This Saturday, Nov. 18, The Black Student Union of California State University Long Beach, will hold its annual Black Consciousness Conference. The question has been raised, even before that gathering, what exactly is Black Consciousness in the 21st century?
Yes, there was a definitive Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s that helped lead to the overthrow of apartheid, the official government program of enforced racism, with the release of Nelson Mandela and the institutionalization of the African National Congress’ Freedom Charter into the new South African Constitution. Leaders such as Steve Biko, the South African Students Organization (SASO), community organizing efforts of local youth committees, and individual acts of heroism by men and women in the struggle against a “death machine” called the Internal Security apparatus became known across the world. In this context, Black Consciousness meant consistently challenging the idea of a world led only by the white world view that incessantly dehumanized Black people. Black Consciousness meant Black pride in self.
In the USA, Black Consciousness was never a definitive movement, as in South Africa, but it was an amorphous belief that Black Americans did not deserve the short end of the stick in terms of the rewards and opportunities available in this country, and that Black Americans, united in their oppression, had to demand respect and self-worthiness from the larger American society. Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael (later, Kwame Ture), H. Rap Brown (later, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), of the singularly significant group, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), local chapters of the Black Student Union forming on American colleges and universities, and a pantheon of Black artists, musicians, poets and literati, pushed the idea that there was nothing inherently wrong in being born Black in this world. It was wrong to be taught, and for Black folk to accept, that Black people had no real contributory participation in the march of history and civilization, and that only by denying one’s Blackness and emphasizing one’s assimilation to White values, could one succeed in America and in the world. Here, as in South Africa and elsewhere, Black Consciousness came to mean Black pride and Black struggle for respect, self-worthiness and significance.
A very important part of the history and evolution of Black Consciousness was W.E.B. Dubois’ theory of double-consciousness., as articulated in his famous book, “The Souls of Black Folk”: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. The Negro does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He won’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.