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The Roots and History of the Concept of Black Leadership*



By Na’im Akbar, Ph.D.

Special to The Mid-South Tribune

(Published in Black History Month, February 1999)

Excerpt From his book, “Chains and Images of Psychological Slavery (New Minds Productions, Jersey City, New Jersey.)

            Probably one of the most destructive influences which has grown out of slavery is the disrespect of African American leadership.  The allegory is seen throughout nature that the most certain way to destroy life is to cut off the head. From the turkey to the cow, to the man, the most immediate way to bring death to a body is to remove its head. This is especially true as a social principle. One of the things that was systematically done during slavery was the elimination of control of any emerging head or leader. Slave narratives and historical accounts are full of descriptions of atrocities brought against anyone who exemplified real leadership capability: The slaveholders realized that their power and control over the slaves was dependent upon the absence of any indigenous leadership among the slaves.

            Any slave who began to emerge as a natural head, that is, one oriented toward survival of the whole body, as identified early and was either gotten rid of, isolated, killed or ridiculed. In his place was put a leader who had been carefully picked, trained, and tested to stand only for the master’s welfare. In other words, unnatural heads were attached to the salve communities. They furthered the cause of the master and frustrated the cause of the salve.

            The slaves were taught to view with suspicion natural heads which emerged from among themselves. Such heads were identified as “uppity” or “arrogant,” and were branded as the kind of troublemakers who were destined to bring trouble to the entire slave community. This idea was reinforced by the public punishment of such indigenous leadership and any of his/her associates or sympathizers. The entire slave community was often required to carry an extra burden, or deprived of some small privilege, because of such “uppity slaves.”

            Such practices rather firmly entrenched the opposition to natural leaders. They were often isolated by their own community, and were usually the victims of fellow slave “snitches” who reported to the master that someone was brewing trouble. The “snitches” having demonstrated their loyalty to the master, were usually promoted to the position of slave leaders, and another grafted leader was born, i.e. with a slave body and master’s head. The salve community was encouraged to view the greater power given to the master-trained as an indication of his superior worth as a leader. The master-trained leader was rewarded, praised and given privileges as an inducement for the salves to follow his leadership.

            The long generations of being conditioned to reject natural and strong leadership had not only stifled the development of such leaders, but African Americans still respond by rejecting such leaders. Even outstanding leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were rejected and denied support by the African American educated and professional classes of people in many major cities. He was condemned in the early days of his civil rights campaigns as a “troublemaker.” Only after receiving recognition from increasing numbers of “liberal” Caucasians was he accepted as a leader. Powerful leaders who emerged from the ranks of the uneducated, such as Elijah Muhammad never received wide acceptance—despite the fact that he offered the most powerful economic and self-help program of the time. Contemporary “Negro” history accounts devote extensive coverage to Muhammad’s trainees such as Malcolm Shabazz, while mentioning the natural head only in passing.

            Such rejection of strong African American leadership is as conditioned in us as our fear and hatred of the burning cross. It is important to realize that such efforts to undermine effective African American leadership is still an on-going part of the current society. The press, for example, fails to mention many of the outstanding accomplishments of indigenous African American leadership. On the other hand, the least important statement from a master-appointed leader gains front-page coverage!

            The other side of this issue of “grafted leaders” is that a realistically based suspiciousness of African American leadership grew in our communities. Forced to reject natural leadership (in opposition to the survival instincts), and to accept oppressor-appointed leadership, compelled our communities to essentially suspect all leadership.

            This suspiciousness is manifested in a rather pervasive disrespect for black leaders, unless they come arrayed with a supply of token or mystical power. The token power usually comes in the form of a limousine, some ostentatious clothing and some rather impressive jewelry. The mystical power requires identifying one’s leadership as having some kind of “divine legitimization.” These leaders often gain considerable followings of an intensely emotional form.

            Otherwise “leaders” are projected by the “master’s media and press, and are often chosen from illiterate athletes, politically naïve preachers, or even entertainers. The leadership of such persons seldom extends beyond their faddish and transitory stardom. Meanwhile, all other forms of small scale and large scale leaders, indigenous and otherwise, are destroyed by suspiciousness and disrespect,

            As a people, African Americans must begin to recognize the disposition which has been conditioned to us to reject natural, effective leadership. If we understand that we have been programmed throughout history to reject our natural heads, we may begin to become more conscious of recognizing true leaders. It can be easily demonstrated that the persistent distrust and limited support given to African American leaders has its origin in the many inappropriate heads which have been affixed to our bodies, historically.


*From the 1999 Archives from  The Mid-South Tribune and The Black Information Highway.




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