Cults. There is simply not enough space or time to sufficiently address these nefarious and dangerous organizations. However, given that so many beloved Black people fall victim to them, this article will briefly address what they are, how to know if you’re in one, and why such organizations are so dangerous and self-defeating.
Formally speaking, a cult is a political, religious or social organization whose beliefs and practices are considered bizarre and unorthodox by members of society. This rather loose and ambiguous definition fits many of our currently-existing organizations however, so we must be more specific in identifying the factors that distinguish a cult from other organizations. You will notice that often times, a thin line separates a dangerous cult-type organization from a seemingly innocuous church, fraternal organization or political group.
I should point out that many cults do have some positive features. They often provide inspiration and a sense of solidarity. They sometimes teach important skills and information. Many instill a sense of Black cultural or historical pride and even draw from nationalist ideology to promote Black self-reliance by way of owning businesses and land. Nevertheless, even these organizations, (if cults) come with many disadvantages that often far outweigh their positive contributions.
You might be in a cult if:
- There is one (usually male) authoritative figure who makes all the rules and decisions
- There is only one book or set of literature/lessons which they encourage you to read (usually the organization’s) because this is the only “true” source of knowledge. All other books and resources are discouraged or prohibited
- The leader promotes him or herself as “divine” or as “God.”
- The leader suggests that their word, opinion, or insight on any matter is final and infallible (even on matters in which they have no expertise)
- The leader sets a severely strict system of discipline (including physical abuse or humiliation) and applies it to members that violate rules. Often, the organization has members specifically designated to beat or scold members when necessary. If it’s discovered that the leader has broken group rules, he or she explains that their divinity or special status allows them to do such
- The organization demands the majority of your time, labor and money and makes you feel guilty or insincere if you are unable to make these readily available
- Promotion within the organization occurs largely on the basis or loyalty, sexual favors and the extent to which a member defends or agrees with the leader, not based on ability and competence
- The organization sets strict guidelines for how you dress, what you eat, your hairstyle, etc and you are allowed little to no room for individual expression
- The organization forces you to sell and consume only their products, and often establishes a strict and non-negotiable quota you must meet. If you do not, you are expected to personally buy said items yourself
- The organization consistently promotes and encourages negative comparisons and forms of competitiveness between members
- The leader or organization labels you a “traitor” or “agent” simply for disagreeing with a practice or policy or associating with people who are not group members; Likewise, all people not involved in the group are deemed less intelligent, less valuable or simply, doomed to failure or condemnation
- The organization attempts to strictly regulate or define what people you can associate with, places you can frequent, hobbies you can have, etc.
- The organization frowns upon creativity, new ways of doing things and new ideas
- The organization claims to know when the world will end, and uses this “knowledge to manipulate your actions
- The organization deliberately separates members from relatives and friends
- In an attempt to avoid government or outside scrutiny, the organization moves to remote areas and in some instances other countries, as is the case with Jim Jones’ People’s Temple Cult. This cult, composed of primarily Black people, ended tragically in 1978 when a paranoid and psychotic Jim Jones (not the rap artist) compelled his misled followers to commit mass suicide by way of ingesting poison in a fruit drink. More than 900 people died. Listen to the actual audio recording of the mass suicide below. Warning: it is chilling.
Most of us reading the above list would find such an organization objectionable. But to spell it out, a cult is damaging because it represses free speech, choice and individual expression. Furthermore, such organizations operate in a top-down manner, providing members with little to no input in decision-making. Cults also tend to separate members from their money through exorbitant dues, ridiculous fines, and other methods. Finally, cults discourage balanced thought and information. No organization should restrict members from multifaceted learning.
For all of these reasons, cults are no good. They rob Black people of money, time, and opportunities for growth, even though they might be helpful in other areas. As a people that NEED to have a community consciousness, Black people are extremely crippled by any person or group that forces them to associate with and learn from a small segment of their people. Lastly, the myriad issues we confront are simply too enormous for any one man, woman or organization to address/solve no matter how “divine” or intelligent they proclaim to be. Being close-minded, isolated and manipulated are NEVER wholesome or positive things. We must wake up and avoid those that set themselves up as gods with all the answers and the only answers. This is every bit as oppressive and exploitative as enslavement. If you suspect that you or a loved one is in a cult, please read this. As further caution, I must tell you that many people lost their life savings, families, lives, dignity, and actual lives to cults.
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.