(1994) Sister Souljah, “We Are At War”

Sister Souljah, 1990s
Courtesy John Matthew Smith, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1993 Sister Souljah (born Lisa Williamson), a Bronx-born rapper, earned national notoriety thanks ironically to then Presidential candidate Bill Clinton who denounced her comments about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots as “hate driven and racist.”  Sister Souljah responded with her own criticism of the economic and political system that kept millions of blacks and other people of color in what she saw as permanent bondage.  She outlines her views in a speech given at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania in 1994.

I REALIZE THAT most of you have become acquainted with me through a 30- second sound bite, or a 3-second sound bite on the news, and there have been a lot of confusing things that have been said. And so what I am hoping will happen this evening is that we will have an opportunity to dialogue with one another, so that I can hear some of the questions that are on your mind, and I can answer them as responsibly as possible.

Whenever I speak at a University the first thing that I try to clarify is who I am, because I cannot allow the American media to define you to me, or me to you. I am Sister Souljah, and that is spelled S-O-U-L-J-A-H. Soul meaning the essence of all things, and Jah, meaning God. Sister Souljah meaning a spiritual warrior for that which is right and correct for our people.

I was born in the Bronx, in New York City, and have been involved in a lot of the government programs that were produced for African people in this country, whether it was the welfare system, the section 8 housing system, the free lunch, free cheese, free breakfast, forced bussing, all of the programs that came out of the so-called” great society” which emerged in the late-‘ 60S early’ 70s.And the reason why I say that is because a lot of brothers and sisters have emerged from families that have been trapped in the welfare system, or in the cycle of poverty, but we have a habit of, when we get to college we try to front like we don’t know anything about that stuff. So, when I say that I was a part of the welfare system, or the section 8 housing system, or the financial aid system, I say that so you can understand that those systems and those programs do not define you or your family. They were put in place for us because our ancestors fought and died, so that we would have the opportunity to have these programs so that we could emerge as strong, and comprehensive, and confident young adults.

… When they tell you that I am just a rapper with a big mouth, and a bad attitude, you should be aware of the fact that I have been very well educated in the topics that I am talking about.

. .. When I talk about our people, I do so not because I am ignorant, or illiterate, but because I am well-studied, and well-experienced in the area and because I have a fundamental love for our people, and I think that we deserve much better than we’ve encountered in the United States of America.

In Africa, the older women in the society took the younger women, and taught them what is the definition of womanhood. You could not just be a woman simply because you were 18 or 19 years old. The older women had to train you-how to judge a man, how to evaluate whether a man is valuable, how to judge yourself, how to control your power, how to control the society, how to control your man. But see in America, we get confused, because we don’t want to be African so we don’t know any of those definitions, so instead, you got sisters running around talking about, “Yeah, that’s my man,” but all they got is his beeper number. Never been to his house, never met his mamma, don’t even know his real name, but that’s “your man,” right.

You see, in an African society they taught you that to be a woman is to be a powerful thing, but in America on the television, they teach you that to be a woman is to be cute and stupid …. We begin to judge African men, by the size of their wallet, and the kind of car they’re driving, instead of the strength of their character.

… You see, but if you were an African woman, you would be taught that the first thing that you do is communicate, to try to understand what is the nature of the man that you’re dealing with, what are his goals and objectives in life? What does he value, and consider precious, where is he moving, and does that have anything to do with where you’re going? Communication to find out where he is, and what he’s involved in. You meet his mother and his father to see what situation he has emerged from, not to judge him by the money that he has in his pocket, but to look at the situation so you know
exactly what you’re dealing with ….

In an African society, a man is taught the definition of being a man. It wasn’t that you were a man just because you’re 18 or 19 years old, or just because you attend Cheyney State University. You were a man if you have established a spiritual connection to the creator to teach you to value life, and to value a force that is greater than yourself. That you are a man if you can protect your woman, and provide for your woman. That you are a man if you produce your children, and claim the children that you produce. That you are not a man until you gain total mastery and discipline over your lower self, which means that you are not controlled by Saint Ives, malt liquor, drugs, crack, sex, or any foreign substance. And any young African man who could not meet that criteria would never be able to emerge from the manhood society with a level of respect and power.
And he would cause shame on his family.

But in America, because we as African people in America don’t want to be African, most of our young brothers struggle to try to understand what manhood means, which is why you have most of them making the mistake of thinking that to be a man is to be a gangster, to be a man is to shoot another brother that looks just like you to show you who is the punk and who’s the chump, and who’s the macho guy, something they saw in some old Italian movie. You got brothers thinking that to be a man has something to do with the size of their penis or how many sisters they can destroy on a daily basis.

Why am I going over these definitions? Because so many people don’t know these definitions, and in the absence of knowing these definitions, you will have continual chaos, and you will not understand why you are a confused individual, and you will also be powerless.

When I say we are at war, a lot of people become confused. They think it means that Sister Souljah supports violence, and guns, and military opposition, and things of that nature. The thing that you should understand about war is war is not a voluntary state of existence. What that means is somebody, or some group of people, or some state, or some race, or some nation of people can declare war on you without your permission. So you can be at war not because you want to be, not because you’re war-like people, not because you want to fight back, but because some alien force has declared war upon you.

How do you recognize the conditions of a war? A state of war exists anytime anybody or any institution, or any family, or any group tries to take from you that which is rightfully yours, your right to life, your ability to think freely, your ability to celebrate and know your culture, your ability to control the economics of your community, your ability to eat, and live, and love, your ability to express yourself, and your ability to move freely in the society.

Now, when I tell black students that we are at war, they think that I’m radical and dramatic, but I try to use some very simple examples… [O]ne of the conditions of white racism is that white people are considered superior, which means that they own and rule everything so they have a right to be anywhere. Black people are considered inferior, which means that they are controlled and dominated so they don’t have the right to be everywhere, only the places that were reserved for them, which we know are the inferior pieces of geography. We are at war.

. .. Well, listen, this has nothing to do with whether you love America. It has something to do with whether America loves you …

What happens in the absence of the participation of strong African women? What happens is social chaos. What do I mean by social chaos? O.K., if there are four African women here to every one African man, now, we’re in a dead and heated competition. None of the four African women wants to admit that there is a political and economic and military problem in America, because that’s too much work, and involves too much study. And so one goes and gets a bra and some leggings and she says, ”I’m going to wear this today.” And the other one says, “I bet you I can top that, I’m going to wear my bra and my panties outside.” And the clothes just start to disappear, until the whole campus is in a state of chaos. Brothers are saying, “Well god-damn, man, I want to be a man. I want to control my lower desires but these women are absolutely butt naked.” And sisters walk around getting an attitude when brothers look at them in their bra and panties out on the lawn.

To the brothers, I say, you know that we are at war because you know that you suffer as African men. But many of you, instead of being men and meeting the challenge, tend to exploit African women and take advantage of the numbers, and you use your taking advantage of African women as an excuse, or as a misdefinition of manhood. But in the same way that the African woman imitates the white woman, the African man does the same thing to the white man, and so you begin to measure your manhood by how many women you make cry, how many women you destroy, how many women you got  sweatin’ you, which has nothing to do with the development of your mind, your community, or the protection of the African society. We are at war.

Many people say that Sister Souljah is a racist. Let me assure you that there is no such thing as a black racist. There is no such thing. “Black racism” and “reverse racism” are terms that were developed by intellectual white thinktanks in political circles to get you as African young people to feel guilty about discussing what has happened to you as African people in America. So when you start to discuss slavery, or the effects of slavery, or the effects of 500 years of domination, what they do is say, “Oh, you’re a racist.” When you react to the ugly things that they do or say to us, they say, “Oh, you’re a racist.” That is to get you to feel guilty about discussing, or organizing, or taking issue with the condition of African people in this country.

So what happens is you find a lot of young Mexican students across the country who are very apologetic about discussing Mexican issues. When they’re talking about it they say, “You know, like I’m not a racist or anything, you know. I don’t hate white people. You know I’m not that kind of person. I just feel that, you know I’m not a racist. I just wanted to explain that I’m not a racist.” And the discussion loses its pull because they’re so guilty and concerned about proving to white people and to black people that they’re not racist, that they’re scared to address and deal with the issue of racism and its effects on the community.

But everybody in here knows that racism has affected you as an individual because when one white person enters the room, it affects how you think, how you behave, how you talk, how you look, and how comfortable you feel as an individual. Some people become self-conscious about their hair. Some people develop an accent that just simply does not come from their community. Some people lose all of their cultural nuances and are like, you know, like … because they don’t feel comfortable about being African in the presence of European white people.

Racism is a system of power. What does that mean? That a system of power means that you as an African woman, or you as an African man could go to any state in this country and the system will protect white privilege, white power, white jobs and white economics, and you will be a non-factor in that equation. Not only will it happen anyplace in the country, it will also happen anyplace in the entire world. So there’s no such thing as a black racist, because none of you in here, and no African leader in this country, and no African leader in the Caribbean, or Latino America or the continent of Africa has the power to invade one white country. No African person in this country has the power to order white children to go to a black school and learn about black people all day and never study themselves. No black person has the power to determine whether your black husband, or brother or father has a job, and will continue to have a job or any type of power in this system, and no black system or police force anyplace in this country or anyplace in the world has the power to go into the white community and savagely beat their men and be completely excused for it in this system of justice. Racism is a system of power and in the absence of power you cannot be considered a racist-therefore there is no such thing as black racism.

Reverse racism means that if reverse racism exists, somewhere in this society, some group of African people took a ship and went to Europe, packed the white people into the ship, raped their mothers, sold their fathers, killed their babies, and perpetuated violence on them for 500 years, made it illegal for them to read, to write, to assemble, to think, to speak their own language, or wear their own clothes, or worship their own gods.  You and I both know that nowhere in this society have African people been allowed to do that, or even try to do that, or even wanted, as a collective to do that. There is no such thing as reverse racism.

What is a state of accommodation? A state of accornn1odation exists anytime you have become so comfortable with the system of racism that you begin to accept it as being a normal way of life. A state of accommodation exists when black mothers take their little black children to school, and the class is 90% black, and IO% Latino, and it’s a white teacher. A state of accommodation exists when there’s a historically African university and African people in the community don’t support it, so they become enslaved to government funding. A state of accommodation exists anytime African men begin to desire, date, sleep with, and marry white women, instead of their own African females. A state of accommodation exists anytime African people in this country believe that they’re part of a Democratic Party that doesn’t include them in the equation of power or even address the issues of African concerns. That is a state of accommodation, when you become so lazy and relaxed and accepting of racism that you think it’s normal for you to be deprived and powerless and lazy and backwards. That’s a state of accommodation.

I want to move to the area of solutions. The reason why I went over the definitions is so that you can really clarify some of the personal problems that you have in your life. And when I say that, I say that based on experience, and having had problems in my owrl life, and being a solution-orientated person always trying to look at what I could have done more effectively to avoid some of the problems, and being a loving person, wanting to share the mistakes that I’ve made with you so that you can avoid making those mistakes and improve the quality of life of African people. Understand that when I say “I,” in the African tradition, I mean “we,” and “we” is “us,” and “us” is “them,” and they are you, and you and I, and we’re all in this thing together.

.. . What we need to do is change the type of conversation in the groups that we have. Sisters, we need to stop discussing who’s pregnant, whose baby is it, who got the abortion, who didn’t get the abortion, who got the weave, whose hair is real, where she got her hair done, where she got her nails done, where she got her lipstick from. And we need to begin talking about businesses, and how 7 or 8 or 9 or IO friends can get together and organize something.

When I decided to make music my career, I began to say, I can create a character, Sister Souljah, and market that character to African people in America so that every young African woman could have a better option than a naked whore on television, as to what they wanted to be like. I could develop an image of an African woman that was strong and knowledgeable and comprehensive, to let every other African woman know that that’s what we used to be in our original essence. And I could develop a character that would demand and command respect from African men so that they would know that they have to stop calling us skeezers and ho’es, and sluts, and boots, and all the other things that they describe us as, and I made a business out of that . . ..

There are two more points that I have. One of the components of manhood that I mentioned is that men have to be able to protect their community. To the brothers in this audience, I would like to say that we cannot depend on the American police force to protect African men. What that means is that African men in America have got to become more aware of developing a way to defend ourselves and our communities. The only way this discussion will be made possible is if we stop fronting on one another. If brothers continue to embrace a white-minded sense of macho-ism where they can’t even look at each other, much less talk to each other, where they judged each other by Ralph Polo, and some other freak, or faggot from Paris; if that becomes the criteria by which you judge the next black man, what will happen is that you will never have the discussion of how vulnerable and naked you and he actually are in the society that does not love you, does not honor you, and will never ever protect you. Brothers have to be big enough to drop the front and embrace one another….

The point becomes that we as African people are spiritual. We don’t have to necessarily go to a church or a mosque or a temple. We can if we’d like to. It is not mandatory, but it’s nice if we do. But you all have a voice in your mind that teaches you, and tells you the difference between right and wrong, the difference between fake and real. So when you go home tonight, and you’re laying in your bed, and you’re thinking to yourself, ask yourself, are you for real? Do you know the difference between right and wrong? What have you done to improve your quality of life, and the quality of life of your people? Have you become so accepting of mediocre performance that you no longer even strive for excellence? Have you become so common with misusing and abusing your body, and giving yourself up so freely, that you’re no longer concerned about being righteous? Remember that the only power that we can draw as righteous people is through righteous deeds and a righteous God. We cannot draw strength from evil deeds because they return and smack you in the face. So while you think you’re striving for what is right, everything that you’re adding up on a negative bill is coming back to you, and hindering your ability to move forward, which is why so many people are confused about why they keep trying and there are no results. There are not going to be any results if you are not living a righteous life.

And so I’m asking you just as I challenge myself, and I say all of these things out of love, because I have not reached any level of perfection but challenge you to challenge yourself to do what is right, to be a stronger person, to take a stand, to speak up, to prepare your mind, and to honor your spirit, and love your people. Thank you.