Power Beyond MeasurePosted in Social Justice, Speeches
Delivered at the State Convention of the NAACP, September 21, 2007
Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III
“The measure of power is obstacles overcome.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
“All spiritual or real power makes its own place.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The story of African America has been the history of a long journey towards realizing, developing and establishing our true gifts and power as a people. Ever since we were forcibly brought to the shores of America, we have labored to create a matrix of power that would enable us face, confront and overcome those stumbling blocks to freedom, justice and equality.
Our entire history as a people in America can be viewed as a struggle for power in three basic realms: 1) the power of self-realization. That is to say, having the ability to establish, coming to terms with and solidify our own true identity as a people. 2) the power of self-actualization, which is the ability to realize collectively and individually our greatest potential and use it to make a better life for ourselves and our communities and 3) the power of self-determination, which is our capacity to decide for ourselves the means and ends to our ultimate destiny.
Let me say that our struggle as African Americans for self-realization, self-actualization and self-determination can be seen in every area of our lives from politics and economics to religion, spirituality and family life. Our struggle has been for the power to simply be, to live and act as other human beings, to enjoy the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness as promised by the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution; the three pillars of American representative democracy.
For America cannot truly realize her greatest potential and power until all of her people realize their greatest potential and power. If we are not free, America is not free. We are America.
The tension has always between the power of love and the love of power. In looking over our history, we see that there is no sacrifice that we have not made, no mile that we have not traveled, no river that we have not crossed, no pain that we have not borne; no insult that we have not swallowed, no trouble that we have not seen; no condition that we have not endured; no terror that we have not known and no mountain that we have not climbed to help America prosper and grow and become the great world power that it is today.
It is because of our labor and our gifts and our genius and our creativity and our prayers and our suffering as a woe-smitten people that America has come this far and we have come this far.
It is because of our undying commitment to this country; our capacity to keep giving America the best of everything that we have despite the storms and stress of daily living along with our willingness to stand for justice and fight for freedom at home and abroad that we have come this far as a community and as a nation. And when we view our history we must see it from the standpoint of our strengths and not just our weaknesses.
For few men and women of any husk and hue, of any time or generation could have survived the catastrophes and calamities and the various forms of oppression that we have faced and still face as a people. Few people of any ilk or breed could have met head on as many hardships for as long as we have and still come through it all with reasonable measures of our sanity still in tact. And let me be clear, America would not have come this far without us once we came here. America would not have prospered as greatly as it has without us had we not worked her fields, and built her monuments, baked her bread, shorn her sheep, nursed her children, fought her wars, stoked her steamers and bled, cried and died for her.
It is because we have been endowed with infinite spiritual power from our creator that we have come this far over the way that with tears has been watered, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Our spiritual power has been our quintessential power that has molded and aided our survival as a people in this land.
It is because of our infinite spiritual power that we have developed power beyond measure in four basic ways: 1) Power to survive with dignity; 2) Power to face and overcome our problems; and 3) Power to create and innovate and 4) the power to transform reality.
Too often we and others underestimate that power. Too often we allow ourselves and others to set limits on that power. It is because we have spiritual power beyond measure, which is the true measure of power that we have come this far as a people and as a nation and will continue to move into the future.
Power has been defined as many things but perhaps the most basic definition comes from G. William Domhoff who says that power is “the ability to get what one wants, the capacity to be what one wants and the facility to do what one wants. ” Spiritual power is the capacity to be, and get and do what one wants in relation to divine reality. Tonight let us explore these four areas as they relate to our them, “Power Beyond Measure. ”
I. First, as a people, we have had the power to survive with dignity under conditions of adversity and oppression. We could not have survived with dignity without spiritual power. Spiritual power has equated to staying power.
Given all the hell that we have been through as a people, we must never take our survival for granted and while things aren’t as bad as they used to be for many of us, we must never underestimate our power for survival. The fact that we are still here means something, for nearly everything that one can do to a human being has been done to us in some shape, form or fashion. The great tragedy today is that it is no longer just other folk doing these things to us. We have managed to do quite well these things to ourselves.
Living through centuries of oppression has certainly taken its toll upon us emotionally, physically and psychologically, but we are still here. American Slavery was one of the most debilitating and demeaning systems of terror and oppression ever devised, but we managed, through the grace of God and our personal strength and the courage and benevolence of others who came to our aid, to survive.
We could have lost our minds years ago and some days when I wake up I am not too sure that I haven’t lost part of mine. The pressure was too great for too long. We could have lost our souls long ago, but we kept forging ahead because we had a spiritual belief system that enabled us to trust ultimately in a higher power who one day would see us through. Our belief in God as the supreme creator of the universe, as the sovereign ruler who orders life and brings justice to the oppressed; a God who gives creativity, pliability and resiliency is what has helped us to survive many a sorrowful and tearful night.
The transatlantic slave trade and slavery were our holocaust, and the Jim Crow aftermath was a continuation of this legacy of horror and terror. That we could survive this peculiar institution of slavery and all the subsequent years of systemic degradation is something worth noting. This is our strength, our legacy as a people and we should be proud. We should hold our heads high. That we could survive it all tells something of our true strength and power. Others have perished but we have survived.
Not just that slavery occurred but that we survived it is important! It’s not just the pain and stain of slavery, but how we surmounted it; came through it and are still living and striving and thinking and doing which should tell us something about ourselves. We were hell bent and heaven bound on survival and while many of us perished at the hands of our adversaries, we had a will to live, a desire to forge ahead and rise above the perils of our condition. Something in us would not let us die; would not let us ultimately give up and give in to total defeat and despair, would not allow our spirits to be completely domesticated by those who would rule us.
We thus had an adaptability that allowed us to adjust to a variety of circumstances. We had a spiritual resourcefulness that gave us staying power and rising power; the power to adapt and adopt and rise psychologically, spiritually and emotionally above our calamities for survival.
Moreover, as Herbert Aptheker reminds us in his book, American Negro Slave Revolts, we were in constant revolt against this system of oppression. Images of happy, docile slaves are simply propaganda created to allay the anxiety of masters and to ensure the perpetuation of the slave system. Few, if any slaves were happy with their circumstances and as Aptheker reminds us, masters were constantly worried about uprisings and insurrections from slaves. Such rebellions ranged from non-violent work stoppages on plantations, to running away from the plantation to the implementation, on occasion, of more severe and violent measures ala Nat Turner. These constant revolts instilled with African Americans a tradition of resistance; a belief that one-day they would be free and life would get better. But they also understood in the words of Frederick Douglass that they had to constantly agitate for change; agitate for freedom until the day could be won.
It was belief in God that gave them that hope to press on towards freedom against great odds and formidable circumstances that is a hallmark of our spiritual heritage. Our spiritual beliefs, practices and traditions, which included songs, prayers, conversations and sermons, were punctuated and filled with spiritual language portending the great day of freedom. Even the spirituals contained coded language that bespoke of freedom. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. Swing Low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. ”
It was the practice of spirituality; the belief in a transcendent system of divinity that gave African Americans an undying hope for tomorrow; a spirit of pliability that enabled them to adjust to and rise above a variety of circumstances and conditions. Their belief in God taught them to always look beyond their immediate circumstances; to see farther than what they could see on earth. It trained them to look beyond misery to prosperity, beyond despair to hope, beyond death to life. This means that I am more than I am. I am greater than I appear to be. I am being and becoming because God is not through with me yet. God is still shaping me and molding me into the person I am to become.
It was the practice of spirituality; belief in God, trust in that higher divine power that enabled us to survive physically, emotionally and psychologically.
For instance, our spirituality gave us means us the power to survive psychologically. Let me give you an explanation.
There were three basic ways that a slave could choose to view and subsequently value him or herself under such circumstances that aided or hindered his survival. 1) He could choose to ultimately view and value himself solely through the eyes of his master and the plantation system. 2) He could choose to ultimately view and value himself solely through the eyes of his peers. 3) He could choose to ultimately view and value himself solely through the eyes of God. By choosing to view and value himself ultimately through the eyes of God meant that the slave could not ultimately be defined by his external circumstances; that is to say by his social or economic conditions. His value could not ultimately be conferred by a system that tried to exploit that value and limit his self worth. He or she could not ultimately be defined by a system that oppressed, demeaned, devalued and in many ways tried to completely destroy him.
Many slaves had adopted mixed points of view for psychological survival. Their view and value of themselves was a combination of these three perspectives. But in order to survive with dignity, a slave had to ultimately view and value him or herself through the eyes of God, for it is God who ultimately gives self-esteem and self-worth, value and power for survival and life. In order to psychologically survive what Kenneth Stampp called the peculiar institution of slavery, the slave had to believe in a higher power that gave him a sense of value and worth notwithstanding what his masters did to him or said about his value and self worth.
The slave reasoned, “How could I be so low in my master’s eyes yet be so valuable in the creation of my master’s wealth? How could I be so undervalued in my person, yet create so much value for this system? The slave reasoned further, “If I am so worthless, why is my master so dependent upon me for survival? ” If I am really so inferior why does society fear me so much? Why does society go out of its way to contain me and suppress me and withhold me If I am such an inferior being? ”
The slave had to develop a system of psychological survival that turned on its head everything the master said to him or about him that devalued his sense of personal worth.
These spiritual beliefs did not begin with the Judeo-Christian tradition but were long important elements in African Cosmology and African Traditional Religions.
This means that the slave had to not only find a means of psychological survival but he or she had to believe in a higher power in order to survive with dignity. Slaves could not have survived psychologically, emotionally and otherwise unless they saw themselves as persons of worth. That worth was defined and granted by God and not by their earthly masters. They had to possess a spirituality that enabled them to view and value themselves as persons of value and power otherwise they would have perished completely within that system. Colin Powell said it best when he observed. “Why should I let other people’s low opinion of me become my opinion of myself? ”
When I say that African Americans had the spiritual power beyond measure to survive with dignity under adverse conditions, it means that they had a spiritual belief system that allowed them to psychologically, spiritually and emotionally face, understand, process embrace, overcome and rise above their debilitating conditions without lingering hatred for their masters or a collective desire for wholesale revenge. This spiritual belief system had to be humane, for if they did not have this system of belief, many more slaves would have undertaken the suicidal mission of mass revolt and perished en masse.
Let’s face it, slaves had to have belief in a higher power given the cruelty and inhumanity they faced daily. That had to believe in something higher to buffer themselves from the piercing arrows of a dehumanizing system. Slaves who served as cooks on plantations could have ended slavery by poisoning their masters much in the same way that the Greeks slaves did their Romans captors. But there was something in that spiritual system of belief that enabled them to adapt to and rise above it without destroying themselves.
Dignity is the power to rise above adversity with your head high and your back straight. It is a quality of character that humanizes the individual and confers self worth amid dehumanizing circumstances and conditions. Dignity is developing a mode of existence that compels one to find peace and wholeness in a world that constantly seeks to destroy one. Without belief in God, we could not have survived.
To survive with dignity under conditions of hardship means that you have a sense of self-value; a capacity to see and define yourself in terms other than those given to you by your masters or your external environment or the conditions in which you find yourself. Being a slave then is simply a description of one’s social condition, not a definition of one’s potential and power and who that person is ultimately to become as a person of infinite value and worth in God’s eyes.
The spiritual belief system of the African American slave enabled him to see him self ultimately through the eyes of God, not as a nigger or a slave, or a “B” or an “H” but ultimately as a child of God. Whatever labels that have been forced upon me as a means of demeaning, defining and controlling me are ultimately discarded in order to survive with dignity.
To survive with dignity under adverse conditions also means not only having the power to walk with dignity and to understand and appreciate your true ultimate value and worth but having the power to still view your adversary as a human being despite what he has done or tried to do to you. It means developing the adaptive mechanisms that cause you to rise above him. It means that you choose not to stoop to his level of violence and cruelty as a legitimate means of retaliation or as a permanent way of life and thinking, which not only means you harm but does him harm. It means developing a mode of thinking and a way of acting that allows you to maximize the gifts and potential that God has given you despite how society has defined you or limited you or treated you. It’s what scholar Garth Baker Fletcher calls, “Somebodiness. ” It means developing as world view that still recognizes one’s adversary as a person capable of redemptive transformation.
This tendency to humanize one’s adversaries gave rise to the practice of non-violence in one of the cruelest and inhumane systems ever devised. People have talked about the non-violent movement for social change heralded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and where it began and some scholars have rightly attributed some of Dr. King’s and the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violent strategies and tactics to Mohandas K. Gandhi. While it is true that King studied Gandhi and appropriated his methods and tactics, it is also true that black folk in America had largely practiced a non-violence of their own for hundreds of years under in a system of slavery and segregation. Non-violence did not begin with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Collective, intentional social strategies for positive change may have begun with him, but true non-violence was the practice of Jesus and the practice of African Americans living in a system that always potentially elicited violence as a means of revolt and as a way of life. Compared to the violence that has been committed against them, African Americans have been largely non-violent. This practice of non-violence emerged from the spiritual belief systems of slaves, who having experienced the cruelty of their masters could still view them through humane eyes and develop responses to that cruelty that humanized their masters and enabled them to yet embrace but rise above them for survival.
The point here is that African Americans have had a spiritual power beyond measure to survive slavery and oppression by adapting to a variety of circumstances. If we are to have power beyond measure in the future we must nurture and cultivate that spiritual power; which is a power see ourselves always as more than what society has defined us.
II. Second, as a people we have developed the power to face and overcome many problems. We could not have had the courage to face and overcome our overwhelming problems without belief in a higher power like God.
Contrary to popular thinking, African Americans are not solely defined by their problems but by their ability to solve them. What we should do is focus on how we have over the years with limited resources, been able to face and overcome our problems. Too often when we speak of the issues facing our community, we become so problem focused that we cannot determine solutions. Some things have to be working in our communities. How could we have come this far if all things were wrong? The old saying is, “Nothing is all wrong. Even a clock that has stopped is right twice a day! ”
It is true that problems still exist in our communities, as all communities and in some cases these problems have gotten the better of us, but we have a power beyond measure to problem solve and we have seen this power manifested time and again throughout our history. When our backs were against the wall, over and over again we have come to solutions to some of our most challenging dilemmas. They may be make shift solutions. They may be temporary solutions. They may be raggedy solutions, but the desire to problem solve with limited resources is still there.
One of the great legacies of the NAACP has been its power to bring solutions to systemic racism, discrimination and segregation through the power of law and the courts. Legal victories have been won that have enabled black America to face and overcome its various problems by developing solutions to them. One of our greatest freedom fighters was Thurgood Marshall who understood the meaning of the constitution and fought vigorously through the courts to hold America to account. Freedom for one means freedom for all. When one is not free all are not free.
As a people, we have always had the capacity to address our own concerns and with a little help from our friends we have had even more power to solve our problems.
Let me say that we are and have been problem solvers. We could not have come this far, this long, under such conditions without the capacity to face and overcome our own problems and the problems of the larger society. We must stop believing that we cannot solve our own problems that only other people can do that for us. While we can use other people’s help, we must know that we could not have survived this long without having some problem solving capacity on our own. The paradox is that others have recognized and exploited our problem solving capacity and often we have not recognized or fully valued this gift and capacity.
For example, whatever we say about slavery, whites knew that blacks could became the problem solvers in an economic system that needed free and cheap labor to build its fiscal future. Who else had the strength and brawn to would work the fields? Who else had the knowledge, the resiliency and power and the gifts of agriculture to be able to work for so long within such a cruel and unjust system? No other ethnic or racial group of people in the history of this country has been viewed as both the problem and the problem solver as much as African Americans. We have been defined as America’s biggest problem yet we have been constantly called upon throughout our history to help solve America’s greatest problems. What a paradox! And time after time we have responded faithfully to this call.
In the Revolutionary War, free blacks were called to fight and that turned the tide against the British. In the Civil War, freemen, runaway slaves and former slaves were called to take up arms in the Union Army, which struck terror in the heart of Johnny Reb. Negroes with guns was a frightening prospect for the confederate soldier. In World Wars I and II and other wars blacks were called upon to fight for freedom abroad when they didn’t have freedom at home. Many soldiers returned from these wars only to be lynched in their uniforms and hung from trees as strange fruit. African Americans who were defined as the problem at home became problem solvers abroad only to come back home to be the problem again.
African Americans as a people who were defined as the problem have always been called in to help America solve its problems and have made the difference. Facing and overcoming our problems has been a hallmark of our journey in this country.
The practice of spirituality gave us tools for problem solving. It taught us to look at life and reality from more than just one way. We could view a problem through our own eyes or view a problem through God’s eyes. Together with God, there is no problem we cannot solve. So with God, nothing is impossible. With God, we can meet any challenge, solve any riddle and rise to any occasion.
Facing and overcoming adversity has been our gift because we had a spiritual belief system that has taught us that there is more than one way of looking at things. As African Americans we have always had to think twice about being in the world. We had to look at things from the eyes of white folks and through the eyes of black folks. This helps with problem solving because you can look at problems in more than just one way and arrive at solutions that are multifaceted. Learning to look at things in more than one way gives one a cognitive dexterity, a creativity and ingenuity to adapt, innovate and survive. And this brings me to my third point.
III. Our spirituality has given us the power to create and innovate.
Let’s be clear, we could not have survived without being creative and innovative. Our spirituality has given us a measure of creativity by sparking our imaginations. Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. ”
That imagination is revealed in our creativity. That creativity and innovation are everywhere in our culture from the creation of blues to Jazz; from Be Bop to Hip Hop; from chitterings translated into chittlins, to our walk and talk, to the way a song is sung, to discoveries and innovations in science, engineering, medicine and mathematics. You cannot tell me that sweet potato pie was not one of our inventions. You cannot tell that the KFC recipe was only the Colonels. When mama can make beans six different ways on six different days and make them all taste like a different delicacy, you cannot tell me about our creative power. You know the difference between a fake and the real McCoy!
Most of the inventions that came out of 18th and 19th Century Americans were created by slaves. They were the ones doing the work, so they were the ones who figured out creative ways of doing the work less laboriously.
You can say that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin all you want, but you and I know that there were some slaves who got tired of picking that cotton in the hot sun working from can’t see to can’t see and came up with a more creative way of harvesting it. Our history is filled with creativity and innovations that not only helped make America great but helped the world come out of its darkness. Many of our inventions and innovations were the driving forces of American capitalism. Edison gets credit for the electric light, but Lewis Latimer was an integral component of that world great discovery.
This legacy of creativity and innovation go back to a time before the pyramids, before time became actual time and history became history. Some of America’s greatest inventions have come from the minds and souls of black folk. And all the while during this time we were living on the fringes of society; were never fully accepted but our genius shined through.
Our spirituality has taught us to be creative. That creativity is manifested in everything from the ways that sermons are delivered and phrases are turned to the ways that we have church on Sunday morning. Our spirituality has given us a capacity to not only look at the world right side up but upside down.
This creativity and innovation have been our signature, our stamp on the American experience that has translated into American Free enterprise and while we have largely not received the credit for all the things we have invented, it has been our creative genius that allowed America to make a living even when we couldn’t. In fact, if we had more opportunities along this way, many of the world’s problems could easily be solved by people acquainted with problems solving; people gifted with creativity and ingenuity.
Black man who developed devise to help cars get 45-55 miles per gallon. Devise was bought by GM and discarded.
Our history is a history of creativity and innovation under the direst of circumstances. We have always had the power to do much with little and to create something out of nothing. This is our creative gift from God and we must continue to harness that creative power as we move into the future.
My fourth and final point is that our spirituality has given us the power to transform reality.
Contrary to popular opinion we have never just been the passive recipients of reality. Our whole history is the history of change in America. We have never been satisfied to the point that we did not want to positively change things in this country. We have always had the power to change our reality and change our world.
Virtually every major change in the history of black America has involved leadership from the black church. We have practiced a spirituality that has compelled us to preserve change amid order and order amid change.
We have always had and still have the power to change our reality and change our world. We have always had that power. Other people have also recognized that power and we must recognize who we truly are and what we truly have. Sometimes you can be too close to something to properly see and appreciate it. There is nothing that we cannot do if we believe in ourselves. Once we put our hearts, minds and souls into something, it will change. We have always been change agents but sometimes that change has not come fast enough because we ourselves have been in the way. It is our power to transform reality that historically has made folks afraid of us.
Furthermore, we recognized early in our history that we could not change our reality by constantly playing the role of victim. And although we have been victimized over the years, we cannot ultimately view ourselves as victims. For victims never change their condition unless the victimizer changes. The victim places all responsibility for his condition on the victimizer which means that the victim cannot become a victor unless the victimizer changes. But the victim soon realizes that he or she has the power to change things whether the victimizer changes or not. He or she realizes that he or she has the power to change the world.
In other words, my power to make life better is not solely dependent on the persons who have victimized me but on my power to overcome. Sooner or later, I have to stand up and speak up for myself. Sooner or later, I must take responsibility for changing my condition. Sooner or later I must give my own declaration of independence, We hold these truths to be self evident that I will not longer live and think as a victim.
I hold the keys to my own destiny. We hold the keys to our destiny. We can change things and God can change things.
So I say to you in closing tonight that we have always had power beyond measure to 1) Survive with dignity; 2) Face and overcome our problems; 3) create and innovate; and 4) transform our reality. And if we are to move into the future we must actualize that power even more today.
Our spiritual belief systems have given us the power to face, overcome, adapt to and rise above the challenges we have faced over the years and it is our spiritual power that is still our greatest resource. We must take that power, harness that power, disseminate that power and share that power for the common good.
It is our spirituality that has been our greatest resource giving us power and worth beyond measure and we must continue to cultivate that power as we move into the future.
It is our spirituality that has taught us different ways of seeing the world and acting in it; our spirituality that has given us the psychological dexterity and cognitive ingenuity to rise above the insults, the debilitating labels, the atrocities and violations of our American Experience.
It our spirituality that has taught us to view ourselves as children of the most high God in a world that demeaned and alienated us and told us otherwise.
It is our spirituality that has given us a sense of humanity and reverence even to those who would domesticate and hold us captive.
It is our spirituality that has compelled us to innovate and create, to bring to bear upon reality all of our creative genius into a spirit of survival.
It is our spirituality that told us that with God we have the power to whatever we want and if we have the power to survive slavery, centuries of disenfranchisement and oppression, we have the power to rise and still rise and positively transform our reality.
For it is a power beyond measure which is the true measure of power. It is the power to think and act and do in ways that will make ourselves and our nation and our world a better place; the power to eliminate racism, sexism, ageism, classicism and other isms, the power to study war no more; the power to stop evil and hatred and violence and bloodshed; the power to fight for justice and equality; the power to forge new frontiers in science, business, medicine and engineering; the power to create new vistas in world and community development; the power to mend and heal our shattered families and rebuild our broken communities; the power to take back our children and our communities; the power to eradicate the evil scourge of drugs that is devastating families and communities and the power to eliminate crime. It is the power to educate young minds and give them the tools of creative thinking; the power to cure all afflictions and diseases; the power to create alternative forms of energy; the power to fight and rescind global warming; the power to make a decent living and build wealth with our minds and hearts and limbs and hands. It is the power to rise above apathy and antipathy; the power to go beyond our wildest imagination; the power to think, to act and to do; a power to rise above any difficulty, any problem and any dilemma with our souls and minds in tact.
It is the power to face, confront and overcome any situation, any condition. This is what we’ve come from and this is what we have. We underestimate our true power, for we have always had a power beyond measure to make a way out of no way and so let us awaken again to this power that we have always had and realize what we have, who we are and what we are capable of achieving.
This is what we have always had and this is what we need. It is the power to face adversity and defy any form of tyranny that stifles our human potential and destroys our will to live; kills the human spirit and domesticates our desire to positively transform our condition and our world.
And now we need to extend that power into every realm of our existence, in our homes, and in our schools, in our families, in the workplace, in economics and politics, in science and industry and other areas of human endeavor. We need to awaken that power, cultivate that power, nurture that power, implement that power and share that power in a way that will make ourselves and our world a better place in which to live. So that finally we can fully realize a world of peace and justice, health and wellness for all time!
Our power beyond measure is the true measure of our power! And when we look back let us remember whence we came, who we are so that we might look confidently to the future and move forth unafraid.