The poster is meant to shock and spark conversation, and it might be coming to a barbershop near you.
The poster features a hooded Ku Klux Klansman with the words “Die Nigger!” stamped across his forehead, white men at a lynching and the mutilated face of Emmett Till at the top. The bottom half of the poster similarly features a masked man. But this man is black.
The poster goes on to depict another black man standing with a gun pointed at the dead body of another black man, then a family crying over a dead loved one, and another black man behind bars. Emblazoned across the middle of the poster are the words “Die Nigga!”
“A different time, a different method, a different color,” the words on the poster read. “The same result.” Those last three words float over a cemetery.
Michael Jefferson, founder of the Kiyama Movement, said that the poster is designed to spark “courageous conversation” about the alarming rate at which black people kill other black people. And keep the conversation on that problem until it changes. His vision focuses on reaching the potential victims of such killings—young black men—in a place where nearly all of them go from the time they are about 1 or 2 years old, the barbershop.
The poster is part of a “Respect for Life” campaign, which is based on the first of five principles that guide Kiyama and those who participate in the soon to be 12-year-old movement that was founded on the 80th anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth.
Jefferson knows he’s going a bit against the grain. In a time when people are daily battling against the shooting and killing of unarmed black and brown men and women by police and trying to hold law enforcement accountable for their action—one such shooting recently took the life of 15-year-old Jayson Negron in Bridgeport—the narrative about black-on-black crime has fallen out of favor.
Activists often say that bringing up violence in the black community oversimplifies the complex problems that lead to that violence and muddies the water when attempting to hold police accountable. They also have argued that raising the specter of black-on-black crime perpetuates the idea that police don’t have to respect black life if black people don’t respect their own lives.
Jefferson told a room of about 50 people gathered at Gateway Community College Tuesday evening that two quests can coexist: Black folks can still fight for equal treatment under the law and hold police accountable, while simultaneously making an internal effort to establish community values and norms that address violence.
“What we want to be clear about is when we talk about us, we don’t want to sit around and have conversations that delve into what the police are doing to us,” Jefferson said. “We know what the police are doing to us. We know what white folks in the dominant culture have done to us and will continue to do to us. We need to focus on us. That’s key for us. That’s absolutely key.”
Jefferson, an active member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., said that doesn’t mean he’s not a supporter of the work of the NAACP or the Black Lives Matter movement, which are on the front lines of fighting against police brutality and protecting civil rights. He does support that work. But he also believes intra-community work needs to be done for individual and collective improvement, particularly with young people, on challenges from preventing littering to treating women with respect.
“I support and admire the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “I’m a staunch supporter of them. They are confronting state-sponsored violence against black people in this country. That is an important role for them to play and we have to honor that. And so many people keep saying they need to talk about the violence in the black community. Well maybe someone else should. Let them do that. The NAACP is there to protect the gains that we’ve made and prevent the rolling back of those gains. That’s what the NAACP does. So Kiyama, we’re focusing on self-improvement. And we’re certainly not the first.”
Kiyama’s aim of self-improvement, pride in self and heritage, and respect for one’s community follow in the long historical footsteps and work of black nationalists leaders like Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammed of the Nation of Islam. And Jefferson said such a movement is needed now more than ever given that the rate of homicide in the black community is 17 per 100,000, while the rate in the white community and nationally is 2.5 and 5 per 100,000, respectively.
“Leave Black Lives Matter alone,” he said. “Let them do what they have to do. The NAACP, let them do what they have to do. In fact, join them. Send them some money. We all have a role to play.”
He said Kiyama’s role is to drive the conversation about black-on-black crime and to do something about it. “We don’t want to talk about gunning each other down,” he said. “The minute a police officer shoots a black kid we’re marching in the street. It’s happening in Bridgeport right now. That’s fine. We should be marching. But when we kill each other the are no marches. That’s not normal behavior.”
Jefferson said he’s not looking for marches, but changed behavior. And it starts with young people. Not older people telling young people what to do, but young people leading the conversation as peer mentors and leaders on their high school and college campuses.
He and Kermit Carolina, who promotes youth development for New Haven Public Schools, have already been meeting with students to further establish Kiyama circles, cabinets, and student councils that engage in self-improvement activities and projects that improve their community. One such project by Kiyama students at Hillhouse High School went viral after a video about the project was shared by Now This Her. it received 9.1 million views on social media like Facebook and was featured on other sites like Yahoo! and Teen Vogue.
Carolina summed up the efforts by saying that Kiyama is about promoting a particular value system among black people in general and young black people in particular that he believes could stop the violence that is perpetuated in the community.
Jefferson said he’d like to see the posters not just in barbershops but possibly schools too. School Board member Ed Joyner said he thinks it can happen if a school version is designed.
“I don’t think kids should be deluded into thinking that this never happened,” he said. “I was 7 years old when Emmett Till was killed, and I remember my parents showing me his picture in Jet magazine. I believe everything on that poster should be presented to young people.”
Joyner said that the n-word is the most horrible word in the English language, but he’d like to see a poster in schools that challenges the notion that somehow the use of the word can be made palatable by dropping the -er and adding a.
“I had a good relationship with Chuck D [of legendary rap group Public Enemy], who asked how hip-hop in a few years could erase centuries of a word used to demean an entire people,” he said.