Afro-centrism Gains Visibility and Promotes Discussions on Race in America

Photo courtesy of Parkwoo

Afro-centrism earned a major victory this Black History Month with two legendary performances from two of black culture's biggest icons, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Beyoncé, for the second time in three years, owned the Super Bowl halftime show stage, performing her newest song “Formation,” which embraces black culture and all things pro-black. A week later, Lamar added to this celebration of black culture at the Grammys performing "Blacker the Berry" and "Alright" from his "To Pimp A Butterfly" album that won the Compton rapper five of the 11 Grammys he was nominated for.

The halftime show performance carried a Black Panther Party theme, as Beyoncé and her backup dancers dressed in all black with afros and black combat boots that reminded older viewers of a time when revolution played in the forefront of conversations, as in the 1960s. The song Beyoncé performed also has a music video that received a lot of criticism for depicting a flooded police cruiser that Beyoncé stands atop, depicting anti-police symbolism. In front of over 100 million viewers, Beyoncé and her dancers stole the halftime show from Coldplay and Bruno Mars and started another race debate on social media.

I was surprised to see how unknowledgeable Americans are about the Black Panther Party. I knew the Panthers were historically misrepresented by the media, but I thought by now we had a clear understanding of what they stood for. It was not just white people who were unaware, unfortunately, as even blacks who posted memes in response to the “white outrage” of Beyoncé’s pro-black performance were also inaccurate in their definition of the BPP.

People who we’ll call “anti-Panthers” misrepresented the left-wing political party by comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan. There is no need to redefine the Klan and it is very important that the BPP not be compared in any way to a hate group who historically kidnapped and murdered people based on race. 

The Black Panther Party, founded by Dr. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, was not a hate group, but instead was a revolutionary party who believed in self-defense and uplifting the poor black community through free programs for people of all age groups. The BPP did not commit random acts of violence, as the far right-wing KKK did (or even left wing political parties like The Weathermen did), but they did legally carry weapons as a form of self-defense against police brutality, which is the platform of the party.

I expected the conservative white community not to understand who the Panthers were, but what upset me was the inaccurate information from black Americans in response to the attacks on the BPP’s platform. I saw too many memes that defined the BPP as a party that was created in response to the KKK, which is untrue. The BPP was created in Oakland where, instead of Klan-related lynchings and Jim Crow, police officers were abusing their authority and harassing poor blacks and other minority groups in poor black neighborhoods all over California. Former Black Panther member and author Mumia Abu-Jamal defines the BPP as “Malcolm’s party” because it was founded on the same principles as civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was not above using violence, but only as a form of self-defense against police.

After Super Bowl halftime show conversations died down and a failed attempt at protesting Beyoncé’s music in a rally that attracted all of three people in New York City, the Grammy awards came and Kendrick Lamar moved the audience with his performance. I’ve come to realize that with every black accomplishment, there will always be social media trolls tweeting racist comments, but ultimately Lamar’s performance received many positive reviews.

The 28-year-old artist opened up his set as a prisoner (which may have been a metaphor for mental imprisonment, based on the angle of his latest album) in chains, as he performed "Blacker the Berry" and eventually freed himself before performing his uplifting hit song "Alright." The set closed with an image of Africa with the text “Compton” covering the large continent, relaying a connection between Lamar’s upbringing and the black “motherland.” Internet junkies found stills of audience reactions during the performance, and it is admittedly kind of funny to see the blank stares of those who may not understand what is going on, but ultimately the performance did not receive as much backlash as Beyoncé’s did.

As afro-centrism continues to be more prevalent in the black community and America (hopefully) tries to be more culturally aware, not just with blacks, eventually we will all have some more research to do on these topics, so we can generate some worthwhile discussion in the future.