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Open Letter to Black America

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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.

Writer's Note: The following essay appears in the April 2010 issue of Ebony magazine. Feel free to post widely as is and with proper credit given to Kevin Powell.


Kevin Powell is a writer, activist and author of 10 books, including Open Letters to America. He can be reached at kevin@kevinpowell.net.