My dear people, the time has come to “keep it real” with respect to the heavily conflicted and contradictory Black leaders and spokespeople in our community. Liberation requires that we both build and destroy, create and eliminate.
In terms of “building,” we must do the important work of building independent institutions, raising consciousness, and organizing our people to do the work necessary to solve our problems. With respect to “destroying,” we must dismantle oppressive systems that subjugate us, and simultaneously identify and eliminate our own self-defeating attitudes and behaviors.
Brother Malcolm brilliantly summarized these efforts: “Wake up, Clean, up and Stand up.” Many dedicated and authentic Black people around this country consistently do the work of helping Black folk wake up (by raising their consciousness) and stand up (by organizing, protesting and building the independent institutions we so desperately need).
Unfortunately too many of us want to turn Malcolm’s three-part process into only two parts: Waking up and standing up. When it comes to cleaning up, we leave much to be desired. We can courageously and fiercely challenge white supremacy and those who support it. But we fall short when it comes to challenging ourselves to be better and do better. Why is this so problematic? Because when we skip or dismiss this crucial step in the process of liberating ourselves, we actually sabotage and compromise our entire liberation process. Bitter, insecure, envious, arrogant, fraudulent and self-serving individuals spoil our best efforts by causing disharmony, division, confusion, and ugly in-fighting.
This problem becomes compounded when so-called leaders and spokespeople – presumably our most informed and experienced community folk – exhibit these qualities and provoke their negative outcomes. What precisely am I referring to?
Arrogance: A leader is first and foremost, a servant of his/her people. Their role as a leader is not self-appointed, but conferred upon them by the people based on meeting certain qualifications. When an individual forgets this and begins to see themselves as THE movement rather than a part of the movement, they automatically invalidate their leadership.
A leader or public speaker for Black people should never act as if they are entitled to our money or support. We earn such things through hard work, effectiveness and productivity. If a person has not produced or effectively challenged anything or has not improved the quality of our lives in meaningful ways, they are no more deserving of our time, work, support or money than con artists or beggars. As you will note, anything we give such folk is at our discretion, but they are not entitled to it, and therefore cannot demand or expect it! Lastly, when a prominent spokesperson, public speaker or leader blatantly violates leadership protocol or the mandates of leadership, he/she should be mature and considerate enough to apologize for their behavior, indicate a desire to improve, and specify a plan for improvement. Failure to do this implies arrogance of the highest order, since we know that everyone makes mistakes or exercises poor judgement. This also implies that the person in question thinks him/herself superior to the rest of us.
Disrespect: Any leader in our community should be righteously indignant. This means he/she should be angry about the horrors we experience daily in courtrooms, boardrooms, classrooms, prisons, and in our neighborhoods. However, they organize, study, fight, and speak out from a place of loving Black people and wanting us to be safe, healthy, intelligent, competent, and empowered. I’m hearing and reading too many individuals speaking to Black people who support or disagree with them, employing vile and profane language, name-calling, and personal attacks. This is not the behavior of a leader, but a deranged gang/cult leader or dictator. Publicly referring to our people as “niggers,” “hos,” “bitches,” or the like is unacceptable. People who disrespect us in such manners are not deserving of our support in any way, nor should we defend their disrespect.
Lack of Transparency: The same goes for individuals who come to us for money and don’t have the decency or inclination to be transparent (to inform us of how our money will be used, report how much money is raised or attempt to silence or disregard our valid and intelligent questions. If someone conducts business effectively, there is no reason to hide anything. If a leader refuses to answer your questions, or be held accountable, we should refuse to support or defend them until they do….
Dishonesty: We should be able to trust those in leadership positions. This means we should trust their abilities, intentions, and stated objectives. This can only occur when such people are honest and straightforward with us. Small “innocent” lies slowly morph into larger and more dangerous forms of dishonesty. If someone repeatedly refuses to be honest with us, they are by definition, untrustworthy and they fall into the category of “fraud” or “con artist.”
Messiah Complex: There is no “king,” sole leader or spokesman in the Black Liberation Movement. There has never been (notwithstanding those arrogantly chosen for us by our enemies) and there will never be. We have a plethora of issues and interests that no one man or woman can effectively address or resolve. Some people may be more articulate, knowledgeable, accomplished or charismatic than others, but the idea of a messiah is absurd and only interesting as a character in a science fiction movie or mythology. Just as it took networks of people to put us in this condition, it will take teams and networks of our own to liberate us.
Any authentic person advocating for us knows this. Rather than craving spotlight and attention for themselves, they share responsibilities, network, and promote collaborative and inclusive leadership. They identify and prepare others to assume leadership roles. Study the Abolitionist, Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Arts, Feminist, Anti-War, and African Independence Movements and this point becomes abundantly clear. Individuals die but organizations and institutions can live much longer. We need millions of activists, organizers, intellectuals and “leaders” working together in an organized fashion to have any hope of liberating our minds and bodies.
Impulsive and Non-Strategic: Our most effective leaders throughout history were people with the ability to strategize and think critically. They were decisive when they needed to be, but they did not say or do things without adequate planning. Social movements require planning and blueprints just like businesses and cities do. Individuals that make hasty decisions or articulate the “what” without considering the “why” or “how” set themselves and us up for defeat, disappointment and failure. We should be suspicious of people who endeavor to accomplish monumental tasks with half-baked ideas and inadequate plans. We should not extend our trust to people who can’t explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, or who fail to provide adequate timelines and evidence of a competent team backing them.
Rejection of Constructive Criticism/valid critique: I’ve written about this important red flag in a previous article. In another article I wrote:
We employ legitimate and principled criticism in a preventative manner: It helps us to identify and guard against fraud, opportunism and disingenuous personalities. For example, good critique, which often involves research and investigation, can prevent people from investing hard-earned money in scams or scam artists.
Criticism is not simply reserved for shady characters or ventures, however. There are times when sincere people with authentic motivations make errors in judgement or handle a situation inappropriately. Corrective critique helps us to improve or enhance our plans or ideas and make us more effective. Empowered people strive for excellence. Legitimate corrective critique empowers us to develop more accurate analysis, more effective strategies, and more relevant or useful objectives. We can learn and grow even from the opinions of foes or outsiders. But we have a special mandate to welcome and respond to valid critique from those we serve, who we ask to support us, and who make it possible for us to earn a living.
Authentic and progressive leaders not only welcome critique, they have a circle of wise and experienced mentors with whom they regularly consult for advice and constructive criticism. I personally don’t trust the competence of a leader that has no such cabinet of qualified advisers. It means he or she relies solely on their own judgement and experiences, which is a sure of immaturity and arrogance.
In conclusion, I strongly urge you to consider these danger signs when evaluating any speaker, leader or activist in our community. Doing so may save you untold amounts of time, money and ill-feelings. Doing so in a larger sense, will also help us go forward rather than backwards as a people. Given these stakes, I urge us to challenge and expose such behaviors/attitudes when we see them. Sometimes our challenge and critique can help a hypocritical and self-absorbed person change their ways and become more effective. If this doesn’t occur, then maybe our efforts will cause people to remove such folk from their positions, or refuse supporting them.
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.