A Lesson for Daylor Baba

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919 via Equal Justice Commission

Growing up, almost on a daily basis, my mother reminded me, “Yu not American.” Her thick Jamaican accent heavy with self-righteous judgement. It was her way, in her mind of separating me, separating us, from our African American neighbors. To my mother, African Americans were lazy, dirty, and just plain rude. My mother, a single parent of five, homeowner, who always worked two or more jobs to provide for us, was not like them, and we weren’t going to be like them either.

As a kid, I thought it was because she just couldn’t get along with our neighbors. They sat on her car, threw trash in our yard, and seemed to always be hanging out in front our house. So, I got it. We lived in Newark, NJ, notorious for high crime and drugs. My mother didn’t want me to be like — them. The Jewish family she worked for were more suitable examples for me to follow, and she told me this — regularly. Later, I realized that my mother saw African Americans as them long before we became neighbors. Coming from Jamaica, she not only absorbed colonial brainwashing, she also absorbed American white supremacist anti-blackness. It wasn’t her fault really. It’s so easy for us to absorb the lies they feed us. We want to eat it the lies; we need to eat the lies.

For my mother, the stereotypes — welfare queens, crackheads, and drop outs — were true. But, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her brilliant TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” it is not that stereotypes are untrue, it is that they are “incomplete.”

My mother taught me a dangerous story that I had to unlearn. I took on the task of learning the more complete story of what it means to black, what it means to be a black American, and what it means to be black and born on American soil.

As I read the social media posts about NFL players taking a knee from a somewhat new black immigrant, I am reminded of the dangers of a single story. When I read his comments about the rights of the league, the wealth of the players, and what he characterizes as the lack of personal responsibility of the African Americans in his community, and by extension, all African Americans who just can’t seem to get it together to take advantage of all the milk and honey America has to offer, I am reminded of my mother’s stories. I recall the stories that I almost swallowed whole.

With all stories, there are two things that are important: 1) the context, and 2) the teller. Like my mother, my new black immigrant acquaintance doesn’t have the full story, because he lacks the context- basic US history. The following is a Facebook post he inspired

Something to ponder…

After WWII, angry, hateful white people, mainly men, often attacked and killed black soldiers because they wore their uniforms. They particularly enjoyed lynching black uniformed soldiers. Though these soldiers served gallantly, the angry, hateful white men who attacked them believed that they did have the “right” to walk freely, especially among them, in their uniforms. These angry, hateful white men wanted to make sure these soldiers, who they often referred to as “boys” knew there place. And, surely, there place could not be one of honor among them, especially those who stayed home and only heard about battle.

Alongside white soldiers, Black Americans soldiers fought to end the oppressive Nazi regime. Many helped liberate Jews from concentration camps. Yet, they faced the same threats European Jews did in the States — segregation, violence, rape, pillage, dehumanization, verbal abuse, and so much more. And, just to be clear, the North was just as hard on blacks as the south.

Black soldiers fought to liberate Jews while being treated like second class citizens by white soldiers and commanders. Though they were qualified and equipped with the intellectual, mental, and physical fortitude, they were denied opportunities to rise in the ranks. Many were relegated to the front lines tho. They were among the first killed in the fight to free the oppressed, the disregarded, or as the Nazis branded them “the unhuman.”

I suggest that these soldiers, many who probably had grand or grandparents who were former slaves, all who lived understand some form of Jim Crow, many well-versed in the denial of full citizenship, and far to familiar with the dehumanizing nature of racism were willing to die so others wouldn’t not have to endure as they did.

Beyond this knowing, I offer that these soldiers loved America — it’s ideals of freedom, justice, and opportunity. I suggest that these soldiers loved their country, even though their country did not love them. I posit that these soldiers fought because they understood and valued the dream of what America could be and they were willing to sacrifice their lives to see her live up to her ideal. Perhaps, these soldiers knew their efforts would enable America to come closer to reality through their sacrifice.

When black soldiers returned to the States, they faced untold horror rooted in white supremacy. In addition to the ominous threat of bodily harm, these soldiers were denied full access to GI Bill. Benefits of the bill including subsidized education and homeownership. From about 1930s-1960s, 98% of home loans were given to white families. The GI Bill is often credited as one of the most important and effective policies in creating the American middle class. Black Americans were systematically excluded. Even when blacks had money to buy homes or get an education, they faced local and state policies that excluded them from access.

Many of the same wealth and education blocks exist today. Black Americans (and other minorities) are still denied full entry into the middle class. Today it would take the average black family 220+ years to acquire the wealth of the average white family. In the recent home crisis, black families were funneled into predatory loans, even though they had the same credit scores and down payments as white families. Prince George’s County, the wealthiest enclave of blacks, was hit particularly hard. More than half of black families went into foreclosure. This is an example of systemic racism. This is how it works.

Racism, institutional and systematic, is powerful because it operates in silence. It operates in unspoken agreements that manifest in HR policies that only allow certain people in certain positions, make available certain homes in certain neighborhoods, and certain ways of being acceptable to the powerful and mighty. This is how it works.

Nonetheless, black soldiers, black people, their families, their friends and allies persist. We have a history of movements in this country so that we can be a more inclusive and just nation. The 1960s-1970s Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Arts, Women’s Rights, LGBT, and Labor Movement are just a few. However, I offer that these movements were spurred by rage of seeing one too many uniformed black soldiers hanging from trees.

These movements inched America a little closer to her potential. Today, there are many black warriors, at levels of the military, still fighting for America to get a little closer to her full potential. They serve with honor and at great sacrifice. I believe the serve to make this country great. I offer that they serve because they believe in the dream of America. The dream that is yet to be a reality, but a dream worth working toward nonetheless.

America, like all nations, is imperfect. And, we love it anyway. It is because we love our country, because we know we can do better, we too persist. It is because we love our country we kneel, both as a stand for our rights and in honor of those who fight and die so we can protest.