African Americans are not a monolith, however, there are many things that bind us together despite class, education, or income level. Racism, the struggle for equal opportunity to education, heath care, and how we are viewed in America and abroad are still issues many of us struggle with. Because of this, some have wondered if we need more “black leaders” reminiscent of Malcolm or Martin, folks who will authentically champion our causes across this country and the world.
After the civil rights movement and the assassinations of many outspoken black activists, some have wondered if our perceived lack of leadership has caused African Americans to lose ground. On the other hand, others argue that no one “leader” can speak for the concerns of black folks in this country.
Recently, writer and political activist Kevin Powell wondered whether or not black leaders are dead. In his article, “Black leadership is dead. Long live black leadership,” Powell challenges the notion that we no longer need leaders, but rather asserts that we need more of them…in all areas.
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.
I agree with Powell. The notion that such a vast and diverse group of people can be summarized by a singular black leader is not only wrong, but also dangerous. Anointing one person “the leader of black America” makes it nearly impossible to criticize them without being viewed as “against” black folks.
Thankfully, black folks across this country have continued to champion the causes of those in their communities. From Steve Perry to Marc Lamont Hill, Cornel West to Tracey Cooper, and many many more, black folks are stepping up, speaking out, and working for change all across this country.
What do you think…do we still need black leaders?