This piece is the second in a special On Leadership series exploring different facets of the state of black leadership today.
Somewhere between the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King and the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, the ascension of Louis Farrakhan, and the rhetorical flourishes and marches of Al Sharpton, well-meaning Americans of all stripes got lulled into the notion that we could only have a few black mouthpieces at a time. And that is simply the farthest thing from the truth.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece titled “Black Leadership Is Dead” for Ebony , the venerable magazine that has documented African American life, culture and politics since the 1940s. As you can imagine, the essay caused a firestorm in black circles.
But it’s not so much that black leadership is dead, as that our standard notion of it is no longer useful.
It may look as though Black America has fallen into a terrible rut around our leadership today, but that’s in part because a faulty image—that of the singularly powerful national black leader—has been perpetuated out of the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet Dr. King was never the lone leader of Black America in his day. There was Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Malcolm X, Ella Baker and a wide range of women and men of various ages and backgrounds.
A quick scan of American history finds many other national black leaders coexisting in the same eras, be it Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass during the abolitionist movement, or Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois during the anti-racism efforts around the turn of the 20th century. But in the 1970s and 1980s, as integration and black class division began taking root, as the devastating effects of drugs began to plague our inner cities, and as conservatives began trying to erase the very minimal civil rights victories we achieved, black leadership became not only rooted in racial protest, but unable to be self-reflective or self-critical. Embarrassingly, black leaders latched onto this flawed notion of the need for a single national figurehead. They increasingly found themselves at each other’s throats as they jockeyed to be the grand poobahs of Black America.
In spite of this trend, or perhaps because of it, more and more younger black Americans began abandoning traditional approaches, traditional organizations and even the black church as a visionary force. Aided by civil rights legislation and a desertion of the black underclass by local governments and, yes, upwardly mobile blacks as they left urban American centers, the chasm between the black professional class and the black poor got even wider. Although we’ve never been a monolithic group, there were some very basic things we held in common when we were forced, because of segregation, to live in the same communities. Increasingly, with a fragmented set of problems or concerns, the desire (much less the possibility) of a single national black leader decreased.
As someone born and raised in a black ghetto, but who is also college educated and solidly middle class today, it has been surreal at times to travel between these two extremes and hear the very different perspectives on race and racial progress—or lack thereof—in America. Many of my friends and family members in America’s ’hoods feel they are under constant siege, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, many of my friends and colleagues in the middle class either believe we are living in a post-black or post-racial America, or simply do not know what to do to support African Americans who are less fortunate.
Yet the truth is, this is not a post-racial America. When Barack Obama became the first black president in American history, he unquestionably upended the model of the single national black leader fueled by racial protest. But we do still need the racial protest model, as evidenced by the record number of black and Latino males still stopped and frisked by New York City police. President Obama’s election simply shows that multiple types of black leadership can and should exist. Like David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York City, and Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of a Southern state since Reconstruction, Obama is part of a wave of black elected officials who don’t talk race, except out of necessity, and who have been able to secure a large bloc of white and other non-black supporters as race-neutral black leaders.
Still, as evidenced by African Americans’ massive support of Barack Obama in 2008, the black community continues to hold onto this idea of “black leadership” because race and racism continue to exist and matter in America. Entrenched in this construct, many of us thought Obama had suddenly become the de facto leader of Black America. As a result, there’s an unnecessary sense of dissatisfaction: In the afterglow of President Obama’s historic victory, I have heard the grumblings nationwide from myriad African Americans that the president is not doing enough for his own.
The country at large compounds that problem, with a mass media culture and leaders from other sectors who believe, myopically, that there must be a few national black voices or organizations to represent some 40 million black folks in the United States. This search for a national leader of the black community does a great disservice to the influential young African Americans who’ve done powerful activism, in some form, for a number of years. They hail from fields ranging from education (Dr. Zoe Spencer, Steve Jackson) to media (Melissa Harris Perry, Marc Lamont Hill) to technology (Malaney Hill, Tracey Cooper).
You may not know most of these names, whether because the media does not pay them much attention, or because of the long shadow cast by President Obama, or because people both within and beyond the black community are still on the lookout for national black leadership when that model no longer fits our needs. Perhaps that is a good thing, because the attention that comes with it has become so addictive that many aspiring black spokespersons have allowed themselves to be reduced to catchy soundbytes rather than practicing what Dr. King called “a relevant ministry,” for the people, not themselves.
I for one could not tell you who the national leaders are of Jewish America, or Latino America or Chinese America. And maybe that’s ok. Enough with all the celebrity and pomp and circumstance around finding the nation’s next household-name for the black community. Time for black leaders to realize we need many names to help lead many communities.
Kevin Powell is an activist and the author of 11 books, including his newest, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays. He was also a 2008 and 2010 Democratic candidate for Congress in New York City, and is co-founding the organization BK Nation later this year. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell.