LIVING FOR CHANGE
REVISITING AFRICAN AMERICAN LEADERSHIP
By Stephen Ward
Michigan Citizen, Aug. 26-Sep. 1, 2007
In last week’s column Grace Lee Boggs challenged us to revisit Black leadership. We can start by recognizing that old models of leadership will not work today.
Our thinking about Black leadership for the 21st century must move beyond 20th century models. When African Americans were barely a generation removed from slavery, the “talented tenth” constituted the most visible layer of leadership. These members of the middle and upper classes were the few Blacks who had attained education, skills, and access to financial and social resources in a segregated and violently white supremacist society. Their mission was to instruct and aid the masses, and they sought the betterment of the race by uplifting “the least of these.”
Another model of Black leadership in the first half of the twentieth century was the “race man/woman,” often a civic, religious, or successful business leader who was committed to the Black community. A picture of quiet strength, he/she stood firm against the dehumanization of a Jim Crow world, an image of Black dignity and pride.
With the rise of the Civil Rights movement another model emerged, the charismatic leader, voicing our deepest yearnings to be full human beings and our strivings for citizenship and full participation in society.
Each of these models served an essential historical function, but none will meet the needs of our time.
21st century Black leadership must see its purpose as not only “uplifting” Black people, projecting Black dignity, defending Black humanity, exposing and countering racist assaults, or even fighting for the rights of Black people. Black leaders today must see the Black struggle as fundamentally connected to a broad range of progressive struggles and movements to build a better world.
In the recent debate around Congressman [John] Conyers’ refusal to initiate impeachment hearings we can see such leadership emerging from the so-called hip hop generation.
The hip hop generation is frequently misunderstood, so it is necessary to be precise. I refer to African Americans born after the 1960s, for whom hip hop has been an ever-present, even a dominant part of their consciousness. But what makes this generation so unique, and what makes its approach to political struggle so different from those who lived through the struggles of the 1960s is not just hip hop culture. Rather, it is that they have come of age in a rapidly changing world, giving them a far different worldview and challenges. While they can be inspired by previous struggles, they cannot repeat them. Their’s is a new struggle, requiring a new vision and leadership.
What makes their struggle so different? Racism undoubtedly still exists, but its primary forms are no longer segregation and institutional exclusion. They have grown up in a world of Black millionaires and Black mayors. They have seen Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice on TV. For them the promise of “Black faces in high places” rings hollow; the call for “Black Unity,” a progressive idea in the late 1960s, makes little sense in majority Black cities and a nation where Black athletes, celebrities, and politicians can be seen everywhere. They face new demons: the ravages of AIDS and crack, escalating gun violence, and devastated, de-industrialized central cities. They face completely new political questions: The war doctrine of George Bush and deepening environmental and ecological crises, threatening the very existence of the planet.
The Black leadership we now need faces new challenges and must develop new ideas to meet them. Like a generation ago, when the Black struggle catalyzed the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation and other movements, Black leadership today has an important role to play in shaping the radical revolution in values (such as Dr. King called for) we need to transform our world. Black leaders today cannot fight racism separate from the other struggles that confront us. They must project a vision of a transformed world and work with others to create that world, a world in which we all, every last one of us, can live to realize our full human potential. This requires breaking out of old patterns of thought and action so that we can create new ones. As Jimmy Boggs often said, “We must go where we have never been.”
Stephen Ward teaches at the University of Michigan and is a member of the Boggs Center board.
THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Aug. 26-Sep.1, 2007
Almost everyone realizes that something has gone terribly wrong with our relationships with people around the world. Every international opinion poll demonstrates that most people regard the U.S. with contempt. International respect for the U.S. plummeted with the invasion of Iraq. Abu Graib, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, torture, cover-ups, misdeeds and bungling of the rebuilding of Iraq have taken an additional toll.
Last week a new poll showed that even among NATO nations, long closely linked to U.S. few people hold our country in high regard. Only nine percent of the people in Turkey have a “favorable view” of the U.S. This is down from 52 percent recorded just five years ago.
The implications of this loss of good will are enormous not only for our ability to live in the world today but for the future.
Many people are hoping that the next election will provide a way to turn around this dismal state of affairs. Surely a new president, a new party, a new face to the world will enable us to regain some of the much-needed goodwill of people and nations who have lost all respect for us.
While there is little doubt that a new president will bring an opportunity to repair some of the damage done by this administration, no individual can make the kind of dramatic changes necessary to set our country on the path of establishing respectful, honest, and fair relationships with the rest of the world. The kind of critical reevaluation of our fundamental values and of our way of life, necessary to understand our responsibilities in a changing world, can not happen in the process of an election.
This kind of critical evaluation can only happen within the context of a larger conversation about the kind of country we have become and the kind of nation we want to be. It is a conversation that should be held on the global stage, sharing our fears, concerns and hopes.
The process of impeachment is an opportunity for all of us to engage in creating our nation anew. Impeachment would signal to the rest of the planet that the majority of the people in this country recognize that our country has been led into criminal behavior on a global scale.
One of the important distinctions that emerged during the Vietnam war was the recognition that there is a difference between the U.S. government and the American people. This distinction is one that raises important questions for us today. If the majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, how can we allow the government to carry it on? If the majority of Americans are in favor of impeachment, how can we allow our elected officials to continue to conduct business as usual?
In spite of all the rhetoric of this President, the world today is not in his control. The U.S. is not a superpower or a superstate. We cannot impose our will on the world. We cannot even impose our will on one other country.
Over the next few months we have the opportunity to say to the rest of the world that we, the American people, recognize the critical importance of reestablishing relationships of respect with the family of nations. We understand that the problems confronting all of us require a new willingness to engage with one another to find the ways to restore health to our earth and integrity to our relationships.
A critical first step in this process of reassessment of our role in the world is the impeachment of those who have damaged so much. Impeachment is not a legalistic distraction. It is a moral imperative for restoring ourselves in the eyes of the people of the world and our own posterity.