Maya Angelou and Malcolm X

Black Americans Wearing African Clothing Is NOT Cultural Appropriation

Maya Angelou and Malcolm X

Maya Angelou and Malcolm X in Ghana

The internet has unfortunately become a cesspool for the most simplistic arguments to be sensationalized. The latest finger pointing bandwagon phrase to hit the net is “cultural appropriation.” It’s being slaughtered, with a slew of would be  writers refusing to actually research the meaning of the term before tossing it around carelessly. So is the case with a recent article declaring, that Black Americans were culturally appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. It goes without saying, that this bold assertion is as deprived of history, logic and critical analysis as “reverse racism.”

Part I: Let’s begin with the definition of appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes, claims and establishes itself the creator of the cultural heritage and artifacts of a minority and or marginalized culture thereby erasing the history of the marginalized culture.

In Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies of a Social Logic in Literary Form, African American studies professor Ashraf H. A. Rushdy describes appropriation and how it operates:

Something gets appropriated by something else when a productive or expressive form or practices, let’s say jazz or blues or agricultural methods for growing rice, develops within one disempowered cultural group but gets used by and enriches only or mostly another empowered cultural group. The distinction between cultural groups has to do most emphatically with each group’s relationship to power, controlling the means of material production and controlling the means to mental production.

Rushdy continues:

One of the marks of that relationship between an empowered and a disempowered cultural group is that the empowered group is able to take possession of those material products, physical labors, and cultural forms and practices developed within the disempowered group. Once that something is “appropriated” it no longer functions to enrich materially or to empower socially those within whose cultural group that something developed. (p. 175)

Using Rushdy’s explanation, Black Americans as African descendants are not appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. The oppressive power dynamics, the enrichment that excludes African cultures, the means of controlling the material production of African clothing on the part of Black Americans is non-existent. Nor can Black American power dynamics with African cultures be compared with the power dynamics of colonial power structures that stifled Africa’s progress as was outlined in Guyanese Pan African scholar Walter Rodney’s, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Part II: Black History Is African History

The historical experience of Black Americans does not begin with slavery. It begins in Africa. This is a shocking plot twist to those wishing to disconnect Black Americans from African cultures. We did not emerge out of thin air, but are instead a mixture of African people of multiple ethnic groups predominantly from Western Africa. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery did not erase the cultural legacy of Black Americans anymore than colonialism erased the cultural legacy of African ethnic groups.

During the slave trade and chattel slavery the ancestors of Black Americans, Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbean people were often prevented from speaking their African languages and practicing their religions. Furthermore, the dominant Western culture demonized all aspects of Black African cultures. Still, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society and later the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787, which is to date one of the oldest Black American institutions in the United States of America.

They named it the “African” Methodist Episcopal Church for a reason. It was a reflection of how they viewed themselves in America. They spoke no African languages, they wore no African clothing because those things were not readily available to them. But they insisted on embracing everything about their heritage that they had access to.

Over the last 228 years, a lot of changes have taken place including the ability to reconnect with aspects of African cultures that were cut off by oppressive systems.

These reconnections are not without complications.

However, claiming that Black Americans are committing the same cultural appropriation as whites when wearing African clothing demonstrates a gross lack of basic level critical thinking skills. One can not compare attempts to reconnect to cultural origins with oppressive attempts to erase an ethnicity’s cultural legacy. Even if some Black Americans may not understand the full deeper religious meaning of various prints or tribal paints, that is completely different from seeking to erase the achievements and history of a culture’s artifacts, which is what cultural appropriation does.

Furthermore, the assumption that all Black Americans do not know the deeper meaning of various tribal prints or paints is without merit. This is especially the case due to the rising amount of African descendants converting to traditional African religions or at least bonding with various symbolic references from these religions. One can not assume, that the wearer does not know the meaning simply because they are Black American. It could be the case that they know the meaning and that’s why they wore it. It’s complicated, layered and not always executed properly, but still not appropriation.

Part III: Africa Is Not A Country, Blackness Does Not Exist In A Vacuum

Nkrumah and Dubois

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, both attended Lincoln University, the first degree granting Historically Black College in the U.S. Nkrumah, an avid Pan Africanist, often cited the interconnectedness among all members of the Pan African World, working closely with Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois. Nkrumah is well known for his vision of a unified Africa with strong linkages to the Pan African World. “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me,” said Nkrumah.

Making the statement that “if you do not belong to an African tribe, don’t wear tribal print,” is exclusionary to people that may not know the exact tribe of their family’s origin. It’s even furthermore complicated because as a mixed people, Black Americans actually come from many different tribes. Everyone does not have the privilege of knowing what tribes they come from, but they still carry the cultural heritage of those groups.

I was fortunate enough to trace my maternal lineage, with the help of’s DNA program. My own maternal ancestors are from the Tikar ethnic groups in modern day Cameroon. Does this mean that I suddenly became the spokesperson for all things Tikar? The answer is no. But it does mean that I have a cultural and ancestral connection that extends beyond the history of U.S. chattel slavery and any attempts to reconnect with that at best can be viewed as cultural appreciation or acculturation depending on my proximity to members of that ethnic group. The artistry and craftsmanship that my grandmother exhibited through her quilts, statues, paintings and instruments represent her heritage as a direct descendant of the Tikar people, even though she did not know she came from this ethnic group.

This can not and never will be cultural appropriation. You can not appropriate that which is your own.

Additionally, there are thousands of different types of African cultures and sub-groups. Ethnic groups on the continent and throughout the diaspora borrow from one another through cultural exchanges. Exchanging languages, religions, foods, musical styles and clothing. Members of various African ethnic groups often wear the tribal prints and jewelry of other ethnic groups simply based on liking the style. There is no reason Black Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Latinos should be excluded from this cultural exchange. Additionally, on the economic front, many marketplace sellers and African fashion designers would cringe at the thought of limiting their work to only within the confines of their tribe.

That’s not how this works.

Black Americans and other children of the African Diaspora are included in the Pan African cross-cultural process as evidenced by the spread of hip hop music throughout Africa and the creation of Rastafari communities in South Africa and Tanzania. These are both stylistic and religious exchanges that no reasonable person views as appropriation.

Part IV: Lack of Knowledge Affects Everyone, Not Just Black Americans

Miseducation and Eurocentric thinking taught through colonialism, slavery and Western education affects all members of the Pan African World in varying levels, not just Black Americans.

The need to assert authority over Africanity in the face of other African descendants is a pettiness that stems from the designed disenfranchisement of the Pan African world. It also unknowingly reaffirms anti-Black sentiments by denying the nuanced experiences and cultural heritages of all people of African descendant. Instead relying on a limited non-layered perspective of Africanity.

Additionally, the faux concern about Black American knowledge of African prints would be more believable if critics were offering classes and books that share the deeper meaning on various tribal prints.

Part V: We’ve been told the same lie.

The limited interaction between continental Africans and African descendants is highly influenced by western based miseducation and media (in both Africa and North America) that promotes anti-Blackness at every turn, leaving African descendants and Africans on the continent circling in an endless cycle of confusion and rage uselessly aimed at each another.

This leads some Black Americans to make illogical declarations like, “I’m Black Not African American,” as if Black Land is a thing that magically exists outside of Africa. Upon asking, when did they stop being African, the response will include some gibberish about not speaking an African language, not having a red carpet laid out for them when they went to Africa and the misguided belief that Jesse Jackson created the term “African American.”

No one has yet been able to answer Malcolm X’s question, “If a cat has kittens in an oven, does that make them biscuits?”

Meanwhile, some Africans will proclaim more pride in being French or British than Senegalese, Ghanaian or Nigerian. Upon asking, why they perceive Western cultures to be superior, the response will include a puzzling look as to why you don’t understand that everything white is just better.

We’ve all been told the same lie, that somehow being African is “less-than” believing that it is more refined to be disconnected from Africanity. This has lead to many of us needlessly tearing each other apart. And make no mistake, all levels of anti-Blackness around the world stems from the historical Eurocentric perspective that African people are subhuman.

As children, Black Americans often used heard the term, “African booty scratcher.” I was called African Booty Scratcher daily, being a little dark skinned Black girl with short nappy hair. This term was not reserved for African immigrants but for all dark-skinned children. Black children were reiterating the negative stereotypes of African people that surrounded us on a daily basis through media, the Western education system and older generations. And it hurt.

In fact, there is a meme floating around the net that says, “You called me an African Booty Scratcher in school. Now you’re wearing a dashiki.”

Yet few who circulate this meme will admit that their parents also held onto negative stereotypes of Black Americans and Jamaicans, often attempting to keep them away. Using their own derogatory terms to describe them.

Though this generation has more opportunities to form cross-cultural bonds than our parents, there are those among us that are harboring hurt. And turning this pain into a “you can’t share my toy attitude.” It’s time to grow up. We’re not on the playground anymore.

We are all hurting, because we’ve been taught to believe the same lies.

In Conclusion:

Black Americans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Black Canadians, Afro-Caribbeans, whatever you want to call us, are members of the Pan African family. Wearing African clothing and tribal print is more revolutionary and impactful than upholding any stereotypes, slurs or one writer’s shortsightedness.

Our progress depends on our interconnectedness.

Over 400 years ago, many of us were torn from the shores of our homelands in Africa. We were beaten for speaking our languages, shunned for our skin, raped, murdered and brutalized. Some of us tossed ourselves over the sides of ships in order to see freedom through death. We have witnessed our family members hanging from trees. We have survived a horror like no other and still have the unmitigated gall to walk around in 2015 with our tribal print and paint. Our ancestors are somewhere smiling.

Despite not being born in Africa, like Nkrumah proclaimed, Africa was born in us. Overthrowing the tools of oppressive systems, gaining self knowledge and reconnecting with our origins may not always be perfect or without growing pains. But it is not and never will be cultural appropriation.

It’s a layered, nuanced, complicated triumph.




I am a member of the North American Delegation of the 8th Pan African Congress. We are currently in the second phase of the 8th PAC. The North American delegation is hosting a planning session at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY this October. We’d love for you to attend. To be included on our mailing list email

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at Follow JAM @TweetingJAM and

What being let go from my job during Sandra Bland and #SayHerName taught me about diversity and inclusion.

Sandra Bland

Photo of Sandra Bland

Last month, I was suddenly and suspiciously let go from my job at a local media production company in Houston. Prior to being let go, I’d been in New York City for a couple of days hoping to retrieve the last of my things left there over a year ago.

While away, I received very few email correspondences from work, but since I had planned ahead, I assumed the non-communication was because I was out of town. I didn’t sweat it; I was actually eager to return to work. We were up for mid-year reviews and recently, two exciting projects had landed on my plate. I felt as if I could finally stretch my creative legs after six months of settling in. It had not been perfect, but I worked to be a team player and give everything I could.

The day I left New York City, I spoke to a partner to update them on my return to Houston and to find out when to expect my review. I was then emailed by another partner confirming the meeting time of 8:30am. Shortly after I arrived that morning, the partner got right to it and said, “We have to lay you off .“

I felt like someone had just slapped me. A layoff was the last thing I expected, but here they were, insisting that the decision was purely financial and expressing sympathy.

I pushed back with the details of a new hire starting that week and upcoming projects that I had recently pitched and was awarded. I mentioned the conversation about job security we had during my meeting only one week earlier, where I was assured that I was fine and had nothing to worry about.

Suddenly, I was being reminded that my work wasn’t “billable” and that projects were drying up. I remembered being told that summers were usually slow. I was confused. A sudden layoff just didn’t make sense to me. I asked if there was something else going on and got nothing. “It’s financial,” they repeated.

I cried. I shook. I left. “Downsizing” was the subject line of the email I received finalizing my termination.

I was bewildered. What could have transpired in the four days of my being in New York City that would constitute a layoff? How could the company suddenly need to lay me off without my knowing? I did work in the department that handled billing. I had nothing. Eventually, I began to consider the timing of my layoff.

I live and work 45-minutes away from Waller County, the place where Sandra Bland lost her life. I know I easily could have been Sandra Bland. I’ve driven to lots of different places for work in Southern Texas. Some places where my black woman’s body would be unwelcome and potentially destroyed, had I not had whiteness around to “protect” me. I’ve always been acutely aware of this fact, but Sandra Bland’s death made me ache with it.

The day more details about Sandra Bland’s death were revealed, I was leaving for New York City, so I was not in the office. The office where I am the only person of color — ever — to have worked. The office where I had recently experienced casual racist comments from a colleague at a morning meeting. Comments that hit a personal nerve. In an email to everyone in the office, I called out those comments. Sharing how the experience affected me and how I would like to move forward. My email was responded to with non-apologies and excuses. To my knowledge, that colleague experienced no recourse for their statements. I was only assured they “didn’t mean to hurt my feelings” via an email.

Undoubtedly, my pain about Sandra Bland would have been invisible to them had I been in the office so I was grateful to not be. I expressed this amongst a series of tweets about police brutality. Given the culture of that office, I would bet (if I had the funds) they didn’t even know who Sandra Bland was that day. But they didn’t have to know who she was or what happened to her. They don’t have to care about her death. But, it sits in my chest like a bubble and swells every time I see a police car in my rearview mirror because … I could’ve been her. My mother, sisters, cousins, and friends, all could’ve been her.

Janet-Tweet-1Twitter is my preferred social media in times like these. I follow well-informed, brilliant and humorous people from multiple and diverse walks of life. I am able to stay informed, share my thoughts and find connection when I can’t find it anywhere else. I purposely keep my Twitter updates private. I prefer to not have people see everything I’m sharing. Plus, it keeps the trolling to a minimum. It’s also not connected to my employment in a professional manner, so I kept it private for that reason as well.

A tweet about white privilege and being offended by it was retweeted though, removing the usual protection filter. I didn’t care. I was too busy hurting for Sandra Bland, for Kindra Chapman, and their families and for collective blackness to care. I was too busy reeling from another black death. It was happening again: another black person gone from trivial circumstances. This time, a woman, and we know that black women’s death under any circumstances can and has been so easily forgotten. I was committed that day to saying her name: Sandra Bland.

When I began working in Houston, I knew that the experience of racism could and likely would occur on some level. While Houston is hailed for it’s diversity, the majority of the establishment in my experience here is white centered. I understood, as a free black woman, I would have to choose if that racism was “worth” challenging. Then, how would I handle that once it happened. I even stated in the office several times that I did not like casual racism or sexism, but that was when I believed what I had to say mattered at my job. I now know different.

Racial diversity is a tricky thing. If your office is homogeneously white, you have to be intentional about diversity to have it actually be successful. It requires being willing to actually confront the very thing you think diverse hiring is the solution for: privilege. In this case, white privilege. Diversity, or rather Inclusion, requires those who don’t experience race based systemic oppression or marginalization to be challenged in ways that make them uncomfortable resulting in white guilt or “white tears”. Inclusion requires setting the precedence for intolerance to racism. It means that when an employee or colleague makes an out-of-bounds statement, you are willing to correct them, and if it’s in your power, take action to eradicate the behavior immediately.

It means that you are intolerant to any microaggressions and will listen when the person of color in your office speaks up about it. You will create dialogue and action because that is what is required for true inclusion. That didn’t happen in my office on multiple occasions, but I kept working there.

The majority of the time I kept my mouth shut when it came to questionable statements in the office. I did speak up when I was asked about Patricia Arquette’s commentary at the Oscars, which turned into an all day conversation summed up by the phrase “meant well.” I spoke up when a person of color’s name was said to make them incapable of being taken seriously. I specifically addressed this, not because of its personal foul to me but because those kinds of comments have power when voiced by white bodies and implicate flagrant bias.

Maybe I should’ve never said anything. Maybe I should have kept my head low and just kept my job and let the racism go unchecked because hey, I was employed, had bills and “White folks don’t care no way.” That’s the way it is when you are the “only.” That’s the choice or so I’ve been told over and over in the wake of my layoff. It’s the choice most marginalized persons find themselves making. Accepting environments that are dismissive and most often intolerant of their pain due to financial need and/or limited options.

Your economic stability is dependent on how you operate in what could be considered a hostile environment. An environment of constant microaggressions, confusing social interactions and unapologetic cultural insensitivity. Have the nerve to challenge it on any level? You could be fired. Don’t challenge it and still end up fired because of being deemed a threat. I had the audacity to challenge it because I was led to believe this company was open to that. It wasn’t.

I’ve come to the conclusion that people of color deserve to be in a work environment where we don’t have to be silent in the face of social injustice for the comfort of others. We deserve to not live in silence and fear of losing our job if we challenge racism. We deserve culturally inclusive environments free of unchecked and often flagrant racism. We deserve to be heard so that those with privilege can understand that their oblivious indifference and unconscionable dedication to white supremacy is the very same violence that caused Sandra Bland’s death and so many others. The same people who claim to support and exalt diversity, and who claim they “don’t see color” are the same people whose silence hurts even more than my defending my right to be comfortable alone in a culturally white space. Those who insist on my silence as a means of comfort in their existence. Those whose privilege is so intertwined with my oppression, the idea of my pain never even causes a question of consciousness or a hint of human empathy. Those whose racism shows up as complicity, duplicitous and is out of integrity with who they claim to be.

Let me say this. I don’t have any evidence that my job fired me for that tweet. This is just a feeling in my gut. It seems strange to me that they would award me projects one week and then lay me off the next. That they would hire someone a week prior to letting me go. That I wasn’t hired to have billable work in the first place but now, I’m laid off because my work isn’t billable. Without warning. Without initiated compromise.

If I was laid off for those tweets on my private twitter, that would mean that someone searched for something to challenge my role there. Maybe to stop me from working on a prized project or maybe just to put me in my place. In any event, they went out of their way to inflict their privilege on my livelihood because I made them uncomfortable and refused to be silent.

Zora Neale Hurston, one of the inspirations of my free black womanhood, says “If you are silent in your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So I refuse to be silent. I will continue saying the names of those who have experienced physical death at the hands of white supremacy. I will continue lifting up and adding my voice with those pushing back on the very racism that will never be satisfied with our silence anyway.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetUche Wogwugwu is a media professional and culture curator. Most known as the creator and outspoken co host of (HH4L). A weekly online radio show/podcast exploring the many platitudes of gender, sexuality and intimacy in Hip Hop. HH4L is presently on hiatus until the Fall 2015.

30 Is Coming

Photo on 10-20-14 at 10.52 AM

Turning 30 is nothing like I imagined it to be. For years I dreamt of what I would be doing on this day. Maybe I’d go on a cruise or have a huge party with all my girlfriends. None of those things are taking place because…life.

Two months ago, I got married. The night before my wedding, the church was evacuated because of a bomb threat. We didn’t even know if we’d be allowed back in the building or if the wedding would still take place. I stood outside with my father, mother and family as they made jokes to prevent me from crying. Thankfully, the wedding took place the next day without any issues, but still with high security.

Three weeks later, my 23 year old brother was brutally beaten, carjacked and shot to death. I experienced the high joys of life and low depths of grief in less than a month. I went from spending money on my wedding, to clearing out my savings to pay for my brother’s funeral. I went from the excitement of wearing my wedding dress to painful the task of picking out my brother’s burial clothes:

a light green collar shirt

a dark grey tie

black slacks

black suit jacket

socks, boxers

and a white undershirt.

I never imagined at a time like that, I would be thankful. Yet, I was. I was thankful that I had the money to pay for his funeral, thankful that I had such a creative, lively brother, thankful for all of our sibling board-game nights, thankful just to be his sister.


In my 12 months of being 29 years old, I’ve experienced more life lessons than I’d ever imagined and I’m grateful for every one of them. So this year, I’ll spend my 30th birthday reflecting on my past, basking in my growth and preparing for the future. This non-plan, this peace, this absolute non-fussiness over my 30th birthday maybe the greatest gift of all.

Here is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Sometimes doors open up in the most unlikely places.
  2. Faith is an acquired skill.
  3. Real friends take you to Zaxby’s for birthday cake milkshakes.
  4. The benefits of being strategic far out weigh the temporary relief of being reactionary.
  5. Hope for the best but prepare for tomfoolery.
  6. Cherish the tiny memories.
  7. Sometimes you just need to start over again.
  8. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your self.
  9. Father really does know best.
  10. Read the fine print and take advantage of it.
  11. Good credit is your friend.
  12. Be diligent about saving money, you never know what you’ll need it for.
  13. Watch movies with your mother, it helps everything.
  14. The criminal justice system is flagrantly undependable.
  15. Netflix is a healing mechanism.
  16. People need room to grow, ignoring this fact is to ignore their humanity.
  17. Sometimes taking a shower is the victory of the day.
  18. The simplest things can make you smile or cry.
  19. Time is both an enemy and saving grace.
  20. Cherish all forms of family time.
  21. Call your grandparents, frequently.
  22. Don’t get caught up in nonsense or bothered by foolishness.
  23. Protect your humanity. Don’t take on too much at one time.
  24. Keeping reading.
  25. Good organizing can keep you sane.
  26. When people disappoint you, just understand that perhaps you placed them on a pedestal they weren’t ready for. Learn not to do it again.
  27. Prioritize self care whenever possible.
  28. Trust your instinct. You have it for a reason.
  29. Try to avoid bandwagoning. Think and act based on your own perspective.
  30. Be happy you weren’t one of the cool kids in school. Awkward is in style now.

Bonus: Life is never quite like you imagined it to be but it’s still amazing.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at Reach JAM at,  @TweetingJAM &

Julian Bond

RACE AND BEYOND: The Enduring Legacy of Julian Bond

Julian Bond was such an omnipresent civil rights figure that I can’t remember the first or last time I saw him in person. During the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of my news reporting days, I had countless interviews with Bond, who seemed to enjoy the company of journalists—especially black ones like me. I appreciated the fact that unlike so many others who lived in the constant glare of the public’s curiosity, he answered questions patiently, often with an insight into the civil rights history that he had played a part in writing.

It seems now, upon hearing news of his death, that I thought he would always be somewhere nearby or just a phone call away. Maybe that’s why I never felt an urgency to celebrate Bond’s frequent comings and goings as they intersected with my own life and work: I assumed he’d be around forever. I’m sad to have been so wrong.

At the end of a charmed life filled with an array of struggles and accomplishments, Bond died last Saturday in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, of complications of vascular disease, his wife Pamela Sue Horowitz toldThe New York Times. He was 75.

Bond was a fixture in the civil rights constellation. He burst into public life in the early 1960s as a preternaturally handsome and youthful Morehouse College student, who dropped out to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, an upstart youth-led organization that challenged racist restrictions on public accommodations and voting rights.

From his early days as a leader and spokesman for SNCC, Bond worked tirelessly both inside and outside the halls of American power, serving in the Georgia legislature and eventually becoming chairman of the NAACP. He was, to use an old-fashioned term, something of a renaissance man. Or as The New York Times’ obituary described him, “a writer, poet, television commentator, lecturer and college teacher, and persistent opponent of the stubborn remnants of white supremacy.”

It’s tempting—and easy—to herald his sad, sudden, and surprising death as the end of something. But what has ended? The traditional civil rights era? Or the 1960s, a decade that was marked by the imposing strategy of sit-in protests? Or perhaps it’s the end of respectability politics—as it’s often derided by the restless youth of today—which seeks to work within existing power structures to bring about social change.

I don’t believe that Bond’s death should be viewed in such a finite way. Instead, his life should serve as a road map for social change—one that can’t easily be folded and put away simply because he is no longer among us to lead the charge.

Much like Bond’s SNCC of half a century ago, a new generation of young, energetic activists have taken to the streets today under the banner of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The similarities are strikingly similar. Black Lives Matter activists have challenged traditional political leaders to include racial justice at the forefront of their platforms. That’s in the style of SNCC, which was far more aggressive and confrontational in demanding the desegregation of lunch counters and the registration of black voters across the South than the more cautious NAACP of its day.

It’s too early to make definitive statements about the success or failure of Black Lives Matter. Perhaps, in time and through struggle, a striking figure in the mold of Julian Bond will emerge from the Black Lives Matter protests. This leader may seek to move from bullhorn agitation to voting compromise and collaboration within the larger political system.

To be sure, nobody in 1961 could have imagined how young, smart, and articulate Julian Bond’s life would unfold. The same may be said of the emerging leadership of Black Lives Matter. Regardless of what ultimately comes of the contemporary movement, however, there is a lesson to be learned, remembered, and taught from Bond’s historic legacy.

In a remarkable 2013 interview with my Center for American Progress colleague Heidi Williamson, Bond explained that he never imagined where his activism would lead, only that he thought it critical to engage in changing the nation for the better:

We didn’t plot it; we didn’t plan it. We didn’t say, “Now let’s work on this issue. Now let’s work on that issue.” The issues seemed to come to us. And we grappled with them and said, “Here is the best way to go about this thing. Here’s poverty. Here’s hunger. Here’s something else. Here’s absence of voting rights. Here’s inability to sit at the lunch counter.” All these things are both separate and connected. And we can easily handle them all if we develop a thoughtful campaign to do so. And we did.

I heard him say similar things many times over the decades. Indeed, what I learned from Bond through years of observation and countless conversations is that the struggle for equality is a never-ending journey. And it assuredly won’t stop with this singularly noble activist’s passing.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

*For more information or to speak with Mr. Fulwood, please contact Tanya S. Arditi at or 202-741-6258.

A Message For Writers: Know That Your Words Are Powerful


A close friend of mine recently endured a traumatic life experience that led her down an unconventionally painful path. In order to recover, she moved across the country and started a new life from the ground up. She shared with me, all the ups and downs she’s faced over the last 3 years. Her story, though uncommon, is extremely powerful, having the potential to inspire young Black women coming from a similar background. She then told me that she planned to write a book about her experiences, with the intention of saving people from going through what she’s dealt with. I’m not going to give the story away here. You’ll have to buy the book!

However, I wanted to highlight our conversation because it led to a larger one about how powerful writing is. As Black women writers, she and I have both been to the point where writing was our salvation. When we couldn’t depend on people, when no one would listen, when the pain seemed to much, when the joy was evaded, with the pleasure was marginalized, and when the injustice was overwhelming, writing was there to guide us through. Our writing, whether in the forms of poetry, prose or first person narratives, brought us not only comfort but power.

When the world seemed to beat us down, our words built us back up. No one could stop us from creating. No one could dare stand in the path of our stories. And because our stories are often interconnected, our words comforted other Black women that hadn’t yet found a way to express their thoughts.

I remember one time in Syracuse, NY, I performed a poem about religion, women, sexual abuse and how women are viewed in society. After the performance, I was called to attend a meeting with the poetry group that hosted the event. At that meeting, I could tell some people were uncomfortable with my piece. However, one woman came up to me in front of the whole group saying,” Thank you. Thank you for telling my story. I’ve always felt this way but just didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t have the words but you did it for me.”

Those words that I penned were not directed specifically towards her, yet still rendered specific results. They brought healing, understanding and power. There is power in hearing words that connect with your experiences, along with your spirit. It reaffirms who you are. It shows that you’re not alone, that you’re not imagining things. It also gives you the support to realize that your life, your story is important.

This is how I felt the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison. This is how I felt the first time I listened to Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album.

Each word reaffirmed my life, my power, my agency. Words can change how people view the world and how they view themselves within it. Perhaps, this is why my favorite quote from Maya Angelou echoes forever in my ears,

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”

Words get into you. Writers please know that your words have power, that when you write, you’re adding to the world. No matter how small you perceive yourself to be, you can reaffirm life, call truth to power and build new foundations. You can also destroy, tear down and suppress.

But know that you have this power and do not underestimate it. Use it wisely, strategically and hopefully for a good cause.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at

To reach JAM, email
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at

Photo on 7-7-14 at 1.35 PM

A Message For Writers: Save Your Energy

Photo on 7-7-14 at 1.35 PM

The internet’s news cycle moves in waves. When news hits, there is often so much to cover over a short period of time, that topics are easily considered old before you even press the publish button. Every few weeks a celebrity dies, a political scandal unfolds, racism rears its ugly head and the world keeps spinning. We’re operating on a 24 hour news cycle. Consequently, our minds don’t have enough time to rest.

Furthermore as writers, there’s an almost never ending pressure to comment on the latest drama. We’ve been trained to be “outraged” about almost everything. There are a million voices all chiming in at once, all clamoring to be heard.  Everyone is pressured to say something or go unnoticed and nobody wants to be unnoticed.

It’s tiring. It’s a creativity drainer. Most of all it’s wasteful. Perhaps time would be better utilized focusing on issues we enjoy writing about the most.

Before your next think piece ask yourself, “Do I really care about this…right now? Do I actually have anything of substance to contribute to this conversation that needs to be said? Has enough time passed to actually have a nuanced discussion about this? Are there other writers already articulating a similar perspective as me, possibly better than I would?”

For me, these questions have resulted in NO to articles about: Tyga, Nicki Minaj vs. Taylor Swift and Black feminists defending her, Rihanna’s so called violence against women music video with Black vs. White feminists (again), anything about Riley Curry (cute but only 3 years old), and finally Bill Cosby (because the internet has this covered in great abundance, from almost every angle). There are many other subjects that I also have on pause.

I’m not saying no to these topics forever, just for right now.

After making it a practice to ask myself this series of questions, I’m glad to report that I’ve been saved from spending a lot of unnecessary time and energy on “hot topics.” Yes, I have opinions on them. However I’ve learned from experience that opinions and or critiques aren’t always worthy of an article.

Plus, I’d rather have more practice with being creative than trendy.

It may work in your favor to resist getting swept up in the fury of the interwebs. Only write about what you’re really passionate about. Your energy is better suited on work that builds towards your future, instead of trying to feed the internet beast. Because as we all know, the internet beast is never satisfied.

Release yourself from the digital hamster wheel.

We write because we believe the human spirit cannot be tamed and should not be trained.” – Nikki Giovanni

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at

To reach JAM, email
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at

Delusions of Grandeur on Hillbilly Yard Signs



I saw an interesting yard sign while traveling through the small town of Hampton, GA. It read, “Annoy A Liberal, Help Yourself.” I had just come from attending my younger brother’s funeral. And there it was, this sign lurking, greeting passers by with its smugness. I knew by the location what type of person took the time to publicize such a low minded thought. I imagine that they would consider themselves conservative, a proud southerner and most definitely a Christian.

I thought about how my mother, in all her grief, had only survived such a tragedy through the love and support of our extended family, friends, local community, and church family. My thoughts then focused on the world in a larger context. I thought about all the people in need and how much of the world would have collapsed if it weren’t for a few helping hands.

With that raggedy sign now permanently etched in my memory, I thought about poverty, violence, health care, education, life and death. All of these community oriented issues showcase the ironies of life. There is an illusion of separation in America right now. There is a belief that “those people,” whoever you consider them to be, has nothing to do with you or your life. But this is simply an illusion.

There is no, “Help yourself.” There are no, “those people.”

There is simply humanity. Either you respect it or you don’t. The insistence that not helping people is the key to a better country is not only ludicrous but also self destructive.

This “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mantra is nothing more than a spirit of ignorant laden arrogance. Yet it’s incredibly layered. The same conservative no help advocates easily gather money to support the likes of George Zimmerman and Dylan Roof.

There is money for hate, money for prisons but no money for basic human rights. Still people wonder why the U.S. lags far behind its peers in education and healthcare. The country is literally crumbling from within. This is not advancement.

The hierarchies among societal determined race, class, status, and ethnicity have often left certain people to believe that they are immune to the pains of others. People are falsely believing that the poverty on the other side of the tracks is not their problem. Yet, poverty, pain, and disenfranchisement are mirrors to what happens when a society fails itself. Like diseased limbs, eventually the suffering of the margins spread to the center. This became more visibly evident with the housing crisis of 2007. Subprime mortgage loans disproportionately targeting and affecting millions of African Americans and Latinos, quickly poisoned the U.S. and international banking system. This lead to one of the biggest financial crises in U.S. history. Bear Stearns collapsed. Those people became all people. Still much of society has yet to learn from this.

Each push for privatization of basic needs like education and healthcare leads us further down the spiral of creating a helpless society spindled with sorrow and pain. Each time the working class pushes for change, it is met with the resistance of 3,000 mules. They are beaten down, further marginalized then publicly berated for supposed shiftlessness. The impoverished and the working class are not lazy but broken; Broken by a profit driven society that vehemently tears down all attempts towards upward mobility among the underclass. The widespread voting disenfranchisement attempts in Black, Latino and poor communities over the last few years bears witness to this fact.

We live in a country designed to privilege some of the people instead of all of the people.

Yet that raggedy sign remains, permeating the atmosphere with its owner’s smug indifference. Their simple-minded “no help” philosophy is perhaps the greatest example of someone that needs help most of all.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at

To reach JAM, email
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at