This week I attended my first Dr. Umar Johnson lecture. It was interesting, to say the least. For those who are unaware, Johnson, known as the Prince of Pan-Africanism, is a lecturer and self-appointed expert on mental health.
The topics that serve as subject to his verbose extrapolations include examinations of racism against Blacks in America, the influence of the prison industrial complex on our nation’s education system, the necessity (or lack thereof) of the Black Church, homosexuality and interracial relationships. Johnson has been a consistently outspoken opponent of those last two.
Monday night, after showing up nearly an hour late, Johnson stepped on stage to rousing applause. The room, filled to capacity, was primed and ready to go. These folks, some of whom had traveled from Chicago and elsewhere, were no doubt anticipating something worth listening to. The energy coming from the crowd was worshipful and reverent as he walked through the room, two security guards in tow, clad in a dashiki, crisp white sneakers and a black and gold Phillies ball cap.
While his “lecture” had a couple gems — namely his rebuke of the American education system and its treatment of children of color, as well as a pretty spot-on breakdown of how Black people have been unjustly and systematically shut out of economic advancement through redlining, gentrification and the like — a fair amount of it was disappointing. As anyone who has listened to him before knows, some of his most outrageous statements were par for the course. Here are just two examples:
– Though Johnson stated that he “loves” our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, he cannot condone their actions because not only is homosexuality a “cancer on the Black community,” it also, along with abortion and interracial marriage, is a tool that will ultimately dismantle the Black race. Also, to be accepting and/or tolerant of the LGBTQ movement is to simultaneously be in compliance with criminal acts such as bestiality and pedophilia.
– Johnson stated that Black people (or “Sun People” as he called them) lived in a land of complete and utter harmony similar to Eden before white people (or “Ice People”) walked their hairy, barbaric, cannibalistic selves down to Africa and ruined everything. While colonialism did deal an awful blow to the continent of Africa, this simplistic view of a fairy tale land is incorrect. War, corruption and slavery in some form or another existed on the continent well before this period in history.
I am of the opinion that we cannot accept hatred in any form toward anyone. It is a detriment to us and serves no productive purpose. Black gay youth are consistently victims of violence in their homes, schools and places of worship. Trans women of color are also being slaughtered, and their murders are often neglected not only by the police and investigators (these crimes often go unsolved), but also by our community.
It is my belief that hate and ignorance are more of a cancerous condition on us than homosexuality could ever be.
The lecture, which was titled “21st Century Afrikan Holocaust: The End of Racial Justice for Blacks & What We Must Do Now!” lasted over two hours and was all over the place. In all, I took him to be a glittering balloon — speckled with brilliance, but ultimately filled with a lot of hot air.
I had the opportunity to speak with Johnson over the phone before his lecture in Indy. It was our second time conversing; the first was prior to his last visit to Nap two years ago.
Both times we spoke, I was impressed with the passion with which he spoke about the plight of Black children in the public education system. He was dead on in his assertions that Black kids are more likely than others to be suspended from school, unjustly punished for minor offenses and misdiagnosed with mental disorders. Statistics back this up, and studies have shown that at least part of the cause is that too many teachers are working off an assumption that Black children are more dangerous and must be ruled with an iron fist. Many of these educators, even the ones with good intentions, lack the cultural sensitivity required to adequately reach children who are in their care. These steps have dire implications, as many of those same children find themselves behind bars years later.
This topic is especially personal to me, because I lived it. Nearly two decades ago, I went to a predominantly white elementary school on the city’s far west side. My home life was troubled. My parents, though they loved me dearly and did their best, had fallen into a rough patch. My daddy, my hero, was addicted to heroin, and he and my mother got a divorce when I was in the first grade. The years after were a struggle for me. I acted out in school and was consistently suspended and sent to the principal’s office. It was not uncommon for me to spend almost eight hours a day in complete solitude, a special form of torture they called ISS (in-school suspension). In the fourth grade, I was placed, without my parents’ knowledge or permission, in a special education classroom. I had not been tested or evaluated; it was based strictly on my record of “misbehavior.” As soon as my mother found out, I was swiftly moved to another class — the most advanced fourth grade class. In hindsight, I believe this decision was made by the administrators intentionally to set me up to fail.
I tried my absolute best. I excelled in my classwork and was praised for it. There were days, however, when little Ebony wasn’t feeling it. On those days, I was put out of class or sent to the ISS hole.
Eventually I had teachers who didn’t see me as a problem that needed to be solved, but a child that needed to be nurtured. Two of these people in particular were my fifth and sixth grade teachers, Mr. Skorjanc and Ms. Chambers.
Mr. Skorjanc was one of the first to let me know there was nothing wrong with me. He expected excellence and refused to accept anything less. Ms. Chambers was a revelation. She was one of the first Black women I met outside my own family who exuded that whole “knowledge of self” vibe. Her classroom was covered in affirmations and inspiring images of Black people. Above the blackboard, each letter of the alphabet was accompanied by a Swahili word and she, like many of the women I’ve grown to love and admire over the years, was unapologetically herself. She was degreed, affluent and down to Earth. She wore what she wanted (lots of Afrocentric garb) and spoke her own language — the King’s English seasoned with a New Orleans flair. She took her time with each one of us kids and did not allow misperceptions and prejudice to have a place in the world she’d created. She exposed me to Maya Angelou and challenged my assumptions about race, the world and my place in it as a young Black woman. She awakened in me a fierce yearning for more.
This is the same sort of feeling that Johnson says he wants to create in and for Black youth through his annual Black college tours and his yet-to-be-opened schools, the Frederick Douglass Marcus Garvey Leadership Academy (for boys) and the Anna M. Douglass Amy J. Garvey Leadership Academy (for girls).
While on one hand, I applaud some of his efforts, I cannot ignore that his message was full of many of the inaccuracies and hateful statements that pervade much of the Pan-African movement. I also have concerns of his legitimacy. His credentials as a school psychologist, doctor of psychology and school principal have yet to be confirmed. The receipts, as far as I can tell, are non-existent. His fundraisers to open the aforementioned academies have been scrutinized, as many donors claim to have been defrauded. There are entire websites and social media pages dedicated to proving this man is a well-spoken liar, and even one local business owner shared with me his own sheisty Dr. Umar story.
I hate to believe that Johnson is nothing more than a charlatan dressed in colorful clothing. Despite the misgivings of the messenger, I want to believe that the message still has a purpose.
So, do we throw out the possibly well-intentioned baby with the vile bathwater? That answer, I believe, is a bit more nuanced than black and white.