Sixty-five Years Apart: A Parallel of Black Survival in America
I called my grandmother one day to ask a question that would cause her to reflect on the cyclical nature of Black survival in a country that has never valued Black lives. At ninety-five, she has lived and continues to survive, through a hemorrhage of anti-Black narratives, government funded movements, and post-slavery assaults on lives of people that have been overwhelmingly responsible for the maintenance of a country that has never viewed them as fully human.
Having traversed through the ills of Jim Crow, the continued economic disenfranchisement of Black people, the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House, and our country’s relentless attempt at aggressively reviving a narrative of white superiority and dominance, I wanted to gain perspective of how the stories of our lives parallel sixty-five years apart. These times are not only a test of our tenacity to ascend beyond the depths of cultural despair, but a reflection of how history repeats itself; however, we must find comfort in knowing that our ancestors, our great-grandparents, and our grandparents serve as a constant reminder that we always survive.
My grandmother was born in Monroe, North Carolina in 1923. While there were few, if any, historically significant events that occurred during this year, her life itself was no crystal stair. As early as I can recall, my grandmother would share stories about her near death as a child. Her body, as an infant, was covered by sores that rendered her delicate and fragile to touch — descriptors that I would not today use to describe her personality or endurance living as a Black woman in this country. Born during a period when healthcare was a luxury of whiteness, she recalls being healed by her grandmother who carried her around on a satin pillow and covered her in castor oil and chicken feathers after each bath.
I am inclined to describe her as meek, but it fails to adequately capture the true essence of her personality. If ever granted with the opportunity to be in her presence, you would soon realize that my grandmother navigates through this world with the purposeful consciousness bestowed and possessed only by a generation of elders that are rapidly evaporating from our lives. Her politics are aligned with God, not the fire and brimstone type, but the worldly sort, who once tenderly grabbed my hands while looking me in the eye to assure me that my prematurely revealed sexuality was all a part of Gods plan, and that my happiness was her only concern.
While to most, my request to peer into the historical archives of her life may seem inconsequential to her pertinacious survival. My brain and heart have been on a relentless emotional quest to dissect and digest my experiences as a 30-year old queer Black man living through the circuitous events of this country, that have undoubtedly plagued her near century of life. Reflecting on the racial terrorism orchestrated by the election of Trump, I asked her to share her thoughts on what it means to have lived through the vile racist history of this country, witness the election of the first Black President, and to now relive in a state of cultural destruction and moral corruption fueled by the unsubstantiated beliefs that Blackness is merely a footnote in the narrative of this nation’s ascension to relevance.
After hesitating — because she’s sometime uncertain that she’ll use the right words, she shared an aspect of her life that was unbeknownst to me:
I worked for white folks cleaning their homes. I had to clean the floor on my knees because they refused to give you a mop. Once I was done, I got a rag and waxed the floor while still on my knees. You see, as Black people we had to stand in line behind whites for jobs, but the only jobs we could get was cleaning their homes… That’s why my knees hurt so much today, it’s the pain from scrubbing those floors reminding me of what it was like to live in the south as a Black person.”
Only yielding an 8th grade education, she was forced to endure the demoralizing performance of having the value of her labor, and her agency as a Black woman, measured by the amount of time she spent in pain on her knees. Her organically developed intelligence, acquired by reading comics — funnies as she calls them, and teaching herself to do arithmetic in her head — something that still amazes me to this day, generated thoughts of my own struggles of navigating through life as a Black boy who viewed formally ingested intelligence as an act of survival, and my recent experience of having my labor devalued while working in white spaces. Although my struggles pale in comparison to the physical pain she endures, they both serve as stark reminders that sixty-five years apart, and fifty-years following Dr. King’s last speech, as Black people in this country we have yet to reach the proverbial mountaintop.
“Poverty,” although the word evoked a sense of uncertainty as to whether she had pronounced it correctly, and I was not certain where she was going with her statement, I affirmed her pronunciation of the word and eagerly awaited to receive whatever wisdom she was preparing to impart on me.
She stammered a bit and attempted to regain her thought process… poverty, she repeated, “I never understood why peoples enjoy seeing others struggle or suffer. When I think about all that I lived through, and then now I see Trump in the White House and all he’s doing to keep Black people in poverty… I just want Black peoples to live their lives without having to struggle to survive. No one should have to live in poverty because of who they are. It wasn’t until I moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, and I was able to get a job working in the lip stick factory, making tubes for the lipstick, that I was able to understand what it was like to not have to struggle.”
The poverty rate among African Americans (22%) is more than double the poverty rate among whites (9%). While the unemployment rate across the country is at an all-time low, African-Americans and Hispanics still overwhelmingly experience higher unemployment rates compared to their counterparts — African-Americans lead nationally at 6.5%, despite the country experiencing record job growth and optimistic projections for the future of the economy.
As a Black male of 30 with compounding student loan debt, and thriving after experiencing two terminations, the threat of eviction, and surviving for nearly four months by driving for Uber eats, the glaring reality of what its like to struggle, and survive, in this country has never been more apparent than currently in my life. While my grandmother experienced similar debilitating odds during her life’s journey, she’s amassed an organic knowledge of the perpetual presence of how cultural and economic oppression can freely imprison a people.
Our lives parallel at a very precarious point in the history of this country. But what we stand to learn from these moments is that while our current circumstances may exist as the present reality of our lives, we are unrelenting in our fortitude as Black people in America.