In our never-ending quest for meaning, information and liberation as Black people, there are some real diversions which confuse and threaten our focus. The problem is not just with the uninformed or “ignorant masses” as we’d like to believe, but also with those of us who consider ourselves conscious. Below, I outline some of the more prevalent intellectual errors we often commit errors that in my opinion, derail our movement for liberation.
OVEREMPHASIS ON CONSPIRACIES
Conspiracies do exist and have existed throughout human history. We all know someone who spends great amounts of time researching and exposing any number of conspiracy theories to the public. On any given day we can do a Google search and learn about World Trade Center, Federal Reserve, extraterrestrial visitation, assassination, AIDS, and other conspiracies.
In the conspiracy world, terms such as Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschild Family, Area 51, the Boule, New World Order, are as American as….white supremacy, police brutality, sexism, and corporate domination.
While we may debate the validity and accuracy of these theories, many of them contain “kernels of truth.” There are large elitist groups that seek to manipulate our thinking and actions; history teaches us that drugs were used to subjugate people and make them ripe for exploitation (i.e. The Opium Wars in China); Corporations unfairly manipulate political elections and the economy; The government has participated in mind control experiments; The “Tuskegee Experiment” and similar practices in Guatemala provide ample evidence of government willingness to secretly infect citizens with deadly diseases; Overwhelming evidence suggests a government cover up of alien visitation, in addition to the unethical monitoring, harassment, and murder of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders and organizations.
So I cannot in good conscience suggest that conspiracies did not or do not exist, nor will I suggest that we should not expose them. However, we cannot afford to obsess solely over discovering or exposing them because doing so does not stop them or protect us from them. Our focus must be to develop ways to neutralize or counteract such conspiracies. Some people make a good living speaking and writing about numerous conspiracies and to the extent that they accurately inform us, their efforts are valuable. The danger of course is that such people might seek to keep us hypnotized and mesmerized by secret plots and schemes to continue their speaking honorariums and other financial rewards rather than formulating plans and organizing us to thwart such plots. Secondly, teaching our people about such secret plots sometimes scares people into apathy and political withdrawal; Leaders must inspire people to confront and end their oppression, not yield to or withdraw from it!
As you read this article, conspiracy theories grow exponentially, with no viable plans to counteract them. If in fact a conspiracy exists to eliminate viable Black communities (for example Detroit and Harlem), what is our plan to protect and maintain such communities? If the establishment creates schools and curriculum to dumb down our children and prepare them to be a permanent underclass, how to we combat that plan? If the government conspires to assassinate our leaders, how do we protect them? My concern is that too much emphasis on conspiracies paralyzes proactive agency among our people.
Often I hear political-minded people trivialize the need for focused and critical research. Sometimes they say “No more theory, we need action.” In other cases, such people come to their conclusions from one source, or believe they can become adequately informed simply from listening to lectures or radio broadcasts.
Whatever form it takes, anti-intellectualism is contradictory and counterproductive to any liberation movement. Oral tradition alone is not sufficient to understand and dismantle various forms of oppression. We MUST read and cross reference what we read to develop mastery of a subject. We cannot afford to be intellectually lazy or to seek shortcuts.
Nor can our arsenal of information come solely from Black intellectuals or activists. Any person serious about Black or ANY type of liberation can greatly benefit from reading Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Peggy McIntosh, Michael Parenti, Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire, Henry David Thoreau, Macciavelli, or any number of non-Black intellectuals/activists. Doing this does not make one a traitor or ,counter-revolutionary, it provides us with more intellectual artillery and a deeper pool of ideas to use in our attempt to understand and effectively challenge oppression. Research deeply enough and you’ll see how many of our great thinkers and leaders drew inspiration from non Black people just as they drew inspiration and ideas from us.
Resisting the tendency to be anti-intellectual also calls us to have a more sophisticated and critical approach to research. It is not enough to see a photograph and be able to identify the person’s name or profession. Many of the people or movements we claim to “know” we actually only have a superficial knowledge about.
Take for example Dr. Martin Luther King : In addition to being familiar with his famous speeches or general objectives, we might want to know what intellectual traditions inspired him, how and why his objectives/ideology changed over time or why the Civil Rights Movement lost its effectiveness toward the late sixties.
Concerning Malcolm X, what were the forces responsible for his assassination, why did he represent such a threat to them, and why was he murdered when he was? How did his political ideology change or remain the same after he left the Nation of Islam? How did his interaction with African, Latin American and Arab leaders affect their respective politics and American foreign policy during the Cold War period? Why and in what manner were his ideas so influential to participants of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, or to the call for Black Studies? How do we incorporate and/or implement his ideas today?
Appreciating the role of critical study and reading across multiple domains (history, philosophy, politics, education, etc.) and from numerous sources, positions us to intelligently sift through, criticize and incorporate ideas and strategies and to avoid costly mistakes. Regardless of what society teaches us, political-minded people must see critical research as being a non-negotiable component of our liberation movement. Consequently, we should be very suspicious of any leader or activist with an anti-intellectual or uncritical disposition. At the same time, we cannot embody the “paralysis of analysis” Dr. King warned against. Our knowledge and information should lead to policy, instruction, or constructive action.
Agyei Tyehimba 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. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.