Friday, June 23, 2006

The Touchstone of Black Leadership

(A photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X)

A variety of factors have prompted me recently to ponder deeply the issue of black leadership in America. One is that I am working on a book called "The Covenant and the Color-line: Baha'u'llah and the Destiny of African Americans", so I've been living and breathing all things Black and Baha'i for several weeks now. Another is that I've been offered the honor of a leadership role in the newly branded Harvard Divinity School Alumni/ae of African Descent and will be serving as secretary of its Executive Committee. Two recent articles in the written press also stimulated my thinking about this subject. The first is a short opinion piece in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about passing the torch to a new generation of black leaders:

June 16, 2006) — The question on the table is African-American leadership — past and present: What is the status?

Barely one generation has passed since the marches of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet today many Americans do not think of the driving forces behind these events. Such advancements would not have been possible without strong leadership, a commitment to obtaining social justice and an absolute resolve that loss of life is a small sacrifice for true freedom.(Read the whole thing here)

Another was a New York Times editorial regarding the influence of the Black Power Movement on contemporary culture and its relationship to the Civil Rights Movement:

JUST over 40 years ago, on June 16, 1966, Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, mounted a podium on a sticky evening in the Mississippi Delta and introduced the phrase "Black Power" to a crowd of civil rights demonstrators. "Black Power" quickly became the controversial slogan for a movement that was largely perceived as rejecting the civil rights movement's nonviolent tactics and goals of integration in favor of a new ethos of black identity, self-defense and separatism. (Read the whole thing here)

I was reminded of Cornel West's essay, Black Leadership and the Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning where he comments that:

The undermining and dismantling of the framework of racial reasoning – especially the basic notions of black authenticity, the closing-ranks mentality, and black cultural conservatism – leads toward a new framework for black thought and method. This new framework should be a prophetic one of moral reasoning, with its fundamental ideas of a mature black identity, coalition strategy, and black cultural democracy. Instead of cathartic appeals to black authenticity, a prophetic viewpoint bases mature black self -–love and self – respect on the moral quality of black responses to undeniable racist degradation in the American past and present. These responses assume neither a black essence that all black people share nor one black perspective to which all black people should adhere. Rather, a prophetic framework encourages moral assessment of the variety of perspectives held by black people and selects those views based on black dignity and decency that eschew putting any group of people or culture on a pedestal or in the gutter. Instead, blackness is understood to be either the perennial possibility of white-supremacist abuse or the distinct styles and dominant modes of expression found in black cultures and communities. These styles and modes are diverse -–yet they do stand apart from those of other groups (even as they are shaped by and shape those of other groups). And all such styles and modes stand in need of ethical evaluation. Mature black identity results from an acknowledgement of the specific black responses to white-supremacist abuses and a moral assessment of these responses such that the humanity of black people does not rest on deifying or demonizing others. (Read the entire essay here)

My definition of black leadership is rooted in Baha'u'llah's teaching about the spiritual and historical significance of the Day in which we are living and the role of black people in fulfilling God's will for this Age. Baha'u'llah taught that humanity is entering its long-awaited stage of maturity, both in human consciousness and civilization. Having successfully mastered increasingly complex levels of social organization, from family, to tribe, to clan, to city-state, to nation-state, the human race must now engage in it's most challenging spiritual and practical developmental task, establishing a global civilization whose boundaries are those of the planet itself and in which diverse human populations are firmly united as members of one family sharing in all that the world has been so richly blessed by an All-Loving Creator. Human civilization is likened in Baha'u'llah's teaching, to the human body, whose diverse parts are integrated into a coherent whole each part contributing to the well-being of the entire body. Black people are compared to the "pupil of the eye" of this body" dark in color but a fountain of light and the revealer of the contigent world," that "reflects that which is before it and and from which the light of the spirit shines forth". Black people are viewed as having been "richly endowed" with "great gifts of mind and heart" that are of critical importance to achieving the goal of a global civilization founded on the consciousness of the oneness of humankind and fully aligned with God's will and purpose for this Day. It is the consciousness of the oneness of humankind and consecration to creating a social order that reflects this fundamental reality that is the touchstone of true black leadership and is the balance in which the moral worth of any word or deed claiming to benefit black people should be weighed. This dynamic of consciousness and consecration demands a moral transformation in which a leader transcends all patterns of oppression, exploitation, and division and abandons the impotence of partisan, identity-politics (West's racial-reasoning) for the power of unity.