The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Two of Four)

What does it mean to be an American? I suppose it would mean, or should mean at least, that one stands for liberty, for equal opportunity, and the right of all peoples to have a say in the governing system that oversees their existence. In this, we as black Americans are Americans like any other. But to be an African American does make one the heir of  a unique history and a powerful legacy that runs through the heart of the overall American experience. It is a history that gives us strength, but only in proportion to the degree to which we know it and embrace it. In my opinion therefore, it is important for us to claim this legacy knowing that ours is an American legacy. We, as much as the whites who brought us here, built this country. We, man for man, woman for woman, have helped to shape it by our endurance and our innovation as much as  European Americans. Our struggle has been different from theirs. Indeed, our struggle has been against them, to a significant degree. Yet our pains followed us here from Africa as well, sold into the hands of one group of slave owners by slave owners whose colors were our own. As such we were forced to start over, in a way that perhaps no people has ever had to before. Indeed, we are still starting over. In the last fifty years we have called ourselves negro, black, African-American, then Nigga with an “a” because, (I suppose), that makes a difference, and indeed some black people will take exception to any of these labels because as a whole people we have still not agreed upon who precisely we are. No, not after all this time. Part of the reason for this, I’ve decided, is because we are still uncertain as to whether or not we with our tormented history at the hands of the mighty in this country should really consider ourselves American at all. The answer to this question is that we should because we are, and that our Americanism is more than just a technicality. Our experience has colored the American experience, our culture lies at the heart of America’s culture, and our minds claim great shares in the authorship of America’s ideals as they’ve been further defined through the many generations succeeding the moment of this nations founding. But all of that is for not if we don’t see ourselves as Americans.

Though I was never ignorant of the struggles of African-Americans in this country, I was raised by both my white father and my black mother to think of myself as an American, and to be proud of that fact. That’s why, one day in the seventh grade, I was more than a little shocked when, after we we’re all asked to stand for the pledge of allegiance, one of the black girls in my class pointedly refused. Our teacher asked why she refused and she said, “why should I? This is the country that enslaved me, that wouldn’t let my people use the same bathroom or go to the same schools as white people. Why the hell should I pledge allegiance to that?” Though she wasn’t talking to me I vividly remember feeling hurt by her words. “We’re all in the same schools now,” I thought. Still, her anger struck me and I wondered, was I naive to love this country? Later in my life, and after having argued the case for black American patriotism many times, many ways, I heard another man artfully put in words what I had long understood and had long tried to explain to those black friends of mine who wanted still to hold tightly to their anger towards this country.

When Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was shaken by the uproar over the anti-American tirade of Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church in Chicago,(then Senator Obama’s longtime pastor), Barack Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia to address the issue. In this speech he said a thing that sounded curious to many people, that didn’t satisfy many of his critics, but which I understood perfectly well. His words were as follows:

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.”

Many critics of the president’s felt this to be not but an artful alibi for suffering the anti-American rhetoric of a radical religious figure, something that should have disqualified any candidate seeking the presidency from obtaining that office. But as a black and as a (if you will) mulatto myself, I recognized both sides of the coin which he described. For many of the people I love most in my life, black people of intelligence and integrity, have disparaged America in my presence in similar terms, something I have often cringed at. Yet how can I be angry at them for reacting to a pain that didn’t end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act? How can I judge them for expressing the bitterness that still trickles into our hearts as African-Americans from the time of slavery to now? I need inform no black person with the slightest bit of awareness of our circumstance of the statistics: we are the poorest people in the nation. We are the most undereducated people in the nation. We are the most imprisoned, the most murdered, and the latter by our own. We are self-hating so why would we not hate the country that left us this legacy of poverty, that actively sought to turn us against each other, destroying our hearts and minds and all that in the name of God? Yet hatred and distrust is not the only dynamic that exists between white and black in our society. For while we can bare witness to the prejudice of whites directed towards us throughout our history, we can also see that the power of love and God has also been present in the midst of our American confusion. How else could Barack Obama’s grandmother love him as she did in spite of the fear she may occasionally of felt towards black men? How could I myself have come to be so loved by my own white grandparents in spite of their segregationist tendencies, in spite of the fact that at the time my grandfather learned of my father’s marriage to my mother he angrily felt that my father had committed a disgrace? But love transcended these fading lines of color, both for Senator Obama and myself, and through the painful process of time for America herself to a great degree. So then did Barack Obama identify the mistaken cynicism of Jeremiah Wright and the many blacks who share his point of view regarding America, saying:

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Some countries never change. Throughout history, many nations have not emerged from their tribal conflicts but have burned to the ground in such fires. America however has changed. Not enough of course, but enough to where we whose faith is not so great as a warrior like Martin Luther King, Jr. can too say that we have glimpsed the mountain top of which he spoke. We must recognize the moment we’ve come to as black people, a moment that allows for us to take the lead in rescuing our country from itself, a moment when our nation and our children white and black need us most. For today our national peril is not so dissimilar from what we faced back in the 1960′s, except that today the roots of our divisions are not-primarily-racial, but rather we suffer from an ideological and a cultural divide that prevents us both from solving problems in our government and coming together as a people. With respect to these near insurmountable problems they cannot be solved unless the lessons of the African-American experience are applied and our special position on the societal spectrum utilized. How will we do this? By digging deep into the soil of our pain to raise the flower of our faith as a people, which once made us the moral leaders of a nation. We, the African-American people, have the power to move hearts and minds because of who we are and what we’ve been through, and in this potential lies our power to lift ourselves out of our own tragic circumstances in the process. We who have healed from the wounds of generations long persecution must now be the delivers of healing for an injured nation and our injured brothers and sisters who struggle to see the power that they have. In this is the Christian promise of triumph and reconciliation of which King wrote when he penned these words that are as relevant to our time and mission as they were to his: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our condition.”

Black America, we have a choice to make…

2 Comments on "The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Two of Four)"

  1. Sharon Aug 18, 2011 · 8:17 pm

    A great article. I look forward to reading more from this author.

  2. Kazuya Apr 20, 2012 · 8:42 pm

    I’ve taken this test before and screod less Dixie than you (and I’m an Arkansas boy at heart), but I agree that y’all is a Southern term. My friend Kelly, who is from Chicago but went to college with me in the South, picked up y’all there and continues to use it, to the derision of her Midwestern friends. It’s just so useful and more graceful than the Chicagoan you guys or youse guys. In fact, y’all is usually my one giveaway to folks who otherwise don’t hear my Southern accent.

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