Tuesday, November 4th, 2008...9:01 pm
Joy for Every US Citizen
by Mark Crane – Motormanmark.com
Today, I left my apartment with my family on our way to vote. In the hallway, I met the two old ladies from down the hall, two of the last of the dwindling Irish population that lost this West Bronx neighborhood to a mix of Latinos over the last half century.
I asked Maureen if they were voting for Obama, and she scowled. Her voice dropped and she told me, “He’s secretly for Black Power, don’tcha know. He wants them to take over.”
I argued with her a bit, trying to see it from her frightened point of view, letting her know I’d read his memoir, and that he was raised exclusively by White family members. She asserted his memoir was surely full of lies. Then, she spit out at me that former mayors Dinkins of NYC and Harold Washington of Chicago had been “rotten,” and though I had to concede about Dinkins I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word spoken about Harold Washington. But then, I shook my head: “Why are we talking about other Black people? It sounds like it’s just a racial issue with you.” Of course, she knew enough to act appalled. She defended herself that she would happily vote for Colin Powell–an unassuming man who seeks very little, stays in his place, I thought.
And there was no reasoning along political lines with either of these ladies, though they’re both poor and living off Social Security. They could simply not get beyond what they called the “character” issue.
I walked ahead of them eventually, calling back how I had just hoped to try and inspire them to get on board this new wave of history so they might enjoy the tide of enthusiasm tonight rather than live on in a bitter cloud of fear.
As we approached the polling place, a group of older teenaged Black boys came plowing down the sidewalk, taking up all the space, cursing rancidly in a loud discussion I could not understand but for the word “Obama.” I did not turn to catch the reaction from my neighbors.
When I was five years-old, my father carried me on his shoulders down the middle of State Street, the main drag in our little town, Media, Pennsylvania–not so little, as Media was the county seat–a whole heaping 5,000 residents. It was April of 1968. Martin Luther King had just been murdered and my father marched with a community fellowship group to protest the great man’s killing, carrying a petition to the court house. Officers from the local FBI headquarters stood on the curb taking pictures.
In Media, the Negroes lived in sections of town separate from Whites. In the center of town they all lived on one little alley of narrow row homes with wood porches too small to fit a gathering of two or more–Plum Street. Of course, they were very poor.
My family, which was often desperately poor, rented a big house in the center of town, just a few blocks from State Street–a block away from Plum Street.
My White parents hated injustice, and they raised me and my three big brothers to pay attention to the racism around us. We’d stumble across a Negro kid on some neutral territory and bring him home to play. We’d try to get him to walk into our yard, patting his head while we patted the dog’s head, so the dog could see he was just like us. Our big German shepherd was a natural born racist. Whenever a Negro would pass by the tall hedges around our yard Turk would lunge to the full length of his chain, snarling like Hitler. People would jump to the curb, yelping as if he’d reached them.
“Nah, that’s okay,” the kid would invariably say, begging off. “I see he’s friendly, but I just don’t want to get too close.”
The dog was savage. Stupid as a door stop.
When I was seven, I witnessed a traffic accident where our beloved crossing guard, an elderly ex-cop, was killed by a speeding van. Just before the van killed Mr. Kelly, it had bounced off the front of a car driven by the mother of one of my classmates–a little Negro girl. I was able to tell prosecutors that her mother was not a guilty player in the tragedy, and I remember that woman’s grateful eyes speaking to me, and how desperate I knew she felt for my witness.
Near the end of grade school, I got my hands on a paperback copy of Black Like Me, and I couldn’t put it down. Its White author had colored his skin and roamed the South, reporting to Whites what it was like to live the indignity of being Negro. I remember him washing his hands with bar soap, and the Whites wouldn’t use it after that.
I wrote John Howard Griffin a fan letter, and several months later an envelope came for me in the mail with a warm, personal response typed on the author’s own machine with a crooked vowel here, a half-blank consonant there.
You grow up with the simple benefit of your attention being called to the suffering of others and it really becomes a part of you. I would watch a Black person on television, and I would be breathless that they might fail–that their performance might be less than remarkable.
I attended a Catholic all-boys, nearly-all-White high school in South Philadelphia, where “nigger” was a common word passed from child to child, not in the perverse, chummy way it has come to be used now, but as a plain, mean and insulting reference to Black people. But within a few years, Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, a racist, who ran a city police force to rival Pretoria, was defeated politically by a remarkable uprising of the people, who on one weekend afternoon followed the urgings of a radio host and marched en-masse to surround City Hall in protest and end his term. I happened to be downtown that day, and I was thrilled to have found myself a part of it.
In college, the Boston Celtics, a nearly all-White team–obviously drafted with race in mind–faced off yearly against the Sixers, the Lakers, the Knicks. The announcers never spoke the truth once, but the popularity of modern basketball was built on the racial import of those match-ups. The joy at seeing Boston fall was all about race, if you ask me, whatever one may argue.
I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Richard Wright’s Native Son in college. What a world of understanding those three great books opened up to me. The characters lived in the people I knew and helped me understand others. Literature was much more relevant than I’d ever suspected.
And Michael Jackson! What a thrill to see his blinding success! And by the time he fell, something had passed, and it was not such a let down to see a Black man fall. The battle was no longer over imagery. Anybody and his brother could see that Black people could sing and dance and chuck a basketball with style. It was no big deal to see Bill Cosby showing off his dignity and grace or Michael Jordan proving he could burst the limits of what basketball fans thought was possible. The problems were harder to tackle than most people had ever dreamed. Violence, crime, and drug addiction would not be wrestled down by opportunities alone.
My best friend in college was a young Black man. As we neared graduation, he hooked up with a group of other Black students and adopted the Black culture he’d been neglecting. He joined a Black frat and got a real brand, and it wasn’t long before I realized we were not friends, nor could we even hang out again. It was one of those rare problems that honesty could not trump.
The branding of my friend had set him free from the burdens of individuality.
I became a school teacher then, after college, in East Harlem and the South Bronx. People of Color were teaching their boys about pride. It was a cure-all. You simply needed to get young boys of Color to feel pride, and all the statistics would turn around.
I never really believed it, though. My mother used to tell me pride is a vice–one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Apartheid had been destroyed in South Africa. Jesse Jackson had been entered in nomination before the Democratic National Convention. And the civil rights movement had progressed to areas that were irrelevant. Civil rights activists were blowhards, now, howling harmlessly about race, never about class. They were opportunists who believed as much in the underpinnings of a wealth-glorifying society as any of their oppressors. And what was worse, they were ineffective.
I was working then as an employment counselor for newly released inmates. Neighborhood organizations were the new thing that would get Men of Color to get to a responsible place that men of other races seemed to arrive at without prompting. Yes, neighborhood organizations, where they’d show up at a job site in a gang and demand construction jobs for their Men, menacing their way into a job that was being occupied by an immigrant.
I was all for it. If the unemployment numbers would not change, just get the Black Man a job by any means necessary. Major Owens in Brooklyn was calling for “guaranteed employment,” and I was a believer.
Then, the Nation of Islam was ready to step in with networking.
King tried to have a “Poor People’s March,” and they killed him. Farrakhan marginalized the appeal to just Men of Color and they televised his rally nationally. Men of Color were going to network their way to success!
“(As long as it has nothing to do with me…,)” murmured the powers that be.
Around this time, Clinton passed welfare reform, which I opposed and thought would destroy Afro-Americans, but, to my amazement, it seemed to lift them up, bringing Afro-American women a great step forward… towards being on a par with White women, at least.
Still, the Afro-American male stagnated.
Somewhere in there, OJ got off with murder. I was a probation officer in Brooklyn. I remember coming out on the street during my lunch and watching the celebration. As they passed, celebrating strangers glared into my White face, like I was the one who really murdered OJ’s wife.
Over ten years later, the terrible facts remain about African American men:
· Only 41% graduate from high school.
· 14% who are of voting age have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions.
· One in three between the ages of 20 and 29 years old is under correctional supervision or control.
· Half in their 20’s are jobless.
· One in every 20 is incarcerated, compared with one in 155 White men.
· The Black male homicide rate is seven times the White male rate.
· Life expectancy for African-American men is 7.1 years less than for white men, 7.5 years less than for African-American women and 12.7 years less than for white women.
· African-American men die of HIV/AIDS at a rate double that of Latinos, triple that of African-American women, and five times that of white men.
· 69% of Black children in America cannot read at grade level in the 4th grade.
· 45% of Black children live below the poverty line.
· One in 14 Black children has a parent in jail or prison.
· 67% of Black children (up from 17% in 1967) are born out of wedlock.
· 2006 Net worth of Black families was $6,100 – Net worth of White families was ten times that: $67,000. While constituting roughly 13% of the total population, Black America represents nearly 30% of America’s poor.
· African Americans have an intimate partner homicide rate four times that of whites.
· Blacks constitute 13% of all drug users, but 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of persons convicted, and 74% of people sent to prison.
· Though only 13% of the U.S. population, Blacks commit more than half of all rapes and robberies and 60% of all U.S. murders.
I heard an interview on the Tavis Smiley Show the other day where a guy was claiming this election was going to be misinterpreted to mean that the racial problem in this country is all over. In fact, was the assertion, Barack Obama had run as a White candidate. He could have never been elected as a real African American candidate. So therefore, the election could not be seen as a crucial advance in the struggle for civil rights.
Obama ran as a person who happens to identify as being African American. He did not succeed with Whites because he acted White. He succeeded with Whites because he demonstrated he was not encumbered by a need to maintain the security offered by the exclusive nature of the African American identity. He did not need to build a Jesse Jackson-type coalition with pastors and activists. He could run as a free man. An American.
And the election will not be interpreted to mean racism is dead. The great success here–the monumental success–is that African American boys around the country now have a real reason to aim themselves at values that are mainly based on intellectual ideals, not money, religion, or sports. This is the best thing that has happened to African America since the Civil Rights Act. And the change is concrete, just like the Civil Rights Act. So many African American leaders have been feckless, their main accomplishments being noise and commotion that amounts to nothing. The history books have to start printing new pages come this special day. This man has led this nation to a whole new dawn.
And to say it is a dawn is not to say it is a sunset for the problems besetting African America. The statistics have always proved we, as a nation, White and Black, have demonstrated a complete failure to understand the reasons behind this unending national crisis.
I would suggest the key is to be found in our cultural differences, our failure to bond together as one culture.
I would add slavery is alive in our country today–most obviously in the violence that lives in the African American family life. It has its cultural roots in the slave culture of the 19th and 18th centuries—not in Africa, where the people who were kidnapped did not know how to make a fist, let alone guns and chains and whips. (The statistics for violence, by the way, are equally high in Whites whose families can be traced to slave-holders and who have only mixed mainly with others of the same type of lineage over the past 150 years.)
Slavery needs to be addressed. It has to be removed from Black culture, which often looks so much like an aimless minstrel show.
Reparations for slavery must be addressed. Electing the first Black president is not enough. To say reparations for slavery are not owed is to deny the very rules this private-property-worshipping, I-got-mine-you-get-yours, anti-“socialist” country operates by. There was a loss suffered by these people—a great loss of great monetary value—that lives on today, and never, ever has there been a moment yet in our history where Black people have had a legal ability to claim it. That moment will come, and it must before racism can be put behind us.
There is a speech that must be made, too. By a president. The Prime Minister of Australia made such a speech this past year.
We must officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow and US apartheid, and promise to make amends. We must vow that such injustice will never be permitted to happen again.
And Blacks who are bitter must free their hands of such a useless emotion, and pick up a more useful tool at bringing about true improvements now—not tomorrow. Do not ignore the role of Whites in electing Barack Obama, a man we all hope stands for much more than he is willing to tell a reporter. Do not think for a minute he was not willing to admit his urban agenda because he was trying to fool White guys like me. Maybe he’s trying not to push the issue in the face of crossover Republican voters, but people like me support Obama only because we hope, by trusting the ideals he expresses, that those ideals will follow with the logical course of action–to apply his power to lifting the poor and finding new, effective routes to approach the crisis of African America–and to helping the suffering people in Somalia and Darfur and Haiti and Congo….
We may never have a moment of opportunity like this again. We must find real bridges to bring together our cultures. Then, we must immediately turn the same impulse out to the world beyond our country.
Today is a great day. A great day. A wonderful day for every US citizen to rejoice and a day for the Blacks and Whites of our nation who have been so long oppressed by the racism that lives in our American life to feel like we’ve finally found our way to another great step forward.
Spoil yourself today. This GREAT day! Congratulations to you!