Kevin Powell: An Open Letter to Black America


OPEN LETTER TO BLACK AMERICA
By Kevin Powell

DEAR BLACK AMERICA:

This 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an opportune moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. It calls us to reconsider the words Dr. King gave us at the end of his life, when he said that we need “a radical revolution of values.” Certainly, we have much to be proud of. There is the first Black president. There are more Black elected officials, more Blacks in corporate America, the media, and in very real power positions, like Oprah Winfrey, Richard Parsons, Donna Brazile, and Jay-Z.

But, if we are to be brutally honest with ourselves, we’ve also got to acknowledge that things have not been right for some time. The civil rights era concept that our leaders would deliver us into the promised land has devolved into the idea that all we need to do is show up and follow. We have lost the sense of individual responsibility toward collective change.

Think back to the days immediately after slavery, when it was clear that Blacks wanted two things: education and land. In spite of vicious White terrorism, we plodded forward. There was hope, and a vocabulary of purpose. These values emboldened us during the Civil Rights Movement. And they were re-born during the 2008 presidential campaign. Yet, unlike before, many of us have failed to embrace the miraculous kind of self and community transformation that led us to walk, literally, into the teeth of barking dogs, water hoses, and police brutality, mainly because we refused to let anyone turn us around.

Why, politically, did we come out in record numbers for Barack Obama, then instantly return to apathy? Why do we remain suspended in a state of arrested development, believing that a dynamic leader will be our salvation? A civil rights veteran said it best to me many years ago: “We were just happy to get in the door. We never really had a plan beyond that.” So we have to be honest and admit that Black leadership in America, except a few shining examples such as The Brotherhood/Sister Sol in New York City or John Hope Bryant’s Operation Hope, has been too often stuck in yesterday. It has been unable to produce an agenda for Black America that will transform our communities in a holistic way. So we’ve spent 40 years like the Israelites, wandering the wilderness, harboring the misguided expectations that people like Barack, or Oprah, or anyone Black and famous will free us. It simply isn’t going to happen.

And while we’ve been waiting, praying, and producing the same predictable conferences, summits, studies, and reports again and again, Black America is on the brink of catastrophe. We need to remind ourselves that Hurricane Katrina and Haiti’s earthquake only magnify the slow forms of devastation happening each day. They include HIV and AIDS, poverty, Black self-hatred and Black-on-Black violence, the huge class divide, mediocre school systems, and the steady march of our youth into jails and cemeteries. We should stop saying this is a post-racial America because of President Obama. It is not. Despite Barack and Michelle we continue to be bombarded with destructive images of Black people in the mass media. As I travel the country speaking at universities and working for social justice, I note that our prisons are packed with black and brown bodies, and every American ghetto looks exactly the same: a lack of resources, services, and jobs, failing public schools, and limited access to the American dream.

That said, let us no longer wait on a savior to come. Do we want to continue wandering or do we want to create our future here and now? We have the power to transform our communities by enacting those “radical revolution of values.” So I propose six things we must do immediately: Create a Spiritual Foundation; Move Toward Mental Wellness; Take Care of Our Physical Health; Become Politically Active; Understand the Power of Our Culture; and Start a Plan for Economic Empowerment.

Our spiritual foundation must be rooted in God or something greater than us, and a love for self and for all Black folks, unconditionally. It must grow out of our beliefs and our willingness to act selflessly. And it must begin with mental wellness because we cannot stand up for our convictions, our faith, or ourselves if our self-esteem is not in tact. Susan L. Taylor put it best when it comes to our mental health, Black America: healing is the new activism. Be it the increase in domestic violence, homicides and suicides, or the way so many of us say “I can’t” it is clear to me that since the civil rights period our individual and collective psyches have been damaged. But we can heal by seeking counseling and therapy, forming or joining positive support groups, and courageously ridding ourselves of toxic people, even if they are longtime friends, lovers, or kinfolk.

Physically, we can no longer accept that we are pre-destined for diabetes, high-blood pressure, and other ailments. Yes, like all Americans, we should have access to healthcare. But we should also change our diets and exercise regularly. Recently, my mother was hospitalized. After years of sitting on the sofa watching TV and indulging in terrible eating habits, that was her wake-up call. Change your diet and live. Don’t change and die a painful and preventable death, as many of our relatives have.

Taking charge of our health and wellness also means changing the way we discuss our realities in America. Let us stop bemoaning our “crises” and start strategizing to meet our “challenges.” Let us cease spreading reports that compare us unfavorably to our White sisters and brothers. Likewise, our culture, the way we talk, eat, sing, pray, dance, laugh, and cry must become more balanced so that it no longer reflects solely what is wrong with us, but also projects a vision of how great we can become, or are.

Financially, we’ve got to disconnect our self-esteem from our clothes and cars and instead focus on building true wealth. If my illiterate late grandparents could own land in South Carolina, by saving coins in their day, then we can, too. We can use our resources to empower ourselves, to help our ’hoods, and to support our people. This means doing more than donating to charity. It means a sincere and consistent giving back in terms of time, energy, and presence.

Black America, we’ve been surviving for 400 years in this nation. The question for the twenty-first century is this: Do we want to just survive, or do we want to win? The “radical” answers, if we search hard enough, are right there in our own hands.

Return to Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner

12 comments on “Kevin Powell: An Open Letter to Black America

  1. Most human beings are not leaders. Most human beings have to be inspired by leaders. There is nothing inspirational about this open letter.

  2. this is a bit preachy and pretentious.

    i dont think Powell is as interested in identifying pragmatic solutions as he is in making vague, yet obvious observations.

    “our culture, the way we talk, eat, sing, pray, dance, laugh, and cry must become more balanced so that it no longer reflects solely what is wrong with us, but also projects a vision of how great we can become, or are.”

    all well and good, but i don’t see him advocating a boycott of BET and Hot Ghetto Mess, to say nothing of Lil Wayne. Without identifying specific targets for his lofty words, this kind of sounds more like a political stump speech than a critical analysis focused on pragmatism.

    i’d like to know, for instance, how Powell plans to replace all the Church’s chicken outlets in the inner-city with organic, sustainable, locally-grown produce.

    Powell says, “Black leadership in America… has been too often stuck in yesterday. It has been unable to produce an agenda for Black America that will transform our communities in a holistic way.” He also points to “more Black elected officials, more Blacks in corporate America, the media, and in very real power positions, like Oprah Winfrey, Richard Parsons, Donna Brazile, and Jay-Z.” Yet i dont see him calling on Oprah et al. to effect this holistic transformation he mentions.

    Which begs the question, what is Oprah’s agenda for black America? does she even have one? Remember, she made her fortune by appealing to white middle-class housewives. So could she even change now if she wanted to? now that she is in a “power position” in Hollywood, what kind of transformation of racist stereotypes can we expect from her, if any?

    What about Jay-Z? How is he helping us be more “holistic”? By recording with Coldplay? Investing in an English football club? Palling around with John Mayer–a white recording artists who thinks he has a ghetto pass to use the N-word-?

    Powell says he’s “working for social justice.” I hope that’s true, because if so, he cans tart by coming down off his bougie negro high horse and relating to the class/economic differences which separate middle-class African Americans like him from the ‘hood. I dont think anyone on 32nd and MLK or 98th and Foothill is saying we live in a “post-racial America.” as a matter of fact, come to think about it, only white people are saying that.

    I sincerely hope Powell’s agenda for Black America includes getting over his own BS and realizing that his words alone will not transform our communities into the beacons of vibrant hope he seems to think they can be.

  3. Cats like Kevin Powell spend all this time and energy speaking to the choir… these are all those “Black Intellectuals” that get together and talk to each other, basically jack each other off… they know very little of what is happening on the streets, in the hood, or in the jails.

  4. No one person can speak to the totality of Black America so obviously with an Open Letter it will speak to some and leave others raising questions.. With that being said.. I like the fact that Kevin without fail does a number of events to raise resources for those in need..whether its his annual christmas party or the fund drives he does with colleges for Katrina..I think this letter speaks well to those who may be in the circles you attribute him to being apart of.. he doesn’t live on 98th.. but I been to his spot in Brooklyn.. it ain’t much better with similar challenges..I’ve not seen him shy away from any of the key issues that pop up.. from police brutality to the bullshit Atlantic Yard project Jay-Z’s apart of.. I feel he at least tried to address them by running against long time ineefctive incumbent who after 26 years has only passed one bill.. His run did threatened and shake things up as the machinerary that surrounds Adlophous Townes tried to smash with attack ads and stories.. Not sure what elese one is supposed to do.. lead a boycott ?? I’d rather see him run for office and try to impact change from the inside.. There are enough marchers in Bk.. After Sean bell and various other egregious scenarios with folks like Charles Barron, Viola Plummer and others setting it off.. I don’t think some other folks need to try another tact..

  5. When we as a people mature to the point where we realize that we don’t see and understand everything? Why are we so trained/condtioned to be suspicious? Could it be a person is doing positive things when your not looking or around? We don’t see, know or understand everything when we meet it. Some solutions in life come out of the blue when you least expect, while most will come out the work itself. Black people have all the tangible forces that we need, what we are unaware of are the intangible forces that are at play. Many of us can attest to the fact when we have attempted something only to fail, try the very same thing another “time” only to succed. What was the difference? Time. We can only get on board with what we call time. We live in a time when we have so much information, but very little understanding and wisdom, including myself. I salute Kevin Powell because I realize that I don’ know what’s in his heart or what his purpose is!!!

  6. jose, it’s called “Black Intellectual masturbation” they give nice so-called, analysis, but like a another poster questioned where is the solutions? this seems to the era we are in today, and some really dig this type of shit, like it’s really kicking knowledge. Then ofcourse it’s back to da boogie without any solutions……..

  7. Bliss what is ur solution and what is that ur doing that brother man isn’t doing when working toward change? I know Kev does workshops every week with brothers in need to change their ways. Those workshops are very specific, long term and designed to help uplift and run in the so called ‘hood’. He’s running for office..(congress.. somebody said he should call for a boycott.. Does he need to do that for everyone else to follow? I’m seriously curious what are the three things he supposed to say to make this be to everyones liking..

  8. “I think this letter speaks well to those who may be in the circles you attribute him to being apart of.. ”

    assume you mean me? if so, let me get this straight, because Kevin wrote a letter, Oprah, Jay-z, and Donna Brazile are going to do WHAT to transform our communities, exactly?

    KP got nerve to even mention radical change when his whole agenda is just becoming one of the status quo new negroes. name one radical–or even original–idea in that letter, dave…please just one?

    “he doesn’t live on 98th.. but I been to his spot in Brooklyn.. it ain’t much better with similar challenges..”

    this is my point in a nutshell. if KP is trying to affect change which effects the ‘hood in a meaningful way, how is he going to do that from where he’s at, saying what he’s saying without reaching the residents most affected by the ills he mentions?

    “I feel he at least tried to address them by running against long time ineefctive incumbent who after 26 years has only passed one bill.. His run did threatened and shake things up as the machinerary that surrounds Adlophous Townes tried to smash with attack ads and stories.. Not sure what elese one is supposed to do.. lead a boycott ??”

    well, yes, actually–notice KP doesnt even CALL for a boycott, much less try to lead one. are we going to sit here and talk about electoral politics vs. direct activism/action and pretend that one has an effect on the other?

    MLK’s assassination is mentioned in the opening line, but as far as i know Dr. King never ran for office…he was a black man who was educated, yet he mobilized both church groups and more radicalized student groups. KP seems to be saying Obama didnt instill a post-racial dynamic onto America, so how has his election changed things? If KP is calling on Oprah to lead the lumpen masses, he’s gonna have to wait until the commercial break, lol.

    “I’d rather see him run for office and try to impact change from the inside.. ”

    that’s because KP is your boy. sure, you want to see him elected so you can get your parking tickets in NYC deaded. But if he is elected, what guarantee is there, he wont be just another ineffective politician, like his predecessor was?

    Personally, i’d rather see someone like Tony Coleman, who has an on the ground organization which is saving lives and creating green jobs in the hood, elected for office. But Tony’s not trying to be a ploitician. he’s not trying to write open letters. He’s trying to help his community–and succeeding.

    that said, i’m honestly not trying to put KP (or you) on blast, Dave. just saying that talking about “radical answers” without actually going into any specifics, is just rhetoric which has already been used by countless nego intelelctuals, without changing basic conditions. Is KP calling out the congressional black caucus for selling out their constituencies over net neutrality? no. is he advocating for more activism? no. here’s what he’s saying: “healing is the new activism.”

    excuse me?

    come again?

    KP says “since the civil rights period our individual and collective psyches have been damaged.”

    this is news?

    wasnt it 400 years of physical and mental slavery which damaged our psyches? or did that just start post civil rights?

    havent generations of black leaders, from WEB DuBois to Marcus Garvey to MLK to Malcolm X said exactly the same thing?

    yet when we attempt to change the system from the inside, what do we get?

    Jeremiah Wright, get out a here, you’re making Obama look like a racist.

    Van Jones, get out a here, you’re making Obama look like a communist.

    what’s the message? if we want to talk about race in a real way, or try to transform the system to uplift the indigent, we get shown the door. but if we can pontificate with words that appear to cover a lot of basis without getting into any specifics, we get asked to sit at the table.

    well, ok, KP–guess you can’t be any worse than the last bougie negro with a nice suit.

    for reals, i thought this was an April fools posting–until i saw it was only March 23rd.

  9. Frankly I think brother Powell raises a lot of profound and interesting points.Those are his observations, that we can all learn someting from.We really cannot expect the brother to spell out everything out for us or write a book called ” The 100 things that every Nigger should Do”.Deep inside all of us black thinking people are well aware of what the problems are, and we have various opinions and theories as to what the solutions are or should be.So instead of stepping on the head of every brother who attempts to share his opinions on what the solutions should be, lets learn from them and this clearly does not mean agreeing with everything a brother says or does.The fist step we should all take is towards deeper thinking, my observation, world-wide, is that we as black people are very good at everything except thinking hard, especially when it comes to matters affecting the plight of our down-trodden people. Here`s an old Yoruba(West African tribe) adage: “Let us not run the world hastily, let us not grab the rope of wealth impatiently and that which requires mature judgement, let us not deal with it in a fit of temper”. Black Power

  10. shaka, you’re right. we all know what the problem is.

    but let’s take a closer look at what you called “profound and interesting points.”:

    KP says we must enact a “radical revolution of values” to “transform our communities.”

    i agree 100%– in theory.

    normally, when one says “radical revolution,” that implies doing something far above and beyond the mundane.

    Powell proposes “six things we must do immediately” which he covers in just four paragraphs:: “Create a Spiritual Foundation; Move Toward Mental Wellness; Take Care of Our Physical Health; Become Politically Active; Understand the Power of Our Culture; and Start a Plan for Economic Empowerment.”

    i can agree on Powell’s suggestions for the first three, no problem.

    yes, let’s be more spiritually, mentally, and physically healthy. (of course, a few concrete solutions, such as the organic community gardens already being tended in West Oakland and other places with progressive community activists, would have served as good examples).

    but #4 is where his analysis falters. in fact, he seems to forget to mention #4 altogether, other than the confusing statement, “health is the new activism.” that’s the extent of Powell’s suggestions for being politically active? really?

    so, we should forget targeting voter registration, demanding green jobs, fighting police brutality, pushing for better education, protesting outbreaks of racism in the university system and cuts in community college funding, lowering recidivism rates, working towards violence reduction, addressing substance abuse, and advocating community-based solutions which solve, rather than create, problems?

    instead, we should follow some vague sloganeering from the editor of Essence magazine? okayyyyyyyyy….

    even if we take Powell at face value and assume what he really meant is to be politically active when it comes to health issues, his analysis falls short of advocating concrete steps in this regard.

    his idea of “becoming Politically Active” is apparently limited to “changing the way we discuss our realities in America.” ok fine. but what does this mean, in real terms?

    he goes on to say, “Let us stop bemoaning our “crises” and start strategizing to meet our “challenges.” ”

    wait a minute here. isn’t KP’s open letter bemoaning our crises, in so many words? isnt he, in effect, doing exactly what he’s saying We shouldnt do, as a people?

    quote: “I note that our prisons are packed with black and brown bodies, and every American ghetto looks exactly the same: a lack of resources, services, and jobs, failing public schools, and limited access to the American dream.”

    this is all too true, but what’s the difference between noting this reality and “bemoaning our crises?” or is KP somehow exempt from his own words?

    and, as far as strategizing, what’s KP’s strategy? let’s hear it.

    what about the people, organizations, and communities who are already coming up with movement strategies? how does this preachy rhetoric affect them?

    look, i’m not trying to “step on KP’s head” as you put it. more like trying to inject a little real talk into this discussion.

    i actually agree with most of what he is saying, as far as where the problem lies. and i can agree that his six-point plan, if it contained concrete details, makes sense (even if much of that seems obvious).

    but that’s a big “if,” because as it stands now, it’s far too vague to be worthy of the words “radical revolution.”

    i’m just saying, it’s gonna take more than political sermonizing to actually effect any real transformation of our communities. meanwhile committed activists are already working to do exactly what KP suggests, in many black communities nationwide.

    the social justice, environmental justice, educational justice and political justice movements are already in existence, working toward changing the system, and transforming our communities, one block at a time. So what does KP add to this platform?

    i sincerely hope KP is willing to deliver on that “radical” front, rather than just provide lip service for the bougie crowd.

    shaka, i dont know how many issues of Vibe advocated for black power in a real sense–the mag looked nice and glossy, but seemed to fall short of being The Nation for the black nation,if you catch my drift.

    forgive me for being skeptical, but anyone who says we don’t need leaders is usually trying to be one themselves. if that’s the case, KP, you’d do us all a favor by leading by example (or at least giving more concrete examples) and adding a little substance to your discussion.

    words are nice, but they alone cannot transform our communities through “radical revolution.”

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