Understanding Black Consciousness


I have presented at several panel discussions around the topic of “Black Consciousness.” The term – like many – has become cliche and oversimplified.

Naturally, any term we use with such regularity has great meaning for us. The key is to decipher that meaning clearly.

Simply put, “Consciousness” refers to being alert and aware. When Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao in their fourth fight, Pacquiao was un-conscious. At that moment and for a few moments later, the Filipino boxer was unresponsive, his senses shut down and he could not accurately sense his environment.

When a person is in a comatose state, he or she is in a prolonged and indefinite state of unconsciousness. The person is unaware of outside events and cannot respond to their external environment. You can tickle a knockout victim or comatose person and he/she will not move, giggle or say “Stop.” Nor do either of these persons know where they are, what time it is, or their own name and address.

Conversely, Black consciousness describes a state of awareness and vitality among Black people. Those with it know their name and address: who they are and where they come from (identity). They are aware of their surroundings also. They know they live in a world, nation or city that is racist and that mistreats and devalues people like themselves. They also know that the laws or expectations held for others don’t apply to them equally.

For this reason, they are skeptical of the nation’s laws and of law enforcement officers. They are aware that they may likely face discrimination in the workforce, at the supermarket, and in various areas of human activity.

To some degree, conscious folk become reborn or “unplugged” from the propaganda, illusions and false education forced upon them since birth. View the clip from the Matrix below:

But consciousness is not simply about being alert; one is also responsive. Grope (hypothetically of course) an unconscious woman you are not intimately involved with, and she will offer no resistance and no response. Do the same to a woman who is conscious, and be prepared to duck or run!

Therefore, the second criteria of being conscious is that we respond or react to our environment appropriately or in our own best interests.

Knowing that the system of white supremacy miseducates, degrades, mistreats, imprisons, deprives and kills us, Black people with consciousness respond appropriately. We educate ourselves, develop pride in our culture and history, protect ourselves via legal or other means, and rally, protest, organize, build independent institutions and generally resist our mistreatment.

In other words, conscious Black people speak up, analyze and attempt to solve their problems, value their experiences and perspectives and give serious thought to the political and economic world around them. They are active agents of their liberation and empowerment!

Even in situations where outside oppression does not exist, conscious people still respond intelligently to their environment based on their proactive needs and interests.

Let us imagine that the U.S. system of public education did not have an agenda to dumb down our children, make them ultra-patriotic and sympathetic to imperialist policies, have them defend the empire through joining its military branches, or teach them to be compliant semi-skilled workers for corporations (you require a grand imagination indeed). If a disproportionate number of Black students failed to complete high school or were severely deficient in reading for example, conscious Black parents, educators and community leaders would determine this situation damaging to the future lives of Black children. Moreover, they would likely conduct their own investigations to determine why so many Black children were failing academically, and develop a number of interventions or remedies for this these problems.

How does a person become “conscious?

Everyone’s path to consciouness is unique; some experience and are personally affected by injustice or discrimination. Others become conscious as a result of his/ her studies. Many reach a level of consciousness from a combination of these factors or by observing/participating in an incident that profoundly moves them.

Consciousness has analytical and corrective dimensions

A brother or sister that has become conscious in a particular arena will by definition become analytical of people and developments in that arena, and ultimately, become involved in improving conditions, articulating the problem, exposing those

Malcolm X- A staunch proponent of Black Consciousness, he challenged Blacks to reexamine their standards of beauty and truth.

responsible for oppression, or organizing the oppressed.

There are many roles to play, and room enough to accommodate people with different skill sets, interests and opinions. Everyone is empowered to become involved as they deem fit and to become agents of change in his/her community.

We must also recognize that all theories are not accurate, all strategies are not effective, and all conscious people or projects are not genuine!!

A good way to think of consciousness is to think of it as a keen vision or ability to see power and oppression clearly and the willingness to become active in movements, projects or organizations to produce constructive change and social justice.

The movie “They Live” provides an excellent metaphor for becoming conscious. The main character finds a pair of shades, which change his vision, causing him to literally “see things differently” and more accurately than most people around him.

When he wears the glasses, he can see the truth behind things everyone else takes for granted. This is similar to how one feels as he/she develops consciousness and begins to see with new eyes….. In similar fashion, true consciousness leads people to transform their thinking, habits, and values for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their communities. If you are not transformed and renewed for the better, you may be informed, but you are most definitely not conscious.


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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