Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

The essence of oppression

28th June 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis
The Louisiana Weekly Editor

Essence Fest is dead, y’all.

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the annual summer event in the Crescent City that bills itself as the “party with a purpose” has lost its magic, luster and what little sense of purpose it used to have.

After two decades of bringing hordes of Black folks to New Orleans, the most African city in America, for a full slate of concerts, parties and empowerment seminars, the Essence Fest has become nothing more than just another festival, albeit a festival that is hugely profitable for the white business establishment.

It can boast of being one of the largest annual gatherings of college-educated and gainfully employed Black folks in the U.S., but it is not a gathering that has yielded much in the way of progressive thought or movement for the masses of Black people.

The fest has become a major destination for Black folks who would rather party and listen in on Black-ish dialogue about the plight of Black America. Sadly, it has become a haven for the superficial and the self-absorbed, who come to the city to party, shop, eat delicious local cuisine and fawn all over petulant celebrities, reality TV stars and whatever eye candy is invited to sit in on empowerment seminar panel discussions.

The annual summer event which began in the mid-1990s has become a pilgrimage for Black folks and others who want to do anything but think critically about the plight of people of African descent or move toward creating a nation where Black people can enjoy full citizenship, justice and equal protection under the law.

The level of factual discussion and informed debate is considerably watered down when you compare it to annual events like the Power Talk gathering in Washington, DC.

The thing is, you don’t have to have a PhD to be a thought leader and you don’t have to have marched in protests in the 1960s to be an activist, but it would be a good thing if you have demonstrated your commitment to the struggle and the betterment of Black people by taking the time to develop your mind and actually studying the history of Black people.

Those who want to be leaders, writers and activists must do their homework, study the historical struggle of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow people to be recognized as free and equal human beings, hone their respective crafts and pay some dues.

What we get all too often at the empowerment seminars are self-proclaimed leaders trying to make a name for themselves by hitting audiences with eye-raising one-liners and snappy comebacks and folks peddling their latest book, clothing line or beauty products.

We shouldn’t be too surprised or dismayed by that.

After all, Essence magazine is a white-owned publication for Black women.

It is hardly your mother’s or grandmother’s Essence, where readers could find African-centered, thought-provoking articles about the plight of people of African descent in the U.S. and around the world.

Even though Essence magazine targeted Black women, its articles were so power-packed and insightful that the publication often found itself in the hands of Black men.

Those days are gone as the publication has become no more than a shell of its former self.

One of my frat brothers reminded me recently of a remark by the late, great Dr. John Henrik Clark that makes it easier to understand why there is little “empowerment” in the Essence Fest’s Empowerment Seminars.

“Powerful people don’t tell the powerless how to gain power,” Clark observed.

That should resonate with anyone who is interested in improving the plight of people of African descent in the U.S. and throughout the world.

How often have you seen brilliant minds like Dr. Patricia Newton, Professor James Small, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, Dr. Leonard Jeffries or Dr. Charles Finch invited to Essence Fest to discuss the plight of people of African descent?

You’re far more likely to see actors like Shemar Moore, Boris Kodjoe, Lance Gross, Michael Ealy or Terence Howard, sisters like Taraji Henson, Kim Whitley, Kenya Moore, Nicki Minaj or Kerry Washington or singers like Eric Benet or Tyrese talking about important Black issues although they don’t have a documented record of studying these issues.

What we end up with is another classic case of the blind leading the blind year after year after year and many people wondering why so little progress is being made.

As the greatest Black leaders — men and women like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Moore, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing and Kwame Toure — reminded us often, Black people don’t have a lot of time for things that don’t move our quest for liberation, self-determination and justice forward. We have some serious work to do.

To be fair, it’s not just the Essence Fest that is distracting Black folks from the important work we have to do or wasting valuable time on things that have nothing to do with empowering, liberating and uplifting our people.

A similar case was made against the annual Congressional Black Caucus confab in Washington, DC, which prompted one insightful writer to describe the event as “Freaknik for old people.” From the first-hand stories I’ve heard about the weekend event that brings together Black lawmakers and leaders of some of the most prominent Black civil rights organizations, that appears to be a valid assessment.

A similar case has been made against various other events like the annual cruise and Black family reunion organized and promoted by “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” All year long these events are pushed hard during the nationally syndicated radio show and listeners are essentially told the same thing the bourgie lady once said on the Cameo hit “Don’t Be So Cool”: “If you don’t attend the party, your name isn’t going to mean what it did last year.”

The worst part about events like the Essence Fest, which is white-owned, white-run and white-controlled, is that it makes a lot of money for white businesses who have no qualms about reaping huge profits on the backs of Black folks. There is little in the way of economic empowerment for most of majority-Black New Orleans’ Black businesses.

The Essence Fest no longer utilizes the local Black Press to advertise the annual event. Instead, the so-called party with a purpose is advertised in white-owned newspapers, on social media and on white-owned radio stations that play Black music but do little to promote things like economic fairness, social justice or equity.

Even the Community Book Center, once the Essence Fest’s official bookstore, has been kicked to the curb and replaced with a local white bookstore.

The local culture, flavor and hospitality of Black New Orleanians continues to be a major draw for visitors to the city but the Black masses in the city, many of whom are dealing with more important issues like chronic unemployment, poverty and social injustice, can no longer afford the exorbitant concert ticket prices.

Many of the city’s poorest Black people’s only connection to the annual festival is through their work in dead-end, minimum-wage tourism jobs in local hotels and restaurants.

As for this year’s empowerment seminars, don’t expect any life-changing or earth-shattering things to come out of them. Just a lot of signifying, pontificating and ego-tripping.

There will be lots of grown folks having a good time while acting like overgrown teenagers without a care in the world and no concern about the world around them. That’s cute when you’re actually 15 or 16, but there’s something very disturbing about observing 40- and 50-year-old teenagers acting like they have lost their minds.

The real question is whether Black folks are any more empowered as a result of these seminars than we were in the 1990s. Have we moved toward ending voter suppression, harnessing our collective economic power, becoming a proactive, politically astute people or getting the U.S. Department of Justice to do its job as it relates to shielding communities of color from inequitable practices in the criminal justice system and unconstitutional policing by law enforcement agencies? Are we any closer to achieving Black unity and unity of purpose?

If not, we have to ask ourselves, “Exactly what is the purpose of the ‘party with a purpose?’”

This article originally published in the June 27, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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