One of my favorite parts of Black people is some will react to the title like ‘duh’ and others like ‘no way’. Both vehement and both with a genuine love for Black people. I decided early in my pursuit of a PhD in psychology that I didn’t want to go the academic tenure track journal writing conference speaking route. I wanted to remain connected to everyday people in communities with limited access to the fancy new words I was learning. That’s my favorite part of Umar. I was skimming the assigned books for class but was actually reading Dr. Amos Wilson, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Dr. Wade Nobles, Dr. Na’im Akbar, Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, Dr. Bobby Wright. By time Umar comes around there was no novelty about a bold Black PhD talking about mental health. I was a part of an organization full of hundreds of them, the Association of Black Psychologists. We actually hosted Umar at our national annual convention in 2016. This was after the stripper debacle, after at least a 100K was collected for the school, after being very publicly clear about his anti-LGBT views. It was a questionable move for the organization, but there were no protests, there were likely disagreements in the planning committee but not enough. He spoke unobstructed with clarity and power about Black boys and misdiagnosing and school to prison pipelines and was received with standing ovation in a room full of credentialed psychologists. There was a line to greet him after. He stayed for at least an hour holding conversations with eager students in the hotel lobby. The most apparent anti-Umar sentiment came on the internet the following day. There was some outrage from members of the organization about his participation. One guy threatened bodily harm, said that’s why he didn’t come to the session, to avoid fisticuffs. I read it thinking: that’s real bold on the internet, Umar was standing in the lobby for hours if you really wanted to fight dude. That’s the fascination about Umar, he evokes the most passionate responses. People love to hate him. So much that it almost seems to not be about him after a certain point.
Tavis Smiley writes in “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” about his appearance at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago on August 31st: “Worse than ignored, he is heckled. Young Black delegates stand up and shout derisive insults. Others, bored by his long declamations, get up and walk out. He is mocked, disregarded, and, at best, merely tolerated.” It’s difficult for me to imagine our beloved King being heckled by Black people. We have revised that history so well that it’s hard to believe he was so unpopular that he lost money on a fundraising tour because he couldn’t get people to come see him on stage even with Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Giilespe and Sammy Davis Jr. The groundwork was laid then to replace a strong King with a dreaming one.
I attended the Chicago leg Umar’s farewell tour a few weeks ago. I’ve been studying him for years. He probably doesn’t know my name but might recognize my face. My early interest in him was a sincere appreciation. He could’ve made extremely valuable contributions to the field of psychology, if he wasn’t so honest. Which is why I respect him, we know well enough the right things to say to be successful in the mainstream. With the right PR team he could’ve been doing master classes with Oprah, if he wanted. I don’t believe in Jesus and sometimes wonder if Christianity has done more harm than good, but I’ll still go to church because that’s where Black people go. And Black people go see Umar. It was standing room only in the dead of winter in the Harold Washington Cultural Center. It’s too easy to think the audience is full of sheep, more productive to wonder what Umar feeds people that fills them. I can’t fill a room like that. Ain’t nobody in China or South Africa flying me there. So he must have something, after all these shenanigans, that gets people to come pay to see him speak. I think it’s his boldness. He’s the antidote to a brash Trump and docile Obama. It seems our sense of urgency leads us to confuse loud and audacious for strength.
Dr. King’s hecklers on Aug 31st were anxious to hear H. Rap Brown instead. That sentiment persists, that the civil rights movement was passive. Weak even. I still hear echoes in today’s youth of the “We are not our grandparents”. It comes off real brave on a t-shirt. The face of this young women in Petersburg, Virginia in the 60’s doesn’t look weak to me. They are preparing her to endure the assault her enemies will use to deter her fight to make sure that I can eat wherever I want. She looks determined and courageous, and very strong.
Has Umar been to jail once? King was arrested 29 times. Umar hasn’t done anything radical enough to warrant real opposition. That Pennsylvania license hearing was cute. Umar isn’t breaking any laws. The laws have changed since King, because of King. I don’t think Umar has the heart to do any present day equivalent unlawful action to put himself at the kind of risk King saw. Umar not gonna commandeer an abandoned school building, chain the doors, occupy the space and start teaching his curriculum to the sons of his followers until the police drag him out. King was stabbed in the chest at a book signing and went back to work a few weeks later. Umar got his feelings hurt and planned a farewell tour.
My intent isn’t to position more Black men in competition with each other. I’m using them as an example to compare strength vs the appearance of strength. The distinction is important if power is the goal. If feeling good is the goal then none of this matters. In a protracted struggle there’s room for everybody with genuine interest in doing their part. The power of King is not in the revised legacy we celebrate on state sanctioned holidays. The power of King is his principled conviction. Strength isn’t a youtube rant. Strength is struggling with the evolving values of an organization and movement you helped to create. Strength is re-evaluating the utility of your positions. Strength is going to work everyday knowing each one might be your last. King was one of the strongest warriors that fought for us. We have to be strong enough to see it.