View From Here
You could not start this year’s Women’s History Month on a better note than Lupita Nyong’o winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. Hailed by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as “the Pride of Africa”, Lupita is a star ascending, and when she speaks, Ms. Nyongo’s confidence, eloquence and sensitivity makes her even more stunning.
When faced with beauty such as Lupita’s, we can see across time to when African-Americans were first brought to these shores. This is the complexion our grandmothers had only eight generations ago, a complexion lost forever to the behavior of white men when they owned African women as property. And the myriad of skin tones we see in the subways and on the streets, are markers of the special anguish felt by her character Patsy, and that has been felt by African women held in slavery through the centuries.
In 2014, there are many such markers of slavery all around us. We can see it in the topic much in the news today, gentrification. The seeds of gentrification were sown in slavery and grown through generations of wealth accrual by white Americans, an accrual that was denied to African-Americans by noose, guns, bombs and law, and this wealth is now being reaped and transferred as detailed in the February 2000 study by the Planned Giving Design Center entitled, “Millionaires and the Millennium: New Estimates of the Forthcoming Wealth Transfer and the Prospects for a Golden Age of Philanthropy”). They write that “The study predicted that over the 55-year period from 1998 to 2052, a minimum of $41 trillion will pass from one generation to the next.” The gentrification that is taking place across the country is what that transfer of wealth looks like on the ground. It is a marker of slavery and discrimination and we understand Spike Lee vociferously not taking it any more, although he should take caution. Just being associated with the words “angry black” makes people uncomfortable, risks law enforcement scrutiny and probably are key words for the NSA.
Gentrification is an economic fact. The question is what actions can be taken to deal with this fact-on-the-ground in our neighborhoods? Mandating low income and affordable housing is a start and New York can also follow the lead of one city that has frozen the taxes of its long-term homeowners, helping those who have had their home for generations, but now find the rising tax burden preventing them from keeping it and causing them to fall prey to cash offers versus foreclosure.
But more than helping mere survival, New York should be uplifting the African-American community by using its spending strategically. Council people and the new city administration, invariably called “progressive”, should bring it to the attention of agency heads, that an analysis of the M/WBE Report Card NYC on the comptroller’s Web site, shows that New York City spent only 0.2303% of its vendor budget with certified African-American firms. Working aggressively to change that number and fill the pipeline to build and grow businesses and jobs in the African-American community is something that can be worked on now. The results of these efforts would strengthen the community and not stop, but at least help forestall the gentrifying rush.
African-Americans can derive strength in knowing that we can make things better because we’ve done it before. Judge Albion Winegar Tourgée, founder of the historically black women’s college Bennett College, spoke at the First Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question held at Lake Mohonk in Ulster County, New York on June 1890 and had this to say: “At the close of the war there were set free 5,000,000 men, women and children without a husband, a wife, a lawful father, a legitimate child or a legal family name among them all! They were without homes, without money, without lands, tools, seeds or stock; without education, without experience, without inheritance, without the impulse of generations of thrift and intelligence. Yet, without a family name, except one of his own selection, with wages hardly one-third those of the agricultural laborer of the North, the Negro accomplished industrial results which must make any observer of facts who can lay aside prejudice and forget theories, utter with profound amazement; those words–first of all–flashed through the electric wire, “What hath God wrought!”
We’ve done it before and working together, we can do it again.