Rants: State of Emergency

The State of the Black Union concluded in Los Angeles this weekend after the input of various scholars, activists, political leaders and pundits, mixed with the fear of the recession (or depression if you’re just talking about black people. Economically things have been nightmarish for African Americans for some time) with the optimism of President Barack Obama’s election.

Founded by author/journalist Tavis Smiley, this was the 10th year for the event where 6,000 people attended panels, networked and discussed the state of the race.

The funny thing about the state of the race: it’s bad.

Depending on where you live it is either horrific or merely annoying, but bad. Yet the other funny thing about black America is that if you’ve been hearing a car alarm blare at you for more than 100 hundred years, do you start to not even notice that it’s there? Do you begin to think that your maladies are just realities? Do you accept the status quo?

All my life I’ve watched black people “settle.” And when I mean settle, I mean it in many, many forms. Some “settle” for the mediocrity. Some settle for the poverty or violence of their neighborhoods (or the neighborhoods they left and now tut-tut as if fixing the old neighborhood was all the matter of Robert Preston showing up with 76 trombones to blow all the gangbangers away). Some settle for the fact that marriage, stability, peacefulness, happiness, good health, mental stability and intelligence is the property of others, not us, not for you. Things that should be natural rights become “something white folks do.”

Things that are ordinary to some (like finding kindness and compassion towards one another and our children) are luxuries they cannot afford. A beat down will fix all. Or simply stoicism. Women don’t need men and the men agree to mixed to disastrous results. (Who abandoned who first depends on who you ask.) The children grow up thinking it is “love,” real and true, if they want to do it without a condom. And even though you were raised in the ‘burbs you still feel this pressing need to keep something, anything “real,” even if it is to the point of absurdity.

There is an alarm blaring, but can you hear it? Can anyone hear it over the cacophony of “get money?” (Cash, clothes and hoes is all a you-know-what-knows, to paraphrase.) It’s the one lesson we did learn from being kept out of the purest part of our country’s capitalism for so long. The used and abused would become the proprietors. Masters of our own ideological plantations. That individual desire to die with the most toys. We learned that part fastest and very well. And it was understandable. We got a late start on building institutional wealth in our communities. Both my parents came from nothing. My sisters and I are first generation out of the fields.

But some people see money as the solution to everything. Money helps. But as someone who grew up in those pristine suburbs with the manicured lawns and the pretty, little ranch homes, the alarm was still blaring there. Only instead of the fear that your child would die from drugs or crime or random acts of violence, there was a different set of problems, built out of contempt and an overall laissez faire attitude. A sense of “we made it,” so stop.

My mother did not trust the public school system to educate me properly. That doesn’t mean I didn’t go to public school. I went my entire childhood attending taxpayer funded schools. She simply chose to fight with my school district everyday, declaring war on the public school system until my sisters and I got the education she was paying for via taxes. This was a luxury many black parents could not afford. Many of my peers’ mothers had to work. I was lucky. Mine didn’t. But then many of my peers also had the latest of name-brand clothes and newest and nicest of everything.

That was the trade off. My mother could have worked and I could have worn Nikes instead of whatever knock-offs Payless was selling and my teachers could have continued to be negligent in educating me OR she could show up to visit the school, volunteer in class, go the conferences, fight for the curriculum and make sure I was on track for college back in elementary school, make me her full time job, and I could just gain some “character points” from having the “wrong clothes” all the time.

I wore a lot of wrong clothes, but there were never any surprises for me on the “you’re going to college” front.

Many of my peers were a different story. While many did succeed, there were a great many who were trapped in the system, labeled early on as being learning disabled when nothing was really wrong with them (all black boys are apparently menacing and terrifying, even at six, to the public school system). Or there were those who’s parents simply thought their children would find college by osmosis, not talking to them about it until junior year when they would learn their kid took none of the right classes, fit none of the qualifications and despite being 17 years old, could only read on a fourth grade level.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if black children going to one of the best public schools in the state of Missouri (which I did, the Hazelwood School District during the 1980s and 90s) are doing just as bad as black kids going to the “bad,” poorer school in the city the black middle class moved from, there is a problem.

And I won’t bother to re-depress anyone with the abysmal marriage rate amongst African Americans within my age range. Or how I sometimes get the side-eye when people learn I have no children, as if I knew some magic “don’t get pregnant” trick other than birth control and abstinence.

When getting knocked up on accident is just an “oh well,” something is wrong.

But it’s so normal. So no one thinks of it. You throw the baby shower for the fifteen-year-old. You accept that you have no desire or intention to marry the guy who got you pregnant at 25.

Maybe you move in together. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you like each other. Maybe you both think you can do better so you’re waiting on that perfect, magical person to marry, but until then, you have this kid to raise.

And doesn’t every couple hit each other and call each other offensive names? That’s normal, right? It’s normal to respond to disagreements with the one’s you “love” through violence and control. What’s the big deal? She probably deserved to get hit because she started it. Or maybe she’s such an incredibly “strong black woman” that instead of being a victim like her mother was, she’s going to go toe-to-toe with her abuser, or be an abusive person before THEY can be the abusive person.

Because that’s normal. Right?

Only it’s not. None of it is normal.

It’s not normal to take your loneliness or depression that you won’t get treated for (because we all know, mental illness is obviously a white person thing) and channel it into Big Macs. And it’s not normal for sarcasm, anger, cynicism and derision to be the ONLY acceptable emotions black people can express in public. It’s not OK if you’ve never hugged your daughter … or son. And if a beat down is your answer to every situation, don’t be surprised if your kid grows up believe that too is the way to deal with all life’s issues — humiliation and violence.

And then we can all curl up next to our money, horrible significant others or bottle of liquor depending on our relationship/economic status and tell it to make us feel good. Announce that “Jesus saves,” tell folks near death to “go pray on it,” and sit on our hands thinking we’re just great people.

Which brings us back to Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union event … sponsored by ExxonMobile (The revolution must be financed!)

This event where esteemed people of intellect and great thought and caring and insight sat around and talked for hours upon hours is one that Smiley has made his pièce de résistance. The mantle upon which the ego is at rest.

Talk is good. We need to talk. I write. That’s how I deal with my angst. That’s great. Cathartic. But now what? As a non-activist, semi-satirical, former journalist/blogger my goal is to look at something and try to find a different interpretation.

(It’s what I do as an “artist.”)

But I got nothing.

I got nothing but the same old same old. We sat and talked and Smiley has a book to sell about holding the president and the government accountable to the black community and it’s great that we sat and talked, but now what? The NAACP is pushing to boycott the New York Post over Chimpgate. Glorious. Now what?

More and more I feel like people are fighting ghosts.

It’s not that racism isn’t real. It is real. It’s a problem. But we often act like it’s the only problem we know how to wrangle. Someone yells “nigger” in a crowded (or not so crowded) room and we have Al Sharpton on speed dial. But let “Tyronne” flunk out of high school while living in the basement of his mom and dad’s Tony suburb, knock up his girlfriend and lumber through life fighting with her and his new girlfriend on the side, who works but is miserable because she doesn’t love herself while Rome burns to a tasty, chicken-fried crisp and we shrug. That was on Tyronne. Or the women. Or the parents. If they all only believed in Christ more or blah, blah, blah. We can’t handle the personal even if the personal is an epidemic and touches nearly every black person we know.

Case in point: the repeated sentiment I noticed from those who attended the event or watched the proceedings on C-SPAN:

I would have gotten more out of a bit less discussion of historical context and more time spent presenting specific strategies and tactics that each and every motivated person watching the symposium could consider while working to make our country better. What should and ‘Accountable’ campaign look like? Technology was barely mentioned. Why not a dedicated ‘SOBU Accountable’ website with step-by-step, or should I say, click-by-click instructions about how to contact your congressman with a standard letter covering what needs to be said? Or a dedicated SOBU 2009 social networking site where members could share ideas about moving forward with ‘Accountable’ and share their personal experiences of what’s working and what’s not.

(Source: AOL/Black Voices)

Barack Obama’s campaign created the new model for organizing and campaigning to effect change in America. The haters on this board need to STFU and put the model to good use. Speechifying and pontificating ain’t gonna get it. They need to hit the streets and start working to organize the people instead of sitting on their asses yelling at them. — eclecticbrotha

Perhaps Tavis isn’t the best messenger, but his question needed to be asked, if not only directed at Obama’s Administration but to all Americans as well. Nobody on the national level is really talking directly about poverty – Edwards tried in the primaries but he couldn’t deliver the message. Instead we’re to assume that when elected officials talk about saving the working/middle class that poor folk are a part of that conversation.

Not exactly.

Academic conversations, Ivy League and otherwise, are one thing (albeit important), but direct action/advocacy work and enacting legislation with the devastatingly poor in mind is a whole other thing…

That said, I think that by Obama inviting Ty’Sheoma Bethea to his SOTU speech was effective. Keep the conversation going though – let’s not be afraid to use words like “poverty” and “working poor” in the mainstream. — Friday025

(Comments source: Jack & Jill Politics)

Everyone is frustrated and tired and angry, but everyone is always frustrated, tired and angry. That’s been the general consensus since we got off the boat.

Some people are waiting for a hero to come and lead us to the next phase, to the “promise land.”

News flash: They ain’t coming.

The problems have evolved. Sadly, the people doing the most talking have not. It’s going to take a little more fortitude and a lot more self-determination to break through this present corporately-sponsored malaise. Brought to you by a pack of Kools, BET and “apathy,” I present to you the Post-Civil Rights Era, full of opportunities knocking, but no one going in. Books are great if the people you’re trying to reach actually read. But the work of a Paperback Prophet is never done, so Smiley leaves his conference prepared to go on the road to sell his book “Accountable” across the nation.

You don’t have to be Martin Luther King, Jr. You don’t have to be Jesus, lay up on a cross and die save black people. Even during the Civil Rights Movement not everyone was cut out to march. For instance, my father. King (and others) in the non-violence movement were pretty explicit that if you couldn’t get hit without hitting back you need not apply to cross that bridge with them. My father, temper raw as ever, will lay a person out. He would have spent his 20s getting fitted for a noose rather than finishing college.

My mother made her impact by not settling on just making sure I had a good education, but lobbying on behalf of countless black kids in our district. When we had the black history month programs and Martin Luther King Day programs and learned African history and got our extracurricular activities in elementary school I wasn’t sitting in a class alone. Everyone benefited from what she, and many other, black parents did by refusing to shut up, by getting involved and demanding results from their school.

To this day she’s the “wandering mentor,” adopting the stray teens she meets working in K-Mart and Walgreens, giving them newspaper clippings of encouragement and hugs and telling them to not be ashamed of going to community college first, that the most important thing isn’t to quit.

As an adult, I volunteered with kids, telling them how college (if you want it) is available, but you have to start planning NOW. And that you can’t allow voices of defeat, of those who have bought into a mythology of blackness based on stereotype and ugliness keep you from your better path. For a lot of kids it was just nice to see another brown face and know that being smart and going to college and loving one another and being open and affectionate are not just something white folks do.

And you don’t know how much it annoys me when I hear black children say this about things, things that should be normal, like marriage, as if it were something for only Ross and Rachel, Malibu Barbie and her Malibu Ken. But OF COURSE it’s mythology to you when you don’t know it, can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t taste it, haven’t experienced it, never hear about it except during sweeps week on network television on the CW.

That’s why the Obamas easily captured so many blacks’ imaginations. Suddenly black people with degrees and jobs who marry and are successful and have children aren’t myths, they aren’t unicorns. They’re real. And suddenly, they were everywhere. Wow. Little faces everywhere of successful black people. Where had these people been, one wondered? Had they been hidden in plain sight all along?

Yes! Yes, they were! They were always there. But how could you notice them when you’re too busy ignoring that alarm blaring in the background? STATE OF EMERGENCY! It screams with nothing but bad, bad news. When all your energy is spent on looking down, because … STATE OF EMERGENCY! You’re too afraid to look up and see the problems, the big, scary, impossible looking problems.

Of course, you find yourself collecting pictures of Michelle Obama and looking up adoringly at the president. Someone, and I don’t know who (maybe a parent, teacher or society), told you that this wasn’t for you and now you’re just learning that it is and it is wonderful. So, pardon you, if your mind was blown and the opportunities that were there, yet not there because you didn’t know, are now real to you. That you now, in the most wonderful and Disney and clichéd way, finally “believe.”

But now that you have gotten a good look at the potential. Now that you can hear the knocking over the blaring. Now that you’ve gotten a good earful of the speech. Now that you’ve gotten your latest inoculation of scholars and politicians and activists and paperback prophets talking about your present state of emergency LOOK UP!

For God’s sake, look up.

The world is bigger than you. It’s time to start acting that way.

55 thoughts on “Rants: State of Emergency

  1. This is the first time I’ve seen your blog, and this is the first post I’ve read. This was a great post. And while it doesn’t seem that on a "grand" scale Black folks aren’t doing much to help cure what ails our community, I do know of one person whose mission is to help people not to believe "the greatest lie ever told and sold for a profit." To show that we can, individually and as a community, "Step Out of the Darkness." My husband, who goes by Manchild in the blogosphere, stops young men on the street whenever he’s out, challenging them to step higher and higher. He regularly stops the car when he sees a young Black man saggin’ and approaches them with love to say, "Don’t fall for the okey-doke" (those are my words, not his). He constantly tries to raise the level of thinking of those with whom he comes into contact. There are people who are out there, like you, like your mother, who are raising a standard. Thank God for people like you.

  2. I just started reading your blogs today (and even some of the comments) and I could not believe that there were actually other people who believed the same way I do. This is like a breath of fresh air and a renewal of hope to me because I thought I might have become one of the "unicorns" as well, cursed to forever yell into a crowd of people going off a cliff who just would not listen.As a young (some of you might consider me very young at 22) black man recently out of college, I have personally made it a point to try and influence some of my siblings and other people in my city to reach a little higher. I just feel like there is so much potential in black communities across this country and it is being wasted because we have gotten too caught up in hating on those who have taken a path to success that is not "accepted" by the at-large black community (music, sports or acting).My question is when, as a people, are we finally going to stand up for ourselves and each other and say, "Enough of this nonsense! Is this really what our ancestors of the Civil Rights Movement really wanted for us? How would they look at us now?" When are we, as a whole, finally going to "man-up" and act like we actually want to succeed?

  3. Great commentary and I especially like the fact that you seem to be one of a few black Americans who were actually raised in a "normal" family, with the dad as the breadwinner and the mom as the homemaker and nurturer of the children. I just wrote about the vanishing homemaker on my own blog as my latest post.I stopped watching these senseless State of the Black Union get togethers because although many problems were addressed, folks just seem lost on what true solutions should be. I did hear a couple of speakers a few years ago touch on spiritual foundations as a solution to our problems, but it was not what anyone truly wanted to hear. Was that touched on with this years SOTBU conference?Our black communities are a mess because we have lost our first love – our love of God and His commandments found in the bible. Many of us even spend time going to church on Sundays but every other minute and hour and day is spent ignoring God by these spiritual "pretenders."Our problems is simple: we’ve forgetton God. The solution is simple: turn our hearts and heads back to Him!

  4. EXCELLENT. You just helped solidify my reasons for not watching SOBU in years. EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT.*off to pass this along*

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