While on a ritual Netflix binge, I stumble across my favorite documentary, “The Black Power Mixtape,” for what seems like the millionth time. Each time I watch it, I inevitably discover a scene I’d previously overlooked and find new meaning in that moment based on the progression(or lack thereof) my life has taken thus far.
This time, the scene takes place in Harlem circa the late ‘60s inside of a black-owned bookstore filled with towering stacks of what I like to call “vintage” African-American Literature: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and most infamously Langston Hughes. Lewis H. Michaux, a middle-aged black man with a spunky afro, stands in the center of the organized chaos as groups of little black boys and girls scurry in and out the storefront. The shop owner shares with the Swedish filmmakers that when he hears his young patrons shout,”black power,” he promptly corrects them.
“Black is beautiful, but black isn’t power. Knowledge is power,” Michaux clarifies. “For you can be black as a crow, you can be white as snow and if you don’t know and ain’t got no dough, you can’t go and that’s fo’ sho’.”
It is unclear whether any of the shop’s patrons take heed to his words, but I certainly do. His sage advice raises some serious existential questions for me, first and foremost, “What the hell was I doing with my life?”
I’d graduated from college three years prior knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but with no idea of what type of writer I wanted to be. I started my career in journalism around the time digital news became oversaturated with celebrity gossip and “listicles.” As a former English major and student of literature, I quickly grew bored with transcribing Kanye West rants and covering Justin Bieber’s love life. I wanted to do something more meaningful with my talent. I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and I thought my paycheck should prove it. I wrote for brands for a while after that, representing content studios whose ethical standards I often found questionable, to say the least.
“We’re targeting Hispanics,” a client once disclosed during a brainstorm. “Any suggestions?”
“Well, if you’re trying to reach any market, think about that demographic’s behavior,” my colleague advised. “Hispanics are known to have lots of children. Let’s write a parenting piece!”
I’d cringe at each offensive stereotype spat out during these meetings. Still, my disgust for my employer’s ignorance did not stop me from cashing my checks. When asked why I kept doing work that I hated, I’d frequently quote Picasso.
I was “learning the rules like a pro” so I could “break them like an artist.”
Before I knew it, two years had gone by and I had a pocket full of cash and no purpose. Cue the slew of viral videos of black men killed by police and the protests that followed, and I abandoned my assignment as a corporate ventriloquist to pursue a career in activism. I moved back to my childhood home in a public housing development in Harlem and donated my time and talent to grassroots organizing.
As I listen to Michaux’s poetic freestyle, I am nearly a year into my career change and, apart from the occasional journal, I haven’t written a thing. I find out the hard way that community organizing is back-breaking work and affords me very little free time to write. Nevertheless, I’ve somehow managed to merge both of these callings by signing up to organize an open mic fundraiser for a local grassroots campaign. If I couldn’t write any masterpieces, I might as well make space for other writers to share theirs.
Frustrated at my inability to solve my existential crisis, I pause the documentary and shift gears to creating a custom playlist for the event. I scroll through my music library and make my first selection, “American Terrorist” by Lupe Fiasco. I press play and as the prolific emcee flows over the spacey beat, I hear him spit something that sets off fireworks in my brain.
“The ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood a martyr,” Lupe rhymes, closely quoting the words of the Prophet Muhammad.
Suddenly, I realize that just because I chose to be an activist didn’t mean I had to give up writing. In fact, writing could be my great contribution to the movement I’d already committed to. Still, despite this revelation, I have to face reality. As Michaux so eloquently put it, I didn’t know and I had no dough so I couldn’t go and that was fo’ sho!
I was a good writer but in order to be a great writer, I had to seriously dedicate time to my craft. I had to seize the opportunity to gain the knowledge I needed to spread my literary wings; an opportunity that would nurture my talent, not stifle it; an opportunity that would allow me to become the great writer that I intend to be.