They said we would forget them, instead not only is Ferguson being watched closely by those of us who are American citizens, it’s also being watched by the world. They said that the people of Ferguson—the captains, activists, City Council, and the regular citizens—would remain long after the cameras were gone and they were right, yet many activists groups have come from beyond Ferguson to march and organize for justice. Paradoxically, St. Louis, Missouri, is the final resting place of Dred Scott, who as a slave fought vigorously to free himself and his wife. From 1846 until 1857 Scott’s case led to a similar heated polarization around the country between North and South and slave-owners and abolitionists.
One action that might have quelled some of the anger of Ferguson citizens more swiftly would have been a less measured, more visceral response from President Obama. Maybe the parents and children of Ferguson wanted to sense the same righteous indignation demonstrated by the President when he condemned the beheading of journalist James Foley. Maybe what people really wanted from the President was for him to be more of a mirror reflecting back to them the hurt feelings, fear and uncertainty that is often experienced by some marginalized communities in America. Maybe what they needed to know was that the President “gets it.” He really gets us: his fellow Americans. Ironically, to be sure, the President himself has roots that go back to Missouri soil in Wichita, Kansas. His very background demonstrates the fact that we can all get along and that even as early as the mid-sixties there were people like his grandparents who hailed from places like Missouri that could accept a young “Black man” as their own.
Add to this that pundits and politicians both talk about an immigration problem, but when I look at the demographics behind some of the stores that were being looted in Ferguson I understand the frustration of the people living in a community for decades and having to shop at stores while being treated as a suspect. After a while it’s easy to become the stereotype of what people believe you to be. However since I believe wholeheartedly that “we are the ones we have been waiting for” when I saw Captain Johnson walking through the streets of Ferguson like Jesus come back to life, speaking words of cautious diplomacy I feel a little disappointed at how eager we as Black people so consistently need someone to look up to. Every Black kid growing up in the late 70’s knew the song, “The Greatest Love of All.” The words: “Everybody’s searching for a hero people need someone to look up to. Never found anyone to fulfill my needs….so I learned to depend on me. I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.” Perhaps we as Black people need to learn how to love and respect ourselves again, though not in a flashy artificial “Real Housewives,” “Real Husbands,” “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta,” “Beverly Hills” fashion but in a real “say it out loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” kind of way. There is a Black humanity that translates and resonates strongly with other ethnicities worldwide who already understand our dignity and worth. Even as far away as Europe and Asia human rights groups have learned a lesson from our civil rights struggles here in America.
Speaking of heroes, although it may seem that Captain Ron Johnson is walking alone there have been leaders from the Black community and other activists (many of them white) who have heard the call for justice and answered. Cornel West for one went down to Ferguson to get arrested. Eric Holder certainly went down and did his part. However it’s not to be forgotten that the Black civil right movements were so often started by seamstresses, Pullman porters, and day workers, and stay at home mothers trying to get justice for their slain sons and husbands.
The fact is that perhaps one reason why there is no major movement within the black community at present is that so many people who are Black are not Black Americans. They are American Africans; Black West Indians; Black Puerto Ricans; Black Dominicans; Haitian Blacks; Egyptian Blacks and etcetera. Indeed the experience of being Black in America is different for all of these groups. Some of these communities have voluntarily and deliberately “segregated” themselves from other members of the American Black community.
Having daily rode the bus through Corona, Queens, I was made aware of this when I saw so called minority-owned Latino businesses on Northern Boulevard in Queens, NY. In Brooklyn the experience of Blacks from the West Indies is different perhaps from the experience of the average Black American. They grew up with a different educational model in the West Indies that they often brag about and consider superior to the educational system that Blacks grow up with here in the states. Many foreign born Blacks consider themselves above American Blacks. Admittedly I had to confront my own feelings about these contrasting vantage points when I read “Americanah” by Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi. It disturbed me to realize how American Africans generally looked down on African Americans even cautioning against marrying an African American Black.
American Blacks who have a rich history in many Midwestern communities probably feel just as threatened by the changing racial makeup of their communities they are witnessing take place as a result of immigration both legal and otherwise. Up until the recent Ebola outbreak I had no idea that there were so many African communities spread across the wheat fields of America. African-Americans like those in Ferguson may want to know why although they have historic roots within the community they don’t seem to have a present or a future that they can count on besides receiving the bulk of parking tickets, fines and arrests or waiting in line at city offices to answer summons.
Perhaps this is a cause for the Black elite. I will not name names but Al Sharpton, Captain Ron Johnson, Eric Holder and even President Obama can’t win the battle against racial injustice alone. As I watched Captain Ron Johnson march through the streets of Ferguson I could almost hear the music of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” propel him along, yet to be clear a few individuals no matter how heroic they may be cannot bring about the change that is needed in our American communities. There is a need for innovative ideas that can be implemented on a larger scale, not just here or there without a joint organized effort.
Certainly we need more people like Nelly from the younger hip-hop generation to really be touched enough by what they see happening to put aside their own personal agendas long enough to contribute to the greater good of their communities. Jay-Z did this to a degree with the Barclay Center. He has found a way to make a profit and while simultaneously profiting his community in Brooklyn. Still we need “boots on the ground” such as perhaps a diverse coalition that can take part in mentoring programs. Perhaps members of a coalition can organize a march to school, or for jobs and higher education. Black-owned businesses could go straight to the corners and recruit for their own companies. Organizations like the Fortune Society could set up a table on a corner in Ferguson and other inner cities too where there is widespread disenfranchisement among young Black men who have records because of petty offenses. After all they understand that the system can be very tricky to navigate for someone with strikes against them. In short we are the ones we have been waiting for and maybe it’s time for “each one, teach one” to become each one reach one. We live in a world where it’s more and more possible to reach people and help them via Skype, Twitter and Facebook. Imagine what good could be done if we used social media for mentoring.
Ultimately what could be needed is something akin to another “Poor People’s March” or “Million Man March.” Correspondingly we must begin to understand that the so-called Black elite who have “made it” and, yes, even the President, experience subtle forms of racism and may be dealing with their own daily secret battles with these issues. They may feel that they have already done enough by setting an example or giving to select charities. They may not be so eager to help others up the ladder for free when they have had to pay the price of sweat and tears to move on up.
So again there is a call for more organized leadership, better coordination and recognition of voices of new young people in the civil rights movement. Individual self-examination and the realization that “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” On a larger scale, white Americans must finally realize that with the current immigration crisis unfolding in America as “the chickens coming home to roost”—African-Americans are largely the keepers of the legacy of their America. Black Americans have been here almost longer than anyone else and certainly as long. Black Americans helped to build and frame some of the greatest institutions in America, including the White House. African-American blood runs through the mighty veins of rivers and lakes. It runs through valleys and under the grounds. It runs through the Appalachian Mountains. Traces of whispers of African American Ancestral voices are strung along the tip tops of tall branches of trees where they fell long ago from California to Canada. The history of Black and white Americans in our United States is twisted together like a vine. Like two beating hearts and the two living brains of Siamese twins. Where one ends the other begins. We must be very careful where we cut at the memories, history and heartbeat of this great and powerful land of America that we all call home.
Ultimately it’s quite simple. We must love one another or die. We must keep this in mind in the trying weeks ahead.