Who are We? A Question of Identity

I’d like to think that my essays/articles have meaning or resonate with a wide circle of reasonable people. However, my unashamed focus is always on helping Black people in particular to “Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up!” 

Throughout my life, I’ve addressed in one way or another- via activism or scholarship – the issues of economics, politics, incarceration, police brutality, fratricide, Black Nationalism, corporate exploitation, nation building and other pertinent issues to the Black community.

It is truly difficult to rank such issues in order of significance. And yet the issue of who we are as a people and how we identify ourselves, is surely one of the most important, given that it directly impacts all of the others.

On Monday April 11, 2016 Harlem Liberation School will host a panel discussion to address this issue of group identity. Our three panelists have distinguished themselves as resources on this topic, through intense study, writing, presenting and lived experience, or any combination of the above. While all three were/are “God Body,” or adherents of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, each panelist brings a slightly different perspective to the identity discussion.

Brother Laheen Allah, learned much of his information while enduring more than a decade of captivity in the U.S. prison system. While others spent vasts amounts of time in other pursuits, Laheen educated himself in the library, and gained an impressive knowledge of sociology, law,  history and psychology. He is now working to finish a book on criminology in which he offers his own theories about why Black people commit crime, along with methods to rehabilitate them. 

Born M. Allah, a highly respected community organizer and educator, teaches biology from a Black consciousness perspective, owns a music entertainment group, and approaches the question of identity from a historical and  scientific perspective. 


sharif debateBrother Sharif Anael Bey, a member of Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America, is a longtime martial arts practitioner/instructor, and founder of “Ali’s Men,” a group of lecturers, researchers and writers around the country that specialize in Moorish Science history. More recently, Sharif has distinguished himself as a much sought after debater on the topics of history and identity. One day before the panel discussion at Harlem Liberation School, Sharif will debate the popular Afrocentric street scholar Brother Reggie, at the National Black Theater in Harlem.

Clearly, we cannot underestimate the importance of group identity. For this reason, and because we want to avoid the insults and combativeness that often occur in the street debate culture, Harlem Liberation School is proud to host a conversation on April 11, 2016 focusing on identity.

We expect all panelists to present their perspectives on the subject, support their perspective with facts and reason, and do so in the spirit of respect and community learning.

I should emphasize that our objective is to challenge and broaden our community understanding about how we identify ourselves, the factors that constitute individual and group identity, and ways to identify ourselves that are empowering and self-determining. I do hope you will consider attending this free event.

My own thoughts on this subject are as follows:

1. Identity is an issue of self-determination. This means we have the power to choose how we identify ourselves. Regardless of how well we argue our point, or our own beliefs, the bottom line is that everyone has the power to choose how they define themselves.

2. Ideally, our choice concerning identity should be informed and empowering. We can certainly choose to identify ourselves as “Thots,” “Gangsters,” “Bitches,” or “Niggas.” The questions then become: Are these identities empowering? Do they liberate us or contribute to enslaving us? Do they represent the best of ourselves, or the ugliest factions of our character? Do they produce and encourage confidence and love, or humiliation and self-hate? These questions and their implications are amplified for we Black descendants of Africa who’ve been systematically taught that we are nothing, have nothing, and can do nothing. I believe that we should identify ourselves in ways that unite us, benefit us and empower us. Identify is a matter of choice, and is relative, but it is by no means neutral. When we identify ourselves, we consciously or unconsciously align ourselves with some things, and detach ourselves from others. It is in fact, a political choice.

3. Several factors impact how we identify ourselves. We can choose to identify ourselves based on geography/place of origin, language, race, gender, religion, and political ideology to name a few. The issue of identity is not simplistic, but complicated. This also implies that identity is not fixed but fluid, which goes back to the first point. This is why we are advised not to impose our views of identity, but to educate people on the issue so they can make informed and empowered choices.

4. We should be careful about adopting the identities of those who subjugate us. At the risk of insulting some brothers and sisters (which is not my intention), I don’t understand why we identify ourselves as Muslim, Christian, American, French, or any other designation of our enemies who imposed these identities upon us. These identities are not neutral; they come with values, and a imperialist history replete with colonization, forced conversion, and persecution. In the case of religion for example, we must stop erasing historical record. These major religions some of us subscribe to, in fact, stole much of their mythology and doctrine from African civilizations then distorted them. These religions also work to serve and benefit white supremacy. These religions were not indigenous to ancient Africa; They were imposed upon us, often at the penalty of death. 

5. I interchangeably identify myself as “African” and/or “Black.” “People of Color” is a vague term born from the politics of multiculturalism. It does not unite people around a common experience. “African-American” is a compromised term that attempts to fuse our African origin with an American nationality. But I do not view myself as “American.” That red, white, and blue flag and those representing it, did everything imaginable to mistreat, exploit and murder us. Africa is our motherland from which we were snatched and dispersed all over the world. It connects us to a rich land base and even richer history and culture of values and practices. “Black” refers to our phenotype, color or race. It is the essence from which all other hues come. It is genetically dominant, and an all-encompassing term we can use to unify our people around the world. However, despite what I believe, I still recognize that our people have to choose identity for themselves.

6. We may never be able to determine a historical identity with precision. Are we Moors, Kemites, Hebrews, Asiatics, Muslims? The answer is not definitive. Because of lost or destroyed historical records, and contemporary limitations of archaeology, it may be impossible to say with precision who we are historically. We can say with authority that we are the original people of the Earth that created civilizations which have benefitted all of humanity. We can say that our people have been among the world’s most creative, influential and underappreciated. We can say that we are some of the world’s most resilient people, having survived and overcome the most horrific and enduring forms of oppression. Perhaps those realizations might suffice for now. Whatever identity we claim should make us loving toward each other, unified, productive and confident, and help us to be purposeful, forward-thinking and powerful. 


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. He is the founder and coordinator of Harlem Liberation School.

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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