originally published July 2010
As a people, African Americans have continuously struggled with the achievement of economic, political and social empowerment here in the United States. Our lack of success in this objective has been due largely to our inability to form a cohesive and collaborative body as a vehicle towards attainment of this goal. Historically, we have been a people that have been very divided. This division goes as far back as the motherland when brothers sold brothers for their own personal gain into slavery. This is something many African Americans do not like to admit. We rather tell the tale that the “white man” went into Africa and took humans kicking and screaming from their families and transported them into chattel slavery here in the “New World.” However, anyone who is honest will admit that there were Africans selling Africans to the Portuguese and other slave traders for a profit.
During slavery, African slaves in America continued to be divided in terms of those who wanted freedom at all cost and those who were content to be oppressed. We have heard stories told of Harriet Tubman putting a pistol to the heads of many slaves as a means of forcing them to choose freedom from the slavery on the plantation. It is just absolutely incredible to think that someone would be more interested in the welfare of an individual than that individual himself. We have read the accounts of others like Nat Turner and Demark Vesey who tried unsuccessfully to liberate themselves and others only to be betrayed by the same individuals they fought to save. Many of us have watched Alex Haley’s movie entitled “Roots” and other movies of slavery whereby we have seen one slave being brutalized by the master’s hammer while other slaves aimlessly looked on. All of these cases sadly demonstrate a chronicly pathetic phenomenon amongst us as a people.
During the early 1900s, this division amongst African American leadership continued with the bitter fights between Jamaican born Marcus Garvey and American born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Garvey, leader of the Pan-African Movement, advocated for blacks to become a self-reliant people with their own government while Dubois advocated for blacks to integrate into the American political and economical life. Dubois also advocated for an intellectual elite, which he called the “talented tenth” to provide leadership for the black race. Garvey advocated for black independence. He was the leader of the black power movement, which advocated for black pride, self-respect and self-reliance amongst black people. Garvey believed that the working class could achieve economic and social capital through the capitalist system whereas Dubois believed in a more Marxist approach. Garvey felt that Dubois was being used as a tool by whites to oppress blacks. Dubois was the publisher of the Crisis Newspaper. When Garvey visited the paper and found that there were no blacks working at the paper (that in fact Dubois was the only African American at the Crisis) Garvey became convinced that Dubois was working against the black race.
The public fight between these two black leaders became ugly at times. W.E.B. Du Bois called Garvey the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race — either “a lunatic or a traitor.” He said Garvey “suffered from serious defects of temperament and training” and described him as ” a little, fat, black man, ugly…with a big head.” Garvey countered by calling Du Bois the Negro “misleader” and said Du Bois was “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro…a mulatto. Why in fact,” Garvey wrote, “he is a monstrosity.” ” (PBS Online – American Experience)
In the early 1960, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seemed to pick up where Du Bois and Garvey left off in the continued struggle. Malcolm X’s approach seemed to somewhat mirror that of Garvey, while King’s approach seemed to mirror that of D.E.B. Du Bois. Like Garvey and Du Bois, their predecessors, they both wanted to achieve economical, political and social empowerment for blacks, but they couldn’t agree. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., approach seemed to have won out with the signing of the Civil Rights Act by Lyndon Johnson on August 8, 1964. The Civil Rights Act put a legal end to segregation and legally implemented integration. However, the struggle for economic, political and social empowerment is yet to be achieved.
Today, many blacks have made it to the elite Dubois inspired “talented tenth” whereby they seem to have achieved political, social and economic power. However, the vast majority of blacks have not been able to share in this wonderful world of this “talented tenth” elite. Sadly, the untalented 90 percent, or should I say, unfortunate 90 percent is still in a state of political, economical and social bondage. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), in 2008, 34% of black children lived in poverty. This rate is almost double the 18 percent of children who lived in poverty nationally. In this same year, 2008, statistics show that there were 846,000 black males that were incarcerated in prisons and jails throughout the country. This number made up 40.2 percent of the entire prison population and 65 percent of these black inmates were between the ages of 20 and 39. (http://www.numberof.net/number-of-black-men-in-prison/)
Today, African Americans have certainly been “integrated” into the American system. However, many blacks are far from being self-reliant. We are permitted to eat at the same lunch counters as whites. But, we have not been able to own any of these lunch counters because we still lack the economic and political capital with which to do so. Had W.E.B Du Bois joined forces with Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X joined forces with Dr. King, we may have achieved both integration and self-reliance. As a people, we can no longer continue to blame “the white man” for our disunity or lack of collaboration amongst ourselves. Many of us are familiar with the adage, which says “United We Stand, But Divided We Fall.” We are a people that have fallen down due to our own doing and we must pick ourselves up. If we are to survive as a people, it is imperative that we learn to join forces and work together for an agenda that benefits all of us rather than 10 percent while the other 90 percent perishes.