“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
Mark 3:25, NIV
Not all black people think alike, nor should they. Being black is not monolithic. We can uplift one another by recognizing the beauty in the diversity of thought without feeding into silly conflicts over size, skin tone, or class. The goal is to think together and to work hard to find the redemptive value in each person’s philosophy and perspective.
The sad truth that many of our black elders have shared is that, on the road to making a way for themselves in this world, black people had to fight two different battles: one against a hateful white society, and the other against black people who have counterproductive lifestyles and perspectives.
On the flip side, black monolithic expectation is a form of slavery because it takes away the freedom to think independently. This expectation is a double-edged sword, because it’s also possible for a black person to share ideas that are harmful and destructive to the community at-large.
Historically, there has been a lot of friendly and not so friendly fire amongst black people. There have always been disagreements about how to achieve progress. Representation doesn’t mean that all black folks are necessarily in solidarity with one another.
Here are some historical examples of differences that existed within the community of black men:
1. Washington vs. Du Bois: Black educator and orator Booker T. Washington and black activist, sociologist, and historian W.E.B. Du Bois had disagreements on the right strategies for the economic and social progress of black people. Washington encouraged racial solidarity and self-help. He encouraged black people to accept discrimination for the moment and focus on elevating through cultivating enterprise and economic prosperity, to ultimately win the respect of whites. Du Bois believed this tactic would only prolong white oppression. He advocated for political action and a focus on civil rights. His strategy was to develop a small group of educated black people called the Talented Tenth who would provide the leadership to win full equality for black people. Washington and Du Bois were both exceptional men. Their backgrounds influenced their philosophies. There was no doubt that they both wanted the best for black people. They were not in agreement on strategy, but their works significantly influenced movements that exist until this day.
2. Dr. King vs. Malcolm X: The legendary civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X had different approaches to the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X called for a militant approach to achieve equality with a “do what it takes” attitude. King had a nonviolent approach to awaken the conscience of white America. King believed that Malcolm X’s philosophy would only end in grief. Malcolm X believed that King’s approach was too slow and too accommodating to white Americans, referring to King as a “20th century Uncle Tom.” They met only once, in 1964, when they were on their way to forming a unified front against prejudice, but Malcolm was killed a year later. Even today, these two leaders inspire many educators and activists to think deeply about the challenges black people face.
Reflection Questions: Learning from historical examples, we can avoid needless drama. It’s vital to recognize how important each person is in the tapestry of black America. Each idea is redemptive, if only we can learn to have a healthy dialogue.
1. What lessons can we learn from the lives and examples described above?
2. How can we avoid unnecessary internal conflict on the road to promoting social, political, and economic equality?
I completely recognize that these reflection questions are worthy of significant time to unpack. The unique dynamics in the black community have not been slow in the making. They will not be slow in the unraveling. As a result, we need a depth of knowledge, critical thinking, and a level of emotional maturity.
A Rule that I live by: Read the books and make up your own mind.
1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Alex Haley
2. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborn Carson
3. The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson
4. Philosophy And Opinions Of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
5. Character Building by Booker T. Washington
6. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
7. The Future of the American Negro by Booker T. Washington
8. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela by Nelson Mandela
9. Martin and Malcolm in America – A Dream or a Nightmare by James Cone
10. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
11. I Write What I Like: Selected Writings by Steve Biko
12. Black Bourgeoisie: The Book That Brought the Shock of Self-Revelation to Middle-Class Blacks in America by E. Franklin Frazier
13. Steve Biko: The Radical Gospel of Black Consciousness by Traci D. Wyatt
Change is possible when people put the love of their brother ahead of their own self-interest. We don’t want to become brothers because we share a similar pain. We want to become brothers because we share the same destiny.
Healing a community is not always pretty and not always fun, but love is a choice. The way to heal black self-hate is to promote black self-love.
In 2006, the legendary poet and civil rights activist, Dr. Maya Angelou, and the comedian Dave Chappelle had a conversation. Dr. Angelou recounted a story when she was shooting the movie Poetic Justice, directed by the legendary John Singleton.
While on the set, she saw two black men cursing at each other and gearing up to fight. Dr. Angelou walked up to one of the men and asked to speak to him. She went on to ask him a series of questions intended to help him come back to himself. They are questions that all black men need to be asked/reminded of:
Do you know how valuable and loved you are?
Do you know that black people were kidnapped and placed in the filthy hulls of slave ships?
Do you know that enslaved Africans survived the horrors of slavery so that you could live?
Do you know that enslaved Africans stood on auction blocks so that you could live?
Do you know that you are their dream of what could be?
Do you know how important you are?
The man she spoke to was the poet and hip-hop artist, Tupac Shakur. He cried, and she wiped his tears with her hands. Shakur is an important figure in the story of black men in America because he represented so many aspects of the process of maturation of black men who were born and raised in the underserved communities. Dr. Angelou, as a black elder, wanted to share a message with young black men to address the legacy of pain and fear passed from generation to generation.
Here’s the essence of that message:
To young black men, forgive yourselves. We were sold and bought together. We were dragged along the sandy beaches together in chains. Black men could not reach over to protect their women, and so they began to feel unmanly. Black women started to feel unprotected by black men. From 1619 to today, black men have felt incapable of protecting black women. They have felt, if I couldn’t protect my family from slavery, I must not be so much. So black men started trying exercise their strength in destructive ways. Black men now need to forgive themselves. They didn’t own the rifles. They didn’t have the guns. They didn’t create this situation, but they can change it—if they are willing to stand as men in this present time.
I’ll close with a verse from the Good Book on humility as a building block for healing.
“Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Philippians 2:4 MSG
In addition to the suggestions above, what are some effective ways we can promote black unity?