In my quest to promote Black livelihood and perspectives through my experiences and my summer work, The Black Voices Project, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in conversations and talks on race issues here in St. Louis. A few weeks back I attended a class at YWCA, whose mission of eliminating racism and empowering women makes them central in the regions’ discussion of racial equity. Rudy Nickens, a international teacher of black liberation, lead a session on internalized racism which absolutely changed my perspective on activism and its goals.
Black Liberation theory itself focuses on freeing blacks from ideas of internalized oppression through emphasizing key tenants as follows.
Firstly, we as humans are inherently good but this is different from how we truly present ourselves in our daily lives because of past “hurts” we’ve experiences. “Hurts” can be built into a society so patterns of oppression such as sexism, racism, ableism, or they can be individual, so “hurts” from adverse experiences.
Secondly, these hurts can separate us from the goodness of humanity, the realization that we are all smart, unique, and special. So for some, their actions exist as a survival mechanism to prevent hurts. For example, someone who is quiet or shy as a means of not wanting to face conflict or hurt from a society given a past experience of disapproval.
Thirdly, hurts can remain in societies or groups if they go unaddressed. Applying this to the oppressive nature of white supremacy, we can consider slave submission and punishment. Deeply embedded in the history of scientific racism and pseudoscience is the term coined by 19th century physician Samuel Cartwright known as “Drapetomania” or mental disorder that caused slaves to runaway. (Because why would any slave want to runaway from oppression?) As such the the punishment for this “disorder” prescribed to southern plantation owners was “whipping the devil out of them” often times in a public manner.
Public whippings were common for disobedient runaway slaves. As such this instance of humiliation caused by the white slave master for all other slaves to see served as both trauma and instruction. Trauma on the individual level, asserting “worthlessness” of the Black body and mind, and instruction for teaching submission to Blacks of that time.
Nickens went on to discuss this suppression and its influence on the Black generation. The condition of enslavement and being treated as property and less than a person directly altered individual perspective on worth within the Black community. White supremacy’s explicit suppression, the beating, lynching, and killing of black bodies, bred an individual and emotional practice of hurt within the Black community known as internalized racism. This oppression is both explicit and implicit. For example, a black mother beating her child for talking back to a white person. A black father telling their kid that they are not good enough or smart enough to pursue a passion. In such instance, it is easy to blame Blacks for putting each other down simply for the reason of internalized devaluation. But above all, it is essential to note that this action arose from necessity. Internalized racism continued from slavery to Jim Crow to the modern civil rights era due to its prior utility as an act of survival. So a Black Alabama mother beating her teen daughter at home for talking back or showing off because once she gets on the segregated streets of Birmingham, who knows what brutality she may face from Whites. Beating and talking down on Black children to keep them “in line” was used to prevent these children from talking back to their white counterparts or facing white brutality. If your child does not believe themselves to be good enough to walk on the same side walk as their white counterparts, they won’t, and as such, will shield themselves from possible conflict and brutality. It was a sad but necessary means of survival.
What’s come out of this practice is continued devaluation of worth, potential, intelligence, and beauty within the Black community that has long outlived its utility in preventing explicit white brutality and conflict. Thus even in the fight for freedom with the contemporary movement we’re seeing now, in order to dismantle oppression, we must address this issue of internalized racism concurrently. Addressing these oppressions through self-love and care is necessary for a system of freedom and justice to maintain in place where the once oppressed believe they are worth it and good enough to have freedom. As such freedom should be sought with self-love and liberation from oppressive thinking at the forefront rather than maintaining attention on the oppressor’s feelings on freedom. These lesson in themselves are entirely powerful to my understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Contemporary activism in the Black community doesn’t mean occupying spaces within White America, but freedom at all cost. It does not rely on white approval or sympathy to understanding black plight. It centers freedom and healing from oppression before education of the whites on these issues.
The goal is not for Black America to exists among White America, holding hands in the street and sharing meals across lunch counters. The goal of modern day Black activism is Black empowerment, freedom, and healing from the pains of white supremacy. Such empowerment is modeled off the notions of Black Panther Party Leader Assata and Malcolm X who supported Black power through economic grooming of Black businesses, community development, and liberation from internalized oppression through acknowledgement of the power in the history of the African diaspora.
Assimilation is not the agenda. Freedom is. And if White America joins along in that cry for freedom, demonstrations against injustice, joins a protest or two, all is well. But with contemporary Black activism centered on self-love, black liberation, and appreciation for the strength and power of Blackness, approval from the white gaze is disempowered.
Photo Cred: Devin Allen
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