The recent gathering of thousands to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March sent my thoughts spiraling back to that historic moment, not so much as to recall the euphoria, but to an interview I conducted with Dr. Charshee McIntyre on the question of the role of Black women at the event.
“Most of the women I know—thinking women—support the march,” she told me in 1995. At that time, she was a retired professor and an advisor to the march. “And many of them [the women] support it more so than the men. They are saying, ‘It’s about time for the brothers to come together.’”
I think she would have been satisfied that another march or gathering had occurred, and relished the opportunity to add her poignant voice and analysis to the discussion. McIntyre possessed a vibrant spirit, a no-nonsense attitude that was as evident in her everyday activities as it was in her scholarship and political perspectives.
Among the notes and clippings I’ve crammed in the pages of her book, “Criminalizing a Race: Free Blacks During Slavery” (1984), is a brief biography of her splendid life. Born Charshee Charlotte Lawrence on May 14, 1932, in Andover, Mass., she worked for several years with music impresario George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. From 1953 to 1956, she served in the United States Air Force.
She was in her early 30s with two young children when she began her pursuit of higher education at Central State University. After two years there, she transferred to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1971. She also held a Phi Beta Kappa key.
McIntyre received her master of arts in philosophy in 1975 from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A similar degree in history was awarded to her from the same institution three years later. She earned her doctorate in history in 1984 at the Stony Brook campus. During this same year, she became very active with the political action committee of the Coalition of 100 Black Women. From 1978 to her retirement, she was a member of the National Conference of the African Heritage Studies Association, and for many years its chair.
Along with her commitment to a number of organizations, including the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, Charshee held down several teaching posts—she was an associate professor of humanities and chair of the English Language Studies Program at the Old Westbury campus of the State University of New York. She also taught women’s studies at Rutgers University in Newark.
Much of the information and wisdom she dispensed in the classrooms was contained in her essays, articles and books. One of her main topics was American racism and its impact on Black lives.
“From the beginnings of this nation,” she wrote in “Criminalizing a Race,” “we, African Americans, have lived (and do live) with the fear that if we do not end up in prison or in some other form of institution, someone in our families will. I claim that our incarcerations occur not because of criminality or accidents of injustices, but due to the structural design of this nation. Institutionalization became the ultimate solution in which whites address the problem of having free Blacks in the country.”
She explains not only the origins of this institutional racism but also the ways in which African-Americans have fought to overcome the oppressive system. This project was completed with her husband, the versatile jazz musician, the late Makanda Ken McIntyre (they were married in 1958). They also published “The Creative Process: A Study Guide to African American Music.” Many of the topics distilled in their publications informed their lectures and discussions, in concert with a number of cultural and political formations.
When she wasn’t busy at a rally or demonstrating against some injustice, McIntyre was knee-deep in research on such issues as comparative religions, particularly the differing worldviews and god concepts. She was also well along with completing her study of the male/female dual principle of Black people from ancient Egypt (Kemet) to the regions of the Diaspora.
Her research on mass incarceration and institutional racism has a special importance nowadays, and activists would be rewarded in reviewing her conclusions about the role of imprisonment and its impact on Black inmates, in particular, with a considerable amount of study on the nature of solitary confinement.
Upon her death on May 15, 1999, Dr. Conrad Worrill, chair of the Black United Front, wrote that she had a great impact on his life and many others. “I miss her dearly,” he wrote.
“I miss the late night talks, advice and consultation. I am sure that many other activists, scholars and leaders in our movement also miss her. Although Sister Charshee was not a household name in the African community in this country, she was one of our leading behind-the-scenes scholars, leaders, organizers and activists, who worked tirelessly for the liberation of African and Native American people. Sister Charshee had indigenous, Native American, lineage in her family. Sister Charshee had battled with the effects of lupus and other illnesses for over 20 years.”
A good collection of McIntyre’s lectures can be found online. We wonder today with the conclusion of the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March how she would feel about it and its accomplishments.
“But the most critical piece about this march has not been presented,” she told me in 1995. “This will occur after the march, and there is a pressing need for local organizations to set up various programs to deal with action in the political, economic and criminal justice arenas. If they don’t come back with a new sense of motivation for political action, then what’s the point? And we need to do something about getting well-known New York activist/attorney Alton Maddox’s license back. A real united front should be the ultimate result of the march.”
McIntyre’s prospectus has a timeless quality, and I am sure it would be useful now that we’re in the midst of commemorating an event in which she played such a decisive role. Her legacy continues in two vital ways: through the work of her sons and the array of testimonials she left behind in the minds of the large audiences that gathered to hear her speeches and individuals who have read her books and articles.