Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Protest in Ferguson, MO exposes assumptions regarding black leadership

Photograph courtesy of WCNC TV

A few years back, I wrote a column about the gulf between the black church on the mountaintop and those stuck in the valley.  I argued for a place somewhere in the middle. 

We need to find that place fast.

The conversations related to the shooting of Michael Brown remind us of the deep division within the black community.  Saying that is, in part, a celebration of the diversity of ideas within black public space.  Not all black people think the same.  It is also true that black people represent a diverse set of cultural experiences which impact the construction of those views.

Yes, all of that is a celebration.  We don’t act the same, think the same, look the same or experience life the same way.  This all leads to variances regarding assumptions of leadership.  For those peeking into black public space from a position of privilege, there are clear expectations related to the function and assignment of black leadership.

Those assumptions exasperate the emotions of people lingering in the valley.  They watch as the press, the Church, politicians and the masses request affirming words from those they christen as the official voice of the people.  They do so based on the traditional model for the sanctioning of black leadership – they seek the voice of the Church.

As meaningful and significant as it may be to seek leadership from the black pulpit, it must be understood that the certification of community leadership is attached to one’s position and allegiance prior to the uproar of a movement.  One’s association with the Church does not credential a person as a community leader.  That can be assumed when the Church is engaged in the community in a way that makes them a part of the work in the valley.

The happenings in Ferguson, Missouri are an example of how leadership is both perceived and assumed within black public space.  There are two separate responses to the death of Brown. As the press and privileged seek leadership from the pulpit, those in the valley have indorsed their own leaders.  They have found, within the crowd of hurting people, those who speak with clarity regarding the nature of their pain.

As those from the mountaintop of privilege gather to discuss ways to minimize the hurt, those in the valley take matters into their own hands.  They speak with the form of protest that those on the mountain deem uncivilized, and a reflection of an unproductive strategy.  Those on the mountaintop meet, talk, pray, hold press conferences and formulate messages intended to abate the aggression in the valley.

Those on the mountain assume they are listening.  Those in the valley wonder why they speak, given their failure to be present before the madness became a part of national debate. 

Those in the valley meet and plan.  They engage in a way that reflects the culture of the valley.  Those on the mountaintop also meet.  They formulate strategies based on the culture of their institutional assumptions of power and privilege.  They bring a level of sophistication and common sense that can be embraced by the press and public. 

People watch and wonder about the division. Why are there two meetings held at the same time?  Why can’t we work together to impact change?

It’s because of the distance between the mountaintop and valley.  Those on the mountaintop have welcomed people in the valley to the mountain.  They are asked to come if willing to embrace the terms of those on the mountaintop.  Those in the valley watch those on the mountaintop from a distance.  They, those on the mountaintop, rarely come to the valley.  They find comfort in having escaped the valley.  It’s not safe in the valley – they say. 

The mountain is the sanctioning of the American Dream.  Those in the valley lack the advantages that come with mountain dwelling.  It is assumed that the leaders live on the mountain. 

Leaders emerge in the valley.  They know the language of the valley. They listen as the press refuses to listen.  They watch as people speak for them.  They know they haven’t been to the valley.  They know they remain comfortable in their churches while making assumptions about the reasons behind their failure to take the journey to the mountain.

There has to be a place between the mountaintop and valley.  Finding that place demands attention before things fall apart.  You can’t speak for people you have never met.  Titles, education and acceptance on the mountain aren’t enough to credential one as a leader among those in the valley.  You have to walk those streets before you can speak for them.

Keep listening.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the clarity of this perspective. It explains a lot.