Umar Johnson, aka the Prince of Pan-Africanism, has said our name. In his last posting from a hotel room somewhere in the continental United States, a much more subdued and skullcap-less Johnson has apologized for his behavior and profanity-laced tirade to everyone but black media and, more specifically, The Root.
According to Johnson, black media hopped on the bandwagon of bashing him, but we don’t report his efforts to save black kids from the racket that is special education or the work he does with black boys.
Let me be clear about this, since I wrote the initial takedown piece about Johnson, and let me also explain my position in a five-point presentation and issue an apology of my own.
First, an apology: During Umar Johnson’s expletive-laced rant in which he questioned whether light-skinned blacks were, in fact, blacks by calling the light-skinned conscious compadre with whom he was beefing a “cracker” and a ‘dirty nigga,’ and a ‘little nigga,’ he was wearing a Philadelphia Phillies skullcap with a ball on the top, and not a Philadelphia Flyers skullcap with a ball on the top as I reported. So I’m sorry for this mistake.
You played yourself. You got caught up in the male-bravado bullshit that plagues all men when their pride has been bruised and they have to stand down because they have outgrown the dumb shit. This was an opportunity for you to go high, but clearly your feelings were hurt, and you set up a camera and recorded yourself going full Beanie Sigel because your conscious credentials had been checked.
Prior to your skullcapped WWE-style moment, I was familiar with your work. Having had a brief stint working for Washington, D.C., Public Schools Special Education, I found your position that special education is a money grab for public schools interesting. I found your claim that young black men with behavioral problems are being misdiagnosed as learning disabled so that schools profit to be dead-on. I shared your words with friends who still work in the system.
But I also found your position on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and attention deficit disorder, or ADD, to be dismissive. I found your spelled-out acronym of “Ain’t No Daddy at Home Disease” and your views on homosexuality to be archaic and, in truth, some old-black-homophobic-uncle shit. I found the part about you having secured the funding to open a school for black boys, only to lose the money because of derogatory statements made by a conscious stripper, to be hilarious for several reasons, the most poignant being that we are always so close and always so far.
In that moment, in one interview on The Breakfast Club, you’d captured just about every black man not named Obama for me. You were affable, enlightening and flawed. You came across as personable. In short, I was on your team.
For black media, President Barack Obama is the standard. Whether we openly admit it or not, we are rooting for his presidency and his family. The Root premiered around the same time Obama took office, and as he became a benchmark of excellence, we aspired to reach the same heights. I came to The Root from the Washington Post and began my tenure as the breaking-news editor under the wise and tough leadership of then-Managing Editor Lyne Pitts. On my first day at The Root, she made something very clear to me: If Obama did something awesome, we were going to report that, and if Obama messed up, we were going to report that, too.
Sadly, your own choices have been undoing your work. It was difficult to report on the “good” you did when so much of your story was associated with a stripper whose claims now seem to hold much more weight. You built your legacy shrouded in controversy. You came for black women and gay black men. You were heavy in your criticism of black women who wore weaves.
You were also a big proponent of marriage, the black family and the like. You’d announced that you were celibate, and yet the conscious stripper, later revealed to be Khym Ringgold (who also does lip-synch impersonations when not performing; see below), a mother of two, exposed that you were trying to do more chill than Netflix. Not to mention the countless unanswered questions surrounding fundraising. All these claims you deny; but can’t you see how this made it hard to report on all “the good” you were doing?
Come on, son. You set up a camera in a hotel room and wore your hat on full-thug level. You spoke in the language of the street and at one point folded your arms across your chest like an ’80s rapper.
In D.C. terms, you asked for this wreck, and the saddest part of the whole 45-minute exposé is that this person, this thug alter ego, seems false. In Jay Z terms: I don’t believe you; you need more people. And that’s a good thing. Too many times, our young black men are conditioned to believe that violence, and toughness, are authentic. That being street somehow equates to being real; that while you can speak the King’s English, never forget that you can still throw hands.
The funny part is that Umar Johnson, the scholar, seems way more believable than Umar Johnson, the knucklehead, and that’s because of the work you’ve done to make it that way. In fact, that was evidenced in the thug video during the phone call, when you were supposed to be calming your boys down, except the phone—the same phone you were talking on—started ringing while you were talking. Meaning it was all an act, all a performance. That same language that makes you versatile and believable to students made you a fool on this tape, beloved.
No grown man. No educator. No speaker needs to wear a knit hat with a ball on the top. In fact, no kid over 12 should wear a knit hat with a ball on the top.
When you are doing work that you believe in, when you are doing the work that you believe God has put you here to do, then do that work and become less concerned with how your legacy is being perceived and crafted. Do the work because you choose to do the work and you were called to do the work.
There was no planned Umar Johnson rebuttal; it was a moment, and like most moments on the internet, it would have been long gone. But something brought you back here, and I’m not sure if it was vanity or ego or both, but either way, here we are.
So here is my mention to you, Johnson. I believe in bridges. I believe in the stability of them; they support things and allow safe passages over otherwise treacherous terrain. So let’s build one. I’m here, and in the words of the streets: Get at me.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.