So, yesterday I had the cutest kindergarten girl at an assembly in a private school ask me during the Q&A portion “Did you grow up poor?” and I had a 7th grader at a suburban public school tell me she thought Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” video was intimidating because the “gang of people” in the streets. Both of them were white. I wasn’t offended at all. I told the kindergarteners that I was from a similar background as her, my parents paid for piano lessons and any other extra-curricular activities I wanted. I explained to the 7th grader, while playing the video back and pausing, that these people were simply in the street having a party.
While I wasn’t offended, I was reminded that people not from my community see me completely different. A lot of people put an enormous amount of energy making outsiders see the black community as human. I get it. I participate in those efforts some times. These young ladies will someday be grown women, and will see my sons and I from a lens they have been developing since they were babies. At the same time, I hate spending that kind of energy. “We are people just like you,” seems fine when you are dealing with people as equals. Even if they agree with you, they see you as needing a little bit of assistance to truly be like them. I am positive those young women come from families that tell them that we are all created equal, but that message gets lost in translation when we are seen as “poor” or as “gangsters” simply because of our skin. I am positive that the administrators who brought me in to present see me being an example of a “good black man” as one of the pluses of bringing me into their school (even if it isn’t state explicitly).
This is why I don’t see integration as a key to improving the black condition in America. Only after we strengthen our own communities, on our own terms, can we completely expect outsiders to see us as equals. We don’t respect the Chinese because we are assigned to work with them in integrated settings. Instead we respect them because there is a whole country of people who look like them. Who run their own businesses, their own government, their own education system. Many white people in America don’t understand that black people control their own destiny in many parts of the world, including in their own country. They know we have a black president and Oprah, but they believe (by no fault of their own) that they are exceptions to the rule.
This is what Malcolm X grew to understand. That he was wrong in thinking that white people were different or inferior (in an understandable response to how they had treated him and his community) but that he was right in thinking we need to take care of ourselves in order for their to be true racial harmony. With Malcolm (as with myself and especially my children) it is obvious that he is the product of both African and European heritage. The idea that one is inherently better or worse than the other should be easily dispelled by that alone. The idea that we still think in terms of the “one drop rule” shows us we haven’t gotten better at truly seeing our similarities.
This is what Dr. King understood, and meant when he said he envisioned the sons of former slaves and slave owners holding hands. Not the slave holders children dragging the slaves children into modernity. He dreamed of the slave’s child improving their own situation to the point of being on an equal economic footing with their white counter-parts. He increasingly fought for better economic opportunities, and land grants that matched those that were given to white settlers in the west and midwest 3/4 of a century before he came on the scene.
Imagine the world where these young ladies don’t have to be told to not pay attention to media stereotypes of black men. If instead they frequented the black part of town with it’s bussling business section and beautiful homes with manicured lawns. A trip to Prince George’s County Maryland or many parts of the suburbs of Atlanta (and countless other places) would be mind blowing experiences for these young women. Going to Ghana and Nigeria, not to feed the poor babies with distended bellies they see in food aid ads, but to see the modern cities, and seats of government where beautiful black people are in charge, would change their whole perspective. It would answer many of the questions that they had and just don’t know how to ask when they see a black man in front of them.
In the end, I don’t mind being the example to people outside of my community that we can be articulate, intelligent, hard working, lovers-providers-protectors of our family. That will happen anyway. But my main goal isn’t for them to see us in a better light, instead for us to actually live in a better light. A light that they can’t deny, and that will melt the years of prejudice that has been heaped on my people.