Visibility remains a consistent problem in the western world. For some, to obtain visibility is not only to be seen, but to obtain value. The correspondence between value and visibility is perhaps best illustrated in the contemporary world where access to a computer grants you a stage and “likes” seemingly imply a range of positive emotions that need not be consistent to real-life reactions. This visibility, although generally problematic, poses a unique poison to oppressed peoples.
To the oppressed, acquired visibility often works to dilute the affects of oppression– as if visibility proves mutually exclusive to any marginalized identity. To oppressors, visibility functions as puppeteer strings to control and exploit those of whom they oppress. By granting and denying visibility, oppressors employ the what Foucault describes as absolute power—or power that functions invisibly.
Contemporary leadership thrives on visibility except that the contemporary world often deems the visible body a leader by default. Thus, many strive for the spotlight treatingt their visibility as the feat, rendering their leadership as pseudo as their intentions. This article will examine contemporary “leaders” Umar Johnson and DeRay McKesson and “leadership” organization Black Lives Matter, asserting that these groups reflect pseudo leadership that prove more harmful than helpful.
I. Case One: Umar Johnson
I am unsure when Umar Johnson first gained fame. But in wake of heightened publicity surrounding acts of racial terror, Johnson became somewhat of a household name. From lectures on prominent college campuses to an interview at The Breakfast Club—-Johnson became a face for contemporary 21st century Pan-Africanism. However, with a closer look, Umar Johnson symbolizes societal conflict. Namely, Johnson serves as the product of a society that uses social media as a gateway to visibility, not change. Johnson’s website boasts of a relation to Frederick Douglass and cites Johnson as a “prince” — megalomania tendencies mirrored in a recent posting on youtube that has now gone viral.
In a recent video, Johnson explicitly responds to critic “General Seti.” The tone in the video sounds vastly different than the Umar Johnson the world has come to know. The cadence which spiraled Johnson to fame, dissolved into a sea of expletives and childish insults. Johnson asserts his leadership status in the Pan Africanism movement, a sentiment substantiated by his self-proclaimed title of “P.O.P.A”– the “Prince of Pan Africanism”or the “King Kong of Consciousness.” Johnson’s rant unveils his dedication to Pan-Africanism is as authentic as the call taken during the video. Throughout the video, Johnson frequently boasts of his earnings and relevancy. He boasts of being invited to speak on “all continents” and being “flown out” to do so. Johnson undoubtedly makes these comments to discredit his skeptic, however his words illustrate him as an ego driven individual, not an intellectual. As “P.O.P.A,” Johnson not only places himself as above his skeptics, but above his supporters as well. It is hard to determine whether Johnson forgot or is simply ignorant to the inter workings of pan-africanism and black liberation. For the individual cannot be central in a bout to uplift the collective. True leadership functions as a vessel to the masses, not a superior. Umar Johnson’s sole interest is Umar Johnson, a fact substantiated in his constant reference to himself in the third person. Furthermore, Johnson’s rant functions to blatantly state what existed between the lines all along, that Johnson veils an individualistic agenda in appearing to concern himself with the black collective.
This individualistic mindset is not exclusive to Johnson, but reflective of pseudo black leadership in its entirety. Historically, individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evans, George Jackson, Assata Shakur, amongst others, emerged as leaders because they were willing to lose everything—even their lives to cultivate black self-determination and freedom. Contemporary leaders prove counterproductive to leadership morale —gaining where traditional activists experienced conventional loss.
II. Case Two: DeRay McKesson
DeRay McKesson gained overt fame and covert fortune as a Black Lives Matter leader following the murder of Mike Brown. With a poised and witty demeanor, McKesson is both articulate and likable. He is just not revolutionary. McKesson’s “heroic actions” seem to compose a virtual portfolio to further his plight for power. I vividly remember gazing at stills from his arrest, stills that captured McKesson at a judicious angle in perfect lighting gracefully arrested by officers patrolling the peaceful protest. The struggle appeared beautiful at the expense of much needed credibility. His credibility continued to diminish as an advocate for Clinton in her 2016 campaign for the White House. In a 2016 interview, DeRay denounced Trump in support of Hillary Clinton with the follow
ing, “ he should not be president, but this is a vote for her.” A radical thinker easily discounts any difference between Clinton and Trump, a reactionary figure chooses “the lesser of two evils.” Furthermore, McKesson’s assertion of being “For Hilary” simultaneously proved that he is not for black social and economic justice, as the Clintons have consistently disenfranchised blacks throughout the diaspora. Supporting Clinton calls to question whether McKesson’s activism was strategically implemented to foster white advancement although guised as black liberation.
III. Black Lives Matter.
Similarly, leadership organization Black Lives Matter also had a revealing moment last year after Micah Johnson was assassinated. Immediately following Johnson’s assassination, Black Lives Matter became “All Lives Matter” denouncing Johnson’s heroic acts claiming that they “stand for dignity, justice, and freedom, not murder.” These words surfaced to save face and most likely to maintain their heavy funding by white philanthropists. Moreover, while BLM claims to stand for justice and freedom, their acquiescence to cowardice disallows them to stand for anything. Johnson, like ancestors Nat Turner, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., willingly placed his life on the line for the black collective. This makes Johnson more of an activist in the last few moments of his life than BLM activists were in the last two years.
Pseudo leaders like Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mckesson reflect weakness in a time where strength is essential for physical and mental survival. In the past, activists obtained visibility to challenge not appease the status quo. Contemporary leadership merely pretends to promote black interest and growth, all the while coveting western conventions.
Moreover, in examining contemporary leadership it becomes obvious that true leadership may very well be in the past. However, while these activists may chronologically encompass what has already come and gone— they are also very much alive in their descendants. We may not be able to dictate who the white media appoints to articulate the black perspective, but we can dictate with whom we stand. If the pseudo leadership of the contemporary world tells us anything it is that the parameters are simple, stand for black nationalism or fall for white supremacy. However these choices too often become veiled in the plight be seen. Ironically, the strive for visibility often results in black invisibility as the control exercised in the seen black body ineluctably buries blackness in a sea of racist ideologies and actions.