There are certain stories that you hear about only after a parent has died. This is one of those stories.
My first trip was by car to visit my Dad’s relatives in Louisiana in 1973. We embarked on a trip that was familiar to many African Americans who moved north in search of a better life: taking a trip “down South” to visit relatives. That’s what we did: driving from my native Michigan to Louisiana. A year later we had to do it again to see my Dad’s sister, Choletile who was very ill. It was during one or both of these trips that my parents had to wrestle with what the South was and what it was becoming.
I barely remember stopping for breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi at a Holiday Inn. Mom, who grew up in Puerto Rico, wanted to get some food. Dad didn’t want to. He was afraid that we wouldn’t be served. Mom disagreed. “There are laws now,” she said referring to the civil rights laws passed a decade earlier.
Think about that for a moment. It had been less than 10 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed that effectively ended legal segregation. But for Dad, there was still suspicious. He remembered when he was younger and making the trip as a bachelor between Michigan and Louisiana and not finding a place to eat or lay his head when he was tired. That was the world that he lived with for most of his life. Mom and I had our breakfast in the restaurant where we were served with no problem. Dad sat in the car missing out because it wasn’t that long ago that he or my mother and I would not have been welcomed in that restaurant.
I share this story to show that things in America have changed. The world my Dad grew up in had laws that kept from going to certain stores or told him where to sit or where to go to school. The world that I grew up in didn’t have those restrictions based on skin color. As a black man, I’ve grown up with opportunities that my Dad could only dream of and all of that was because of the passage of laws in DC that ended official discrimination in the US.
The world that I grew up in, the 1970s and 80s, was a period that seemed to have a sense of both trepidation and optimism and that was expressed in the reaction of my parents. In high school, there seemed to be this sense that black people could be anything they wanted to be. We were free from the shackles of slavery and Jim Crow and the future was bright
This is not to say that there have been no problems since the 1960s. The deaths of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and countless others remind us that the presence of law enforcement for African Americans is always a gamble. The recent event where Caron Nazario, a soldier in the army was harassed by two police is a reminder that there are still problems in America some sixty years after the Civil Rights Movement.
But while there is still work to be done, I do believe that there has been progress. I know it by simply looking at the difference in my life and my Dad’s life.
There has always been a temptation to think that the Civil Rights movement solved all the racism in our nation and anyone complaining now is just blowing smoke. But lately, there is a strong belief where people live as if the Civil Rights Movement never existed. No March on Washington. No protests in Birmingham. No Freedom Riders. No Montgomery Bus Boycott. For a number of people, they see America as a place where nothing has changed in the lives of African Americans. There is a name for this kind of thinking: Afropessimism.
Afropessimism is a school of thought that in tells black folk that they haven’t got over. They are still enslaved and trapped in discrimination. Frank Wilderson, an Afropessimism proponent and the head of the African American Studies Department at the University of California-Irvine, sums up what it means to be an Afropessimist:
…Afropessimism sketches a structural map of human experience. On this map, Black people are integral to human society but at all times and in all places excluded from it. They are in a state of “social death,” a concept that Wilderson borrows from the sociologist Orlando Patterson. For Patterson, social death describes the experience of slavery as it has appeared across time and space—a slave is not merely an exploited person but someone robbed of his or her personhood. For Wilderson, the state of slavery, for Black people, is permanent: every Black person is always a slave and, therefore, a perpetual corpse, buried beneath the world and stinking it up. “Blackness is coterminous with slaveness,” Wilderson writes. And civil society as we know it requires this category of nonperson to exist. Emancipation is a myth.
With the world focused on the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis, my home of the last quarter-century is under a microscope. Last week, National Public Radio’s All Things Consideredinterviewed Tracey Williams-Dillard, the Publisher of the Minneapolis Spokesman-Review, the oldest African American newspaper in the Twin Cities to get her view of the trial. What she said was astounding. It was an example of Afropessimism in action. Ms. Williams-Dillard reflected on the reason her grandfather, Cecil Williams started the paper in 1934 and responded: “You know, the reason my grandfather started the paper, it doesn’t seem like none of it’s changed from today.”
Later on, she continues:
“You know, it’s — the legacy of a Black man being killed, kneel of a white man on his neck — he would be devastated, as I am. And he would hope that even in his time — at that time, he would have hoped that things had gotten better and not still the same.”
As hard as it is to see the video of George Floyd having the life literally squeezed out of him, it’s hard for me to believe things are still the same. Not when both Minneapolis and St. Paul have had African American mayors. Not when African Americans sit on the delegation to the US Congress and when we currently have an African American serving as Attorney General. Not when our nation elected a black man to be President…twice.
I’m not here to say we live in some kind of racial utopia. Nor am I turning a blind eye to all the problems facing African Americans today. But things have changed for the better. But it is hard for people to admit this and I don’t know why. Maybe there is fear that focusing on progress will mean we forget the problems we still face. But people can hold two thoughts at once. We can believe things have changed for the better and believe we still have a ways to go.
There’s a danger in thinking everything was solved in the 60s because it blinds us to the problems that still vex us. But thinking there has been no progress is a problem as well in that it leaves us with no hope. If nothing has changed, we can’t have hope that things will be better. If there has been no progress then how can we be pushed to work even harder for change?
African Americans have always been a people of hope. A lot of this came from our religious background. Martin Luther King spoke on the night before his assassination that he “had seen the promised land,” a land where the journey towards freedom and full equality was visible. Just as Moses and lead the Israelites up near the border of their Promised Land, King told that crowd in Memphis that racial equality was a journey, a journey of hope. But as African Americans become less churched, that biblical hope has given way to a pessimism that looks for a utopia that will never arrive.
The fight for full equality goes on. But what happens if African Americans lose the hope that are ancestors had?
Nearly 20 years after that first trip down South, I remember as my parents and I checked into a hotel in Memphis and went to dinner. We were on our way for another trip to visit relatives. I thought about what it was like for Dad who four decades prior wasn’t able to set foot in a hotel or eat in a restaurant because of skin. Progress had been made, but there was still more work to do.
The final verses of the great hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reminds African Americans that God has led us out of the darkness and continues to lead us forward to hope:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might,
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray
lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
I pray we don’t get drunk of the wine of despair. I pray that we can all say together:
shadowed beneath the hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
Tru to our native land.
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