The Road to What’s Owed: Breaking Brown’s Next Institutional Step

Over a century ago today, an African-American reverend named Alexander Crummell stood before a congregation in Saint Mary’s Chapel in Washington D.C. and preached the following words in his Thanksgiving Day sermon:

I see nought in the future but that we shall be scattered like chaff before the wind before the organized labor of the land, the great power of capital, and the tremendous tide of emigration, unless, as a people, we fall back upon the might and mastery which come from the combination of forces and the principle of industrial co-operation. Most of your political agitation is but wind and vanity. What this race needs in this country is power — the forces that may be felt. And that comes from character, and character is the product of religion, intelligence, virtue, family order, superiority, wealth, and the show of industrial forces. These are forces which we do not possess. We are the only class which, as a class, in this country, is wanting in these grand elements. The very first effort of the colored people should be to lay hold to them; and they will take such root in this American soil that only the convulsive upheaving of the judgement-day can throw them out.

Religion, intelligence, family order and wealth. It is these qualities which Crummell argues comprise and determine the character of a people. Or, put another way: the church, school, family and business. And what may at first glance seem like the sort of self-empowerment rhetoric of character so often used while dangling the country’s meritocratic fallacy, carrot-like, before the noses of those people who’ve been made prodigiously handicapped, what in fact those collective structures are capable of doing is shaping behavior and enabling an expansion of individual action to help effect outcomes for the community. The collective structures of which Crummell speaks are, simply, institutions. And by his configuration of power, then, it is through the institutions of a people that power must be pursued.

Anyone who has stayed abreast of some of the moves that Breaking Brown has made over the past couple months while it has been on hiatus is aware that—while the content of the show has ebbed—host Yvette Carnell has been anything but idle with respect to her efforts in pushing ahead with the show’s central mission of helping to secure racial justice for African-American descendants of slaves. Moreover, it appears that what is informing the next step of the Breaking Brown project is precisely a conviction in the institutions of the black community as being a powerful and influential vehicle for advancing their interests on a larger scale.

In September of this year, Yvette Carnell gave a speech at the Angela Project conference, the primary objective of which is to revitalize an historic element of activism in the black church, and press that into service of obtaining reparative justice. In that speech, she deftly makes the case for the particular justice claim that African-American descendants of slaves have as citizens of this country, why that claim must be pursued relentlessly if there is to be any hope of meaningful uplift for them as a people, and the clarion call that the black church must heed in lending their institutional weight to the cause of helping their community get what is owed them and on the road to healing.

This pivot by Breaking Brown to engage a major institutional channel committed to vaulting the issue of reparations is an astute, potent, and very strategic move. It’s a move that accords with Breaking Brown having long cautioned the black community of involving themselves in what can amount to a political side-project; namely, toiling in trying to tease out some of the stitched-in racism of certain white institutions instead of applying themselves collectively to strengthen and prevail upon those institutions whose sole reason is to provide and advocate for them to do just that. 

In the aftermath of the black community having been consigned to instability as a result of the white institution of slavery, it is arguably the detachment of certain black institutions that has played a role in facilitating their languishing in that condition. And so the cause of reparative justice is no doubt greatly amplified and advanced with the informed involvement of those institutions. However, as Dr. Kevin Cosby and Antonio Moore discuss on the latter’s recent podcast episode, “If Middle Black Family Hits Zero Wealth, Does It End The Black Church?”, the ability for black people to be made whole is intimately bound up with the question of the black church’s ability to itself weather and survive the diminishing economic status of African-Americans, which if it continues apace, threatens to completely tank in a mere three and a half decades.

These two struggles are indeed very much interconnected, and for the church to meaningfully re-engage politically, and advocate on behalf of its community, requires as a pre-condition the community itself being prepared to re-engage politically. That Breaking Brown has spent several years now laying a foundation for this political re-engagement in the black community to take place again attests to the breadth of vision and political acumen of Yvette Carnell as she now prepares to couple the project with what, as Dr. Cosby himself contends—if the institution of the black church is true to its historic mission—is “urban America’s last hope.”