Mwatabu S Okantah
When? Is Now!
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Until the killing of black men, black mother’s
sons, becomes as important to the rest of the
country as the killing of a white mother’s sons,
we who believe in freedom cannot rest….
I am a soon to be 68-year old black man—a husband, a father and a grandfather. I have looked down the barrel of more than one Police white man’s gun, each time looking into the fear in their eyes. I have been profiled, “driving while black.” Like my parents before me and their parents before them and their parents before them, my wife and I have had to teach our children how to make their way in what is still, “the white man’s world.” We have to teach our children that we have never been the people you see portrayed in the mainstream American media. There will never be a time in this country, when black people will not have to teach our children what it means to be black.
American cities have been burning, and, once again, America only sees black people when we are framed nightly on TV screens wreaking absolute havoc in the streets. This nation only sees us when we literally leap out of white people’s racial nightmares. Yes, America is seeing us once again, but, this time, will America SEE US? Will white people be quiet and listen? As too many Americans wonder why, the politicians, the civic and religious leaders struggle to provide answers. Even as they admit to the realities of black people’s unbridled fury, too many so-called leaders are loathed to concede the cavernous depths of the heartache that has revealed itself over the last several days.
The frustration and the pain are Ancestral. We are descended from people who refused to die. This bottomless hurt is centered in the people that survived being kidnapped, that survived the packed dungeons in places like Ghana’s Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, that survived the infamous Middle Passage; people that survived American plantations, that endured the reality of “second class” citizenship under the jack boots of Jim Crow. Black voices have always spoken truth to power. Frederick Douglass warned, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Another generation is burning with the same old rage, and America’s leaders are bankrupt. As we watched people set fire to police vehicles and burn down businesses, too few leaders are willing to acknowledge the degree to which living in impoverished neighborhoods reminds people daily of the conditions this nation is so willing to overlook. This is a nation that embraced chattel slavery and a pernicious racial segregation as the law of the land. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois pointed out, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the color-line remains the proverbial elephant in the room. He forewarned, “Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration….” This is deeper than the distraction of Donald Trump, but the MAGA white mentality he represents is real. It is on this very level that white people are being forced to deal with this racism thing among themselves. Only white people can resolve this toxic situation they have created.
As we watched peaceful demonstrations degenerate into violence and chaos in cities all over the country, I wondered if mainstream America is willing, finally, to take a hard look at the true history of just how this nation became great? It would be disingenuous to ignore the racial progress that has been achieved in this country. I am descended from maternal grandparents that escaped a white-hot South Carolina in 1925. My grandmother lived to see four of her grandchildren graduate from college. I am the son of factory workers who saw their son become a published poet and an Associate Professor at Kent State University. I have seen three of my own daughters attain college degrees; one with a PhD and another finishing her MA.
I would also argue the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States could not and did not signal a “post-racial” phase in this nation’s development. Yet, my experiences performing my poetry before predominantly white audiences, in collaboration with the Cavani String Quartet, have taught me there are genuinely kind-hearted and sensitive white Americans. However, the emergence of Donald Trump as President is their true generational test. The decent, “I am not a racist” white people are being challenged to stand up in the face of an irrational Obama-backlash that is determined to “take America back.”
How white Americans see black people, as well as other peoples of color, actually provides a window into how they prefer to see themselves. It is now time to cultivate, not only a thorough, but a critical understanding of the psychology of whiteness that has shaped this society and the world. Europeans and peoples of European descent have literally terrorized the planet into submission in the name of civilizing the various peoples of color they determined to be “savages.” No one seems willing to speak to why so many white people feel the pathological need to arm themselves. There would be no United States and no Europe, as we have come to know them without guns. It is time to unmask the real nature of white people’s fears and their inner desires.
To only focus attention on the more extreme expressions of white supremacy is too convenient. It allows mainstream Americans, who continue to benefit from a willfully ignorant white-privilege centered way of life, to throw their hands up in shock and to disdain any responsibility for the collateral damage inflicted on the communities of color living just beyond their tranquil, suburban neighborhoods. The black experience in America is rife with stories that chronicle the inhumanities white people will accept to maintain their American Dream standard of living. In the last years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. sounded an alarm, “There is such a time as too late.”
Ironically, people quote King to decry the current uprising, but not the King that was branded an “enemy” of the White House by President Johnson. The King who acknowledged, “For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, ‘all here and now.’ I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”
They are not remembering the King who wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.” In Donald Trump’s America, the maxim, “My ignorance is greater than your knowledge” reigns supreme.
Many of the young people rioting in the streets are the children or the grandchildren of the young people that booed King in the years before his death in 1968. As demonstrations take place in London or in Berlin, the talking-heads are not referring to the King that remarked, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”
They are definitely not invoking the King that sent the following message to Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, after he was murdered, “… I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view, and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.” For those who still vilify Malcolm, they ignore the sentiment he shared with Coretta Scott King just before his death in 1965, “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”
For all of the people struggling for answers, if you are finally ready to listen, the
answers that have always been there, are still there. Even Thomas Jefferson, in a private
moment, wrestled with his troubled conscience when he admitted, “… I tremble for my
country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever….” It appears the alternative that Malcolm X alluded to has arrived. This lurching forward, however, is not “like the 60s.” History does not repeat itself, but it can pass by us if we miss it in its forever process of becoming.
Ella Baker foreshadowed the phase of the movement we are witnessing being born before our eyes. She said, “I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight.... My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”