Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Zack History Month

February is black history month. I usually try to celebrate this month by doing some research about different figures or different aspects of African-American culture. In college, I decided to do a leadership presentation on Marcus Garvey. A couple years ago, I began to trace the roots of rock and roll back to blues, listening to all sorts of different black artists. One year, I sent flowers to my old choir director, who I was in love with at the time. (She is a black babe!)

This year, I decided to plunge in a little deeper. I picked up a book by Michael Eric Dyson called, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Before I get into the book, however, I want to briefly touch on a couple of things.

First, race is a hot topic. It has been for decades, centuries even. It's something that floats around in our subconscious and even, in some cases, the forefront of our activities. A lot of how you view race is how you are brought up. I am a white male that grew up in a nearly all white neighborhood, and went to mostly white schools. Black people, to me, were like rumors. I'd heard that they existed and even saw them time to time, but I had no clue what their culture was like or even how they differed from me.

My television answered that question. I soon picked up on the cultural traits and the subtle nuances that separated the race cultures. Unfortunately, this is how many white kids learn about our black neighbors. And we are incredibly uninformed. As I grew up, those ideas, whether I believed them or not, would still be a part of my culture. My parents would warn me to lock my car doors in black neighborhoods and the cops would chase and pin a black man down on a television show daily.

So when our president said that it's time to have a national conversation about race, many hearts on both sides swelled. Some with fear, some with anger, some with hope. Josh, who works with me, told me about this video he watched of a group of African-Americans who had got together to have such a talk. One of the points that was brought up was how afraid white people are of saying the wrong thing that nothing at all gets said. I think this is true. The lady said that it was their job (blacks) to start the conversation and help white folks through it. My first reaction was that this is ludicrous. It's a two sided ordeal and should be initiated by both, or by white people who have done the most damage. But after reading the first couple chapters of Dyson's book, I understand why she would say this. Black people are the most patriotic Americans. After centuries of being treated poorly, and even downright rotten, they continue to believe in democracy and in the beauty that America can become.

Come Hell or High Water is a look at Hurricane Katrina through the race lens. Many accusations were tossed around about what happened in New Orleans in one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever seen. Dyson is dissecting the late reaction from the Bush administration and from FEMA. He is looking into the heart of the Delta with a chip on his shoulder because our government not only was late to respond to those in need, but had for years kept these people from improving their lot in life.

New Orleans is 67% black. Twenty eight percent of New Orleans lives in poverty. These two statistics are not coincidences. For years and years, our government, both intentionally and unintentionally, made financial progress for Southern blacks a near impossibility. Especially in a place like the 9th ward. A piece of land that no one wanted that freed slaves took because they had nowhere else to go and general customs, segregation laws, and Jim Crow kept many Southern blacks where they were.

Downtrodden. Tossed aside. Overlooked. Discriminated. African-Americans all over the United States felt these things at one time. But the south is a different story. I, a native Hoosier, didn't even realize it until I visited the city of Birmingham, AL. There, a man walked us through a memorial park and explained each and every statue and piece of art that represented his people's struggle during the Civil Rights Movement. And racism was still alive and well there. The man told us this. But you could hear the truth in his voice. You could feel it in the city. My friend Nathan who lived there told us some pretty disheartening things about life in Birmingham.

But as I am reading through Dyson's book, it became apparent that there is more than just racism that is being played against Americans. It's the class system. Our laws and legislature haven't discriminated against African-Americans for some time. But they sure do against the poor. Especially in Bush's administration. The president who presided over the rescue efforts of Hurricane Katrina was the same one who cut food stamp funding and gave tax breaks to the rich. Dyson makes a point to say that if Katrina had laid waste to half of Connecticut, the government would have responded much more quickly. Do I believe this? You bet I do. Is it because Connecticut is mostly white and New Orleans is mostly black? No, it's because Connecticut is very wealthy and contains some wealthy and important people. The 9th ward is one of the poorest parts of the country. No wealth, no importance. Take your time. But don't get me wrong. I don't believe for a moment that correspondence between race and economic status is a coincidence. That was years of planning.

To further drive the dagger in, George W. Bush was on the ball in 2004 when a hurricane hit a wealthy, rich part of Florida. The president visited the victims four times in six weeks. FEMA was praised for their quick response and their efficient help. Yet when Katrina absolutely devastated the poor and black city of New Orleans and the surrounding delta, he visited three times in maybe as many years. When the people of our nation needed our government the most, when they needed someone to prove that they gave a damn, no one responded.


Just like Birmingham opened my eyes to the realities of racism, Hurricane Katrina opened the eyes of the nation to the incredible socio-economic divide that existed in America. Out of sight, out of mind, right? It took a devastating hurricane to bring to the table the existence of the plight of American people. There had been for decades folks who lived in absolute poverty, partly because of our own government. You might think that I'm exaggerating. You might say, come on, man, you're making it worse than what it seems. Well, I say to you, doubters and believers, look at this time line: COWABUNGA!

Bush went on vacation during one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. Does this mean that he doesn't care about black people, like Kanye West claimed? I think if you look at the policies he implemented, you could make that case, not as a human caring for another human, but as a statehead caring for the peoples of his territory. I don't believe that Bush overlooked the people of Louisiana because it is largely a left-voting blue state. But I do believe that his administration, as well as administrations before, could have put the levees on the priority list or could have developed better plans for helping the poor blacks living in our southern states.

Dyson claims that the poor black of Louisiana and Mississippi are the most patriotic of Americans because they had gone through a life-altering disaster after having been pushed aside for most of their lives and still believe enough in our country to fight for change. Call them naive. I call them stronger than I. And don't get me wrong, many of the victims felt hopeless after the hurricane. How could you not? Thousands of people lost their lives when many could have been saved.

Is class status the new racism? Has it existed like this for years and years? I'm not sure. But it makes believe much more strongly in those programs built for the poor. Yes, they are abused. Yes, they have many flaws. But they exist to serve those who really do need it. And as long as they have access to help, we are doing our part. But we must not turn away and pretend that everything is hunky dory. I know that it is tough. I am a white male in rural Indiana. Nothing much bothers me. To right racism, I've learned, takes more than buying a Jackie Wilson album or confessing my love to my black choir director or reading a book by Michael Eric Dyson. It takes making an effort to reach out and communicate positively. And I'm not saying grab a black stranger and say, "Happy Black History Month." No, that wouldn't do. Maybe I don't really know the answer, other than talking deliberately and honestly to the African-American people in my life to learn and to be able to teach by example.

I apologize by how long-winded this entry turned out to be. Like I said, it's a hot topic. Emotions run high. It's hard to look back at a tangled and messy past, but that is where our lessons lie, history fans. I'm sure there will be plenty more updates as I move through this terrific book.

Celebrate black history.