Saturday, May 25, 2024


Invisible men…

April 14, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) New Orleans, Louisiana – I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind.

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.

– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

I mean, I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I mean, everything in the world loves you. White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own… And white women? They chase you all to every corner of the earth, feel for you under every bed… Colored women worry themselves into bad health just trying to hang on to your cuffs. Even little children – white and black, boys and girls – spend all of their childhood eating their hearts out ’cause they think you love yourselves. Nothing in the world loves a black man more than another black man… It looks to me like you the envy of the world.

– Toni Morrison, Sula (1974)

Malcolm X once said that if somebody is always winning, they’re dealing from the bottom of the deck.

I thought about that several years ago after a study of Blacks and whites in New Orleans was released.

Not surprising was the study’s conclusion that very little has changed with regard to the master-slave relationship between whites and Blacks in the Crescent City.

There is a direct correlation between the dismal state of Black New Orleans and the prosperity, power and privileges some whites in the city take for granted. People of African descent are locked into a dichotomous relationship with Europeans in which the average person of color in New Orleans lives in squalor while the average white resident enjoys a life of relative ease and privilege.

While the sons and grandsons of the powers that be are being educated and raised and groomed to take over the reins as lords and masters of the Crescent City’s next generation, their Black counterparts are being miseducated, mislabeled, misunderstood and exploited by a system that teaches them that entertainment, athletics and crime are their only ways out of lives of misery and servitude. And even those avenues of escape come with a clause that says that should Black boys and men choose either, they will do so at the mercy and benefit of powerful white men.

The same powers that smiled and quietly applauded when the late Rev. Avery C. Alexander was being dragged up the stairs in City Hall and the Black Panthers in the Lower 9th Ward were targeted by police and the federal government are still smiling as countless Black children find themselves slipping deeper and deeper into lives of poverty, illiteracy, disillusionment and servitude.

Ensuring that every Black boy and girl in New Orleans had a fair shot at a decent education would do wonders to transform this city and state, but it is simply not a priority of the white power structure. Tragically, many people of African descent who live in this city have also come to see the education of children of color as impractical or useless. To exacerbate matters, people who are part of the very system that maims the minds and spirits of our children have now taken over the very educational system they have mismanaged and botched up for years.

Wealthy whites who finance the campaigns of school board candidates but contribute nothing to the schools themselves do so because they expect to rewarded when it is time for school board members to dole out lucrative contracts.

Most of what mainstream America knows about Black males it learns from white-controlled media. News broadcasters, print journalists and filmmakers inundate the people of this nation with images of Black men and boys as the most hated, feared and despised group of people on the planet. Such depictions make it easier for there to be no massive outcry when Black men and boys are vilified and gunned down in the streets like animals by law enforcement authorities. We are at war and don’t even know it.

New Orleans is a fun town, but that fun and frivolity come at a steep price for the average city resident. Money that could be spent to provide better health care and education and housing to city residents is instead spent buying palm trees and shiny new street lights and streetcars to impress tourists. Money that could be used to rebuild and replenish neglected schools is instead spent trying to convince people from all over the world to come to the City That Care Forgot and “laissez le bon temps roule.”

We gave the world jazz but get nothing in return but the blues. We are routinely treated like the hired help in a city we played a major role in building physically and culturally.

Welcome to the Big Easy, where no one benefits more from the creativity and brilliance of people of African descent than our white brethren. Others are living like kings and queens at our expense, always careful to use law enforcement agencies to keep those who are being held down out of the never-ending party. Our food, music, ingenuity and creativity attract millions of visitors to the city each year but little of the money they bring here ends up in communities of color. Even advertisers of major Black events spend the lion’s share of their advertising dollars with white-owned media and very little with Black-owned newspapers and other companies. Sadly, many of the people who created the phenomenal culture that keeps folks coming back to New Orleans can’t even afford to buy tickets to many of the city’s festivals and other events.

There’s a definite method to the madness swirling around our heads. Our children are being offered substandard education in order to harvest them for dead-end, service-industry jobs and as “human resources” for the ever-growing prison industrial complex. More than a century after the abolition of American slavery, people of color are still being groomed and miseducated to serve as a source of cheap labor for wealthy businessmen.

Because we are frustrated and angry and at the end of our wits, we often turn on one another instead of to one another. Like the Black boys in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we find ourselves in a never-ending “battle royal” where we sell each other drugs, kill one another and break our necks for pennies in the service industry and street drug culture while those in power continue to live the lush life.

In a report on racial disparities in New Orleans released several years ago by Dr. Silas Lee, a pollster/communications specialist, the New Orleans native pointed out the glaring inequities of life in the “Big Easy.”

Our celebratory culture and accepting nature conceals a city with a troubled soul,” he writes in A Haunted City? The Social and Economic Status of African Americans and Whites in New Orleans. “Behind the mask of serenity resides a divided city-not just by race, but social and economic demographics which liberates some and traps others in the iron cage of inequity. …[W]e are a city confronted by the challenges of the future, yet haunted by the problems of our past.”

Among other things, Lee points out that little has changed in New Orleans over the past two decades, despite the fact that the city has had Black mayors in office since 1979. In 1985, the median family income for Blacks in New Orleans was $10,516, compared to $21,544 for white families. By 2000, the median family income for Black families had risen to $21,461, but it was still just half of that of white families ($40, 049).

In this predominantly Black city, 48 percent of Blacks earned less than $10,000 in 1985, compared with 19 percent of whites. Fifteen years later, 25 percent of Blacks earned $10,000 or less, compared to 12 percent of whites.

Conversely, less than one percent (0.64%) of Blacks earned $200,000 a year in the year 2000, compared to five percent of whites.

Even more dismal was the educational situation in the Crescent City. According to Lee, just eight percent of Black New Orleanians were college graduates in 1985, compared with 19 percent of the white community. In 2000, only nine percent of Black New Orleanians had earned college degrees, compared with 26 percent of whites.

In 1985, 47 percent of Black New Orleanians had not completed high school, compared to 10 percent of whites. In 2000, 32 percent of Blacks had not earned high school diplomas, compared to 11 percent of whites. That explains in part why in 2000 14 percent of the city’s Blacks had earned college degrees while 45 percent of white New Orleanians had college diplomas. That same year, 21 percent of whites had earned graduate or professional degrees, compared with five percent of Blacks.

For a disproportionate share of this city’s population, particularly Blacks, the hammer of inequality continues to pound them deeper into the grave of inequality,” Dr. Silas Lee concluded. “The past and current patters of education and income distribution are inextricably linked to the city’s progress and prosperity, the consequences of which retard the city’s social and economic stability.”

The stability of Black families and the communities is further undermined by the need for many young Black professionals to leave Louisiana to find opportunities commensurate with their educational backgrounds and credentials. Lee touched lightly on this problem when he wrote: “Although some like to mask our accommodating culture and atmosphere as a sign of racial harmony, the reality is there is a lingering perception that racial exclusion undermines the opportunities and mobility for many in this community.”

As is the case in most U.S. cities, Black men often find themselves in an even more dire strait than African-American women. Black males are considerably more likely to drop out of school, be diagnosed with learning disabilities and behavioral problems and receive stigmatizing school “sentences” like suspension and expulsion. That only means Black men will have less access to a college education and consequently fewer economic opportunities than almost all other groups. And limited means through which to lift themselves out of ignorance and poverty, and to provide for their families.

Many Black boys and men, frustrated and perplexed by the daunting obstacles in their path, openly choose defiance and rebellion over finding creative ways to get around the landmines placed in their paths. Those reactions only prompt mainstream media to depict men and boys of color as menaces to society, as if there is no method to the madness Black males are forced to do battle with.

Instead of us being able to celebrate Black manhood as our birthright as the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of the first people to walk on the planet, mainstream media have made it necessary for Black men and boys to apologize for who and what we are, as if we are genetically predisposed to lead lives of violence, nihilism and lawlessness.

Several years ago, an article in Essence magazine examined the reasons why white males fear Black men so much. A significant number of the white respondents admitted that they were intimidated by the physicality and athleticism of Black men and boys.

As Dr. Silas Lee points out in his study, Black New Orleans is truly haunted by a past that has never really gone away. Our efforts to lift ourselves out of poverty, illiteracy and dependence on others for our survival is severely impeded by the age-old tradition of locking people of African descent out of the American Dream. Our oppressors are parsimonious, Machiavellian and unrelenting in their efforts to keep us in “our place.”

Black New Orleans more closely resembles a Third World country than a predominantly Black city in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world. Among the problems confronting Blacks here are illiteracy, homeownership, inadequate health care and a lack of affordable housing.

Hurricane Katrina only exacerbated those problems.

One of the realities that Black New Orleans must confront is the tradition of the white power structure using those who look like us to control and oppress us. As was the case in apartheid-era South Africa, in the Crescent City you find a small, privileged class of people of color who identify more with their white oppressors than the oppressed Black masses. People who have been rewarded limited access to the good life in exchange for selling out their own. To be frank, many of those who sell us out do so willingly and eagerly, more concerned about their own selfish wants and needs than those of the overall community. Such accommodationists are granted honorary white status and allowed more freedoms than the average person of color, effectively making it that much more challenging for Blacks in New Orleans to assemble a broad-based Black freedom movement.

No one wants to live under the yoke of oppression and in a state of constant crisis, but to turn one’s back on his or her history and community is simply inexcusable.

Over the course of this nation’s history there has always been a small group of white freedom fighters committed to the liberation of all people. New Orleans has witnessed the linking of the Black liberation struggle with the organizing efforts of modern-day John Browns.

We should reflect on the sobering reality that there has never been a substantial transfer of true power in the Crescent City. Sure, the city eventually witnessed the election of mayors of color and members of the school board and city council. Yes, we’ve seen the names of some of the city’s streets and public schools changed to pay homage to Black freedom fighters. We’ve even had Black police chiefs and fire superintendents. But decision-making power has never left the hands of those who refuse to relinquish their stranglehold on the future of this city and its residents.

We would be wise to remember freedom fighter Frederick Douglass’ enduring words about the historical relationship between Africans and Europeans: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

One thing is certain: We need strong, educated and committed Black men if we are going to have healthy, productive communities.

We need dynamic, God-fearing men to step out on faith and reach out to brothers still trying to find their way, to pass on the blessings the Creator has seen fit to bestow on them.

It’s up to those of us who know the truth to turn this thing around. To do that, we must wake the sleeping giant that is Black New Orleans and get brothers and sisters on the road to liberation.

Nobody can do for Black men what we can and must do for ourselves. It’s up to us to develop strategies and programs for reaching out to those who look like us and share our struggle. College-educated Black men must reach out to those who dropped out of the educational system and show them some love. Take a younger cat to a basketball game or school him on the neighborhood playground. Pay a Shorty to wash your car and kick some knowledge to him as he gets your ride looking right. Take some neighborhood kids to the movies or an art exhibit. Take some time to listen to whatever some of the cats trying to find their way have to say. Let them know you are there to lend a shoulder or a kick in the rear when it’s needed. Share important films like A Lesson Before Dying, Sounder, Blind Faith, Rosewood, Boycott, The Great Debaters, Pride, Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust and Antoine Fisher with Black boys and men. Give them some of the books you’ve read that made a difference in your life. Teach someone to read. Encourage young people to volunteer alongside you at soup kitchens and other places committed to helping those less fortunate. Reach out to somebody less fortunate every chance you get.

We need positive-minded, proactive brothers who know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in to reach back and help those who are stumbling to gain a foothold. We need networks of Black men of all education levels and income brackets to come together in the spirit of doing something that is more important than the singular concerns of any of us. We need them yesterday.

We have known for a very long time what the problems and challenges that confront us are.

The only question that remains is, what are we going to do to address the holocaustic conditions that confront us? Are we going to continue to walk down a path that has brought Black New Orleanians nothing but misery and slow, agonizing death, or are we going to summon the will, courage, resilience and unity of purpose need to break through the centuries-old shackles that constrain us?

Are we going to choose freedom or more servitude and peonage? Are we going to choose life or death?

To get the answer, we have to ask the questions.

All power to the people.

Written By Edmund W. Lewis


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