…..my friend Annette Alston, who just finished scanning 700 pages of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s FBI files (1968-1974, during his Panther days) for me–using her iPhone! (Do we REALLY have any legitimate excuses now for not preserving, holding onto and using our historical documents?!? 🙂 )
Amid a worldwide uprising against police brutality and racism, we discuss the historic moment with legendary scholar and activist Angela Davis. She also responds to the destruction and removal of racist monuments in cities across the United States; President Trump’s upcoming rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the site of a white mob’s massacre of Black people; and the 2020 election, in which two parties “connected to corporate capitalism” will compete for the presidency and people will have to be persuaded to vote “so the current occupant of the White House is forever ousted.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the nationwide uprising against police brutality and racism continues to roil the nation and the world, bringing down Confederate statues and forcing a reckoning in city halls and on the streets, President Trump defended law enforcement Thursday, dismissing growing calls to defund the police. He spoke at a campaign-style event at a church in Dallas, Texas, announcing a new executive order advising police departments to adopt national standards for use of force. Trump did not invite the top three law enforcement officials in Dallas, who are all African American. The move comes after Trump called protesters ”THUGS” and threatened to deploy the U.S. military to end, quote, “riots and lawlessness.” This is Trump speaking Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They want to get rid of the police forces. They actually want to get rid of it. And that’s what they do, and that’s where they’d go. And you know that, because at the top position, there’s not going to be much leadership. There’s not much leadership left.
Instead, we have to go the opposite way. We must invest more energy and resources in police training and recruiting and community engagement. We have to respect our police. We have to take care of our police. They’re protecting us. And if they’re allowed to do their job, they’ll do a great job. And you always have a bad apple no matter where you go. You have bad apples. And there are not too many of them. And I can tell you there are not too many of them in the police department. We all know a lot of members of the police.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is also calling for an increase to police funding. In an op-ed in USA Today, he called for police departments to receive an additional $300 million to, quote, “reinvigorate community policing in our country.” On Wednesday night, Biden discussed police funding on The Daily Show.
JOE BIDEN: I don’t believe police should be defunded, but I think the conditions should be placed upon them where departments are having to take significant reforms relating to that. We should set up a national use-of-force standard.
AMY GOODMAN: But many argue reform will not fix the inherently racist system of policing. Since the global protest movement began, Minneapolis has pledged to dismantle its police department, the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City have promised to slash police department budgets, and calls to “defund the police” are being heard in spaces that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Well, for more on this historic moment, we are spending the hour with the legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For half a century, Angela Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States, an icon of the Black liberation movement. Angela Davis’s work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list more than 40 years ago. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. After being acquitted on all charges, she’s spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system.
Angela Davis, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us today for the hour.
ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s wonderful to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, do you think this moment is a tipping point, a turning point? You, who have been involved in activism for almost half a century, do you see this moment as different, perhaps more different than any period of time you have lived through?
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. This is an extraordinary moment. I have never experienced anything like the conditions we are currently experiencing, the conjuncture created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recognition of the systemic racism that has been rendered visible under these conditions because of the disproportionate deaths in Black and Latinx communities. And this is a moment I don’t know whether I ever expected to experience.
When the protests began, of course, around the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade and many others who have lost their lives to racist state violence and vigilante violence — when these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.
But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, you have long been a leader of the critical resistance movement, the abolition movement. And I’m wondering if you can explain the demand, as you see it, what you feel needs to be done, around defunding the police, and then around prison abolition.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, the call to defund the police is, I think, an abolitionist demand, but it reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. And it appears as if this is the rather superficial understanding that has caused Biden to move in the direction he’s moving in.
It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions — mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.
And I would say that abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning. It’s about building anew. And I would argue that abolition is a feminist strategy. And one sees in these abolitionist demands that are emerging the pivotal influence of feminist theories and practices.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I want us to see feminism not only as addressing issues of gender, but rather as a methodological approach of understanding the intersectionality of struggles and issues. Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution. And of course we know that Joseph Biden, in 1994, who claims that the Violence Against Women Act was such an important moment in his career — the Violence Against Women Act was couched within the 1994 Crime Act, the Clinton Crime Act.
And what we’re calling for is a process of decriminalization, not — recognizing that threats to safety, threats to security, come not primarily from what is defined as crime, but rather from the failure of institutions in our country to address issues of health, issues of violence, education, etc. So, abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution, I would argue.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, “Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?” So, explain what exactly you’re demanding.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, neoliberal logic assumes that the fundamental unit of society is the individual, and I would say the abstract individual. According to that logic, Black people can combat racism by pulling themselves up by their own individual bootstraps. That logic recognizes — or fails, rather, to recognize that there are institutional barriers that cannot be brought down by individual determination. If a Black person is materially unable to attend the university, the solution is not affirmative action, they argue, but rather the person simply needs to work harder, get good grades and do what is necessary in order to acquire the funds to pay for tuition. Neoliberal logic deters us from thinking about the simpler solution, which is free education.
I’m thinking about the fact that we have been aware of the need for these institutional strategies at least since 1935 — but of course before, but I’m choosing 1935 because that was the year when W.E.B. Du Bois published his germinal Black Reconstruction in America. And the question was not what should individual Black people do, but rather how to reorganize and restructure post-slavery society in order to guarantee the incorporation of those who had been formerly enslaved. The society could not remain the same — or should not have remained the same. Neoliberalism resists change at the individual level. It asks the individual to adapt to conditions of capitalism, to conditions of racism.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Angela Davis, about the monuments to racists, colonizers, Confederates, that are continuing to fall across the United States and around the world. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Wednesday, activists with the American Indian Movement tied a rope around a statue of Christopher Columbus and pulled it from its pedestal on the state Capitol grounds. The AIM members then held a ceremony over the fallen monument. In Massachusetts, officials said they’ll remove a Columbus statue from a park in Boston’s North End, after it was beheaded by protesters early Wednesday morning. In Richmond, Virginia, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Monument Avenue Wednesday night. In the nearby city of Portsmouth, protesters used sledgehammers to destroy a monument to Confederate soldiers. One person sustained a serious injury, was hospitalized after a statue fell on his head. In Washington, D.C., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined other lawmakers demanding the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
Meanwhile, President Trump said he will “not even consider” renaming U.S. Army bases named after Confederate military officers. There are 10 such bases, all of them in Southern states. Trump tweeted Wednesday, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” unquote. Trump’s tweet contradicted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley, who suggested they’re open to discussion about renaming the bases. And a Republican committee in the Senate just voted to rename these bases, like Benning and Bragg and Hood, that are named for Confederate leaders.
Meanwhile, in your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, Angela, comedian Jermaine Johnson is pleading not guilty to charges of “inciting a riot” after he urged protesters at May 31st rally to march on a statue of Charles Linn, a former officer in the Confederate Navy.
Did you think you would ever see this? You think about Bree Newsome after the horror at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who shimmied up that flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Legislature and took down the Confederate flag, and they put it right on back up. What about what we’re seeing today?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, Bree Newsome was a wonderful pioneer. And I think it’s important to link this trend to the campaign in South Africa: “roads must fall.” And, of course, I think this reflects the extent to which we are being called upon to deeply reflect on the role of historical racisms that have brought us to the point where we are today.
You know, racism should have been immediately confronted in the aftermath of the end of slavery. This is what Dr. Du Bois’s analysis was all about, not so much in terms of, “Well, what we were going to do about these poor people who have been enslaved so many generations?” but, rather, “How can we reorganize our society in order to guarantee the incorporation of previously enslaved people?”
Now attention is being turned towards the symbols of slavery, the symbols of colonialism. And, of course, any campaigns against racism in this country have to address, in the very first place, the conditions of Indigenous people. I think it’s important that we’re seeing these demonstrations, but I think at the same time we have to recognize that we cannot simply get rid of the history. We have to recognize the devastatingly negative role that that history has played in charting the trajectory of the United States of America. And so, I think that these assaults on statues represent an attempt to begin to think through what we have to do to bring down institutions and re-envision them, reorganize them, create new institutions that can attend to the needs of all people.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think should be done with statues, for example, to, oh, slaveholding Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, museums can play an important educational role. And I don’t think we should get rid of all of the vestiges of the past, but we need to figure out context within which people can understand the nature of U.S. history and the role that racism and capitalism and heteropatriarchy have played in forging that history.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about racism and capitalism? You often write and speak about how they are intimately connected. And talk about a world that you envision.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, racism is integrally linked to capitalism. And I think it’s a mistake to assume that we can combat racism by leaving capitalism in place. As Cedric Robinson pointed out in his book Black Marxism, capitalism is racial capitalism. And, of course, to just say for a moment, that Marx pointed out that what he called primitive accumulation, capital doesn’t just appear from nowhere. The original capital was provided by the labor of slaves. The Industrial Revolution, which pivoted around the production of capital, was enabled by slave labor in the U.S. So, I am convinced that the ultimate eradication of racism is going to require us to move toward a more socialist organization of our economies, of our other institutions. I think we have a long way to go before we can begin to talk about an economic system that is not based on exploitation and on the super-exploitation of Black people, Latinx people and other racialized populations.
But I do think that we now have the conceptual means to engage in discussions, popular discussions, about capitalism. Occupy gave us new language. The notion of the prison-industrial complex requires us to understand the globalization of capitalism. Anti-capitalist consciousness helps us to understand the predicament of immigrants, who are barred from the U.S. by the wall that has been created by the current occupant. These conditions have been created by global capitalism. And I think this is a period during which we need to begin that process of popular education, which will allow people to understand the interconnections of racism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela, do you think we need a truth and reconciliation commission here in this country?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, that might be one way to begin, but I know we’re going to need a lot more than truth and reconciliation. But certainly we need truth. I’m not sure how soon reconciliation is going to emerge. But I think that the whole notion of truth and reconciliation allows us to think differently about the criminal legal system. It allows us to imagine a form of justice that is not based on revenge, a form of justice that is not retributive. So I think that those ideas can help us begin to imagine new ways of structuring our institutions, such as — well, not structuring the prison, because the whole point is that we have to abolish that institution in order to begin to envision new ways of addressing the conditions that lead to mass incarceration, that lead to such horrendous tragedies as the murder of George Floyd.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion and also talk about President Trump going to Tulsa on Juneteenth. We’re speaking with Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Shanty Tones” by Filastine. This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with the legendary activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
President Trump has announced he’s holding his first campaign rally since the quarantine, since lockdowns across the country, since the pandemic. He’s holding it in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19th — a highly symbolic day. It was June 19, 1865, that enslaved Africans in Texas first learned they were free, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The day is now celebrated as Juneteenth. California Senator Kamala Harris tweeted in response, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” unquote.
Well, Tulsa recently marked the 99th anniversary of one of the deadliest mass killings of African Americans in U.S. history. In 1921, a white mob killed as many as 300 people, most of them Black, after a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. The white mobs destroyed a thriving African American business district known at the time as the Black Wall Street of America.
Well, this all comes as a Tulsa police major is coming under fire after denying systemic racism in the police force there and saying African Americans probably should be shot more. Listen carefully. This is Major Travis Yates in an interview with KFAQ.
MJR. TRAVIS YATES: If a certain group is committing more crimes, more violent crimes, then that number is going to be higher. Who in the world in their right mind would think that our shootings should be right along the U.S. census line? All of the research says we’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.
AMY GOODMAN: “We’re shooting them less than they probably ought to be”? Tulsa’s mayor and police chief have both blasted Yates for the comment, but he remains on the force. And on Friday, President Trump will be there. Angela Davis, your thoughts on the significance of the moment, the place?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, that’s — well, you know, I can’t even respond to anything he does anymore. It’s just so, so, so, so ridiculous. And it is, however, important to recognize that he represents a sector of the population in this country that wants to return to the past — “Make America great again” — with all of its white supremacy, with all of its misogyny. And I think that at this moment we are recognizing that we cannot be held back by such forces as those represented by the current occupant of the White House. I doubt very seriously whether the people who come out to hear him in Tulsa on this historic day — of course, all over the country, people of African descent will be observing Juneteenth as an emancipatory moment in our history.
But I think that our role is to start to begin to translate some of the energy and passion into transforming institutions. The process has already begun, and it can’t be turned back, at least not by the current occupant of the White House. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to create lasting change, but at least now we can see that it is possible. When someone like Roger Goodell says “Black lives matter,” even though he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, and even though he may have — he probably did not really mean it, what that means is that the NFL recognizes that it has to begin a new process, that there is a further expansion of popular consciousness.
In New York, of course, you need to ask whether you really want to create new jails in the boroughs in the aftermath of closing Rikers, or whether you need new services. You know, I’ve been thinking about the case of Jussie Smollett, and I’m wondering why — in Chicago, given the conditions surrounding the murder of Laquan McDonald, the police department should be thoroughly investigated. And we need to ask: How is it that the public could so easily be rallied to the police narrative of what happened in the case of Jussie Smollett?
So, there is so much to be done. And I think that the rallies that the current occupant of the White House is holding will fade into — don’t even merit footnotes in history.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to ask you about another event that’s taking place on Juneteenth, on June 19th. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is finally going to issue you the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award during a virtual event on Juneteenth. And I wanted to ask you about this, because you returned to your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, last February after the institute had at first rescinded the award due to your support for BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — and your support of Palestinians. After outcry, the institute reversed its decision. More than 3,000 people gathered to see you talk at an alternative event to honor you, which was hosted by the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation. This is a clip of your comments that day.
ANGELA DAVIS: It became clear to me that this might actually be a teachable moment.
IMANI PERRY: Yes.
ANGELA DAVIS: … That we might seize this moment to reflect on what it means to live on this planet in the 21st century and our responsibilities not only to people in our immediate community, but to people all over the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: We were there covering this amazing moment, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute had rescinded the award to you, the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award, went through enormous turmoil. The mayor of Birmingham, so many people across the spectrum criticized them for it, but then this process happened, and you are going to be awarded this. Can you talk about the significance of this moment? And what do you plan to say on Juneteenth, the day that President Trump will be in Tulsa?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, thank you for reminding me that these two events are happening on the same day. And, of course, that was, I think, the last time I actually saw you in person, Amy, in Birmingham. A lot has happened over the last period, including within the context of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. They have completely reorganized. They have reorganized their board. They have been involved in conversations with the community. Of course, as you know, the mayor of Birmingham was threatening to withdraw funding from the institute. There was a generalized uprising in the Black community.
And, you know, while at first it was a total shock to me that they offered this award to me, and then they rescinded it, I’m realizing now that that was an important moment, because it encouraged people to think about the meaning of human rights and why is it that Palestinians could be excluded from the process of working toward human rights. Palestinian activists have long supported Black people’s struggle against racism. When I was in jail, solidarity coming from Palestine was a major source of courage for me. In Ferguson, Palestinians were the first to express international solidarity. And there has been this very important connection between the two struggles for many decades, so that I’m going to be really happy to receive the award, which now represents a rethinking of the rather backward position that the institute assumed, that Palestinians could be excluded from the circle of those working toward a future of justice, equality and human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about what’s going on in the West Bank right now and about the whole issue of international solidarity, the global response to the killing of George Floyd. In the occupied West Bank, protesters denounced Floyd’s murder and the recent killing of Iyad el-Hallak, a 32-year-old Palestinian special needs student who was shot to death by Israeli forces in occupied East Jerusalem. He was reportedly chanting “Black lives matter” and “Palestinian lives matter,” when Israeli police gunned him down, claiming he was armed. These links that you’re seeing, not only in Palestine and the United States, but around the world, the kind of global response, the tens of thousands of people who marched in Spain, who marched in England, in Berlin, in Munich, all over the world, as this touches a chord and they make demands in their own countries, not only in solidarity with what’s happening in the United States? And then I want to ask you about the U.S. election that’s coming up in November.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes, Palestinian activists have long supported Black people’s struggle against racism, as I pointed out. And I’m hoping that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.
I think it’s also important for us to look in the direction of Brazil, whose current political leader competes with our current political leader in many dangerous ways, I would say. Brazil — if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. Marielle Franco was assassinated because she was challenging the militarization of the police and the racist violence unleashed there. I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil. So, I’m saying this because —
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the president of Brazil, a close ally of President Trump. We only have two minutes, and I want to get to the election. When I interviewed you in 2016, you said you wouldn’t support either main-party candidate at the time. What are your thoughts today for 2020?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, my position really hasn’t changed. I’m not going to actually support either of the major candidates. But I do think we have to participate in the election. I mean, that isn’t to say that I won’t vote for the Democratic candidate. What I’m saying is that in our electoral system as it exists, neither party represents the future that we need in this country. Both parties remain connected to corporate capitalism. But the election will not so much be about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power. And I don’t think there’s a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold.
So I think that we’re going to have to translate some of the passion that has characterized these demonstrations into work within the electoral arena, recognizing that the electoral arena is not the best place for the expression of radical politics. But if we want to continue this work, we certainly need a person in office who will be more amenable to our mass pressure. And to me, that is the only thing that someone like a Joe Biden represents. But we have to persuade people to go out and vote to guarantee that the current occupant of the White House is forever ousted.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I want to thank you so much for this hour, world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.
This sentence is being produced as Day 3, Hour Five (of 24!) is about to begin. It’s been interesting seeing, feeling such concentrated Mumia stuff in one 72-hour or so period. For those of us old-heads (my first article about Abu-Jamal was written in early 1995, before Live From Death Row was released, it’s Old Home Week–all the old interviews joined with the original and more recent commentaries. Joined with activists young and not-so-young, sharing rhymes of all sorts. Powerful video collection starring Debbie and Mike Africa Sr., married members of the MOVE 9, and Jr.! (HOUR 10/11 UPDATE: Very detailed Inside the Activist Studio interview with Sekou Odinga.)
Since I already knew that Abu-Jamal has written so many columns, you can divide them into categories and display them chronologically, here are two important things I’ve gotten thus far:
- During Friday’s Teach-in, Johanna Fernandez, who correctly described how Abu-Jamal “disciplined his prose” in prison, said she and her fellow organizers were inspired by the fact that the movement to stop Abu-Jamal from being executed on August 17, 1995, was the first radical movement to use email and the Internet.
- Kathy Boudin, a legend in radical Left circles, proclaimed that Abu-Jamal was a “tremendous inspiration” to her because of his example of resistance and his very productivity, his very effective use of time. Boudin said the imprisoned writer, 38 of 66 years in jail now, was worthy of celebration because of a) his leadership in showing how to use incarceration and b) his life of resistance. Abu-Jamal, she explained, is someone who “has been able to both immerse himself inside of the actual reality of the life he’s living in prison and at the same time he is able to work to define the larger system we are in,” of which COVID-19 is just a metaphor (if not a symptom). As an Abu-Jamal biographer with a full first draft to read and review, her comments were undeniably incisive.
Some freestyling comments from the subject, dated on his birthday (4/24/20):
Man, I remember this dude from the right-wing-leaning NBC television feature magazine “Real People” from the Reagan era. He’s come a long way from those 3 a.m. interviews he used to do 25-plus years ago!
“Use your NPR voices” made this whole thing for me. 🙂
Gary Byrd turns 70 tomorrow. I thought this was as good an excuse as any to pull this out of my 2001 doctoral dissertation–an attempt to define Black (American) media ideology–to say an early “Happy Birthday.” Any mistakes are mine, and I welcome corrections from Byrd and all others. Happy Birthday, Brother Byrd!
A Byrd Flies In Buffalo
A major portion of the story of Black media can be told through the life and career of Gary Byrd. The radio veteran, who in the year 2000 was in his early 50s, is considered one of the links between the pioneer Black broadcasters and the current generation. Byrd’s 30-year career in broadcasting in New York City and Buffalo displays all facets of how Black media function.
Byrd began his radio career as a teenager in Buffalo, N.Y. Hearing Byrd’s powerful, charismatic speaking voice in a 1965 high school play, a part-time disk jockey for WUFO asked the fifteen-year-old if he had thought about a radio career. Byrd joined WUFO and, by the time he was 17, set his sights on WWRL. He was initially offered a job, but his grandmother made him turn it down until he finished high school. After a brief period at WYSL, located in upstate New York, Byrd joined WWRL in 1969 at the age of 19. His tenure there gave him the freedom to experiment that would allow the young disk jockey and poet to grow spiritually, intellectually and journalistically on the air.
“The Gary Byrd Experience”
In 1970, Byrd was given WWRL’s all-night spot. “It was late at night at the station … [the management said,] ‘Do what you can to keep the people up.’ They left me alone.” Being left alone to test ideas on the air during a time of experimentation in FM radio, the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement, Byrd developed “The Gary Byrd Experience,” a blended and layered mix of music, interviews, radio news footage and his own Gil Scott-Heron-like poetry. (This format was similar to the one Del Shields used on his “Total Black Experience in Sound” show on WLIB-FM–a station that would, in 1972, be renamed WBLS-FM–but Byrd identifies his influences then as social comedian Dick Gregory and message-oriented soul music of the late 1960s. The program’s name is Byrd’s take on rock legend Jimi Hendrix’s band, “The Jimi Hendrix Experience.”) One of the poems Byrd created that he used on the air in the early 1970s was “Every Brother Ain’t a Brother,” his 1969 commentary on the social forces surrounding the Black Power movement. He said he wrote the poem because “at that time there were some interesting contradictions in the Black community.”
It‘s time for us to face the truth and level with each other
It‘s time for us to face the fact that every brother ain‘t a brother.
There are some who‘ll say to the world at large
I’m no color. I’m just a man.”
And some say to the folks uptown that Black Power is not their plan.
But through it all we fool ourselves and fool one another
By failing to face the simple fact that every brother ain’t a brother.
Now there is a kind of brother who shoots a brother and thinks that makes him bad
There‘s a kind of brother who says he’s Black because now it’s just a fad
We‘re at the point in the world today for self-evaluation
Just to find out where we really are in this racially tom-up nation
And one of the first things we must do is stop kidding one another
And get on the case of realism that every brother ain‘t a brother.
Now I said that every brother ain’t a brother
And I know you know that’s true.
But look in the mirror carefully
‘Cause that brother might be you.
Byrd began to redefine the role of disc jockey, calling himself a “disc journalist.”
His use of issues and music brought him attention from a fan of his radio show, musician Stevie Wonder, who invited him to write the lyrics to two songs, “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man” on Wonder’s double-album classic “Songs In The Key of Life.” In addition, Byrd recorded his own albums of poetry. With Bob Law, who became WWRL’s program director in the 1970s, Byrd attempted to bring the concept of predominately white “progressive FM” format to AM radio, but in a way tailored specifically to the needs of New York’s Black community. In 1984, Byrd would make a career move that would expand his reach and influence, and ultimately find a sphere of thought that he could claim as his own and share with his audience.
A Byrd Takes Flight As A New Experience Begins
By 1984, three years after Law’s “Night Talk,” a nationally syndicated Black talk radio program, debuted on WWRL, new talkers were on the WLIB airwaves. Mark Riley became WLIB’s mid-morning host, after the morning newscast. Gary Byrd became the early-to-late afternoon host on the daytime AM radio station. “The Gary Byrd Experience” had evolved from Black music to Black talk, and Byrd began to mix music to set the mood for his interviews and discussions. WLIB had a broadcaster in Byrd who attempted to meld the spiritual (music) with the social-political (talk) aspects of the African-American experience.
‘The Gary Byrd Experience” on WLIB, in Byrd’s mind a radio magazine, established Black rituals of sound. Each of the opening segments had its own particular sound, blending jazz with gospel, with Byrd’s voice opening and closing the show over the music. Unlike Riley’s show, which was call-in talk interrupted by music cues, Byrd, with music, rhyme and tone, tried to create a cultural atmosphere with his predominately Black audience. His “question of the day” for the audience, the focus of the leading segment of his program, was a more philosophical one than poised on the more news-oriented Riley’s show. When I began listening to him in 1987, Byrd referred to himself a “New Age Griot,” the latter French term referring to a name given to male West African praise singers who sing the history of a particular person, family or community.
A New Name, A New “GBE,” A New Site
While living and working in New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s, Byrd, who read on his own about Africa, began to be exposed to African-centered scholars such as John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan (known as “Dr. Ben”), who often delivered public lectures to cultural Nationalist groups and others. Jochannan, an Egyptologist, taught that the ancient Egyptians who shaped human civilization were Black-skinned Africans. Byrd told Gil Noble during a 1999 WABC-TV “Like It Is” interview that he was prepared “to sit at Dr. Ben’s feet” when he heard a tape of a speech of Dr. Ben’s. In the mid-l980s, Byrd went to Egypt, where he was told by a priest to go to a certain place along the Nile River and perform a ritual to gain a spiritual experience. That ritual, he recalls, gave him the inspiration to give himself a name that “would give me something to aspire to every day of my life, a new place to step to.” He adopted the name Imhotep, the legendary Egyptian first multi-genius.
Byrd began using his new name publicly around 1990. It was shortly after he did a special week of programming from the Apollo Theatre honoring African-centered scholars such as Clarke and ben-Jochannan. As a result of the success of those broadcasts, Byrd was given the mid-morning slot, live from the Apollo. With this move in place, Byrd subsequently announced that his name was now Imhotep Gary Byrd and that he was re-christening his show the “Global Black Experience.” The broadcaster, dropping the “New Age” from his self-description, had now decided to become the African-American broadcast equivalent of an African griot–a living medium for African-Americans, with the mission to “make African people feel good about themselves, and to make the world feel good about African people.”
The “New GBE: Africentricity,” as he called it, was done on the Apollo stage, a center of Black American culture. Still essentially call-in talk radio, it was done with a live studio audience, who came in from the street to see the show. Guests were onstage talking with Byrd–wearing dreadlocks and dressed in flowing African robes–while the members of the studio audience lined up to ask questions or to win prizes in a Black history quiz question Byrd would ask on-air.
The show became politically and culturally stronger in tone-as strong to the Black Cultural Nationalist left as white mainstream talk show radio hosts Bob Grant and Rush Limbaugh of WABC-AM were to the white right in the 1980s and 1990s. The new “rituals of sound” were more African and less African-American. The “new” GBE began with a recorded call to “Speak, Drums! Tell the real story.” After the theme, Byrd would read aloud the Nguzo Saba–the seven principles of Kawaida theory developed by Black Cultural Nationalist Maulana Karenga and popularized by the Karenga-inspired African-American holiday, Kwanzaa–at the start of every show. These principles include calls to African unity, self-determination and purpose. Then Byrd would read the headlines from The Daily Challenge, the city’s only Black daily newspaper. On “Black Press Thursday,” the day most of the city’s weekly Black newspapers would be on the newsstands. He read headlines from all of the city’s Black press. Byrd took advantage of the use of a well-known stage and culturally-eager studio audience to honor people who had made significant contributions to African and African-American life.
The significance of the “New GBE,” from a cultural standpoint, cannot be overemphasized. Byrd, by 1990 a cultural hero of sorts and opinion leader in New York’s cultural Nationalist and activist communities, was now broadcasting an African-centered show from the Apollo Theatre, a legendary Harlem landmark on 125th Street–the same street used by many of the streetcorner orators, including Malcolm X. These ancestors now had descendants with new, more sophisticated stepladders and megaphones. The unedited voices of these “children” could now be heard around the nation’s No. 1 local media market–the New York tri-state area–in cars, homes, or on Walkmans while jogging. Black senior citizens and others who learned about Black history and culture from Byrd and his guests could now drop by to see them in person and ask questions. Teachers set up class field trips, as I helped to do in 1992 for journalism and broadcasting high school students attending the Seton Hall University Upward Bound program. “The New Negro Movement” of the 1930s had become a 1990s African-centered renaissance, live, on-air. The “New GBE” allowed Blacks to participate in a collective African-centered media experience, using the most powerful medium in Black communities, the radio.
And yes, I got my copy of Action Comics No. 1000!