Wednesday, September 12, 2007


when i first started to attend open mics about 4 or 5 years ago, i was in love with the whole scene. i was constantly in an environment where i was a minority during the day, and being with other black folks on those nights was a refreshing thing. an avid bookworm, i love words. an avid music lover, i love songs. open mics provided me with both.

it wasn't long before i realized that certain themes were used often in the poetry i was hearing - affirmations of culture, political frustration, the fallout of economic warfare - all things that merit discussion, expression, and reflection. as time went on, i noticed that there were certain things that we folks in the audience were expected to know about. i don't have time to get into all of it, but i'll just focus on one for now: the "willie lynch mentality." i had never heard of willie lynch before attending poetry venues. afraid to show my ignorance of something that i apparently should have known about, i looked him up on the internet. my search told me that willie lynch was a caribbean slaveholder whose slave-handling tactics of mental divide-and-conquer warfare are at the root of division between africans in america today.

i'll be honest: i wasn't very impressed with his speech. i'm naturally skeptical of such things, but i let it go at that. all the things in the letter were things i'd heard others expound upon when trying to explain the current cultural and economic state of black folks. i already knew those tactics had been used. i'd learned about them in my reading before ever having read about willie lynch. the difference here is that instead of talking about the divisive tactics as something that was generally done by slaveowners during slavery, the individual willie lynch now stood out as a figure to whom these tactics could be attributed. additionally, this is a name we've never heard in school. surely this must be some information kept from us for centuries, so that we would never know we were being systematically divided all this time. that way we would be ignorant of our plight and too disorganized, too disjointed, too inept to band together and resist the mental warfare being thrust upon us - suddenly the shadow of conspiracy looms. we've been hoodwinked! we've been bamboozled!

at last now i understood what the poets were saying when they talked about willie lynch. the references to the willie lynch mentality made sense - they were referring to divisiveness among black people when they dropped his name. "willie lynch" is now a convenient term to encapsulate this concept - an abbreviation, if you will.

problem is, willie lynch is not a historical figure - he was not a man who lived and breathed and singlehandedly determined the plight of africans in america. the speech in which he outlined a program for white racial domination never happened. of course, we'd never know it, the way his speech is circulated on the internet and alluded to ad nauseum by even the most well-meaning of poets. black scholars have done the research and taken the time to discredit the myth of his existence and speech, based on linguistic and historical research, and i'm glad that they have, since i'd always been suspicious of the myth, but never had the ammunition to discredit it.

please don't misunderstand me: i know that africans were stripped of culture, language and custom, bred, beaten, separated, and intimidated in order to lose identity, unity, and the urge for freedom. this is not a myth. this is something we need to understand about our ancestors. at times we need to talk about this, and it does affect us even today. one of the ways it affects us, however, is that we go searching for meaning in things that have no authenticity. contrary to what we may have heard, kwanzaa is not an african holiday - it was created for african americans who want to pay homage to african culture. "picnic" originates from the french, and does not mean "pick-a-nigger." black men received their right to vote in the 19th century with the 15th amendment to the constitution, not in the 20th century with the voting rights act. black women's suffrage followed in the 19th amendment. and folks, listen to me close: there existed no man named willie lynch, mastermind of black submission and division.

some find that debating whether or not this speech existed is a distraction. should it matter if the man wasn't real, when we know that the tactics were real? yes, it should, and this is why: part of our problem is that many of us don't know our history in the first place. when you don't know the truth, someone can tell you anything, and in your ignorance, you will believe. we once believed that in africa we were savages that swung like monkeys from trees. we know better now - that we came from civilizations with order, governments, kingdoms, knowledge, and customs. knowledge of the truth makes all the difference. we must accept nothing less than the truth. here, the truth is that willie lynch is a modern-day, fabricated symbol and not a historical figure. asking people to make that distinction is no more a distraction than perpetuating the myth.

family, please stop getting your history from e-mail forwards, rap lyrics and open mics. please stop listening to your play cousin who just came out of jail wearing a kufi, just because he said he read a lot while he was locked up. stop spreading information until you've checked its integrity. don't be a pedestrian thinker. if you want to know who we are, get cozy with carter g. woodson. take a class at the community college. shoot, even hit up wikipedia. but always question. always try to verify.

a note to all my brothers and sisters who write poetry and lyrics - i love you. but if you're going to name-drop willie lynch, please, PLEASE, explain what you mean by that to the people who are listening to your words. and in your explanation, can you somehow include the fact that he's a symbol of reality, and not intrinsically real? we must take our weighty responsibility as griots seriously. the ancestors are watching and the children are listening.