I am a recovering hidden Hotep. Mind you, not the ankh-wearing, incense-selling, lecture-women-about-their menstrual-cycles kind of Hotep.
I was more Hotep-adjacent. Hidden beneath my public-Ivy education and functional relationship with my parents lurked a man who would disappear down YouTube click holes of Tariq Nasheed, Professor Griff, ZaZa Ali and, of course, Dr. Umar Johnson. I comfortably conflated the performance of Hotepness with the actual work of black nationalism.
Or, at least, I did until I actually had a chance to see Johnson speak live at a Black History Month panel. That’s when I, like an alcoholic, drug addict or R. Kelly fan, had my moment of clarity and realized that my Hotepness had to stop. There is no space for men like Johnson in any real fight for black liberation, and the sooner black folk collectively kick them to the curb, the better.
I grew up steeped in ’90s black conspiracy culture, which made me highly susceptible to pseudo-nationalist Hotep thinking by the mid-2000s. Crack cocaine pushed into black neighborhoods, President Bill Clinton’s crime bill and eugenics experiments in Baltimore public schools were my reality. Given what was actually happening in America, it wasn’t a big leap to entertain more extreme ideas like HIV/AIDS was a government conspiracy, gangsta rap was a psy-op to destroy the black family and orange soda really did cause sterility in black men.
Of course, as time, age and education set in, you start distinguishing between actual white supremacy (the prison-industrial complex) and unfounded conspiracy (the Bill Cosby rape charges were meant to keep him from buying what, exactly?), but there was a small part of me that still held on to the purveyors of more sordid and unsourced forms of knowledge, like Umar Johnson.
After years of listening to him online at the gym or in my car, last month I drove to Morgan State University in Baltimore to hear him speak in person for the first time. I dragged a good friend of mine (she’s a Ph.D. in political science) along to serve as a healthy skeptic to my ridiculous enthusiasm.
If you’ve never heard of him, Johnson, the Philadelphia-based “Prince of Pan-Africanism,” is a psychologist and lecturer who specializes in protecting black boys (and girls?) from the damaging effects of white supremacy in public education. Most black folks became aware of him around 2014 when he began raising money to buy the defunct HBCU St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., and turn it into a boy’s academy. He’s all over YouTube; is constantly speaking on black relationships, politics and education; and seems genuinely interested in the well-being of black people. Sounds good, right?
Well, yeah …
I know, but …
Of course, all of this raises the question: Why would an otherwise smart person like me (and many others) tolerate a man like Johnson who traffics in racial half-truths, lies and misogyny? Because, like a black deplorable, he spoke to some racial truths that I believed, even if everything else he said was a dangerous lie.
When we got to the Morgan State student union, the room was packed and Johnson was onstage for a Q&A flanked by two faculty members who were there for balance. However, “Dr. Johnson” was clearly the main event, and he definitely put on a show, yelling at the crowd:
“Jesus Cracker comes from Europe! Jesus Cracker looks like Michael Bolton!”
“Until we crucify, condemn and castrate the white Jesus, our people will be oppressed!”
Everything Johnson said brought screams and cheers from the crowd, women calling for his room number and men chanting his name, even if his one-liners were reheated cipher rhetoric you could have heard at a spoken-word concert in 2002.
Johnson and the Hotep chorus he represents fill a need for a black community living in a confusing, dehumanizing and violently oppressive world. There is a large swath of black America that needs to hear, in no uncertain terms, that racism is a real, tangible thing that hurts and chokes and stifles life. They don’t need to hear it sandwiched between jokes on The Breakfast Club, and they don’t want nuanced sound bite explanations on CNN or MSNBC. They need a primal scream, racial catharsis, and if that comes with a side order of sexism, homophobia and crackpot theories, so be it; at least somebody is saying something. That is why Johnson can appeal to the young and old, the educated and the working class, and even the very people whom he condemns (gays and women) in most of his lectures.
The problem is, everyone in the room was buying everything Johnson was selling without checking for receipts. I was used to listening to him alone, and parsing out the things I agreed with while downplaying or ignoring the rest. To see him publicly slide from over-the-top racial politics to ridiculous conspiracy theories without anyone blinking was disturbing.
Johnson blamed the spread of AIDS on down-low black men (while making no mention of safe sex or condoms). He charged that homosexuality was a creation of the white man as a form of black-population control (ignoring the thousand-year history of multiple gender roles in Africa). He claimed that Barack Obama made black folks complacent and unwilling to fight (I guess #BlackLivesMatter didn’t start under Obama?). He topped it off by claiming that black women (whose wombs are magical) commit genocide when they have abortions. How could anyone fall for this nonsense?
A student who went by the name Chinedu told me afterward: “I’m a gay black man. I don’t agree with all that he says, but we have to meet at the table.”
It was painful to watch, but in that moment it dawned on me why some part of me had clung to men like Johnson despite my knowing full well that they trafficked in papier-mâché Pan-Africanism. Umar Johnson was a way of clinging to my intellectual youth, when fighting white supremacy just meant giving provocative speeches, raising some money and drinking alkaline water.