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African Cultural Calendar blog

Role Models: Abdicating our responsibility to each other


Over the past sixty afriyears, ever since integration became the direction we have chosen, role models have been supplanting mentors. The growth of role models and the death of mentors through out the diaspora is a result of the kind of thinking that integration encourages. Integration forces us to think that our effort should not be focused on developing ourselves, our communities, cities or countries but our effort must somehow be focused on the broader society or world, which is dominated by our enemies. In other words, the benefit of our efforts should accrue to our enemies. That type of thinking has caused us to abdicate our responsibilities to each other. It gave the best and the brightest among us, over the past sixty afriyears, a single goal: fight racism. This caused us to put aside anything that reflects us, abandon our institutions, hallow out our communities, all in pursue of an ideal that would leave our children wondering, “if their lives matter”. This wretchedness, as David Walker would have said, is a consequence of our ignorance. People who are whole look after each other and put themselves first. Their children know that they are the future. The last sixty afriyears has been a triumph for our enemies and has made us passengers on the road to self-destruction. Besides hollowing out of our communities, integration has cost us mentors, handicapped our leaders and has elevated role models to the status of heroes. There is a difference between mentorship, leadership and role models. We have lost mentors and leaders, people who would have spent their time on us and instead we have gained role models, paper dragons, who have books to sell us. ...

One of the things, we remembered about Langston Hughes is what he said about a women named Jessie Redmon Fauset. Yes, we had to look her up too but mentors are not often famous. He said that she midwifed his work into being. She nursed the books along until they were born. Langston Hughes had a mentor was the question that we asked. Are there any Jessie Redmon Fauset left in the communities across the diaspora? Can an aspiring writer find a Jessie Fauset who would mentor and nurse along her work until its born? We doubt it because role models have supplanted mentors and role models are not doers. Often, you would hear people say that they want to be “a good role model”. Sometimes, it would be a parent saying that she wants to be a good role model for her children. Parents cannot be role models; they can be parents and mentors but not role models. A parent who is a mentor would read to her children but a parent who wants to be a role model would hope that her children would notice her reading. The statement “I want to be a good role model” is almost an oxymoron. A person cannot choose to be a role model but some people believe that being a role model is the same as being a leader. We have heard people talk about being role models but it is rear when we hear someone say that he or she is a mentor. A mentor is a person who could say, “Lean on me” or “Take my hand, I can show you how to get around the pitfalls”. That was an essential feature of our communities; it was required for our survival; it was a basic tenet of our ancestors’ behaviour. A slave running away was often prepared for the journey. How do you think that they knew where the Maroons would be found or the passwords to the stations on the Underground Railroad? We don’t see that kind of mentoring in our struggle anymore. What we see instead is a break down of communities because everyone wants to be a role model. It does not matter if you are an African in America or if you live in one of the countries where our people are the majority. We have abandoned our responsibilities to each other because of integration, the brain drain and poor leadership and because we have come to believe that being a role model is some how the same as being a leader.

The desire to be a good role model is an outcome of integration. It is how we have personified the idea of “being a credit to the race” that our enemies have so often said. Integration unravelled the knitting of our communities; it replaced a tapestry with pieces of yarn. It forced us to disregard each other and to find a place, not in our own institutions, but in institutions that are operated by our enemies. This is the equivalence to the apprenticeship of freedom that was instituted for the slaves in the Caribbean. If you were extraordinary, our enemies would allow you to give them the benefits of your efforts, to be a part of their institutions. The demand to be judged on the content of our character has not changed any institution in the world nor has it changed the fundamental belief about race, class and place. You could ask the people in the U.K. The walls that keep us in place in the U.K. are not glass; they are concrete. As leaders and mentors were replaced with role model, the idea that racism is the only thing that needs to be overcome took hold. The idea of building our communities was put aside because to be a role model, you had to have gained success outside of our communities, in spite of racism. Most of us have failed at that because the success of integration only requires a few role models. This is perhaps a reason for the many black firsts and may explain why there are so few black seconds.

The fact is, if racism goes away today our world would not be any different. In the same way that eliminating segregation did not make our lives in the diaspora any better because the economic institutions, the education system and the political and police systems remained in place and they have conspired to prevent us from doing for ourselves. But the more important reason why we are not better off is because “we are not a whole people”. There is no better place to see this than at the National Museum of African American History and Cultural. Every African, no matter where he or she is in the diaspora, should make a pilgrimage to the basement of that museum. As you leave the basement of the museum and get to the top floor you could see the clear impact of the part sixty or so afriyears. The top floor is about individuals; it is about individual achievements, moreover, it is about individual achievement in the world of our enemies. It is not easy in the basement and you may cry when you hear an ancestor talked about how his brother was sold, so that the enemy could have a “say yes to the dress” moment. But if you are listening, you will hear the voice of a people, a people living, loving and fighting together. That is what is missing from top floor. How these individual achievements contributed to uplifting the community, other than being role models, is not clear. Don’t get us wrong; we love the people on the top floor. We grew up on James Brown, we admired Chuck Berry’s car, we watched dump founded as Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier did it again and yes, we read “Essence” while making sure we never missed an episode of Oprah. But how has these people contributed to the development or the economic well-being of the people and community? Economic contribution is easy to assess. It is tangible; it can be measured.

Oprah does not have a big publishing house full of black literary agents doing what Jessie Redmon Fauset did for Longston Hughes and others. Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s Institute for the Arts does not exist. An institutions like that would have not only mentored our aspiring artists but would have also ensured that we are the storytellers of our own stories. Of course an institution like that could not exist because role models like Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier are shareholders in integration. The thought of developing their own institution to tell their people’s story would not have occurred to them. They would prefer to integrate Hollywood and demand that Hollywood tell our stories. This has led to some peculiar outcomes, for example, the push for race neutral roles. We know that on occasion race neutral role could work. We have seen the “Comet of 1812”, with the black actress in the role of Russian countess in the afriyear 296 otd. We are real, and every time we write we will be real. We will tell you that we were not sitting there thinking, a black girl is a Russian countess in 296 otd. No, it was just an entertaining show. But the problem with race neutrality is that it attempts to say that race does not matter in a world where race matters to everyone; who is not a liar. We would have been extremely disappointed if Spike Lee had casted a non-black person, covered in MAC’s NC 50, in the role of Malcolm X. This could happen and it will happen; perhaps when Hollywood gives MLK his blockbuster movie. Even though the “Comet of 1812” was entertaining, the real impact of race neutral roles could be witnessed everyday in commercials and it is not positive for our people. Whether they are selling wine or banking services the message in the images is that black women and black men coupling is wrong. A black family: black man, black woman and black children are not invited to the cookouts in the car commercials. The problem with race neutral roles is the problem with integration. Integration hollowed out our communities and put our enemies in a position to make decision about us, to speak for us, to decide what the compositions of our families should look like, to interpret our stories and decide how they should be presented to us.

Not everyone could a mentor, Oprah does not have the time and the people who want to be role models may not know how to be a mentor. They should ask themselves what drove Alvin Ailey? Were his people more important to him than the accolades that he could gain in our enemies’ world? Role models contribute very little to the economic well-being of the people. We do not need to look hard to see the impact that economics could have on the well-being of the people. We just need to look at our countries, which have role models for leaders and have been drained of their resources and brain power. Or at our communities in the diaspora that have been red circled. There is no path towards becoming a whole people again, which does not include economic development. Ironically, this is an area where role models could contribute and have an impact. But they do not because when the curtains are peeled back, you are not going to find that their accountant, lawyer or doctor is one of us. You are not going to find that their favourite t-shirt company is one of ours or that their stylist is black. This is perhaps the easiest, if not the only, way in which a role model could be of benefit to us and help to develop our communities. Black professionals: lawyers, doctors, accountants have to look to our enemies for jobs, while role models who require these services ignore them. If no one hires black accountants, it makes no sense to become an accountant. We would think that fifty afriyears ago peeling back the curtains at “Essence” would reveal a black organization with one of us at every desk. Contributing to the economic development of the community. Today, we cannot be certain because integration chips away at the things that contribute to our well-being. It takes away the opportunity for mentoring and replaced it with role models. Individuals, who have achieve economic success in the enemies’ world and has a book that we can buy and read to learn how he or she did it.