One conclusion I have drawn from years working in the collective economic empowerment vineyard is that "We" fail because "I" gets in the way. Black folks adore the statement, "I am because we are, and because we are, therefore, I am." Oh, that we would live that statement rather than merely recite it. Frederick Douglass and other ancestors knew they were all in this thing together and that no Black man or woman would rise without the rest of us rising. Have we come so far since his time that we no longer believe in the collective? Have we achieved so much and risen so high as individuals that we have lost sight of our brothers and sisters?
Considering that we are into words these days, I thought it appropriate to offer a change in how we perceive the word "We." Each of us should adopt the thought that there is an "I" in "We" and realize, as our forefathers and mothers did, no matter the level of anyone's individual success, he or she is still included in the "We." That way we can eliminate much of the ego that tends to separate us from one another.
The "I," when it stands alone, is dangerous. It is rife with self-aggrandizement, self-delusion, vulnerability, and sometimes self-destruction, due to its tendency to make one think his or her success was obtained without the help of anyone else. But add the "I" to the word "We" and watch what happens. The "I" is still successful, and it uplifts the "We" by its individual success.
The "We" is strong. It overflows with self-reliance, self-determination, love, trust, respect and cooperation. The collective aspects of success, whether one person attains it or everyone in the group attains it, fills the "We" with pride and the "I" with strength to do even more. Thus, I would assert to you that there is an "I" in the word, "We" — it's just silent.
The "I" is silent, not in the sense that it never speaks out or never does anything for itself as an individual, but rather it appreciates and respects the "We" so much that it is willing to make individual sacrifices to uplift the "We". Just as Frederick Douglass said, "As one rises, all must rise…" He understood his obligation to his people and acted upon it, irrespective of the fact that he had attained tremendous success and was "accepted" in social and political circles in which his brothers and sisters were rejected. Jackie Robinson said, "We might make it as individuals, but I think we have to be concerned about the masses of [Black] people." Both men understood the inside-outside game quite well.
While Douglass was unwilling to do what Harriet Tubman and John Brown did, he knew Black people needed a spokesperson, a protest organ, and he was not afraid to tell it like it was and speak truth to power, as he did in his famous July 4 speech: "What is it to me?" he asked. Although Douglass was an "inside" man he heaped praise on outsider, Harriet Tubman, and supported her efforts to free our enslaved ancestors.
He acknowledged Harriet's strength in a written tribute to her: "Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage."
If we understood that there is, indeed, an "I" in "We" the battles Black people are fighting in this country would have been won a long time ago. Other groups practice the "I" in "We" strategy, even to the point that now we have so-called Indians expelling Blacks from their tribe; Blacks who have every claim to the rights and privileges of that tribe, privileges like tax abatement, land, reparations, etc. If Indians are now "dissin" us, we are really at the end of our rope in this country. They used to be on the bottom but have now parlayed a collective strategy into golf courses, casinos and hotel ownership.
Group ego beats individual ego any day. Black people must begin to look at our group with the understanding that there is an "I" in "We" but it is a small "i" — and it's silent. To remind us, when referring to Black people, maybe we should spell it "Wie."
James Clingman is the founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, and a professor at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Christian University.