A Word About Black Cynics


You’ve seen their scowls, smirks, folded arms and indifferent eyes. You’ve observed their tendency to derail hope, passion and talk of change and social justice. This world, with its greed, dehumanizing manner, ruthless indifference and lust for domination, mass produces them. I’m referring to that population of people we call “cynics.”

A “Cynic” is one who does not believe in the goodness or sincerity of people’s motives or intentions. The troubling thing is that cynics exist within the very community of Black people who claim to be progressive and about change. Curious, isn’t it?

As an activist and one fighting to educate and improve conditions, I have dealt with many cynical folk over the years. You can easily identify cynics. They typically fly under the radar in times of apathy and idleness. They usually emerge in discussions involving hope, forward movement and social empowerment or justice. They often shoot down every proposed method or action for change without providing any alternative. Their classic attitude is summarized as follows:

  • “That’s just the way things are. They’ll never change.”
  • “I don’t trust anybody.”
  • “I used to be like you, but I got smart.”
  • “I’ve heard it all before.”
  • “Everybody is out for themselves.”
  • “I’m just worried about me and mine.”

Such people (if you allow them) will cause you to suffer without fighting back. They will crush your dreams and suffocate your spirit. They will have you succumb to despair and hopelessness, or make you feel powerless in the face of conflict. For these reasons, cynics represent the polar opposites of activists.

Turtle leadership

All social activists operate from the premise that economic, political, or social injustices are problems that can and must be solved by the people most experiencing them. Beneath all of the rhetoric and activism lies a belief that “We the people” CAN organize, research, confront and ultimately resolve problems or improve conditions. In other words, authentic organizers, leaders, and activists possess that most powerful of shields and weapons called HOPE. We also possess the COURAGE  to stand up and speak out against social vices and oppression. Dick Gregory accurately summarized this when he noted, “A leader for Black people must be like a turtle: tender on the inside, hard on the outside, and willing to stick their neck out.”

Cynics scoff at such people calling them idealistic, overly optimistic or suffering from “Martyr’s Syndrome.” They insist that oppressive systems and the individuals running them are all-powerful or at least richer, more intelligent and more committed than we. On top of this, they argue, “We the people” (particular those with melanin) refuse to organize, are self-absorbed, materialistic, and plagued with division and discord. Such statements sting because they bear elements of truth we cannot overlook.

And yet, Black cynics seem to suffer from severe bouts of historical or political amnesia. They forget for example, how enslaved and largely illiterate Africans still managed to create their own schools. Memories of how free and enslaved Black folk fought physically and politically in the 19th century via civil war, plantation revolts, the underground railroad, establishment of Maroon societies, and the Abolitionist Movement to end Black bondage. Forgotten as well is how our people organized to challenge and dismantle legalized Apartheid (Jim Crow) in this nation, waging nonviolent war in the courts and in the streets against powerful and violently uncooperative opposition.

Black cynics also suffer from short-term memory loss. Somehow they forget or are unaware of the Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, and Anti-war or Free Speech Movements led by ordinary and extraordinary Black students, teachers, musicians, intellectuals and others just 5 decades ago.

The moral of this story, per examination of our history, is that we’ve made significant degrees of progress and have resisted our oppression at every step along the way, in every historical period with various tools, ideas and methods. While we are justified to perceive government bodies and officials with cynicism, we cannot afford to turn this inward on ourselves without serving the interests of our oppressors and causing incalculable damage to our ongoing instincts for freedom and justice.

History in other words,  even when we account for all the broken promises, in-fighting, and remnants of injustice still present, proves all of the cynics WRONG. 

So the next time you have a discussion with a cynical brother or sister, listen to them, debate them if you choose, but NEVER internalize his or her defeatist or apathetic attitude. Recognize that they too enjoy benefits a, privileges and rights fought for by Black people who dared to dream, and dared to visualize and fight for better conditions for themselves and their posterity.

Our story has always been one of people who defied the odds, conquered giants, and survived every obstacle our enemies devised for us. Our story is one of faith, hope, Vision, and work despite opposition. If 2000 tears from now Black people no longer existed, and someone told our story, people would assume it was a tall-tale or mythology. With all of our flaws and contradictions, WE ARE A MIRACULOUS PEOPLE CAPABLE OF MAKING MIRACLES OCCUR, AND LET NO ONE TELL YOU DIFFERENTLY.


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei 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. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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