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In search of a hero, we turn to charlatans among the usual suspects

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Dr Umar Rashad Ibn Abdullah-Johnson is a US motivational speaker, psychologist and activist, a social media personality who focuses on Pan-Africanism — and quite possibly a spectacular charlatan.

Africa has a new saviour. He’s one of the usual suspects. He is one of those wonderful people from the North Atlantic Community of North America and Europe, who just love to tell us how to be black, how to liberate ourselves, and whom to choose as our friends and allies… 

His parents named him Jermaine Shoemake, and in search of himself and a greater mission in life, he has renamed himself Umar Rashad Ibn Abdullah-Johnson — a mouthful. He is Dr Johnson to us plain folk. Dr Johnson presents himself as more grounded, more spiritual, more everything-cooler-than-everyone, as the “Prince of Pan-Africanism”, and with quite fabulous touches of bigotry (he opposes same-sex unions of any kind). 

With sincere attempts to salvage something good about Dr Johnson’s “message”, Ebony Chappel of the New Pittsburgh Courier writes (it’s worth quoting her lengthily): 

“Though Johnson stated that he ‘loves’ our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, he cannot condone their actions because not only is homosexuality a ‘cancer on the Black community’, it also, along with abortion and interracial marriage, is a tool that will ultimately dismantle the Black race. Also, to be accepting and/or tolerant of the LGBTQ movement is to simultaneously be in compliance with criminal acts such as bestiality and paedophilia… 

“While on one hand, I applaud some of his efforts, I cannot ignore that his message was full of many of the inaccuracies and hateful statements that pervade much of the Pan-African movement. I also have concerns of his legitimacy. His credentials as a school psychologist, doctor of psychology and school principal have yet to be confirmed. 

“There are entire websites and social media pages dedicated to proving this man is a well-spoken liar… I hate to believe that Johnson is nothing more than a charlatan dressed in colorful clothing. Despite the misgivings of the messenger, I want to believe that the message still has a purpose.” 

Dr Johnson is more anti-establishment and different from, say, Barack Obama or Reuben E Brigety II who speak for the rich and powerful. Dr Johnson has carved a niche for himself as a spokesperson for Africans around the world.  

Dr Johnson recently entered South African popular culture with the earnestness of caricature and advised us that we, black people, should boycott next year’s general election. I take that to mean that any step we want to take forward starts with not taking any steps at all. Hard to wrap the mind around that. But the joke is on us. Desperate for ethical leadership and in search of a hero, we let any charlatan into our lives. 

In full flow of foolishness and misplaced ethnonationalism (of a particular kind), Dr Johnson universalises the particularities of the United States.  

He does seem to be a bit of a charlatan. His online profile describes him as “an American motivational speaker psychologist, activist, and social media personality who focuses on Pan-Africanism”. On his Instagram account he lets us know he is, “Dr. Umar Ifatunde, Psy.D, CSP, M.Ed, Author, Certified School Psychologist, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Author, Pan-Afrikanist, Educator, FDMG Principal, Special Education Consultant, NIBPA”. 

No white wives

He also markets himself as some kind of saviour of black people in general, and Africans in particular (he does not approve of people marrying outside the black/African race). He does not even like the presence of “white wives”, and says nothing about “white husbands”… it’s all terribly man-driven. 

The marketing for one of his campaigns lays out the following cautions: “This is only for Africans. The training is only for Africans. You may not bring your white wife. You may not bring your white wife. You may not bring your white wife. If you bring a non-African, you and the non-African will be escorted out my training. If you bring a non-African, you and the non-African will be escorted out my training.” 

About nine or 10 years ago, Dr Johnson started a fund-raising campaign to build a school for ‘black boys’; he named it the Frederick Douglass Marcus Garvey Leadership Academy for Black Boys. He reportedly received donations from thousands of his followers. In 2014 he informed the public that he was looking to buy the now-defunct St Paul’s College in Virginia and turn it into a boarding school. A little bit like Donald Trump’s mystical/imaginary/real university (it’s difficult to fully nail down all the lies of charlatans), Dr Johnson has had difficulty explaining himself, and where all the money went. We have to assume he is honest. 

When black people in the US supposedly failed to support him (with money), Dr Johnson said: “It’s not that Black people don’t support other Black people. We are not used to being responsible for building our own institutions.” He offered an example: “If I was opening up a nightclub, basketball league, I would have the support.”  

Really, are we, black people, only good for partying and sports?  

There is much about Dr Johnson that is dodgy. One can pick at any in a range of shenanigans, untruths, misrepresentations and… Well, take your pick, dear reader. After spending two days reading about him, about his work and about what Americans think about him, he is a combination of a charismatic tent-hall preacher, an ethnonationalist (of a particular kind) a homophobe and a two-bit intellectual who thinks all the world’s problems have a single source — which is necessarily conspiratorial. 

Sleek, smart and smarmy

He is what you get when you mix a little bit of Donald Trump, with some Louis Farrakhan, a lot of Shepherd Bushiri, and blend it all into Julius Malema. He is sleek, smart and smarmy, and knows exactly how to manipulate the emotions of people. He certainly has South Africans praising him, to the extent that Central News is representative of black people. As it’s a news and information platform, I have to defend their right to publish and freedom of speech! 

Dr Johnson does have the imagery, rhetoric, and pretensions right. You know, the way you establish your revolutionary credentials with a picture of Thomas Sankara, or your libertarian credibility with a dollar sign or some rubbish about classical liberalism and the value of free markets, or a picture of Thomas Sowell on your social media profile. Not to put too fine a point to it, Dr Johnson also spells Africa with a “k”. How cool is that? 

But seriously, if anyone takes Dr Johnson seriously, and even imagines that this person will unite all Africans — I assume he would include those who, by coercion and consent (voluntarily or involuntarily) left the continent over the span of 100,000, or more years — it would be a fantastic achievement. I’m not sure what he will achieve, though.

I am sure, nonetheless, that there will be many people in South Africa who hail him as the next great saviour of Africans. Since he does not like gay people very much, I’m sure he would receive a welcome reception in Uganda, or in Zimbabwe where that country’s late president, Robert Mugabe once referred to gay people as “worse than dogs and pigs” — a sentiment that continues in that beleaguered country. 

Dr Johnson is quite possibly a most spectacular charlatan. Then again, we have cultivated and elevated our own group of charlatans over and again. 

The words attributed to the Ottoman-era poet Khalil Gibran, are a sad reminder: “Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking. Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpeting again.” DM

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  • William Stucke says:

    Not sure why you’re writing about this shyster, if not to warn us, but thank you for the marvellous link, and the telling point that ultimately, we’re all Africans.

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