On Black Revolutionaries, with Yusef Bunchy Shakur, by Jeremy Williams

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, September 5th, 2017

“You can’t be a revolutionary without educating yourself...”

Yusef Bunchy Shakur Jeremy Williams Essay Nailed Magazine


In this world, which is so plainly the antechamber of another, there are no happy men. The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness. Our aim must be to diminish the number of the latter and increase the number of the former. That is why we demand education and knowledge. -Victor Hugo, Les Misérables


When we were kids my older brother and I spent endless hours talking about what we ultimately wanted out of life. We were going to go to college and become teachers so we could teach Poe, Zora Hurston, and Emily Dickinson. He would recite The Raven and act out the parts, flailing his arms and thrusting about, pretending to be Edgar Allan Poe. He would quiz me on the various themes and characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and he would expect me to recite Annabelle Lee all by myself. My brother liked it when I gave him my full attention.


Sometimes I sit in class and daydream when I should be teaching students. I stare straight past the Dojo board, back to the shelf where the oranges and apples and pastries from yesterday’s breakfast baggies are beginning to rot. We named that shelf the snack rack. Children store the uneaten breakfast items here to take to lunch or home for my baby brother, for my mother, to my little sister. Or, sometimes they want the leftover food for themselves. Whenever the bell rings, the eager children push and shove their way to the cluttered snack rack to claim leftover food. Sometimes they fight each other. Sometimes the losers cry.

I exit the school’s back doorway to the adjacent parking lot, which is gated and guarded. The area is considered violent and the crime rate is very high in this area. The homes are old and the yards are unkempt with high grass and tall weeds. I remove the iron bar from my steering wheel, and I think about the email I received from the principal stating the school’s test scores are, yet again, low. I head to Midtown Detroit to meet with a friend for coffee. He wants to talk about the present black revolutionary agenda. I consider Detroit author and self-proclaimed black revolutionary Yusef Shakur a serious social activist and community organizer. When he asked me to meet him for coffee to catch up on the latest happenings since our last coffee-talk in February of 2013, I readily agreed since I was curious about where he was in his life, and I wanted to know what he thought about the present state of black America, the condition of urban education, and the current agenda of the black revolutionary.

I found Shakur seated in the Midtown Starbucks located at the busy intersection of Woodward and Mack. The aromatic sweetness of coffee-beans and warm pastries perfuming through the air made me feel relaxed. I spotted Shakur seated at a table facing the parking lot. He looked placid, resolved, a resolute countenance that could be quite disarming, perhaps, for someone who isn’t used to his company but would certainly be impressed by his aplomb. As I arranged my coffee, shifted the cream and sugar packets, Shakur patiently waited, rubbed his hand across his gray-blotched beard, gazed out the window at people passing up and down the cold, obstreperous Woodward avenue, some darting in and out of Starbucks for coffee, hot cocoa, pastries, or temporary shelter from the biting wind. Yusef wore a snugly fitted, beige-colored skull cap with crescent indents and a two-toned gray zippered sweat suit with a lighter grayish-colored T-shirt bearing the words “Decent Human.” It seemed a carefully selected T-shirt, an ostentatious gesture, maybe, even, if one could imagine, for instance, Shakur at home standing in the mirror of his bathroom, or at the doorway of his bedroom closet punctiliously deciding what to pull from a mound of T-shirts. This one. This one best describes my motives and intentions. Perhaps that is what Yusef pondered as he stared out the window, rubbing his beard, looking at the mass of people whose interest he genuinely held at heart. Perhaps he pondered my question of how might we define today’s black revolutionary. I discussed this question with Yusef on many occasions and we mostly agree to disagree. “We’re two soldiers of the same struggle,” he once remarked (taking a line from a Nas rap song), “and ultimately we both want the same thing.” I agreed.

But times have changed since the last time we spoke about black liberation, the black community, and Shakur’s Urban Network Bookstore – his most radical contribution to Detroit’s black struggle – his ambitious fortress and headquarters of operation (which included a community center, café, reading room and publishing company) – his sanctuary from the icy condemnations and darkly masked criticism he sometimes encounters amidst the adversarial embroidery of futile contretemps and rodomontade – is gone. Shakur does a lot for the city of Detroit’s invisible class, often committing himself in ways which even the most well-meaning politician will not. “All is needed,” he answered when I asked him about his unflinching efforts toward the revitalization of the black community. I took off my coat and arranged my belongings about the table. Although I had my own opinions about what today’s so-called black revolutionary struggle ought to focus on, I wanted to know more about Shakur’s revolutionary zeal.

“Before we discuss the black revolutionary agenda, what is a black revolutionary? That’s very important,” I said. “That is what must anchor our discussion.”


Once, when we were kids, my brother and I went to the Salvation Army with my mother to purchase back-to-school clothes. My mother would always head for the kitchenware section while my brother and I looked for used books. My brother liked Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickenson; I liked Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. “It doesn’t matter what you read,” my brother would say when we returned home to our bedroom to discuss the contents of our new books, “just as long as you read. Reading is good for you.”


So, I was yet again poised to ask Shakur the question of how we define the black revolutionary agenda today, here, now at this moment in black life. Shakur’s placid countenance turned cloudy quickly like an unexpected sunset on a Florida beach, his attention now focused on something beyond the present moment, outside the picture-window, across the parking lot, to a white couple pushing a baby-stroller (through an area “where residents still,” according to a recent article by John Counts, “contend with robberies, break-ins, sexual assaults, drugs and murders on a daily basis”). I excused myself to go for a coffee refill. (The cashier, a young, mixed-race looking woman with long dreadlocks reminded me of Angela Davis.) I thought about the interview in Brian Doucet’s book, Why Detroit Matters: Decline, Renewal and Hope where Shakur declared “a campaign that we are going to launch where I plan on staying in a house down the street and the goal is to resist gentrification.” A slender white lady wearing a Wayne State University sweatshirt, bohemian beaded sandals and dingy, raggedy dreadlocks, bumped into me as I returned to my chair. “Excuse me, brotha,” said the apologetic white lady. Her smile was warm and inviting. An Asian lady dressed in medical scrubs motioned around us to look at the overpriced pastries and sandwiches encased in the display buffet adjacent to the cash register. I adjusted my high-chair and dressed my coffee with more cream and sugar. Shakur shrugged his shoulders, sat up straight and returned his attention to the conversation.

“That’s a profound question. To be a revolutionary is a journey. There’s more to being a revolutionary than just saying you are a revolutionary; it’s more to it than that. But,” he paused, taking a long sip of his coffee, “back to your question. I would have to first define the word revolutionary. A revolutionary is one who believes in total and complete change.”

I asked him whether one must understand what a revolutionary is before one can know what a black revolutionary is. “Because now you’re talking about change, and what’s the difference, or how does color or race play into that?” I asked. Shakur seemed irritated at the inquiry. Sometimes his body language suggested a slight discomfiture at the notion that one could ask a question for which they have no answer—one that he considers a universal truth, a general knowledge, or at least a question with which any serious intellectual should know.

“That is why I started with revolutionary,” he said. His eyes darted around the room but averted from direct eye contact with anything in particular—including me. A man walked past our table towards the counter. Shakur looked at him as though he was talking to him directly, but his words remained aimed at me. “When Malcolm outgrew being a black Muslim, to becoming a black revolutionary, his spectrum expanded. He no longer saw color, he only saw people,” Shakur said. He took a deep breath and continued. “That’s not to deny that color did not exist—because that’s the world that we live in.”

“What do you mean when you say Malcolm did not see color; are you speaking of his post-Mecca trip?”

“Yes. His new comrades, on the international level, challenged him to question what it means for a black nationalist to ask a pale skin for support. Malcolm had to reevaluate that. At the end of the day, a revolutionary should be fighting for the liberation of all humanity, not just one particular race.”

I thought of John Brown and how his legacy possibly complicates the difference between a revolutionary and a black revolutionary. “Would you call John Brown a revolutionary? Would you call him a black revolutionary?”

“He can’t be a black revolutionary,” assured Shakur. I wondered, is it more about color or is it more about ideology? Yusef sipped his coffee and folded his arms to rest himself on his elbows. “It’s both. But what John Brown becomes is an ally of the black struggle.”

“So why can’t we call John Brown a revolutionary?”

“He has to call himself that,” said Shakur. “His actions may have been revolutionary. I would recognize his actions as revolutionary but I would not call him a revolutionary. I don’t know that much about him I know Malcolm was a revolutionary, without question. I can say Che Guevara was a revolutionary without question. I can say Nat Turner was a revolutionary without question. I studied them.”

“Then what about John Brown?” Shakur was confusing me.

“Look. I’m being very honest here. There’s a white guy named Dan Gilbert, he’s been a political prisoner for almost 30+ years. I can say without a doubt he is a white revolutionary. What I know about John Brown is that he started a religious crusade, a religious journey to be our allies in terms of the liberation. Again, his actions were revolutionary if he himself was not a revolutionary.”

Again, I pondered the importance of religion inasmuch as what constituted a revolutionary. Shakur did not think religion played a role in the life of a revolutionary yet he acknowledges John Brown’s crusade as a religious one. At times, Shakur seemed unclear about his opinion of religion and zealots and revolutionaries. I asked him whether he thought Brown was a religious zealot and his mission a religious crusade.

“I don’t know if he was a religious zealot but he was certainly a religious man. Malcolm, in the later years of his life, before he was assassinated, created his organization to be able to worship his religion and to create a religion that would have no affiliation with his organization. Malcolm did not want to confuse the two, but more importantly, I don’t want to say what I think is or was without knowing for sure. That’s what too many people do about someone. I want to claim him as my own. Sure, I would like to claim him as a revolutionary. But to be objective, can I claim he was a revolutionary, probably not. But can I claim his act as revolutionary? Absolutely. And because I’m not saying he’s not a revolutionary, I’m not diminishing him at all, I’m just being honest. I don’t want to say what I think this man is it what I think this woman is without knowing for sure. That’s what too many people do. I want to claim his as my own, certainly.”


We returned home from the Salvation Army, and my brother and I went to put away our new used clothes. The complaining started, again. He was always complaining about living in the ghetto, often pondering how different his life would be if he’d been born a Dodge or a Rockefeller. “If there is a God,” he said while opening the broken drawer of our beaten dresser, “his job must only be to punish the poor.” I stopped sorting through the tattered clothes and sat on the bed. I grabbed my favorite pen from the dresser top and began clicking the little button that pushed the ballpoint to and from exposure. My brother continued picking and sorting through his second-hand clothes, digging through the wrinkled sweaters and dingy socks and raggedy underwear, looking for his dark green mohair sweater.

“Children are born here hungry and cold they grow up hungry and cold, and at some point, they become hungry cold and desperate. And then they, too, become parents and the cycle is repeated, just like with momma and her momma and her momma before her. The only way out of a situation like this is education.” My brother sat next to me on the bed we shared together. He crossed his arms across his sunken posture subdued like a heavyweight champion boxer who’d just lost his coveted title. “This is why we gotta go to college and get an education.”


I wanted to get back to the idea of what Shakur thought a revolutionary is. I wanted him to talk about the present concerns of the black revolutionary. I wanted to know how the present-day black revolutionary is fighting for the liberation of black people. But Shakur gave me more pedantic analysis:

“Most folks don’t understand that when you identify yourself as a revolutionary it is no longer about your race per se. But when you have the analysis that black people are the most oppressed you begin to see that race is a social construct within America. So, I don’t use the word black, I use the word New Afrikan. So, I’m fighting for the liberation of New African peoples, land etc. When you look at the history of revolutionaries…it’s like Malcolm said, ‘revolutions are fought over land, being able to control the resources and the destinies thereof.’ So, there are many definitions, but ultimately it’s someone who’s really committed like Che Guevara. Che Guevara wasn’t a goddamn Cuban. But because of his revolutionary love, his revolutionary ideology, he’s revered as a Cuban.”

I asked the question once again hoping for a focused response. Shakur paused to think about the question. He peered out the window then back at me when I asked, “What should black revolutionaries be concerned with today, the number one issue that should be on the table of any serious black revolutionary discussion?”

“The black family, black neighborhoods, the black community and black institutions are crucial concerns,” he said. “When you look at the height of our struggle here in America those issues were at the forefront. They were at the forefront in terms of what the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam were, for example, concerned with.”

Finally, Shakur said the concern of the black revolutionary movement should be, first and foremost, family and community and Black institutions. Yet, I found it interesting that he didn’t mention education; I find it interesting that no revolutionary addressed the matter of vanishing school libraries of the closing of libraries in local Detroit communities. The heart of any progressive community is education; the library is the cornerstone of any civilization. Compounding the problem within inner city homes is the fact that many schools no longer have libraries. Libraries teach children how to research, collect information, process data – which, in turn, prepares students for the rigors of college writing and research. I’ve worked in many schools that did not have a library, or the library had been converted into a teachers lounge, or the library had been closed so long that the students couldn’t remember when it was ever open. Some of the senior-class students could not recall ever having visited the library at any time during their middle/senior high school tenure. That, combined with the lack of books at home, and the fact that, as of December 2011, 18 of Detroit’s 23 branches have closed due to the city’s declining revenue and staff shortages, the academic future of inner city children seems bleak. I follow Shakur (and the black revolutionary dialogues) on social media, yet, I have not noticed much discussion about, nor have I noticed much involvement with any topics or discussions, concerning education. There is no sustained public outrage, particularly, from parents, black churches or community parent groups. And, according to Shakur, education is not on the black revolutionary agenda.


Sometimes I sit in class and daydream when I should be teaching students. I think about my brother and the discussion we had last week about the challenges I faced as a middle school teacher teaching in the inner city.  My brother believes that the best way to educate a child is to get them early, that if they haven’t developed good reading skills by the time they reach middle school then it was basically downhill. He believes that the problem confronting today’s inner city educator begins with the child’s home environment. “The problem with these kids is that there are no books in the home. White kids grow up with books in the home. Early reading develops the intellectual skills necessary to comprehend tests. This is why they test high and are thus better prepared for the rigors of college.”


There seems to be disconnects between the revolutionary agenda – then and now. Where is the discussion on education, particularly as it pertains to revolution? Most of the black revolutionaries of the sixties were educated. Dr. Martin Luther King was an educated leader; Malcolm X was an autodidact. The Black Panthers carried rifles in one hand and Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in their back pockets. In Huey P. Newton’s War Against the Panthers, The Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program explicitly states: “We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society; We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.”

Additionally, a prospective member of the revolutionary organization was expected to read a stack of prescribed books which included J.A. Rogers, Franz Fanon, C. Eric Lincoln John Hope Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois – books which foster deeper understanding of the complex sociological interplay between race and economics – before they could gain admission into the party.


I waited throughout my discussion with Shakur for him to mention education as at least a sub matter of the present concern of the black revolutionary agenda, but for him the important matter of education seemed contradictory and tertiary: “You can’t be a revolutionary without educating yourself. And that is a continued journey.” I follow Shakur on social media and I never notice him talk much about, or get too involved with issues or discussions on education as a targeted agenda of the current revolutionary mission. Shakur has been actively involved in various community building efforts including back-to-school rallies which offer school-age children free backpacks and other educational materials. But I don’t hear much talk about black education and what’s going on in urban education. “Yet you say education is important, Yusef.” Shakur thought about the angling of my question, leaned into the palm of his hand, folded the other arm onto the table, and stroked his bearded chin. “I do, I just don’t talk about it in a formal way. And that’s the danger of naming the struggles inherent in black communities, because there are enough folk out there fighting on those battlegrounds within the public school system. Just because you don’t see me out there doesn’t mean I am not present. But for us to get to the point where education matters, we must unlock the mental chains. We have to work on the salvation, and that’s the work I do – helping folk to develop the social skills that are connected to the pursuit of education.”

There are many ways to define the word revolution, but it is ultimately about a profound and dramatic change, a rebellious act by whatever means necessary. The revolution could be a revelation like in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that “[t]he true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness.” It could be the point at which my brother realized that his only ticket out of the inner city was education.

As a boy growing up on Detroit’s tough eastside, my brother always reminded me that education was key to changing the problems within the inner city. Reading books became the thing that averted my attention from perhaps a more inevitable direction (given those formidable years I spent imprisoned within the terrible confines of the tumultuous decade infamously known as “the crack-cocaine era”). As an adult I see the problems of the black community as being a specific result of lack of education in the home stemming from the black family. The inner city is a state of consciousness, but it can be changed through education. That change really starts within the home. That is the new revolutionary agenda.

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Jeremy Williams Essay Nailed MagazineJeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.