No. 267 – Let’s Trade Keys

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in Atlanta, issuing a joint statement against U.S. investment in South Africa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t quite put the words together for a longer piece on this, but I think there’s significance to last Monday, March 25 being Memorial Day and Africa Day. 

Memorial Day

On May 1, 1865, formerly enslaved folks in Charleston, SC gave a proper burial to well over 200 Union soldiers who died as prisoners of the Confederate army. After the burial, thousands of formerly enslaved people held a parade honoring the soldiers and the role they played in helping bring an end to chattel slavery. 

The murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many more — on top of the other broken parts of this society amplified by COVID-19 — show black people in America are still on this journey of getting free. 

Lots of corporations have come out with statements denouncing police brutality and racism. Let’s see how many new CEO announcements for Fortune 500 companies we see over the next year with a black headshot at the top. Let’s see what happens to the stock price at CoreCivic and the GEO Group, the two largest private prisons in the country. They’re both trading higher as I write this. There’s a long road of hard, uncomfortable work that needs to take place in this country.

Africa Day

On March 25, 1963, African heads of state from across the continent inaugurated the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Their aim was to partner in taking the lead on shaping Africa’s future. Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie said the following in becoming the first chair of the OAU:

We have come together to assert our role in the direction of world affairs and to discharge our duty to the great continent whose two hundred and fifty million people we lead. Africa is today at midcourse, in transition from the Africa of yesterday to the Africa of Tomorrow. Even as we stand here, we move from the past into the future. The task on which we have embarked, the making of Africa, will not wait. We must act, to shape and mould the future and leave our imprint on events as they slip past into history.

Africa is still on that journey. In August 1963, the OAU created the African Development Bank (AfDB) to spark economic development across the continent in efforts to reduce poverty. Last week, the United States, the largest shareholder in the African Development Bank, rejected the findings of an internal investigation into the leadership of the bank’s president Akinwumi Adesina. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin’s letter to the bank effectively sent the bank back to the drawing board in investigating Dr. Adesina. It’s frustrating to watch one of Africa’s top institutions be at the mercy of this White House administration.

The Connection

Blitz the Ambassador said something during Tastemakers Africa’s The Thread conference. He talked about how black folks across the diaspora are trying to get out of our respective prisons with the keys we have in our hands. So far, it’s not been working. He suggested that we consider asking to hold each other’s keys to give another set of keys a try at getting out of our prisons. 

What are those keys? Some keys are information on who black people were before the transatlantic slave trade began in the 15th century. Some keys are innovative business ideas. Other keys are grassroots political strategies. Malcolm X was onto this. In a speech launching the Organization for Afro American Unity he established to connect black people in the Western Hemisphere, he said this about his time in Africa:

Also, recently when I was blessed to make a religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca where I met many people from all over the world, plus spent many weeks in Africa trying to broaden my own scope and get more of an open mind to look at the problem as it actually is, one of the things that I realized, and I realized this even before going over there, was that our African brothers have gained their independence faster than you and I here in America have. They’ve also gained recognition and respect as human beings much faster than you and I.

Just ten years ago on the African continent, our people were colonized. They were suffering all forms of colonization, oppression, exploitation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and every other kind of -ation. And in a short time, they have gained more independence, more recognition, more respect as human beings than you and I have. And you and I live in a country which is supposed to be the citadel of education, freedom, justice, democracy, and all of those other pretty-sounding words.

So it was our intention to try and find out what it was our African brothers were doing to get results, so that you and I could study what they had done and perhaps gain from that study or benefit from their experiences. And my traveling over there was designed to help to find out how.

Unfortunately, Malcolm X’s study was cut short. So was Martin Luther King’s. Here’s a snippet from his sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church upon his return from witnessing Ghana’s first Independence Day:

Yes, there is a wilderness ahead, though it is my hope that even people from America will go to Africa as immigrants, right there to the Gold Coast and lend their technical assistance. For there is great need and rich, there are rich opportunities there. Right now is the time that American Negroes can lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation. I was very happy to see already, people who have moved in and making good. The son of the late president of Bennett College, Dr. Jones, is there, who started an insurance company and making good, going to the top.10 A doctor from Brooklyn, New York, had just come in that week and his wife is also a dentist, and they are living there now, going in there and working, and the people love them. There will be hundreds and thousands of people, I’m sure, going over to make for the growth of this new nation. And Nkrumah made it very clear to me that he would welcome any persons coming there as immigrants and to live there. Now don’t think that because they have five million people the nation can’t grow, that that’s a small nation to be overlooked. Never forget the fact that when America was born in 1776, when it received its independence from the British Empire, there were fewer, less than four million people in America, and today it’s more than a hundred and sixty million. So never underestimate a people because it’s small now. America was smaller than Ghana when it was born.

There is a great day ahead. The future is on its side. It’s going now through the wilderness. But the Promised Land is ahead.

And I want to take just a few more minutes as I close to say three or four things that this reminds us of and things that it says to us. Things that we must never forget as we ourselves find ourselves breaking aloose from an evil Egypt, trying to move through the wilderness toward the promised land of cultural integration: Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire. Freedom is never given to anybody. For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up. And that is where the strong resistance comes. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.

Next Steps

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been in multiple conversations where black folks have discussed the prospects of connecting globally, especially with our cousins on the continent. While we push for change in this country, I think it’s key we take Blitz’s counsel and seek to trade keys with folks in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and more. Tastemakers Africa will be holding another The Thread conference this month. I’ll do my part to make sure as many people as possible join those of who have been on this journey of reconnecting over the decades. Just because the DNA link isn’t perfectly synced up doesn’t mean our destinies aren’t tied closely together. Whew, I guess the words came to me after all. 

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The News

Twilio, Box, Spotify, and Other Tech CEOs Speak Out Against Racism and Police Brutality; Others Stay Silent – Sherrell Dorsey, founder of media business ThePlug, did incredible work over 24 hours building a database that is tracking how large companies are responding to the events of the past week, and more broadly to this country’s issues with racism and police brutality. Over the long term, this database is going to be real helpful in making sure actions match up with words.

U.S. Will Join G-7 AI Pact, Citing Threat From China – The U.S. is the last of the G-7 countries to join the Global Partnership for AI, an effort to develop standards for the ethical use of artificial intelligence. The U.S. is joining at the 11th hour citing concerns about China’s progress in driving the development of technology. For one, the U.S. and the G-7 countries don’t have a monopoly on the ethical use of artificial intelligence. We’ll see the power of artificial intelligence use in the U.S. in the coming weeks. There has been a lot of footage of protesters and police forces across the country will be using AI technology to help close their cases. Some of them will be using AI facial recognition technology developed by Amazon. Further, global north countries coming together to develop standards for AI technology, something that will increasingly bring various portions of our lives into its flywheel makes me very nervous.

Biotech R&D Software Startup Benchling, Started By MIT Undergrads, Scores $850 Million Valuation Amid Coronavirus Pandemic – Over the past several months, we’ve seen the importance of pharmaceutical companies being able to move quickly to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. While scientists are able to do incredible things with their research, there is blocking and tackling that slows down the process like effectively tracking data, communicating with you collaborators via email and more. Benchling is changing that and I look forward to seeing how the product develops. In particular, I’m curious how the product could help scientists identify bad patterns in genetic data that leave out underrepresented groups. 

No. 259 – On Grief and Connection

Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah

My Grandmama passed on Saturday. I thought I got all my tears out Saturday, but I’ll be grieving and celebrating her until my spirit feels it’s enough. While showering last night, I saw her smiling face and heard her say, “I’m proud of you, son. It’s going to be alright.” There were some extra water droplets in that shower. The weekend felt strange. Grandmama was on my mind and I was sad. Ahmaud Arbery was on my mind and I was numb. I still tried to make progress on my projects. Outside of cleaning and cooking some acceptable jollof rice, I felt like I was on a treadmill the rest of the weekend. So, I went to bed early last night.

This morning, I woke up thinking about black folks, how we’ve been in a low-grade state of mourning for hundreds of years, and the impact that has had on our productivity. Hundreds of thousands endured nearly 250 years of slavery. Folks lived through the failure of Reconstruction. Massacres in cities across the country. Jim Crow. Redlining. Prison industrial complex. Impunity for the killing of our people. It’s remarkable that black folks have created so much magic in the midst of this mourning.

What’s the salve?

During Jill Scott and Erykah Badu’s session Saturday, Ms. Scott described her mom as a healer. We’ve been applying salves to our wounds for a long time – healing ourselves. That session between Ms. Scott and Ms. Badu was a prime example.

I don’t think there’s a salve that we haven’t already been applying to ourselves. I do though believe there is more healing waiting for us in black folks in the Diaspora connecting with our cousins in Africa. We’re not alone in our grief. Black folks across Africa have been in a state of low-grade grief as well. Folks are navigating the vestiges of colonialism, including inconsistent leadership, resource extraction, muted voices on the global stage, and more.

It’s exhausting, yet folks across Africa have been applying their own salves for centuries as well. I’m pretty sure they’re similar to the ones we’ve been applying here in the US. We’ve been apart for so long, and have made attempts to connect over the centuries, though they’ve never quite stuck. It’s essential that we figure out how to make the connection stick.

So we saw that the first thing to do was to unite our people, not only unite us internally, but we have to be united with our brothers and sisters abroad. It was for that purpose that I spent five months in the Middle East and Africa during the summer. The trip was very enlightening, inspiring, and fruitful. I didn’t go into any African country, or any country in the Middle East for that matter, and run into any closed door, closed mind, or closed heart. I found a warm reception and an amazingly deep interest and sympathy for the Black man in this country in regards to our struggle for human rights.

Malcolm X

Hopefully, this resonates with some and eventually with a lot. If we can connect with our folks in Africa, I believe we’ll find the healing we need to no longer push for the structural changes needed in the US, Latin America, Europe, and wherever else black people are. We’ll restructure them.

No. 252 – Monday Reads

Source: First Republic Bank

COVID-19 Edition: What is venture sentiment today? – First Republic Bank published interesting results from a survey they conducted of 427 venture capital firms. Over the past month or so, there have been a lot of VCs posting on Twitter that they’re open for business. The data here tell a different story.

Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal – The Arab Spring and the role technology played in helping folks connect over their desire to restructure their societies feels like ages ago. This piece feels like a complete 180-degree turn from the sentiment around technology as liberator during that time. Now, we live in a world where in the matter of a month or so, Apple and Google have partnered to roll out contact tracing capabilities. Daily, we walk through a web of data points technology companies gather on us. Following this COVID-19 situation, to what extent will we give companies more ability to keep tabs on us?

Martin, Malcolm and the Fight for EqualityThe Sword and the Shield by Peniel Joseph is a fantastic read. The side-by-side treatment of their respective evolutions as readers was so illuminating. I highly recommend the book. This review does it justice as well.

On Fortnite’s Travis Scott Concert – My gaming days were pretty much over after I couldn’t get past the second stages of Sonic the Hedgehog or Shinobi. Gaming today is an entirely different experience I know next to nothing about. While I was in Ghana over the Christmas holiday, I walked up to a TV thinking I was joining cousins in watching a soccer match. It took me more than a few seconds to realize I was watching a video game, not real life. Anyway, over 12 million people watched this concert Travis Scott and Fortnite partnered on last Thursday. That’s wild. What’s even more incredible is that Matthew Ball argues in his analysis that this was part of Epic Games culture of testing to figure out new things the company can build. I’m very curious to see where tests like this lead them.

How China Shut Down African Protests Over Racial Discrimination in Guangzhou – This is a rather discouraging piece, displaying China’s effectiveness in shifting its narrative across Africa. The mix of money, coordination, and speed helped China address the rising anger over how African nationals were being treated in Guangzhou. Not encouraging at all. Not encouraging.