As recently as February, 2017, exactly one week before I left Portland, Oregon, U.S., I was able, along with my A-APRP comrades in Portland, to host Baba Mukassa at Portland State University. He gave a fiery and mesmorizing verbal representation of the raw terror of the civil rights movement and the inspiring events that he participated in that led to the birth of the modern Black power movement on that dusty road in Mississippi in 1966.
Unfortunately, Yerkey’s book fails in capturing that inspiration that thousands of African youth and students experienced with Baba Mukassa in Guinea-Bissau, Portland, Oregon, U.S., and every other place he visits. Maybe the book's strange title gives away the author's intentions, but let's go further. The reason for this failure is Yerkey’s primary point throughout the book is that Baba Mukassa, and all of the militant SNCC leadership, was focused on the Black Power message simply to advance a “personal agenda”, but he never bothers to define or prove what this agenda is. Yerkey, a European author who’s most notable work has been through the Christian Science Monitor, uses this book not as a vehicle to understand the sincere motivations of Baba Mukassa and the rest of the young and militant SNCC staff in the mid 60s, but to replay a tired and racist narrative that SNCC became anti-White and that the move to Black power was violent, destructive, and counter-productive.
The proof of Yerkey’s intentions are visible in the subtle signs that all racist “curators” of African history carelessly display in their sloppy work. First, although he references Kwame Ture repeatedly throughout the book (Kwame and Baba Mukassa were close comrades and associates), Yerkey never once refers to Kwame by his chosen name. Instead, he refers to him as Stokely Carmichael exclusively throughout the book. This is done even when referencing Kwame’s statements from his autobiography “Ready for Revolution” which was released in 2003, a full 26 years after Kwame officially abandoned the European slave name “Stokely Carmichael” for Kwame Ture – his personal tribute to our two great Pan-Africanist revolutionaries – Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Ture. Even a child would understand that anyone who changes their name does so because they want to represent the values contained in the new name they’ve chosen. By refusing to call them their new name, when you clearly understand that’s no longer their name, you are making a conscious effort to disrespect them while perpetuating some sick colonial thinking. The first rule of respect is giving people the recognition they deserve. Having changed my own name years ago, I’m very familiar with this cowardly and passive aggressive form of attempting to put us field slaves back in our place by refusing to recognize our desire to connect with Africa and not our slave masters.
Secondly, Yerkey spends a great amount of time in the book attempting to portray Baba Mukassa, Kwame Ture, James Forman, Ruby Doris Robinson, and Cleve Sellers, the militant leadership within SNCC, as reckless and ill-responsible. He does this several times when replaying how SNCC leaders refused to back down to racist whites. Its completely reasonable that a people who have been systemically brutalized would reach a point where they are no longer willing to accept that brutality, even if their decision means death. This isn’t something that hasn’t been thought out. James Brown’s iconic song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” illustrates this point when he sings “we’re people, we like the birds and the bees, but we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees!” I’m not suggesting that everyone who has a gun in their face should ignore that and forge forward against the danger. What I’m saying is all oppressed people have the right to determine how to express their dignity and if the people of Mississippi decided they would follow Baba Mukassa, Kwame Ture, or whomever said it was time to fight back, its their right to decide that. Not some white writer who clearly has an interest in suggesting that docility is always the only solution our people have at our disposal. And Yerkey’s constant reliance and deference to the accounts of some random white woman writer in Mississippi, who was nothing other than a liberal racist, is insulting at best. This foolish woman refers to all SNCC members as “troublemakers.” And, while our people are getting their heads beat in, we are forced to listen to this idiot woman talk about how “worried” she is about what will happen to her beloved town. This false equivalency this woman makes between SNCC workers, who are just fighting for justice, and the racist KKK and every other European who refused to stand up for justice, is the template for that same backward and dishonest equivalency in the world today around the question of white supremacy. We are not stupid people. We can easily detect when another European – like Yerkey – is trying to pull our strings by telling us what to do. Or, what we should be doing. No matter what, their solution is always one that upholds the same racist power structure that they pretend they are so against.
Another laughable tactic in this book is Yerkey's constant efforts to literally pit the militant SNCC activists against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As is common in this tired refrain, King is portrayed as the voice of reason while the militants are blood thirsty anti-white revenge seekers. Were one to survey what all these Europeans have to say about Dr. King today you would get the impression that Dr. King was widely loved, respected, and supported. In truth, these very same devils who pretend to support King today as this voice of reason were the very same people who were violently critical of him when he was living. It was never King against the militants. Its always been white supremacy against all of us.
The egregious crime of this soap opera book that poses as a historical account of Baba Mukassa's work is the condescending, patriarchal method in which Yerkey slyly suggests that Baba Mukassa's intense bravery and passion for our people's freedom was fueled primarily by immature anger and egoism. Besides the absurd suggestion that our people's militant demand for justice could ever be the driving source of conflict in the racist South, the miss-characterization of who Baba Mukassa (and all the SNCC militants for that matter) actually is/was is this book's most serious weakness.
Baba Mukassa came into SNCC's front-line struggle at the tender age of 22. Within a couple of years of that, he was taking the charge of organizing in rural Alabama and Mississippi towns, on his own, when those towns had active and violent white supremacists willing and able to kill activists with no concern about impunity. Baba Mukassa not only embraced that danger, but repeatedly and consistently refused to submit to it. Even at the point of being brutalized by white supremacists, Baba Mukassa cursed them and refused to give in to them. His and his SNCC comrade's examples, along with the same Black Panther Party patrol confrontations against police in Oakland, California, U.S. in 1966/67, were acts of great risk, but also extreme bravery, and a tired spirit of just accepting any and everything that was thrown at us. To Yerkey, and other undercover apologists for white supremacy, this may mean insanity. To us, this is dignity and so we protect the legacy of our soldiers and there is absolutely no question that Baba Mukassa should go down as one of our very best.