The issue of Umar Johnson and his mission to build a new academy for Black boys, provoked a number of issues and perspectives, either from his tenacious supporters or steadfast critics. I’ve engaged some of these issues by writing an article supporting his mission to build the academy, an open letter asking him to respond to community questions concerning his leadership ethics and fundraising transparency, and a third article arguing that we have a right and responsibility to question and critique Umar, or anyone else for that matter.
These three articles have helped to stimulate plenty of engaged and intelligent dialogue around the topics of Black leadership, and the role of legitimate critique in the Black community, all across the country and in other parts of the world.
My articles, and hundreds of posts on social media pertaining to Umar Johnson, have also stimulated some of the most backward, reactionary and oppressor-friendly conversations and comments I’ve heard/read in quite some time.
This article will identify and address some of those perspectives, with an attempt to demonstrate how each is problematic and counter-revolutionary. Why take the time and energy to explore these things? Because at the end of the day, I want myself, my children/loved ones, and our people to truly be free and empowered. All of my organizing, intellectual and activist pursuits begin and end with this objective in mind. Put another way, I’m constantly trying to promote and realize brother Malcolm’s brilliant call for us to Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up!
I also place such importance on this issue because the debate over Umar Johnson reveals disturbing traits within the Black conscious community, that very segment of our people presumed to represent a radical leadership segment in our community. To summarize, the debate over Umar Johnson is actually much larger than the controversial psychologist/public speaker himself; I argue that the the often hostile exchange of words and ideas in this case, reveal and force us to examine some contradictory and reactionary elements of thinking among those who proclaim themselves or are perceived to be informed, sociopolitically aware, and progressive.
Many of these folks claim brother Malcolm or Marcus Garvey as their political mentors, yet fail to see how their policies directly contradict these leaders or fail to learn from their mistakes. If these people (conscious Black folk) exhibit deep conflicts around pivotal issues in our community, it’s safe to say the masses of our people and our struggle for liberation are in grave trouble.If such individuals honestly believe many of the things I’ve read in the last two weeks, then many of those folk calling themselves “conscious” are in fact positioning themselves to be conscious sellouts, or elements whose policies and practices ironically help to keep us oppressed, divided and powerless. Our collective oppressors facilitate this arrangement in every way they can. For as South African revolutionary Steve Biko noted, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.”
Let us then examine and deconstruct some of these reactionary and counter-revolutionary policies and practices revealed by the Umar Johnson controversies:
1. “It is unpatriotic or disloyal to criticize those attempting to advance Black issues and interests.” I addressed this at length in my previous article. I noted that:
It appears that Umar Johnson and many of his supporters/followers do not appreciate critique, even in its legitimate forms. He/they characterize ALL critics or detractors (whether their critiques/questions are valid or not) as “agents,” “maggots,” and “haters.” Yet any of us who are community activists, intellectuals, organizers, students, workers, athletes or business owners know that as brother Malcolm stated, “If you have no critics, you’ll likely have no success.”
I went on to argue that valid criticism helps to guard us against fraudulent leaders/initiatives, and helps to improve the efforts/strategy/thinking of authentic leaders and initiatives. The only people who reject or resent legitimate critique are cult leaders, their followers, and narcissists. Some people use the “if you criticize me, you’re a sell-out” tactic to hide their shady dealings and have unscrutinized access to our minds, labor and wallets.Others in the conscious community make the false assumption that critique translates to a complete rejection of the leader or program. This reactionary position stems from overly rigid and dogmatic thinking. This approach keeps us stagnant and sets our entire movement backwards. True revolutionaries or conscious people welcome well-supported and accurate critique, and become better for having done so. Malcolm X himself taught us the value of being open to critique ourselves, and of critiquing others. Stop quoting and referencing our brilliant brother if you refuse to quote and reference him accurately. It is in fact, disloyal and reactionary to allow someone you respect to act or speak in ways that divide, confuse, and abuse our people, or potentially retard our forward motion. Think about that.
2. “We can challenge oppression and intolerance in some areas, but allow it in others.” Many of us in the Nationalist community challenge racial bigotry and political ultra-conservatism. When confronting white supremacy, we fiercely defend our right of self-determination, arguing that we are entitled to think for ourselves, identify ourselves and advance our interests as we see fit. We refuse to allow the so-called “dominant” group or mainstream society make such decisions for us. Yet some of these folk completely disregard and even ridicule similar rights for Black women, and members of the LGBT community. And to make matters worse, they don’t even see the glaring contradiction.
In the Black community, Black heterosexual men are the dominant and mainstream group. Like whites in a white supremacist framework, Black heterosexual men set and enforce the rules and standards of belief and practice in our families, places of worship, and community organizations. Like oppressive whites, some Black men presume to tell other Black folk what is acceptable and appropriate, using pseudo religious, scientific and other justifications. Racist whites used similar reasons to justify our enslavement, degradation and oppression. We act as if patriarchy and homophobia don’t exist; like women and members of the LGBT community are not routinely attacked, murdered, and discriminated against. We turn a blind eye to domestic abuse, because women are “the weaker gender,” and need to “stay in their place” and be submissive to the Black male agenda. We “love Black people” but remain indifferent to legions of our people that because of our ignorance, are forced to live in shame, leading them to marry or date women or men they don’t love or in the worse case, kill themselves. This is an oppressive posture and one that threatens to keep our community infinitely divided and hostile. The only intellectually valid concern (in my opinion) about the growth of a Black gay community is that it raises the possibility of reduced reproduction and therefore the possible depopulation of our people. But there will always be a significant heterosexual population based on probability and free choice (even with the existence as some believe, of a conspiracy to turn the entire Black community gay).
To my fellow Black Nationalists and members of the conscious community: Liberation from oppression and intolerance must be TOTAL. Let people be (and also remember that some of the people who articulate the most vitriolic anti-gay sentiment and policies often tend to have gay inclinations and curiosities themselves!) The last time I checked, white men and women (some members of the LGBT community) work together to subjugate us. They may disagree on methods or ideology, but they do agree on lording over us. As much hell as we collectively catch from ALL TYPES of white folk and their collaborators, we need ALL competent and trustworthy hands on deck anyway! As I wrote before:
Everyone has the right and responsibility to fight oppression however that may manifest (even if that makes other people “uncomfortable). If Black people are not thieves, rapists, sell outs, serial killers, or con artists (regardless of their gender or sexual lifestyle/identity)…..I can find room to work with them.
I will also share some pointed words my (now deceased) uncle shared with me some 20 years ago when he challenged my rigid views on homosexuality at the time:
“You say you love Black people and Black history, right? Well Langston Hughes was gay. Bayard Rustin was gay. James Baldwin was gay. Hoyt Fuller was gay. Alice Walker is gay…. and so were/are many others openly or otherwise. Many political activists are gay as well, and by the way nephew, I’m gay….are you going to wipe all of us out of history? Will you disown all of us as members of the Black community? Are we all sick or living in sin? How is your position any different from the racist whites you oppose?”
At some point, the Black conscious community will have to determine that our fight is for total – not selective – liberation. This doesn’t mean we all need to become feminists or march in a gay parade (I won’t). It doesn’t even mean we need to agree with all elements of feminist ideology or co-sign a LGBT lifestyle. But it does mean that we extend the same freedom of choice and right to self identification and determination that we hold so dear. By the way, isn’t this what we mean by the expression BLACK SOLIDARITY….working together and defending each other around common areas of interest, despite our other differences?
3. “An agent or sell-out is someone who disagrees with a member of the conscious community.” This belief is strongly related to the first one I addressed. A person that disagree with someone, is simply that….a person who disagrees with someone. Why and on what grounds that person disagrees, is another story altogether.
The word “agent” needs real clarification, as it is a term that is frequently (and sometimes inaccurately) used to characterize people. In the context of politics or political struggle, an “agent,” is someone who works for or with a government “agency” (usually law enforcement or intelligence) to specifically advance its interests.
Agents take different forms in the United States. An agent provocateur is a person sent by a police department, the FBI or CIA to induce people in the infiltrated organization to break the law or do something unethical. This gives the police or whomever, the ability to arrest people in the organization. This is done to disrupt leadership in the organization and thereby make it less effective, confused, and non-productive. This tactic also sabotages the organization’s finances, as it must raise money for frequent and costly attorney fees. A provocateur that infiltrates an organization will do things like persuade a member to steal, commit an act of violence against another person or property, or engage in a fraudulent act. Another thing they might do is tell members that a certain leader or member is a “snitch” or informant. This tactic was effectively used against the Black Panther Party. This creates distrust in the organization, and often leads members to assault, murder or expel this member from the organization.
An informant is another type of agent. As the name suggests, an informant infiltrates an organization, establishes a trustworthy reputation, and then provides information about the group, it’s leadership, finances and plans to the police or intelligence agencies. This information can include financial records or “books,” minutes of meetings, leadership charts and duties, upcoming protests, names and addresses of members, or in the case of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, an exact diagram of a leader’s apartment, supplied by bodyguard-turned-informant William O’Neal (who received $10,000 for his services). View the handwritten diagram below:
True agents destabilize our organizations, frustrate our liberation movements, and receive money for their deeds. Their sneaky and shameful actions often lead to false arrests, expulsion and humiliation of authentic and committed Black people, and even murder. It is therefore highly irresponsible for any member of the conscious community to label someone an “agent” without sufficient proof to support the accusation. When people do this without discretion or proof just to punish people that disagree with them, such people should be called out for their unacceptable behavior. And, we should give thought to whether people who resort to such inappropriate methods deserve to speak on our behalf or be considered “Conscious.”
4. “We can invoke the names and legacies of great Black leaders, without following their example or learning from their mistakes.” Anyone who has seriously studied the Honorable Marcus Garvey should not just invoke his name, accomplishments, or elements of his ideology. We should also be familiar with the factors that led to his personal and organizational demise. It’s very easy and convenient to blame it all on the white man. I blame most of our issues on the white man, with some degree of enabling from ourselves! We already know the external factors, starting with J. Edgar Hoover’s infiltration and sustained attack on Garvey and the UNIA. I own the collected writings of Marcus Garvey (a huge four-volume set) which in addition to Garvey’s fliers, reports, and articles, includes informants’ notes, and Hoover’s own twisted plans to destroy him.
What we seldom explore are Garvey’s own actions that helped facilitate the UNIA’s and his own demise. We often do this because in our adoration for authentic leaders we sometimes romanticize them as infallible, forgetting that they like us are imperfect. Yet, this type of critique and study is essential if we are to continue and improve upon their legacies. The most reliable and well-researched books and documentaries on Marcus Garvey note the following points which are relevant to the Umar Johnson issues: Garvey didn’t take kindly to legitimate critique or suggestions from those in or outside of his organization; He resented and distrusted bi-racial Blacks (then called “Mulattoes) whom he believed suffered from a superiority complex, and were loyal to white interests. This led him to verbally attack and ridicule his bi-racial contemporaries including some of his own Caribbean brethren; He had a tendency to think he could perform any task himself (including some for which he was unqualified, which led him for example to act as his own lawyer in the infamous mail fraud trial which along with government and negro sabotage, ultimately led to his imprisonment and deportation); He was notoriously poor at managing money and keeping financial records, often mixing personal with organizational finances; He alienated and attacked Black intellectuals (DuBois) and Black Marxist leaders (Cyril Briggs) with whom he could have built powerful alliances; While he renounced American and European imperialism toward Africa, he nevertheless crowned himself “President” of the entire continent and saw the UNIA’s partial mission as “civilizing the backward tribes of Africa” and promoting “a conscientious spiritual worship among the native tribes of Africa.” In other words, Marcus Garvey – like all great leaders – had blind spots, weaknesses, and some contradictions. Shouldn’t we learn from our great brother whom we love, rather than make his same mistakes?
My beloved brother Malcolm X too, had blind spots and made errors in judgement. The major difference is that he acknowledged some of them and spent time attempting to address and correct them. Malcolm’s patriarchy is addressed in his autobiography:
As a young minister I wouldn’t have considered it possible for me to love any woman. I had too much experience that women were only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.
Yet Malcolm would evolve to see Black women as competent companions in the Black Liberation Movement. Returning from his second trip to Africa in 1964, he noted:
In every backward country you’ll find the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education. So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the women, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put the same spirit and understanding in her children. And I am frankly proud of the contributions that our women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men.
William Sales in his book “From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity,” notes how Malcolm challenged and began to evolve on the issue of women in leadership. In fact, brother Malcolm observed the stubborn patriarchy among some member of the OAAU, and made a conscious decision to involve a sister named Lynn Shefflet and another named Sarah Mitchell, in its leadership.
Prior to 1964, brother Malcolm abrasively attacked and name-called other leaders whose ideology he disagreed with. It was not uncommon for him to call leaders like Roy Wilkins or Dr. King “handkerchief heads,” Uncle Toms,” or “Sell-outs.” Prior to his departure from the Nation of Islam, he began to articulate the need for a Black United Front in his “Message to the Grassroots” speech. Upon leaving the Nation of Islam, he again articulated our need to work together, and actually apologized for making personal attacks against other Black leaders:
I’m not out to fight other Negro leaders or organizations. We must find a common approach, a common solution, to a common problem. As of this minute, I’ve forgotten everything bad that the other leaders have said about me, and I pray they can also forget the many bad things I’ve said about them.
Lastly, Brother Malcolm encouraged critique, questioning, and continuing to learn and grow:
“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success. ”
Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth.
All of us should be critics of each other. Whenever you can’t stand criticism you can’t grow.
In conclusion, the recent controversy surrounding Umar Johnson are much bigger than him. The Black conscious community has some serious soul-searching and studying to do and equally serious choices to make. Will we expand our views to make them consistent with ethical leadership and the revolutionary principle of total liberation, or will we remain imprisoned by rigid and reactionary views? Will we continue and improve upon the legacies of our beloved leaders whose names we readily invoke, or will we fall victim to their same issues? Will we become part of the solution, or remain a stubborn and backward part of the problem? The choice to resolve our contradictions, is ours.
P.S. One more thing. We need to critique the RBG concept. Being “Gangsta” is NOT revolutionary.
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 protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.