Lerone Bennett, Jr. was born in Clarksdale, MS shortly before the Great Depression. He is regarded as a forthright Black scholar and historian, having penned several works regarding Black history and culture for about three decades or so. Well noted for his position as Executive Editor of the premiere Black magazine, Ebony, Bennett’s historical writings would appear in the publication and became one of its most notable features.
Ebony Magazine has been a mainstay publication for well over forty years in Black America. John H. Johnson Publications is one of the longest running Black owned and operated publishing companies in the country, alongside Third World Press, founded by Haki Madhubuti. When I was growing up, Ebony and Jet filled our magazine holders and held down its own space on the kitchen table. It is a main source of information for Black America, then and now. Throughout my teenage years, I was more interested in the popular Black figures highlighted in the publication than I was about the gems featured in the margins of those pages. I recall seeing Bennett’s work, The Challenge of Blackness, several times and thought very little of it, forgetting all about the book until a month or so ago.
On a random visit to the University of Memphis library to spend some time going through archived issues of Ebony and Essence Magazines, the book caught my eye as I fidgeted with the knob on the microfiche machine. This time, I paid attention and went on a scavenger hunt for the work. Well, not really. All I did was visit Amazon.com and found a well-kept copy for about ten dollars.
Needless to say, I consider this book a jewel—for a couple of reasons. For one, the book is one of Bennett’s least popular works. He’s known more for his treatise on the accidental historical fame of Abe Lincoln, Forced Into Glory, which is still widely available. Secondly, the collection of essays in The Challenge of Blackness offers critical analyses of the proper liberation struggle of African Americans, each of them addressing specific constructs that complicate Black progress, but he does not stop there with simply pointing out the problems, instead Bennett also offers solutions for collective cooperation and action. His essays are framed within Black intellectual thought which also expands into the inner workings of mainstream America. Released in 1972, Bennett’s scholarly approach in these essays can still generate considerable dialogue. Here’s an excerpt from book jacket:
“The book explores the political, economic, and cultural implications of this challenge and suggests radical alternatives and strategies for the black community. The challenge of blackness is seen as more than a surface struggle over ‘integration’ – it emerges to question the fundamentals of American society.”
As I have been reading this book, I am struck by the timeliness of many of Bennett’s points, especially since it was written well over 30+ years ago. In one essay, Unifying the Unifiers, Bennett addresses the varied approaches taken up to that point in the Black Liberation struggle. He established three groups of ‘unifiers’ and identified those tasks and strategies to unify those groups, thus resulting in a togetherness among Blacks. Considering the need to unify as “our most immediate and urgent task”, Bennett stated that there was a need for a collective ideology of unity, but that in reaching for unity, an idealized version does not exist, but rather an operational unity was necessary where all factions and bodies of thought among Blacks were bound. He asserted this definition for unity:
“…a state of collective grace and communal availability which permits a group to correlate its forces and bring sufficient force to bear at designated points to maintain or advance its interests.”
Lerone Bennett, Jr. hard at work in 1973. Bennett continues to reside in Chicago.
Critically important as a working definition, it is quite useful for today as Black Americans continue to differ in opinions on the state of Black progress in this nation and the world. From Martin Delaney to Marcus Garvey to Booker T. Washington to W.E.B Dubois, from the opposing realities and approaches of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements to the modern day dilemmas of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Juan Williams, we have never agreed on how to attain our goal of overcoming an institutionalized state of marginalization.
However, at this point, we must try to piece together our past with our present and then make some critical decisions for the sake of the generations who are carrying this legacy in the 21st century–because time is marching on. Even within the think tank that I participate known as the Collective, we sat in a café on a chilly Saturday afternoon for three hours trying to answer the question, ‘What does it mean to be African American in the 21st Century?’ and then once we agree on an answer, how do we translate it into a a course of action to ‘de-niggerize’ many of us and awaken and unify (there’s that word again) the rest of us?
With a seven-count assortment of professionals, scholars, and artists, each of us had, at least, five different answers to the question, some intertwining with others – and others hung in the balance as they were presented, leaving us with something to ponder. It’s quite evident that the challenge of Blackness continues to permeate our everyday living in America and thanks to my rare find of Bennett’s book, perhaps we can delve into it to continue this work of connecting the dots, hopefully getting one step closer to full equality with 2011 on the horizon.