RACE AND BEYOND: The Enduring Legacy of Julian Bond

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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 tarditi@americanprogress.org or 202-741-6258.

The Convenience of Forgetting

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In May of 2014, I published a piece about my family’s escape from sharecropping. I was surprised to learn that so many people didn’t know that sharecropping was slavery rebooted. The title of this article was Dismantling Collective Amnesia. It received a tremendous amount of feedback from writers and historians alike. I was applauded for both sharing and remembering the story. Still, it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Such transgenerational survival stories do not afford the convenience of forgetting.

Fast forward to April 2015. It was revealed that Ben Affleck participated in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s well known PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” However, when one of his ancestors (Benjamin Cole) was discovered to be a former slave owner, he requested that Benjamin Cole be completely erased from his family history. This ancestor (that Affleck shares his first name with) would not be included in Affleck’s “Finding Your Roots” episode. This was in order to avoid being associated with his ancestor’s past. Supposedly, Gates’ team allowed this erasure to occur.

This created a firestorm, in which Gates, a renowned African American Studies historian, faced criticism. It is unknown as to how much pressure was placed on the team to exclude this pivotal component of Affleck’s family history. But one thing is certain. Affleck represents America’s denial problem. His initial refusal to include the full truth of his family’s history aligns perfectly with America’s current trajectory of denial and erasure. It’s the same premise as “all this racism with no racists.” All this oppression with no oppressors. Affleck may have been trying to deter attention from someone he was ashamed of, however he contributed to the historical denial of oppression mounted on people of African descent; as if slavery were a figment of Black imagination, and slave owners are simply fictional characters that exist only in our minds.

It’s the same travesty as schools in Texas and Massachusetts seeking to rewrite history books to make slavery appear less brutal. It’s the same as publishers seeking to detract “nigger” from Mark Twain’s books to make him appear less racist. It’s the same as the years of denial that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owning rapist.

Furthermore, Affleck’s ability to dodge this history is a brilliant display of his own racially tiered privilege. Black Americans do not have the privilege of dodging history and the pains of slavery simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Black Americans do not have the privilege of making special requests to disconnect us from being the descendant of enslaved people. So much of the U.S. Black experience is systematically connected to slavery and the imagery of servitude. There is no escaping this, no matter how factually incorrect many of these depictions may be.

The truth is many people of African descent were enslaved in the Americas. The truth is there were enslavers that made this industry possible. Affleck’s ancestor was one of them. His attempt to disconnect himself, is an attempt to erase this truth, thereby erasing the truth about how racial oppression operates and who is behind it.

Ignoring these truths is not a viable solution. Acknowledgement and discomfort is necessary in order to dismantle institutional oppression. Though Affleck is a well known liberal, his denial is representative of many white liberals and conservatives alike who seek to dodge history in order to quell discomfort and personal responsibility towards acknowledging and dismantling systematic privilege.

Current day systems of oppression thrive on the lives of marginalized groups. For example, the current struggle for living wages among America’s working class is closely linked to strategies from chattel slavery for maximizing labor and increasing profit with low wage expenses.

The plantation didn’t just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.

The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law. – Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (How Slavery Led To Modern Capitalism)

In order to break these systems apart, there has to be a truthful discussion about what happened, who was responsible, and how it can be rectified. There must be a sincere attempt at truth and reconciliation.

This was Affleck’s opportunity to show his enslaving ancestor as an example of the ills of America’s past. Then show himself as a person working to rectify these ills. Instead he chose to ignore the issue altogether. For that, he reinforces a hard truth about America. Denial is chosen over healing. Erasure is chosen over accountability. Consequently, marginalized and systematically oppressed communities continue to be blamed for their own oppression, and history is laid to the wayside.

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

To reach JAM, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

33 Brilliant Quotes From Legendary Black Women Writers

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Ntozake Shange

Growing up as a Black girl writer, various books and writers sustained me. One such writer was Zora Neale Hurston. I lived by her. Her robust unveiling of Black human experiences were the literary nourishment to my young mind. I read over and over again her short story, The Gilded Six Bits.  It was like I was there. I could feel the spirited home of Missie May and Joe. I could taste the molasses kisses Joe bought for their new born baby boy. I was literally wrapped up in the entire story.

Yet what intrigued me the most about Zora as a writer was her free spirit. As a folklorist and anthropologist, she saw the world and soaked up its wonders. This captivated me.  As I grew older, the list of Black women writers that ruled my universe expanded. In college I was enamored with Ntozake Shange, then in graduate school mesmerized by June Jordan. They all knew a part of my soul, they all held pieces of me in their words. It was a long running connectedness. With each page turned, I saw myself.

When it seemed like the world had turned against me or had become lopsided, they turned it right side up again. Through their writings they let me know, that the things I’m seeing and experiencing are real. Most of all I learned that I had the right to tell my truth, no matter how often its existence may be denied and its fullness unsuccessfully subdued.

This edging out is a tradition of oppression, while the ability to rise even in its midst is a signature testament to the dynamic tradition of literary inspired liberation through Black women writers.

Here are some quotes from legendary Black women writers that can be used as continual tools for learning, growth, confidence and fearlessness.

1. “It’s no use of talking unless people understand what you say.” -Zora Neale Hurston

2. “No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” – bell hooks

3. “I’m a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people’s lives.” -Ntozake Shange

4. “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

5. “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.” – Maya Angelou

6. “I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.” -Alice Walker

7. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison

8.  “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” -Toni Morrison

9. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10.  “Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it.” – Toni Morrison

11.  “Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.” – Patricia Hill Collins

12. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

13. “Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation.” ― Micere Githae Mugo

14. “Sure you can do anything when talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing.” ― Sapphire

15. “A writer should get as much education as possible, but just going to school is not enough; if it were, all owners of doctorates would be inspired writers.” – Gwendolyn Brooks

16. “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia E. Butler

17. “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.” -Ntozake Shange

18. “Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain is broken, the chain is broken.” – Anna Julia Cooper

19. “I don’t want to be limited or ghettoized in any way.” -Sista Soulja

20. “Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment.” ― Pearl Cleage

21. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” -Maya Angelou

22. “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler

23. “Many times, what people call ‘writer’s block’ is the confusion that happens when a writer has a great idea, but their writing skill is not up to the task of putting that idea down on paper. I think that learning the craft of writing is critical.” -Pearl Cleage

24. “Shakespeare wrote about love. I write about love. Shakespeare wrote about gang warfare, family feuds and revenge. I write about all the same things.” -Sister Souljah

25. “Putting words on paper regularly is part of the necessary discipline of writing.” -Pearl Cleage

26. “Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.” -Alice Walker

27. “You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you’ll never write.” ― Nikki Giovanni

28. “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” ― Nikki Giovanni

29. “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” -Lorraine Hansberry

30. “People who want to write either do it or they don’t. At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.” ― Octavia E. Butler

31. “People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that’s a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated.” –Lucille Clifton

32. “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” ― June Jordan

33. “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” -Angela Davis

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of Our Legaci Press and the National Black Cultural Information Trust. To reach JAM, email her at jamaiwuyor@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @JAMAiwuyor.

We Stand On The Edge Of The World And Dance

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Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade – Library of Congress – Carl Van Vechten Collection – Photo Enhancement by OurLegaci

While riding the tides of turmoil, Black identity can seem overwhelming. We are cloaked in a wondrous mystic that the world both consumes and rejects. Yet, still a dancing spirit overrides hopelessness. The inner joy of elder generations that proclaimed, “The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away,” resounds more than ever.

I’ve felt this throughout my childhood.

During summer break, my mother made me read books to keep my mind sharp. History books and short stories were among my favorites. There was one book in particular called, Eyewitness Negro History. My eyes widened as I read about revolts, the Great Migration and anything Zora wrote.

Church also played a crucial role in crafting the vividness of black identity.

Before church service, the elders would sing old negro spirituals, the kind you don’t hear anymore. The really old ones. Though I hated going to church so early, I secretly loved this part. “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, “He’s A Lily In The Valley”, “You Don’t Know What The Lawd Tole’ Me”, “Come On In the Room” and “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”

On some songs, before every verse an elder sings the first few lines and then everyone joins in. You won’t find this on television. It isn’t for entertainment or show, it was just what we did.

Even then, I saw that we danced on the edge of the world.

I loved it all. It made me feel eternal. Connected. It was history. It was spirit. It was us. It was Blackness. There was no “proper” talk or no code switching.

“Jesus is my docta’ and he writes out alla my ‘scriptions.”

“The angels in heaven done signed my name.”

I was listening to a lively spiritual people.

Yet, this inner force was more than religion.

It was jazz, funk, soul, theater, poetry, story, dance and all the moving energies.

It was all the stories I read, watching them play out in my generation. It was Zora singing again. It was Carmen and Geoffrey. It was Maya’s Still I Rise.

It was everyone in the Gypsy Song performance.

It was my father’s Uncle Trouble.

It was the fact that people still cooked rabbit, coon and corn puddin. And it was Mother Burrell showing me how to do the  Suzie Q, they way she did it in Harlem.

It was the defiance of erasure, the boldness to live fiercely and joyously in spite of being marginalized and appropriated.

It was Langston‘s words :

They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

It was us still building for tomorrow. But until then, we stand on the edge of the world and dance.

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

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A Cure For The N-Word

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At only 7 days old, a baby was called “N–ga” for the first time. I witnessed it as I visited a friend that had just given birth. The father of the new baby boy held him in his arms, smiled and said “This is my little n—a.” In my knee jerk reaction I blurted out, “He’s only been here for a week and you’re already calling him that!” The new father then corrected himself and said, “Oh, I mean he’s my little man.”

I knew what he meant. When he said that word, he was genuinely thinking loving thoughts towards his new son. Perhaps, that’s why I was so disturbed by it. His expression of love was laced with derogatory language of habit. A father has love for his first child and he articulates it by using the word N–ga.

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Black people saying the N-word is not the most surprising or troubling attribute of American lingo.  This is not a “Black” problem. To believe so, only further contributes to criminalizing the Black experience. The English language is ripe with coding, words and terminology that dehumanizes the “other.” Martin Luther King once stated, “Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for the word black. It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister.” We are not the problem, our environment is.

Much like other modes of oppression, the N-word was used against us, to the point that some of us have become accustomed to and often perpetuate it ourselves. Almost without a choice, it becomes a stamped phrase lingering in our minds.

The phrase “My n- -ga.” is more complex than it seems. When it’s used within the African American community, it signifies a recognition of a shared experience. It’s almost like an inside joke or inner laughter is taking place towards the dehumanization. It’s like laughing to keep from crying while at the same time saying, “But I’m still here.” Within this seemingly unrecognized state of despotism, we’re surviving. Which is why for some, the song “N–gas in Paris” is triumphant. I’m not advocating for the usage of the N-word. I’m just saying, I understand. And this is what I believe many people are trying to articulate, when they say they’ve taken the word back.

This is why when perceived outsiders like Paula Deen, Madonna or John Mayer say the N-word, it’s automatically rejected. This is not done in some vacuum of hypocrisy but instead out of an often unspoken understanding that these people, do not share the lived experience of being boxed into the “n–ga” identity by main stream society. Therefore any attempts to interject within this subjugated space is viewed as appropriation or as a mechanism to further exacerbate their subjugated existence.

But how do we stop people from using it? It’s almost impossible to forcefully erase a term from common language. If people continue to identify with it, rather misguided or not, it will still be used. However, much of our concerns could be solved if we use our own legacy as a guide.” There are words much more powerful than the N-word will ever be. One of them is called Sankofa.  It’s a West African term that means “go back and fetch it.” Sankofa is often symbolized as a bird reaching back carrying an egg.The word and symbol serves as a reminder to use your historical compass to find your freedom. It’s like following the North Star.

Another word is Ubuntu. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu is  a South African term meaning, “I am because you are.” It reminds us that the humanity of one person is dependent on the humanity of others. We are all interconnected.

I’ve used these words and ideals on students before and noticed a considerable difference in attitude. My 3rd grade students, went from calling each other names to reading Langston Hughes’ “I Too Am America.” So has activist, Jarrett Mathis, who launched a full campaign on educating youth about African American history. I’ve found that once people, especially children know their history…their real history, they are less likely to think of themselves within the confines of the N-word or any other oppressive language. Their world becomes greater and expanded by the thought that finally, they can be something more than a “N–ga.”

So the next time, you hear someone call themselves by this term, try not to engage in respectability politics. Because simply being “respectable” won’t save us and never has. Instead, if the person is open to it, use it as a learning moment. Find some type of way to remind this person, who they really are. Even if they reject it initially, at least the seed will be planted.

“When n–gas become Gods, walls come tumbling.” – Erykah Badu

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.