Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Souls of Black Folks

Let me begin by saying that I hesitate to publish this post and I reserve the right to remove it at any time. My fear is that if I may come off as a dilettante. These are personal thoughts and carry no more weight than what you give them.

In an effort to broaden my literary horizons I have devoted several of the next few books I plan to read to the categories of classical literature and history. Currently I am reading The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B Du Bois. In a, I believe, providential turn of events I am also working through a series of American history podcasts. While reading Du Bois I am also learning about the period of reconstruction in those podcasts. What can I really learn from a book published 105 years ago or what can I learn from some history lectures I heard in 11th grade? These were the questions in my mind when I started this recent endeavor and I am so glad I have been patient through the process.

Almost 1 month ago to the day many of us sat in our homes watching what was one of the most amazing events in American history, the election of next President, Barack Obama. We saw images of thousands gathered in Grant Park in Chicago, we saw one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement (Jesse Jackson) crying, and we heard two amazing speeches, one from each candidate.

What was the big deal? Would people be crying if John Mcain won? I doubt it, maybe, but I doubt it. So, what was the big deal? If you move past the anger the right has for the left and the disrespect the left has for the right then there is a bigger issue. We elected an African American to be the President of the United States. Many are saddened by who that African-American was but all the same, we elected an African-American.

We were told that this is a historic event but most of us (white middle class, me) didn't get it. I knew its was good thing to show we could elect a non-white President but it wasn't that big of a deal ro me because I'm not racist, I just liked the other guy. I'll vote for a African-American, a Chinese-American, or any other race if they show me they are committed to my values and my issues.

Though this may be the view that a lot of Americans hold, it isn't what many others experience. Growing up in white suburbia I knew that if I wanted to do better than my parents I had to be more educated than my parents. I had to learn from the mistakes they made. My family isn't dumb but I am the first person in my immediate family to go to college right after high school, thats a progressive step in our families history. To many Americans, especially many African-Americans that step isn't possible, or at least it feels impossible. We know slavery in its historical form is dead but to many Americans, most of them African-Americans, a form of slavery still exists. In the poorest most poverty stricken and crime infested neighborhoods in American there are thousands of African-Americans who feel enslaved to a system that showed no signs of weakness until November 4, 2008.

A two parent home where both parents work 10 hour days, 6 days a week at minimum wage makes about $36k a year after taxes. At that rate there is barley any money left to save for college, buy the kids a car, make discretionary purchases like BOOKS or new clothes. Now imagine that the schools in those neighborhoods are below average (like many are) and that in an effort to help the family out the oldest kid gets an after school job. Here is a situation where a child is subject to same life his parents had to live because his school wasn't all that great and all he knew was the family needs some extra cash. The school isn't that good because most good teachers don't want to work there, I don't blame them. The after school job left very little time for studying which makes scholarships almost out of the question and the kid has probably never been encouraged to go to college because he has never known anyone to go to college so he doesn't apply because the $100 application fee is actually next months groceries. He can't pull himself up by his own book straps because he doesn't own any boots or if he does the straps are broken. He grows up, gets married, and is living the same life his parents lived. He never did anything bad, never broke the law, never made any huge mistakes, he just lived the life he had and now his kids are doing it again. The difference this time is minimum wage hasn't kept up with the cost of living in the neighborhood and the price of oil is up around $140 a barrel and that means almost $4/gal gas which is 2.5 times higher than last year and his wife got sick so now he doesn't have good insurance and is strapped with rising costs and hospital bills so his kids pitch in to keep the family in shape. The cycle starts again.

I paint a bleak picture here and in most cases it isn't that bad but this happens everyday. Sometimes people are to blame for their own circumstances but sometimes their situation is a product of the environment they grew up in. The question you should be asking is why? and How did it become this way? This is where W.E.B Du Bois and my American history podcasts come in. Reading The Souls of Black Folks and listening to these lectures made me think about how far African-Americans have come in 150 years but then I thought back to the election night and the faces I saw were not faces of people who thought this was just another election, they were the faces of people who knew this was a big deal. They knew what that cycle felt like and they were, unfortunately I have to say it, given hope by Barack Obama. Many of them probably lived on the South side of Chicago, which I have been to and can attest that it isn't a good place to grow up. Some of them probably lived in Cabrini-Green which I have also been to and can tell you it isn't the place I would want to raise my children. The issue here isn't how to address poverty and present education opportunities, though they are important and we should do those things. The purpose of this blog is explain some of the historical factors that have been the burden on the African-American race and have created some of the situations we see today. As a disclaimer, I am neither a historian nor a civil rights activist but I think understanding is the foundation to all progress. I believe the cycle I described above is in some part, a major part I believe, the residual affects of the racism we all remember from the 1950's and 1960's. Below are a few historical events that I think significantly contributed to that racism and thus brought us to where we are today.

1) The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 - Everyone knows this was a set back to ending slavery but few know why. I believe the historical effect of Lincoln's death was two fold. The first effect, a symbol of freedom was gone. We all know who debilitating it can be to loose the leader of a cause you believe in. The second effect was that the Vice President, Andrew Johnson (D), became President. Lincoln, a republican, had chosen Johnson in an effort to build consensus about his administration but unfortunately Johnson was an absolutely awful President. As part of reconstruction he began appointing legislators and politicians to run the seceded southern states. Unfortunately most every Johnson appointee favored "Black Codes" which were the precursors to the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century and Johnson felt that a national civil rights law would infringe upon the rights of the states. He was amazingly forgiving to leaders of the seceded states, probably because Johnson didn't appose slavery. He opposed secession but not slavery.

2) The fall of the "Freedman's Bank" in 1874 - The "Freedman's Bank" was an institution dedicated to the building of wealth for and improving the economic status of newly freed slaves. Around 1870 the Freedman's Bank, under total mismanagement, began making poor decisions investing in risky business propositions and Real Estate (sound familiar?). Eventually the bank fell in 1874 and the majority of an entire peoples accumulated wealth was lost. This instilled a great amount of distrust and skepticism in both financial and governmental institutions which contributed to the long term lack of economic status improvement for former slaves.

3) The Compromise of 1877 - The was an informal agreement between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. The Election of 1876 was extremely close (Al Gore v. George Bush close) and in return for Tilden conceding the election, Hayes would remove all Union (Northern) troops from the former Confederate (Southern) states. As a result of this, the southern legislatures began passing more and more stringent "Black Codes" and there was no force to quail the social indignation former slave owners and confederate soldiers had toward former slaves.

4) Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 - This is the Supreme Court decision we all know as "Separate but Equal". This needs very little explanation. Segregation was now legal. This meant that the legislature could formally impose restrictions on African-Americans given they were afforded "equal" alternatives. This idea wasn't wholly rejected. Booker T. Washington firmly embraced this idea in the Atlanta Compromise as a stepping stone for black people to slowly be assimilated into white culture while building economic independence...it didn't work very well. Separate but Equal was the de jure standard for the treatment of African-Americans until 1954.

5) Jim Crow Laws 1876-1965 - Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments Jim Crow laws were extremely suppressive to African-Americans until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even after these major events racism was prevalent in America until the 1970's.

I believe these major events in history occurred at the right times to where we are still seeing the plight of African-Americans and racism more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. These events were devastating blows not only to former slaves but also generations of former slave's children's fight for equality.

Im not sure if I said anything worth reading but I feel that if we better understand some of the historical causes which made the election of an African-American such a big deal then we are taking steps in the right direction to making it not a big deal.

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