what we can’t afford

I don’t know what it’s like to be white. If, in a white supremacist culture, white is normal, default, ordinary, and average, and anything else is “other,” ethnic, urban, and exotic, I imagine that white people aren’t frequently reminded that they are white. I’m going to have to remember to ask a white friend that one day, like, “how often do you remember that you are white?” I’m curious, because I don’t know what it’s like to forget that I’m black.

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with the new girl at work. I like her. She’s young, recently finished school, and is very pleasant. As we talked about a neighborhood that she and I are both familiar with, she wondered aloud about a peculiar thing that I’ve pointed out to others many times. See, Philadelphia’s school district has a bad reputation. Many people who stay educate their children in private schools. Among those who stay in the city, many enter lotteries to get their children into charter schools, or quietly rub elbows and pull strings with the right people in order to network their children into the public schools that have better reputations than the rest. But of those parents who don’t have private school money or influential friends, many leave the city once their children are school-aged, if they can afford it. I imagine that this may be true of a number of American cities. Anyway, the new girl said that she wondered why, on one side of this Philadelphia street, it felt like a completely different world from the other side of the street, which was another municipality, boasting one of the best school districts in the state.

It’s school segregation, separate and unequal. It’s completely legal because it’s not explicitly done on the basis of race, as it once was. When race-based school segregation is discussed in history classes, at least the ones I took, it’s usually discussed in the context of 20th century Jim Crow laws in the south, which were invalidated by Brown v. Board in the 1950’s. I remember seeing some stray notes about busing controversies in northern cities like Boston, but other than that, it seems Americans are content to pretend that school segregation discussions 1) don’t pertain to the northern area of the country, and 2) don’t pertain to the modern day. My grandmother lived her entire life in New Jersey, and she attended segregated schools. By the time her daughter had finished high schools, Brown v. Board made that kind of de jure race-based segregation illegal, but economic segregation had efficiently replaced it. Between the racist redlining of mortgages, hiring discrimination against minorities in unions and other companies, race-based application of the GI Bill, racism in renting, racism in town planning, and plain old intimidation, neighborhoods remained as segregated as they had ever been. White and middle class families lived and attended schools in the suburbs created for them in the post-WWII economy, while poor black and brown families remained living and attending schools in the cities they could neither afford to maintain with their tax dollars nor afford to leave with their lower incomes.

None of the housing and labor practices that created this situation are legal today, but by the time they were no longer in wide practice, the segregation had already been achieved. The declining urban schools kept the income stratification, and in turn, the segregation, going in perpetuity. As long as neighborhood public schools continued to be funded by taxpayer dollars, and black and brown neighborhoods continued to have lower property values, separate and unequal public education continued – pardon me, I mean continues, present tense. In Pennsylvania, talk of an equitable school funding formula is floating around. Imagine guaranteeing every child a well-funded education, irrespective of the property taxes their parents can afford. Sounds a bit like the opportunity to pursue economic success without being weighed down by caste, as Europeans often were before they came to the New World fleeing serfdom and seeking fortune. But I digress.

When my new co-worker asked why the worlds were so different on either side of a street, I thought the Cliff Notes version of all of this in my head. But I said simply, “It’s economic stratification. Folks on one side can’t pay the property taxes the other side can pay.”

You know why I left the race out?

You know why I left the race out.

I never forget that I am black. Not even in a non-professional situation with a co-worker. Not even when I have more tenure than her at work.  Not even when I’m well over ten years her senior. I’m black. She’s not. Expressing my opinion on race, even when it’s backed up by facts, could cost me, and much more than your average white colleague. Anywhere outside of the four walls of my own home, it’s my first job to remember that I am black if I want to keep a paycheck, take care of my family, or be safe from harm. Any mistake costs me more, because for me the rules are different.

“What about all those white people getting fired from their jobs or expelled from school when they go viral online being racist on video?” you may ask. Well, it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the times we lose jobs, lose pay, or get demotions because of those times that we forget that our mistakes cost us more, because the rules for us are different. In a world where most people – even “liberals” and “progressives” – are willing to look the other way as de facto racial segregation continues in housing and education in this country, black people literally cannot afford to forget that for us, the rules are different.

what to our wokeness is the fourth

I actually appreciate how on social media, many people remind us that July 4th, 1776 found Africans in America working for free, no more independent than they had been on July 3rd. It’s a fact worth remembering, and it’s part of what makes Juneteenth celebrations so important.

Did you know that for a time after emancipation in the American South, black Americans celebrated our own freedom on July 4th? I sure didn’t, until I read an article about it, and the efforts by white Americans to make patriotism great again by taking the holiday back from black revelers.

Not celebrating Independence Day is not a revolutionary act of resistance. On a personal level, it can provide a sense of satisfaction that we are remembering and acknowledging the ongoing struggle our ancestors faced, which survives in various forms in the present day. If you want revolution, however, you could donate time or money to some liberating action today. What I suggest you don’t do is pander on social media for #WokerThanTheRestOfYall credit, crowing about how you ain’t celebrating the oppressor’s independence, trying to shame everybody with melanin who likes barbecues and fireworks. Especially if all you’re doing is Netflix and chilling, or wasting time on Facebook and the ‘Gram.

Because celebrating Independence Day is not an act of surrendering to oppression. Many of us have the day off on a hot summer day. Spend it how you want. This is the day the Creator has made. Rejoice. Be glad. Holla at your families. Play some spades with Al Green in the background or something, if that’s what you wanna do.

Have a great nonjudgmental day, no matter what you choose.

feed the warriors

In perspective, living in a republic that is openly hostile to minorities and women is no new thing. It may be almost a cliché to say so by now, but we have been through worse, and we will get through this, also. Perhaps not unscathed, but we will.

The arts in America are a direct result of our continuous processing of this relationship. Gospel, blues, folk, jazz, soul, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, hip hop, disco, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, trap, go-go, house, the list will go on and on. Our creativity is, if not directly inspired, then at least indirectly molded by our experience here as Africans in America. We heal with our poetry, music, and dance.

This weekend I went to see Jill Scott in concert (for the eighty billionth time), and the timing could not have been better. I was surrounded by folks who reflected the many skin tones and hair styles that make me feel at home. Even on the hottest day ever, the bees kept flying among us, looking for nectar among the shea-butter and cocoa-butter scented crowd. We glistened at dusk. We sang along to the music, we danced in the heat, and we clapped on the two and the four, together.

I’m a major fan of Jill Scott because she is a consummate performer, and I call what she does on stage sorcery. By the time she took the stage after her preceding acts, the moon was up, the breezes started to provide intermittent respite from the heat, and we were left to be held spellbound by the beautiful set, her beautiful outfit, and her beautiful voice. We journeyed together through her catalog, the hits and the b-sides, full of poetic inspiration, lamentations, and celebrations. It was a welcome respite from social media and the news. Like in a church service, the crowd sang back and hollered back. It was a safe space. I don’t know her personally,(though I’d love to join her for lunch one day.) But her stage persona is an intelligent, confident woman who completely understands that she is still on a journey of becoming herself, who has a sense of humor about her own weaknesses and mistakes, and who cares about whether her audience gets what they’ve come for. She is my big sister in my head. She shares what she has to give.

This is how we have gotten through. I am six generations away from one of the freed slaves to whom I’ve traced my ancestry. I have no idea how many generations of her ancestors were here between here and Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, and Congo. But what I do know is that all these generations shared what they had to give in church services, on guitars, with tambourines, on dance floors, in skillets, in ovens, in sermons, in paragraphs, with needle and thread, with hot combs and hair grease, with salve, with oils. We anoint each other with what we have to give. It creates culture. Culture gives us comfort and rest, confidence and strength. It ties us to our ancestors and evolves to meet the needs of our young people. Come through, Black Twitter. I say these things not to fetishize our culture as the answer to our political problems, but to remind us that we are not out here struggling against oppression empty handed. We have resources to help us enjoy life even as we stay informed about the news and even as we take action to right the wrongs around us. I say these things to encourage the talented among us to understand the value of your gifts to others. Share what you have to give. Warriors need energy to stand and fight.