"Thank God For Slavery:"A Lesson in Historical Prescriptions for Unhealthy Black Leadershi
I recently heard a speech by Kimberly Daniels, a Florida lawmaker who preached a sermon in which she stated “Thank God for slavery, thank God for the crack house….if it was not for slavery I might be somewhere in Africa worshipping a tree.”
The outcry from folks was fierce. It primarily consisted of name-calling. She was dismissed as “ignorant”, a “coon” and a “mammy”. I was not shocked by her comments. I hear them everyday from Black people, just with more moderate and disguised language. If it is not a Hollywood constructed Black thug barking sexually charged epithets on the radio, television or computer, it is a colleague reciting stereotypical jokes demonstrating slavery is back in effect. Everyday on national television Steve Harvey does “comedy” routines solely based on the most denigrating stereotypes of Black folks. Without the slavery narrative, fewer Black comedians would experience commercial success. The blame does not all rest with their choice of humor. Why do so many Black folks find this degradation of the Black image comical? Some of the most popular television productions, contemporary Black music and movies, concentrate on the most pathological Black prototypical characters and we support those projects with enthusiasm with our hard earned dollars.
The institution of slavery condoned the wonton death of Black men for looking a White man directly in the eye, or letting nightfall catch Black folk in the wrong neighborhood. Our pain is the fodder and under girth of American humor. Everyday America’s public policies and entertainment menu screams “Thank God for Slavery.”
How many of us have already forgotten the recent murders of Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter L. Scott, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Keith Lamont Scott, Paul O'Neal, Alton B. Sterling, Christian Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner? Their murders are the graphic reminder that Black lives only matter when they are contextualized as disposable sacrificed human beings.
“Thank God for Slavery” remains in full effect. The slavery narrative continues to generate Black millionaires with no regard for the residual negative impact their toxic images have on Black national identity. These images were born on the southern plantation and continue to rear their ugly head depicting Black women as concubines, satisfying the fantasy and lust of powerful White men. Fictitious heroines with phenomenal access to the most powerful men in America, position themselves on Xerox machines to facilitate their “nut” and we watch week after week, with suspense, as s\he sexually relieves his closest/closeted white male friends week after week. Our children worship new Black folk heroes lionized as criminals, finding success as unethical entertainment moguls, dope dealers, and violent thugs who wreak havoc on Black communities by waging war with guns and devastating violence. They betray black people, incarcerate their own mothers and escape any punishment while in reality over a million Black men are crowded in American prisons for crimes far less than those that are scripted each week by Black writers for the enjoyment of a demented public.
Whether the buffoonery of Whoopi Goldberg awarded an Academy Award for her “mammy” performance in “Ghost” or her mockery of Black people with actor Ted Danson at the New York Friars club, where they both dressed up in “Black face” minstrelsy and he heralded her domestic cleaning skills and his awe at the size of her vagina characterizing it as “bigger than Africa”. Or what about Academy Award “winner” Halle Berry having to simulate anal sex on screen with the actor playing a White policeman who murdered her husband. It sure seems like common scenes on the American Plantation where White men had their pick of Black men and women to satisfy their cardinal urges. In contrast, there are almost no examples of “A” list actors like Meryl Streep having to go to these lengths to win an Academy Award.
Lee Daniels’ accomplishment is just one example of the success the mainstream electronic and print media award to Black overseer directors when they promote broken Black male and female characters traced squarely back to the American plantation. The success we currently see in the entertainment industry is almost exclusively exploiting the American slavery narrative. America’s humor and pastimes have always involved the demise and targeted attacks on Black humanity. The American psyche thrives on this perverse depiction of Black people. Whether it is the sweaty muscularity of elongated Black men running up and down the basketball and football courts on Sunday afternoons or the six ‘o’clock news reporting the latest public execution of a young Black buck we remain the most entertaining popular pastime for the American audience.
Written after the death of Malcolm X, Eric Lincoln, a Black sociologist suggested two thirds of Black Americans were loyal to the American flag. Black people seem to have no problem with the American system of governance and the policies that lock up and kill their spouses and children. We allow Whites to choose our scholars, musicians and leaders and parade them around the country and world with little complaint from us. We allow our cultural expression to be misappropriated and we defend the likes of imposters like Justin Timberlake. If you are a creative Black artist or burgeoning politician and you are not down with the slavery narrative you are an outcast from the mainstream electronic and print media.
Educated and talented professionals use different language but basically support the same “God” and system of slavery Kimberly Daniels is thankful for being alive and well. If we are truthful, we can all recount times when we have had to chastise our family members for their blatant articulation of contempt and hate for Black people, refusal to support Black businesses and overall doubt that we have the goods to lead. Even our beloved President Barack Obama, in the midst of White Republicans making it clear that they would fight him throughout his eight year tenure and do everything they could to destroy his legacy, in the classic tradition of an American slave sought to “turn the other cheek” thereby condoning the structured terrorism waged against us since our first forced arrival in America.
We applauded first lady Michelle Obama’s mantra “ When they go low, we go high”. Despite the fact that the phrase had the impact of neutering budding Black activists and change agents by suggesting we need to return to a mentality of the slave on the plantation and forgive our former masters for starving, raping and murdering our people. We need to take the “high road” as White Americans show mass indifference to the mass destruction of peoples of African descent around the world. The proposed public policies of the current administration do not desecrate White suburban communities as the gentrification and cutting of human service programs are driving our people back to an environment that mirrors slavery and the plantation. Our elderly, who endured wars and depression, now confront inner city neighborhoods where the new White missionaries have almost completed the gentrification of our inner cities and these Black trailblazers are once again hostages in their own communities.
Former President Bill Clinton helped pathologize & institutionalize what Michelle Alexander describes as “The New Jim Crow”. An entire two generations of Black men have spent their youth incarcerated for heroin use. Now as they are released back to these inner city communities there is no housing for them and they watch in shock, as what was a crime for them has now become a medical health crisis for White teens. White youths the same age they were when sentenced to twenty years to life, are being treated as patients while these released “convicts” only form of employment may be cleaning the bedpans of the offspring of the White judges, prosecutors, and juries that stole their youth and placed them in the American prison system. Billboards that once flooded these traditional Black communities no longer stand. They have been replaced by advertisements promoting iPhones and Organic foods. Black elected officials like Kimberly Daniels and Secretary of Housing, Dr. Ben Carson say to all of us each day “Thank God for Slavery.”
I have rubbed elbows with the best and the brightest academic lettered Negroes in law, medicine, the social sciences and the arts. To a fault, the overwhelming majority of them have worked for the adulation of the White elite and now find themselves and their children casualties of their neglect as parents. With their trophies, citations, monetary awards, medals of honor, and prestigious board appointments they find no reciprocity from their White cohorts when it comes to having their Black and biracial children find footing in this elite exclusive world of White privilege. They serve these boards with integrity and have learned to swallow the degrading reality that their children have not benefited or been included in the inner circle as the White children that inherit their parent’s status as viable players in that inner circle of power. Our Black icons, like slaves on the plantations, die after a life of hard work with no legacy remaining. Our Black elected officials, singers, actors and dancers brag about structures that carry their name but few if any, of those structures are owned and operated by Black dollars. Yet we go out and make rich White people even richer by supporting a movie based on a comic strip and expose how much disposable income we control but do not build institutions (FUBU) “for us and by us.”
When Kimberly Daniels says “Thank God for Slavery” she knows she is “outing” the Black “privileged” class in America. Though she is too ignorant to recognize the Pandora box she has opened, her comments go to the very core of the accountability and credibility of Black athletes who capture and hold the attention of our youth and who choose not to comment on the “Black on Black” crimes that take our young because they wear sport sneakers that bear these folks names. Her remarks challenge the “penis crimes “ of Black men and women who were bedded down by the White men and women on the plantation. Her remarks call out irresponsible Black fathers that have abandoned their offspring.
Kimberly prays and talks in tongue and joins most Black churches in scapegoating Black gay and lesbian people, identifying them as the primary focal point for popular Sunday morning sermons and as the reason for the demise of Black families. We turn our heads, as was done on the plantation and remain silent as this Black prosperity ministry rips off the most vulnerable in the Black community. This feels and looks like slavery to me.
Kimberly Daniels has called out Black people with the most debased analysis and language. Many are embarrassed but few are willing to address her pathology because it may be a shared pathology with many of us living above our means, running from indigenous Black communities, driving the most expensive vehicles as we remain one paycheck from bankruptcy. I no longer flinch when an Omarosa, Jay-Z, or Kimberly, take to the airways and in their own words declare, “Thank God for Slavery.” She comes from a lineage of confused defenders of American slavocracy that includes the likes of economist Dr. Thomas Sowell, once quoted in Newsweek magazine as suggesting that blacks ate better on the plantation than they now eat. He suggested the gross conclusion might be that Blacks pay whites compensation. The now dethroned father of contemporary Black America, Bill Cosby, assailed Black women and Black children for years and we were generally docile in our responses. Oprah Winfrey before she was delivered by the hard work of the late Maya Angelou and President Nelson Mandela, allowed White housewives to nestle up to her breast and coddle there for years, culminating in her allowing White racists to call her a Niggah on her own show. All of these rich Black people empowered with complete access to the electronic and print media at one point or another in their lives mirrored the unfortunate sentiments of Kimberly.
Many of our people lost the ability to even imagine freedom. We have lost the poetry, music, oratory, spirituality, pride, hope, humility, dream, Black power, prayer, anger, vision to imagine a world and an America worth standing. A movie phenomenon like "Black Panther” only indicates how dire our circumstances have become. We latch on to a Marvel comic fantasy and cannot imagine using our disposable income to create the building blocks for liberation, preservation and support of the current generation by urging them to do their homework and realize that we don’t have to make up an imaginary African kingdom, our history is replete with ancient examples of real empires who at one point governed the world.
For the last 45 years, I have dedicated my life to tapping into education as an effective vehicle for significant and long lasting social change. Benchmarks in my career include teaching in public schools and prisons; higher educational administration and college teaching. As a young energetic fighter I locked arms with my elders and we set up effective retention support programs to graduate Black and Brown warriors. I watch them grow and amass disposable income and worry only about themselves and their immediate family. Few of them returned to the communities they grew up in and relieved those holding down the fort.
The few of us who survive scorn the open wounds inflicted by our own people as they label Black progressives "bitter" and "angry Blacks. " This year I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC and was deeply disappointed with the absence of an African presence in the collection that predated chattel slavery. Horrified by this, I saw one of the Black scholars who chaired my graduate thesis. I sought refuge and politely approached him with hopes he would shed a different light on the subject. His response to me was a put down. As I raised the issue he replied in a monotone lament, “Oh, another one of Dr. Ben’s and Dr. Clark’s students…” It was a direct “dig” at two of the most important Africanist scholars that dedicated their lives to the study of the African Diaspora so none of us or our children would ever pay homage to that peculiar institution we refer to as chattel slavery. These efforts have dissolved into what we now refer to as "Diversity" and Black people once again have become the afterthought.
I did not cross the Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis but I have recalled that episode in our history every working day for the last 45 years. The price paid to call yourself a Black professional and agent for progressive change entails a daily battle with those who look like you and those who question your presence in the organization.
I have spent my professional life cultivating the minds of three generations of College students. It is painful to listen to Kimberly but no more painful than having colleagues to leave a lunch meeting and say “Let me return to the plantation” or other colleagues yelling across the street to me exclaiming “ Hey Nat Turner!" while laughing. I saw it as a compliment. They saw it as a put down.
America may be more racist now than it was when James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi in the 1960's when Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to intervene in the matter before Meredith was allowed through the doors. The Black presence is becoming more elusive each day. Although we have been the constant architects breaking down barriers prohibiting social justice, we have become the forgotten, while "multiculturalism," LGBTQ and "me too" leads in the headlines. LGBTQ is the new black. The late law professor, Derek Bell, describes us as the “faces at the bottom of the well.” All other groups and oppressed minorities enter the arena, step over our heads and makes their way out of the well, leaving us forgotten while our cultural gems, contributions and exports exploited, and misappropriated. We have learned from the coalitions of students advocating for a more racially comprehensive curriculum at San Francisco State and Cornell University in 1968 that intersectionality was once a foundational tool in our fight against the insidious racism and injustice with the poisoned Land of the Free and Home of the Slave. Powerful white males are taking great joy in seeing these long standing coalitions breakdown. The “Me Too” movement, while overdue, has gained momentum that almost tramples due process and gives amnesia to the story of Emmett Till. We consistently minimize the black men and women in this country who were raped and pillaged with no one being held accountable. Today a white woman who deliberately poisoned her college roommate will serve no time, while black men lay in prisons as crowded as slave ships once were for a plant they held in their pocket. And white folks are still talkin’ bout O.J. Simpson -"Thank God For Slavery."
Our inaction and muted rage at what is happening to Black communities around the country seems to cry out that we are content to be slaves in this era of "Tangerine Man Agent Orange." Maybe having enjoyed eight years of a Black president is the ultimate benchmark that completes people’s life and civil rights work. Is it too painful for many of us to acknowledge that "we" may be Kimberly Daniels? Maybe your comfortable surrounding renders you into the disguised status of a modern day slave, tired and exhausted from the fight. Are you doomed to languish in the comforts of your palatial offices and manicured home owned by the bank? You can easily dismiss the rants of Kimberly as just another ignorant Black undeserving of our serious attention. That would be another mistake we have made as a collective powerful community. The resurgence of our social justice movement, once popularly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement has reinvented itself as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. We cannot allow the daily debilitation of Black genius and survival to permanently silence us and make us numb to the needs of our children. Each day vibrant Black voices are leaving the planet. We cannot allow their void to be filled by the likes of the Kimberly Daniels of the world. Thank God For Slavery.
Lawrence "Larry" Watson is the owner and operator of SaveOurSelves Productions-"If we don't saveourselves no one else will". He is a professor at Berklee College of Music where he teaches African American History, Culture and Music, directs a multiplicity of musical ensembles, office instruction and coaching in Voice and Stage Performance Technique. He is an internationally recognized singer. His company has produced and published three successful CD's " The Journey," "American Fruit with African Roots," and "Prescriptions". His first book The H.E.M. book (Highly Emotional Music) is available on Amazon.com . He is also the co-founder of the H.E.M International Institute of Music with its first location in Xiamen China. For further information go to www.lawrencewatson.com and/or saveourselvesproductions.com