Kevin Powell

Kevin Powell talks about his new book on Katrina, spirituality, politicsu2013and why heu2019ll run for office in 2008.

By Beandrea Davis Jan 15, 2007

In Someday We’ll All Be Free, you write about 9/11 and Katrina as tragedies that reveal a larger tragedy: failed democracy in America. Why is it important for you to make this connection? 

When you look at what happened with September 11th, you’re going to have an emotional response to the lives that were lost. The renouncing of democracy began almost immediately afterward. When you begin to see the scapegoating of Arab and Muslim people, that became a problem to me. Many of these folks were citizens of this country. That’s not democracy. That’s a very scary form of nationalism. It begins to feel like fascism. When you look at Katrina, poor Black people once again relegated to the bottom of the ship, completely neglected. All this has happened under George W. Bush’s watch. You do have to ask the question, "Is this really a democracy?" I was just reading today in the New York Times that a Black gay brother was assaulted in Brooklyn. Racism. Homophobia. This is how crazy this democracy is. If you’re considered as "other" you could be subject to being killed, or beaten down, or left on a roof for three to four days, or left to rot in the Superdome. That’s not a democracy to me. That’s a country that’s missing its soul.

You often meld the political and spiritual in Someday, stating that your political work is largely grounded in your spirituality. How did you reach this understanding?

I remember in the Broadway version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom the character played by Charles Dutton does this monologue where he curses out God. The audience was like [gasping sound], but I thought this was great. I feel like that sometimes: "Yeah, God, what is up? Why do people have to suffer and live like this?" In his last play before he died, it seemed August Wilson had gotten to a place where he embraced spirituality. It’s a natural thing. I’ve begun to realize I cannot go through this life without a spiritual foundation.

I was involved in an incident in August 2004 in a club with another brother. I hadn’t being going to church or been in therapy in a while. I said to myself, "You’ve got to really, really double up your work on your spiritual walk." I’m going to make mistakes in the future, but they’re going to be new mistakes, not the old ones. That’s why I titled the book Someday We’ll All Be Free. It’s so easy to hate. It really takes a lot of work to love yourself and other people.

You also write: "Any people who have been through what African Americans have suffered. . .would be foolish. . .not to have multiple spiritual paths. . .multiple methods of trying to make some sense of the chaos of this universe." How has this been true for you in your own life? 

I don’t think one faith has all the answers. People say "that’s blasphemy, you go to church, you’re a Christian now." But given the oppression that we’ve suffered in this country, it would be foolish for us not to have various ways to make sense of all this. What’s wrong with taking bits and pieces of stuff if it’s going to help you go forward with your journey? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

In Someday, you ask: "Are we, each of us, willing to look within ourselves. . .?" to find answers about how to create a better America. Why is looking within necessary for justice?

We’ve got to have constant self-criticism and self-reflection if we’re going to grow as individuals and as a nation. Part of the problem with America is we have not had a lot of that as a nation. The civil rights movement was a big mirror. Katrina was a big mirror. So were the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights movement, the Chicano movement. But then someone tries to break the mirror, or cover the mirror. We as human beings have a responsibility to look in the mirror and say, "Hey I’ve got some growing to do in this department."

In the wake of Katrina, you helped start Katrina On the Ground, a nonprofit that brought over 700 college students, mostly Black, to the Gulf Coast to do relief work last March after being trained in historic Selma, Alabama. Why was it important to start this work in Selma?

We had two main goals: to help our sisters and brothers down there in the Gulf, and plant seeds in students to become leaders and commit to social justice for the rest of their lives. That definitely happened. It’s important for me and for some of the other folks in Generation X to have a different relationship with the new generation than we had with the civil rights generation. We feel like we’ve been disregarded and disrespected by the civil rights generation and not seen as serious thinkers, even as we approach 40 years of age. [laughter] With the college students, we said, "We’re just here to facilitate. Y’all gotta make it happen." When media came, they tried to talk to me, and I said, "No, you gotta talk to the students."

Last June, you withdrew from your first national political bid to represent the 10th District of Brooklyn in Congress. How do you feel about that decision now, and will you run for office again? 

From September to March, I was totally absorbed by Katrina relief work. At the end of March, I began the run for Congress. Huge mistake. I hadn’t taken any time to download that experience. I was also writing Someday during this time. I had to learn how to run for office and raise money. It was overwhelming, and I was tired. I would fall asleep with the lights on, still in my clothes. I was really beaten down physically. By June, I said "You need to pull out of this thing and get your life together." One of the tendencies of activists is we run from one thing to another; that’s not healthy.

I’m going to run in 2008. I’ve begun to put together the apparatus to do that and to have a platform to do some things on a national level. That’s why I’m not running for city council or for the state legislature. No matter what I do in my life, I’m always going to be an activist. I can’t not help people. This is my calling.

A consistent theme in your work has been criticizing "so-called Black leaders" for an inability to put forth an agenda addressing the needs of poor and working-class Black folks. In Someday you cite Katrina as yet another example of this. What do you think it will take for a different kind of Black leadership to emerge? Are there any examples of Black leadership that give you hope? 

Aishah Simmons, Davey D, April Silver, Farai Chideya–there are a lot of people around the country who are doing good work. I’m probably going to write one last essay about civil rights Black leaders, and then it’s a wrap for me, because I feel like it’s a waste of time. If you’re going to call yourself a leader, you’d better be building an institution for the community. You’d better have a body of work that is going to change the direction of our situation. You’ve got to be training young people. Otherwise, you’re not a really a leader, you’re a spokesperson. We don’t need to have the same conversation in 2006 that we had in ‘96, ’86, ’76, or–God forbid–’66. This is a different time. Some of the issues are the same, but you need a new way to look at them. Many of us doing the work don’t get interviewed. The media focuses on the same few, mostly male, leaders, and they say the same old stuff. Like Jay Z said, ‘It’s time for the takeover,’ and that’s what’s happening. Sadly, I hear people under 40 saying, "We don’t have any leaders." We are internalizing the rhetoric. People are looking for some sort of Grand Poobah, and that’s not going to happen.

You’ve mentioned joining a Baptist church in Brooklyn after years of estrangement from the church. Do you think Black churches are still strong advocates for the political interests of Black folks? 

[laughter] I think that Black churches have lost a lot of their relevancy to the Black community, as far as being an advocate for our issues. It’s been that way since the close of the civil rights movement. A lot of Black church leaders have become apolitical. I’ve been in churches where the minister says, "I’m not an activist." My response to that is: "Well what are you then? Your church is in the community. You’ve got people struggling economically and in so many different ways. You’re telling me you’re not going to be an advocate for them because you don’t want to be known as an activist? That’s a spit in the face."

People who are spiritual–like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and others–they have a moral responsibility to challenge the State. When did that not become the case? Some of these Black ministers became more interested in being politicians. We have a number of them in Brooklyn. There’s a certain corruption of spirit when going into politics. The church has to reconnect with the people and especially young people. You’re not going to have any following if everyone is over 60.

Beandrea Davis is a graduate student in journalism at University of California, Berkeley.