Somebody Has To Say It…

August 31, 2008

Memories

The camera cut back to her at least half a dozen times. Although there were certainly thousands of people in the Pepsi Center, she seemed to be all alone, standing above the fray, peering down upon it in wonder. What had once seemed unimaginable was now a done deal– Barack Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, had been formally nominated as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America. For those who had been wary of some misguided coup attempt by Hillary Clinton (and I was certainly in that group), breathing was easier once again as we realized she’d just wanted to have at least some symbolic share of this historic moment.

But even as thousands celebrated, the camera could not stay away from the lady in the stands. I do not know her age, although I would guess around sixty or so, but the look in her eyes spoke of many years past. She did not clap or wave, but held her hands clasped tightly together in front of her.  I never saw her yell or scream; in fact, her lips did not move, save a slight quivering that, given the mistiness of her eyes, was an indication of her determination to hold her emotions in check.

I wonder what she was thinking? I imagined that it was my mother standing there; would she remember that day in 1969 when she came home from school, told me to put on shoes, then took me back to Aliceville Elementary School so I could see the tank parked in front of it? Would she remember the National Guardsmen who stood in the hallways, rifles at their sides, ordered to that institution of learning to ensure integration happened without violence?

I imagined my father in the lady’s place. Would he remember walking five miles to little Eatman school, having to literally cross the Sipsey River on his journey? Would he remember hauling pulpwood for two dollars a day, which was a huge step up from what he would make picking cotton? Would he remember his oldest sister, Aunt Catherine, giving up on her own college education, choosing instead to leave Stillman College, coming home and running the household so that the rest of her siblings could follow their educational dreams?

I imagined my Aunt Bess standing there. If she were still alive, would she think about Uncle Walter, who spent decades planting, tending, and picking cotton in those vast fields that did not belong to him?  And would she recall that after Uncle Walter’s death, how the owner refused to let the family back onto the land, even though our family reunions had been held there around that boat well for twenty years, and the two ramshackle houses that had sheltered at least four generations were still standing? We wanted nothing but our memories; we had no claim to the millions of dollars that those fields had yielded, but since the owner had no obligation to allow us on the land, she saw no reason to.

And I imagined my late mother-in-law, Mattie Wilder Gay, standing there. If she were alive, she would be about the age of that lady. Would she have remembered the nights driving home from civil rights rallies and SCLC meetings? Would she have thought about the time someone followed her, and she feared that she might soon share the fate of Medgar Evers or Emmitt Till? Would she have remembered tirelessly registering Black people in the Alabama Black Belt to vote, an effort she surely would have doubled or tripled in support of Barack Obama’s unprecedented candidacy?

I do not know what the lady was thinking, but as the camera insisted, again and again, upon sharing such a personal moment, her eyes unmasked what was at once joy, wonder, and thanksgiving. I was born in 1964, less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. I did not see the dogs or firehoses, but maybe she did. I cannot recall the abject despair that must have engulfed the Black community when Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down, but maybe she can. I was not attacked on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, but maybe she was. And I have never been denied the right to vote, eat at a restaurant, or sit in the seat of my choice on a bus, but maybe, just maybe, she has.

In that moment, as the camera kept returning to her poignant visage, that Black lady, whomever she was, became Every(Black)man. There are so many who literally gave their lives for oppotunities much less grand than this one. They merely wanted to vote in peace, eat at the same counter, and have some semblance of a fair chance in this American Dream. If only they could have been there on August 27, 2008, as the deafening, soaring symphony of “Aye” acclaimed that Barack Obama, a Black man in these United States of America, had ascended to the very doorstep of a house built largely by African slaves, and which has symbolized, for over 200 years, a level of power and prestige only attainable –no, only imaginable, by White men.

As the lady stood silently, watching the unabashed joy unfolding below, I wonder what she was thinking?

June 23, 2008

Waiting for…?

Milwaukee

I’m sure there are hundreds of images of the flooding in the Midwest, and in those hundreds there are many faces representing the utter devastation these people have faced and continue to endure. Yet, this is the first one I’ve seen that featured Black people, and frankly, it is beyond discouraging.

A couple of weeks ago, a poster on a forum that I visit quite regularly (okay, twenty times a day) opened a thread with the title “Am I a Racist?”  I’m going to print verbatim what he said:

This morning, when I was watching the news, I first saw a news flash about the floods in Iowa, I was completely floored. I prayed for the people who were evacuated, and whose homes were destroyed. I then made the comment that “the level of water was comparable, if not worse, than that in New Orleans after Katrina. However, Iowa is full of white midwesterners, so I doubt there will be any looting. Furthermore, these people will more than likely be quick to rebuild instead of waiting on Fema to show up and fix it. While New Orleans still looks like a war zone, I am willing to Bet that Grand Rapids looks the same it did last week, if not better, inside of 8 months.”
After saying this, and realizing that I believed it, I asked the question, does this assumption make me a racist?

After a bit of back and forth, the subject moved to affirmative action, and its impact on Black society. I then posted the following:

The problem is that in spite of its stated original purpose (a temporary forced righting of the ship), it has become institutionalized, with only a small percentage of people each year/generation managing to leap out of its quagmirish cycle. Many of us know that it needs to go, but without some support system in its place, it will result in immediate levels of economic destitution for millions of Americans who, having never had a reason to become self-sufficient, will have no idea where to begin. This is not what Dr. King wanted. Never once did he campaign for affirmative action or handouts– just for a level playing field. What we got has done immeasurable harm to black society, which for 500 years survived because of its ability to adapt and overcome.

In fairness, the picture above, and the apparently bizarre circumstances that surround it (http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=764962) are from Milwaukee, not Des Moines nor anywhere else in Iowa. Approximately twenty percent of Milwaukee’s one and half million residents are Black, yet the pictures of this morning’s debacle show no other apparent ethnicities waiting in line for a handout. Further into the article, it states that 92 counties in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana have been declared eligible for the Disaster Food Stamp Program. I wonder if the scene in Milwaukee played out anywhere else. Are non-Black flood victims in other counties standing in line all day because they “heard vouchers were being given out?” Maybe, maybe not. I have no way of knowing, and to be honest, I would not trust the mainstream media to publicize such events if they did occur.

However, I’m concerned about us– Black Americans. As a people, have we been conditioned to wait for help? Do we lack the resourcefulness, knowledge, and/or desire to overcome adversity on our own? For hundreds of years, we could have given up, but we didn’t. Now, with opportunities standing before us that even Dr. King couldn’t have dreamed, are we resolved to stand with hands outstretched and palms upward, dependent on “somebody” to fix things for us? Yes, I understand economic disparity. Yes, I understand substandard schools. Yes, I certainly understand abject poverty. But I also understand perseverance and self-determination, and I’m wondering where it has gone.

The flooding in the Midwest has wreaked complete havoc on lives. That is beyond debate. For many people, Black, White, and everything in between, there was no time to prepare or plan. Such is the nature of natural disasters. I know that if such a disaster were to strike my town, I, too, would be struggling to protect and provide for my family.  Maybe the people in Milwaukee were facing a level of desperation with which I simply cannot identify, and maybe that desperation is what caused them to begin pushing and shoving, injuring some people as they fought for a handout that wasn’t even there. Again, I don’t know, and really, much of what I’m writing is just conjecture because I’m not there to see it for myself.

But something about this picture bothers me, deeply.  For now, I’m just going to read more and think more. Maybe tomorrow no one will be waiting.

 

 

 

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