In August, singer and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte sat down with the Hollywood Reporter’s Alexandra Zawia to discuss his perspectives on political activism. In response to Zawia’s mentioning the image of minorities in Hollywood, Belafonte criticized Hollywood: “They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are … One of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility.”
Specifically, he targeted celebrity couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé Knowles as examples of such abuses. Belafonte’s remarks drew both rebuke and praise. But little explored was the central ideological tension of Belafonte’s remarks —the fallacy of leadership and experiential chasm between the monolithic Black America of the past, and the divided one of the present.
During the civil rights movement, and the subsequent black power movement, the idea of “Black America” ruled.
The monolithic label was not simply one of conceptual convenience, but an experiential actuality. Socially and economically, though outliers and exceptions existed and socio-political shifts after the post-Civil War added nuances, Black Americans had largely universal experiences. This collectivity was fertile ground for the messages of those who would become the movements' leaders, often portrayed in bold strokes as “exceptional commoners.”
For the movement, like many of the political upheavals between 1950 and1980, an organizational structure around leadership was part of its success. While not all Blacks saw the movement as necessary, it arose from a flat structure — grassroots activism and dialogues between like-minded men and women. Within this structure, civil rights activism began to mark its leaders, finding its best, most poignant expression in singular personalities both relatable and uncannily charismatic.
As the movement grew and reached a tipping point in American social consciousness, these personalities arose: Martin Luther King, Jr, Stokley Carmichael, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other recognizable figures. With momentum and leadership, the organizational structures of the movement changed. They became more efficient, and morphed into top-down bureaucracies.
But the reliance on leadership would prove to be part of the movement’s undoing. The assassinations of Malcolm X and later Dr. King had enormous, disorienting ripple effects. In subsequent years, as aspects of the movement enjoyed varying degrees of success, the motivations, belief systems, and activism behind it fractured, shifting, reforming, or dying outright. For many, after so much upheaval and achievement, the fight for freedom and rights seemed finished. Some became more radical, while others sought to quietly maintain the hard-earned gains.
Parallel to the movement’s slowdown and end, Black society, once a collective, became more individualistic. For many Black Americans, the movement’s apparently impactful yet realistically-impotent gains promoted a false sense of integration into the American dream. Though much had changed for Black Americans, issues like poverty, infrastructural instability, unemployment, and institutional racism persisted. By the 1980s and '90s, these became full blown issues.
As the movement’s shouts quieted, so did the many of the racial discourses that lay close to immediate consciousness. Loose ends remained and frayed, becoming the nuances that distinguish today’s race relations from those of the past. In the '70s and onward, wider society also changed. Between immigration, economic upswings, legal and political changes, 1984-93’s crack epidemic, and the lessening of social stigmas, the Black America of the civil rights movement broadened socially and economically, destroying much of its mid-century concept.
Since the movement, the realities of being Black in America have become more multidimensional,. Children born in the decades since have encountered ever-different experiences. The unifying signifier no longer tells the whole story.
Whether a monolithic Black America exists at all has been a question since the movement's end in the mid-'70s. In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, author Eugene Robinson makes the case for four Black Americas. He writes of the “Abandoned” (the impoverished “underclass” of 1980s rhetoric), the “Mainstream" (or middle class), the “Emergent" (children of parents from Africa, its Diaspora, or biracial people),and the “Transcendent" (people at the pinnacle of social or economic success) Black Americas.
To mention the names of the movement’s leaders is to name the men and women who still have a tight, ideological hold on today’s civil rights discourses and methodologies. For today’s social or political minorities — immigrants, LGBT people women, religious minorities, low-income communities, and communities of color — the movement’s legacy of leadership has been a seductive method for rallying. But as a society half a century removed from the civil rights movement, the common identifier has often become more arbitrary than actual — sometimes nothing more than a checked box on a census form.
It is time to let go of the leadership model and mentality, and to integrate experiential diversity into social responsibility.
This imperative undermines Belafonte’s criticism. While some Black celebrities pointedly and purposefully illuminate the Black struggle by making it a central aspect of their work, many others do not. Regarding the latter group, while they have become (dubious) role models in their ascent to fame, they have only reluctantly (and still more dubiously) become representatives of Black America. (While their achievements are inspiring, they are often unrepresentative of Black America’s divisions and the social inequities facing many Black communities. As personalities alone, they do not occasion progress or incite change.
Belafonte’s sentiments highlight the leadership model’s insurmountable hurdle in broad stroke application. In communities where experiences are shared, the leadership model, in conjunction with a grassroots model, is necessary to address and implement social responsibilities.
But in today’s diverse society — and so, in today's Black America — social responsibility has taken on forms beyond grassroots movements and simple leadership. Unlike the civil rights movement of years before, today “telling the story” and “giving back” ranges from traditional grassroots initiatives, to academia, to cultural representation, to name-lending, to charity, or to million dollar philanthropy — the latter trio widely employed by visible personalities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Today, the responsibility for progress cannot be borne by few in benefit of many. Differences must be appreciated, and efforts shared by all.
This is true of all social justice and political change movements. Just as social ills and iniquities exist in Black communities, others communities experience their own. The diversity of American society demands less of a reliance on “one view for all,” and greater acceptance of the fact that ideological and experiential diversities have their own, appreciable benefits. While society owes a great deal to the leaders of the past, if movements kneel in deference to leaders alone, slow will be the march to progress.
A version of this article was previously published on thisthatSAID.