There’s a famous quote by Harriet Tubman about the many slaves that she could have saved if they only realized that they were captive. It’s been floating around on the web recently and floating above the heads of those who still don’t know they aren’t free.
Two weeks ago, I returned from Israel with a newfound respect for the self-determination and preservation of Jewish people. One of the places we visited was Israel’s Independence Hall, where the founders of the Jewish state laid out their intentions and came together to ratify their new nation. As the tour guide was telling the story of what happened, I noticed that he sang the praises of his country’s founders and more importantly of the Jewish people in general. It was something that I could appreciate – the fact that he was so in control of the narrative, promoting all of the contributions of his ancestors and fellow countrymen that made their triumphant victory something that we were all celebrating as we departed. Sitting there, in the Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, it struck me as something that African Americans don’t do well enough.
There was recently a huge controversy by a rapper in the midst of Black History month. This time, the perpetrator was Nikki Minaj whose cover art for a new song included the use of the N-word along with a picture of Malcolm X. Minaj, who was originally defensive about the backlash suffered from posting the photo on her Instagram account, issued an attempt at an apology to the estate of Malcolm X, saying she apologizes if the “photo was misconstrued.”
In reality, if she was a woman, she would have just said the truth: she’s sorry. The song is supposedly a song of empowerment for women even though it does nothing or says nothing about women, rather it demeans Black people by using the N-word more than 40 times. (Just a note to Nikki, empowering women doesn’t mean you have to belittle men.)
There is a general disrespect of history by too many of our people.
Here we are in the midst of the one month, the shortest might I add, that we as Black people should lift up our legacy and honor our history — but instead, Nikki Minaj thinks it is a good idea to both belittle Black people and do so with an image that shows one of our historical figures who fought for justice with a word that I’m sure he would have never approved of using.
There is a type of mental slavery that still exists and it allows certain people to somehow think that by calling themselves a derogatory name, which they have slightly altered and now claim means something else, they are not still subjugating Black people.
Malcom X once said, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.” I’m sure while Ms. Minaj was posting Malcolm’s picture and typing the N-word across it, she never stumbled across that quote. If she did, then she would realize the sting of that word still exists. It’s the reason why NFL player Riley Cooper was apologizing last year and partly why people were upset with Paula Deen.
When we don’t acknowledge the history of the word, we are behaving like animals. In order to achieve our potential, we need to instill in our children the sense of pride that our ancestors had. We need to loose ourselves from our own mental chains to truly find the independence that will allow us to succeed. We can’t look in the mirror every morning and tell ourselves we are the N-word or any other demeaning thing and not somehow internalize it all while still expecting the rest of the world to treat us with respect. We have to own our narrative and let the rest of the world know that we demand respect.
Janaye Ingram is the National Executive Director of the National Action Network.