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.


Spirit Singed

for Gil Scott-Heron
(April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011

by Ewuare X. Osayande

why do we have to die

like this?


do we have to live

like this?
when this ain’t living
the earth’s wretched
stuck in the muck and the mire
still the last hired and first fired
from “Washington DC” to “Johannesburg”
birthed into “Get Out The Ghetto Blues”
but even when we move
the oppression remains
cuz “Home is Where the Hatred Is”

we in pain
we in pain
like the pain we saw in his face
sucked dry
our pied piper hit the pipe
but he never lied
never tried to hide the hurt
never tried to glamorize our sorrow
this bluesologist
poured it into his song
and tapped the keys on the boards of our hearts
trying to resuscitate himself
trying to warn us
when he said “New York Is Killing Me”
but we was too busy surviving to see
that we too are dying
being stewed in the crack pot of America’s rot gut
cuz no matter how hot it gets
its always “Winter in America”
life here be cold as snow and hard as ice
cuz most of us still not willing to pay the price
to change the season

could this be the reason why
him wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
when we still mesmerized
by the lights and cameras of inaction
sit on our asses
waiting for the fire next time
to come in some phony nickel-and-dime rhyme
brought to you by Columbia Records, BMG or Sony
whose artists only bark when told to speak
who reek from the noxious fumes
from the butt-crack of the upper class
that gets passed off as the funk

and we can’t have any real talk
cuz when the truth hits too close to home
we been trained to
just change the channel

forgot that we supposed to be
channeling the “Spirits” of those that came before
who knew what we supposed to be fighting for
and this here be the reason why
some poets become prophets ready to die
cuz those with ears to hear
too hooked on chronic
to decipher the phonics that would set us free

so truth-tellers who were hip before hop
be left ass-out
moving targets for CIA-FBI operatives
COINTELPRO-type tactics

and this be as tragic as
those that now would turn his songs into music trivia
and play
“I can name that tune in five notes” type nonsense

while his words lie in state
on the corner of 125th and Malcolm X

where I stand and keep vigil
always on the ready
taking notes of the “Small Talk” that still is heard
as your truth still burns in the embers of my mind

I hear you Gil Scott-Heron
like the bird heron
ancient Egyptian phoenix
whose words are wings to raise our consciousness
spirit singed
black sage
born again in the fire of Malcolm’s everlasting rage

your spirit is our spirit is mine
a willing vessel to carry your “Message to the Messengers”
paying homage with each breath
cause I am always yearning
for something deeper than the ying yang
I keep hearing on the radio

so I study your verses like scripture
necessary meditation so my spirit stays vexed
and keep this candle-wick called my soul
to spark the Molotov cocktail
in the mind of
whoever got next.

Ewuare X. Osayande is a political activist and author of several books including his forthcoming collection of poems entitled Whose America?. He lives in Philly, PA where he is director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism).


When Consciousness Ain’t Common: Calling Out Karl Rove’s Contradiction and Ours Too

Copyright 2011 by Ewuare X. Osayande

After an appearance at a recent poetry event at the White House, the rap artist known as Common was called out by Republican strategist Karl Rove as a misogynist and thug. This was a broad and mean-spirited swipe against a Black president and the Black community in general. Republicans have been doing everything in their power to link Obama with the Black community to isolate him from “middle America.” This is but the latest attack.

A misogynist is someone who hates women. Common, a popular commercial rap artist, is considered one of rap music’s most conscious and gifted lyricists, which really isn’t saying much when you consider the current crop of so-called emcees repping the mic these days.

Most of the reactions I have heard and read on this have been an all-out defense of Common as rap music’s true conscious artist. He’s been honored by just about every respectable Negro in the country. Even Oprah (who on more than one occasion has spoken of her disdain for rap’s treatment of women) has even showered him with compliments when he appeared on her show in 2007. Now if that was the Common Rove had in mind when he criticized the White House for inviting him to perform, then maybe it would be an open and shut case of a white conservative seeking to unjustly malign or mischaracterize another brother holding it down. But if one were to be honest and look at Common’s more recent work, one would have to pause and reconsider their defense or we’ll have to come up with a new definition of conscious.

Not only has Common had many of his songs produced by fellow artists whose work is awash in misogyny, he, himself, has been known to take a swig or two of the pimp juice. Consider his appearance on Kid Cudi’s 2009 track “Make Her Say.” Cudi, Kanye West and Common toyingly appropriate Lady Gaga’s voice singing “Pokerface. In the track it comes off as though she is saying Poke Her Face. The song is a troubling phallic tribute that revels in the triumph of male domination. Common covers a lot of ideological ground in a few short lines when he says, “She blamed it on the al-a-a-al-a-alcohol/she had her hair did, it was bound to fall/ down down for the damn, Cudi already said it/her poker facebook, I’d already read it/but man her head was gooder than the music/electro body known to blow fuses/a stripper from the south/ looking for a payday/said bitch you should do it for the love like Ray J/but they say you be on the conscious tip/get your head right and get up on this conscious dick/I embody everything from the godly to the party/it’s the way I was raised on the Southside safari/so.” Common’s verse is particularly troubling in that he takes a verbal swing at those who have held him up as the bastion of conscious rap. His verse not only affirms the hatred of women that has come to be the mainstay of hip hop, he also disses those who claim him to be conscious. His posturing at the conclusion of his verse with “so” is a direct challenge to any who would take issue with him as if to say “I don’t give a f*ck what ya’ll say or think about me.” So much for conscious rap.

For those that would rise up and recite all the so-called conscious lyrics Common has ever wrote in his defense, I will reply with just one stanza from his song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” “I failed to mention that the chick was creative/But once the man got to her, he altered the native/Told her if she got an image and a gimmick/That she could make money/And she did it, like a dummy/Now I see her in commercials, she’s universal.” Forget that his personification of hip hop as “she” is problematic given that hip hop has always been a male dominant reality, who is the “she” he is referring to now but himself?

Those that would continue to try and claim Common as conscious even after he has distanced himself from the term and the accountability that comes with it are just as much a contradiction as he is. Rather than fight over whether this rapper or that rapper is more sexist than the next, we should be fighting to wrest control of our culture from the clutches of corporate America that truly dictates the levels of male domination these rap artists promote in their music. To do so would effectively liberate the Commons of the rap world to be able to offer up a true consciousness; one that is rooted in an acknowledgement of Black women’s equality in word and deed. To not do so continues to render us culturally vulnerable as a community. Our moral defenses have been compromised which has left us open wide to attack from those that have a vested interest in our people’s oppression.

The reality is that the whole of hip hop is controlled by a recording industry that manufactures misogyny as a means to profit. To attack the rap artist alone, then, is to strike out at what is the most visible party operating on the lowest stratum of a system that reaches the upper echelons of international media conglomerates and commercial syndicates. It is akin to when conservatives get tough on the dealers on the corner rather go after the drug kingpins.

In the rap world, the kingpins are not the new jack rappers calling themselves “King” or “Pin” but the CEOs who control what gets seen and heard, whose signatures set the tone and tenor for a culture that no longer belongs to the people who believe it is an authentic representation of who they are. For Karl Rove to call out these CEOs would mean he’d be calling out many of his homeboys. His failure to do so is a calculated power move. In one statement, he was able to attack the first Black president and Black people in general, reinforce the stereotype of the Black man as a violent sexual predator and, in the process, protect the most powerful perpetrators of misogyny in this country.

This year alone, we have witnessed and are witnessing an all-out right-wing assault on the rights of women by political thugs and senatorial sexists. These laws will have a devastating impact on the lived reality of women in this country, especially poor women of color. These laws are not made by miseducated young Black men from the inner city, but by multi-degreed wealthy white men whose deep pockets have been lined by corporate billionaires.

Karl Rove has the dubious distinction of being known as “Bush’s Brain,” a title that leaves much to the imagination given that some might argue that we are still without scientific evidence that the man actually has one. As “Bush’s Brain,” Rove was central in helping to plan and execute then President Bush’s unprecedented assault on the rights of women. It was during the Bush administration that the current fight over abortion began again in the country. Bush was responsible for stacking the Supreme Court deck with justices that would oppose women on every legislative front. In fact, Bush would replace the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, with a man whose track record on women’s rights can only be described as misogynistic. Samuel Alito has been at the forefront of a concerted right-wing assault on the civil and human rights of women in the United States.

While still a judge on the Third Circuit, Alito, in the majority opinion, ruled that Congress did not have to require states to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act. When this case reached a Supreme Court on which O’Connor still presided, the court overturned the Third Circuit. Imagine what might have happened had Alito been on the bench in O’Connor’s stead then. In 1991, while an attorney with the Justice Department, Alito scribed a memo that laid out his agenda for reversing Roe v. Wade. In the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Alito opposed a woman’s right to a jury trial in cases of discrimination and sexual harassment. In 1994, Alito defended an unwarranted police strip search of a 10-year old girl and her mother in Doe v. Groody. In 1992, Alito opined in his dissent that a woman should first gain the consent of her husband before obtaining a legal abortion. He dismissed evidence that such a requirement could lead to domestic abuse and violence. Such a position ran in the face of then Justice O’Connors’ leading Supreme Court opinion when she wrote that, “A State may not give to man the kind of dominion over his wife that parents exercise over their children.” In case after case, Alito has proven himself time and time again to be a woman-hater. Legislatively speaking, Alito can be best described a serial rapist given his unrelenting drive to violate the constitutional rights of women in our society. A misogynist rap artist would get all the material he’d ever need by just reading Alito’s opinions.

In comparison to the lyrics of Common or any rapper for that matter, Justice Alito’s words are certainly more thuggish to women. Yes, Common may wield some public influence as a pop star, but Alito actually dictates public policy and directly impacts what women can and cannot do in this country. For Rove to attack Common in light of his support of someone like an Alito is beyond contradictory, it is downright sexist itself.

If Common can’t enter the White House because he’s a “misogynist thug,” then every Republican in office since the Bush regime should be banned from the White House gates and that would include Karl Rove too.

Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a political activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. Follow his work at Facebook.