A Sankofa Call for Real Black Leadership


If you read my previous article entitled. “A Sankofa Call to Black Student Unions,” you already know where this article is headed.

There are some who believe different economic and political terrain forges different politics and therefore, leadership. Using this logic, it is impractical to expect race-conscious, mass movement leadership like that of Dr, King, Marcus Garvey, or Huey and Bobby. “Those were different times, those days are gone,” such people say with a touch of melancholy nostalgia in their voices.

THe Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and “Negro World” newspaper, visionary behind the “Black Star” Shipping Line, and one of our greatest advocates for self-reliance and race solidarity.

Yet this issue like most is a matter of perspective. Certainly Garvey’s rise to prominence first in Harlem then throughout the world, owes much to the large immigration of West Indians to Harlem, 750,000 southern Blacks to the North, and to the participation of Black soldiers in WWI, the “New Negro” Movement and attitude, and consequent brutality against Black people and communities in its aftermath that characterized the 1920s. We cannot understand Garvey outside of these developments.

Likewise, we cannot overlook the significance of King’s rise during the  post WWII period during which returning Black soldiers demanded equal treatment and Blacks collectively drew comparisons between Nazi Germany and the  white supremacist American South. “If we can sacrifice our lives to fight fascism overseas certainly we must overcome racism and Jim Crow at home.”

Huey P, Newton and Bobby Seales operated within contexts that both defined and facilitated their Black Panther Party.Their rhetoric and ideology resonated with  a population of Blacks that migrated North to escape Southern brutality and labor exploitation, only to find themselves banned from Northern labor unions and subject to job discrimination. Add to this a significant population of Black veterans, with military training, politicized by war, the Civil Rights Movement, and later, the anti-Vietnam War Movement in the United States, and we realize how political and social contexts influence leadership and political mobilization.

Yet we can fall into the paralyzing trap of over-intellectualizing here. For the fact remains that many of the negative conditions existent  “then” are still present “now” yet our leadership seems far  weaker and less effective at addressing these issues than Black leadership of the past.

Given this, it’s time to  sound a Sankofa call to Black leadership, around very specific areas, so that Black people can have a fighting chance in our continuing struggle for respect, empowerment and liberation. In ancient Ghana, a priest or warrior would climb to a cliff or hillside and blow into the “Akoben.” or war horn to  call his/her village to war. These days the internet will serve the same purpose, at least for me.

 Black Leadership Must:

  1.  Stop using euphemistic language to describe our awful condition. Language is powerful in its ability to define, inspire,r educate and expose. Too often our leaders cave in to political correctness and use soft and apologetic language to articulate issues. Their mandate is to speak accurately, truthfully, and powerfully, not politely. Poverty, discrimination and injustice are hash realities that produce intense suffering and pain. Our words should accurately match and convey the conditions they describe. Such language was a hallmark and strength of Malcolm. and Dr. King and our leadership sets the tone for their weakness and tendency to capitulate with soft language. For example,If someone is a liar, brute, or racist, call them such without reservation so their actions are exposed to our people.  If public schools and their administrators continue to fail our children disproportionately and steer them  to gangs and prison, classify such institutions as “criminal” not simply “low-performing.” 
  2. Urge and teach our people to be self-reliant and empowered rather than reliant on those that despise and reject us. More than 100 years after Marcus Garvey and 40 years after Malcolm X, too many of our leaders and organizations still look to the government and liberal whites for funding, support, and solutions. Yes we should be able to learn from and work with others who are sincere, but as an oppressed group we must always strive to determine our own issues, interests, and strategies. This includes developing what John Henrike Clark called “the essential selfishness of survival.”  Our efforts must  remain focused on solving our own problems and gaining true – not symbolic – power. Leaders that put their own comfort or good relations with the rich and powerful over US are not fit to lead us and should be exposed and removed from leadership. Case in point: During the last presidential election, our true leaders were supposed to honestly and fairly evaluate President Obama’s record and teach us how to do the same, not become apologists or cheerleaders for him because he was the fist Black president! Our leaders were supposed to challenge Obama’s handling of Bin Laden or execution of Gaddafi (both without trials), his “hit list” including American citizens or his unbridled financial and military support of Israel, his insulting and paternalistic speech to the NAACP,or his military escalation in the so-called “Middle East. Rather than become loyalists for the Republicans or Democrats, our leaders were supposed to call for an independent party or candidate to represent OUR interests, or a move to challenge the ever-increasing influence of  corporate contributions on the electoral process.
  3. Stop calling for Black people to have faith in a corrupt and broken system. Leaders help the community to solve problems, and expose/correct societal flaws, not apologize for them. Racist cops and self-appointed white vigilantes have murdered innocent Black people for years and they are routinely exonerated, so how can any Black leader in good conscience caution Trayvon Martin’s family for instance to “have faith in the court system” or to “let the process unfold?” such pleas are insulting and apolitical, At the very least, leadership with integrity would call upon the Black community to draw attention to the police department’s horrific record of anti-Black brutality. Real leaders should teach the people to critique ineffective systems and either radically reform them or create alternative systems that meet their needs.
  4. Remember that you are not above criticism.

5. Be Willing to Pass on the torch of leadership! There is a reason why political offices have term limits: when a person occupies an office for  too long, they begin to feel  and act entitled. Also we need change and diversity in our organizations. Lastly, holding a position indefinitely is a hall-mark of a dictatorship or cult. Church and civic leaders in our communities do us a dis-service when they refuse to pass on the baton of leadership. When this occurs, we lose the opportunity to develop leadership capacity going forward and our organization becomes too closely associated with someone’s personality  which often damages the organization. The egotistical and megalomaniacal tendencies of a leader are not more important than the people. Leaders must always look to develop leadership capacity in younger people to prepare for when they no longer hold office. Once they leave office, they can function as mentors/advisers.

6. Always Strive for Excellence and Integrity. Simply put, be prompt, well-prepared, do what you say and apologize when you don’t. Be accountable, admit error or misjudgement, work hard, be thorough. Incompetent leadership in some ways is worse than no leadership at all.


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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