What to Do with African-Americans?

While the country girds up for this 2012 presidential election, I found myself last night thinking of how far America has to go when it comes to her African-American citizens.

I was in a roomful of people, primarily African-American. At issue was a discussion of changes that will take place in their neighborhood. A housing development is slated to be demolished, and residents are being relocated. There was some anger, some cynicism, and some resentment. For me, though, there was sadness.

America is always trying to figure out what to do with “them,” African-Americans. That “them” includes me.

I said to the person sitting next to me, “Why is it that it’s always African-Americans who are displaced?”  Interstate highways have traditionally been run through African-American neighborhoods. When gentrification becomes a standard in a city, again, African-Americans, primarily, but also anyone who is unlucky to live in the path of urban renewal districts, get relocated.

It doesn’t feel right.

There was a huge effort by the people handling the community forum to comfort and encourage the residents, but I could tell it wasn’t really “taking.” “What is the plan you have for our neighborhood?” asked one woman. “Where are you locating us? Where are the people who have already been relocated?” asked another.

I found myself getting sadder and sadder, and also wondering what I’d feel like if I were about to be relocated, God only knows where. What would I feel like if the only home I’d ever known was going to be demolished? There is a connection people have between their homes and their neighborhoods, and their very selves. When that is disturbed, people lose an important anchor, and all of us need anchors that we can depend on, no matter what.

One woman stood up and invited all of the people in that room – about 200 or so – to visit her neighborhood, to see that it was and is a good neighborhood, and so are its residents, those who remain. There was pain in her voice. As she talked, she held her little girl,who looked at her with the widest eyes, as if waiting to see the sign that her mommy needed to be comforted.

It seems that “we,” African-Americans, are always the negotiable portion of any deal. It’s OK to go to our neighborhoods, it’s OK to uproot us…and as the wheels of progress turn, it seems that, far too often, America is wondering what to do with “us.”

This apparent inability to appreciate African-Americans and to wonder what to do with “them” (us)  unless they (we) are helping to build this economy has a history to it; our beloved President Abraham Lincoln wondered if, after the Civil War, we might be willing to be shipped back to Africa.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was “the question” again: what do we do with “them,” the poor African-Americans who have lost everything?

It feels like we’re still regarded as chattel,and it doesn’t feel good.

At the end of the day, the people in this neighborhood in my city will be “moved,” and the planned development will go on as planned. The planners promise to include those in the neighborhood as they actually do make the plan and put it into place. That’s nice. That’s good and right…but last night I didn’t feel any spirit of gratitude in that room.

The little girl whose mother spoke clung to her mother’s hand as they left the meeting, and as I watched them, I found myself whispering to myself, “Hold on, little girl, and grow up to know your worth and your power.” I wondered why I whispered that, and I guess it’s because I feel that still, way too many of “them” (us) don’t know our worth and power. And so we continue to be moved, shuffled, escorted out of the way of the American dream.

It’s as though our dreams don’t matter, and it feels like we as a people have bought into that ethos. If we don’t dream, the let-down won’t hurt so bad.

The heck with that. We need to dream more, and dream with audacity and tenacity, so that in the future, the planners-that-be won’t be able to move us as easily as they have in the past.

Enough is enough.

A candid observation …


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