The Sankofa bird, an icon of the Akan people of West Africa, is depicted as flying while facing the opposite direction, symbolizing the importance of looking backward to move forward–or, more colloquially, the need for a people to understand where they’ve been in order to understand where they’re going. Black folk have got the “looking back” part on lock. We’ve had to fight to reclaim our history, our heritage, our birthright and realize that an understanding of our past is crucial if we’re going to improve our current conditions.
But where is the vision that takes our present conditions as a starting point, and says, “If we had to do it ALL by ourselves, where could we, should we be, in five years, 10, 20, 30–a century?” What changes and trends are on the horizon, and what can we do in the present to position ourselves for where we want to be in the future?
The thing is, black folk have existed for the vast majority of our history in this country as “invisible men” in the Ralph Ellison sense. That legacy tends to exempt us from being considered as “invisible men” in the H.G. Wells sense. That is to say, we’ve been absent until very recently from America’s collective imagination of an idealized future. Or worse, we’re projected forward as a threat–the “moorlocks” to their “eloi” in sci-fi parlance.
With a nod to our past struggles, we must stake out our seats at the lunch counters of the future before they’re even built. To do so, we need to cultivate black futurists–visionaries who can look at where society’s been, where it is, and extrapolate where it’s going. More importantly, we need to provide ways for them to share their insights with the broader community: parents, teachers, students, activists, clergy, workers, businesspeople–basically everyone whose actions today will help shape the future.
As a step in that direction, here are some thoughts on a few areas of focus that will be critical to our collective prospect.
Within the last five years, in particular, rapid technological change has profoundly impacted our lives. The proliferation of the Internet and cell phones has brought sweeping changes in how we communicate–changes we’re still trying to understand. I can and do converse regularly with folks from across the globe, from Boston to Belgium, New York to New Zealand, Georgia to Ghana, holding discussions in real time that would have taken weeks (and a fortune in stamps) only a decade ago. As a side effect of the Internet, the dot-coms were a brief yet fierce tidal wave in the pool of the global economy, lifting some boats and blowing others out of the water.
What will be the next big technological advance, and will it be to our benefit or detriment? One topic that has gotten our attention is the so-called “digital divide.” Think of the “divide” as compound interest on past and present social inequality–as economic disparity translates into gaps in resources and access to technology that are disproportionately leaving blacks and other minority communities behind on the Information Superhighway.
There are scores of committees, programs and coalitions actively working to close the gap. Among their strategies are efforts to increase our children’s preparedness through more exposure to math and science in the schools, and projects aimed at putting more computers in schools, libraries and other public facilities. The success of these efforts will depend largely upon the will of those combating the problems to maintain broad participation and to directly engage those whom they are trying to serve.
On a related note, one exciting development around the problem of access to technology is unfolding in San Francisco and other communities. Some very smart people, using very cheap materials (literally tin cans and tin foil) have found a way to share wireless, broadband Internet connections with entire neighborhoods. While this is upsetting (“awwwwwww”) to the giant telecommunications companies– essentially one person can pay the $49.95 per month for cable or DSL connectivity while the whole ‘hood logs in simultaneously–it has tremendous potential to expand access in poorer communities.
There’s a lot more on the horizon besides the evolution of the World Wide Web. For instance, the impending “cashless society” is a particularly worrisome double-edged sword for communities of color. On one hand, we may not be able to fully participate, meaning we’ll be locked out of growing segments of the digital economy. This isn’t a far-fetched prediction, considering we’ve historically been underserved by existing financial institutions (i.e. a lotta folk gotta go to the check cashin’ spot and don’t have credit).
On the other hand, if we all do get issued our “smart cards,” we’ll have to carefully guard against the prospects for abuse by an ever more zealous and powerful national security apparatus. This is only common sense, considering that as a group, we’ve been disproportionately made targets of law enforcement profiling be it for so-called “street crime” or the well-documented U.S. government monitoring and destabilization efforts against black political groups.
Three years ago, after reading about microchips being used to identify pets in the United Kingdom, I predicted that it was only a matter of time before some “get tough” lawmaker proposed they be used on inmates, the homeless or other “marginal” elements. Recently, I read where a man in Florida with a rare medical condition voluntarily had himself and his family “chipped.” The clock is ticking on wider applications. When these new technologies emerge, we need to have folks who can spot the potential problems or at least, provide early warnings.
Folks have been saying for years now that the old “sweat of our brow” jobs are going away–quickly. Any economic development efforts we undertake must take that into consideration. Everyone playing a part in preparing young people for careers (and that number should include almost all of us) need to realize that the work and business worlds are moving targets, and we need to aim for where the target will be as opposed to where it is right now.
I have an uncle, a computer programmer who’s a contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration, who saw this writing on the wall years ago. He’d been an excellent car mechanic, but tired of the dirty fingernails, went to night school and persisted until he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. Having thumbed, dumbfounded, through a few automotive repair manuals, I can vouch that the complexity of an engine appears as daunting as any program or system I’ve encountered in the IT world. The thing is, had my uncle stayed an automotive technician, he’d have had to learn computers to be able to work on new cars that now require specialized and expensive computers to “diagnose” engine trouble.
We can no longer view technical training as an educational “bonus,” to be enjoyed only by those who demonstrate sufficient mastery of the three Rs. So much discussion of education as preparation for future employment focuses these days on minimum competencies when in reality, we need to be emphasizing maximum competencies. We must change our thinking until we regard instruction in math and science as an essential component of every child’s education.
As a people, we must also make ownership a primary goal. The marriage of employee and employer ain’t what it used to be. In fact, the arrangement is getting downright temporary, with long-term employees becoming an increasing rarity. In addition to working 9 to whatever, workers nowadays must manage their careers and retirement accounts and hope they don’t get RIF’d, downsized, streamlined or (insert other bloodless, economic euphemism) to help the good ol’ economy weather tough times.
We need to encourage entrepreneurship, even within the traditional workplace. And we need to take the same mindset in our communities, emphasizing and instilling the values of ownership to create a foundation of wealth with which to finance a black future.
I’ve noticed a lot of folks from my generation (early to mid 30’s) getting into “ownership” by rehabbing houses and buying up investment property. As cities become vogue again and the “urban renewal” cycles of past generations repeat themselves, I find this emerging black ownership movement an interesting counterpoint to gentrification. Time will tell whether these efforts prevent future generations from walking through parts of their towns, as we do now in Baltimore and Boston, pointing at million-dollar homes and saying, “Black people used to own this whole neighborhood before it was condemned and rebuilt for the affluent.”
This is truly an area where the Sankofa concept is indispensable. The last five decades for Africans in America and throughout the rest of the Diaspora, should be a stark and tragic warning against over reliance on hierarchical, charismatic leadership. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. Patrice Lumumba. When so much of the energy and vision of a people, a movement, is embodied in one person, it is far too tempting for the powers that be to want to erase them.
If we are to have effective leadership in the future, we must run away from the “all eggs in one basket” approach we’ve favored for so long. To do this, we have to change the way we think of leadership, steering clear of the idea of “anointed ones” toward the notion that we all have the potential to be leaders, and that those qualities of leadership must be identified and cultivated within all of us.
All of our institutions must serve this end. Our churches, political and civic groups, recreational groups, schools, and any other place where masses of us congregate must have the development of future black leadership as an additional goal. And those of us in traditional leadership positions must actively recruit and mentor helpers and replacements, as opposed to a lot of old guard leaders who get into power and convince themselves that they are the only person for the job.
“Each One Teach One” is zero population growth, and no longer good enough to sustain a black future. These days, Each One Needs to Teach Many.