Third Eye Insights: The Dr. Umar Johnson interview
This is an interview I anticipated from the time the possibility appeared on the horizon. I’ve viewed a number of Dr. Johnson’s speaking engagements online and was excited to capture his insight for Positive Black Images Magazine. In my opinion, Dr. Johnson is a profound thinker who isn’t afraid to think or speak outside the box. He’s exactly what Black culture needs at this time; a strong presence without the gag that political affiliations and obligations often affix to Black politicians and some activists. Dr. Johnson could be a voice that helps mobilize Black communities toward unification toward a common self-awareness, economic growth and self-esteem.
I spoke at length with the Philadelphia native on a number of issues. This interview may be a bit lengthy but well worth the read.
How did you get started working as an activist/speaker?
As far as activism goes, for lack of a better word, I was inducted into this as early as 4th or 5th grade. My first memories of an activism mind state was in high school where I began to get active regarding issues that were going on at my school. I attended a residential high school that was provided to families of veterans in central Pennsylvania. My father was in the armed services so I had the opportunity to go to Scotland School for Veteran’s Children. While there I refused to pledge the flag so they wanted to expel me from this military institution. That was probably the highlight of high school but as far as I can go back I’ve always been one for the people; I’ve always been that revolutionary minded type of brother.
In the 5th or 6th grade I found out I was related to Frederick Douglass. My father took me to my first family reunion and that’s where I found out I was related to him. I think that had an effect on me as well. I think that inspired in me a desire to uphold the family legacy. I think at that point I was charged with the psychological responsibility to keep to several things he fought for.
And the third influence was a (what I thought was) mandatory Black History class I had in the 4th grade. My teacher Mrs. Green lit something in me. I entered a Black History oratorical contest and I won 1st place. And I haven’t shut up since.
So when did you start doing speaking engagements?
When I graduated Millersville University where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, I returned to Philadelphia to get my School Psychology certification with the school district of Philadelphia. I was a member of the Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Association, the youngest, in fact, at 25 yrs. old. As the youngest member, the elders would often ask me to get up to speak on school psychology and special education for our children. As we started to get more people attending our Sunday afternoon meeting I started getting invitations to speak at churches, community centers and other events. Fast forward to 2010 and a lecture in Harlem at the National Black Theater on Halloween. I did a lecture called the Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, Pt. 4: Miseducation of the 21st Century Negro and within 24 hours I was a household name. The video of the lecture went viral. Now, in the last 4 years I’ve done more speaking engagements than all the years prior combined.
What is your take on the mind state of police dealing with the black male in 2014?
Well, I predicted it. Once President Obama was elected I predicted it in a radio interview. I said that White Supremacy against Black people always operates more effectively when there is a Black face out front. I also knew that the influence of the Civil Rights Bill, having then turned 50, was beginning to wane in the consciousness of the American people. I also saw that aggressive white racism, not covert but overt, was beginning to return because there wasn’t enough Black push back against it.
From a behavioral psychology standpoint, all behavior is a function of a consequence. This is taught in school, in therapy but it also applies to political situations. Why would it not get worse when Black people are not doing anything about it? Another principle is that behavior never stands still. It is always getting better or it’s always getting worse. And the racism we see is going to get worse than it is now until there is some Black push back. An object in motion continues in motion until it meets an object of equal or greater force. That’s a physical law but it’s also a law of political reality.
Now the Ferguson uprising, I thought, was a good thing. It could have been a little more organized and also I think it was too easily quelled. But I do commend those brothers and sisters and support what they did. One of the first significant stands Blacks have made against police brutality. We’re talking 25 years of uncontested violence except for the local protests held. But I also think that there should national outrage EVERY TIME a Black person is killed by police. There were murders taking place even during the Ferguson protests and the outrage should have been a national protest. What was significant about the Ferguson incident is that it reached the United Nations and the Department of Human Rights had to review the situation in Ferguson.
So for people who were saying “they’re just out there rioting and looting”, no they were not. They got the attention of the U.N. and the U.N. was forced to discuss the situation with the United States.
Do you find it difficult to get through to the youngsters in your teachings? Not the ones that already are on a path of consciousness but those that are in the streets?
Not really. It’s kind of hard to answer that question because so many people know me by face now that it’s almost an automatic respect. When I do run across people or a person that hasn’t heard me speak, there may be a little resistance at first but once they hear the logic, the truth is undeniable. Once you give it a fair audience without your guard up the truth will be clear to you. If someone is on an honest quest for truth and they’re trying to make sense of their world (possibly through hip-hop the media) it’s easy to accept and gravitate to the truth. Now there are some that don’t want anything to do with consciousness. And then, it’s not so much about “you’re not telling the truth” but they identify with the forces of oppression. And because they identify with the forces of oppression they have no interest in changing current social order. So for them to accept the truth means to accept that “I am an enemy of my people”. People who don’t want to see social change, they have some self-interest on the table... financial, political or otherwise. So it’s not about my not speaking the truth, it’s about “I can’t accept that I am actively and consciously identifying with the oppressor because I am engaged in a lie I’m telling myself that I’m actually doing the right thing”.
What role do you see hip-hop playing in the mentality of black youth?
Art is bi-directional. Art influences people and people influence art. That lets you know that people can influence the artists to be more responsible. And vice versa, the artists can influence the people to be less responsible. When you look at it, today’s artists and the population are equally responsible. We buy the music, we go to the concerts, and we watch the videos. That’s our responsibility, for supporting the negative images in hip-hop. On the flip side, the artists, who have cameras pointed at them all the time, TV and radio visibility as well, are in a position to significantly influence the political (and social) agenda in this country and choose not to.
Art and music always tell you where the collective passion of the people are. In any era you go to in Black History popular music will tell what the collective passion was all about. In the 60’s there was Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come” or the 70’s with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and The Isley Brothers “Fight The Power”, because at that time we were galvanizing. We still had our petty differences but we were together enough to push for change. Now look at the popular music. Right now the mindset of Black people is to party, to look good and to do whatever they can to get what they need from the oppressors; even if it means sacrificing their principles. That’s not to ignore the fact that the music industry finances the negative images on purpose and helps to feed the mass incarceration culture that we live in today. We must hold them accountable because we know what they’re about. We know what they’re going to do and we cannot continue to support that. Question is, what about us? Jay-Z is not powerless. Kanye West is not powerless. Lil Wayne is not powerless. Other media personalities are not powerless. We have to look at how Blacks in the media, not just rappers, have been negligent in their responsibility. Not necessarily to solve issues in the Black community but to give voice to issues in our community.
That said what would you say is needed that can be done without the dais of celebrity? Here’s the thing… we need a revolution in every aspect that’s in existence. We need an economic revolution as it relates to our spending and saving habits. We need an educational revolution as it relates to the way we educate and socialize our children. We need a community revolution, in terms of how we unify and get things done; raise our families. We just need a revolution in every area. But here’s the thing… a PSYCHOLOGICAL revolution will have to precede all others. A psychological revolution must precede all others. If you don’t change thoughts you don’t change behavior. If you don’t change behavior you will never be able to build the infrastructure, the institutions and the programs we need to flourish like everyone else does. A cultural revolution and a psychological change is needed that will enable us to build. We have to do like Marcus Garvey did and sell the Black man to himself. To change the mindset because he does not believe in himself. And stop the inheritance of the current, destructive mentality from this generation to the next.
Speaking of the next generation, I’d like to ask about the school that you are raising funds to buy. I understand you want to buy St. Paul’s College in Virginia to be residential school for Black children. Why a residential school?
Because, in my opinion, children think like their parents think. Kindergartners.. first and second grade… their mentalities all come from the home environment. So the poison, the ‘post traumatic slavery disorder’ of the parents automatically gets socialized into the children. So when the question is raised of “why do we have to send the kids away to school?” the answer is “because you are sick as hell”. If the child comes back to the home at the end of the day, regardless of what they’ve been taught at school, they will be reconditioned by your poison at night! A child spends 7 hours a day in school. The other 17 are spent in the home with you. So you’d undo all the positive instruction and ideals that we’d teach. So we have to take the child out of the poisonous environment and essentially detox the child. And that’s why I recommend a residential school environment.
What’s the fundraising goal to obtain St. Paul’s College?
Two million dollars. That’s the goal. In fact I just got a communication from the president of the college today. He’s in my corner and he wants me to have the college. But in the end, money talks. Without the money we won’t get anything done.
We have been proceeding with the paperwork and inspections to take ownership but we still have a lot of work to do to reach our required goal. I have to admit it’s a little disheartening when I see the supporters of the officer that murdered Michael Brown raise $350,000 in less than a month; more money than I have raised in ¼ of the time my fundraiser has been operating. More money has been raised for a killer of a Black child than can be raised for a school that would help keep Black boys from being killed. It’s a shame that some of the major media outlets, your Oprahs and your Tom Joyners, have not given voice to what I’m trying to do. I understand that they may be hesitant to align themselves with someone that is so unapologetically African and as politically incorrect as I am, but still I think the principle should win over. I think they should be able to say “While we don’t condone his message, we do support his vision for the school and we want to give voice to the principle of supporting our community”.
Lastly, you have been outspoken about diagnoses of ADHD and Special Education in children. What’s your position on this?
Black parents need to be clear that ADHD and special education and the brain drugs that come along with them are weapons of mass destruction. Special education programs is the pipe that connects the schools to the prison. Once you let your child get diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability, you give the school the legal right to under educate your child. The special education programs have changed. Before, if your child was in special education, they were pushed through school, even if they couldn’t read or write at grade level, and they would still get their high school diploma. Not that has changed. Now your child does not get their high school diploma just because they were in special ed. They have to earn it like everyone else. So the question becomes “how can the child earn a regular high school diploma when they are not being given the education that prepares them for that?” Now, more than 50% the states of America have a mandatory high school graduation exam. If you don’t pass that test you don’t get a diploma. This includes Special Education students as well. So without the ability to get a diploma, students are left with less options. If they don’t get a diploma they go to the streets, they engage in a life of crime and, lacking decent opportunities, they end up in jail.
I want your readers to understand that learning disabilities are not a fact they’re an opinion. ADHD is not a fact, it’s an opinion. Black parents take these diagnoses and project them onto their children and medicate their child with disastrous outcomes.
Well, kids from all races have had the same diagnosis. White kids are on ADHD meds same as Black kids.
They are, but the trajectory is different. Also, they are not our standard so I don’t look at them to determine what we should be doing. When a white child goes to Special Educatoin it is not seen as a nuisance or a burden. It’s viewed as a welcome responsibility. The child will get the best education even in Special Education. The progress monitoring will be excellent, the teacher support will be excellent, better medical medicine, they have better supervision of that medicine and it’s not uncommon for white kids to move out of special education after a year, while a black kid may stay in Special Ed. So yes, the trajectory is different. White Special Ed is not Black Special Ed. White ADHD is not Black ADHD. Just like White education is not Black education.
Our conversation went on and on and it was a great opportunity to dialogue with someone that is actually out there taking action on behalf of the Black community. It’s my pleasure to bring Dr. Johnson’s quest to create a school for Black youth to the attention of PBI readers. It is an honorable cause and I only wish I could do more. Stepping up is a choice.