African Leadership Conference, Medgar Evers College – 4/17/1993
Hotep. As I look out into this audience this morning, I’m looking for our Fannie Lou Hamers, for our Septima Clarks, for our Rosa Parks, for our Marcus Garveys. I’m looking for our Malcolms. I’m looking for the unborn and the potential geniuses and leaders. You will see them when you look into your mirror. For there is no “they” to do it. It is only we. We are the “them” and the “they”. Culturally, we have been sitting too long this morning. So I beg your forbearance. Because we are in a strange land and we’ve wandered so long in this wilderness that we have begun to imitate and to uphold the behaviors of the oppressor.
The question and the only question for me as a person involved in working with the fragile, gentle, tender, very, very, very flexible minds of our young people is this question that comes from the poem by Margaret Burroughs. And that is the question that every young person in this auditorium is asking, and that is that question is, “What shall I tell my children who are Black?” What shall I tell them born into a world where everything lovely pure perfect fine classic is white? White lovely ruffles on Sunday dresses, long sleek white Cadillacs, fluffy white clouds and angel’s wings are white. But what shall I tell my children, fruit of my Womb, born into a world where black is evil? Witches’ brew is black, a black hen lays no eggs and a black cow gives no milk. When the stock market breaks, it’s black Monday. What shall I tell my children without a language that gives them verbalization privately, without the images and the icons to identify them with what is powerful and strong, without an understanding of the movements of resistance, without an understanding of the strategies that our Ancestors were able to put in place to bring them to a measure of sanity when all around them there was an attempt to breed insanity and self-destruction? What shall I tell my children who are Black? and when I see them on the subways and on the buses and on the street corners and in the hell holes that we call school, that is the question. Because what we have told them is not true. What we have permitted them to be exposed to is distorted.
We’re talking today about education and economic development. There are two systems of education, formal and informal. The formal organization that we call the school is an industry. It is not separate from economics. It is a seven billion dollar industry in New York (City) alone. In New York City, seven billion dollars, not counting 40 times that much for the state. So while we talk about developing an educational program that will bring our children and our people to liberation and freedom, please understand that that is not the agenda of the industry. The industry of education is propelled and grows on failure. The more children fail, the more money is generated in the industry of Education. The more children fail, the more children go into the Mental Hygiene, the Criminal Justice system and the Welfare system, three other industries. And these industries, each one is controlled by the same oppressor who brought us to these shores to develop the economics of the United States of America. We were not brought here for freedom or beauty. We were brought here for economic development.
The myth that our children have been told is that all of the people who came to America came under the same conditions, but that some got up early, stayed up late, worked harder, sacrificed, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and therefore have gained an economic advantage. That is not true. That is a myth like Snow White, Little Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel, Little BO-Peep. And it should be relegated to the category of fantasy and myths and legends that have propelled the psychological damage of our people.
For you see, this land was taken away from the indigenous Americans. Nobody bought this land. And up to ten years ago, males of European background were given large tracts of land on Long Island. When you travel across the South and you look at the magnificent plantations and homes there, those people did not buy that land. It was given to them by the European government and by governments of the states. And enslaved people built that land into magnificent plantations. They built the homes. They built the furniture with their own hands. Some of that furniture still has the engraving of the genius of people of African ancestry. So one of the problems around the issue of education is that the whole psychological aura of what has made the United States of America what it is is based on a fantasy. We must begin to help our children understand that no one got up earlier or stayed up later than our people did!
We must also help them to understand very clearly that there has been an exchange in the image of the historical oppressor. He one time was visible as the plantation owner and the slave master. That oppressor comes in a different form today, but it is the same oppressor. When we begin to talk about substance abuse and prevention programs, the textbook should be Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of the Black Civilization. For in that book, it tells our young people that drugs were brought into the community of people of color to form the disintegration of the social revolution. It was put there to keep us from sitting down at lunch counters, to keep us from getting into colleges and universities, to prevent us from having the kind of acuity of mind and body to develop a strategic plan for our freedom. And if we just told them that, it would help. What they have heard was this is the Black thing to do. This is the “in” thing. And we didn’t tell them that that was a change in the message of the oppressor.
When they begin to become involved in having children before they can be mothers and before they can be fathers because Super Fy, Shaft, no place to be somebody, and all that entertainment that evolved to suppress the notion that not only is Black beautiful, but it’s smart and powerful and creative and energetic, not just beautiful. But the media came in place to give an image of what constituted Blackness. And our children bought that image because there was a vacuum there. That is the informal educational system.
But if we remind our young girls that teen-aged pregnancy for women of African ancestry is patterned after the lack of an understanding of the fact that in the institution of chattel slavery, teen-aged girls of African ancestry were forced to have children. They had to breed by the slave master to increase the slave population and they were forced to breed with men of African ancestry without any look at the affection the depth of the relationship or the commitment. They were forced to do that to increase the slave population. And today, because they don’t know that history, they choose to become mothers when they are not emotionally prepared to mother.
The best possible prevention to teen-aged pregnancy is information and hope. The only thing we guarantee a teen-aged girl of African ancestry in the United States of America is welfare if you have a baby. We don’t guarantee them a high school diploma that has any value. We don’t guarantee them a decent job. We don’t guarantee them an opportunity to develop a relationship with a male of African ancestry. Because we’re too busy putting them in the prison system and the mental hygiene system to have an industry for European people.
There is an ineffable and irrevocable relationship between education and economics. You cannot separate them. If we would tell the young men who think that you raise your manhood ratio depending upon the number of children that you have by women for whom you have no affection, “That’s not Black. That’s an imitation of the slave master. For in this country, he is the only person who had children by women for whom they had no affection and they did not intend to be a father to those children.”
If we understand that the people who are teaching our children will not give them that lesson because that lesson would indict and damn them. That is an educational message that must come out of our culture, tradition and heritage. It cannot come from the oppressor. Because Dr. Martin Luther King, who has been marginalized and trivialized in his powerful, strong vocalization , talked about the need, before you get to the dream about the children joining hands, there are other pieces of that dream. And one of them says, I have a dream that someday the sons of former slave masters and the sons of former slaves will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.
Now I can identify the sons and daughters of former slaves, but he’s telling me that I have the right to identify the sons of former slave masters. That’s what he’s telling me there. But you try that. You see what happens when our scholars and our researchers begin to follow the historical accepted pattern of identification of their oppressors. That’s always been done. That’s why you have reparations. That’s why you have Marshall Plans. That’s why you rebuild Vietnam and Japan. Because you have identified who destroyed them and wherever the destruction originated from, that’s where the rebuilding begins.
But the nature of the informal educational system is that as soon as from among our people a voice rises to speak the truth about the nature of our condition to say to our children, “You did not have a level playing field. Your people didn’t come with reparation money. Your people didn’t come from a time in their history where they had scholars and historians who were available to maintain the records of their people.” You see today if you look at Yugoslavia or today if you look at any of the countries that are struggling to assert themselves, you will understand that at the present time when they are struggling for their freedom, they have bankers. They have scholars. They have doctors. They have lawyers.
When freedom came for people of African ancestry, we didn’t have a bank of scholars and bankers and lawyers and historians and teachers to help us to define who we were. We were just told “You free”, with no money, no education, no land, no transportation, no political power. Nobody else faced that. Absolutely none.
And when we now begin to swap the notion of racial and ethnic and cultural diversity for multiculturalism, what we’re saying is there is an equality of problematic understanding for every culture equally problematic. So we are very comfortable to say “Oh yes, there are the Vietnamese children and there are the children from Russian and there are the children from Japan and there are children from Yugoslavia and they must all know their culture as well as children of African ancestry.” Not so. Because there’s only one group that in these United States of America were chattel slaves. There’s only one group who, by law, lost their language, history, art, music, God-image, value system, worth. Just one.
And you cannot equate the same urgency about talking about the culture of people of African ancestry in America with a person who comes from Japan. They know where home is. They can go to the town or village that is home. They still have their language. They can speak in privacy of their language. They came in family groups and were able to perpetuate whatever residual customs enabled them to be a people. There has been no loss of language, religion, value system, sense of beauty, literature, power, strength. Hegel, Ageesis (sp), Toynbee didn’t identify those continents as never having contributed anything to civilization. Only people of African ancestry. So I cannot accept the notion of multiculturalism saying that every culture has the same need for identification and restitution.