Black is beautiful, but black isn’t power. Knowledge is power.
-Lewis H. Michaux
As a young girl who grew up in the Bronx and attended public school, my US history courses touched on the subject of the Civil Rights Movement in the most basic ways: Martin Luther King, Jr. was good, Malcolm X was bad. As a pillar of our community, I aspired to be like Martin Luther King, changing the world through nonviolent action and community development. Of course, as a black Latina, I was also aware of the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican nationalist group with chapters in many US cities – most notably in New York and Chicago. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about the Black Panther Party because they weren’t brought up in school or in my family.
Movies like The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 expose a movement that is too often overshadowed. I especially appreciated the film’s focus on the Black Panther Party and all the positive things the organization did for our community, like offering free medical care and breakfast. With healthcare costs becoming increasingly expensive, the Black Panther Party recognized how crucial affordable healthcare is to the well-being of our community. Similarly, I took advantage of the free school meals that were offered at my public school. These meals allow children whose parents may not be able to afford breakfast and lunch to get the care they need. The Black Panther Party’s ability to recognize the importance of health – through eating, physical care and self-protection – reflect an alternative and progressive way of thinking. With these systems in place, empowerment only has room to grow.
As Jim Crow slowly became illegal, activists like Angela Davis began to see prisons as a new form of oppression. Her influential book, Are Prisons Obsolete? explores how prisons have been used as a tool to deny basic human rights to prisoners. As our prison population continues to explode, the discussion of the inhumanity of prisons continues. Other books, like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michele Alexander and Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon, show how the American justice system has extended Jim Crow.
Fortunately, organizations like the Vera Institute of Justice, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Angela Davis’ own organization Critical Resistance, have recognized these issues and offer simple steps we can all take to find alternatives to incarceration:
- Start a line of communication with a prisoner. Building relationships gives much-needed support to folks who are locked up. If you like to write, this is a wonderful way to connect with people directly affected by the Prison Industrial Complex and build the movement. Call or email Critical Resistance at (510) 444-0484 or firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.
- Take action online. It takes two seconds to sign a petition. Don’t hesitate to sign something you believe in; petitions put pressure on politicians and corporations to defend the rights of under-represented populations, and your name makes a huge difference. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has a number of petitions ready for your signature here.
- Volunteer, intern or donate. Many of the wonderful grassroots organizations that are working on these issues are underfunded and understaffed. Consider making a donation of time or money to create change within your own community.
As Erykah Badu says in the film, “There’s no happy ending without happy mistakes first.” This movie highlights a segment of American history that is too often bushed over or completely ignored. Knowledge is the key to our power to create change, and our collective memory must not forget the activists who fought before us so that we can have our happy ending.
by Carmen Medina