Claude McKay’s classic poem proposed one solution to racial and political oppression which has always proven controversial within the context of American democracy: “…face the murderous, cowardly pack,/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
The question back then, as now in 2021, is this: what are the best ways to “fight back” while preserving the Black lives too often dismissed as “marginal,” and simultaneously maintain a democratic republic so frequently lauded as the greatest in history? In addition, a second question is this: exactly how much is at stake when Black men and women’s lives are lost to various forms of avoidable violence?
(To read parts 1 and 2 of this special 2015 series repost and update at Bright Skylark Literary Productions, please click HERE and HERE)
On its most ostensible surface level, “If We Must Die” is doubtlessly McKay’s call to his “Kinsmen” to fight to preserve Black bodies. On a less transparent level it may also represent the author’s call to preserve the integrity of American democracy. Each life lost to injustice, racism, xenophobia, ignorance, or hatred is a brick torn from the pillars of a foundation of principles and values on which so many for the past 200-plus years (that is, since July 4, 1776) have labored in defense of freedom.
When confronted by social, political, or legal disagreement, options for nonviolent conflict resolution are often plentiful if allowed into consideration. What follows is a list of five points worth noting in the context of dialogues devoted to current strategies for “fighting back”:
1. The Official Recommendation
Peaceful protest capable of registering grievance without increasing violence has always been the official recommendation for “fighting back” against apparent injustices. It is a component of government that allows political dissent while avoiding uncontainable social chaos. Many have lost faith in this specific strategy because peaceful protest has too frequently been followed by reports of more African-American men and women killed by more White policemen’s guns. In addition, it is widely-known that only a few of these killings become subjects of public protest.
The observation documented by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report on homicides in the U.S. ––noting that two Black men on average are killed every week by policemen––is one African-American men cannot afford to forget. Nor is it one that any American should ever forget. Consider if you will this sobering reflection: If the FBI’s previous estimates were to prove true for the year 2015 [when this article was first posted] that would mean America could expect to see at least 104 Black men lose their lives to policemen’s bullets toward the year’s end [the number actually turned out to be 258, of which 135 victims were described as unarmed]. By startling contrast, the Library of Congress Timeline of African American History, 1901 – 1925 (and other sources) puts the number of Black lives lost to lynching in the year 1919 at 76.
2. Legislation and Litigation
Supporters of the NAACP for more than a century have employed the second means of “fighting back”; namely, that of aggressive litigation and stringently-applied legislation. The organization scored numerous courtroom victories during the Harlem Renaissance when McKay’s “If We Must Die” catapulted him to everlasting literary fame. Its legacy has, moreover, been credited with helping make possible the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Unfortunately, statutes such as Stand Your Ground and Stop-and-Frisk laws, along with the weakening of historic 1960s civil rights legislation, have made it difficult for many to trust in official government processes. In addition, the ever-widening gap between so-called “Haves” and “Have-Nots” lend increasing support for the theory that government is largely a control mechanism set in place to serve the preferences of the wealthy.
3. Social Media
If there is one strategy of choice among Millennials for “fighting back” during this second [now third] decade of the 21st century, it may be focusing public awareness through such social media campaigns as: #BlackLivesMatter, #StopKillingUs, and #ICantBreathe. Those who acknowledge the validity of the Black Lives Matter Movement do so not only to spare African Americans the fate of assassination by lethal disregard. They acknowledge it to protect the investments made by the Black and White ancestors who created the basis for a model of democracy that has now spread far beyond American shores.
The Black Lives Matter Movement itself is an historical extension of the Silent Parade that took place July 28, 1917, in New York City, to protest the police brutality occurring at that time. The protest has been duplicated in many demonstrations that occurred throughout the 1950s and 1960s––including the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–– when Black men so often found it necessary to wear signs declaring: “I am a man.”
Compassion as a form of strategy for achieving progressive social, political, and economic change is not a concept in which many influential leaders seem willing to place a lot of trust. It is certainly not one that commanded much respect in regard to the lives of African Americans during the time Claude McKay wrote “If We Must Die.” Yet the Charter for Compassion, founded by author Karen Armstrong, is one of the fastest growing not-for-profit organizations in the world. It is fully committed to exploring and promoting compassion as a tool available to help communities and individuals achieve “absolute justice, equity and respect” in the pursuit of “a peaceful global community.”
In lieu of more coercive strategies, cultivating, communicating, and applying compassion has been known historically to sometimes win over allies and strengthen the chances of victory on behalf of those struggling for a just cause. Moreover, the quality of compassion itself by virtue of its nature reduces the impulse to sacrifice courage to fear, or to ransom love in exchange for hatred.
5. Occupy Official Positions
Finally: it is possible that the most effective means of all for “fighting back” is to employ a version of the Occupy Movement’s strategy. In this case, it means African Americans finding ways to legitimately occupy offices in which they can initiate the actions necessary to better ensure Black lives are at least as safeguarded as anyone else’s. Those inclined to refute such a notion are invited to examine how former Attorney General Eric Holder’s administrative efforts have begun transforming the policies which enabled members of the U.S. legal system to justify, and even encourage, the mass incarceration of African Americans.
As many astute commentators have observed, Eric Holder successfully put a sizeable dent in the civil forfeiture practice that allowed law enforcement to benefit from monies generated by drug busts as well as from the cars and real estate properties linked to criminal activities. He was also instrumental in clearing the path for states to decree their own marijuana legislation and, of extreme importance to many African-American men––reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.
Does that mean every African American seeking to reverse the tide of homicides ruled justifiable should set their sights on occupying the U.S. Attorney General’s office, later commanded by Loretta Lynch [currently Merrick B. Garland]? Of course not. Nor is it necessary to aim as high as the position of commander-in-chief, which is what made it possible for President Obama to appoint Holder and Lynch in the first place. But what it does mean is working to place yourself in positions of formal or informal influence that allow the strength of your voice to be heard and the reality of your pain to be acknowledged.
To read the final part 4 of this series Please Click Here.
Winner of Choice Academic Title Award, Best History Book Award, and Notable Book of the Year Award for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Remaisssance.