Black Lives Matter: Get Out of Your Cotton-Pickin’ Minds!

Engraving of Slaves Working In Field by Horace Bradley

Disclaimer: This article attempts to expand our understanding of the BlackLivesMatter slogan. It is not my intent to slur, critique or degrade the BlackLivesMatter Movement to challenge racist police brutality against Black people in ANY way. I respect and generally support any attempt to make Black people Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up.


When I was a young boy, I sometimes heard Black folk use the expression, “You must be out of your cotton-pickin’ mind!” This expression was meant to suggest a person was crazy or disconnected from reality. The passionate way people said it, gave you the notion that you’d be well advised to STAY in your “cotton-pickin'” mind.

Look at the picture above, and repeat the phrase “cotton-picking mind” five times slowly. If it hasn’t dawned on you yet, I’m sure it will: A cotton-picking mind is an enslaved mind, or a mind bent toward subservience to others. Free-thinking and empowered Black people whose ancestors were forced to  actually pick cotton, tobacco, and rice  for the enrichment of others should never want to possess a cotton-picking mind. In fact, we should do everything possible to avoid obtaining such a mind.

It is an honor and a statement of empowerment to say you are OUT of your cotton-picking mind, unless of course, you value being used and abused by another human being or group that falsely believes itself to be your superior.

I’ve worked most of my life as a teacher, activist, public speaker and writer, to help Black folk get and stay out of their “cotton-pickin’ minds,” and I will continue to as long as I have breath in my lungs. By taking this stand, I proudly place myself in notable company. History confirms a long line of people who spoke out against injustice, protested mistreatment and brutality, and actively resisted attempts to subjugate us. Those great ancestors had differences of opinion and methods, but they all fought to advance and liberate us. Throughout our history in the United States, we also witnessed some people who attempted to collaborate with, defend and support our sworn enemies inspired either by cowardice, ignorance or greed. Such people were and are today, IN THEIR COTTON-PICKING MINDS!

In the 21st century, Black folk have the advantage of several liberation theories, models of leadership, and examples of liberation movements. We can easily become inspired or deeply confused and conflicted with such a flood of options, information, and sometimes highly intellectual ideas. But regardless of what leader we follow, or ideology we align with, one thing we cannot afford to forget is that slaves are considered the property of someone else. They are seen as OBJECTS to be controlled, exploited, and used to promote/fulfill another person or group’s interests. They are THINGS to be acted upon, but not to act in their own interests. They are NEVER taught to think, build, or speak for THEMSELVES. Nor do the generally agreed upon rules or rights of humanity extend to them.

This sobering realization explains why Black people had to fight against enslavement, Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynching, and still must fight against mass incarceration, police brutality, and poverty/class exploitation. Simply put, (as the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision highlighted) we have no rights “that white men are bound to respect.” Why? Because only people and citizens have rights. Dehumanized slaves are perceived as THINGS. In a society that reinforces this view in every way imaginable, it is easy for the enslaved to begin devaluing their own existence.

BLACKLIVESMATTER, therefore, is much more than a rallying cry against police brutality created in response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It is more powerful and enduring than a slogan across a t-shirt. It is a brilliant reminder of our own humanity and value. It is in fact, not simply a reactive statement of resistance to white racial oppression and degradation, but more importantly,  a proactive call for Black people to think and act in ways that empower, advance and protect US. In this sense, Black Lives Matter is both a statement TO THEM, and a statement FOR US. To them it defiantly says, “Who the FUCK do you think you’re dealing with? We’re not going for that bullshit anymore!” To us it says, “You are valuable and it’s not enough to proclaim it, you must do the things that people with self-worth and dignity do!” So for me, the statement Black Lives Matter means that we must:

  • educate ourselves and our children to be masterful and self-reliant leaders and problem-solvers
  • lead our own organizations, mount our own movements for justice, and never allow ANYONE (especially outsiders) to divert our attention or energy from the cause of Black liberation on all levels, or determine our tactics, issues, or leadership
  • be concerned with our  physical mental and emotional health
  • resist attempts within or outside of our community to limit our possibilities, curb our freedom, crush our spirits, or bring us physical/political/financial/psychological harm
  • express ourselves creatively, truthfully, and unashamedly
  • hold ourselves to a standard of excellence with respect to our organizations, studies, professions, relationships, and homes
  • become invested in our history and culture in addition to the ideas and struggles of our ancestors, and then implement and continue their tradition
  • set the collective concerns, success, and liberation of Black people as our first and primary priority

If we review our history in the U.S. we will discover that every one of our sociopolitical movements along with every push for independent Black institutions, had as their subconscious motto “Black Lives Matter.” I work for the day when these three words become more than a cry against police brutality, and more than a reactive statement to white folk, but a conscious, internalized and deliberate part of our culture. But first, we must get out of our “cotton-picking minds” IMMEDIATELY….


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

One thought on “Black Lives Matter: Get Out of Your Cotton-Pickin’ Minds!

  1. I loved this the first time I heard you say this and I’m glad you chose to articulate the idea further. I have forwarded this to many men in my family.

    You were and always will be a teacher!

    Love ~

    Sent from my iPhone


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