” he wrote, “that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  Unlike so many of today, King could not live or tolerate the cognitive dissonance of support war aboard but railing against violence at home. In a speech called Beyond Vietnam, king shocked the nation, saying: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government.”

What is to be done: Toward a True Revolution

One of the most important legacies of MLK was his call and push for a new value system that would transform our political economy and our relationship with each other.  King understood that the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism were grounded in the American value system and that the fight for freedom and full citizenship for blacks and other Americans had to called for a more radical and comprehensive approach.  As Grace Boggs observes:

Viewing Martin Luther King, Jr., as a revolutionary is in sharp contrast to the official view of him as simply an advocate for the rights of African Americans within the current system. In the last two years of his life, confronted with problems that required more complex solutions than visions of Black and White children marching hand in hand, King began to explore a new kind of revolution, one that would challenge all the values and institutions of our society and combine the struggle against racism with a struggle against poverty, militarism, and materialism.

Thus, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed toward the completion of its mission, King saw that civil rights alone was not enough to end the suffering of blacks and poor people, and that a more radical and comprehensive approach to the problems confronting African Americans had to be employed.  “The black revolution,” he insisted, “is much more than a struggle for rights for Negroes. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.”

Further, he viewed war, in particular the Viet Nam War, as a proxy for a more fundamental and deeper sickness in American society.  The war in Vietnam,” he said, “is a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Material growth has been made an end itself. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.”

What was needed King articulated was a revolution grounded in new set of values.   “A true revolution of values”, he pointed out, “will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ Thus, as King entered the final years of his life, he believed that only a revolution could save America and humanity from the three structural evils of America.  In a radical tone and voice, King announce:  “Our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometime hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Given the state of race and inequality in America today, it is Americans not just the European Union who can still learn from the insights and teaching of Martin Luther King.  Indeed, what a wonderful and different world it would be.  The triple evils- racism, materialism, and militarism- are still present today.

Anna Julia Cooper: A Response to President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan

April 6, 2014
Anna Julia Cooper: A Response to President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan

 African American Breakthrough Series

Consistent with the Kwanzaa principle Kujichagulia, we are proud to celebrate the history and contribution of African Americans.  Our breakthrough series highlights the ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, of African Americans which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans and advanced human civilization.

In Defense of African Americans and the Poor

Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University, and MSNBC Host and Nation Columnist insightfully notes that the recent comments by Congressman Paul Ryan, castigating black males for being unemployed and the lack of a work ethic, ignited a firestorm among liberals and conservatives.  Ryan” comments that “this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” was called racist and condemned by those on the Left. Yet, as Professor Harris-Perry points out in her article, Democrats, even President Obama, have been channeling this type of message for some time now.

The comments by President Obama, Harris-Perry states, were similar in nature and seem to repackage the same conservative narrative.  See observes, “Our current Democratic president has not offered a new narrative. His script seems borrowed. Just in February the White House launched a new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which targets young men of color. “No excuses,” announced President Obama. “Government, and the private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. But you’ve got responsibilities too.

To be sure, Ryan’s comments represent the classical rightwing ideology and messaging with respect to race and culture.  However, as the electoral terrain has shifted to the right, even democrats have adopted some of the conservative’s talking points and ideological perspective. However, again, as Harris-Perry notes, President Obama’s statement differs little from that of Ryan

Thus, whenever elected officials—democrats or republicans– are discussing public resources or programs for blacks or poor people (black and poor have become synonymous), they tend qualify their support with a condition that blacks or the poor “work hard,” or play by the rules.”  And, since they are often seen as non contributors “takers,” who lack social worth, with some culture deficiency, as Ryan claims, they are undeserving of any investment or help from the government.

Anna Julia Cooper has articulated the best response to both Congressman Ryan and President Obama in her classical work, A Vice From the South.  In this work, she advances the theory of worth argument, which she issues in response to racist arguments against the value of black people. In a blatant and brazen statement, Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist and minister and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, remarked: “Were Africa and Africans to sink to-morrow, how much poorer would the world be?  A little less gold and ivory, a little less coffee, a considerable ripple perhaps, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans would come together—that is all; not a poem, not an intervention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.”

Beecher’s statement suggests humankind could do without black people since they are non-contributors to civilization, and thus are, “takers.”  Cooper’s response, as noted by Lewis Gordon, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Judaic Studies at Temple University, was that “worth was a function of what an individual produced in relation to that which was invested in him or her.”  Cooper pointed out that a paucity of resources had been invested in blacks. Yet despite this, blacks through their unpaid labor (slavery) have been integral to the production of American wealth.  In fact, she posits that slavery denied and retarded the human potential of African Americans, and because of this, whatever intellectual and educational deficits of blacks are not the responsibility of blacks, but of those who enslaved them.

Closely related to the above, she argues that slavery denied African Americans the chance to develop through their own free labor and were they deprived of formal education and training.  “Education,” she asserts, “is the safest and richest investment possible to man.”  It pays the largest dividends and gives the greatest product in the world—a man.”  Yet, despite this, blacks have still advanced and made a contribution to America beyond their forced labor.  Summing up her point, she declares: A man is to be praised primarily not for having inherited fine tools and faultless materials but for making the most of the stuff he has, and doing his best in spite of disadvantages and poor materials.  The individual is responsible not for what he has not, but for what he has; and the vital part for us after all depends on the use we make of our materials” .

Furthermore, Cooper points to the discrimination against blacks by businesses and labor unions in favor of native-born whites and newly arrived immigrants from Europe who were less skilled that blacks and had far less command of the English language.   Although blacks were highly skilled craftsmen and had mastered mechanics during their long period of enslavement, Cooper notes that skilled was “steadily drifting into the hands of white workmen—mostly foreigners.  She further observes:

The white engineer holds a tight monopoly both of the labor market and of the science of his craft.  Nothing would induce him to take colored apprentice or even to work beside a colored workman.

Production Cooper insightful puts forth is a function of investment.  In human terms, investment must be calculated over generations.  Summing up her theory on growth and achieved potentiality, she writes:

Now whatever notions we may indulge on the theory of evolution and the laws of atavism or heredity, all concede that no individual character receives its raw material newly created and independent of the rock from whence it was hewn.  No life is bound up within the period of its conscious existence.  No personality dates its origin form its birthday.  The elements that are twisted into the cord did not begin their formation when first the tiny thread became visible in the great warp and filing of humanity.

Thus, achieved human potential, at the individual or collective level, occurs and shaped, realized over time.  Cooper further explains that: “The material that go to make a man, the probabilities of his character and activities, the condition and circumstances of his growth, and his quantum of resistance and mastery are the resultant of forces witch have been accumulating and gathering momentum for generations.”

Given all of the above, Cooper argues that whites have produced far less than what should be expected given their social and intellectual inheritance, their current social investment (primary and higher education and industrial training), their privileged position in American society and the absence of racial oppression nor were enslaved. She observes:

It is a fact which every candid man who rids through the rural districts in the South will admit, that the Negro is ahead of the white man of his chances.  Indeed, it would not be hard to show that the white man of his chances does not exist.  The “Crackers” and “Poor-whites” were never slaves, were never oppressed or discriminated against.  Their time, their earnings, their activities have always been at their own disposal; and pauperism in their case can be attributed to nothing but stagnation—moral, mental, and physical immobility: while in the case of the Negro, poverty can at least be partially accounted for by the hard conditions of life and labor,–the past oppression and continued repression which form the vital air in which the Negro lives and moves and has his being.

Lesson for Ryan and Obama

Fundamentally, Anna Julia Cooper argues that a person’s productive capacity is a function of what the person (or race) produces in relation to that which is invested in him or her.  In comparison to whites, very little has been invested in African Americans historically and contemporaneously.  Yet, despite the enormous handicap of slavery, segregation, structural racism as well as internal deficits, black youth male and female, are producing well beyond what is invested in them.  By contrast, the amount invested, socially, economically, and culturally in whites youth, in production for their achievements, is so costly that it diminishes their overall worth.  Although some achieve much more that is invested in them, more white youth produce far less than what is invested in them.

The educational achievement gap, for instance, is much more an example of what is invested in children and youth and the availability of opportunities and resources than learning deficiencies.  Similarly, unemployment is a function of the lack of investment in young black men and women and employment opportunities, rather than a cultural deficit.

The Ryan 2014/2015 budget makes it even more probable that this pattern of divestment and lack of opportunity will persist.  Rather than preach ideology and advance political talking points, listening to the voice of Anna Julia Cooper and adhering to her theory of human worth and production would better serve Congressman Ryan and President Obama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Women: Redeeming and Regenerating African Americans

March 26, 2014
Black Women: Redeeming and Regenerating African Americans

In honor of Women’s History Month, the African American Breakthrough Series will feature the writing and voice of Anna Julia Cooper.  Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. Preeminent scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the elevation of African Americans and the progress of the nation. 

Anna Julia Cooper: Saving the Race

In light of the worsening socioeconomic condition of poor and working class black communities–increased poverty, disintegrating families and family structure, epidemic school failure, sky rocking unemployment, rampant drug use, and drug selling as a means of employment and status, and a growing sense of hopelessness and despair– we turn our attention once more to the voice and intellectual work of Anna Julia Cooper.  Given the oppressive condition of Africans Americans during her lifetime augmented by the unleashing of raw racism and violence, her analysis and writing of the question “What is to be done,” provides an alternative way of thinking about  the current state of black America.

Cooper’s starting point for race redemption and reconstruction begins with a focus and priority on black women.  Putting forth a plan of race restoration and race-building , she advanced what she refers to as the “vital agency of womanhood in the generation an progress of a race.”  Thus, she declares, “the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-thinking of the race, as well as the ground work and starting point of its progress upward, must begin with the black woman.”

In a word, Cooper sees the black woman as the vanguard for the advancement of blacks in America.  This was a radical and bold statement, especially in light of the dominant male ideology and force in American life at the end of the 19th century.  Yet, she believed this was an invitation of heaven and history.  Given the strategic position that the black woman occupied in black and American life, she observes that the elevation and contribution of the black women would be exponentially greater than black males. Hence, in her signature statement, she astutely notes;

Only the Black Woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quite, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

The identification and call for black women as the vanguard of a nation-building effort in the service of the race is not fanciful thinking by Cooper.  She is keenly aware of the challenges this presented. “With all the wrongs and neglect of her past, with all the weakness , the debasement, the moral thralldom of her present,” she expounds, “the blacks woman of to-day stands mute and wondering at the Herculean task devolving upon her.”  But, she adds, “the cycle wait for her.  No other hand can move the lever.  She must be loosed from her bands and set to work.”

To be sure, Cooper’s emphasis on black women as the advance guard for race recovery and building is strategic, and calls for investment and cultivation of their human potential.  Black women she proclaims are the “mothers of the next generation.”  Moreover, the care, concern , priority and corresponding commitment to invest in the project of elevating black women as a road to race redemption is both honorable and righteous. Given this, black people should embrace the call, “I am my sister’s keeper,” and this commitment, she writes, “should be the hearty response of every man and woman of the race, and this conviction should purify and exalt the narrow, selfish and petty personal aims of life into a noble and sacred purpose.”

Further, Cooper sees a significant role for the black church in pursuit of the sacred purpose of lifting up black women and in making them competent nation-builders who can fulfill their role and responsibility of restoration of African Americans.  Moreover, the task of nation-building begins with young black girls.  Cooper asked: “Will not the aid of the Church be given to prepare our girls in head and heart for the duties and responsibilities that await the intelligent wife, the Christian mother, the earnest virtuous helpful woman, as once both the lever and the fulcrum for uplifting the race.”

Unquestionably, Cooper believes, the future of African Americans is predicated on achieving the elevation of black women.  Cooper constantly reminds those concern with African Americans uplift that “the race cannot be effectively lifted up till its women are truly elevated.  Punctuating this the critical task, she adds: “Our life as a race is at stake.  The dearest interest of our hearts is in the scales…the time is ripe for action.”

Advancing Coopers Thoughts and Ideas Today

Much has been made, and deservingly, so, of the need to focus more resources and attention on helping young black males. President Obama, “My  Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which has drawn much attention, is the latest high profile example of such an effort.  Yet, Anna Julia Cooper argues the opposite, and turns President Obama’s thinking and focus on its head. As noted above, she argues that restoration and regeneration of African American males and females rest on the focus and elevation of black females.  Her argument has potency and merits serious consideration.  For example, consider the following:

  1. Black females headed households is more prevalent than that among any other racial group
  2. Black children are more likely to live with one parent
  3. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic
  4. 45.8 percent of young black children (under age 6) live in poverty, compared to 14.5 percent of white children
  5.  Children in single-parent households are raised not only with economic, but also social and psychological, disadvantages (, they are four times as likely as children from intact families to be abused or neglected; much likelier to have trouble academically; twice as prone to drop out of school; three times more likely to have behavioral problems; much more apt to experience emotional disorders; far likelier to have a weak sense right and wrong)

Given aforementioned data related to female headed household, and the data that shows African American males overrepresented in almost all of the negative social economic indicators, Cooper’s call for a nation-building project, centered on black women, seems prudent and advisable.

Thus, African Americans, elected officials, policy makers in the public and private sector, would do well to embrace Anna Julia Cooper’s plan and focus for redemption and regeneration of both black males and females . As she so aptly put it: “The past work in this direction has been unsatisfactory we must admit.  That without a change of policy results in the future will be as meager, we greatly fear…  our life as a race is at stake.”

REFERENCES

  1. Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South
  2. Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America
  3.  Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and , Rose M. Kreide, American Families and Living Arrangements: 2012
  4. National Poverty Center

 

 

 

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