Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Old Thoughts on Some Still Current Realities

I was thrilled to find the old Pingry High School newspaper that I had long thought about and hoped to track down. It had an article I wrote about the racial situation in the United States in 1968. I was 17-years old and yes, the article is below my current standard of good writing. But my intention was good and I hit on some truths that have guided my life. Back then, I had met Bill Blackshear, my African-American fellow passionate basketball friend in 8thgrade and Dave Fullilove, another African-American friend from Pingry. I had yet to have my life transformed by African-American jazz musicians I would never meet in person—folks like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane—well, the list is long—and some folks who I had the good fortune to meet and even play with at my school—Bobby McFerrin, Milt Jackson, Stefon Harris, Linda Tillery and more. I had yet to meet my Orff mentor Avon Gillespie, my Ghanaian teacher and friend Kofi Gbolonyo, my son-in-law Ronnie Taylor and my grandchildren Zadie and Malik, all people of color who lifted (and still lift) my world with their spirit, but have suffered the barbs of racism that are still sadly continuing 50-years after this article. 

I don’t love the ending and their could have been some useful editing, but mostly the article seems to hold up. Though the use of the word “Negro” and the consistent masculine pronouns makes it feel outdated, the harsh truths and realities are still relevant. Particularly the first paragraph—the purposeful ignorance and refusal to raise awareness. Here is the article: 

“X” Is For the Unknown

The problem of a sheltered Pingy being unaware of the outside world is a very real one and is nowhere more pressing than in regard to the Negro situation. It is this state of unawareness that causes people to draw false conclusions concerning the Negro and his problems. And it is these conclusions which are the basis of racism in America today. 

The Negroes were “freed” 105 years ago from one form of slavery only to journey north to the “promised land” and become economically enslaved in the ghetto. Such statements frequently made my unaware whites as, ‘The Negroes are a lazy people who would rather sit around and collect relief checks instead of working,’ become immediately absurd when one becomes familiar with the horrors of life in the ghetto. These people ask that the Negro pick himself up by his bootstraps when he doesn’t have any boots. They seem to forget that the Negroes are human beings and they are no less adept and can’t be expected to be more adept than any other human being at overcoming impossible odds to break out of their living hell. In the ghetto, everday living is viewed as a survival of the fittest. Thousands of children are forced to drop out of school to take up a form of hustling so that they may survive. Narcotics almost invariably become a part of the ghetto dwellers life for many have to keep ‘high’ just to face their miserable existence. Prison is a home away from home for many. Negroes in the ghetto (which constitute almost 65% of the Negro population) have the misfortune of living in a  society which crushes them and then condemns them for not being able to withstand the weight. 

In a discussion concerning today’s Negro, the question of the riots almost invariably comes up. The first question raised is, “Are they logical means of attaining equality?” In order to answer this question, I refer to a quote from The Autobiography of Malcom X.”

‘ I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn’t be a nice boy like my brother Wilfred; but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry. So early in life I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.’

Actually, whether you agree with the accomplishments of the riots is secondary. The important question is, ‘Is it psychologically justifiable for the Negroes as human beings to react as they have to a continued state of oppression?’ I maintain that it is. If you still insist that the riots are reflections of the Negroes’ destructive nature, can you term them any less horrible that the lynching of 1846 Negroes between 1900 and 1930? What today’s Negro is essentially saying is no different from what Patrick Henry said in his famous statement, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’

Black Power. What is it? Conrad Prusak, in his article in the last issue of the Pingry Record, concluded that Black Power was something to be put in the same category as violence, riots and destruction. The mistake he and so many other people make is to link Black Power to violence and perceive it as a bid for black domination and exploitation. Black power, hoever, is probably the best movement today for advancing the Negro cause. It deals with the problem from all aspects—social, economical and political, in a manner which is beneficial to Negro interests. 

On the social level, Black Power seeks to erase the self-degradation imposed on the Negroes by whites and replace it with a sense of racial pride and dignity. No longer shoul a Negro have to apologize for the color of his skin. He can now say, “I’m black and I’m proud of it.”
The concept of racial pride serves also a cohesive factor in achieving racial unity, a vital step in bettering the Negro situation. Thus, when the white people are ready to come to terms with the blacks (and hopefully, they will one day), they will be dealing with a psychologically healthy and united group of people.

Secondly, Black Power seeks to strengthen the ghetto economically. Every day, Negroes do business with white merchants who leave the ghetto at night to return to their suburban homes. Thus, all the Negroes’ economic potential flows on a one-way street, out of the ghetto and into the hands of the white exploiter. Black Power seeks the strengthening of Negro business and enterprise, and the prerequisite that any white merchant setting up a business in the ghetto must reinvest a substantial portion of his income or face economic boycott. This would be a step in erasing Negro dependence on whites, a primary cause in their failure to achieve equal rights. They would no longer have to accept compromises from the white establishment because of their dependence. 

Although the Negro in various areas might achieve a good education and financial stability, the whites still control the school, the police force and other facets of the community which prevent the Negro from fully attaining the equality he apparently had achieved. It soon became clear that the legislation which was passed because of the Civil Rights movement was not enough. It became clear that economic stability and a good education were not enough to achieve an equal status. Enforcement of the laws was the key. Unfortunately, Negroes in a politically powerful position have not used their power effectively because they sacrifice their position as a voice for the oppressed Negro in return for some material gains and status which few Negroes are allowed to achieve. Black power seeks to harness the political potential of the Negroes and channel it into an independent party whose leaders are not responsible to the white power structure and thus, less likely to betray their people for a pat on the back. 

What Black Power essentially seeks is total independence from the whites—not separation, but independence. Once the Negroes raise themselves up from a subordinate position to an equal one, terms such as integration become meaningful and not until then. It is clear that the white establishment never had and does not intent to allow the Negro to achieve the rights every other American takes for granted. Black Power lifts the burden from the unresponsive whites and transfers it to the blacks. The cry it makes to the whites is not, “’Help us’ but ‘Don’t try to stop us.’

When various students in Pingry saw me reading the book Black Power, they asked me why I was reading it. They couldn’t understand me becoming involved without being forced to. In this instance, the white person (me) chose whether he wished to become involved or not. Unfortunately, it was (and is) a small minority that took it upon themselves to investigate the Negro situation. Soon, however, the Negroes aren’t going to give us the luxury of a choice. So far, the riots have destroyed merely the symbols of white aggression, not the whites themselves. Yet, the same white racism which led to the burning of white stores could conceivably be extended to include the whites. You may choose to go home to your house on the hill and pull down the shades to the realities of the outside world. But one day you may go home only to find your house burned to the ground. For the Negroes will not be stopped in their efforts to achieve their rights as human beings.

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