Why Dr. Umar Johnson Is No Laughing Matter
I do not fault anyone for believing the best recourse to deal with the newly christened ankh-right is to laugh them into oblivion.
Trust, there is a lot to laugh about.
Exhibit number one: the very public squabble between the 21-Star General (Of what man’s army?) Sara Suten Seti and the self-declared Prince of Pan-Africanist and heir to the Frederick Douglas’ throne Dr. Umar Johnson:
According to various follow-up video responses from others within the online Pan-Africanism community, the dust-up started after Seti called out another online scholar over shady business practices and Dr. Johnson intervened on behalf of the elders on the Tribunal.
But as noted by Stephen A. Crockett Jr. in his piece for the Root entitled, “Hotep Hoedown: How Dr. Umar Johnson Lost His Hotep Mind” about the bizarre beef between public intellectuals: “Who knows how it all started? And truthfully, who cares, because Hotep logic and philosophy live outside the realm of the natural. It’s like black fantasy Disney on dope.”
With their questionable titles, questionable gender politics and questionable relationship to facts, it’s easy to dismiss Dr. Umar Johnson and his ilk as the fraudulent remnants of Pan-Africanism’s past.
But I would caution against it.
But because of their influence on the hearts and minds of the people. Our people.
While their presence and overall popularity might be news to some within the community, the Dr. Johnsons, General Setis and the rest of the ankh-right have been with us for a very long time.
Their messages, symbols and theories are just as normalized as any notable’s quote or scripture from the Bible. You see them in rap music. You see them in movies and in films. You hear their words regurgitated out of the mouths of favorite uncles, brothers, fathers and even some sisters. You see their faces on t-shirts from Harlem to Howard University.
In spite of being virtual unknowns to more traditional institutions of public intellectualism, many of these fauxteps inherited a following from the likes of Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Frances Cress Welsing and Henry Lewis Clark. Their rhetoric is often steeped in a long tradition of Pan-Africanism, Black nationalism and their audiences are largely made up of Black and Brown folks who have long felt like outsiders.
To some within the community, these often flamboyant personas are more than what they preach. Their images provide a sense of pride; a Black counterpart to White supremacy, a reminder of where we’ve come from and where we could go, if only we learned to put race first.
And most importantly, they fill a gap. A gap left by Malcolm and Martin. A gap left by Ronald Reaganomics and the Crack Cocaine era. A gap left when the best and brightest of us left the community for more prosperous – and integrated – pastures.
In the book entitled Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, former Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson talked extensively about this growing gap within the Black community. According to him, the community is divided into four parts: a mainstream middle class; small transcendent elite; two emerging classes of African immigrants and biracial people; and a large, abandoned minority, who have little hope of escaping poverty.
Of their relations to each other, Robinson noted:
“The Mainstream tend to doubt the authenticity of the Emergent, but they’re usually too polite, or too politically correct, to say so out loud. The Abandoned accuse the Emergent—the immigrant segment, at least—of moving into abandoned neighborhoods and using the locals as mere stepping-stones. The immigrant Emergent, with their intact families and long-range mind-set, ridicule the Abandoned for being their own worst enemies. The Mainstream bemoan the plight of the Abandoned—but express their deep concern from a distance. The Transcendent, to steal the old line about Boston society, speak only to God; they are idolized by the Mainstream and the Emergent for the obstacles they have overcome, and by the Abandoned for the shiny things they own. Mainstream, Emergent, and Transcendent all lock their car doors when they drive through an Abandoned neighborhood. They think the Abandoned don’t hear the disrespectful thunk of the locks; they’re wrong.”
The feelings of abandonment and disrespect by more affluent and connected Blacks is a popular sentiment expressed by many working class and poor Blacks. It shows up in discussions about respectability politics and classism. You see it in accusations lobbed at some of us for “acting White” and “selling out.” And it plays itself out in the sheer joy some of us take when someone gets his or her N.W.U.C.
It’s hard to say if all the sentiment many poor and working class Blacks feel about more affluent Black is all the way warranted. But when you consider Bill Cosby’s Poundcake speech, President Barack Obama’s admonishment of Black and poor people’s parenting abilities and mainstream Black folks’ mockery of poor folks’ taste in colorful weaves and Jordans, you can understand the abandonment issues.
Now, that’s not to say that Dr. Johnson doesn’t engage in his own brand of respectability (that is a post for another day). He regularly touts his degrees and lineage to other notable Black people as proof of his credibility.
But in an era when “people of color” take precedent over being Black; when pro-Blackness is second to liberalism; when revolutionaries and movements become tools of political parties; and when women’s and gay issues are only important when it helps Whiteness first, you can begin to see the appeal of Dr. Johnson’s pro-Black stance.
And while many of the more mainstream Black public intellectuals were rubbing elbows with celebrities, writing books that no one outside of the ivory towers would ever read, and explaining race and gender to audiences other than us, Dr Johnson and his ilk were showing up at inner-city high schools, union halls and Black-owned bookstores in our communities across the country – performing their intellectual pageantry on us, to us. He has even gone as far as to give his personal cell phone number out, irrespective of privacy or safety.
What he lacks in common sense, he has certainly made up accessibility.
Or as Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Princeton University’s Chairman of African American Studies, once noted in a 2013 New York Times op-ed about the current state of Black intellectualism:
“Too many black intellectuals have given up the hard work of thinking carefully in public about the crisis facing black America. We have either become cheerleaders for President Obama or self-serving pundits. Our celebration of his singular achievement and our crazed desire for access have made many of us “born-again patriots.”
All too often what stands in for the black intellectual these days are folks who can spin a phrase and offer a soundbite. The idea of the intellectual who reads widely and deeply and who critically engages the complexity of our times has been supplanted by the fast-talking “black Ph.D. pundit” who strives to be on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. This same pundit has found new career opportunities within universities and colleges by thinking about black people in ways that conform to the current liberal consensus about racial matters.”
The rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right can be attributed to a number of factors. Our country’s long history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment is one of them. But another factor is our inability to acknowledge class.
In the case of the alt-right, we had poor White people who, because of tradition, would never vote for a Democrat, but were equally sick of voting for mainstream Republicans who had left them behind. Unfortunately, the end result of their exasperation would be a charismatic leader with fascist leanings, dubious business dealings and a keen and largely documented disrespect for women.
Ironically, the same fate could be waiting for the Black community.
Since writing both of my critiques of his work, Dr. Johnson’s popularity – and support – has only grown. He has found himself filling in on Roland Martin’s popular radio show. He landed an interview with “The Breakfast Club” and has also guest appeared on Bravo TV’s Real Housewives of Atlanta and even taken his brand of Africanism to abroad to places like the UK and South Africa.
All while being mocked and shunned from those with more mainstream values.
Some of you all might be saying, so what? Who cares what the Black deplorables think and feel?
But with Kim Burrell and other members of the Black church comfortably taking a hard line against homosexuality; with Donald Trump threatening to roll back every progress made in this country; and with mainstream and predominately White media outlets waiting to hop on the next Black voice who can gin up controversy and ratings (ahem, Stacey Dash and Raven Simone), we have to understand that fight against all of the -isms, is a battle for hearts and minds.
And the more we dismiss them as irrelevant or mere jokes, the more we alienate – and in some instances further marginalize – people like our favorite uncles, brothers, fathers and even sisters too and the less they will be willing to hear through the ankh-right’s bullshit.
Charing Ball is a writer, cultural critic and smarty-pants Black feminist from Philadelphia. To learn more, visit NineteenSeventy-Seven.com.