Fred Hampton, a 21 year-old Black man, was murdered on this day in 1969 by members of the Chicago Police Department, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. In the 43 years that have passed since the murder of Mr. Hampton, an active leader of the Black Panther Party, I question if the legacy of Mr. Hampton goes unnoticed by the people he worked so hard in his short 21 years to help.
Jay-Z was born on the same day Fred Hampton was murdered, and mentions this on “Murder to Excellence,” from his collaborative album with Kanye West, Watch The Throne, lamenting,
“I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died
Real Niggas just multiply.
And they said by 21 I’m supposed to die,
so I’m out here celebratin’ my post-demise.”
There’s so much that can be said about the sentiment expressed by Jay-Z in these few lines, but the idea of celebrating his post-demise is what sticks with me. Eerie to think that a Black man is fated to die by 21 years, and if he reaches this mark, the rest of his time can be celebrated because he made it past his “given” time. Even stranger, I think, is that there is some truth in the statement—at least in many places in America.
I don’t mean to imply that a 22+ year-old black man who is alive and not imprisoned is rare, necessarily, but I can explicitly state that the implied definition of “Real Nigga” Jay-Z affords Fred Hampton and himself are vastly different, and there are more of the Jay-Z variety in existence in the consciousness of the masses than there are of the Fred Hampton variety.
I’m not picking on Jay-Z. Like I said, I get what he’s trying to do with his shout-out. He’s aligning himself with the legacy of a great man who was cut down too early by an oppressive system that was dead-set on not allowing him to reach his full potential. Just think, Fred Hampton, at 21 years-old, had the attention of the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These policing agencies paid attention to Mr. Hampton because he also had the attention of many young Black people wanting to see change in the world in which they were living, and they (both the police and the youth) believed that he had a chance at facilitating that change.
I wonder where those kinds of 21 year-old Black men are today.
I can find you fifteen 21 year-old aspiring rappers in a matter of minutes. They’re a dime a dozen. No doubt they all want to emulate Jay-Z’s success. Ask those fifteen aspiring emcees/future multi-millionaire moguls about Fred Hampton, and a few will be able to direct you to Jay-Z’s namedrop on WTT. Others will probably give you a vague reference to the Black Panthers. The cynic in me says that few will know much beyond the fact that he died on the same day Jay-Z was born. Even fewer will know of his ambitions to organize Black people, or of the Black Panther Party’s “Ten Point Program” to help unify and liberate the Black community. Many of them will be more inclined to rhyme about celebrating living past the age of 21 with the excesses of abundant women, attracted to drugs and expensive alcohol, clothes and jewelry.
In the 43 years since Fred Hampton’s murder many things have changed. But even with all the progress we have seen, there is much more to be done. Young Black people in the city of Chicago are afflicted by violence tantamount to any war zone in the very neighborhoods in which they live—the same neighborhoods Mr. Hampton worked so diligently to help. Kanye West, on the same song Jay-Z draws the comparison between himself and Fred Hamption, raps,
“It’s a war going on outside, we ain’t safe from.
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go.
314 soldiers died in Iraq…
509 died in Chicago.”
It’s fairly evident that Fred Hampton was targeted for his organizational skills and ambitions for unity and empowerment in the community. More directly, his ability to organize a pact between several Chicago street organizations could be argued to be the reason Mr. Hampton found himself under scrutiny from the FBI and state and local policing agencies. Counterintelligence. Seems simple enough, right? To stop intelligence; to prevent the collection of valuable information that could potentially be used to obtain power; to prevent that valuable information, if obtained, from being disseminated to others; to discredit any individual in possession of valuable information—intelligence. Or something like that. I suppose that hasn’t changed much either. While Kanye West and Jay-Z rap excellently about what Fred Hampton was murdered doing, young Black folks are still in search of leadership—leaders who will champion the causes of the people, not just talk about how they are akin to the same struggles. I have faith there are still some Fred Hamptons out there, trying and making a difference.
Unfortunately, the counterintelligence doesn’t have to come from the infiltration of incendiary groups by the FBI anymore. Turn on your television, and it will tell you all you need to know about what it means to be a “Real Nigga.” Listen to any number of popular rap songs and get the very same messages. The counterintelligence programs of the past that infiltrated the community have evolved to lives of what could easily be called counterintelligence—violence, misogyny, little or no community involvement, a culture of young men far more interested in the potential rewards of a rap career than community activism and organizing.
On today, I’m hoping we remember Fred Hampton’s legacy, celebrate his short life and accomplishments, and encourage the young men we know who are trying to make a difference where we live. On today, I unfortunately recognize the sad reflection of Mr. Hampton’s demise with those of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, simply because they were all young Black men, destined to die before 21 years, and met their demise because of perceived power and fear. On today, I’m reminded of Chicago—“Chi-raq”—a warzone occupied by many young men who will be fortunate to become old men. On today, I think about people like President Obama and Allen West, Chris Brown and Jevon Belcher, Lupe Fiasco and Cheef Kief, my students and my younger brothers. On today, I think about myself, and what it means to be a Black man in 2013. In the way that Jay-Z aligns his life’s path with Fred Hampton’s, and how he says “Real Niggas” just multiply, I wonder if Fred Hampton would be proud of the way we have been celebrating his post-demise.