Soundtrack: Duke Ellington “Take The A Train”
November 7, 2013 marked the 15th anniversary of my initiation into the oldest and the coldest collegiate Greek-lettered organization for Black men in the United States, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. 15 years ago I crossed the burning sands into an oasis of brotherhood. And I have felt very pensive…contemplative, these past couple of days. What does it all mean? What is my brotherhood about? Why are we here? Where are we going? How do I fit?
Alpha Phi Alpha was founded in 1906 by seven young men at Cornell University who were fans of the philosopher and historian W.E.B. DuBois. The year before Alpha was founded, DuBois had co-founded the Niagara Movement, which was the precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Later on DuBois would go on to become an honorary member of APhiA. In 1903, DuBois introduced the world to the concept of the Talented Tenth. In his own words:
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”
Our Seven Jewels (founders) determined to contribute toward the development of the Negro race’s Talented Tenth. One of our early General Presidents called APhiA a “laboratory of leadership” that would shape and mold men who could carry the weight of improving the condition of our people as a whole. Eugene Kinckle Jones, one of our Jewels, said that “Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest of Negro Fraternities, with all of its members presumably far above the average American and having a good and practical understanding of the salient factors involved in the Negro’s problem…should be able to take into their hands the leadership in the Negro’s struggle for status.” The list of people fashioned in this laboratory includes:
Cornel West, professor of religion at Harvard and Princeton
John H. Johnson, founder and owner of Johnson Publishing Company (Jet and Ebony magazines)
Thurgood Marshall, civil rights attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice
Martin Luther King, nuff said
Paul Robeson, Actor and Scholar and Athlete and Singer and unofficial Diplomat
Duke Ellington, Composer, Bandleader, Actor, Grammy Award Winner
Keenen Ivory Wayans, creator of In Living Color, head of the Wayans clan
Andrew Young, ambassador to the United Nations
Countee Cullen, poet of the Harlem Renaissance
The Talented Tenth has been synonymous with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement for the past 100 years. From the Niagara Movement to the NAACP and Urban League, to A. Philip Randolph’s starting the first Black labor union, to Dr. King and his crew setting it off in Alabama and throughout the South to the modern manifestation that has been completely absorbed by the Democratic Party and Fortune 500 corporations…all led by men (unfortunately, just males) who have identified themselves with this leadership group identified by W.E.B. DuBois and contributed to by my Seven Jewels and the founders of other Greek-lettered organizations.
Now, here’s why I asked “how do I fit?” at the beginning of this writing. I identify myself as a Pan African — revolutionary nationalist. I believe in more of a grassroots approach to advancing my people, instead of the top-down style of the Talented Tenth. I believe that the Talented Tenth has been fumbling the ball repeatedly in our attempt to drive down the field of progress as a people. I won’t take the time to fully dig into these blunders but I will say that they dropped the ball in…(this is where I went in on this rant critiquing the last 100 years of Black leadership in the style of Harold Cruse’s book “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual”. I deleted all of that in favor of a more personal approach)
After the prophytes (older fraternity members) who made (initiated) me had graduated, I became the president of my chapter. That was the year 2000. In that same year I became Assistant Area Director, in charge of supervising the activities of all the undergraduate chapters in the eastern 1/3 of Missouri. I also became an Oratorical Contest champion within the Frat, making a name for myself as a thinker and a public speaker. I was also blessed to meet people like Andrew Young, Marc Morial, and Maynard Jackson at our national convention in Atlanta. I began to think of myself as a future civil rights leader. I was fully convinced beyond of a shadow of a doubt that I would one day go on to be the leader of a national civil rights organization and possibly General President of APhiA. I had been immersed in The Souls of Black Folk by DuBois and Where Do We Go From Here by Dr. King. I had fully bought into the Talented Tenth style of leadership and pushing for social change.
In 2001, personal tragedy abruptly altered my chosen life path. My vision of networking my way up and through the Fraternity came to an end. I was forced to re-evaluate my goals, which took years. I have dabbled in Cornel West style intellectual activism, Donna Brazile style political consulting, Kwame Ture style grassroots organizing, Mutulu Shakur style revolutionary uprising, and Amish style retreat from society as a whole. At this point in my journey I am a combination of all of those things.
As my Brotherhood gets ready to turn 107 years old, I anticipate that we are entering a time that will reflect where we were 100 years ago. Chapter 7 of our history book The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Development in College Life is called “The Leaven of Self-Examination”. It describes a period of time starting in roughly 1914 in which the members of our new organization reflected on what they had become in the past 7 or 8 years and where they wanted to go. They determined that they had been a bit too playful, frivolous, and not making a serious enough impact on the massive problems of our people as a whole. They determined to step up their efforts to improve our collective quality of life.
In 2013, it has started to become clear to many people that the “gains” of the Civil Rights movement weren’t very progressive at all, in fact we lost more than we gained. We took some hits to our economic strength and our cultural bonds when we integrated into mainstream society that the opportunity to share water fountains and hotel rooms with white people just don’t make up for. The task before us now is to figure out how to get the Black dollar to once again circulate within the Black community. To do something about the fact that white Americans have 22 times more wealth than Blacks — a gap that nearly doubled during the Great Recession. The median household net worth for whites was $110, 729 in 2010, versus for $4,995 for Blacks, according to Census Bureau figures. Black wealth fell by about 60% between 2005 and 2010, while the median net worth for white households slipped only 23%. When the Titanic sinks, the people in the bottom of the boat drown first. We have to build some lifeboats for ourselves before this ship takes on any more water. Shit is real out here.
I can’t honestly say that APhiA or the Talented Tenth as a whole is adequately addressing these issues at this time. But the optimist in me wishes/hopes/prays that we will. We shall see. Where do the souls of Black folks go from here?