BY MONIQUE W. MORRIS
“Freedom is first and foremost a public understanding among the members of a society to protect and defend any opinions that are unpopular or at odds with opinions held by those who actually exercise power and privilege. Freedom is the fragile flower that must constantly be protected—not from those at the bottom of the social order but from the whims and desires of those at the top.” — Dr. Manning Marable, 1997
The vision for the Black freedom movement has been widely debated for centuries. Few contemporary scholars were as prolific on the subject as Dr. Manning Marable, who was posthumously awarded a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Recently, the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University hosted a conference which convened dozens of radical scholars, students, artists and activists—from Angela Y. Davis and Mumia Abu Jamal to Staceyann Chin— all engaged in a discussion about Dr. Marable’s legacy and how to advance the Black freedom struggle.
Central to the conference was the question: what is the new vision for Black freedom? The long history of deliberation on this issue has been filled with arguments ranging from ideas about radical reconstruction and expatriation, to more conservative ideas about developing Black power through economic enterprise and full integration. Each of these arguments has been informed by the personal and collective experiences of Black people in the U.S., who have been subject to laws and practices that were not only discriminatory, but also informed by deeply entrenched ideas about racial inferiority.
But it is our contemporary context that makes the question about the new vision for Black freedom compelling. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first Black president, presenting for many a symbolic gesture of completion for the Black freedom struggle.
However, there remain areas where racial inequality for Black America is more pronounced now than ever before.
For example, Black people experience a poverty rate of 27 percent, compared to 15 percent for the nation as a whole. For Black Americans, the unemployment rate is stuck at a staggering 14 percent (and that’s just the official rate when not considering unofficial numbers for those not counted in surveys); while the national unemployment rate is about eight percent.
And then there’s incarceration—where Black men are incarcerated at seven times the rate of White men, and Black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of White women.
How we address these conditions—and protect the “fragile flower” Marable described in 1997—must be comprised of more than just slogans or symbolic marches. When we define “freedom”—powerful concept that it is—we cannot simply substitute it for Black power. Black freedom is only achievable if there is a changed relationship between Black people and power in the sociopolitical and socioeconomic spheres. History also teaches us that civil rights are only one component of a larger movement for this type of social transformation. While civil rights are at the core of our equal justice movements, they do not have the capacity to fully redistribute power and reverse racial inequality.
“The presence of a Black man in the White House won’t turn us around,” said Johanna Fernandez, Professor of History at Baruch College and one of the Marable conference organizers. “Black radical reconstruction begins by working with other people to articulate a vision of radical social change that has at its core, the Black experience.”
A rejection of patriarchy has to also be a part of the vision for Black freedom. As it is currently constructed, patriarchy in the Black freedom struggle has resulted in Messianic models of leadership that fuel sexism and homophobia, which are then institutionalized and serve to undermine capacity-building in our communities in a number of ways.
For example, Messianic leadership creates a space for Black leaders to enter into “single issue alliances” with conservative individuals and institutions, which may advance the influence of the individual leader while undermining the sustainability of the progressive movement. This model also overemphasizes the symbolic victories of individuals as key variables in the success of the Black freedom agenda.
There are other deficits to this model as well, which is why the new vision for Black freedom is one in which there should be a collective, inclusive leadership model—one that is comprised of and always accountable to the core values of its constituency.
Ultimately, the new vision for Black freedom is the full execution of human rights—the fundamental expression of human dignity in our nation’s collective psyche, as well as in its systems. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.” That framework is still relevant today. The vision for Black freedom must incorporate a celebration of individual and structural love, wherein systems, policies, and behaviors reinforce equality and justice.
Still, this is only the beginning. The next question, and perhaps the harder question to answer, is whether the realization of this vision is possible.
MONIQUE W. MORRIS is the CEO of the MWM Consulting Group, LLC, a research and technical assistance firm that advances concepts of fairness, diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Too Beautiful For Words (10th Anniversary Edition) and over 50 articles and other publications on social justice issues. For more information, visit www.moniquewmorris.com.