Growing up in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA, I mostly only knew other Black people. Poor, under-employed Black people. It was mostly the women that I saw who had jobs. The older men would work hard jobs, while the ones closer to my age frequented the corners until they were ultimately arrested. There were no bankers in my neighborhood, no doctors, no lawyers, not even a store owner. We had a few successes come from our ranks, but beautiful suburbs and newly renovated condos downtown were too tempting to stay and live in the decaying row houses that we called home. My friends and I knew that there was more to have in life, but not for us. Our reality was that Black people are poor, and that only a few of us have a single chance to make it out. Now a grown man, still not rich, but I have found my way out. Like I said, I’m not a 1 Percenter yet, but my wife and two children live comfortable lives without much worry as far as finances are concerned.
I have worked alongside scores of personalities from different backgrounds, and with almost every interaction, the question of my race would come up. I am clearly not white, but my African features were not strong enough for that person to check a particular box. “Are you mixed?”, was most commonly asked of me by anyone. By the time I entered military service, I was used to this, and I would run down the list of all the nationalities of my ancestors that my mother used to proudly recite. (She was particularly proud of the Irish contribution for some reason)
I too was proud of my little piece of trivia and even saw it as an acceptance pass until I learned where my supposed German heritage was introduced. My great-great-grandmother was an Amish woman apparently on Rumspringa that conceived a child with a mysterious Black man. After the child was born, the mother was given an ultimatum: be disowned by her family or give up the Black child to an orphanage. My great grandmother grew up in foster care. Because she was Black, she was not accepted by her own family and thrown to the wolves. Warm and fuzzies for that lot, I tell you.
So I began to play down the whole partially white thing and self-identified as Black. “But you’re so pale…” I dodged all questions and was proudly Black, which was actually liberating and cause for conversations that inspired this week’s column.
I was the spokesperson in my unit for all of Black America after the Ferguson disaster. They would look for ways to defeat any arguments that asserted that Black people were treated unfairly in this country and would always have to debate the affirmative alone against people that could ruin my career if I pissed them off. Don’t mix work and politics kids, but if it truly affects your daily life, you gotta say something.
After all of the “evidence” was presented and B.S. debunked, the opposition would rebut with and I’m paraphrasing, “Why don’t black people just get their (expletive deleted) together, go to school and stop selling drugs? Life isn’t easy for me either, but you don’t see me protesting.” That, my friends, is where our little history lesson begins. You can choose to believe it or dismiss it, but please check my facts.
Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) – Not to be confused with the NAACP, the UNIA is a Pan-African nationalist organization founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914 to unify all people descended from Africa in the diaspora toward this goal of self-determination and economic freedom. After mismanaging the organization in Jamaica, Garvey found himself in Harlem, where he continued his work and grew the UNIA to its pinnacle in the 1920’s. He founded the Black Star Line (BSL), a shipping company that served black travelers and merchants since they were not treated fairly on the white ships, having to eat what was left after white passengers ate and sleeping in substandard berthing. This was among many other endeavors by the UNIA that employed over 700 Black people and was mark of pride to hundreds of thousands of others.
The organization had grown after Colored G.I’s returning from WW1 did not receive the acceptance from America that they expected after serving a country that did not support them. Garvey’s influence in the Black community was so troubling to the federal government that J. Edger Hoover personally hired and managed the FBI’s first full-time Negro special agent, James Wormley Jones (A WW1 war hero and D.C. Metro Officer). Hoover then directed Special Agent Jones to infiltrate the UNIA and to provide any evidence leading to an arrest or justification for the dismantlement of the UNIA. Other Black agents worked to sabotage the UNIA including the Captain of the first BSL ship, where he lied about the condition of the ship and convinced Garvey to pay 6 times what the ship was worth. The only charge the FBI could bring against Garvey was mail fraud because a brochure featured a picture of a ship in the background that did not belong to the BSL. Garvey was deported back to Jamaica, but was fully exonerated in 1987 although he died in 1940.
The UNIA was a flash of light for Black people that was extinguished by the federal government. It had no motive other than to improve the lives of Africans on this side of the globe. I should note that the UNIA is still operating to this day on four different continents.
Malcolm X – Came into notoriety through the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Black nationalist organization that embraced the teachings of the Holy Quran and taught its members to resist White supremacy. The organization was labeled a hate group after it was revealed that its leadership was teaching that white men are the devil. The NOI was heavily surveilled and Malcolm X was even recruited by the FBI to become an informant against the group which he publicly rejected. He eventually left the NOI and after a pilgrimage to Mecca (in the Islamic tradition), he returned with a new message to fix race relations. His home was firebombed and he received constant death threats. Days before he was set to speak before the U.N. bringing charges of human rights violations against the U.S., he was assassinated on stage in front of a crowded auditorium. The media reports that the NOI had him killed for disloyalty. Three black men were sentenced in his murder, though his daughter has recently come forth alleging that only one of the three had actually murdered Malcolm, and that one of the shooters was a police officer from New Jersey.
Black Panther Party (BPP) – founded in Oakland, California to protect the Black community against police brutality with armed citizen patrols. By 1970 the organization had grown to over 60 cities nationwide. Though the open carrying of weapons was its most public image, the organization had provided free breakfast programs for children and free health care clinics in the Black community where there were no such resources. J. Edgar Hoover had also targeted this organization as a national security risk and initiated COINTELPRO. Hoover’s brainchild included surveillance, infiltration, sabotage and instigating firefights with members of the group.
Part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, William O’Neal was enlisted to infiltrate the BPP’s Chicago Chapter. He was able to rise through the ranks of the organization and become head of security for Chapter leader, Fred Hampton. Hampton was able to recruit over 500 young members to the organization and was labeled as dangerous by the FBI. O’Neal provided the FBI with a detailed layout of Hampton’s home and the night of the raid, he drugged Hampton so he would not wake. While Hampton slept, his home was raided and he was shot to death in his bed. Chicago police knew where his bed was and shot him through a wall. A BPP security member fired one shot and Chicago PD fired over 80. This incident happened on the heels of a shootout with police in which two officers died, and on the eve of a merger with a Chicago gang that would have brought BPP membership to the thousands in Chicago.
Have you noticed a trend in this truncated chronicle of events? The struggle for Black self-determination has been met with increasing resistance and violence. Without this knowledge, it is easy to say, “why don’t Black people just get it together?” There have been many efforts by the Black community to “get it together” after being dragged to this country and spat upon after outliving our usefulness. Most of the Black gangs we know of today were rooted in protecting people and property. However, they were criminalized and disrupted. With much of the leadership imprisoned, the youth were left in poverty without guidance.
Black people don’t want to be poor, believe it or not. And I’m sure that our government doesn’t want to see us fail, but man the track record shows a different story. The goal is to reduce historical poverty, increase participation in education and to sustain an economy that benefits the Black community at large. Oh, that’s right, we’ve been trying that for over a century now. Look up “Black Wall Street” when you get a chance.