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photo by Alex Lear

photo by Alex Lear









            This topic requires us to ask a question first, not just the obvious question of “What is an African centered education”, but what is required is posing the even more profound question: “an African centered education for whom and for what purpose?”

            I do not presuppose that a hypothetical African centered education is in and of itself of major value unless we know whom and what we are speaking about as both the subjects and the objects of that education, and unless we are clear on what is the purpose of such an education. My contention is that audience and purpose are the two least discussed sides of the African education triangle, whose third side is the content or curriculum of African centered education. Except for a brief comment at the end, I will focus my presentation on the questions of identity and goals.


            The dominant society Euro-centric educational modality presupposes that their education system is good for everyone, and if not good for everyone in the abstract, is de facto required of everyone over whom they have dominion, which is a large percentage of the world. Second, the dominant society presupposes that their education is a requirement of civilization. Unfortunately, many of us who reject Euro-centric educational information, often adopt Euro-centric educational methods and philosophy. We presuppose that audience is not a major question and that a dominating intent is a given.

            In addition to defining African centered education in terms of philosophy and curriculum, when we address this issue of African education it seems to me to be important for us to also clarify who the “we” of African education is and what is our purpose in obtaining an African centered education. Answering those two concerns, i.e. the identity of the audience and the intended goal of achieving education, will enable us to realistically define “African centered education” grounded in the context of functionality rather than abstracted into the context of rhetoric and fantasy.



            Let us first, then, consider the question of the identity of our audience, which, of course, presupposes, that we identify ourselves. First of all, my concern for Africa is defined by Africa the people and not simply Africa the land. Wherever we are and whatever we do, taken in its totality, that defines what Africa is.

            Our ancient civilizations are important but they are not the sole criterion. Indeed, to the degree that our traditional life did not enable us to withstand the blows of the empire, to the degree that our traditional gods did not enable us to reject the missionary impulses or at the very least incorporate the new god into our beliefs rather than having the new god dictate the rejection of our traditions, to the degree that our traditional values and beliefs collaborated with the European invaders, to that same degree I suggest there are African traditions which, at best, need to be modified and, perhaps, even ought to be discarded.

            My first position is that I celebrate people and my second position is that I am critical not just of my historic enemies but also I am, and indeed must be, self critical.

            I do not buy the myth of race, the myth of racial universality, the myth of dualism, i.e. a thing, a person, an action is ipso facto either good or bad, and is not subject to transformation nor contextulization. I believe in the traditional African dialectic which recognizes that everything is contextual and all things are capable of transformation.

            Moreover, I believe, nationalism as currently practiced is not only a dead end in terms of social development, I believe nationalism as currently practiced is ultimately a socially negative philosophy that inevitably invites the demarcation of territory and the raising of the flag of individual ownership of the earth.

            There are no African countries in Africa. Each one of those countries are European defined entities which, at best, are administered by Africans, and usually Africans who are European educated. In fact, the concept of Africa as we speak of it, is itself a European concept, a bundling together of various peoples and beliefs under a racist label to facilitate colonialism. There will be no true African nationalism until the nation states of Africa are redesigned to facilitate the development of African people rather than maintained as a leftover form of colonial domination, forms which were established to serve the interest of English, French, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent German and Belgium colonizers.

            So I suppose, now is as good a time as any to deal with the question of what do we mean by African. What is an African? Is this a racial definition? Is this a cultural definition? Is this a political definition based on historical relations of the last five or six hundred years?

            Obviously, whether we want to or not, we must confront this issue of self definition head on. For example, are mulattos, i.e. mixed blood Africans, any less African than those who are unmixed? Be careful how you answer, because it is not our way to exclude. If we look around the room it is obvious that we African Americans are a mulatto people — not by choice in most instances, but regardless we are mixed. Does that make us as a mulatto people any less African than continental Africans?

            The first task of an African centered education is to help us define what being African is. I believe that Africans, and all other people, are defined by color, culture and consciousness.

            Color is a racial definition, race in the sense of breeding population, a group of people with common genetic roots. I also believe that rather than create sub-categories, and sub-categories, and breakdowns to the point of absurdity such as quadroons, octoroons, etc., we should acknowledge quite simply a normative standard. For me, African is inclusive. One can racially claim Africa if some (although not necessarily all) of one’s ancestors are racially African and if one chooses to continue that racial identity. My qualifying “and” quite simply recognizes that if a single person who is racially African decides to dissolve him or herself into another group, be they Asian or European, then, over generations, the individual’s Africaness will cease to be an issue. In fact, my caveat is that color is not an individual definition but is a group and generational definition.

            Culture is a way of life, again defined by normative or group standards. The culture one exhibits is the culture that defines the person. We can learn, understand, and relate to many different cultures, but in the final analysis it is our social living which determines which culture we are. Most human beings are born into a culture, but it is also possible to adopt a culture, and over generations become native to the adopted culture.

            Consciousness is the critical element, particularly in the context of liberation. We must be aware of our people and culture, accept our people and culture, and immerse ourselves in our people and culture. Awareness means more than simple experiencing. Indeed one can witness and not understand, just as one can understand without being a witness. The best is to both witness, i.e. experience, and to understand, i.e. critically reflect on the culture. Given the reality of colonialism and neo-colonialism, it is impossible to be African in the modern world without being socially conscious of what it means to be African, what racism means, what colonialism means. To be African is to be self-reflective.

            Thus I define African in terms of color, culture and consciousness.


African Identification Within The Context of the United States.

            I believe that there are three major categories of social identification for African Americans in the context of the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century. First there is the question of race, and more precisely, the question of racism. Racism has undeniably affected every area of our lives, and to the degree that an education does not address or avoids addressing the reality and effects of racism, to that same degree such an education risks being irrelevant, regardless of its nomenclature or subject matter. So then in a modern context, an African centered education will analyze and offer methods of coping with, if not out and out destroying, racism.

            Second there is the question of class stratification and class identification. Class stratification refers to a person or group’s economic identity vis-a-vis the economic or productive forces of that society. It is not simply a question of income. It is also a question of where one fits in relation to maintaining the economic status quo. A professional, a public school teacher or corporate secretary, may make a smaller hourly wage than a carpenter, but the professional has had to undergo specific social training in addition to skill development.

            The professional is expected to be more “civilized,” more “mannered” than the laborer. What does that mean? It means quite simply that part of being a professional is identifying with and adopting the social values of the dominant society. Indeed, the professional is responsible for propagating those values. In many ways the professionals are priests of the status quo. So then when we talk about a class analysis, income alone can be misleading. We should make an analysis of the relationship to and function on behalf of the economic status quo. An African centered education must attack capitalism, the economic philosophy which elevates the bottom line (or material acquisition) as the measure of social development rather than social relations within a society as the measure of social development.

            Third is the question of gender relations. I believe that the establishment of the patriarchy, i.e. male domination of women, was the first battle waged by Europeans in their attempt to colonize the world. Indeed, their whole mythology begins with overthrowing the matriarchy wherever it existed. Greek legends of the gods, Zeus raping Europa, or giving birth to a female god sprung from his forehead, are all nothing more than mythological rationalizations of patriarchal domination.

            Christianity and Islam continue this trend introduced by the Greeks. Christianity goes so far as to propagate the myth that a man is a “mother”, specifically that Adam, a man, through the intercession of god, gave birth to Eve, a woman. Furthermore, most classical Christian theology does not recognize women as fit to act as intermediaries to and representatives of god. Islam’s virulent strain of misogyny is even more oppressive. This question of gender relations also raises the issue of heterosexism in the form of violence against homosexuals for no other reason than homosexuals are different and not like normal people. An African centered education would elevate matriarchy and attack patriarchy.

            Although anyone of these three strains could be explored at some length, that is not the focus under consideration here. I simply wanted to identify, the three major lines of social demarcation in the contemporary context.

            Before moving on, I do think it important to point out, that one can be anti-racist but be capitalist and sexist, or could be anti-capitalist and be racist and sexist. I am saying that a progressive position on one side of the triangle, does not guarantee a progressive position on the other sides — and, yes, I am defining as progressive, ideological and social struggle around anti-sexism and opposition to heterosexism, particularly opposition to so-called homophobia.



            Finally, on this question of relevance, my basic contention is that in order for an African centered education to be meaningful it needs to be focused on development, meeting the needs of the working class masses of our people, both the employed and the unemployed, rather than focus on the career development of African American professionals, particularly those professionals whose day to day work is within the context of predominately, dominant culture, educational and business institutions. Moreover, African centered education should definitively be opposed to the development of a Black bourgeoisie, a Black class of owners who profit off the exploitation of the African masses.

            If an African centered education does not specifically address itself to the needs of our people then it has failed to be relevant to the struggle although it may have great relevance to individuals in their quest for tenure, for promotions, and for political office. As Sonia Sanchez so eloquently noted a number of years ago in evaluating a position put forth by some well meaning brothers, we should respond to all advocates of ungrounded and non-contemporary Afrocentricity with this phrase: “Uh-huh, but how does that free us!”

            How does that free us is precisely the question to ask — especially when we are clear on who “us” is. I am not interested in joining any atavistic, nostalgic society that knows more about what happen four thousand years ago, four thousand miles away than it does about what happened forty years ago within a four mile radius of where we meet today. The purpose of calling on our ancestors is to sustain life in the present and insure life in the future, and not simply nor solely to glorify the past.

            Our people have very real needs today. We are faced with very real problems. For instance, as quiet as its kept, African American women are quickly becoming the number one victim of AIDS. This coupled with the dramatic rise in breast cancer deaths among African American women suggests a fundamental area of struggle far more important than arguing whether Alice Walker is dipping her nose in other people’s business in her crusade against female sexual mutilation.

            At the same time, I must note, that quite clearly, a contemporarily grounded African centered education would not only support the struggle against female sexual mutilation, it would also offer an analysis of that phenomenon and point out that sexual mutilation is strongest in those area of Africa where Islam is the strongest. Part of what we are witnessing is the brutalness of male domination of women, regardless of the fact that, on the surface it may seem like, women are willingly participating. We African Americans surely can understand self collaboration in oppression, we who have a long and regrettable history of house negroism.

            I reiterate the need to be self critical and the need to be grounded in the lives of our people. Far too many Afrocentrics are petit bourgeoisie professionals who are based at predominately Eurocentric educational institutions. Far too much of the focus of contemporary Afrocentrism is on the long ago and far away. Where is the community base? Where is the focus on the needs of the community? To a certain extent, much of what we see in some narrow Afrocentric theorists is an attempt to compensate for years spent suffering under the constant and withering intellectual onslaught of formal education teaching Black professionals that Black people are intellectually inferior. After one has invested so many years in academe, one sometimes spends an equally inordinate amount of time researching to prove to Whites that Black people are not only as smart as Whites, but indeed that we were the world’s first smart people. “Uh huh, but how does that free us?”

            The issue is not about proving anything to Whites. The issue is meeting the needs of our people, being grounded in our people. Furthermore the inordinate amount of energy devoted to the study, praising and admiration of African kings and pharaohs displays a serious sense of inadequacy and disdain for the common woman and man. What difference does it make to me how smart the leader was if the majority of the people are kept in ignorance? I don’t care what the priests knew about life, what did Ayo and Kwaku know, what did Bertha and Joe know? I don’t care how intelligent and spiritually refined the royal order was, what were the conditions, relative level of educational achievement and qualitative life of the people who were like you and I? Tell me about the lives of the masses, what we didn’t, what we did. Let us learn from our mistakes and build on our achievements in the context of building serious social relationships among ordinary people rather than this almost mystical interest in kings and things.

            I agree with Amilcar Cabral that the focus of the African professional ought to be to commit class suicide. Rather than identify with the dominant society via a focus on developing professional skills for the purpose of being a more productive professional or for self aggrandizement, professionals ought to focus their skills on the uplift and development of the African American working class (whether actively employed or unemployed). This is what DuBois had in mind as a mission for the so-called “talented tenth.” Today, too many who would qualify as talented tenthers on the basis of education have deserted the mission, and it was the mission, and not the level of educational attainment, which defined the talented tenth in DuBois’ perspective.

            Mission fulfillment is not a question to be taken lightly, because it is no small nor straight forward task to work in the interest of one’s people if most of the work opportunities are controlled by our oppressors and exploiters, and if the remuneration, both monetarily and socially, are so meager when one works in a predominately and/or all Black setting, that one is not able to sustain one’s self. We are faced with the task not only of waging political struggle but also we must engage in the very real struggle of economic support for one’s self and for those whom one has the responsibility of sheltering, rearing, or otherwise nurturing, not to mention economic support of the struggle itself. There is a subjective reality of survival involved in committing class suicide. But greater than the subjective question of individual survival is the objective question of group direction.

            The upliftment of the masses does not mean that our task is to turn our brothers and sisters into “junior Europeans” (to quote Kgositsile). The upliftment of our people does not mean that we are trying to civilize anyone, or to teach them how to wear business suits and ties, or to show them how to pay taxes and speak properly. In fact it means quite the opposite. The upliftment of our people means securing and returning to the hands of our people the power to define and determine our own lives. Upliftment quite simply means to end outside domination and exploitation, and to reintroduce our people as the subjects, the makers and shapers of their own destiny.

            In order to fulfill this mission, the petit bourgeois, the professionals, the educated, will have to physically and psychologically reintegrate themselves into the day to day life of the people who they hope to uplift. They will have to speak to and with working people about an expanded sense of the world and our ability to actively participate in building the future. Additionally, they will also have to listen to and respond to the concerns, aspirations and ideas of the working people. In short they will have to be organizers who both bring information and skills to serve our people as well as receive sustenance and inspiration to keep on developing. In short we are talking about the particular (the professional) and the general (the people) engaged in a dialectic of self-development and self-empowerment that neglects neither and enriches both —properly speaking a European language is not a prerequisite of this process.

            I hope that these observations with regards to goals and identity vis-a-vis African centered education make a contribution to the ongoing discussion and struggle to achieve peace and liberation for people of African descent wherever in the world we are today! In closing, please allow me this one additional observation.

            African American cultural expression, particularly African American music, on a world level is the single most influential force in contemporary African life. Moreover, among African Americans, our music is also the most expressive language of our community. The emotions, thinking, and soul of our people are expressed through our music. Indeed, before our writers and other intellectuals are able to articulate our realities, the essentials of that reality have been expressed in the music. Assuming that this assessment of our music is true, the question must be asked: how come many of us Black intellectuals can’t or choose not to sing, dance or perform our music? How come we don’t write about our music, do serious studies of our music which are detailed and insightful rather than non-serious miscellaneous general platitudes? If our music is so important how is it that in practice we devote so little attention to the study, documentation and propagation of Great Black Music? How come we don’t advocate the economic control of our music in terms of our own actual participation in the dollar and labor investment in the development of recording companies, distribution companies, production companies, and critical journals? If we are truly African centered, beyond listening to watered down versions of our music on the radio and owning five or six records, how come our personal libraries are so lacking in recordings, not to mention books on and about, our music? How come we are becoming experts on and conversant in Egyptian hieroglyphics but can’t tell the different between the sound of Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker, not to mention have never actually listened to Robert Johnson or Rev. Gary Brown? How come we ignore our music? Could it be that we are not as African in the day to day expression and understanding of our culture as we talk and dress like we are?

            That’s just a little something to think about. I encourage questions and dialogue both now and after this particular session. I encourage sharp criticism of the system and sharp self criticism. I end with this poem.


There Is Nothing Inexact About Misty

(For Erroll Garner)


saints transform the world with the insistent

art of their actions


anviling the mundane inertia of america

into an ephemeral spiritual sublimity


unclogged by bathetic sentimentality but

nonetheless full of feeling, after all


which is more important: rocket science or creative

music emoting the ethos of its era?


far more valuable than scientific esoteria

is the subtle articulation of sensitive souls in motion


nakedly singing world witness, propelling

us to dare transformation into what does not now exist


to demystify technology, be unintimidated by history

& as adventurous as a kitten up a tree, look at


the lyrical possibilities of your life,

if you are brave and disciplined enough


to openly express your total self

secure in the primal knowledge that


no matter how high

you go or don’t, ultimately


all life is really

about is how deep you are


—kalamu ya salaam







August 10, 2016

August 10, 2016











By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad 


This past Black History Month, watching the 2016 Grammy Awards provided me with a profound example of just how rich the tradition is of subtext in black protest literature. I sat there awed by the way the rhythmic American poetry artist Kendrick Lamar limped forward on the nearly pitch black stage, but for a commanding spray of light illuminating him and the chain gang to which he was attached, shuffling in single file, acting out the drama of the rap, pointing to the deep meaning lying just under the text of Lamar’s written and spoken words.

Between the limping and the purple-black left eye that shone clear, even on his deep-dark chocolate skin, the message of brutality delivered its punch, Lamar’s words helping us understand it as a brutality reaching far beyond the physical. Lamar and the chain gang, wearing light blue prison uniforms labeled with inmate numbers, marched on past similarly adorned black men in cages, their cells numbered too. Lamar kept going, to the center of the stage, the line of chained men behind him, the cell-bound men to his left and his right, his dreadlocks braided back into several tight corn rows, sweat beading across his forehead, his manacled hands finally, awkwardly cradling the mic, glistening and glinting steel around his wrists dropping in connected links down to the floor where the chains also locked his feet.

“Lock our bodies but can’t trap our minds!” he would shout later, jumping freely around the stage. “Trap our bodies but can’t lock our minds!”

But for now, Lamar launched into a searing attack, rapping the entire first verse of his song “The Blacker the Berry,” the subtext of each shared lyric making clear the otherwise unnamed object of his rage: white supremacy. And in those moments, when Lamar first spoke, between the force of the words and the force of the beat, his entire body jolted as if struck by lightning, as if lit up with a police Taser, as if volts of force rushed through him, froze him in place, then rushed through him again. This, too, orchestrated to reveal the deeper meaning of his lyrics to come: that the secondary status of black bodies is comprehensive, exhaustive, systematic, shocking one’s entire system, jolting, seizing.

The deeper meaning of the lyrics to come—their subtext played out by the drama on the stage—is part of a rich tradition, the continuance of a conversation with some of the earliest black protest writers.

Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses

You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it

I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide

You hate me don’t you?

You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture

You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey

You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me

And this is more than confession

I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion

I’m guardin’ my feelings, I know that you feel it

You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’

You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga [1]

That’s a lot to unpack: disillusionment and resolve; countering negative messaging about black bodies and heritage; acute awareness of racial hatred against black life and culture; threats of vengeful action arising from the pressures of racial prejudice; recognizing the calculated hand of systematic racism in the destruction of black communities… A lot under that hood for sure.

But this was the kind of unpacking I’d been doing for the several months prior to Lamar’s performance, which reached a new level of intensity at the graduate residency that would lead to this essay (originally a lecture). I’d spent many nights in my room poring over classic texts of black protest writing, from W.E.B. Du Bois to James Baldwin to more contemporary writers like Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, investigating their potency, how it worked, and how it still works. But watching Lamar’s Grammy performance I was struck by how clearly his art grows out of that same cultural aesthetic heritage, how he is one of our best current exemplars of black protest writing. I realized that I could take any part of that first verse of “The Blacker the Berry” and connect it to almost any other black protest writer, showing how strong the through-lines are in this lineage—a lineage that continues because the struggle continues.

This lineage predates black protest writer W.E.B. Du Bois’s loosely linked essays in The Souls of Black Folk, but that is where I first began digging all those months ago. Though subtext permeates Du Bois’s collection, it’s in the short story “Of the Coming of John”—the tale of two Johns, childhood friends from a rural Southern town, one white, one black—that the sub-textual tricks are especially powerful. Both characters are going to college, celebrated and encouraged by their families, but the whites of the town discourage the education of black John.

“It’ll spoil him, – ruin him,” they said. “And they talked as though they knew,” Du Bois, the narrator of this sole fictional piece in the book, tells us.

The blacks of the town are so excited that “full half the black folk followed [their black John] proudly to the station, and carried his queer little trunk and many bundles. And there they shook and shook hands, and the girls kissed him shyly and the boys clapped him on the back.”

But, as the whites of the town, proud of their white John and all his possibilities (perhaps he can return and become governor, or mayor, or something more), shake their heads at the foolishness of the black excitement about the black John, the blacks cannot contain their excitement about their John’s eventual return.

When John comes,” the narrator tells us, “…what parties were to be, and what speakings in churches; what new furniture in the front room, – perhaps even a new front room; and then perhaps a big wedding; all this and more – when John comes. But the white people shook their heads.”  

The twists and turns “Of the Coming of John” takes from here are gut wrenching, but just from the opening, very intricate detail, some of the subtext is already horridly clear: black John carries the weight of all of his people, he is the hope and the dream, he cannot fail, and if this suffocating baggage does not, alone, ruin him, most certainly the white blocks stacked against him will. Worse, the blacks are trying to play by the rules, to get ahead, to carry a whole people forward, but the whites, the rule makers, know this education game is not set up for a winning outcome for the blacks, or the “heavily handicapped sons of the freedmen,” as Du Bois refers to them in the book’s essay titled “Of the Training of Black Men.” The whites are sure blacks reaching too high will only lead to a bitter end. This is made overtly clear later, when the father of white John, a judge in control of whether or not black John can start a school for the black children in the town, reminds black John of his station in life.

Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were, – I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well – well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?

There are additional layers of subtext here, including a central point of this protest piece: Du Bois is in communication with naysayers, beyond the book, on the possibilities for black intellect; he’s saying that part of the blacks’ handicap is the calculated, systematic and perpetuated suppression of black intellect across generations.

Calculated, systematic and perpetuated suppression of black life is what Nigerian-born black protest writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie protests, over one hundred years later, in a 2014 interview in which she describes a “self-styled reading journey,” of both “American and African-American history books,” to better understand the white supremacist narratives she’d been feeling complicit in by not understanding.

When you’re an immigrant … it’s very easy to internalize the mainstream ideas. It’s easy… to think, “Oh, the ghettos are full of black people because they’re just lazy and they like to live in the ghettos,” because that’s sort of what mainstream thinking is. And then when you read about the American housing policies for the past 100 years it starts to make sense. And then it forces you to let go of these simple stereotypes.

This journey led to Adichie’s novel Americanah becoming a work of black protest literature, filled with subtext that chips away and reveals the sabotage of generations of black lives. Surely, she studied a little Du Bois.

I realized something, finishing up Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John,” written over a hundred years ago: not only was the whole thing subtext, but protest, too. It was, after all, written in the time of Jim Crow, when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized openly, and when the lynching of black bodies still happened in full celebratory gaze of white men, women and children.

“I could see my dead body lying in some place where they let white kids out of Sunday School to come and look at me, and rejoice,” Thurgood Marshall, born in 1908, once wrote, of his recurring fear that he’d be lynched.

There’s a key point here: That is, you cannot fully grasp the layers of meaning in black protest literature unless you have some understanding of black history in this country and the ongoing injustices faced by black people. Now, sometimes black protest writers include some of that history in the text, but others get right to the messages, expecting readers to have arrived at the text already educated on the background.

The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, and between 1882 and 1968, a year after Marshall became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, at least 4,742 people, predominantly black Americans, were lynched in the United States. In fact, the subtext of the last lines in “Of the Coming of John” leaves us, as the scene builds upon internal thoughts, with a foreboding that the lynching of black John by the white John’s father is all but imminent.

Amid the trees in the dim morning twilight he watched their shadows dancing and heard their horses thundering toward him, until at last they came sweeping like a storm, and he saw in front that haggard white-haired man, whose eyes flashed red with fury. Oh, how he pitied him, – pitied him, – and wondered if he had the coiling twisted rope. Then, as the storm burst round him, he rose slowly to his feet and turned his closed eyes toward the Sea. And the world whistled in his ears.

Along with Du Bois, I had been also reading black protest writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. From the very opening of his book, I could see the through-lines that connected Coates to other black protest writers, particularly his condemnation of racially motivated violence against black bodies, and his desire to probe the sociology behind it.

With the choice of title alone, Coates is in conversation with black protest writers Du Bois and Richard Wright. In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the opening essay of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.” The question Du Bois speaks of and proceeds to elaborate on is, “How does it feel to be a problem?”—a question that resonates throughout Coates’s book. Thirty-two years later, after Du Bois’s 1903 work, the Partisan Review published a poem by Wright about a black man stumbling upon the scene after a lynching. Titled Between the World and Me, it begins:

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled

            suddenly upon the thing,

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly

            oaks and elms

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting

            themselves between the world and me….

Though he never uses the word lynching, we know from everything he describes, as the poem continues—torn tree limbs, a pair of trousers stiff with black blood, trampled grass, butt-ends of cigars, peanut shells, drained gin-flask, a whore’s lipstick—this isn’t just a lynching, it was a celebrated death show, attended by crowds of men and women: the very kind Thurgood Marshall feared. Eighty years later, Coates opens his book with the poem’s first stanza. Coates’s Between the World and Me and black protest writer James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time also share a framework, as epistolary guides to young black men. Coates’s is a letter to his son, and Baldwin’s to his nephew, how-to’s for surviving mentally, physically and spiritually as they make the transition from black boys to black men in race-obsessed America. A through-line stretching across a half-century.

So when Compton-born Lamar accuses white supremacists of tampering with his people, getting rich off them, making “a killin,’” and in the process devastating the community and leaving behind a people with a damaged emancipation, of course we can hear an echo of Coates’s explanation to his son about what it meant “to be black in the Baltimore of my youth.” It was, he said, “to be naked before the elements of the world, before all of the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Coates, like Lamar, sees this as the result of an act of plunder, of both material and spiritual riches, that has left behind a damaged people, locked in an earthly hell, where destroy wins out over build. Coates tells his son of this plunder, this sabotage, “[A] society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” That something darker is what Adichie took it upon herself to study… and as I grasped these through-lines, I finally fully understood why Lamar is increasingly taught in high school and college.

I began to think very intently about a number of questions: What is black protest writing, really? What connects black protest writers and what makes them part of the lineage? Why does subtext in black protest writing abound? What types of messages are being sent and who are they for? And what background is necessary to fully understand this kind of protest literature? We’ve answered some of this, but let’s continue looking deeper under the hood.

When black authors use their writing to challenge injustices, inequalities, and the secondary status faced by black people in America, in order to provoke change—from the earliest literary efforts to present day, that is black protest writing.

From there the through-lines become clear, whether it’s challenging inequality of education, disenfranchisement, state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, discrimination, prejudice, cultural appropriation, claims of black inferiority, or addressing centuries of theft of labor, freedom and self determination, the overarching connection is the protest of wrongs committed upon a people, and the call to rectify those injustices.

Once these through-lines become clear, it becomes easy to see how black protest writer Kendrick Lamar, for example, pulls from the same cultural aesthetic heritage as black protest writer George Moses Horton, enslaved on a tobacco plantation in early 19th-century North Carolina. Horton’s protest poetry first entered the American literary scene as performance, as he had not yet learned how to write. A professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill transcribed Horton’s performed verses, resulting in the 1829 publication of Horton’s first book, The Hope of Liberty. Thus goes an excerpt from “The Slave’s Complaint,” a protest poem from the collection:

Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune’s rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride

Must I dwell in Slavery’s night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,

Horton’s entire piece is a carefully constructed repudiation of the institution that cast aside his humanity, stole his labor, time and freedom, minimalized and ridiculed his suffering.

Horton had tried tirelessly to buy his freedom, renting himself out beyond his regular duties. His immediate audience an educated white one in the Deep South, Horton’s protest writings were ostensibly a means to provoke in their humanity a desire to end this institution that left enslaved people with the only expectation of freedom coming through death and an assumed ascendancy to heaven. “The Slave’s Complaint” isn’t just a complaint—in the beseeching of God for His intervention, it’s also a shaming of man for his injustices committed on earth. Horton hadn’t been dead more than 20 years before a white critic, appreciative of his poetry but not his politics, wrote, dismissively, “George never really cared for more liberty than he had, but was fond of playing to the grandstand.” Exactly Horton’s point: “Will the world my pains deride forever?”

Though not the earliest black protest writer, Horton was one of the first to protest slavery in poetic form. He remained enslaved for 60-plus years, even as his poetry moved freely about society, making him the only enslaved person in America to publish a book while in bondage, and especially important to the lineage of black protest writers, who all find a genesis in the devastating legacy of slavery on the black community and America as a whole. This may be the biggest through-line of all, connecting every black protest writer mentioned in this essay, across three centuries.

But what’s with all the subtext? Why does it abound in black protest literature? Why don’t Lamar and Horton come right out and call their oppressors by name? Why does Du Bois fictionalize one of his most damning indictments of white supremacy? The answer is not complicated: the artful cloaking of messages is often the only way for the oppressed to speak their fullest truth. Or, as Coates recently put it, “[Y]ou can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history.”

Think of the scene in Beyoncé’s recent “Formation” video, of a little boy dancing alone in front a line of police officers in riot gear, then throwing his hands up in the end—clearly intended as an indictment of police brutality against unarmed black people, it is, nevertheless, a scene in a music video. But it had police officers across the country pledging to boycott security at Beyonce’s events, especially after her Superbowl halftime performance of the song, the not-so-subtle message from those police officers being we’ll leave you in harm’s way if you don’t stop. Imagine the further rage if she had actually spoken in plain language?

We see this artful cloaking of livid discontent, and a parallel demand for justice, again and again in black protest literature. In the 1912 novel the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, black protest writer James Weldon Johnson uses the cloak of fiction to protest the destructive pressures on the psyche brought on by racial prejudice. The pressure is so bad, the fictional ex-colored man tells us, that “fair-complexioned colored people” are “actually and continually” being “forced over into the white race,” forever leaving behind communities and families to pass as something that will release them from their secondary status.

We see artful cloaking with black protest writer Toni Morrison’s rejection of white superiority-induced black inferiority. “I have never seen Black people so preoccupied with the man as I do now. It’s as if all those Black children had their brains shot out just so we could wear a kente cloth bikini in “our own” magazine (that looks just like “his” magazine),” she declared in “Behind the Making of The Black Book,” published in “Black World,” in 1974. One of America’s most venerated writers, who’d one day have a Nobel, a Pulitzer, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, had been writing about violence against black bodies long before Lamar and Coates were even born. We did not suffer this much, she’s saying, lose this much just so we could be imitations of the oppressor, dressed up in black culture to pass it off.

We see artful cloaking when black protest writer James Baldwin laments, in “Down at the Cross: A Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published in the 1963 book The Fire Next Time, how he came to understand there’s no innocence to be had for young black children.

I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.

The deeper message here? That he isn’t saying outright? That echoes gravely when Lamar rapped, “you never liked us anyway”? It’s the understanding that black girls and black boys don’t get to experience the innocence of childhood in the face of abuses of the law. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Tamir Rice were all portrayed by their killers as looking older than they were (one of the words to describe the look of Mike Brown: “demon”). But here, Baldwin, aware of that trick, makes sure you know he knows: “When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older.” Probing Lamar’s lyrics through that lens, the “never” hits in the gut harder: you never liked us anyway, not even when we were in our most innocent state, not even when we were children.

The tragedy of this idea runs through Du Bois’s “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” published in The Souls of Black Folk. Therein an anguished Du Bois tries to find some consolation in the death of his beautiful toddler son, his first born, who will be spared “the studied humiliations of fifty million fellows.” “Well sped, my boy,” Du Bois says to his dead son, “before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow.” Better his son die than have his innocence vandalized, as happened to Lamar and Baldwin at early ages.

Black protest writers are in a constant conversation with each other across decades and centuries. The pressure, the struggle, permeates the culture. But so too does the effort to build confidence around black beauty, ancestry, culture and worth, to counter the white supremacist narrative of black inferiority. Lamar, for example, talks with pride about coming from the bottom of mankind, for him the foundation, not the floor. He embraces his nappy hair, the structure of his nose, and assumptions about his genitals. He calls himself a proud monkey, flipping the negative to a self-determined and self-defined positive: nigger to nigga. He talks about his beautiful culture under threat, being raided for its riches. He talks about being black as the moon, his rich heritage—though fully functioning and present—obscured by oppressive forces that only give prominent visibility to that which fits into their narrative of white superiority. Lamar is black as the (part of the) moon that is forever faced away from our view, as white supremacy keeps a “tidal lock” on what we get to see and what we don’t. If we listen closely to Lamar, we can hear the cultural aesthetic progression. We can hear the voices of both his contemporaries and his forbearers.

We hear black protest writer Malcom X’s rejection of black inferiority, in a 1962 speech, ever the master of cleverly rendered subtext. “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” he demands.

We hear black protest writer Claudia Rankine’s righteous anger in her 2014 poetry/essay book, Citizen: An American Lyric, as she recounts a degrading encounter. “You are late, you nappy-headed ho,” says a white friend. “You don’t know what she means,” writes Rankine. “You don’t know what response she expects from you nor do you care. For all your previous under-standings, suddenly incoherence feels violent.” 

We hear black protest writer James Baldwin aiming to awaken his nephew to the beauty of his obscured heritage in his 1963 essay “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” 

We hear black protest writer Toni Morrison doing the same for black women in “A Knowing So Deep,” published in Essence magazine in 1985. “Dear Us: You were the rim of the world—it’s beginning. Primary. In the first shadow the new sun threw, you carried inside you all there was of startled and startling life.” 

We hear black protest writer Edward P. Jones, in his 2003 novel The Known World, pushing back on the false notion that blacks are from the bottom of mankind. Just thirteen pages in, white slave patrollers criticize a black slave owner’s business acumen. “This is what happens when you give niggers the same rights as the white man,” we are made to hear the patrollers say. Suddenly you realize this is not the book you thought it was: it’s not primarily about black slaveholders. Jones is just using that as a cloak to come down hard on black inferiority messaging. And till the very last page, he doesn’t let up.

In Rediscovering Black History, published in 1974, in the New York Times Magazine, Morrison gets at the painful core of countering negative messaging:

They were beautiful names—the kind you could whisper to a leaf or shout in the cellar and feel as though you had let something important fly from your mouth. But in the mouths of white people, the names meant something cruel. So Sambo was slaughtered, just as Amos and Andy were annihilated, just as the black jockeys were draped. All because of what they thought rather than what we knew.

All of these writers are part of a historic intellectual progression that keeps having to repeat itself: you are not less than, you are just as good or greater than. This repetition, across centuries and decades, reveals a struggle that hasn’t lessened—it just shape-shifts to the times.

Back to Grammy night, as Lamar continued to shock and awe with two more songs, on two other awe-inspiring stage set ups, including a soaring bonfire, African dance, and a finale featuring a seemingly stage-to-ceiling white silhouette of Africa, the word “Compton” superimposed on it in pitch black letters. It’s hard to really capture it all, what went down. A New York Times music critic described it as “a vehement, multilevel blast against “modern day slavery.’” With his performance, and its collage of carefully curated meaning, Lamar revealed the depth of history he pulls from in his writings, in the same way Baldwin and black protest writer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, made clear their awareness of those who’d gone before them. Both King and Baldwin pay homage to their forbearers when they draw from the same old Negro spiritual, Baldwin in his “My Dungeon Shook” letter to his nephew, and King with the “Free at last, Free at last …” call out in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The original spiritual origin, in part? The connection is clear: “The very time I thought I was lost, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last; My dungeon shook and my chains fell off, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

If past is at all prologue, it’s pretty clear that shining bright lights on inequalities and promoting transformation of those societal ills can be very dangerous for historically oppressed people in the United States. Beyoncé’s increasing use of black pride subtext (“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”) contains an underlying message of bold confidence in the magnificence of oft-disparaged black physical features, a confidence that has been ominously unsettling to some… Whined one journalist: “The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second… I preferred the old Beyoncé.”

What was it Morrison wrote in “A Knowing So Deep” in 1985? Beyoncé was just a toddler then: “In your silence enforced or chosen, lay not only eloquence but discourse so devastating that “civilization” could not risk engaging in it lest it lose the ground it stomped. All claims to prescience disintegrate when and where that discourse takes place. When you say “No” or “Yes” or “This and not that,” change itself changes.” Speaking your truth, Morrison is saying, will be seen as a threat to the dominant message of white superiority, because what your black woman voice has to give could change everything about how we perceive the known world.

Black protest literature contains messages within messages, freedom calls and directions to the oppressed, wake up calls and warnings to the oppressors: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” With this, Baldwin chose to open The Fire Next Time, lyrics from the pre-Civil War Negro spiritual “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn.” The subtext of this epigraph is all you need to know about the protest direction of the book, and perhaps about the power of black protest writing in general: it’s a freedom call, a directive for resistance, and a warning. And 50 years later, when Lamar says “I mean I might press the button,” the tradition continues.


[1] Original lyrics shown here. Lamar performed a clean version at the 2016 Grammy Awards.


Precious Rasheeda Muhammad is an independent scholar, author, lecturer and historian widely recognized for her original research contributions to the study of Islam in America. She is currently working on a book, When the Revolution Comes: Dispatches from Harvard to Africa. The book reveals eye-opening intersections between the story of an African-born Civil War veteran, her own centuries-old American family history, and the greater story of race and religion in America. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert (this essay is adapted from her graduate lecture during her final quarter there) and an MTS from Harvard University. She lives in Virginia with her two young daughters, Mirembe and Nyota, her niece, Imani, and her husband, Carl. Online she can be found at





AUGUST 8, 2016

AUGUST 8, 2016




Beyond The Rope:

A New Book On

The Impact Of Lynching

On Black Culture

And Memory



This post is part of a new and recurring blog series I am editing–announcing the publication of selected new books in African American and African Diaspora History. Several weeks ago, Cambridge University Press published a new book entitled Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory.


karlos Hill

The author of Beyond the Rope is Karlos K. Hill. Professor Hill is an associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and Founding Director of the Distinguished African American History Month Lecture Series at the university. Professor Hill specializes in the history of lynching and the antilynching movement in America. His core research aim is to uncover the various ways in which racial violence has been central to the black experience in America. Additionally, Professor Hill’s research explores how black Americans have resisted racial violence and how black resistance has changed over time. Professor Hill is a frequent commentator on issues of race, equity, and social justice. He has been quoted in the USA TodayNewswise, the Dallas Morning News, Texas Public Radio, and numerous other local and regional news outlets. His weekly podcast, “Tapestry: A Conversation About Race and Culture,” has a global following. Follow Professor Hill on Twitter @thinking4achang.

Beyond the Rope is an interdisciplinary study that draws on narrative theory and cultural studies methodologies to trace African Americans’ changing attitudes and relationships to lynching over the twentieth century. Whereas African Americans are typically framed as victims of white lynch mob violence in both scholarly and public discourses, Karlos K. Hill reveals that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries African Americans lynched other African Americans in response to alleged criminality, and that twentieth-century black writers envisaged African American lynch victims as exemplars of heroic manhood. By illuminating the submerged histories of black vigilantism and consolidating narratives of lynching in African American literature that framed black victims of white lynch mob violence as heroic, Hill argues that rather than being static and one dimensional, African American attitudes towards lynching and the lynched black evolved in response to changing social and political contexts.

Beyond the Rope is an interdisciplinary study that draws on narrative theory and cultural studies methodologies to trace African Americans’ changing attitudes and relationships to lynching over the twentieth century. Whereas African Americans are typically framed as victims of white lynch mob violence in both scholarly and public discourses, Karlos K. Hill reveals that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries African Americans lynched other African Americans in response to alleged criminality, and that twentieth-century black writers envisaged African American lynch victims as exemplars of heroic manhood. By illuminating the submerged histories of black vigilantism and consolidating narratives of lynching in African American literature that framed black victims of white lynch mob violence as heroic, Hill argues that rather than being static and one dimensional, African American attitudes towards lynching and the lynched black evolved in response to changing social and political contexts.


In Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory, Karlos K. Hill powerfully contributes to the movement among historians to reconstruct counter narratives of lynchings told from the perspective of [a] variety of African American actors pursuing very different goals. Perhaps better than has been done before, Hill has historicized African American counter narratives of lynching, situating them within their sociohistorical context and drawing out their specific political objects.” Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


Ibram Kendi: What type of impact do you hope Beyond the Rope has on the literature on lynching? Where do you think the field is headed and why?
Karlos K. Hill: Beyond the Rope argues that the lynched black body should be considered a floating signifier due to how African Americans’ attitudes and representational strategies concerning lynching changed over time. This argument is important because scholars as well as contemporary observers all too often perceive lynching as simply “white-on-black lynching” and the lynched black body as a timeless representation of black death and white terror. My hope for the book is that it will spark discussions about societal attitudes toward lynching and push historians to probe more deeply into the variety of narratives and multiple relationships African Americans have had with lynching and the lynched black body over the long twentieth century.

Download the Table of Contents here and click here to view an excerpt of the book.







AUGUST 5, 2016

AUGUST 5, 2016







Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi, in 1955. His mother pointedly chose for him to have an open-casket funeral. PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMANN / GETTY

Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi, in 1955. His mother pointedly chose for him to have an open-casket funeral.

On September 2, 1955, a metal casket containing Emmett Till’sbloated and broken body arrived in Chicago. Less than two weeks before, Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy, had travelled down to Mississippi to visit relatives, a summer sojourn made by many children of the Great Migration. On August 24th, Till, along with some of his cousins and friends, had stopped in at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where Till allegedly spoke to Carolyn Bryant, a twenty-one-year-old white woman, who was working behind the store’s counter.

More than sixty years later, we still do not know what, exactly, happened in that store. Some say that Till, a child of the North who was unfamiliar with Southern racial etiquette and social customs, said “goodbye” to Bryant without the requisite “ma’am.” Others say that Till wolf-whistled at Bryant, or that his lisp somehow made it sound as if he had whistled. A few days later, Till was abducted from his great-uncle’s home by Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and Roy’s half-brother, J. W. Milam. Three days after that, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He had been brutally beaten, shot in the head, and thrown in the water with a hundred-pound metal fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was murdered a month after his fourteenth birthday.

Back in Chicago, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, received his body and decided to have an open-casket funeral. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told the funeral-home owner. On the day of the funeral, thousands of mourners lined up in the streets near the Roberts Temple Church of God, waiting for hours to reach the casket. Inside, people shrieked, wailed, and fainted. They were unprepared for what they saw: Till’s right eye was missing and his face was disfigured beyond recognition. Photographs were taken, and the black pressdisseminated the image of Till’s mutilated corpse far outside of Chicago, making Till’s death a national story. In the years that followed, many civil-rights activistswould say that Till’s murder had been what spurred them to join the movement.

“Stay with me.” Those were the words Diamond Lavish Reynolds used just a few weeks ago to implore her Facebook friends and followers to witness a horror scene. She was live-streaming a video to Facebook with her phone. As she panned her phone’s camera to her left, viewers saw blood on the shirt of her fiancé, Philando Castile, a cafeteria manager at a Montessori school in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was slumped toward Reynolds, moaning audibly, bleeding to death. Reynolds narrated, telling the audience that Castile’s arm had been nearly “shot off” by the police officer who had stopped them for a broken taillight. Reynolds’s video did not show the police officer’s face, but his gun, pointed into the car, was caught squarely in the frame.

Like Mamie Till Bradley, Reynolds made a decision to share her tragedy with the world. Viewers watched as Castile’s life slipped away, while the officer who shot him barked directions at Reynolds. We watched as she followed those directions, remaining heroically calm before coming to the heartbreaking realization that Castile had died. In the days and weeks that followed, millions watched Reynolds’s video and relived the last moments of Castile’s life.

For the past eight years, I’ve taught American history to college undergraduates. Early in my teaching career, I made a conscious choice not to include photographs of lynchings in my course materials. Anytime my lesson plan included a discussion of lynchings, I would prepare a stack of index cards, each with the name of a lynching victim on it, and give one to each student as he or she entered the classroom. I would ask the students to say the names of the people on the cards, and I would explain that these were among the reported thirty-four hundred and forty-six men and women who were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968. I thought that this might be a more solemn and respectful way to honor those who had been murdered. My concern was that, if we merely looked at photographs of lynchings, we risked being complicit in those terrible acts, in their attempts to rob their victims not just of life but also of dignity, honor, and, above all, privacy. I worried that we couldn’t help but be voyeurs, observing spectacles rather than bearing witness to atrocities.

Over the past two years, as videos of black men being killed by police became national news with terrible frequency, I took a similar position. “Why should we look at these videos?” I wondered. The facts of these killings should have been enough to spark outrage and action. Were we becoming inured to seeing black suffering and death? But Diamond Reynolds’s act of heroism, and the conversation it prompted, made me reconsider my stance.

In the days after Castile’s death, I was listening to NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast and heard a reporter’s interview with a man named Joe Jones, an African-American resident of Dallas. Jones said that, after Castile’s death, his conversations with white acquaintances had been different from those he had had after past incidents of police violence. Jones believed that those who had previously been willing to accept violence as “just a natural part of policing” had begun to “feel and empathize in a way that” Jones had “never seen before.” Perhaps it was that Reynolds and her four-year-old child had been present in the car with Castile, Jones said, or that Castile had a permit to carry the gun he had told the officer was in the car with them. “Folks who I’d never seen sympathize with a young black man who’d been shot by a cop were able to say, for the first time, ‘I can see myself in that position,’ ” Jones said. Reynolds’s courageous act helped make this possible. She had “let the people see what I’ve seen,” as Mamie Till Bradley had put it.

Mamie Till Bradley and Diamond Reynolds both shared their sorrow with the world. They asked onlookers to view the bodies of two black men and see a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a loved one. Looking is hard. It shakes us and haunts us, and it comes with responsibilities and risks. But, by allowing us all to look, Bradley and Reynolds offered us real opportunities for empathy. Bradley’s moral courage galvanized a generation of civil-rights activists. We have yet to see how far Reynolds’s bravery will take us.





JULY 12, 2016

JULY 12, 2016







Frederick Douglass thought that cameras—the same technology which Diamond Reynolds used to capture the aftermath of the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile—would usher in an age of equality and justice. PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM BETTCHER / REUTERS

Frederick Douglass thought that cameras—the same technology which Diamond Reynolds used to capture the aftermath of the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile—would usher in an age of equality and justice.

On November 22, 1968, which marked the five-year anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, and was seven months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, a daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass appeared on the cover of Life magazine, for a special issue devoted to “The Search for a Black Past.” I don’t know how to explain why I thought of that photograph while watching Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook video of the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. But I did. I’d been sitting at the breakfast table, crying, like so many people, while reading the news about the sniper in Dallas who shot twelve police officers, killing five of them, and had decided not to watch any of the footage of what happened that night for the same reason I’d decided not to watch any of the videos earlier in the week: watching had, oh, three or four murders ago, begun to feel like a kind of complicity, as if we’re all prisoners marched out of our cells and into the prison yard to serve as spectators for the next execution: the gun fires; we flinch; we return, helplessly, to our cells. So I’d skipped the footage of two policemen, in Baton Rouge, shooting Alton Sterling, and I’d swiped past Reynolds’s video, from Minnesota. But then, after reading about the sniper, I thought: maybe watching people shoot one another has become an obligation of American citizenship. So I forced myself to watch. And, as I did, the screen went black—the police had thrown down Reynolds’s phone, and put her in handcuffs—and you could only hear voices, the muted, distant sound of Reynolds crying and praying, and, closer, the urgent voice of her four-year-old daughter, and right then I remembered that photograph of Douglass.

Douglass believed photography would set his people free by telling the truth about their humanity. He escaped from slavery, in 1838, just about when the daguerreotype came to the United States. He’d been advertised as a runaway, in the newspaper, with a little woodcut: a caricature of a black man. In 1841, he sat for his first photograph, in a dark suit, with a stiff, white collar, staring straight into the camera. “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or to a man?” the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison asked, when he took the stage after Douglass spoke in public for the first time. “A man! A man!,” came the cry from the crowd. His voice, his face, his photograph, proof: I am a man.

Douglass went on to become the most celebrated orator of his day and also—a fact established in a terrific new book, “Picturing Frederick Douglass”—the most photographed man in America. Douglass was photographed a lot because he was famous, but also because he was fascinated with photography. “Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists,” he said. “It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.” But photographs, he thought, would tell the truth. He had this hope, too: he believed photography would help to realize the promise of democracy. “What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all,” Douglass said. “The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.” Reynolds works as a housekeeper in a hotel. She owns a camera that can take moving pictures and stream them, live, to the whole world, instantly. It was just that kind of technology that, Douglass predicted, would usher in an age of equality, justice, and peace:

The growing inter-communication of distant nations, the rapid transmission of intelligence over the globe—the worldwide ramifications of commerce—bringing together the knowledge, the skill, and the mental power of the world, cannot but dispel prejudice, dissolve the granite barriers of arbitrary power, bring the world into peace and unity, and at last crown the world with just[ice,] liberty, and brotherly kindness.

Against the overwhelming evidence of history, many people have this same faith in technology in the twenty-first century. “The whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted,” Douglass said in a lecture, in 1861, called “Pictures and Progress.” These days, it’s data companies that say this sort of thing. “My iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity,” a Sprint ad promised, not long ago. Can your phone really see every point of view? Facebook has a say in what footage to stream on Facebook Live. No doubt the people there are doing their best, in deciding what to allow and what not, or in writing algorithms to make those decisions, but their chief consideration isn’t the public good, which is how a newspaper would make that decision; their chief consideration is consumer satisfaction. (And, lately, newspapers are following Facebook, instead of leading.) There are reasons to stream a murder live. I’m just not sure Facebook has reckoned the cost.

There is no technological fix for atrocity. The posting on the Internet of footage from iPhones and dash cams and body cams, capturing the bodies of so many black men, bleeding, crying, dying, is meant as both evidence and a call to action. And it serves those ends, by exposing the truth. But the posting and reposting have a lot in common with the replication and circulation of photographs taken by spectators at lynchings in Jim Crow-era America. Black newspapers sometimes published those photographs, so that “the world may see and know what semi-barbarous America is doing,” as an African-American editor, in Kansas, put it. More often, though, far more often, those photographs were sold as postcards.

A daguerreotype of Douglass appeared on the cover of Life in November, 1968, after a series of unbearable events. In March, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, reported, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Between February and April of that year, in Memphis, African-American garbage workers went on strike and marched, wearing signs and carrying placards that read “I AM A MAN.” At one march, which was meant to be peaceful, a group of young men tore the sticks from the placards and began using them to smash windows. The police then began attacking the protesters. King, who was there, was devastated by the violence. Days later, he was assassinated. Race riots then broke out in more than a hundred cities, where protesters faced police in riot gear. That summer, violence broke out around the Democratic National Convention. Douglass had been largely forgotten until one of his autobiographies, out of print since the eighteen-fifties, was reprinted, in 1960. His daguerreotype, on the cover of the “The Search for a Black Past,” was Lifes answer to the riots, the proof of the photograph: I am a man.

On Saturday, at a press conference in Warsaw, President Obama warned against making comparisons between 1968 and 2016. He said, “When we start suggesting that somehow there’s this enormous polarization, and we’re back to the situation in the sixties, that’s just not true.” But that’s not to say there’s no reason to look backward. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and, in response to riots in the cities, he also signed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, marking the beginning of the modern criminal-justice system, as my colleague Elizabeth Hinton, a historian, points out in an extraordinary and important new book, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.” It may be that there aren’t answers to be found in the search for a black past. No tape can be rewound. But a frame has been frozen in time, in black and white. This face, this proof: here was a man, here are men, white and black, to be mourned.












ever growing gap

This report examines the growing racial wealth divide for Black and Latinos households and the ways that accelerating concentrations of wealth at the top compound and exacerbate this divide. We look at trends in wealth accumulation from 1983 to 2013, as well as projections of what the next thirty years might bring. We also consider the impact public policy has had in contributing to the racial wealth divide and how new policies can close this gap.

  •   Over the past 30 years, the average wealth of White families has grown by 84%—1.2 times the rate of growth for the Latino population and three times the rate of growth for the Black population. If the past 30 years were to repeat, the next three decades would see the average wealth of White households increase by over $18,000 per year, while Latino and Black households would see their respective wealth increase by about $2,250 and $750 per year.
  •   Over the past 30 years, the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans has grown by an average of 736%—10 times the rate of growth for the Latino population and 27 times the rate of growth for the Black population. Today, the wealthiest 100 members of the Forbes list alone own about as much wealth as the entire African- American population combined, while the wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population combined. If average Black households had enjoyed the same growth rate as the Forbes 400 over the past 30 years, they would have an extra $475,000 in wealth today. Latino households would have an extra $386,000.
  •   By 2043—the year in which it is projected that people of color will make up a majority of the U.S. population— the wealth divide between White families and Latino and Black families will have doubled, on average, from about $500,000 in 2013 to over $1 million.
  •   If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country. For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today—that’s the year 2097.

In order to address the racial wealth divide, policymakers first need to understand how current federal policies are leaving households of color behind.

Only by reforming the U.S. tax code and redeploying the more than half-trillion dollars spent on unfair tax programs can we ensure that all families—particularly households of color—have the same opportunities to build wealth that wealthy families currently enjoy.

Expanding opportunity for those at the bottom of the economic spectrum is not enough: we must also address the growing concentration of wealth at the top, predominantly in White hands, if we are going to reduce the racial wealth divide.












kore press

2016 Short Fiction Contest

Edwidge Danticat – Judge

AUG 30 2016 NEW deadline


Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously , andClaire of the Sea Light. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Best American Essays 2011, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2. She  has written five books for children and  young adults, Anacaona, Behind the Mountains, Eight Days, The Last Mapou , and Mama’s Nightingale, as well as a travel narrative, After the Dance. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow. Her most recent books is Untwine, a young adult novel. (photo by Jonathan Demme).


About the contest


This competition is open to any female-identified individual writing in English, regardless of nationality. Submitters cannot be friends of the judge or recent students, as it would be a conflict of interest.

How to Submit 

2016 deadline is AUG 30, 2016. Judge is Edwidge Danticat. Submit online here. $20 reading fee, some scholarships are available (contact Jussara Esprit).

Comment box should include:

  • daytime and evening telephone numbers
  • where you heard about the contest

All entrants will be notified of results via email.

Manuscripts must be:

• submitted as RTF, DOC or PDF.  NO DOCX FILES. 

• a minimum of 4,000 words and a maximum of 12,000 words 
• double-spaced and paginated
• ANONYMOUS (do not include your name anywhere on the manuscript, and please do not include a title page with names). 
• original fiction written by the applicant (translations are not eligible)

• unpublished at the time of submission (if the story is accepted elsewhere during our deliberation process, please notify us immediately)

 acknowledgments unnecessary.

The Process

Batches of manuscripts are delivered to 5-6 preliminary readers of diverse backgrounds and literary perspectives. Stories selected by these preliminary readers are ranked and then reviewed and ranked again by a second reader. The 10-20 semifinalists are then forwarded to the judge, who chooses 2-3 finalists and a winner. 


We endorse and agree to comply with the following statement released by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses: 

CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believes that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to:

1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 

2) provide clear and specific contest guidelines — defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 

3) make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. 

This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.

For more information e-mail us or call us at 520.327.2127.




ca submit-header

The winner will receive $500 and publication in Cosmonauts Avenue. Details below!

Deadline: August 15, 2016
Judge: Mona Awad


  • Stories should not exceed 4,000 words and must be previously unpublished.
  • We accept (and encourage) entries from all ages and countries.
  • All entries should be in a standard typeface and 12pt font.
  • One story maximum per entry.
  • A $10USD reading fee must accompany each entry.
  • Winners will be notified in early autumn.
  • Multiple entries are permissible, as long as they are accompanied by separate reading fees.
  • All stories will be considered for publication.
  • The final judge will read manuscripts blind.
  • Submit online via Submittable.