One hundred years ago the great black intellectual and activist, W.E.B. DuBois, published what was to be seen as a seminal analysis on the struggle for social justice and identity for the descendants of African slaves. In The Souls of Black Folks, DuBois reflects on whether it is possible for descendants of Africans to find a place in American society, that is, to become African-Americans. DuBois writes, The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
Ninety years after DuBois wrote those words, black political philosopher Cornel West reflected similarly when he wrote in his book entitled Race Matters, Black people have always been Americas wilderness in search of a promised land.
While this existential dilemma has taken many forms over the years, one manifestation of the struggle of two identities is manifested in the various strategies used to seek social and economic justice. Black activists who offer a radical critique and approach to American society often oppose black activists whose hold an accommodationist philosophy and faith in the ability for a modicum of justice to be attained within the American civil society. This struggle has been played out in various ways throughout American history. During the civil rights struggle, these two approaches became a struggle between integrationists and separatists. The civil rights era saw the rise and dominance of the integrationist approach. Thus, the main struggle within black America since that period, has been how best to integrate into the American mainstream. The two dominant approaches became a battle between black neo-conservatives, such as political commentator Armstrong Williams, cultural critic Stanley Crouch, and Rep. J.C. Watts; and black liberals, such as political commentator Juan Williams, cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Left outside of the mainstream of discussion are those who reject American society and offer radical political and social analyses. While black nationalist leaders such as Louis Farrakhan continue to amaze the establishment with their ability to organize the disenfranchised masses, organizations such as the Nation of Islam have been unable to move outside of the margins of black society. While social critics such as Bell Hooks and Manning Marable continue to be read by many, their influence remains limited to black academic and intellectual circles. For radicals both within and outside of the black communities an important question is how is it possible to build alliances with the black communities that advance a radical vision for justice and peace? When the dominant forces within the black communities for social and economic advancement remain aligned to capitalism it appears difficult to design effective strategies to build an inclusive radical movement that captures the hearts and minds of the black community. It appears that many radicals who choose to work within the system are co-opted.
Today many younger black activists in Oregon wonder why the voices of an earlier generation are strangely silent. Organizations which one time were on the cutting edge of social change , such as the Black United Front, do not appear to be on the cutting edge of social and political mobilization. Younger activists ask, does the struggle to maintain an organizations viability lead to social compromise (corporate grants remain a major source of funding for many community organizations)? Many of these activists of the hip hop generation have formed new alliances and organizations such as Sisters in Action for Power to fill the void left by the generation that came of age in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps a third option is possible: strategic positioning within the mainstream.
Since the time that the first Africans were kidnapped, the spirit of resistance has continued to reside in the consciousness of African people. The form of resistance has taken the forms of non-cooperation, open rebellion, or simply biding time. What appears as submitting to the powers has often been a means of waiting for the opportune time to resist. There remains within the souls of black folks the spark of freedom. That which ignites the spark into a flame depends upon the existential situation. The recent uproar by black conservatives over the racist remarks of Sen. Trent Lott reveals that even within the most accommodating sector of the community, there remains a passion for liberation. We must be aware of how to ignite the fire. This requires humility by radicals both within and outside of the community. Our rhetoric that the oppressed must lead the fight for liberation, must be matched by a genuine willingness to allow the oppressed to lead. Those outside of the immediate community can, and must, offer support and advice. However, the road to liberation and advice. However, the road to liberation must be led by the oppressed.
On practical terms, this may mean joining mainstream black civic organizations and trusting in the insights and experiences of the community. Perhaps we should examine the division we make between social service and social change organizations.
In Portland, black social services agencies such as the Urban League of Portland have served as forces for social change. After the second World War, Portland Urban League was in the forefront for open housing. More recently, the Urban League was the first established black social service agency which had an HIV prevention program and directly confronted homophobia in the black community.
For the oppressed, social service organizations may be a means for social change. In 1898, at a speech to the National Women Suffrage Association, Mary Church Terrell, President of the National Association of Colored Women stated, And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal change. Traditional organizations have been and will continue to be means by which black people organize and begin to transform American society.
However, this should not be seen as a call to silence or passivity. The challenge is to remind ourselves and our leaders of our most cherished ideals and to hold us all accountable. It means a willingness to enter into honest and open dialogue, and to work with those whose agendas appear to be different than our own. We need to challenge our leaders and organizations to move beyond narrow self-interest and to incorporate an internationalist revolutionary perspective in their analyses. It means establishing progressive organizations which embody our ideals and inviting others to join us. But none of this can be done unless a foundation of trust has been laid, and this takes time. Simply put, it requires community building.
The problem of the twentieth century has become the problem of the twenty-first century. Social justice and identity remain elusive for the descendants of African slaves in the United States. Yet the vision for freedom will continue to enlighten and empower the souls of black folks
The Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and who has been active in glbt, peace, and social justice organizing. He is a self described afrocentric evangelical catholic queer socialist pacifist activist.
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Last Updated: January 29, 2003