A dearth of leaders

March 03, 1994|By Gary Phillips

FOR Black History Month, my son's first-grade class learned about Abraham Lincoln and his freeing of the slaves during the Civil War. Mind you, these are 7-year-olds, and the teacher didn't go into the reasons Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The kids weren't told it was an economic strategy to bankrupt the Confederacy's labor force, and, in Lincoln's own words, "a military necessity." But some political reality did sneak in; they did learn that Lincoln got shot for his troubles.

At home, my son and his younger sister have also learned about the Underground Railroad. Reading from Jeanette Winter's children's book, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," they've heard about the "railroad" that carried slaves to freedom from the South. Over the course of its operation, the Underground Railroad was a conduit for some 100,000 slaves valued at $30 million.

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses and hiding places usually no more than 15 or 20 miles apart. Because of the perilous nature of escaping North, most of the slaves moved at night and hid out during the day. The slaves and their "conductors" were oft times guided by the North Star, which they found with the help of the Big Dipper -- an alignment of stars in the vague shape of a "drinking gourd."

As the focus on Black History Month once again winds down, African Americans are still searching for a drinking gourd. The need for economic freedom and social justice is as intense as it ever was for black Americans. Nightly the public is reminded of this by the young black man cuffed and captured in the harsh video light of "Cops" or the unwed teen-age mothers paraded on Sally Jesse and Oprah.

The search is on because there is a gulf between the established civil rights organizations and their supposed constituency. Witness the discomfort among this would-be vanguard of the African-American community after the Anti-Defamation League demanded they denounce the racist, sexist, homophobic speech of then-Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad.

The ascendancy of Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, is not due so much to his adherence to and powerful delivery of a narrow nationalist agenda as it is to the dearth of leadership that speaks to the common folk and the disenfranchised.

Those leaders who do have a progressive vision are mired in an old style that does little in the 1990s to advance grassroots concerns. Some national organizations -- now dependent on corporate money -- have come to share the boss's outlook when they should still be viewing the world through workers' eyes.

The courageous, pistol-packing Harriet Tubman once conducted the Underground Railroad to what she called the land of Canaan. The black community does not -- nor should it have -- a monolithic ideology leading it forward today. But a revitalized movement for civil rights and social change must recognize the seismic shift that has occurred in traditional African-American neighborhoods. It must reinvent the gourd.

Across the country, the big clock is ticking. From the Democratic White House bleats a venal and misguided chorus of "three strikes and you're out." And whenever it feels threatened, the Republican right rolls out its machine of think tanks, grassroots organizers, spin-doctors, and policy lobbyists. Their most recent victims are Lani Guinier and multiculturalism -- simplified and demonized with ruthless efficiency.

Yet as Vito Corleone warned in "The Godfather," "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." There is a lesson to be learned from the right. The strange days that lie ahead will require the raising up of a new crop of leaders who may not have much reverence for the icons of us baby boomers.

That's cool -- so long as our methods include capacity building and leadership development; community organizing for empowerment; providing the grassroots with economic education so they can define their economic choices; job training for producers on the information superhighway; and education that includes teaching about all of our cultures in the full context of American history and politics.

The Underground Railroad is not just our past, but our future. It is still running, and has brought us to the juncture of the 21st century. As technology continues to advance, so must our imagination to harness it in aiding the creation of a better tomorrow. We must still follow the drinking gourd.

Gary Phillips is a writer and community organizer in Los Angeles. His first novel, "Violent Spring," is a politically charged murder mystery set in contemporary Los Angeles.


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