Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
James Mtume looked out into the audience in SCI 101. “I don’t want to feel like I’m in Iraq, here,” he said to the scattered listeners. “Let’s all come down together.” The audience, which consisted of about 30 students and community members, of whom three were white, obligingly moved down to the front of the room.
Mtume’s talk, sponsored by SASS and FFFS, was the last event scheduled for Black History Month. He himself comes from a musical background: he is the writer of such hits as “Sweet Sensation” and “The Closer I Get to You”, and has played on more than 80 jazz albums, winning a Grammy and an American Music Award for his work. He is also the host of New York’s top-rated black political talk show. Although the talk was billed as a lecture, Mtume decided instead to conduct it as a discussion.
Before beginning the dialogue, however, Mtume led the audience in a thought experiment. He kept the beat and cheered the audience on as they spelled out S-T-O-P five times, very loud and very fast. After the fifth time, Mtume asked “what do you do at a green light?” and a roomful of voices yelled “STOP!” This, said Mtume, was how culture worked, by making you do wrong things.
How do you function in a world like that? Asking several attendees why they were at Swarthmore, Mtume received varying answers, but most said that their goal was to be successful, or to help others, or simply to have the pleasure of learning. While that was a good start, it wasn’t enough.
“Everything is predicated on power,” he said, and even with a Swarthmore education, he doesn’t think it will be easy for any of us to change America. Citing the recent announcement that the cost of a presidential campaign is now $300 million, Mtume argues that government is no longer for the people. “I’m here to tell you,” he said, “democracy is dead.”
For the rest of the evening, Mtume led a fast-paced, often confrontational exchange, challenging audience members to articulate their honest views about how blacks and others interact (or don’t) in society. Calling on people at random, Mtume asked both white and black students for the names of three black philosophers, and got silence. There was also silence when he asked for the names of three black scientists. “DIG what I’m showing you,” Mtume said, his point made. Asking whether white people were smarter than black people sparked some conversation, as well as some clear discomfort when those questioned were unsure how to phrase their ideas without being offensive. “Do you have any white friends?” he asked one student, who said that he did. “Do you go to their house? No? Then they’re not your friend.” The audience laughed, but Mtume had zeroed in on a common experience. As he pointed out, “we don’t come into contact in this country.” Mtume often rejected answers that he suspected were insincere; although this flustered some people, that seemed to be his objective. “I know I’m raw,” he said, “but I bring it like that.”
Mtume also asked the audience to question aspects of black culture that he sees as detrimental to its future. According to him, blacks in America need to acknowledge that they are no longer the minority and “move past the victimization” that is turning integration into disintegration.
The media is a large factor in this transformation. Mtume described a chain of events which he termed Image, Implication, and Impact, set off by stereotypes that we see on television and in the newspaper. If the media portrays blacks in a way that is threatening to white people, for example, that drives the groups further apart. Another concern is that hip-hop is popularizing what one student described as a “ghetto mentality” and, as Mtume emphasized, “putting a value on decadence.” But the media can also be a threat to blacks themselves: as hip-hop and television promote a lifestyle that values flashy cars and women, children prioritize this lifestyle over education and social change. “Music,” said Mtume, “is going to have to change.”
Much of Mtume’s message, ultimately, was geared towards telling the black students in attendance how America has changed since the Civil Rights movement, and preparing them to move forward. Society as he sees it is not very integrated, but at the same time the independent black community that was created by necessity during the years of segregation no longer exists. Even more worrisome for him was the sense that children, who are exposed to negative influences, may already be out of reach. When asked about his solutions, Mtume acknowledged that there isn’t really “one size fits all.” However, he emphasized the need for independence: from political parties, from the media, from stereotype, and from external support.
“If you do not do for self, you’re blowing in the wind.”