I often quote famous Black people, as I am sure most of us do. We refer to their writings and their speeches, citing their words of wisdom and deriving inspiration from their knowledge. I often think about how we recite the words of famous Black people after they have passed away. It’s sad to think that the treasure-trove of so many important and enlightening things stated and demonstrated by our predecessors have not been heeded, and long after they have died their words ring hollow among Black folks.
I hope my words are not merely quoted and used simply to stir the emotions — now or after I have left this earth. Too often we let opportunity slip away because we fail to act upon information when we receive it; we’d rather wait and use the words to temporarily satisfy and soothe our pains.
Let’s look at some examples. The phrase “By any means necessary” has been used millions of times by our brothers and sisters. Had we followed some of Malcolm’s words at the time he was saying them, imagine where we would be today. Still, many Black men and women quote him and use his words to stir the emotions, but few are willing to incorporate the words into their daily lives. How many of us are willing to have economic strength by any means necessary?
Marcus Garvey is another brother who is quoted quite often. How many of us actually live by his words? How about Mary McLeod Bethune? She told us what to do economically before she died, and we just love to hear her words today. Have we turned her words into action? Martin Delaney, T. Thomas Fortune, William Wells-Brown, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and many more have told us what we must do for ourselves in order to have a strong economic foundation. Are we following the principles they espoused?
Let us not forget Booker T. Washington, who practiced what he preached and demonstrated the results of his words. And probably the most quoted of them all, Frederick Douglass, who told us what to do and how to do it more than 100 years ago. We love to talk about “power” and how it concedes nothing, and we rejoice in his notion of agitation.
Are we merely interested in feeling good about economic empowerment? Do we just like to hear the words of these and more famous Black men and women? Or, are we willing to act upon those words as well? Speakers can recite the words of famous people and bring the audience to a fever pitch, but if the audience goes home and does not act upon those words, they become, as another famous writer and activist said, “Sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.”
As we face our collective economic future, we can look at it in one of two ways: As a speeding train about to run over us or as a train we are about to board and take a nice long trip. What’s it going to be? If we had acted upon a few of the words our mothers and fathers uttered when they walked this earth, I shudder to think how powerful we would be, how together we would be, how truly rich we would be, not only financially but in most other ways as well. Additionally, since we are talking about that train, we certainly would not have to worry about it running us down — we’d own it.
To the thousands of you who will read this column, please don’t sit back after reading it and simply say, “Man, that was right on the money,” or something to that effect. If these words make you “feel good” then allow them to make you “do good” as well.
In the 1950s, Horace Sudduth said, “Economic freedom is the greatest cause before the Negro today.” In the 1960s, Dr. Martin L. King Jr. said, “The emergency we now face is economic.” In 1912, Booker T. Washington said, “Let us act, before it’s too late — before others come from foreign lands and rob us of our birthright.” The key word is “act.” We should live the words of our ancestors, not just repeat them.
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his website, blackonomics.com.