Straight Outta Fear


Soundtrack: Public Enemy “Fear of a Black Planet”

Much has been made of the fact that Universal Pictures agreed to sponsor extra police presence at movie theaters that show the Straight Outta Compton movie which was released on August 14, 2015. There have been many complaints that the studio and/or the theaters are being racist by implying that Black audiences are more prone to violence, even in the face of recent movie shootings involving white shooters.

I have not heard anyone speak on what I believe is the proper context in which to view these moves by the Hollywood brass.

The 1% is afraid of Black people. Deathly afraid. The national security apparatus of this country has been preparing their defenses against the perceived military threat that is young Black America for over 25 years now. They believe that the next big military problem the United States faces is not Al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL, it is the relationship between Hip-Hop and street gangs and the potential for street gangs to evolve into paramilitary organizations capable of threatening national security. More specifically, they fear Hip Hop and rappers serving as a bridge between millions of angry inner city youth and a Black Nationalist/Anti-Establishment ideology which can unite that anger against the Establishment and their property.

This Straight Outta Compton movie lands into the public arena almost exactly one year after the murder of Mike Brown galvanized that inner city anger all over the country. August and September last year saw protests and rebellions happen simultaneously in dozens of cities around the country. The Establishment is lucky that so far only buildings and cars have burned. But they know that at any given moment, these peaceful and some not-so-peaceful protests can turn into Nat Turner.

This same narrative has been playing itself out on repeat since before the United States became a country. One of the most important but rarely mentioned aspects of United States style slavery was the constant fear that white people lived in regarding possible slave rebellions. They were keenly aware of the fact that they were usually outnumbered by the Africans and a great deal of their energy was spent on looking for and uncovering possible uprisings from the Africans. We hear the names of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey mentioned during Black History month but we almost never hear about the hundreds of rebellions that never got off the ground or the thousands of Africans who ran away from captivity, refusing to live one more day as a slave.

That culture of white fear still permeates these United States. This is the explanation behind what we view as ridiculous exaggerations of use of force when their cops deal with us. Yesterday we all saw the viral video of 130 pound Wiz Khalifa being arrested and assaulted by five cops for riding a hoverboard in an airport. This whole past year of Black Lives Matter protests all over the country has seen cops showing up in full riot gear in military tanks to deal with peaceful and unarmed protesters. There are countless examples of white cops rolling up on a group of four Black teenagers just standing around and the cops treating them as if they are a criminal syndicate or a whole drug cartel. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. John Crawford. Tamir Rice. Mansur Ball-Bey. Walter Scott. All murdered in the past year because of the completely irrational fear of Blackness.

White folks see us with multiplying goggles on. In their minds, we are bigger, faster, stronger, and more numerous than we really are. It’s like they live their lives inside of a virtual reality video game in which we are the bad guys and we’re all 400 pounds of bloodthirsty villain.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, White America always acts out of their recognition that their world is fragile. You can never be comfortable when in possession of stolen property. You can’t fully relax and kick back with your feet up if you’re in someone else’s house. When Tea Party-types complain about wanting their “country back” it reveals a deep-seated fear because they know that the country really isn’t theirs and the Hands of Justice can take it away at any time.

The Establishment has seen the power of the energy behind the music and the message of N.W.A. When Los Angeles went up in flames in 1992, N.W.A. was the soundtrack. To repeat my earlier phrase, they are deathly afraid that this Straight Outta Compton movie could be the spark that ignites the powder keg of anti-Police and anti-Establishment fervor that his been growing all over this country in the past year.

We took offense, thinking that the filmmakers and movie theaters assumed that we were going to be violent with each other during or after seeing the movie. That’s not why they hired the extra security. They brought in extra cops for the same reason that Ferguson and Baltimore and New York City and others brought out “extra” cops for the protesters. They are afraid of us being violent with them.

The extra cops are really a sign of respect. They see in us what we don’t see in ourselves; the ability to overthrow their position and abolish their system. We ask them for better treatment because we think that we are weak and incapable of forcing them to do anything; they bring out the whole cavalry because they know better.

This country was built with our labor, with our blood, and with our brains. We paved the first roads and laid down the first railroad tracks and died first in their wars and invented the traffic signal and the light bulb and the safe for them to keep their stolen money in and designed the layout of their District of Columbia. When we figure out that we can literally take back what is ours then maybe some of the Establishment’s deepest fears will actually come to life.


Malcolm X, Chokwe Lumumba, Black Lives Matter, and The Blueprint For Black Power


Soundtrack: The Last Poets “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”

My Spirit tugged at me to write these words when I saw this article, “Diddy on #BlackLivesMatter: ‘Black People Are Committing Genocide on Ourselves'”, while taking a break from writing my book. The article quotes one of Diddy’s Instagram posts:

“For the last couple of months we have experienced a lot of injustice and wrongdoings to a community. But there is a flip side,” wrote Diddy. He continued, “Yes #BLACKLIVESMATTER ! But no one will respect us if we as a people don’t have any respect for our own black lives. We are committing genocide on ourselves. We are always looking for scapegoats.”

Diddy added, “We as a people hurt ourselves more than anyone has ever hurt us. That makes no sense. We as a people including myself have to take accountability and do whatever we can do individually or together to stop the madness and realize that we are KINGS and QUEENS AND Must love ourselves and each other. I know I’m rambling a little bit. #BLACKLIVESMATTER SO AS A PEOPLE LETS PRACTICE WHAT WE PREACH.!!! MAY GOD BLESS US ALL! Ii LOVE YOU!!!!!!” Combs posted on Instagram.

Oh, Diddy.

Didn’t that one semester at Howard University teach you anything? Apparently not.

I’m going to need Diddy to stick to ruining his artist’s careers instead of attempting some type of social commentary. It must be nice to be black, rich and oblivious to issues that plague society. Diddy, here’s a word of advice: Keep “Black Lives Matter” out of your mouth until you realize what it actually means. Take that.”

Normally I would ignore this. However, today is Malcolm X’s birthday, and I’m feeling some kind of way. Malcolm is my hero 365 days a year. I actually strive to live my life according to the example that he gave with his own life.

There has been a flood of popular opinion in the past year condemning what is called “respectability politics.” At the risk of greatly oversimplifying the issue I will define respectability politics as a strategy used by marginalized groups to say “if we make ourselves more respectable then bad things won’t happen to us.” Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Common, Pharrell, and now Diddy have had the respectability politics tag hurled at them like a yo mama joke, whether they deserve it or not.

Opponents of the philosophy in the Black Lives Matter movement have raised the point that law enforcement officers, representatives of the State, will murder us no matter what we do. Whether we’re walking in the street or standing in front of a store or playing with a BB gun in the park or playing with a toy rifle in a Walmart or just riding a train, cops will find a reason to unjustly slay us. However, most people in this movement have shown themselves incapable of understanding the differences in nuance between a self-help philosophy and an attempt to win favor with the Establishment by being more like them.

Ironically, many of the same arguments being used against Diddy and others on Malcolm X’s birthday were also used against Malcolm X when he was alive. Malcolm rose to prominence in the late 1950’s as the National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. As such, Malcolm was criticized for not taking an active role in supporting the many civil rights demonstrations across the country and especially in his home base of New York City.

There is a memorable scene in Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X in which one of the Muslims was a victim of police brutality. Onlookers at the scene can be heard saying:

“So what you gonna do? He’ll rap a little. He’s a Muslim. But you ain’t gonna do nothing…but make a speech. Muslims talk a good game, but they never do nothing.”

That scene was partly fictional but the Muslims had this reputation because of Elijah Muhammad’s belief that you shouldn’t try to force your way in somewhere that you aren’t wanted. So if white people don’t want you at their hotels and restaurants and schools, don’t complain and protest about it, just build your own. Malcolm was the chief representative of this philosophy. He made countless speeches clowning Dr. King and other civil rights leaders for doing pretty much the exact same kinds of demonstrations that are being employed by the Black Lives Matter movement today. However, today the members of that movement are praising Malcolm and claiming him as an inspiration. Somebody is confused.

Malcolm didn’t believe in protesting. In 1962, Malcolm described an incident between the Muslims and the Los Angeles Police Department this way:

“In the shooting that took place, seven men were shot. Seven Muslims were shot. None of them were armed. None of them were struggling. None of them were fighting. None of them were trying to defend themselves at all. And after being taken to the police station, they were held for 48 hours and weren’t even given hospitalization. We have one now who is completely paralyzed. We just got all of them free last night. . . . And this happened in Los Angeles last Friday night, in the United States of America, not South Africa or France or Portugal or any place else or in Russia behind the iron curtain, but right her in the United States of America. . . .”

Malcolm didn’t want to speak to the media about this. He wanted to retaliate. To make a really long story short, he was ordered not to retaliate and he went to Los Angeles and spoke out about it as a Plan B. And that was the beginning of the end for the relationship between Malcolm and his teacher. Malcolm wanted some cops to die and it took every bit of self restraint that he could muster to follow the instruction not to go on a killing spree. However, neither Malcolm’s original plan or his back up plan included Black Lives Matter style protests.

The different philosophies and strategies represented by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the 1960’s are still present today, in different forms. Just as in the 1960s, the nonviolent civil rights direct action side of the equation receives the majority of the media attention and acclaim. But the spirit and the legacy of Malcolm X are alive and well in 2015, 50 years after he became an Ancestor.

Even though #BlackLivesMatter was created in response to Trayvon Martin being posthumously placed on trial for his own murder, it has become mostly associated with the demonstrations and the energy that swept the nation following the spontaneous combustion of righteous indignation in Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown. I put my life on hold to be a part of what was happening in Ferguson and unsuccessfully attempted to infuse that activity with some of the spirit of Malcolm X.

Whatchu know about Chokwe Lumumba?

The Republic of New Africa (RNA) is a Black nationalist organization that was created in 1969 on the premise that an independent Black republic should be created out of the southern United States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which were considered “subjugated lands.” The group’s manifesto demanded the United States government pay $400 billion in reparations for the injustices of slavery and segregation. It also argued that the American Africans should be allowed to vote on self-determination, as that opportunity was not provided at the end of slavery when the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution incorporated American Africans into the United States. The economy of the RNA was to be organized based on ujamaa, Tanzania’s model of cooperative economics and community self-sufficiency.

Two brothers, Milton and Richard Henry, who were associates of Malcolm X, formed an organization called the Malcolm X Society, which was devoted to the creation of an independent Black nation within the United States. Milton and Richard subsequently changed their names to Gaidi Obadele and Imari Abubakari Obadele, respectively. The brothers organized a meeting of 500 Black nationalists in Detroit, Michigan in 1968.  Exiled former North Carolina NAACP leader Robert Williams was chosen as the first President of the Republic of New Africa. The group wrote a declaration of independence and established the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PGRNA). The group anticipated that the U.S. would reject their demands and made plans for armed resistance and a prolonged guerilla war.

To make another really long story short, Chokwe Lumumba would eventually serve as Minister of Justice and Midwest Regional Vice President of the PGRNA.  Along with other New Afrikan revolutionary nationalists from the PGRNA, House of Umoja, and Afrikan People’s Party; Chokwe founded the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) in 1984 to further the aims of the RNA. He became the Chairman and primary spokesperson of NAPO for 29 years. Subsequently, NAPO founded the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement as its mass association in 1990.

This movement most directly carries the torch for Malcolm X, even more so than the Nation of Islam which made him famous. In one of the most amazing and largely ignored victories for the Black Liberation movement in recent decades, Chokwe Lumumba was elected as mayor of the city of Jackson, Mississippi on May 21, 2013. Let that soak in. A man who founded the Malcolm X Center at Wayne State University when he was a law student there…a man who defended countless revolutionaries and political prisoners in the courts of his colonizers…a man who helped to found the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America…this man became the mayor of a major United States city in the most racist of those 50 states. How did he do it? And what lessons can the rest of us learn from him in our efforts to improve our communities and keep there from being new Mike Browns and Freddie Grays?

The idea to run Chokwe Lumumba for city council in 2009 and then for mayor in 2013 was a part of what is called the Jackson-Kush Plan to win self-determination, participatory democracy, and economic justice in Black majority counties in Mississippi. Without using a lot of big words, this plan developed by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is basically that Black people should take control of the areas where we are the majority of the population. Because there is no one who can stop us from doing so. The Achilles Heel of the United States system of white supremacy is that they set up their system as a democracy. Majority always rules in a democracy, if they choose to. We can choose to use our colonizers’ system against them, for our benefit.

If you live in a majority Black city or county and the people organize themselves to function as a group then you can take control of the budgets. The people can decide where the tax dollars go, who works in government positions including police and district attorney and judges, what the school curriculum is, so on and so forth. The basic idea is very simple.

In places like Ferguson and Baltimore where more than 60% of the population is Black, what excuse do we have for allowing other people to dominate us to such a degree that a Mike Brown or Freddie Gray can happen in the first place? Especially when we’ve been blessed with a man as great as Malcolm X to teach us the benefits of doing for self; when people inspired by him like Huey Newton and others have taught us that Power is always in the hands of the People; what excuse do we have?

Frederick Douglass told us in 1857!!!!, that “power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did, and it never will.” We can take back the power over our own lives and our own communities. There is no need for us to ask anyone else to give us justice.

Making this kind of a stand would start with us deciding that we are going to value our own lives. In order for us to TAKE control over own communities and our institutions and our dollars, we have to first believe that we deserve to have that level of power and self sufficiency. We have to love ourselves and each other enough to do whatever it takes to make this kind of a plan work. If we can’t stop slaughtering each other in the streets like pigs, then how in the hell are we gonna take power from the most powerful country on the planet, and give that power back to ourselves?

When Kendrick said this he was absolutely right:

“I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”

Picture this: we’re in an auditorium. The seats are full of American Africans, 60 of them. 30 white people are on stage. And sitting on a table, on the stage, is Freedom. The American Africans are asking the white people to take Freedom off the table and throw it into the audience. The white people are refusing. The people in the audience are getting upset. In their frustration, they start fighting each other. One of them gets killed in the fighting. Some of the white people in police uniforms come down off the stage and beat up the audience members in the process of arresting the killer. And this same scenario keeps playing itself out for 40 years. All the while, the audience members could choose to just walk up on the stage and take Freedom.

This is what has happened in America’s inner cities since the collapse of the Black Power movement 40 years ago. How long are we gonna stay stuck in this cycle? As long as we can condemn Diddy or anyone else for insisting that we need to love ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for fixing our condition then we will never get freedom or justice or equality.

Over the weekend, at the Malcolm X Festival in Atlanta, The Last Poets performed “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Damn right.

Why Black Power?

February 9th marks the inaugural episode of SOL System Radio on the Living Aligned network at We are starting something new with the blog in that (hopefully) every weekly episode of the radio show will be preceded by a related blog post. Readers will get a chance to hear some of our thoughts on the upcoming show topic and have questions and comments ready to go when the show airs Monday nights at 8pm EST.

Our first three episodes of SOL System Radio will be on the topics: “Why Black Power?”, “Why Tantra?”, and “Why Polyamory?”…In this blog post we’re dealing with the first topic of Black Power. Many people look at this term and the idea behind it as some old outdated wanna be Black Panther ass foolishness. Why are we still talking about this in 2015? Don’t you know we got a Black president?

Yeah, I know. (sigh) The election of Barack Obama was supposed to mark the beginning of a post-racial era in which everyone can truly be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But, apparently not everyone got the memo on that. The news has repeatedly shown us that Black people, especially young Black males, are viewed as dangers to society. At first glance. Across the board. Whether it’s a slender 17 year old in Florida or a big 18 year old in Missouri or a little 12 year old in Ohio, Black skin in Obama’s America means you are a threat to be neutralized. Fuck your character.

And the Black community is powerless to do anything about this. That’s what I wanna talk about in this writing. Why are Black people not able to make this unfair treatment stop? What tools give a group of people that kind of ability to control their reality? Why don’t Black people have those tools? How do Black people get those tools?

We define “power” as the ability to determine one’s own reality, and/or the reality of others. An alternative definition of “power” that we like is “Organized People + Organized Money”. Cash Rules Everything Around Me. When we look at how much money Black people are able to organize relative to their peers from other communities, it quickly becomes clear why the Black community is not commanding the highest level of respect.

White people have a whole lot more money than Black people do. There are questions about what exactly the numbers are depending on who is gathering the statistics, but it is clear that the wealth of White households was between 13 and 18 times the median wealth of Black households in 2013. According to one source, the median wealth of White households in 2013 was $141,900 compared to $11,000 for Blacks. That figure for Blacks is quite generous compared to some other estimates.

And, to add insult to injury, this wealth gap is growing under the first Black president. According to the Pew Research Center’s tabulations, White wealth was 8 times that of Blacks in 2010, shortly after Obama got in office, and 13 times that of Blacks in 2013. However, these numbers have little to do with Obama’s performance in office and more to do with the situation he inherited.

The Great Recession between 2007 and 2010 hit Black people especially hard. This is mainly true because housing constituted such a large percentage of our wealth, leaving us deeply exposed when the market crashed. Higher unemployment rates and lower incomes among Blacks left us less able to keep paying our mortgages and more likely to lose our homes. Before the recession, housing wealth accounted for 49% of Black household assets, compared with 28% for the average White household. But the average home value was far lower for Black households: $75,040 versus $217,150.

Discriminatory lending practices were also a factor. “We know that communities of color, their rate of subprime or predatory loans was twice what it is in the overall population,” said Tom Shapiro, the director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University.

Black families also suffered bigger hits to our retirement savings, the Urban Institute found. On aggregate, the value of Black families’ retirement accounts shrank 35 percent between 2007 and 2010, while White families’ accounts actually gained 9 percent over the same period. With lower earnings and higher unemployment rates leaving us with a thinner safety net to begin with, Black families were more likely to take funds out of the market when it was depressed, leaving us out in the cold as the market recovered.

“That reservoir of what you can dig into for emergencies and contingencies is a lot shallower in communities of color,” Professor Shapiro said. “That pushes black families to sling off assets, like I.R.A.’s or stocks, that you might have had another goal in mind for.”

Something similar may be happening as the housing recovery takes hold. “Some people talk about it in terms of a land grab,” said Professor Hamilton of the New School, as mainly white investors are buying foreclosed homes from disproportionately minority owners. “As the housing market starts to appreciate, some of those minority buyers might not be back.”

Let me pause here and reiterate that money makes the world go round. Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. population. In 1860, at the climax of slavery, all the free Black people in this country collectively owned about ½ of 1% of the country’s wealth. As of 2014 that percentage increased to 1.75%. Black people control about $1.4 trillion of the total $80 trillion of U.S. household net worth. 12% of the population, with 1.75% of the wealth, is a perfect formula for powerlessness. Just that stat alone tells the whole story of why Black people are disrespected in this country. Why should anyone respect us? We haven’t demonstrated the ability to make anyone pay for not showing us respect. With over a trillion dollars in annual income and in collective wealth, the most we can do when we are violated is do a march or some other “nonviolent direct action”.

I could spend a lot of time detailing the history of how we got in this position. I could bring up some historical facts that I’m sure most people aren’t aware of. But I think that most people have some basic understanding of the fact that our history in this country has produced our present. That we were held as slaves from the moment the first White people stepped foot on this land in the 1500’s until slavery was finally abolished in 1865, except for when it isn’t…that after slavery the vital period of reconstruction was stopped prematurely and replaced with the Jim Crow system of disenfranchisement and the introduction of the Ku Klux Klan…and the story goes on and on.

I want to bring light to what I consider to be the three divisions of the Black community in the 21st century. There are three separate socioeconomic groupings within the Black community with each having a very different experience from what the other two are having. There are 14 million Black households in the U.S. The median household net worth is between $6,500 and $11,000, depending on who you ask. If we take the average of those and put it at $8,750 then that means there are 7 million households with less than $8,750 and 7 million households with more than $8,750. We can fairly accurately divide these 14 million households up into thirds.

The bottom 1/3 or 33% have Negative or No Net Worth. They have absolutely nothing that they control, no savings, no safety net; if they lose a job or have a sudden illness then they’re scrambling to find some help to avoid becoming homeless. The middle 1/3 are those who have just a little bit of wealth; slightly more assets than liabilities. Some of them own a house that they’re barely affording, some don’t own. They are middle class people who are one bad break away from being lower class. The upper 1/3 are people who are doing fairly well for themselves. They are the ones responsible for the average Black household wealth of around $100,000 as opposed to the median which is $8,750.

Blacks saw our overall median net worth decrease by $3,746 (or 37.2%) between 2000 and 2011. However these decreases were concentrated among the bottom two thirds. That group saw its median net worth decline by about 50% while the top one third saw its median net worth increase by about 50% over the same period (2000-2011). For Blacks in the highest 20% of their community, relative increases in median net worth exceeded those of Whites and Hispanics in the same socioeconomic group over this period. This top one third group is a silver lining in an otherwise bleak picture of where the Black community currently stands economically.

So what can we take away from all these numbers and percentages? Two thirds of the Black community either doesn’t have shit, or is a lay-off away from not having shit. What can be done about this? Let’s consider these words from Dr. Claud Anderson.

We have to learn that economics and politics are like offense and defense in a sport, you have to do both well in order to win, and this is a team sport. Our primary issue is that we have never developed the cultural habits that would allow us to work well as a collective, for our collective benefit. We vote as individuals, we save money as individuals, we open businesses as individuals. If we want to win in life, we have to learn how to operate as a team.

Jewish people make up 2.2% of the U.S. population. The median net worth for Jewish households is $150,890. Only 1 percent of Jewish Americans live in poverty. 24% of billionaires in the U.S. are Jewish. 35% of the 400 richest Americans are Jewish. 18% of Jewish households in the U.S. have a net worth of $1 million or more. For a group that was openly discriminated against in recent history, they’re doing pretty good. There is a lot that the Black community can learn from them. One thing that I want to bring up in this context is that there is one group that speaks for the entire Jewish community in dealing with the President and Executive branch of the government (Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations); and there is one group that speaks for the entire Jewish community in dealing with the legislative branch (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Because of this wealth, unity, and grassroots organizing, their community is able to get pretty much anything they want from the U.S. government.

There is a fundamental shift that would have to occur in order for the Black community to begin operating in that way. The community must first have a desire to control its own economics, politics, education, emergency services, and so on. When you don’t have a desire for such control then it is no wonder that you don’t have control. When you don’t control the basics in your own community then someone else will control them for you. Controlling these basic aspects of community life is the only way to truly get members of your own community and people outside of your community to believe that #BlackLivesMatter.

Seeking this control is synonymous with seeking power. If and when the Black community decides to collectively seek control over its own community then another word for that is power, Black Power. Black Power is not an anti-anybody philosophy. It is simply for people who have lacked control in the past gaining control over their own lives, not control over anyone else. Black Power doesn’t seek to deny rights or liberties to any other people. Black Power is simply about freedom, justice, and equality for Black people.

Integration into the larger society will not and cannot lead to Black people gaining greater control over their own communities. Voting for the Democratic Party in greater numbers will not and cannot lead to Black people gaining greater control over their own communities. Pursuing higher education at the expense of forming a solid economic base first will not and cannot lead to Black people gaining greater control over their own communities. As Dr. Claud Anderson stated in the above video, business and economics is the foundation of any meaningful advancement for Black people.

Black Power is not a thing of the past. It is the only possible way forward for Black people if we desire to see an end to Mike Browns and Eric Garners and poverty and the various things that we know we don’t like. Reactionary protests are not in our best interests. We must turn with laser beam focus on making long term investments in our collective future. A group of 40 million who earns a trillion dollars every year and owns a trillion dollars in wealth can easily come together with $1 billion to start an economic development fund. We could pool $1 billion overnight. We just have to develop a sense of dignity that makes us believe we deserve to control our own destiny. I close with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


We Want Poems That Kill


Soundtrack: Amiri Baraka “Somebody Blew Up America

Soundtrack: Amiri Baraka and The Roots “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)

Imamu Amiri Baraka joined the Ancestors today, January 9, 2014.
I was around Amiri in person once, in 2007, when he recited his poetry at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston. I didn’t know as much about him then as I would come to learn later on. I would’ve made sure to ask him much better questions if I had the same opportunity today.

While he sat in the hospital in late December, I had a discussion with my wife about the 1960’s and 70’s debate between revolutionary nationalism and cultural nationalism. Amiri was heavy on my heart. I was thinking about his impact on the world, and on me. The spokesperson for his son’s Newark, NJ mayoral campaign gave the statement about his recent illness and his status at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. Dig that picture.

The man born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in segregated New Jersey attended college briefly at Rutgers University before transferring to the historic Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was there that he received the initial stages of the education that would most prominently shape his thinking for the rest of his life. He had an English professor named Sterling Brown who taught him about Jazz, the history of it and the beauty of it. While he was at Howard Leroy changed his name to LeRoi, reflecting the French word for “the king”. He was forming his self identity as a leader, one who would shoulder the responsibility for changing the condition of his people.

LeRoi left Howard and joined the Air Force in 1954 as a gunner, reaching the rank of sergeant. He was dishonorably discharged two years later for having possession of “subversive literature”, which meant the writings of the famous Black communist Paul Robeson. After the Air Force he moved to New York City and became a rare black face among the “beatniks” of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The beatniks were a social movement in the 50’s and 60’s which stressed artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society.

While in Greenwich Village he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, the co-founder of ‘Yugen’, a literary magazine. LeRoi became the magazine’s editor. Later, they founded the ‘Totem Press’ that went on to publish works of famous ‘Beat writers’ like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In 1961, his first volume of poetry, ‘Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note’ got published. From 1961-1963, he worked alongside Diane Di Prima as an editor of ‘The Floating Bear’, a literary newsletter. During this period, he also joined the ‘Umbra Poets Workshop’, a group of Black writers based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Umbra was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make an impact in the sense of establishing their own voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. The attempt to merge a Black-oriented activist thrust with a primarily artistic orientation produced a classic split in Umbra between those who wanted to be activists and those who thought of themselves as primarily writers, though to some extent all members shared both views. Black writers have always had to face the issue of whether their work was primarily political or aesthetic. Some of the members of Umbra would later go on to form the Black Arts Movement.

In 1963, LeRoi’s work as a musical critic and a historian of music climaxed in him publishing the book “Blues People (Negro Music in White America)”. In Blues People, LeRoi explores the possibility that the history of black Americans can be traced through the evolution of our music. It is considered a classic work on jazz and blues music in American culture. This book documents the effects jazz and blues had on America on an economic, musical, and social level. It chronicles the types of music dating back from the time of physical slavery up until the 1960s. The book posits that the music we have produced from our sojourn in America has come out of our collective character as a people who cannot be broken, who will always make something out of nothing, and make that something beautiful.

In 1964, Leroi’s first play, Dutchman, opened at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. The play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.

“Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird,” Clay says. “And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve not played a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note!”

Less than a year after the March on Washington, Baraka pronounced the dream dead, a delusion. The war of words commenced. The Village Voice gave it an Obie award for the top off-Broadway show. Norman Mailer called it the “best play in America.” Jean-Luc Godard lifted some dialogue for his film Masculin Feminine. New York Times critic Howard Taubman was impressed, and, apparently, terrified.

“If this is the way the Negroes really feel about the white world around them, there’s more rancor buried in the breasts of colored conformists than anyone can imagine,” Taubman wrote in his review.

When Philip Roth, writing for The New York Review of Books, criticized the character development in Dutchman, the playwright answered: “Sir, it is not my fault that you are so feeble-minded you refuse to see any Negro as a man, but rather as the narrow product of your own sterile response.”

LeRoi had two turning points in his life in the 1960’s. The first was at the top of the decade when he visited Cuba as part of a delegation with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). The FPCC’s purpose was to provide grassroots support for the Cuban Revolution against attacks by the United States government, once Fidel Castro began openly admitting his commitment to Marxism and began the expropriation and nationalization of Cuban assets belonging to U.S. corporations. The Committee opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the imposition of the United States embargo against Cuba, and was sympathetic to the Cuban view during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In the Nov.-Dec. 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, LeRoi wrote an award winning essay on his experiences called “Cuba Libre”. He was no longer able to be “just a writer” after that trip. His world had been forever stretched and widened and he saw life through a new lens.

The other 60’s turning point for LeRoi came on February 21, 1965. “Our shining black prince” Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem. “After Malcolm X was assassinated we came to believe there really was a war against Black people and not just the work of some disconnected racist white folk,” Amiri explained in 2012. Malcolm’s assassination “drove us from Greenwich Village to Harlem.”

After that day LeRoi did three things that had been on his heart to do. First he left his white wife, and their children. He literally moved from Greenwhich Village to Harlem. Second, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka. And third, he started the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) in Harlem. For the better part of a year they sent five trucks a day into the Harlem community promoting art shows, poetry readings, music, graphic illustrations and drama on vacant lots, playgrounds and in housing projects. They determined to make art that would intentionally raise the consciousness of Black people and recruit them into the Black Liberation Movement. And they took that art out of its traditional spaces and set it down right on the streets of Harlem.

After 1965 Amiri simultaneously became a pivotal leader in the movements for Black cultural nationalism as well as grassroots Black Power political organizing. He was Maulana Ron Karenga’s right-hand man in spreading the philosophy of Kawaida, out of which came the celebration of Kwanzaa. As second in command in Karenga’s organization, Amiri received the title of “Imamu”, Swahili for “spiritual leader”. Amiri’s work in the Black Arts movement was based on his belief that the Africans in America could only rise up and take their freedom once they had their African culture restored.

As the founder and leader of the Committee for Unified NewArk (CFUN), Baraka spearheaded a mass movement for democracy and self-government. He helped lay the foundation of a black and Puerto Rican political alliance that culminated in the 1970 election of Newark’s first African American mayor, who was also the first African American mayor of a major northeastern city.

In June 1968, one thousand people drafted a political agenda for municipal elections at the Newark Black Political Convention in New Jersey. By November 1969 hundreds of African American and Latino leaders joined at the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, selecting a slate of candidates for municipal offices in Newark. By June 1970 the Black and Puerto Rican Convention candidates won the Newark elections.

The Black Power movement entered the national political arena in 1972 with the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Leading up to that Gary Convention to forge independent politics, the movement had generated a series of National Black Power Conferences in Newark in 1967 and in Philadelphia in 1968, culminating in Amiri’s new organization, the Congress of African People (CAP), in 1970. Unlike CFUN, CAP aspired to a national mass movement. The congress sponsored a series
of pan-African political conventions and helped organize the first African Liberation Day in 1972. Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus formed. The convergence of CAP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the black convention movement resulted in the Gary Convention in March 1972.

In the midst of the 1972 presidential campaigns, the Gary political convention drew eighteen hundred black elected officials within an assembly of somewhere between eight thousand and twelve thousand African Americans. The Gary Convention fashioned a National Black Political Agenda to guide black American development in seven major areas: human development, economics, communications and culture, rural development, environmental protection, politics, and international policy.
This movement generated many local organizations, schools, and community institutions, as well as county and state political organs and at least four national organizations: the CAP, the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), the Black Women’s United Front (BWUF), and the National Black Political Assembly. The CAP joined the Black Power politics with pan-Africanism; the ALSC structured African American efforts against colonialism on the continent; the BWUF mobilized communities and fashioned a political agenda joining the struggles against racism, imperialism, and sexism; and the National Black Political Assembly, created by the Gary Convention, charted the road to independent black politics.

Between 1974 and 1976, the Black Power movement became embroiled in ideological and political battles between black nationalists and black Marxists on the one hand, and between proponents of independent politics and party politics on the other. As the 1976 presidential races approached, the Black Power movement split into numerous factions, weakening the thrust of independent black politics.

Finally the CAP transformed itself from a Black Power organization into a Marxist-Leninist group and changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist League in May 1976. To reflect this new change to focusing on class struggle, Amiri no longer wore the title of Imamu, calling it a “bourgeois nationalist” thing.

Amiri’s fame declined after this time but he never stopped with his life’s work. He remained a world-class poet, playwright, and activist. His last bit of controversy surrounded his penning the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” after the bombing of the New York World Trade Center in 2001.

“I could see the World Trade Center from the third floor of my house in Newark, New Jersey,” he offered. “We were particularly frightened by (then) President Bush’s statement that terrorists had blown up the World Trade Center because they hated us and our democracy. All I could think of was that the (Ku Klux) Klan was the terrorism that we knew and that Afro-Americans had gotten to this country through terrorism.”

After reading the poem at a Newark festival, Amiri was stripped of his honor as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate and the $10,000 stipend that went with it. He continued as Poet Laureate of the Newark Public Schools.

Amiri created numerous artistic expression spaces with his wife, Amina; and he served as Professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York. His children continue his legacy, especially his son Ras who has served as Newark Deputy Mayor, City Council member, high school principal, and is now running for Mayor.

Amiri gave us the blueprint for making art that aids in liberation. I’m absolutely sure that the Ancestors are making a big ado about welcoming him into their realm. It is our duty now to properly canonize him as a Deity of Artistic Expression. Praise be to the God Amiri Baraka. Rest in Power.