One weekend in 1980, for an infraction I no longer remember, my mother disciplined me by banning me from watching television, or going outside. I could handle The TV prohibition; what crushed me was not being able to see my friends, play basketball at the local schoolyard, or enjoy the sunshine and people in Harlem.
Bored out of my mind, and tired of writing poem after poem, I desperately searched for a new activity that would help my adolescent prison sentence go by faster. I thought of the box which stood high atop my bedroom closet. The box belonged to my father who was not fond of anyone going through his things. I always looked at that box and wondered what it contained, but never had the nerve to ask or explore for myself. But solitary confinement has a way of prompting you to think thoughts and take actions you wouldn’t under normal conditions. So I nervously climbed on top of a tall storage trunk, extended my right arm to its full length and cautiously felt around the contents of the mysterious box. To an outside observer the scene would’ve been comical I’m sure. You would’ve thought I was stealing a gold brick from Fort Knox or trying to crack a sophisticated safe!
But there I was, balancing on my tip-toes on top of a rickety trunk, determined to satisfy my curiosity and avoid getting caught by my dad. I felt a number of things, and not being able to actually see the items, I clumsily used my fingertips as my guide: some scissors, a roll of scotch tape, scattered paperclips….so far my valiant expedition yielded no treasure. My fingers walked to the right side of the shoe box and I felt what I believed to be a book. I became excited – loving books as I did – and snatched up the object, nearly tumbling to the floor.
It was indeed a book, tattered, faded and yellowed by age and oxidation. When I tell you I devoured Malcolm X Speaks, I do not exaggerate. I couldn’t put the book down, and finished it in one day. My father always spoke very highly of brother Malcolm to me, but now I read his actual words, and I was sold on Black Nationalism. Throughout high school and college, I spoke to every brother and sister I could about this great and visionary leader. I sought out and read any book I could find about him and listened to hours upon hours of his speeches. As corny as it sounds, I vowed in 7th grade to learn everything I could about Malcolm X and to implement his ideas to the best of my ability.
As I became older and more informed, I learned that Malcolm was not alone; Indeed, he drew from and built upon the ideas and legacy of a vibrant Black Nationalist tradition dating back to David Walker, Henry Highland Garnett, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Martin Delaney, and Edward Blyden in the 19th Century, and figures like Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, and Elijah Muhammad in the 20th Century.
The point of all this is to highlight the need for us to keep the spirit of our defiant and noble ancestors alive. We do them and their work an immense disservice when we fail to learn about them, their ideas, and their struggles. Their names and ideas should stay on our lips and in our minds. We should analyze/debate their ideologies and ideas and be critical of their limits and shortcomings. We should incorporate their ideas and strategies into our own efforts to uplift Black people throughout the world.
There is no need to start political empowerment from scratch or “reinvent the wheel.” While it is true that methods must change with times and conditions, it is also true that there is “nothing entirely new under the sun.” Our valiant ancestors of various political and spiritual beliefs developed serious blueprints we can still utilize and modify today. So when adversarial whites quote one of their past greats to reinforce a point or idea that goes against our interests, we can confidently counter with the equally valid perspectives and ideas of our own greats. In these ways, we resurrect our ancestors and keep their spirit and work alive, rather than reciting their names during Black History Month.
This is not to suggest that we reject the wisdom or examples of non-original people. However we have no cause to privilege their ideas over our own. Marx, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Smith were brilliant thinkers and they remain worthy of study. But they were ultimately men with opinions, not infallible gods of truth or knowledge. God blessed us with centuries of thinkers and leaders, men and women every bit as brilliant, and in some cases more so. We must not allow their ideas to die or remain obscured, nor fool ourselves into thinking their vision is any less valid or applicable than anyone else’s. With few exceptions, many of the issues we struggle with today, our ancestors addressed as well, and often more effectively than we do.
Marcus Garvey understood the need to embrace and proclaim our ancestors…. to keep their memory, ideas and work alive and accessible. He urged us go keep their ideas on our lips and minds and to draw from our own great tradition of leadership. I close with an excerpt of his classic piece, “African Fundamentalism:”
The time has come for the Blackman to forget and cast behind
him his hero worship and adoration of other races, and to start
out immediately to create and emulate heroes of his own. We must
canonize our own martyrs and elevate to positions of fame and honor
Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to
our racial history.
Sojourner Truth is worthy of sainthood alongside of Joan of Arc.
Crispus Attucks and George William Gordon are entitled to the halo
of martyrdom with no less glory than that of the martyrs of any
other race. Jacques Deselines’ and Moshesh’s brilliancy as
soldiers and statesmen outshone that of a Cromwell, Napoleon, or
Washington: hence they are entitled to the highest place as heroes
Africa has produced countless numbers of men and women, in war and
in peace, whose lustre and bravery outshines that of any other
people. Then why not see good and perfection in ourselves? We
must inspire a literature and promulgate a doctrine of our own
without any apologies to the powers that be. The right is the
Blackman’s and Africa’s. Let contrary sentiments and cross
opinions go to the winds. Opposition to Race Independence is the
weapon of the enemy to defeat the hopes of an unfortunate people.
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.