A Letter from Robert T. Bowen
Black World/ Negro Digest, August 1970
Dear Black Americans: . . . And now the tumultuous 60’s are gone. All over this country and all over the world men are taking a look at what happened and what it means. Perhaps more than anything else the recurrent conclusion is one of intense and unprecedented human change. We have seen men do things which even in the occasional wildness of our dreams we did not see them do. New blood spilled, new tears cried. Change and struggle. Oppression and abuse. The order of the day, the law of too many places.
It is no coincidence that much attention during the 60's was on Black people in America. The high- pitched demand for freedom and justice was heard everyday and in countless forms.
And right now the decade which we have just entered is faced with the monumental task of resolving the imbalances which for too long had been a way of life for Blacks. What of it, one migl1t say. The problem has always been here and there is little reason to think that drastic changes are just around the social-political corner. Perhaps so; but there is no precedent in human behavior which restricts man’s thinking to problems. Progress and movement and development are each tied directly to solutions. If our concern, then, is legitimate and if we are truly worthy of the designation, Black men, our attention must shift to solutions. lf human imagination was sacriliced during the 60’s to poverty, employment, housing, education, etc., then the commitment of the 70’s must be the reawakening of that same imagination. This we have to do, but not for the sake of proving that we are as good as somebody else or that we have not been totally defeated by all that has been heaped upon Blacks in America. At this point in history we really don’t have to prove anything to anybody . . . except ourselves.
Now . . what about ourselves? What are we supposed to do? Are we foolish enough to review the 60's and become so dismayed by our actual immobility that we idly follow the same useless pattem of getting nowhere with rapidity? Are we still going to demand better street lighting, faster rubbish collection, black Santa Clauses, and a host of other mundanities? ls this what the struggle has come to mean after all this time? Hopefully, we are able to respond in the negative.
Amidst all the rhetoric of the past I0 years we have heard talk of “self-determination.” Basically this involves the “freedom” of a people to decide how they want to order their lives. This never was (nor is it presently) the choice open to Black people. For years most of us have missed this absolutely critical point. What we have been haplessly doing is responding to the dictates of others. Even integration is a response on our part! Responses to others is not self-determination.
The heart of the entire matter is our “position” of powerlessness. There is no haste on my part here to proudly allude to the phrase “Black Power.” We saw the term move from a verbal dynamic to something short of a uniquely American joke; moreover, the fact of numbers (from 22 to 40 million Blacks) has certainly not been our salvation; and by now even the most outspoken elements of our people are fatigued with the diluted mystique of “soul.”
I am not attempting here to negate each and every part of the putative Black Experience. I am suggesting, rather, that our histori- cal trek has been unbelievably bogged down because of our reluc- tance or unwillingness to concern ourselves with the real bases for human freedom. It all comes down -or moves up-to one critical concem: LAND. It would not be an oversimpliication of our plight to say that we are powerless because we are landless. A people not in control of the land they inhabit is a people at the mercy of others. Generally speaking, this in and of itself may not be so very bad. ln the particular case of Blacks in America the matter has revealed itself to be both critical and dangerous. Black children in the rural South, for example, are not malnourished because white people are inherently evil. No, Black children “function” with little or no nourishment because Black adults don’t grow the food. And unemployment ligures are so high amongst us not because American industry and organized labor are infested with racism, but because we are not in control of the factories. We have always been at the mercy of those whose concern for our well-being could be questioned. And almost every significant statement we (individually or collectively) have ever made has been addressed to that same atmosphere of indifference.
In America we have become a clear and present social problem, and social problems are never solved. Furthermore, this country in reality has no obligation what- soever to “resolve us,” the key social problem. If our condition exists to prove that the American Constitution is a lie, then America canlivewiththeliewithminimal diiliculty. But the question is can we live with it? Are we willing to hang around and shout or write inanities simply for the purpose of demonstrating that what is proclaimed is not real? Our children would never forgive us and there is no cause for them to do so. For much too long we have declared our responsibility to “the country” without giving even a fleeting thought to our responsibility to ourselves. We should have done this willingly and consistently. It would have been obvious and common human sense. Has the American tragedy made us lose even that? Contrary to what is usually said there are not many ways of looking at our perpetual slippage. We have just exited the Era of Errors during which there were both blatant and subtle manifestations of folly. That we are still faced with the same issues clearly proves that all meas- ures taken were stop-gap measures or less. We cannot allow this to happen again. lf history must repeat itself, so be it; but let that repetition not be at our expense. We must have land. We must dedicate ourselves to building.
I have purposely avoided use of such terms as “states,” “nation,” “separation,” “exodus," etc. Because of the great clouds of programmed confusion regarding words, most of us are immediately inclined to respond in the negative to these words. That’s the way we have been trained, and up to now our behavior has been rather consistent with our training. In addition, I have not pointed to the experiences of other peoples who have taken control of their own destinies and have subsequently moved from the position of pawns to the status allorded to men. Again, we are inclined to say why their experience is so terribly different from our own here in America. And finally, l have not requested a written response or commitment from you (although I would be pleased to hear your ideas).
All that I do ask is that you psychologically remove yourself from the futile morass of American “race relations” long enough to consider the fact of land ownership and control by Black people. (The Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Longs, “Indians” and hundreds of midwestern farmers understand exactly what this means. There is no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t as well.) Despite all the guilt-ridden optimism now in evi- dence, the 70's don’t have to be years of promise. And in spite of the “great black hope” which from time to time swells our own hearts, we don’t have to be free simply because America is attempting to search her troubled soul. Our victory-however we come to seriously define it-will come only because we have made the dedication to do what has to be done. Not in the tired terms of conferences and seminars and ever-growing organizations. Not by the questioned virtue of new. legislation or expanded poverty programs or retraining projects.
We will truly know manhood and live as men are destined to live when the land on which we walk and watch our children grow is the land to which we can point and with deserved pride say, “This is ours.”- Robert T. Bowen
Robert T. Bowen is founder of the Institute for Black Studies in Los Angeles, Calif.