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Four powerful words: Understanding and recovering Black agency

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“I Am A Man.”
“Ain’t I a woman?”

Four powerful words, two famous phrases–the former displayed on pickets in marches around Memphis in 1968, the latter spoken by the fiery Sojourner Truth in 1851–hold the key to Black people’s ongoing struggles around the world. The recognition of our humanity has, at best, been optional in America. At its worst, the struggle to be seen as fully human has left our bodies lynched–beaten, burned and broken. Though these phrases come from by-gone eras, they remain essential and relevant to our present and future. Let us take a few moments to understand why such simple phrases have such potency, why they engender such emotion and how Black people around the world can use them to recover their agency after we have suffered ongoing physical, psychological and political violence.

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The United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 2: “…adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” “Three fifths of all other persons…” If you were not a free person, according to the Constitution, you were not a whole person. If no portion of a person is considered a citizen, they certainly weren’t considered a human being either. Thus with this phrase, white men gave themselves license to terrorize and oppress an entire race of people.

We pause a moment to acknowledge how this clause also ignored America’s indigenous peoples: “Indians not taxed…” If a human being, whose original home was North America before it became the United States, did not pay taxes they were not even “there”. They were rendered literally invisible in the eyes of the Constitution.

For both the indigenous people of North America and the enslaved Africans kidnapped and held in bondage, their oppressors stole their humanity. And for the past 250 years, the precedent set by the Founders of the American experiment, and those who would emulate them, has kept the humanity of African and indigenous peoples optional; a bargaining chip to advance a political or economic cause, neither fully defined nor fully granted. Humanity denied is agency denied.

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The development of a people–psychologically, developmentally, socially and politically–is grounded in their perceived context in their society, their place, if you will. If their language follows that of the broader society as a symbol of their personhood and individuality, and it does not include symbols grounded in acts of creative consciousness affirming their personal and cultural individuality, their agency is denied and the state becomes the operative power in their life and expression.

When a human being was reduced to three-fifths of a person or turned invisible because of the money they did not pay to the government, the state stripped their agency. The state aggressively undermined their humanity in the cause of “commerce” or “freedom”–words forced on Black and Native people that ultimately described their inability to be part of society that led to their loss of independent thought, expression and action. The state’s justification for this was manifold but it always circled back to control, to domination. Thus, in the eyes of the state, the enslaved weren’t human, they were less than human and subject to whatever whim, bargain or scheme the government chose to impose. The state literally robbed them of their personal and cultural identity, the basis of agency.

“I Am A Man.”

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign. via Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University

Focusing on Black people in America’s very checkered past, we were subjected to abuse by our own government through state- sanctioned terrorism. In the era known as Jim Crow (ca. 1890 – 1970), the government of the United States did not acknowledge the humanity of all Black people. It allowed states to hinder their rights to vote, to gain education and employment, even to live and breathe. Jim Crow had erased their beingness. In essence, they were not human, they were not “men”. This era was a regression after the Civil War and the laws it ushered in that had clearly amended what the Constitution said. Jim Crow said to Black people: “You may have been human beings for a short time, but you will never be human in our eyes.” Our humanity, in the eyes of the American government, was optional…again.

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When Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in 1968, they carried hundreds of signs that said these four simple words: “I Am A Man.” They rejected the state’s definition of their inhumanity. They rejected the lack of recognition. They rejected the loss of agency. They wanted the dignity to express their conscience, creativity and care as equal partners in the American experiment. They wanted every right, privilege and responsibility of a citizen, including fair wages, safe working conditions and equal treatment for the critical work they did. In an age of open oppression, their demand wasn’t simply for justice, it was for the unequivocal recognition of their humanity.

Decades after his violent assassination, a lawsuit brought against the United States Government proved Dr. King’s killer was, at the very least, an agent of the state. He was killed in Memphis by people who thought Black people should not be agents of our own lives. Though Dr. King chose non-violent means to change the culture and government oppressing him, he was still killed violently. Whites fearing the loss of control, the loss of economic dominance, and the loss of political supremacy lashed out. These killers took Dr. King’s life as part of a plan to maintain their hold on a people who chose freedom instead of servitude. When Black people choose agency, they become a threat to an oppressive order. Four small words challenged America: “I Am A Man.”

“Ain’t I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth at the National Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio, USA, May 1851. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

117 years prior to the men telling the nation they were fully human, Sojourner Truth said the same thing. In May of 1851, she spoke to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She spoke extemporaneously from the heart. Impassioned, she was clearly fed up with the practice and mindset of Americans enslaving human beings. Her speech that day resonated as she laid out personal, social, political and moral arguments for justice and equality and against racism and sexism.

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Sojourner Truth was born in New York around 1797, enslaved. Her enslavers trafficked her as a child several times, selling and buying her like she was a product, not a human being. Near her 30th birthday, she decided she was free: “I walked away by daylight” is how she described her liberation. She literally just left and she took her daughter, Sophia, with her in 1826. For the time, that was the pinnacle of agency–she took her life into her own hands despite the state, despite the force of enslavers, despite the prevailing spirit of the times. Though she was raised in and adopting the language of an oppressive society, she knew who she was. She had a healthy knowledge and understanding of her body, self and culture; she had agency.

She changed her name, from that which was given to her, Isabella Baumfree, to one that exemplified her agency, Sojourner Truth. She became a potent voice against oppression and continuous dehumanizing of Africans. She took a stand during a time when her voice should have been silenced by the strength of government laws and social traditions keeping Black people, women and the poor inside limited, non-threatening behaviors. But in changing her name, in being true to herself, she lit the fire of self-determination. She made herself into a woman by her own definition. So much so that 25 years after her daylight walk into freedom, she defined her social identity as a woman and forced society to deal with its duplicitous ambiguity toward Black people.

She highlighted the tensions of this new American society, ruled by a class trying to thread a closed needle: declaring all men were created equally in one founding document, declaring some people as three-fifths of a human being in another. She articulated the needs of the marginalized and oppressed, she challenged leaders and governments neglecting the plight of the people they should have been serving, she spoke out to relieve suffering and to uplift human dignity. She was the epitome of agency at a time when Black people, especially women, were seen as nowhere near human.

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In her pivotal speech, Sojourner Truth made a point that she had every element of human dignity. She spoke about her ability to work, eat and bear hardships as much as any man. Yet she spoke to the elements of femininity denied her because of her Black skin: chivalry, patience and luxury. She wanted to be seen as fully human, as fully worthy of all the elements due a human being and a woman of her time. Yet, those things were denied her, denied because she was Black, because she wasn’t seen as a woman, rather as inhuman, as a beast and not sufficient to act with her own agency. Four powerful words challenged America: “Ain’t I a woman?”

The Psychology of Black Agency

Still from the documentary The Deep Calls to Itself: Healing Africa Through Creative Arts Therapies by Dr. Gladys Akunna and Floyd Igbo

Four words and two phrases reveal the pressure and struggle of just living and being Black in an oppressive society. In America, the government has been the primary tool of oppressors in the society to dehumanize Black people and delegitimize Black agency. On the continent of Africa, many Black leaders have followed suit, using their government to oppress, to delegitimize, to wage psychological and physical warfare against their own Black people. Africans and their descendants across the diaspora share similar psychic and cultural traumas of exploitation and suppression and have, for the past five hundred years, sought agency despite it.
To exhibit agency in such oppressive environments means finding ways to attune to the body as its own entity, capable of generating, sustaining, sharing and comprehending personal and social communication, dialogues within the self, the community and the society. The fight for agency means finding methods and tools to share their authentic Black voice and be heard doing so. The search for agency led to the creation of beautiful and unique arts like the traditional, ritual dances of the Igbo and the Zulu to modern movements exemplified by Capoeira and B-boying. Agency is communication, and when oppression is imminent, it is urgent.

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Recent events around the world, from the protests of the gruesome murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice to the ongoing silencing of dissent in Nigeria due to the #EndSARS movement, point to the need of leaders and policymakers to take serious heed of these voices agitating for agency, for redress of their grievances. The Black body has been assaulted for centuries, the Black woman has been doubly injured by politics and misogyny; the violent and abrupt restriction of agency, the assault on assertiveness has led to a lack of synchrony, the lack of belonging to a society or community and the abuse of substances to soften the never-ending blows.

Psychologists acknowledge our body crystallizes our experiences in our self-image. Our personality, the very way our body carries itself and interprets the world around it, is shaped by our agency or lack thereof. Further, our minds are primed toward specific interpretations of meaning formed by whether our person is accepted or rejected. Maybe one of the most powerful things we can learn comes from Paul Ferdinard Schilder who wrote The Image and the Appearance of the Human Body in 1950: both inner and outer stimuli and reality is interpreted through conscious and unconscious perceptions. Imagine the power of a people who are born with agency and who never doubt they have it and can employ it on their own behalf.

Freud often talked about the body holding sources of consciousness from which the ego is nurtured and developed. Black people around the world are at a point where their inner sensitivities are hampered by their governments, their bodily feelings so affected that they now navigate their experiences in the society from an injured perspective. Imagine trying to dance with a broken leg, sing with a broken jaw, pray with no tongue. These outward injuries manifest inwardly as well, as the body and mind are integrated in the perception and use of agency.

Black people need to reconstruct their negative body images adopted as a result of the assault on our agency within our communities. We have tools within reach, however, that may help us recover ourselves and express our agency in healthy ways. In the Creative Arts Therapies, for instance in Dance Movement Therapy, practitioners help patients adapt or adopt certain skills and behavior to reconstruct an integrated self, body and mind acting in concert, thereby helping people improve their mental and physical health.

The tools of Black culture, from traditional and modern dance, from jazz and gospel, from farming songs and Negro spirituals, can all be employed as Black people recover and reconstruct their beings. While some will work on the politics, to end the environments of oppression, others must take the route of rebuilding individuals, teaching them the skills and movements, songs and arts that will transform them from voiceless to empowered. Our leaders have a chance to see their people not as means to an end, not as machines and apparatus, but rather as vital human beings with agency, with the capacity to grow, learn, share and give. When we have agency, we can work together to bring prosperity to the many who lack it, to bring beauty to a world that needs it, to serve our communities out of generosity.

Josephine Baker, Artist, Activist, Icon. Drawn by Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller.

Emille Bryant, MHR, is the president and founder of go:IKIGAI LLC, veteran and graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the author of Start With A Sparkle. As a consultant, writer and strategist, he is continually mastering and refining the art and science of innovation, which he calls Brazen Creativity. His business and life focus on building better ways to achieve great goals, especially the liberation and edification of Black people in America and around the world.

Dr. Gladys Ijeoma Akunna, a senior lecturer at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria is a visiting scholar in the Department of the Creative Arts Therapies at the College of Nursing and Health Professions of Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is an International Fellow of the Association of American Universities Women (AAUW). She is in the US facilitating partnerships to establish Creative Arts Therapies (CAT) education in Nigeria and across Africa to help recover and improve mental health for Africans everywhere.


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