Black History Month is around the corner. While we should appreciate and embrace our history throughout the year, February offers us a universally accepted time to do so. 28 days is obviously not enough time to highlight or explore even a segment of our rich history exhaustively.Therefore it’s incumbent upon us to use this time judiciously and not superficially as I suggested in an earlier article.
Rather than our traditional tendency to cite Black “firsts” or African/Black achievements, I humbly suggest we consider being critical of ourselves as well. In this way Black History Month becomes instructive and corrective rather than just celebratory or self-congratulatory.
In this spirit, I’d like to discuss “Great Man” theory and the anti-intellectualism pervading our community.
1. Promoting the idea that one exceptional leader will save us. Great Black men and women have distinguished themselves as artists, inventors, faith leaders, politicians, scientists, writers, and much more. So many of these individuals displayed exceptional
courage, intelligence, oratorical skill and leadership ability. Their contributions to Black empowerment were and are invaluable. Yet they were all human and as such, imperfect and capable of misjudgment and error. Popular religions, comic books and science fiction movies promote the belief that one exceptional person (messiah or superhero) has the willingness and ability to save humanity. Religious mythology aside, and with Black people continuing to suffer poverty and racism throughout the world, there is no evidence to support this theory. No messiah has returned to save us nor any other supernatural being with the power to challenge corporate and government wickedness, or the social problems they cause. Even the great Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, and brother Malcolm X, as brilliant as they were, could not to accomplish Black liberation on their own. Even entire social movements have not completely eliminated injustice. This idea is obviously not valid. What we know beyond dispute is that the entire world and the Black world will only be “saved” by the informed and organized masses of people working on their own behalf. To the best of our knowledge, the ‘Great Man Theory” privileges men over women, privileges individual ability over collective struggle, sets up an expectation that is impossible to meet, and leads to the development of cult worship. Our goal should be to educate and prepare all of our people to assume the task of leadership.
2. Anti-intellectualism: I’ve written an article partially addressing this which I urge you to read if you haven’t. On Facebook and in casual discussions in the neighborhood, I’ve come across people who seem to frown upon serious reading and research. Some have told me they don’t read books at all, but just “study life.” Others believe that being studious makes a person disconnected from “real life on the street”, or from participating in activism that will address and solve problems in our community. Such people’s lack of study shows when they regurgitate outdated information, take irrational positions based on misinformation, or misrepresent an ideology, historical figure, or movement. They insist that they have already read this or that book (as if no other books exist on a given topic), and close their minds to any new research or any opinion with which they are unfamiliar. When pressed to offer evidence for a stated claim and he/she cannot do so, they become defensive, angry and accuse the person questioning/disputing them of either being condescending or of questioning his/her “intelligence.” I’d like to offer a few points concerning this issue:
1. A person can be generally intelligent, but not knowledgeable about a certain topic.Since no one knows everything, and since there are different levels of knowledge, any individual can be in a discussion about a topic with a person who has superior knowledge of the topic.
2. Just about every known topic has a body of scholarship surrounding it. This means there are several books, articles, and sometimes interviews with experts around any given topic. One cannot read one of two sources of information about something and claim to be very knowledgeable about that thing.
3. I have often been in conversations with people who obviously knew more than I did about a certain topic. When this happens, I don’t feel embarrassed, nor am I compelled to challenge or disrespect such persons. I simply ask questions to become better informed! When someone clearly has superior knowledge than you do, take the opportunity to use them as a resource so you can be better informed. Instead of embarrassing yourself or envying this person’s knowledge base, ask questions like, what books/articles would you suggest I read? If you care to, devote some time to mastering the topic at hand.
4. Few leaders or successful persons in the modern age got there without study, research and preparation. Garvey read, Malcolm read, DuBois read, Baldwin read, Che Guerrvera read, King read, as did Cabral, Nkrumah, etc. and they did so voraciously. How anyone can say they are politically conscious, and yet are not voracious readers, is beyond comprehension. Our problems and oppression require informed people to effectively confront them. Mentally lazy types that base their conclusions simply on anecdotes, hearsay and shoddy research have no place in the Black Liberation struggle.
5. Serious study does not consist of simply of books, but also interviews, documentaries and articles. Also we cannot just gather information from one point of view. We must thoroughly understand our topic from various angles. Our reading is not casual or recreational but focused and critical. We start with one of more questions, and let that objective drive our research. We reference and cross-reference.
6. Facts are one thing. Analysis is another. Some people spend great amounts of time digging up trivial like dates, names, and places. Real study demands that we grasp underlying factors, consequences, connections and methods, then analyze them to develop perspective on a topic. Simply reading a book cover to cover will not accomplish this. In fact, some books you may only read a chapter in to answer a question you have or to verify information. Quantity is not our aim, but quality.
In conclusion, my hope is that we will once and for all dismiss the idea of a revolutionary messiah or one exceptional man that will come to save us. Secondly, I hope we develop an appreciation for serious and critical study. We have no time for half-baked theories, poorly thought out plans, backwards thinking or hasty scholarship. Ego must be cast to the winds in this endeavor. Everyone is not qualified to meaningfully debate a topic. As for me, I agree with John Henrik Clarke who I paraphrase: “I learn from those with superior knowledge, I debate those with similar knowledge, and I TEACH everyone else.”
And for those who purposely spread misinformation, please note:
I wish I could say that conscious folk should always be cool, calm and collected when dealing with ill-intentioned brothers and sisters in a public venue, but I’d be lying! When someone spews absolute nonsense, slanders someone’s good name, or blatantly misrepresents the truth in arrogantly ignorant ways, and intimidates others or derails fruitful and engaging discussion, they need to be CHECKED HARD and CHALLENGED! This is the duty of righteous intellectual warriors. We do this not for the benefit of the perpetrator, but for those observing. Our people must develop the ability to spot imposters and mischief makers, and learn to shut them down with truth. I KEEP my light saber handy for such occasions!
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 to your organization, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.