The above picture is of an Adinkra symbol from Ghana called “FUNTUNFUNEFU-
DENKYEMFUNEFU” or the “Siamese Crocodiles.” This symbol depicts the irony of two crocodiles that share one stomach, yet fight over food. This popular symbol is a reminder that infighting and tribalism is harmful to all who engage in it.
I’m observing more and more in Facebook discussion groups and in debates on YouTube, our supposedly enlightened and conscious elements degenerate into self-absorbed and territorial cliques that deem themselves the alpha and omega of knowledge. And I see little to no critical response from those that no better. These misguided individuals see themselves as “The One,” rather than as partners in a collective effort. It’s beginning to disgust me. Yet the complex dynamics of oppression, along with the presence of diverse beliefs/talents among our people requires that we disavow the “Neo” (Matrix) model of leadership and embrace more of the “Jedi Knight” model described in “Star Wars.” The first model highlights one extraordinary or charismatic individual while the latter focuses on democratic councils, leadership training and group leadership.
I personally have friends and comrades from various religious and political walks of life. Some of them are Christian, Muslim, Black Hebrew Israelite, etc. Some subscribe to the tenets of Nationalism, Pan Africanism, Feminism, Socialism, etc. But I love and cherish them all have learned from all of them and all are valuable to our community. I am sensing a dangerous trend of gangsterism, rigid thinking and ego among “enlightened” Black people that is both self-defeating and contradictory to any form of progress. No one person, organization or philosophy has all the answers because if they did, we’d be free and empowered right now. No one is above criticism or legitimate challenge. No one has THE way, but A way. We must collaborate and learn from each other, not tear each other down or set ourselves up as super-gurus. If we are not careful, we will destroy each other through ignorance and ego rather than working together to challenge our mutual oppression.
My reading of history leaves me with the impression that messianic leadership, this-or-that type of thinking, top-down approaches and beliefs that one’s holy book, ideology or philosophy is the “ONLY way to salvation,” are backwards, divisive, and dangerous. Cultish leaders and organizations primarily protect and benefit their own very limited clique. Members of such group rarely have significant input in policies or decisions. Furthermore, the leaders of these groups hold undisputed power and are seen as irrefutable on all questions. Those brave enough to challenge or question policies risk intimidation, isolation, and even murder at the hands of the other members that deem them traitors or non-believers. Such dynamics naturally stifle the organization as it fails to draw upon the ideas of a wide group of people.
There are about 35 million Black people in America, representing diverse political, economic and spiritual beliefs. It is impractical to expect all of us to join one organization or adopt one philosophy. The challenge facing us is to create the capacity for people to uphold various beliefs and practices and organizing them to unify around mutually beneficial goals. We do not need or desire obedient and uncritical robots, but flexible-minded and competent leaders and problem-solvers who know how to organize diverse groups. Collaboration and coalition-building are the concepts we must embrace if we are to wage an effective fight for freedom and justice.
Collaborative and mass leadership is open to input from the people, not just the leadership. It is responsive to the people’s needs, because it actively seeks to understand these needs rather than arrogantly presuming them. It is open to legitimate criticism because it seeks to be more effective and realizes there is more than one way to address or perceive issues. Such leadership admits its mistakes and shortcomings and is accountable to the people, not itself. These leaders don’t remain in power indefinitely for they want their organization to grow and develop new leadership. Such groups are transparent, allowing members access to financial records and input in making decisions. Effective groups and leaders encourage members to read widely not to review one book, pamphlet or manual. They value informed and empowered members, not narrow-minded and rigid followers. They acknowledge multiple roads to salvation rather than one. They encourage and respect leadership from women and other typically marginalized members of our community.
Perhaps Jim Jones (religious cult leader who eventually led almost 1000 followers to commit mass suicide in 1978) represents the worst case scenario that occurs with rigid and unchallenged unilateral leadership. Oddly enough, posted on a wall of Jonestown (the settlement he established in Guyana) were these words: “Those that don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” Listen for yourself to the last recorded words of cult leader Jim Jones, as he urges followers to kill themselves. Listen to his speech in its entirety, for it is highly instructive. Note the irrational and rigid conclusions he reached. Observe how he brags about having a U.S. Congressman and cult defectors killed. Notice how he responds to the one follower that questions his command and how he commands instead of welcoming input. Notice how he distorts scripture to support his ideas. Listen as he instructs men, women and children to drink poisoned Kool Aide 40 minutes later. While this is an extreme example, it represents the dangers of non-collaborative and unilateral leadership.
Those of us that know better must challenge any scent of unilateral or dictatorial leadership insisting that their way is the best or only way. Likewise we must challenge any organization or individual with elitist tendencies. We must develop broad-based leadership than transcends limited self-interests and strive instead for grassroots organizing that incorporates a range of ideas, talents, and people. Our failure to do this will surely sabotage any hopes of progress.
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.