Dr Raye Richardson, one of the founders of Marcus Books, at a store event in the late 1970s. Photograph: Courtesy Marcus Books
Oakland’s Marcus Books has remained a space for ‘black living and thinking’ through gentrification and online competition. Now it’s turning to readers for help
Since 1975, Oakland’s Marcus Books has survived one of the most dramatic gentrifications in US history, aggressive competition from online stores, and the inevitable racism directed at a space that celebrates black voices. Located in a city that saw its black population nearly halved over two decades, Marcus Books staff learned how to navigate the intense pressures and forge a path towards survival.
But all those years of hard work were wiped away overnight when the Bay Area announced a strict shelter-in-place order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a seminal living piece of American history – the nation’s oldest black bookstore – is at risk of disappearing forever.
“A black bookstore is not only about the exchange of merchandise,” Jasmine Johnson, whose grandparents founded Marcus Books, tells the Guardian. The disappearance of Marcus Books – which first opened in San Francisco in 1960 – and other black-centric book stores would be devastating for the larger black community, she says. “We’re really about congregating around the diversity of black living and thinking. Surviving under economic duress is nothing new to us, but this is something totally different.”
The acute distress Marcus Books and other black bookstores are facinghighlights a severe disparity in reader-led funding. City Lights, an independent bookstore founded in San Francisco in 1953 and designated a landmark in 2001, launched a GoFundMe last month and met its goal of $400,000 in days. At the time of writing, the bookstore had surpassed its goal by nearly $100,000. City Lights has not disclosed how it plans to allocate the excess funds, amid calls to donate them to other struggling local bookstores.
Meanwhile, Marcus Books launched its GoFundMe in April and has failed to reach even half of its $200,000 goal. When asked about the stark differences in Marcus Books’ and City Lights’ fundraisers, Johnson argues: “It’s pretty deeply connected to what happens when you qualify anything with black. You’re met with suspicion or dismissal.” She believes fundraisers by black bookstores are viewed by the larger public as a niche interest. “The publishing industry has had a history of framing us as a ‘diversity section’.”
Black bookstores have fought tooth and nail for the past three decades, as a handful closed each year. According to the African-American Literature Book Club, there were over 200 black-owned bookstores in the 90s. In 2019, the number was slightly over 120. The pandemic has only exacerbated their already precarious existence.
Johnson sees this as an opportunity to remind America why supporting black bookstores is important, even in normal times. “We want to come out of this and go from simply surviving to thriving,” she says of her hopes for the store’s fundraiser.
In an industry where black authors frequently receive less attention and promotion than their white counterparts, bookstores such as Marcus Books play an important role. Malcolm X was among the shop’s customers, and over the years, prominent black authors such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison held events at the bookstore – often before they experienced crossover success and were struggling to book events elsewhere.
“When I was publishing in the 90s and early 00s and had regular tours, Marcus was one of my favorite book stops,” the science-fiction writer Tananarive Due says. Blanche Richardson, who runs the store, “is a community gem and had sold so many of my books that Marcus produced some of my largest and most enthusiastic crowds. I was so in love with Marcus that I included the store in one of the scenes in my horror novel, The Good House, as an hommage to try to capture the magic of the store. Marcus is more than a bookstore – it’s a neighborhood, city and state institution.”
The Black Panthers march in protest of the trial of co-founder Huey P Newton in Oakland. Many black bookstores served as hubs for the Black Power movement. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images
Black bookstores have always had to justify their existence and combat racism. The FBI frequently spied on them in the 60s and 70s, when many served as cultural hubs for the Black Power movement. Johnsonsays she and other staff encountered “white-only-water-fountain-level racism” often. This continues during the pandemic: “It shows up on Twitter through people asking ‘Why does a black bookstore need to be saved? Why can’t they save themselves?’ They’re usually from anonymous accounts.”
Marcus Books’ call for help is not unique. Many black bookstores across the nation have launched fundraising campaigns as last-ditch efforts to stay afloat. There’s Black Stone of Ypsilanti, Michigan; Eyeseeme, which specializes in black children’s literature, of St Louis; and LEMS of Seattle, which claims to be the last black-centric bookstore of the Pacific north-west. An entire section of black culture is under threat.
Many black bookstores across the nation have launched fundraising campaigns as last-ditch efforts to stay afloat. Photograph: Courtesy Marcus Books
Some of these stores were not equipped to compete with online sales during normal times, much less during a pandemic. Unlike many other independent bookstores, Marcus Books lacks an online operation. So, for now, the store is reliant on phone orders and storefront pickups, severely limiting business when many customers are rarely leaving their homes and turning to online delivery in unprecedented numbers. Richardson, the daughter of the Marcus Books founders, is still operating the store every day.
The contributions to Marcus Books are trickling in, but not fast enough. Hoping to boost support, the store organized an online stream that featured live readings from the poets Danez Smith, Daveed Diggs, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and others. More than 400 people attended, raising $9,000. Johnson said it was more than a fundraising event, offering a chance for the black community to connect. “There was a real alchemy that came together during it,” she says.
Despite all of the challenges facing Marcus Books, Johnson says she is optimistic about the future of the store. It will find a way, she says: “Black bookstores have been making it work for years.”
A group of enslaved women and a man sit on the steps of the Florida Club in St. Augustine, Florida, mid 19th Century. A white woman, possibly a manager or overseer, stands behind them. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
White women are sometimes seen as bystanders to slavery. A historian explains why that’s wrong.
In the past, historians had often based their conclusions about white women’s role in slavery on the writings of a small subset of white Southern women. But Jones-Rogers, an associate professor of history at the University of California Berkeley, drew on a different source: interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted during the Great Depression as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration. These interviews, Jones-Rogers writes, show that white girls were trained in slave ownership, discipline, and mastery sometimes from birth, even being given enslaved people as gifts when they were as young as nine months old.
The result was a deep investment by white women in slavery, and its echoes continue to be felt today. As the New York Times and others commemorate the date, 400 years ago, when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, Vox reached out to Jones-Rogers to talk about the history of white, slaveholding women in the South and what that history says about race, gender, wealth, and power in America in 2019. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Can you talk a little about how this book came about?
When I was in graduate school, I was taking all these different courses and reading all these books on African American history but also on women’s and gender history. I was particularly interested in what these two subfields of history had to say about white women’s economic investments in the institution of slavery. What struck me is that they seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other, in many respects.
Those historians who explored the experiences of white Southern women would often argue that while women had access to enslaved people that male kin or their spouses may have owned, they were not directly involved in the buying and selling of enslaved people — particularly married women weren’t.
Conversely, those individuals who explored the enslaving of African Americans would often, in fact, say that a formerly enslaved person talked about having a female owner or talked about being bought or sold by a woman. And so I asked myself, what’s the real story here?
Were white women — particularly married white women — economically invested in the institution of slavery? Meaning, did they buy and sell enslaved people?
I looked to traditional sources where we might think to find those answers: a white woman’s diary, a white woman’s letters and correspondence between family members, et cetera. They mentioned very sporadically issues related to answering this question, but there was not this kind of sustained conversation. So, I said, African Americans are talking about this. Formerly enslaved people are talking about this. So, let me look to the interviews that they granted to these Federal Writers in the 1930s and 1940s. And so when I look to those interviews, formerly enslaved people were talking about white women’s economic investments in a variety of ways consistently, constantly, routinely.
The historians you mention who didn’t see white women as economically invested in slavery — what sources were they drawing on and why is there such a disconnect between those sources and the interviews with formerly enslaved people that did really delve into these economic questions?
I tried to focus primarily on married slave-owned women in this book, in large part because those are the women who many historians of slaveowners say did not have a direct impact on the economic institution of slavery. And they say that, in large part, because of this legal doctrine called coverture. Essentially, this doctrine says that when a woman who owns property or earns wages, or has any assets, gets married, those assets, those wages, that wealth, immediately becomes her husband’s — their identities are subsumed into one.
Many historians have looked into this legal doctrine of coverture and seen it as all-encompassing. [But] scholars who have made this argument have essentially not examined the voluminous evidence that appeared in the testimonies of formerly enslaved people.
They also looked to a very small subset of women: highly literate, very elite white women who had the time to sit down and jot down their thoughts about the day. And so they’re missing the vast majority of those women who owned slaves.
The vast majority of women who owned slaves owned less than 20. And often, the women that I talk about in the book owned one or two, no more than five. So these are the women that were probably not literate, and if they were literate, they didn’t have enough time to sit down and write down what was going on in their day. The vast majority of the women who owned slaves are missing from the analyses, in large part because they did not leave documents behind to tell us how they felt about these things, to tell us how they were investing in the institution.
Formerly enslaved people’s testimonies about these women are, in many respects, the only surviving record to document exactly that.
So in looking at those testimonies, what did you find in terms of the roles that white women and girls had in slavery, and the way that they formed their identities through their involvement in slavery?
What I thought was really interesting as I read much of the scholarship on white slave-owning women is that so much of it starts when women are adults. One really wonderful thing about the interviews of formerly enslaved people is they talk about white girls. They talk about white infants, female infants, and female adolescents.
So we are allowed into several phases of white female life through these interviews that have heretofore been obscured or kind of left out of the picture. I decided, in order for the second half of this story, the story of women, to make sense, I have to start the story at the very beginning, in the early years.
So I start the book by talking about how white slave-holding parents trained their daughters how to be slaveowners. They give them lessons in slave discipline and slave management. Some even allow for their daughters to mete out physical punishments.
Slave-holding parents and slave-holding family members gave girls enslaved people as gifts — for Christmas sometimes, when they turned 16 or when they turned 21.
There are even accounts of slave-holding parents and family members giving white female infants enslaved people as their own. There is one particular instance of a case, in a court record, where a woman talks about how her grandfather gave her an enslaved person as her own when she was 9 months old.
When you think about the fact that their relationship to slavery, to slave ownership in particular, begins in infancy, in girlhood, what you begin to realize is that their very identities as white girls, as white Southerners, as white women, is intricately tied to not only ownership of enslaved people but also the control of enslaved people, the management of enslaved people.
The other really important lesson that their parents, their family members, and even their girlfriends, cousins, female cousins, and so forth are also teaching them along the way is that the way the law is set up, you have this property. And when you get married, it will, if we don’t do anything about it, become your husband’s. And, if he is a loser, you’re going to lose. So, they essentially say, we have to make sure that does not happen.
So before these young women get married, their parents and sometimes female kin and friends will encourage them to develop legal instruments, protective measures to ensure that they don’t lose all of their property to their husbands. These legal instruments that they develop are very much like prenuptial agreements today. They’re called marriage settlements back then, or marital contracts, which essentially detail not only what property they’re bringing into the marriage but what kind of control their husbands can or cannot have over it.
These women are not stupid. They’re like, I’m about to get married, the law says that everything I have is going to be my husband’s. I don’t want that to happen. What can I do to prevent that from happening?
They are prepared, they are knowledgeable, and they work with parents and others who are willing to assist them to develop protective measures to ensure that the relinquishment of all of their property wealth and assets doesn’t happen once they get married.
Going along with that, can you talk about the ways in which slavery benefited white women and girls, both economically and socially?
Women cannot do many of the things that men can do in this period of time. One thing that they are allowed to do by law, and this is particularly the case in the South, is invest in slavery.
And that’s exactly what they do. Not only do they inherit enslaved people, but they also go into slave markets. They buy enslaved people. They’ll hire them out and they’ll collect their wages. Then they use those wages to buy more slaves.
They open businesses, and they employ those enslaved people in their businesses, those businesses make a profit, they use those profits to buy more slaves. So they are investing in the institution of slavery in the same ways as white men are.
The other really interesting thing that I observed in the interviews with formerly enslaved people is that white women often owned twice as many female slaves as they did male slaves. When I would talk about this with scholars in the field, some of them would remark, “Oh, that makes sense, because if women are in the house, they need more female help.”
I said, “Okay, yes, that would be practical,” but what has also been important to recognize is that these women understood the law. There are laws on the books, during this period that ensure whenever a person owns an enslaved woman, if that woman gave birth, that person also legally owned her children.
And so owning an enslaved woman means that you’re not only reaping the benefits of this woman’s productive labor but also her reproductive labor.
Was that true of white men, too? Did they have more female than male slaves?
Much of what I’m describing was also true for white boys and white men. [But] during this period of time, there was the development of the domestic slave trade, which essentially was the purchase of enslaved people in the upper South, in places like Virginia and Maryland, and then their transport into the lower South and into the Southwest when the country expanded during the 1800s.
In these sales, if an enslaved woman had a child, that child was seen as a liability to the slave trader. There are accounts that I talk about in the book where these slave traders are willing to just toss away the baby. But, there was this [white] woman in one particular case who would go to state auctions, and if there were babies there that were not sold along with the mother, she would ask for those babies to be given to her. She would keep the babies for free.
In those respects, there were instances in which white men saw enslaved children as liabilities, and white women saw them as long-term investments.
You talk in the book about how white women were able to achieve economic and social empowerment through ownership of enslaved people, essentially gaining some status in a patriarchal society through dominance over black people. I’m curious if we see echoes of this today when we look at white women gaining economic empowerment under capitalism?
There is a certain kind of power that comes with wealth. Enslaved people were wealth, their bodies held value on a real market, within a capitalist market. White women understood it.
But in order to sustain this system, white men realize that white women must be a part of that system. They must support it, they must see the value in it for themselves, not simply for their husbands or their children. They need to understand that this system benefits them personally and directly. The only way they can do that is to allow for them to invest in the system and to participate in the system.
And they are, in fact, invested in this system; they participate in the system. They benefit from this system, in every single way that white men do. And that is key to the longevity of, the perpetuation of the system. I think that is the same for capitalism — when you tell a woman, “You might not make as much as a man for doing the same work, but if you can get your hands on these funds, nobody can deny you.”
Slavery was a regime based on human bondage, [but] it was also an economic regime, one that was funding the national economy. When those white women are invested, it’s not very different from them being invested in capitalism today. It’s just a different commodity. It’s just a different source of wealth.
In thinking about the 1619 commemoration, I was thinking about the part of your book where you look at the way white women wrote about slavery after emancipation. In your epilogue, you write that they portrayed themselves as “forever sacrificing women who had played purely benevolent roles within a nurturing system.” And you quote a white woman who wrote that maybe the descendants of enslaved people should even consider creating an “anniversary to celebrate ‘the landing of their fathers on the shores of America,’ when they were bought and domiciled in American homes.”
Can you talk a little bit about how white women remembered their role in slavery after the fact and how we actually ought to remember it today?
When I think about that part of the book, I also think about what is happening today. The erasure of certain elements of horror and the darkness of [white women’s] investment and involvement in the history of slavery are very much why we’re shocked to see the way that some white women respond to interactions with black people today.
You can also see that in the “send her back” chants — the idea that black people have never been citizens and they never belonged. I think there are parallels to what this woman said in the early 1900s and what white women are saying today about African-descended people, whether they be congresswomen or just average black folk on the street.
It’s very much like, you should be grateful because you’re here now and stop complaining, because look what we’ve done for you. I think there are many parallels between that kind of language now, and the argument that she made back in the early 1900s.
On January 3, 2020, Donald Trump had Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, murdered. He ordered a drone strike against this man and several others that saw him and his car blown apart and incinerated. So why isn’t Trump headed to jail? Why is no one else asking these questions?
All sorts of people called for the prosecution of the Saudi Arabian crown prince on suspicion that he ordered the October 2, 2018, hit on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In that case, a hit squad of Saudi Security officials killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Khashoggi died no less gruesomely than did Soleimani.
The Saudi prince denies ordering Khashoggi’s death, but Trump admits to ordering the attack on Soleimani. Yet, no one is calling for Trump’s prosecution.
U.S. officials admit that killing a high ranking foreign official like Soleimani was an act of war. Under article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973, only Congress has the power to declare war. Congress has never declared war with Iran. Trump, therefore, had no legal authority to kill Soleimani. So, again, why isn’t he on his way to jail?
This is the same “law and order” president that denigrated Central American migrants fleeing violence and broken societies as “criminals and rapists”, and made “Lock her up!” a rallying cry among his supporters during his presidential campaign against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. And this is a country that locks up millions of poor people and people of color under the guise of holding them accountable for breaking the law. Even though 95% of them were not convicted by juries of their peers, as the Constitution promises, but were instead pressured into pleading guilty, whether innocent or not, under Amerika’s corrupt plea bargaining system.
But of course, the principles of accountability have never applied when an extrajudicial lynching is going down. The federal government has always played a vacillating role in organizing and defending lynchings versus opposing them. Burning and dismembering dark flesh is nothing new in Amerikan culture. Nor rationalizing and whipping up broad support for extrajudicial lynchings with sensational claims for the victim having committed some unproven crime. Remember Muammar Gaddafi, the late president of Libya? How after Amerika joined in a bombing campaign against his country in 2011, he was literally lynched by a street mob in broad daylight — having been shot point-blank in the head while a dagger was shoved into his rectum. Remember then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s glib remarks after his murder, that sounded like a spectator after a southern mob lynching? “We came, we saw, he died!”
As an imprisoned black man in Amerika, I know imperialist Amerika’s triple standards all too well. I know why no one’s even suggesting that Trump belongs in jail. Why, you ask? Because from yesterday’s nooses and bonfires to today’s high tech drones, and from the U.S. South to the Global South, lynching is still as Amerikan as apple pie!
Dare to Struggle! Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
 The Joint Legislative Committee on Crime in New York described the pleas bargain process in a report as follows: “The final climactic act in the plea bargaining procedure is a charade which in itself has aspects of dishonesty which rival the original crime in many instances. The accused is made to assert publically that his guilt on a specific crime which in many cases he has not committed; in some cases, he pleads guilty to a non-existent crime. He must further indicate that he is entering his plea freely… and that he is not doing so because of any promises made to him. “In plea bargaining, the accused pleads guilty, whether he is or not, and saves the state the trouble of trial in return for the promise of a less severe punishment.” Quoted in, Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial: NY, 2002), p.
The following is an excerpt from Jared Ball’s upcoming book, “The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power” from Palgrave Pilot/Palgrave Macmillan (May 2020), republished from the author’s personal site.
The book will be released on May 25, 2020. Pre-order it here.
The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power demonstrates:
• The claim that African America has roughly $1 trillion in “buying power” is popularly repeated mythology with no basis in sound economic logic or data. While the myth has a longer history it is today largely propelled by misreadings and poor (false) interpretations of Nielsen surveys and marketing reports produced by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the Terry College of Business housed in the Bank of America Financial Center in Athens, GA. and where, as their website explains, their bias and purpose is in their founding mission. The center was, “Created to convey economic expertise to Georgia businesses and entrepreneurs, the Simon S. Selig, Jr. Center for Economic Growth is primarily responsible for conducting research on economic, demographic, and social issues related to Georgia’s current and future growth” (emphasis added).
• “Buying Power” is a marketing phrase that refers only to the “power” of consumers to purchase what are strictly available goods and is used as a measurement for corporations to better market their products. Most of the contemporary and popular understanding of the myth of buying power is derived from, and maintained by, a commercial Black press whose own commercial interests (attracting advertising dollars from the largest White corporations) supersede any journalistic mission to properly inform. “Power” here has nothing to do with actual economic strength and there is no collective $1+ trillion that Black people have and just foolishly spend ignorantly to their economic detriment.
• The myth of “buying power” functions as propaganda working to deny the reality of structural, intentional and necessary economic inequality required to maintain society as it is, one that benefits an increasingly decreasing number of people. To do this the myth functions to falsely blame the poor for being poor. Poverty, the myth encourages, is the result of the poor having little to no “financial literacy,” or as resulting from their bad spending habits, when in reality poverty is an intended result of an economic and social system.
Anyone at all familiar with any part of the Black public sphere will have heard one form or another of the following: “If we just used our money like other communities… If we didn’t spend so much on hair, cars and weed… we could make our dollar circulate like ‘they’ do and be far better off!” More specifically, those familiar with like-spaces would have heard reference to “the numbers,” that “Black America’s economy makes it among the most powerful national economies in the world…” and that “… we have a $1+ trillion that we just misuse…” From the most isolated and forcibly marginalized radical activist spaces to the most commonly populated spheres of Black public discourse the refrain is consistent and always suggests the same; that at least a solid portion of the Black oppressive political pie is comprised of a financially illiterate backwards mass incapable of correcting itself to take proper advantage of a freedom which waits just slightly beyond their feeble grasp. The suggestion that Black people lack “financial literacy” and, therefore, ignorantly refuse existing opportunities to advance economically obliterates the realities of capitalism as an economic and social system or conditions that system creates.
The idea is as simple as it is wrong but is masked by a surrounding powerful and heavily propagated mythology. The “buying power” of Black America, it is often repeated, now said to have crossed $1 trillion annually, is foolishly squandered but with some unity could be harnessed to overturn the centuries-old and eerily consistent economic deprivations suffered still. However, “buying power,” as a concept popularly held, is entirely misunderstood and has been by so many for so long that it continues to confound and inhibit conversations about economics in general, the specifics of the Black economic condition, and what might be done about it. And while all communities, all segments of all communities, businesses, municipalities, etc. have their “buying power” assessed it is only in relation to Black America that the concept becomes truly mythologized. Beyond that, the myth is politically weaponized with a very particular perniciousness and pervasiveness metastasized to the “conceptual original sin” of American racism (Downing and Husband 2005). The misunderstanding and misapplication of the concept of buying power, by those both friendly and hostile to the Black community, is unparalleled anywhere in political, economic, or media analyses.
Black America does not have an annual $1+ trillion that is collectively, by some choice, spent frivolously rather than harnessed to the betterment of the collective. Here we must develop upon the difference between power as economic strength as is conventionally understood and buying power, a concept developed by business, advertising, marketing, and government interests and where power is defined only as a group’s ability to enrich those interests. Genuine economic strength is measured in wealth, assets, land, stock, etc. and with a clarity in the differences between wealth and income, the latter being what one earns in exchange for labor, the former being income earned from the labor of others.
“Power” in the phrase “buying power” does not mean what many assume is a kind of genuine wealth, sovereignty, or autonomy. Once consigned to the phrase “buying power” that latter term loses all popularly (rightly)-held assumptions of its meaning and becomes something very different, almost dangerously different in terms of how that difference is carried to, and with what impact it has on, various audiences, and Black America specifically. In the form of its association with the word “buying” power means only the ability to spend what available money (or credit) is available on only the specific goods similarly made available for purchase. Having access to rims, fronts, hair or weed is one thing, while access to capital, stock, land, expanding business, etc. is quite another. Black people can buy marijuana just not the increasingly legal dispensaries emerging into a multi-billion dollar almost exclusively White industry (Ross 2018).
Buying power, spending power, or purchasing power are all interchangeable and applied to nearly every possibly grouped segment of society and are also applied to corporations and local, state and even national governments. But the concept, or more appropriately said, the marketing formula, is used with a particular pernicious effect, when it comes to Black America and, as such, deserves this special focus and attempt at dispelling. Nowhere else, for no one else, is buying power used as a bludgeon with such regularity and persistence within communities, both in terms of media attention and as a method of “political organization,” as is the case with Black America. For solutions to come it is true that those spaces where Black politics are most often discussed and where the futures of Black people are most seriously considered must rid themselves of this and other mythologies related to the economy of the United States and the role Black people play within. This would include challenging the prevailing wisdom, as it applies to this subject only, of past and present luminaries.
Who is King Kong?
You say he me? Hell naw, you wrong!
Yeah, they called us both “ape” from day one.
And we was both kings back home,
The Kongo for one.
And just like Kong,
We was defiant and strong.
And yeah, he big and black,
like a whole society of us.
And was hunted from dawn to dusk,
to capture for the sake
of enriching a nation of united snakes.
Chained to stakes
in filthy ships’ holds,
abducted to be sold
as a spectacle.
make the slaver a fortune in gold,
smiling like sambos.
Slaver think we supposed
to curb our outrage,
’bout bein’ his monkeys onstage.
Claim he done us a favor
from our backward ways –
by puttin’ us in a cage.
To entertain our oppressor,
Be his happy slaves.
Be his buck.
But naw, we bucked,
broke our chains
set them self-righteous, lily-white
spectators to flight.
Cuz they felt alright,
making a joke of our plight.
Put their gorilla theater to flames.
They think they right,
claim we insane.
Say we wrong for fighting to be free,
for making a mockery
of their civilization,
shittin’ all over their technology.
finding cracks and footholds to scale their walls,
with natural dexterity.
Still lookin’ to reign tall.
Now they gotta look up at me!
No! Stop! The slaver say:
Cuz your nimble hands and feet,
was made to serve me,
to dance, compete, be my athlete.
But stay away from Fay Wray!
she forbidden fruit!
But he use her too.
I mean ain’t it funny,
even the woman he supposed to cherish
just an object to make money.
To berate. Dominate.
But the ape
treated her better than her own mate.
Kinda why it was fate,
she felt a soft spot for ol’ Kong.
Her own misery
made her see
the slavers was wrong,
But she was pampered not strong.
Afraid to put her neck on the line,
for a gorilla
like he did for her
when she was in a bind.
She was blind.
And even when she tried to break out
her own detention
a breakaway slave sojourner
had to save her convention.
But WASPs got twisted minds,
rape Kong’s kind,
then claim when we demand freedom,
we talkin’ ’bout Fay Wray’s behind.
He say, “She mine!”
Won’t turn her loose.
But our struggle inspires her
to wanna bust loose.
‘Til white reaction bring out the guns and noose.
Then she bail, leave us jailed,
inside she vacillate.
Watch them pierce, flail and flagellate,
our flesh and
their firepower and incinerate.
To teach the untamed ape
by lynching, a lesson
with guns branded by Smith and Wesson.
And we suppose to just take shit.
But, hell naw! We don’t buy it.
Like Kong we go ape shit.
They call it inner-city riot…
and declare a state of emergency.
But we need direction,
to stage a real insurgency
to get free.
That’s why they aim to slay and scourge,
leaders like Malcolm X, Comrade George,
Fred Hampton, MLK.
They target the head
to make us easy to play
and make us easy prey.
Til we exterminated,
the nightmare scenario eliminated.
Manufactured white fright vindicated.
Distorting class contradictions
with ones based on skin.
from united action
against the rich white men,
Black, White, Yellow
Red and Brown all penned in.
Yeah, you right,
that King Kong script
did have us in mind.
A subliminal message, to teach our kind
that capitalism’s the greatest
gorilla killa of all time.
So we best fold and bend,
or face mass hysteria
to bury the
Fear and hate
whipped up by media spin.
So bow down, do as the Romans do,
stay in line.
But we still here,
biding our time.
Ain’t dead yet!
Done fell and got back up a thousand times.
Survived every hardship
their murderous minds could design.
And we still clinging to the walls,
beating our chest,
still rebellin’ yet!
And we might be ’bout to get –
Expose the racist lies.
all colors to uprise.
Unite the masses,
against the ruling classes.
their agents and spies.
Man the passes,
to hunt the hunters,
and kill the killas.
Flip their script …
from gorilla to guerrillas.
M.K. Asante is the son of a scholar, academician, professor and his father Molefi Kete Asante is the founder of the Afrocentric movement. M.K. is just as gifted and talented as his father. He too is a scholar, academician and teacher but he’s added filmmaking, producing, being an author and a recording artist to his repertoire. The Philadelphia native now teaches at Morgan State University and in 2017 was appointed to Distinguished Professor-in-Residence at the MICA (Institute of Strategic Marketing and Communication) in India.
M.K. was in town along with his son Ion to speak at this father’s Institute for Afrocentric Studies located at 5535 Germantown Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. He came home to share information about his docuseries on SnapChat called While Black.
Young Asante explained the genesis behind the series, its point of view and how important it is for people of color to tell our own stories. During his introduction Asante recited a poem “Two Sets of Notes” about the dichotomy between Eurocentric propaganda and our reality, using it to set the stage for his presentation and illustrate the reasons he created and produces the series. Citing Chinua Achebe the famous Nigerian author , poet and professor who popularized the African proverb, “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”, Asante explained the intent of the lecture and his series.
“I really want this to be a conversation to share some things with you and I want you to also share your ideas and comments with me.” His poem about taking two sets of notes was not merely about the Eurocentric indoctrination process we call education or school. To Asante it is deeper and more pervasive; it impacts our psyches on so many levels.
“The idea of taking two sets of notes can be applied to everything not just being a student in school, it’s the way we watch the news, the way we consume information, it’s the way we create information and media. One of the things I do is, I’m executive producing and hosting a show called While Black. It’s exclusively on SnapChat we did the first five episodes in November and we are receiving about two point five million unique views on each episode. The episodes are really about educating a whole new generation.”
Asante recited a part of Two Sets of Notes again, about the minds of the youth being “polluted, diluted, convoluted and not culturally grounded and rooted” and said, “I also believe if you make an observation you have an obligation. So if you are observing that the children are not being culturally rooted and these things are not being taught, then what are you doing? What’s the obligation?”
“So for me one of the obligations is to create media and content that informs, inspires and reaches the next generation.” He detailed why he chose that medium. “I’m excited about short form video content on the Web because it reaches people where they are.”
He showed several episodes of the series and afterwards there was comment and he entertained a few questions. Each episode is about ten minutes in length just enough time to capture and retain the attention span of today’s multi-tasking short attention spanned society.
His time was limited because he had to catch and plane; but promised he would return in February. He did say a few of the new episodes either were shot in Philly or would be shot in Philadelphia.
Explaining the business of film making Asante stated, “My journey as a filmmaker has been interesting. Many of the films have been independent meaning I go raise the money myself from investors. I’ve been fortunate to have many investors who have been African-American, but not all the time. That’s been a great experience being around African-Americans who have the resources to help me make movies.”
“The SnapChat project has several companies involved SnapChat, NBC, Maine Event Media and MK Asante Productions, four companies. MK Asante Productions you know what we are about but then you’ve got all these other companies who, do they really care about what we care about? I have to not be naïve to that, no they don’t care, they see this as an opportunity to reach a particular demographic and sell ads.”
“But that’s not what we see it as. So it’s about being strategic and navigating that so that you can ultimately say what you want to say in the way that you want to say it and not compromise that. When we make something like this we employ people, we feature people who have not been featured before, we shed new light on things and we help educate.”
While Black is a ten episode series streaming on the SnapChat app you can download the app and sign up to access it.
Mumia Abu Jamal, the nation’s best known political prisoner, notes that even trailblazing prison abolition scholar Angela Davis, herself a former political prisoner, underestimated Americans’ willingness to incarcerate millions of their fellows. Abu Jamal quoted Davis, who wrote that, back in the late Sixties she could not fathom that the US prison population would increase ten-fold in the next few decades. “No, this will never happen,” she wrote. “Not unless this country plunges into fascism.”
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African American poet writing during the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. He had some white and Native American ancestry that also had influence on his work. Hughes wrote many poems that were supportive of the history and culture of Black people and for a while in the 1930s was a sympathizer of the Communist Party. The poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Democracy” express some of his core beliefs.
“A Negro Speaks of Rivers”
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.