“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25, NIV)
Whenever a barbershop-type discussion about the problems in the black community comes up, someone will inevitably say the name “Willie Lynch.” But who was Willie Lynch?
Willie Lynch was allegedly a vicious slave-owner from the West Indies who was summoned to the Virginia colony in 1712 to provide the local slave owners with guidance on how to control their slaves. On December 25, 1712, he is said to have delivered a speech which is commonly referred to as the “Willie Lynch Letter” which was entitled “The Making of a Slave.”
In the speech, he explores possible methods of control, such as exploiting age and skin tone to pit the slaves against each other and to bring about envy, distrust, and fear. His guarantee was that, if correctly installed, the methods would be effective for 300 years.
The document came into print in the 1970s and gained more popularity in the early 1990s, when it appeared on the internet. According to several historians, the story of Willie Lynch is a hoax. But the reality of what the letter discusses is very much alive and well in the black community.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam mentioned Willie Lynch in the 1995 Million Man March. Legendary actor Denzel Washington quoted Willie Lynch in the 2007 movie, The Great Debaters. The hit TV show Black-ish had an episode that discussed colorism in black families and used the Willie Lynch story to illustrate the issue. Prominent music artists have made reference to Willie Lynch in their songs.
Was Willie Lynch real? The fact that the story has survived is an unambiguous indication that it addresses a serious type of tension in the black community. The phenomenon in the black community that the letter refers to exists. Destroying internal conflict, disunity, and generational psychological chaos must be the agenda and assignment for each black person.
As Dr. King said in his last sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the common denominator for black people in America is the history of racial oppression and its residual effects. King discussed how, in the biblical story of the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt, the Pharaoh’s favorite strategy to prolong slavery was to keep the slaves fighting amongst themselves.
Sadly, the reality is that all black people are not in solidarity with each other. We are a people who have faced hundreds of years of racial hostility followed by consistent patterns of injustice across the sectors of society. Solidarity is a tool to protect the future generations from these issues.
However, unity does not mean uniformity. One of the most important tools that we all must learn is to the have respectful conversations with people we don’t agree with, without allowing our emotions to override our listening ability and reason. At the end of the day, we must be people who seek the truth, no matter where it comes from.
We must also be willing to re-evaluate our positions upon further review, which requires that we think deeply and process our emotions as best we can before we engage in dialogue. To be sure, “There is more hope for a fool than for someone who speaks without thinking.” (Proverbs 29:20, NLT)
Aspects of the “Willie Lynch” Curse
We can’t heal what we don’t reveal and what we don’t understand. Slavery had a multifaceted impact on the life of black people. It affected not only how we relate to the world but how we relate to each other.
The social environment created during slavery conditioned black people to be hostile toward one another. It was an artificially created environment that encouraged separation and distance among black people by pitting them against each other. Divide-and-conquer tactics still work today.
Historians tell us that black people separated on the basis of being house Negroes vs. field Negroes. This is what happens when you strip people of their sense of self by creating an environment hostile to their culture and robbing them of their history. Sadly, social distinctions that existed during slavery persisted after slavery ended. Some slaves even bragged about having white blood.
Unfortunately, until this day, there are social distinctions in the black community that don’t serve the purpose of uniting people, but further separation that fuels a sense of resentment and betrayal.
Understanding your condition is half the battle to healing. Once you can look at the issue from a new angle, it loses its power to control you.
In the Willie Lynch Letter, the main method of control was psychologically damaging black people through widespread division, internal conflict, and dependence on white slave masters. Being aware of the ways such divisions have been and are being established is essential to healing the division.
Here are a few strategies of separation to consider and recognize:
1. Meritorious Manumission: Betrayal to pay for freedom. In the early 18th century, slaves were starting to show rogue behavior. In order for the slaves to be controlled, a special set of laws was created. Essentially, slave masters would grant freedom to slaves who would become informants on other slaves who were planning to escape. The Meritorious Manumission Act of 1710 was a legal act of freeing an enslaved African for “good deeds,” as defined by the national public policy. Meritorious manumission could be granted to an enslaved African who distinguished himself by saving the life of the white master, inventing a new medicine, or snitching on fellow enslaved African planning a slave revolt. This incentivized enslaved Africans appease their masters and betray their fellow enslaved Africans. Betrayal to appease those in power is not something new.
2. Colorism: Prejudice or discrimination, often among same-race people, based solely on skin tone. Essentially, colorism means that the lighter your skin tone, the prettier and more valuable you are. It stems from the belief that beauty and desirability increase with the proximity to whiteness. Colorism is a spinoff of racism. It involves prejudice and power. Colorism was created and used by white Europeans in power who considered light-skinned people to be more valuable than the darker=skinned people. Often, light-skinned slaves were children born of the union of slaves and slave masters, who would want to keep them close by placing them in service in the house. These families believed that their homes could be run well if those slaves were given an education, so it was more likely that these light-skinned “house slaves” would be taught to read and taught upper-class tradition in white society. It was also believed by most white people at the time that, if slaves had white blood, they had a greater intellectual ability and subsequently, a greater capacity to be “civilized.” Many light-skinned slaves internalized these assumptions and developed a sense of superiority to darker skinned slaves, which eventually lead to distrust and resentment. Colorism was also an instrument used by slave masters to divide and conquer their own enslaved persons by extending more privileges to light-skinned slaves. This would often pit light-skinned slaves against dark-skinned slaves, which made the light-skinned slaves more loyal to their owners in the event of a slave rebellion.
Considering gender issues, generational tensions, and class differences, all groups of people have division. The Willie Lynch Letter, however, does highlight issues that still apply in contemporary America. Light-skinned vs. dark-skinned; Black Sorority Conflict such as AKAs vs. Deltas; debating who has the bigger home; pastors debating who has the larger congregations; fine vs. coarse hair texture; male vs female. Among black people, these distinctions still wield strong influence in the ability to create or destroy social cohesiveness among black people.
3. In the first section of the Willie Lynch Letter, the methodology was to get the slaves to love, respect, and trust only in their white slave masters. This work was accomplished through the appointment of black overseers referred to as “Sambo.” The term “Sambo” become prominent through the anti-slave novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His character was a slave overseer who served the cruel slave-owner’s commands. This is the black person who would hurt you worse than a white master would, just to please the master.
American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed the Sambo personality in his 1965 report The Negro Family – The Case for National Action, specifically in the third section called “The Roots of the Problem.” Social researcher Thomas Pettigrew discovered that the conditions of a Nazi concentration camp and American chattel slavery would bring about the personality type that accepted the SS guards and slave masters as father figures. It’s important to note that there is no anthropological data to show that this personality type was part of African culture or was an inborn racial type. This personality type was created by the environmental condition of slavery.
Historical Examples of Black Ideological Differences or Monolithic Expectation
Not all black people think alike, nor should they. Being black in America is not monolithic. We can recognize beauty in the diversity of thought as a way to uplift one another, without feeding into silly conflict 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 ourselves in this world, black people have to fight two different wars: one against a hateful white society, and the other against our own people.
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.
There’s a lot of friendly fire amongst black folks. There have always been disagreements about how to achieve progress. Representation doesn’t mean that all black folks are necessarily in solidarity with each other.
Here are some historical examples of differences that existed:
1. 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. Booker T. 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. W.E.B 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 exceptionally wise 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. The legendary civil rights activists Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had different approaches to the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm called for a militant approach to achieve equality with a “do what it takes” attitude. Martin had a nonviolent approach to awaken the conscience of white America. King believed that Malcolm’s philosophy would only end in grief. Malcolm believed that King was too slow and too accommodating to white Americans, referring to him 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 and challenge many educators and activists to think deeply about the challenges black people face.
Reflection: Learning from historical examples, we can avoid needless drama if we take a step back to recognize how important each person is in the tapestry of black America. Each idea is redemptive, if only we can learn to have healthy dialogue.
1. What lessons can we learn from their lives and examples?
2. How can we avoid unnecessary internal conflict on the road to promoting freedom and equality?
Contemporary Examples of Black Gender Conflict
Before we move forward, we must be aware of the conflict that exists among black people in gender-specific ways. If we want to change, the first step is awareness. We need to recognize how bad behavior is sometimes nuanced, based on gender.
Conflicts Among Black Women
· Black women who reinforce destructive behavior in other black women
· Black women who demonize and judge younger black women instead of guiding them
· Black women who antagonize or degrade other black females out of envy and jealousy
· Black mothers who compete with their daughters for the attention of men
· Black women who are reluctant to acknowledge or be cordial to other black women
· Black women who are reluctant to encourage or help other black women
Conflicts Among Black Men
· Black fathers who compete with and abuse their sons
· Black men who reinforce destructive ways in younger black men
· Black men who are reluctant to encourage or help other black males
· Black men who manipulate/betray other black men out of ego, jealousy, or for profit
· Black men who kill other black men or brag about killing black men
For many black people, this is hard to read. Some will be upset at the mention of these issues. But in order to change, we must first acknowledge what is happening.
In your mentoring of black youth, you have an opportunity to identify and address these behaviors. It starts with your own choice to value black people. Reconsider your conduct on a microscopic level, and see if you can own any of these behaviors. Then you can help the next generation eliminate culturally destructive behavior.
Heal the Division
As American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed in his 1965 report The Negro Family – The Case for National Action—specifically in the second section called “The Negro American Family”—several immigrant groups came to America with remarkably strong family bonds and have progressed faster than others as a result. Black people in America did not have that luxury. One leader said that black people in America are like a family coming together, and the common denominator was child abuse. Slavery was the abuse of a nation.
How can we tell if a group of people is doing well? Here are a few ways to determine the health of a people.
1. Their ability and willingness to prioritize goals that heal and uplift the collective community.
2. Their ability to set and focus on collective goals without being sidetracked by minor issues.
3. Their ability to support each other’s success without tearing each other down. The first sign of spiritual maturity is the ability to delight in the success of your neighbor. To celebrate the success: “For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.” (James 3:16, NLT)
As Carter G. Woodson discusses in The Miseducation of the Negro, Christ cannot operate in atmospheres riddled with conflict. One of the greatest weapons used against black people is disorganization. We must learn how to how to work with and for each other, despite having differences of opinion.
As I drive through the streets of Newark where I grew up, there are different make-ups and social organizations: Bloods, Crips, five percenters, Hebrew Israelites, Christians, Traditional Islam, Nation of Islam, street dudes, conscious people, and semi-conscious people. Each group is likely to have a different opinion about many issues. We have to learn to cooperate with differences of opinion for the common good.
On March 30, 1967, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met for more than an hour. Dr. King referred to Muhammad Ali as “a friend of the cause.” Ali affirmed that many black people in America had similar concerns. Despite having different beliefs, they were still brothers. Dr. King and Ali transcended their religious and ideological philosophies for the sake of brotherhood without abdicating their convictions. We have to work hard to help the people we mentor become happy in solidarity with black people without compromising their beliefs.
Here are a few steps we can take to heal our community:
1. Recreate the village. The culture of enslaved African was destroyed when they were torn away from traditional moral and social norms. Historically, black people had the tools of self-respect, a subversive memory, and a deep sense of integrity. (See 5B on establishing a code of conduct.) The village supports these deep-rooted values.
2. Choose to find common ground with other black people. You can focus on what’s ripping you apart, or you can build on what’s keeping you together. Remain mindful and critically aware of who will profit from instigating and magnifying division amongst black people. When you have a historical understanding of the legacy, force, and depth of the injury of anti-black racism—slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—you might be more inclined to fight to work together to heal. Black enslavement should serve as a perpetual reminder of the consequences when we lack unity and collective strength. Our enemies exploit our frictions. We should also provide reminders of how far we’ve come and how beautiful our culture is to motivate us to continue to build. (Chapter 3 – Stand – Remember Whose Shoulders You Stand Upon).
3. Take in content (books, movies, shows, etc.) that promotes black healing and unity. A movie that I think positively affected millions of black people, Malcolm X, has an amazing story behind its development. Producers of the movie Malcolm X ran out of money to complete it. In the spirit of self-reliance that Malcolm X preached, Spike Lee called on several black people to help complete the movie, which was successfully done. Culture is the backbone of a community. If a community’s culture is acknowledged, respected, and protected, the community’s influence will grow.
4. Help heal our standards and hold ourselves to a higher and healthier standard. This will require discipline and, at times, conflict. We sometimes fight publicly over news stations or social media. Bitter infighting creates cliques and draws divisive lines between black people. An example of this is the conflict between black American actor Samuel L. Jackson and British actor Idris Elba.
Samuel L. Jackson criticized the idea of British actors portraying black Americans. He pointed to Selma’s Martin Luther King, Jr. being played by British actor David Oyelowo and British actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance in the movie Harriet. Even in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a movie about liberal white America’s ignorance and hubris, the main character of Chris Washington—a black American man—was played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya. After speaking with Elba, Jackson took his comment back.
This is a great example of how healthy confrontations can help refine ideologies that place black issues and philosophies on extreme courses with no room for nuance or situational factors.
5. Acknowledge and respect other black people, in spite of conflicting beliefs. If we are going to fight a system designed to undermine our humanity, we can't be at war with each other. Have healthy, constructive conversations. How we speak to each other is just as important as what we communicate. If necessary, remove yourself from involvement in silly comparisons that serve the purpose of dividing. In the Scriptures, we see Paul and Barnabas part ways over a dispute on whether Mark should come with them. They ended up going their separate ways. (Act 15:39) Sometimes, that is the appropriate course of action.
6. Choose to love. Love is the glue that we need to rebuild our community. Love is not a feeling. It’s a disposition rooted in the desire for your well-being and that of your brother. Many brothers don’t think about brotherhood until they are cuffed and chained in prison.
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 black self-love. 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 to promote black unity?