Emotional Activism in America’s History


There is no doubt that the tensions in America have a high index.  When we take a look at the flow of emotions all over the country, we notice scars marked by history over Americans have not healed.

As I witness the state of emotions in America, my first and foremost desire is to understand how people are feeling. There are two sides to coming to this understanding and connection; one is listening to people and the other is through expression of oneself. It is important that both of these are done with clear intent and with clarity so the other person can connect with heartfelt emotions.

If you take a look at the current scenario, all the rage and anger in the US is the result of deeply sown seeds of frustration and pain that Americans are feeling from the past 400 years.

Leading with Emotional Intelligence

As I reflect on those who have come before us, it helps me understand America’s emotional state and how various groups or individuals perspectives and actions were the force for driving communications, strategies, and execution surrounding these goals for social justice. What I’ve learned, and what’s magnified is that emotions are the golden thread amongst all of humanity from the beginning of time. 

To understand what this means, we must first take a look back at where we have been, where we are in the present moment, and where we are headed into the future.

It is a basic human need to be seen and understood, many black activists of the past used the power of emotions, both, to deliver a message and also to connect with the listener. Everyone needed to be heard and felt. In many cases, they preached about emotions and related to one another’s mental state to gain knowledge of the community’s sufferings. 

The leadership of the Emotional Activism of our times has changed, especially how it relates to the transgressions of social injustice in America.

Even though Americans have been protesting against racial justice for generations, there is a new age of warfare and violence. It goes beyond the “material destruction” to people’s mental and emotional well-being, both through social media/technology and media.

During times like this in America, when I am feeling confused or uncertain, I often seek the wise counsel of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of society to help me along my path. I see how all of them, too often, hold the road map from the past and yet have the keys to the future.

As we face the circumstances around George Floyd’s tragic death, my first instinct is to seek the wise counsel of those who experienced, felt and lived the experiences of racial injustice throughout American history. I couldn’t agree with George Clooney’s statement more when he said, ”it’s just a reminder of how little we’ve grown as a country from our original sin of slavery.” As accurate as the statement is, I have to ask myself why?

This statement, along with my thirst for knowledge propelled me into a moment of reflection.  I also started to imagine myself calling an emergency family meeting with some of the wisest who have come before us and some who seem to have a distant and far removed connection from today’s younger generation.

As I sit back, I daydream and see myself in a meeting with six individuals for what I call a “family reunion.”  They include; Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.

Like with any family gathering when you invited the elders over, there were a few snacks and coffee and tea, I also turned on a soft playlist of the music to the ears. I then nestle in a chair, sit back and prepare to listen and learn.

As I look around the table, I can’t help but see the pain and triumph on their faces.  The pain was from knowing there was much to be done in the fight of equality. And yet triumph, to know there is so much being accomplished.  Essentially there are still two sides of the same coin. 

To start the conversation, I explained how I had seen that as influential activists and leaders throughout history, I noticed that they had an emotional connection with society and used words to connect. I also wanted to understand why they used emotion instead of “practicality to connect with the audience.

Thus, it was only natural for my first question to be: “How are you FEELING about what is happening in the world today?” Without saying much, I could imagine their spirit, soul, and energy evoke an emotional state and a reminiscing of the past. They would share stories, about what they experienced, what they learned, and how they would have done things differently, if at all.

As I went around the table, I started with Maya Angelou, a singer, American poet, and civil rights activist. Her response was a reminder to her own words in her earlier years.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

At the moment, I felt what she was saying was with all this fighting and anger, and with all the division, how do you think it makes me feel? And then as I see her slight stare out the window I hear her say;

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“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” “Hate, it has caused many problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”

Before she ends and takes a bite into her pastry, she ends saying, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” Essentially, she was saying that she understands how painful the emotions of anger and bitterness are, but we should continue to forgive (love), just one more time. 

As I sit with Maya Angelou’s words and ponder for just a moment, I continue to move on to Sojourner Truth, a woman who I did a school presentation about when I was in college. 

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Ms. Truth was an African American evangelist, abolitionist, women’s rights activist, author and a slave in New York before escaping to freedom in 1826.  I asked her the same question; “How are you feeling about what is happening in the world today?”

I sit and imagine, her small but mighty presence delivering a calm assurance and well thought out answer. I hear her repeat one of her previous quotes:

“Life is a hard battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little as 

we fight the good fight of freedom, it will go easier. I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.” Wow! Now think about that, here is a woman who fought a fight that most of us even in 2020 would ever be able to understand, but she made a conscious choice to focus on the emotion of happiness and joy instead of anger and resentment. To comprehend that power and strength, it takes guts, choosing to focus on the expression of laughter and song (happiness and peace) instead of pain and darkness surrounding her. Something I would sit and reflect on during 2020. 

Although Sojourner Truth had an extraordinary and impactful life journey, I was excited to turn my attention to Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist, and political activist. 

Harriet was born into slavery. It was her close relationship with God that helped her make over a dozen missions to rescue close to 100 enslaved, including family and friends, using the Underground Railroad. 

I continued to ask her the same question; “How are you feeling about what is happening in the world today?” 

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Her response was simple yet powerful as she reminded me of her words; “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion for reaching for the stars to change the world. I am at peace with God and all mankind.”  When I heard these words, I thought, how could a woman who had been hunted and most likely doubted by so many be at so much peace?

When I see the turmoil of today’s world, peace is not an emotion that people will use to describe their lives or circumstances, especially surrounding the social injustice playing out before our eyes.

What was it within her that allowed her to find so much peace among all of the conflict? It was not hate, anger, resentment, but it was peace.

Reflecting on everyone’s words, I wondered how I would be able to process and really digest the deep meaning of all the knowledge that was shared with me so far.  How could each of these individuals share emotions focused on peace, love, and happiness, and not division and anger?

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When I asked Rosa Parks, a civil rights leader whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. “How are you feeling about what is happening in the world today?” She said;

“Remember my words; “Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off it repeatedly?”  It was her saying; that is what is happening today. But then she reminded me of her words; “We must have courage — determination — to go on with the task of becoming free — not only for ourselves but for the nation and the world — cooperate. Have faith in God and ourselves.”

It was that moment; I felt she could sense the confusion on my face about how she mustered up so much courage and determination and be at such peace in her emotions to deliver these words at a time in her life when there was so much anger and chaos. She leaned over and said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Was she saying it was the mind that controlled the emotions?  Is it a choice how we react vs how we respond? 

Although I went around the table and finished listening to these beautiful women speak first, I was excited to hear the man’s perspective about emotions.  I started with Martin Luther King Jr., an Activist and American Christian minister. Mr. King became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

Same question for Dr. King; “How are you feeling about what is happening in the world today?”

His words seemed to go directly into my soul when he said, “A riot is the unheard language.”  I felt the response wasn’t either defending or criticizing what was happening, but he was pointing out the anguish and groaning for the pain being felt – at the the time. And without understanding how to express or manage emotions properly the only way one knew how to be heard was with rioting. He was also making a point of the importance of listening to how people feel because if we don’t, society will use a different form of communication until they are heard.

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He continued to say, “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary, but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but a sense of futility must follow it.” 

His statement; it was an “emotional catharsis,” meaning that although it was a release of emotions, it didn’t serve the practical, systematic, and valid approach to long-term change. However, only Dr. King could summarize it as only he could. I felt he wanted to drive the point home when he said, “Nonviolence is an absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not an emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” and he ended with that is why; “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear”.

Dr. King’s response was what I expected, and he delivered a gentle reminder between emotional and practical parts of change. Having heard everyone, last but not least was Malcolm X, an American Muslim minister and human rights activist, who was a popular figure during the civil rights movement.

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 He is best known for his staunch and controversial black racial advocacy and for his time spent as the vocal spokesperson of the Nation of Islam, who would remind of a different side of the scale.

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” When he said peace and freedom go hand in hand, it pushed me to think about the definition of freedom.

Was it something that is “given to us, or is it something that we find within?

Is it peace with our thoughts, and that, in return, brings about the emotion of peace?

Just as I started to go deep in my thoughts, he finished by saying, “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its seed, its lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”

It was clear what he said was there would be the emotion of disappointment, sadness, and grief, but even those will help you for the future path forward if we remember to water the seed.

America: Now and Then

Today, I see how the African American community is being hurting in America, and I can feel the pain and see the vast range of emotions. I see it on their faces and recognize them from their actions.

They want their pain to be acknowledged. They want to forgive but because there has been little if any accountability with real action and not just empty words, it continues to be an open wound that has never healed. When there is pain released without leadership, connection, clarity of how and where to direct it, you get violence, and we see rioting.

As you can see in the news and social media, people are in pain and have many feelings to share. But there is so much coming at us at such a fast pace that it’s hard to connect to the hearts and minds of people on a deep level. People want to be heard and felt. But like anything in today’s world, there is so much noise that is drowning and hiding the message that needs to be heard and conveyed.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., youngest daughter, Bernice King, the CEO of The King Centre, suggests there’s a lot of work to be done, but lucky for us … “my father and others have set a pretty stellar example, and architectural blueprint to follow, if only we would take the time to reflect on it”.  

In the past, they laid out emotional regulated strategies for their followers and used words like peace, laughter, determination, to help inspire people with the testimony of their life’s path.  There is a lot to learn from those who have come before us.

A Call For Changes

In that passionate spirit, regardless of generation or audience, each of my guests remind me they  bagan by effectively laying out positive emotional intent and specific goals of their movements. They called for desegregation, black rights, women’s rights, and voting economic reasons, and most importantly, they called for the end of violence and brutality.

All in all, they called for human rights!

They helped followers to reframe their perceptions, telling them that suffering is redemptive. And they led them away from vindictiveness, pointing out that the destinies of blacks and whites are linked, but in the end, no one would tolerate injustice and hate for the gender or skin color.

After reflecting on my internal conversation, I am thankful they shared their stories with me. Through their words, actions, and masterful emotional intelligence, I am still able to connect and be moved to understand their sacrifice to do better for all Americans, primarily black Americans.

Throughout their emotional appeal and persuasive language, they developed emotional-based connections and discussions to appeal to the facts and the issues at hand.

The Heart of the Matter

These activists didn’t leave the people with resentment by speeches fuelled by the stories they told them of injustice and inequality. They all connected with the audience to create real and apparent strategic change. It was moving them from a negative state of emotions to one that was the positivity of hope, pride, equality, and justice. Even though at times they chose electrifying, uncomfortable feeling words like fear and despair. These kinds of feelings words were delivered with a connection to the audience and helped them be relatable to what people were going through within their emotions.

Dr. King said it; “Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation.” And he named their experiences, acknowledging that they’d been jailed, discriminated against, blocked from the pursuit of happiness. He connected with his audience by calling the values they shared and their vision of the future. He felt and transmitted compassion. He acknowledged their pain.

In the end, what they all have in common is they connected with the emotional state of Americans and especially Black Americans. They were a bridge to what one was feeling and how to guide them to a calm place.

They all were present and connected with their emotional state clearly to accomplish their practical agenda as well. They were skilled in knowing how to invoke their audience’s emotions, all while directing a clear message.

Where do we go from here?

We are to be reminded of the systematic change set before us, built upon brick by brick in our families, our schools, our legal systems, government, and law enforcement.

Thanks in part to their masterful emotional intelligence, decades later, we can take head to those who have come before us and listen and learn.

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