Over the last 30 years, I have had the tremendous fortune to further develop my intellectual and analytical skills while pursuing graduate degrees at Emory and Princeton and then share those gifts while working for and moving up the ranks in the newsrooms of the Black Press in cities that have included Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and now Washington, D.C.
Along the way, one thing has remained an integral element of my continued development and essential to success within my chosen profession: proven proficiency and mastery of the English language. And while I’ve probably read, ingested, digested, written or regurgitated millions of words, there are two whose elimination from the dictionary wouldn’t bother me at all. The first, “empowered,” while used about as often as we say, “good morning” or “thank you,” is one that sounds great but says very little. After pronouncing that someone’s empowered, I am at a loss to understand from what or for what one is now empowered — empowered to do “what?” Without further explanation, it’s impossible to know and therefore it’s a word of little substance.
But the word that gets my gander the most is “icon” — a descriptive that should be reserved for only a few but tends to be utilized to describe just about anyone. Having a million followers on Twitter or a slew of #1 record does not make folks like Rihanna or Janet Jackson icons. Neither is leading the cast on “Empire” or matching the kinds of vocal embellishments perfected by Broadway legend Jennifer Holiday enough to promote Taraji P. Henson or Jennifer Hudson to pedestals as icons.
Icons have weathered the storms; they’ve given more to their community than they’ve received and they’ve never forgotten from whence they’ve come or the sacrifices made by their own people so they could remain in the struggle for truth, justice, equality for all. Icons shrug notions of being celebrities surrounded by massive entourages as they bedazzle “commoners” like us with their bling. Instead, they maintain a spirit of humility — grateful for the blessing of privilege and the power which comes with that gift and always willing to help others achieve their life’s goals.
Four women come to mind, each of whom readily sat down with me years ago in my stead as a reporter for the Black Press during interviews and conversations that allowed enough time for us to talk about issues of substance — things that mattered then and still matter to the Black community: Juanita Abernathy, Myrlie Evers, Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks. They were never too busy. They always gave the Black Press the first option. And they always had something profound to share based on years of experiences — decades filled with many failures but even more success stories.
Icons are women like Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Cleaver or the “purr-fect” Eartha Kitt — women who, as history confirms, remained undaunted by the roadblocks of racism and sexism. These women, who have rightfully earned the title of “icon” have, during private moments they shared with me, helped me understand why they willingly sacrificed so much because of their unwavering commitment to their people — to our people.
Let’s leave words like “empowered” and “icon” for only those rare instances when they accurately, honestly and undeniably describe the situation at hand or illustrate the deeds of an individual truly deserving of such a description, respectively.
As for the so-called “icons” of today, from my vantage seat, they still have many miles to go before they sleep — certainly before I’ll take pen to paper and describe them as “icons.” Meanwhile, I’ll continue to pray for them and speak only positive words into their lives, their work and their ministries. Maybe they’re “sheroes” or “superstars” — but “icons?” I’m not convinced.
Further, I’ve long grown tired of getting the behind the scenes story by reading the pages of the Post, the Times, the Atlantic or Time magazine — no shade intended. And being included in “red carpet events,” while highly entertaining and great on the eyes, provides no meat, no meal, no message for the Black community who remain hungry for knowledge, for solutions and for hope.
Slice it any way you like but the prism through which I, as a Black man, see the world, is far different from those who currently and have long maintained a stranglehold on the “throne of privilege.”
Don’t we deserve access too? No need to answer that question — it’s purely rhetorical.