Maintaining our Voice in Narratives of Activism

sas protest

Activists are human beings. As such, some harbor some of the very oppressive attitudes they are sworn to oppose: racism, patriarchy, elitism, self absorption, racial, gender, sexuality or class privilege, etc. I’ve found that white activists for example, often frame their conferences and issues in such a way that privileges white narratives of feminism, white supremacy, homophobia, over Black perspectives of the same things. We cannot rely on others to tell our stories. express our pain, or articulate our issues better or more powerfully than WE.

Nor can we allow others to tell ANY story of activism or social justice and omit or trivialize the pivotal role and contributions of BLACK PEOPLE!  Study American history and observe how Black people have always been the radical conscience of the U.S. Observe also how our movements and activism have inspired other oppressed and dominated people to organize their own liberation movements. Then observe how we’ve had to fight with white activists over what stories to tell and WHI should tell them . Read Frederick Douglass’ issues with William Lloyd Garrison, Sojouner Truth’s issues with white suffragists, Dr. King’s issues with white clergy members, or Black feminists’ issues with their white counterparts.

This does not imply that Black people cannot or should not work with others to address issues of social injustice. It does mean that if we do choose to enter alliances/partnerships with others, we do not allow those partners to dominate the discussion, determine demands, strategy or tactics or policies for us or without our input,  or to privilege their issues and interests over our own.

Take this advice lightly at your own risk. These considerations manifest in every oppressor/oppressed dynamic: men attempt to dominate and frame discussions of gender and patriarchy; whites do the same with discussions of race; middle class interests impose its values and leadership on the working class, white feminism often excludes the leadership, issues and achievements of Black or Latina feminists.

I’ve accepted an invitation to participate in a two-day student activism teach-in at Syracuse University, where I completed my undergraduate education and was president of the highly activist Student African American Society. SAS, as it was known, launched an 8-month campaign to improve and rejuvenate our African American Studies Department on campus.

This campaign involved political education and propaganda, widespread community outreach and coalition-building (among professors, students, and the larger community), a petition drive, an array of press conferences/radio and television interviews, and two semesters of intense protests, rallies, meeting disruptions, and building takeovers. We out strategized the university and compelled Chancellor Melvin Eggers, Arts & Sciences Dean Samuel Gorovitz, and Vice Chancellor Gershon Vincow (with permission from the Board of Trustees of course) to agree to all 13 of our demands. The university’s attempt to punish me for leading this campaign resulted in a list of false charges against me including inciting a riot, destroying school property and assaulting campus security. If found guilty at a university hearing, I faced expulsion from school. Because SAS did such an excellent job of community outreach, political education, and coalition-building, NOT ONE student, professor or Syracuse community member serving on the hearing board showed up to the hearing! This tremendous display of solidarity forced the university to drop all charges against me and other SAS leaders. The entire school and larger community (residents, pastors, civil rights and interracial pacifist groups) got involved. All demands agreed to. No student punished. MLK Library moved, refurbished, and developed into an award-winning institution. The hiring of a full-time chairperson and more graduate teaching assistants. The creation of a Master’s degree program in African American Studies. The complete overhaul and increased funding for the Community Folk Art Gallery (R.I.P. to professor Herb Williams).

I’ve reviewed the list of activities, topics, and speakers at the teach-in I’m attending. There appears to be a strong emphasis on white woman feminists, gay/transgender activism, and “activist history” from particular perspectives.

I’m supposed to speak on a panel of current and former SU activists, after viewing a documentary about campus activism. I get the uneasy sense that the triumphant struggle of Black students at Syracuse University will overlooked and reduced in terms of its impact and significance. What WE accomplished on campus and in the community is poised to be suffocated between discussions of feminism, heteronormative oppression and other narratives of resistance by more privileged people/issues. But then again, this will not occur on my watch, not while I’m still breathing. It appears that not just Black lives but Black resistance, collective memory and agency matter as well…


 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 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.” 

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

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