The Adidas Controversy: Wage Slavery and the Shackling of Black Youth

Copyright 2012 by Ewuare X. Osayande

When I first saw the photo of the Adidas sneaker JS Roundhouse Mid online, I thought it was a crude meme or somebody’s idea of a bad joke. It was very hard for me to take seriously. What corporation would place such a product on the market? And why? Then I saw the controversy make the national TV news and realized this was anything but a virtual hoax.

Given the number of Black athletes that are either sponsored by Adidas or spokespersons for the sneaker manufacturer – not to mention Hip Hop’s storied love affair with the brand as articulated in the iconic rap hit “My Adidas” – one would think that they, of all corporate entities, would never do something as demeaning as this to a critical consumer base that yields them tremendous profits and the ever-coveted street cred. But they did. This sneaker is an insult to a community already injured by the policies of corporations like Adidas that leave them trapped in debilitating poverty, disproportionately warehoused throughout this nation’s prisons.

With Rev. Jesse Jackson’s intervention playing a decisive role, the company has reportedly decided to pull the sneaker which was to hit the market with a hefty $350 price-tag. Since, many have stated that Adidas needs to publish an official apology. But this is clearly a case where an apology won’t cut it.

What Adidas did is nothing more than what any other corporation does:  Produce product for the enrichment of its owners. The regard for the actual consumer is minimal to none. They exist to profit. Period. In this case, Adidas was set to not only exploit the oppression of the Black community, but have us buy our oppression back at a premium as well. When this kind of bank-rolled bigotry has occurred in the past, the Black elite’s response has been to call on these corporations to diversify their executive boards believing that placing Black faces in high places will provide the necessary stopgap measure to quell such racism. Instead what has occurred is that these Black VPs become defensive agents for the still majority-white owners against accusations of racism.

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why you’ve never seen a sneaker manufacturing plant in the hood? Given the amount of free advertising rap artists give these corporate brands and the ton of loot Black youth cough up to rock their sneaks, it would seem to make sense. Problem is that it doesn’t make cents. Adidas, like every other multinational corporation, sets up shop where they can find the cheapest labor to exploit enabling them to reap the largest net profit.

Right now the company is in hot water in London, and it is not over these “shackle sneakers” but another kind of shackles. Adidas’ reported use of sweatshop labor in Indonesia has come under fire in light of the company being a main sponsor and apparel provider for the Olympic Games there next month. For child laborers working for Adidas what these shackles represent is not some throw-back to an American Antebellum past or a commercialized allusion to the incarceration of a consumer base. The shackles they wear - although not literal - are still quite concrete as they are caught in the vice-grip of a wage slavery that is inextricably linked to the record incarceration of African American youth.

Rather than calling on Adidas to offer a hollow apology that in the end would amount to good publicity for this degenerate corporation, we should demand an end to wage slavery and insist on the creation of unionized jobs in our communities – organizing to free both African American and Southeast Asian youth from shackles that remain all too real.

Ewuare X. Osayande is an activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race and Hip Hop and Whose America?



by Ewuare X. Osayande

Right now in Florida there is a person serving a 20 year sentence that claimed the controversial Stand Your Ground law as defense. No, I am not referring to George Zimmerman, who is yet to stand trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, who remained free without charge until a national outcry erupted. I am talking about Marissa Alexander, African American mother of three. Her crime? Discharging a warning shot into the wall in her home that killed or wounded no one with a gun she had a license to own and use.

Her case is one of the most egregious acts of state-sanctioned injustice to appear in the past year. It represents not only the failure of the justice system to exact justice on our behalf as a community, it also represents the failure of a Black leadership that has up until now remained on the sidelines and watched as the system has railroaded this sister.

Why has there been such silence on the part of the “Black Triumvirate” of Sharpton, Jealous and Jackson? Earlier this Spring, the Rev. Al Sharpton was said to be looking into the case. Why haven’t we heard from him? Or them? Or any of the other so-called Black leaders that lifted their voices to call national attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin? Why haven’t we heard President Obama weigh in with “Marissa could be my wife” or “Marissa could be my sister”?

Is it because she is a woman? The overwhelming majority of cases that galvanize the attention of Black leadership from the grassroots to the elite are cases where the victim is a Black male.

Is it because her attacker is a Black man? When it was discovered that George Zimmerman was not as white as many first suspected, that didn’t seem to deter or diminish our communal outcry. But, in this case, could it be that the lack of outcry is due to our unwillingness to come out against “one of our own”?

Is it because she used a gun? Historically, mainstream Black leadership has had a real problem with notions of self-defense and the use of violence. But this case even further complicates that claim in that we are not dealing here with a case of a Black person defending his or her life against some random Confederate flag waver. This is the case of a Black woman defending herself against an abusive husband.

If any of these questions can be answered affirmatively (which I believe they all can), then this means that we are dealing with a leadership that is overtly biased in determining what cases merit their concern and, thus, our collective outrage and mobilization. It suggests that their investment for securing justice on behalf of the Black community is selective and protective of Black manhood even and especially when it comes at the lived expense of Black women.

Ultimately, the onus is on us as a community. The truth is that Black leadership didn’t get behind the Trayvon Martin case until the Black community blew up social media with our justified outrage. If we pushed them to use their prestige to Alexander’s behalf the way we did with Martin, they would have no choice but to act.

As a community and culture there is a way that we have given short shrift to cases involving injustice against Black women. We place a heavy burden on Black women in cases of sexual and/or physical abuse when the accused perpetrator is a Black man. That is a contradiction that only weakens us morally even as it strengthens a racist justice system that is hell-bent on not delivering equal justice under the law to our community. In cases like this, our lack of outcry – due to our own proclivity to patriarchy – gives the system a pass that only comes back to bite us.

When you look into Marissa Alexander’s case, you find a woman who is a victim of sustained marital abuse. And, if you have a heart, you realize what many women, and Black women in particular, already know – there are very few safe spaces in our local communities to which battered women can turn to get the help they desperately need. That lack of help and support leads to cases where women, in circumstances similar to Alexander's, find themselves behind bars for taking the lives of their abusive husbands. Yet, in Alexander’s case, she did not take the life of her now ex-husband Rico Gray, though she could have given her experience shooting at the gun range with her father. This was not the first attack Alexander suffered. There was a clear history of routine abuse. At the time of the incident in August 2010, Alexander had recently given birth to their daughter. The months leading up to the birth saw Alexander beaten by Gray so badly that she was hospitalized while pregnant with said child.

That she feared for her life when she returned from the garage to retrieve her keys with gun in hand should be as clear as the ink on the protective order she had against him just the year before that was still in place the day of the shooting. His claim of being the victim here is insulting. We are talking about a man who has gone on record as stating that were it not for the presence of his two boys he would have tried to kill her himself. He has confessed to saying to her that day, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” The presence of his sons did not stop him from barging into the bathroom and threatening her life. This is a man who went on to confess that violence toward women is his way of life. “I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one. … The way I was with women ... they had to walk on eggshells around me.” During the 2010 deposition he went on to confess to punching women in the face, choking and tossing them around. This is a man who changed his testimony three times before Alexander faced a jury. Yet the judge did not allow Gray’s past abuse toward women admitted as testimony against him.

How is it that Alexander is the one in prison and not this man?

Angela Corey, the prosecutor tasked with prosecuting George Zimmerman last month, is the prosecutor in this case. For those that think that her tough stance in this case is indicative of how she will handle Zimmerman, think again. What this does indicate is her systemic bias against Black people as Florida’s state attorney. According to Congresswoman Corrine Brown, no Black person has successfully used the Stand Your Ground defense in the state. Corey has stated that Alexander had the chance to escape. I thought the point of Stand Your Ground was that a person did not have to flee but could use deadly force when being attacked or under threat of attack. In fact there is a 1999 Florida State Supreme Court ruling that states that “a woman attacked by her husband in the home they share does not have to flee.” There is a clear bias here as to who gets to claim such defense.

Marissa Alexander is a victim and survivor of abuse, and when she decided she’d had enough and took appropriate measures to defend herself, the state stepped in and abused and victimized her some more. She is now facing 20 additional years of trauma for trying to protect her life. According to state statutes she must wait ten years before she can ask for clemency from the governor. We don’t have to wait another minute. The same way we raised our collective voices and moved the state to act on behalf of Trayvon Martin should be the way we mobilize ourselves now for Alexander’s freedom. It is absolutely harrowing that we have to go to such lengths to procure justice for members of our community. But if we don’t, then the hopes of us ever securing a more just system are slim to none. This is the challenge of our generation. If we are to rise to it, it will mean dealing with the biases that exist in our communities. It will mean creating safe space and sustained support for battered and abused women without judgment or ridicule. It will mean no longer positioning Black women between the proverbial rock and hard place of a culture that sensationalizes violence against women and a religious ethos that counsels battered women to remain and renders prayer as primary remedy.


Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is an activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop.

For more information on Marissa Alexander's case, please visit: http://www.justiceformarissa.blogspot.com/


12 Books by Black Women Every Black Man Should Read

by Ewuare X. Osayande

In honor of Women’s History Month, and, more so, in honor of the herstory of Black women and the truths of that story that continue to be overlooked, undermined, belittled and denied by men, I have compiled a list of twelve books that have educated me toward a greater understanding, respect and admiration of Black women and a deeper appreciation and awareness of the issues that confront them and all of us in the Black community in the United States and the world around us.

 As men, we are often socialized to not view women as our intellectual equals. Rather, we are socialized to view women as overly emotional, irrational beings that have been placed here on this earth for our personal benefit and pleasure. This kind of patriarchal socialization often leads to a condition where we dismiss the consideration of what women have to say. This dismissal is often a form of patriarchal protection. If we can deny their voice, then we do not have to be held accountable to the truths that are revealed from their experiences. This position produces an environment that is often hostile to the voices of Black women. In limiting our exposure to the literature of Black women, we are indeed limiting ourselves as Black men and contributing to a condition that is not healthy for us or our sisters, or our community as a whole.

There is a wealth of insight in books by Black women that can only make us better Black men, better fathers, sons, brothers, friends, lovers, better human beings, better able to make a positive and constructive contribution to our community’s development. This list is written for our education and edification as Black men. By reading books by Black women that encourage us to think more deeply and feel more fully even as we are challenged to move past our socialized misperceptions of women, we are provided an opportunity to evolve our consciousness and grow and develop into the men that our community needs us to be.

1. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings

Whenever we talk about “Black History,” great men always come to mind. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X. Frederick Douglass. Sometimes Black women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are given their due. But in most cases the record ends there. In Giddings classic study, we are shown that Tubman and Truth were only the beginning of the story of our continuing sojourn here in this country. She goes through the lineage of Black women who organized and struggled against all manner of institutional racism and communal sexism. She details how there would be no Civil Rights or Black Power movements to speak of were it not for the courageous example of women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker and many others. If we are serious about our history and honoring our ancestors, then we owe it to ourselves to know these women and to remember them, too.

2. Beloved by Toni Morrison

In much of our discussion about slavery as Black men, we give little voice to the pain and trauma experienced by Black women. The only time we seem to acknowledge the experience of Black women during slavery is when the discussion turns to rape. But as Morrison’s novel explores, rape was not the only burden Black women had to bear. Although a novel, the book relies on and is inspired by the historic record of Margaret Garner, a Black woman, who, in 1856, escaped slavery with her family. When bounty hunters arrived to take her and her children back into slavery, Garner kills her two year-old daughter. Morrison’s Beloved enables us to grapple with this chapter in our people’s history even as it encourages us to grapple within ourselves and how we remember our history.

3. Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks

So often the charge levied against Black feminists by some Black men is that they hate Black men and are in league with white feminists. Killing Rage silences such talk and exposes it as hollow chest-beating. She clarifies that Black feminists have always maintained an anti-racist critique, and further shows how Black feminism actually strengthens Black empowerment. No other writer has made as penetrating an impact on my consciousness as a gendered person as bell hooks has. I highly encourage reading anything and everything she has written.

4. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape by Charlotte Pierce-Baker

The title speaks for itself. Our community, like most communities, denies women their voice and, thus, their truth when it comes to rape and sexual assault. In the Black community when the accused rapist is Black, our default position - all too often - is that “she must’ve done something to cause this to happen to her.” This book provides us the opportunity to be sensitized to the traumatic experiences of those who have survived rape. The struggle to end rape begins with our willingness to take serious the truths of women.

5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

If I asked you to name a person born in rural America around the time of the Great Depression, who would live much of his/her youth away from his/her parents and experience racism up close and personal, would eventually move to the city and be befriended by conmen and hustlers, and go on to be a world-travelling activist, invariably most everyone would respond with Malcolm X. Yet, in this instance, I would be referring to Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou is the only woman to have been approached by both Malcolm X and Dr. King and asked to come and organize with them. To read The Autobiography of Malcolm X without also reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (and the rest of Maya’s autobiographies) is to read only half the story.

6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I don’t think there is a book written by a Black woman in the last fifty years that was as vilified by Black men as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The word was that it cast Black men in an unfavorable light. There was less discussion about whether there was any truth in that light. For this reason alone, it is worthy of our consideration. When you read the book without the blinders of male domination, you realize that it is a triumphant tale of the power of self-love in the face of debilitating abuse. The only men who need to fear this book are men who wish to have the freedom to exert brutal authority over women.

7. Assata by Assata Shakur

So much of the history of Black liberation struggle has been told from a male dominant perspective where Black women’s roles are confined to the background. This biography shatters such falsification of history and teaches us that women not only got down for the cause, but were willing, ready and able to handle the consequences. Yet, her story is not a story of suffering but of victory. It is a story that continues as forces in the state of New Jersey continue to seek her extradition. Our integrity as Black men is only as real as our collective will to keep that sister free in united action with Black women and all people who understand the importance of her contribution to our struggle. After reading this book, no man can ever claim to be a revolutionary that does not recognize the full equality of women.

8. The Angela Davis Reader by Angela Davis (edited by Joy James)

To read The Angela Y. Davis Reader is to be enlightened by the experience and critical consciousness of a Black woman who is a former political prisoner, revolutionary, activist, professor and prison abolitionist. It is to read the words of someone who has been there in every sense of the word and remains a living witness as to why the fight for justice and self-determination should never be defined by gender.

10. Mad at Miles by Pearl Cleage

This tiny book is not short on exposing sexism for the danger it is to the Black community. Read it and be provoked to change by its probing and powerful analysis. Cleage unapologetically makes clear that Black women can never view us, Black men, as true allies until we are willing to recognize that sexism is as problematic as racism.

11. All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith

One of the most revolutionary books written, this compilation of essays makes the case for Black Women’s Studies at a time when the idea of Black Studies was still a topic of debate. Sadly, there are many Africana Studies programs that continue to deny the particular voice and experience of Black women on the strength of its own merit and meaning. This book is a response to the academy’s historic denial of the perspective of Black women. In the academy, to talk about gender is to talk about white women. To talk about race in the academy is to talk about Black men. Black women are routinely marginalized by white female scholars and summarily overlooked by Black male scholars. This book centers the scholarship of Black women and gives Black women a foundation from which to build an analysis that centers their particular reality.

12. Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

In plain language, bell hooks shows that feminism is not a man-hating phenomenon but one that embraces men who are invested in resisting sexism and willing to extend that resistance into activism against male domination in the home, in the church, in the schools, on the street, in the locker room, in the barbershop, on the job. Read it with a mind on how we can envision a manhood that is liberated and liberating from all forms of oppression.

These 12 books read over the course of 12 months have the potential to revolutionize our minds as men and will catapult our consciousness to a level that will lead toward the development of a new manhood that is based on a respect and appreciation for the equality of women and the fullness of their self-determination. These twelve are just the beginning. The hope is that it will open your mind to the world of knowledge and wisdom that lies within the life-changing literature of Black women.

Ewuare X. Osayande is a poet, political activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. He is also creator of Onus Rites-of-Passage. Follow his work on Facebook and Twitter. His website is Osayande.org.


Too Little, Too Late: Why We are Way Behind on the Too $hort Debate

by Ewuare X. Osayande

On February 17, 2012 it was reported that the publisher of XXL magazine has decided to “suspend” unnamed staff members after a number of groups have called for the magazine’s editor to be fired for publishing a video interview of rap artist Too $hort (Todd Shaw) in which he gives “fatherly advise” to middle-school boys about how to “turn little girls out.”

In said video Too $hort, whose entire career has consisted of producing rap songs that are predicated upon the sexual objectification of girls and women, is recorded giving vivid instructions to middle-school-aged boys about how to “take it to the hole” and digitally stimulate young girls by “pushing her up against the wall” and “stick your finger in her underwear.” Within a few days, both Shaw and XXL editor Vanessa Satten offered apologies. In his sorry excuse of an apology, Shaw excused himself by stating that he was in “Too $hort mode.” Satten, for her part, stated that she does not “see all content before it goes live.”

Not only are the apologies hollow but the campaign to get the editor fired is a misfire; it is short-sighted at best and reactionary at worst. She is not the sole responsible party for this. We are talking about XXL, a magazine whose pages are lined with near-pornographic depictions of and expressions about women every issue since it hit the market back in 1997. The magazine’s tagline, “Hip-hop on a higher level,” certainly is not referring to cultural enlightenment or social advancement of any kind. In allowing this interview to be published online, Satten did exactly what her predecessors have done for more than a decade. If we are to be consistent in our concern, then we should be initiating a full-on boycott of XXL and all of Harris Publications’ imprints.

If you knew the publishing history of Stanley Harris, owner of XXL, you would not be surprised by this latest concern, and you certainly would not look to him as someone with the prerequisite moral character necessary to handle this issue appropriately. Harris began his publishing career in partnership with Myron Fass. Together, they published a variety of porn and pulp magazines in the Sixties and Seventies. Such titles as Flick, Poorboy, Jaguar and Brute would often feature pictures of bound naked women with headlines about rape and necrophilia. Harris would attempt to go mainstream when he left the partnership and established Harris Publications in 1977. Today, it is responsible for such niche publications as Men’s Workout, Exercise & Health, Quilt, Revolver, Combat Handguns, Celebrity Hairstyles and Rides. XXL is not his sole entre into so-called Black culture. His stable also includes King magazine (considered the Black man’s GQ but is more comparable to Penthouse given the way Black women are regularly depicted on the magazine’s cover).

Why should we expect a publisher like Stanley Harris to have the ethics necessary to handle this situation appropriately? Appealing to him to fire his editor only works to legitimate him as it bestows upon him a moral sensibility he has not historically shown in his corporate dealings. You don’t ask the fox to keep the hens in check. You take out the fox.

But before I go any further on this, I want to take a moment to address those that see nothing wrong with $hort’s advice. I read one comment by a man who admitted that he would give the same advice to his son. For some, $hort was just telling young brothers how to pleasure a girl. In the minds of many men, a moist vagina is the ultimate sign of a girl’s or woman’s willingness to engage in sexual activity. Such thinking is brutally incorrect. Rape crisis centers are inundated with calls by women who are tormented by the fact that they experienced an orgasm while being raped. As clarified in the book Resurrection After Rape: A Guide for Transforming from Victim to Survivor, an orgasm is not proof of a woman’s approval or pleasure in cases of unwanted sex or coerced sex. An orgasm or a wet vagina is simply a biological response to stimuli. It does not equate acceptance or desire. Yet such thinking is often used by pedophiles to coerce girls into misinterpreting their bodily responses when being touched. This kind of mental manipulation and coercion is what lies at the heart of $hort’s advice. His advice is the advice of a man that does not love women or girls, but sees them as prey, as notches on his belt, as something to be conquered and controlled. The minds and bodies of girls are not playgrounds for boys or men. That is but part of a much larger message of accountability and respect that we should be sending to our sons as a community.

For girls, the issue begins with challenging the way we fail to adequately educate them when they are still young. During a recent screening of “NO! The Rape Documentary,” director and producer Aishah Shahidah Simmons stated that sex education for girls is a form of self-defense that cannot be overlooked or belittled. Such an education would provide for them the mental awareness necessary not to get tricked by men or boys or be misled by their own bodily responses.

We have much work to do on this issue. Just this past weekend at the Grammy award show singer Chris Brown, who remains under supervised probation for the 2009 beating of then-girlfriend and fellow celebrity artist Rihanna, performed and won the award for Best R&B Album. During his performance, hundreds of girls and women tweeted some form of the message “Chris Brown Can Beat Me.” Such a response is a sign of a kind of female self-hatred and internalized sexism that is nothing to joke about or belittle. It is a response that finds its origin all too often in the halls of middle schools all across this country where little girls are pushed up against walls and coerced into sexual acts only to be told they wanted it, liked it, and/or caused it and are threatened to silence and left to suffer the psychological trauma.

Problem is that we, as a community, have given a pass to an entire recording and publishing industry that has socialized us to accept a culture named “Black” that demeans us, sexually exploits us and despoils our youth. That acceptance in the main presents a much larger problem for us. Our willingness to call out Too $hort’s video, but support the works of other rap artists who say as much and worse in their corporate-sponsored videos represents a contradiction that has come back to roost. This is especially true among the “hip-hoperati,” a clique of academics and hip hop journalists who have made their livelihoods celebrating hip hop as a tool of empowerment. Many of them voicing their disapproval of this Too $hort video are the very same ones who have spent their entire careers intellectually explaining away the sexist actions of rap artists and rap magazines. Seems some of us want to have our cake (or Kanye) and eat it, too. But we can’t have it both ways and keep our integrity as a community.

Fact is, the corporate conglomerate we call hip hop is the culprit. To single out Shaw and Satten, in a culture that is awash in misogyny, gives a pass to every rap artist who sits at the top of the Billboard charts on the bent-over backsides of girls and women who have been depicted in their videos in manners worse than described in this particular interview. I’m saying that what Shaw did and what Satten allowed is reprehensible and both should be taken to task. But let us not be so na├»ve as to think that this is sufficient. How we are handling this is akin to someone bringing a glass of water to a forest fire. This campaign should be just the beginning of a sustained attack on an industry that is sexually assaulting our girls and giving lurid and criminal advice to our boys every time a record plays on some Clear Channel station across the county.

Just this past month, the community was full of hope that the birth of Jay-Z’s baby girl would be met with him putting the B-word on eternal sabbatical. For days the social media debate was raging over this. But all the talk would go silent once Jay-Z came out and clarified that he would continue using the derogatory epithet as he saw fit. Thing is, there has been no communal outcry, no attempt to get him to apologize for all the years he has demeaned women in his lyrics.

Wonder how Jay-Z would feel the day when some random boy may approach his daughter in middle-school with the “Hova’s” “fatherly” advice booming in his prepubescent mind.

Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a political activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. He is founder of Onus Rites-of-Passage, a character development and cultural enrichment program for African American boys and young men that emphasizes gender equality and justice.


Let's Stay Together: Obama and the Swooning of Black Silence

Copyright 2012 by Ewuare X. Osayande

Given all the chatter about Obama’s recent appearance in Harlem, you would think he was a contestant on “Showtime at the Apollo” rather than a president running for reelection. Passing around the internet is a 90 second clip of him singing a line from Al Green’s classic song “Let’s Stay Together” during a speech at the legendary Apollo Theater. With not a word mentioned about what the man actually said, Black corporate media outlets and Black pundits have instead been raving about the president singing. And the Black community is officially swooned.

We’ve been here before. Remember when Slick Willy appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show and played the saxophone?

Is that really all it takes to win the Black vote? Evidently, it doesn’t matter where a candidate or incumbent stands on the issues as long as he or she can carry a tune. No wonder the Democratic Party has not made any real effort to respect the power of our vote. We give it up so easily. Even so, his selection of that song in particular is very telling. In an election year where Obama will need the Black vote to show up at the polls to win reelection, the song choice is most apropos. But notice Obama didn’t sing the next line: “Whatever you want to do is all right with me.” Sad part is, he doesn’t have to, hasn’t had to and doesn’t intend to do what is right by us.

Any substantial coverage of what the president actually said that night in Harlem has been drowned out by the sound of Obama’s crooning. This from a president that would not be in office were it not for the record turn-out of the Black community in 2008. Yet, since he took the oath of office, mum’s been the word when it comes to issues and concerns of dire import to the quality of life in Black America. It is a calculated silence that we are paying for with our very livelihoods.

Just a week before the president’s appearance, the national unemployment rate dropped, and this was cause for celebration. Yet, as the general unemployment rate decreased, the Black unemployment rate increased at an equal amount. If this coming election will be all about the economy, then where does that leave us, when the economy is but one of a host of issues that have so many of us without the proverbial pot to piss in? Public schools within majority Black districts sit on the verge of bankruptcy, our infant mortality rate continues to match those of so-called Third World countries, and the incarceration rate of African Americans has left our communities economically and culturally crippled. Under his watch, more African Americans have fallen out of the so-called Black middle class than ever before. Yet, not one word from the White House about us in four years.

We are told to simply be proud to have a Black family in the White House and defend him at all costs. But if the cost of electing a Black president is our collective silence, then where is the benefit when such symbolic victory doesn’t pay in dividends we can see? Pride doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table or provide opportunity for our children. If our silence is the price of staying together, then it is high time we reevaluated this relationship.

There are those that would say that the president can’t speak on Black issues because that would cause him to lose critical support within white America. Fact is, Obama doesn’t have to speak on issues germane to the Black community in order to be tagged as Black by the Republican Party. His very Blackness is sufficient in itself. In the eyes of the white right, he is already sufficiently Black for them to raise his difference as scare tactic in their thinly veiled racially-coded script. No matter how much he panders to the white right, he will never get cross-over appeal or win the votes of those that didn’t vote for him in 2008.

While he keeps silent when it comes to us and we keep silent when it comes to him, the Republicans have been anything but silent about how they view us or him. They have thrown every vile and racist quip at him to see what will stick. In the eyes of their conservative constituents, he will always be Barack Hussein Obama, that “Muslim” “Socialist” “Food-Stamp” “who really isn’t an American” president that they would love to see assassinated but will rally to defeat at the polls if only to save face. It is this kind of racist diatribe that will find us at the voting booth throwing our considerable political weight behind the first Black president once again, only to be ignored for another four years.

This year is the 40th anniversary of The National Black Political Convention. Held in Gary, IN, it was an unprecedented political event that brought delegates from all corners of the continental United States to debate the issues of the day and create what would be called The Black Agenda. In part the convention sought to determine what direction the Black community should take toward political empowerment. The path we have meandered down finds us today at a political dead end. 40 years later, we are even more disempowered and politically inept then we were back then. So much so, that just last year our first Black president stood up in front of the Congressional Black Caucus and told us to stop whining and complaining, fall in line and follow him. Lacking a political agenda we have become his political lackeys.

Seems our greatest mistake has been equating the act of electing one of our own with political empowerment, when our empowerment lies in our ability to hold those elected accountable to an agenda we have designed. Until we do that, we will continue to be exploited by politicians who come into our community and give us nothing more than a song and a dance.

Malcolm X called us out in 1964 in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”. He was talking about the Johnson administration then, but he could have easily been talking about our relationship to Obama today.

“The Democrats have been in Washington D.C. only because of the Negro vote. They've been down there four years, and all other legislation they wanted to bring up they brought it up and gotten it out of the way, and now they bring up you. And now, they bring up you. You put them first, and they put you last, 'cause you're a chump, a political chump.”

I think Malcolm would agree that we don’t need politicians who will come into our community singing when we need them to go out and do some “swinging” on our behalf. But in order for that to happen, we must first stop being “political chumps”.

Ewuare X. Osayande is a political activist, poet and author of several books including his latest Whose America?. He is founder of The People's Alliance for Justice Now! and teaches African American Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


the passion of the phoenix

a fury of leaves
burst aflame
like asteroids crashing to the earth
embers of amber crackling on the ground
branches laid bare

the phoenix consumes itself
in this perennial passion
smoldering into a compost crypt.


The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Struggle for Racial Justice Forty Years After King

(Keynote speech delivered at Lehigh University, January 23, 2008)

On April 4, 1967 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave what was his most controversial speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” his denouncement of the US war against Vietnam. Exactly one year later he would be assassinated.

In that speech King spoke about three forces of oppression he identified as the “giant triplets of racism, militarism and materialism.” As we gather together to honor the man and the movement he gave his life for, let us not only reflect on the eloquence of his words, but let us reflect on the relevance of his words for our time and be moved to action. For today we can still see the giant triplets of racism, militarism and materialism. These three forces work together like some monstrous hydra wreaking havoc on the poor of this nation who are disproportionately people of color, particularly African American as well as people of color around the world.

Now there may be some who would rise up and resist such an assessment stating that racism is no longer an issue. These folk would point us to the progress that has been made in this country as it relates to the treatment of African Americans in our society. Most recently many have wondered aloud if racism is history given the willingness of many white people to consider voting for a Black man for president. A white person’s willingness to vote for a Black person may point to a stage in their own personal progress on racism, but racism is greater than an individual or a group of people’s beliefs about one Black person. To think that racism can be voted away belittles the role that racism plays in American life and also belittles those oppressed by it.

The fact is that despite all apparent progress, we are witnessing the erosion of civil rights for Black and Brown people in this nation. Everyone would readily acknowledge that education is the foundation for any people’s successful progress and development. Yet in this nation, the promise of education has been kept at arm’s length for many African American and Latino American children in this country, especially those living in the urban and rural regions of this country.

The discussion of public education is riddled through with rhetoric, much of it worth no more than the hot air its words ride on. The Supreme Court decision of 1954, that ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, failed to give adequate timelines on remedying the problem. They stated, “with all deliberate speed,” and some 54 years later, we continue to wait for the promise of integration to be realized.

America remains a nation divided. And the fault line remains the color line.

Our children are failing in public schools that look eerily similar to the segregated schools that were the subjects of the 1954 Supreme Court case. Dilapidated buildings, out-dated text-books, and we wonder why the drop-out rate is so high. Why, I am amazed that they come to school at all!

Our children fail to achieve not because of lack of parental involvement, but lack of books, computers and other adequate resources. It’s not because of disinterested or lazy students who fail to pass culturally biased exams, but disinterested and lazy legislators who fail to pass laws that would redistribute public school dollars; not because of poor teachers, but a poorly funded system in need of the money that is due us. We don’t need more finger-pointing. What we need is equal funding!

This refusal to ensure that poor African American children receive the same quality education that their predominantly white suburban peers receive speaks to the larger issue at hand. The specter of racism not only remains real, it is experiencing a resurgence. Just this past summer the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the practice of bussing students of color to predominantly white schools for the purpose of insuring an integrated school system. This ruling is a reflection of the nation’s willingness to turn its back on the promise of integration that was mandated in 1954.

With this ruling, America is stating that it is more expedient to keep alive the vestiges of segregation than get to the business of doing the hard work of eradicating institutional racism. Everybody knows that public schools in predominantly white neighborhoods are better staffed, better funded and better resourced. Yet this country remains unwilling to either integrate the schools or provide equal funding for the schools. This unwillingness has set the course for another generation of African American and Latino youth stuck in the vice grip of history. The result is a nation as divided as ever. The haves and the have-nots, where the majority of the wealthy in this nation remain white and the majority of the poor remain disproportionately not white.

Again, rather than address the racism that is inherent in such a reality, the power-brokers have decided to blame those that have been victimized by their policies or lack thereof. Tell me, how is a child supposed to compete when they sit in a classroom where they are lucky if they have an up to date textbook against a child with a laptop computer that is able to get access to the latest information at the touch of a button? It is the stone-age against the information age. There is no way they can win, let alone compete.

It is this collective American unwillingness that is withering away all hope within the hearts of the children that roam the concrete streets of the inner-cities to the backwoods of America’s country-sides. Dr. King had this in mind when he wrote in 1968 that, “Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

This is the lesson that America still must learn. The power of that lesson is no greater seen than in the human tragedy turned political travesty that is Katrina. Even today, a full 2 years and 5 months since Hurricane Katrina ravished the Gulf Coast and left thousands of Americans dead and still tens of thousands more homeless and helpless.

The social chaos left in the wake of Katrina is the haunting omen of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. If only this nation would have considered King’s movement rather than have him removed, we would not have thousands upon thousands of poor displaced Americans roaming this country locked in multi-generational misery. King himself declared, “We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. … We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.”

King understood that this economic system is not set up to eliminate poverty. In fact, it functions to produce poverty. The waste produced by the gross pursuit for profit is the ever-perpetuating problem of poverty. And rather than eliminate or reduce that waste, America has decided to simply throw it away.

America is choosing to throw away the poor. We see it in New Orleans where Katrina survivors petitioned and then protested the city government for their right to return and were turned away, beaten and arrested. Just like their Civil Rights predecessors that were beaten at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. America’s response to those of us who are Black, Brown and poor has not fundamentally changed.

More and more this nation’s final solution for the poor is the prisons. Rather than guarantee them access to a quality education commensurate with that which their white suburban peers receive, rather than guarantee them the right to work for a liveable wage, the only guarantee this nation seems willing to give the poor is the guarantee of a life of misery, victimization and the promise of imprisonment or premature death.

Today there are upwards of three million people locked down in America’s prisons. They are, in effect, fodder for a new economy that is eerily reminiscent of an older economy. The legislative loophole left by the 13th Amendment enables the prison to serve as the new plantation wherein the prisoner like the slave has no rights that the system is bound to respect. Many of these prisons are private corporations that reap tremendous profits from the exploited labor of the poor who are paid wages less than the minimum allowed by law, i.e. “slave wages.”

This reality is the logical consequence of a society with an abhorrent history as this nation’s as it relates to the question of Black America and the exploitation of labor. We must have a new understanding of poverty, its origins, the reasons for its existence and preponderance within our society. We must move from the space of surface analysis to a deep-rooted resistance to the exploitation of the poor. This was the message of King’s final mission: The Poor People’s Campaign.

King stated, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

King’s analysis did not stop there. He continued to extend his analysis to the relationship between racism and imperialism. He exposed and soundly criticized the hypocrisy of a nation that preaches peace and sells war, that counsels other nations on human rights even as it dismisses the rights of thousands and imprisons them at Guantanamo Bay, that proclaims democracy even as it denies rights to its own citizens, that calls itself a safe-haven for “the poor, huddled masses of the world, yearning to be free,” even as it criminalizes immigrants of color and sets up barriers of hostility to keep them out.

King responded to this hypocrisy by reminding us that, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism … A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [humanity] as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

This is the vision we all must embrace. Do we have the courage to view our world through the lens King provides? This is the challenge of our time. This is the choice we all must make. Social change does not require a particular gender identification, racial classification or sexual orientation. What it does require is an undying commitment to embody the revolutionary idea of justice for all. The Civil Rights Movement is the perfect example of this. We celebrate King, as we should. But King did not do it alone. He was a significant part of a significant whole. And if we fail to acknowledge these other activists, we run the risk of sending the wrong message as to who can best bring about the change we need in this world.

The fact is that the very man responsible for the movement’s embrace of non-violent direct action was not King, but a Black gay man by the name of Bayard Rustin, who at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 had already given 15 years of service to the cause of Black freedom struggle.

A native of Pennsylvania, Rustin was principally responsible for the creation of SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council that King would represent. He was also the architect and organizer of the March on Washington in August 1963. Were it not for him, America would have never been challenged by King’s brave, brilliant speech on that historic day.

Yet even Rustin was not alone in the creation and organization of the movement. He had a capable partner in the likes of Ella Baker. Baker too was a long-time activist in the field of Black freedom struggle. Not only did she aid in the establishment of SCLC, she would be the organization’s first director. A Black woman holding court in an organization composed of Black male clergy. This was unprecedented. This accomplishment alone would be enough to praise her. But it was only the beginning. She would go on to create the organization known as SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that would be the bridge between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the late Sixties. It was her strategic genius that would insure that the struggle would go on. James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC, once observed that, “there were many people who knew the light that was SNCC without ever knowing the spark that was Ella Baker.”

And so as we conclude, let us know and remember Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, and not just them but all of the activists who lived their lives in pursuit of a greater truth. A pursuit that has been bequeathed to us.

These persons’ lives and others like them best illustrate the fact that each of us has within us the spark of revolutionary change. That leadership is not the purview of any particular group, but each of us has the potential, no – the responsibility to act in the best interests of humanity and the world in which we live in our quest to make of this world a more just and humane place for all life within it. This is our task. This is our challenge.

So let us take it up and not worry over what tomorrow will bring. For as King reminds us: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. … We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace … and justice throughout the … world. … Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. … The choice is ours to make.”

We must push past the privilege of our own indecision to action. We must wake up from the slumber of our collective apathy and believe again that a new world is not only possible but a necessity, and if it is to come, it can only come through us.

And all the guidance we need has already been provided by a small group of Black folk huddled together in a small church basement united in their collective will to be free. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired and were ready to move. They braved the terrorism of burning crosses, nooses and four-legged dogs and two-legged rabid racists brandishing rifles. They feared no one save their God and with that conviction they marched out of that church and changed the course of history.

For more information on Osayande and his work, visit his website at Osayande.org and follow him on Facebook: Ewuare Xola Osayande.