March 1, 2000
Sometimes the best way to view a situation is to step outside of it and look in. That's what traveling with the Odyssey has helped me do with regards to figuring out what it means to be African-American. What I've realized is that so much of what we are presumed to be comes from the media, from music, which transcends language barriers, from television and from movies. You're probably even familiar with these popular stereotypes about African-Americans: We can sing and we can dance. We are athletic and we can rap. African-Americans are a mostly lower-class, poor, welfare-stricken, uneducated, minority group. We have seen more of our male population be imprisoned in the last 10 years than we did in the two decades before. First, let's begin by dispelling some of these nasty "truths". Because before we can figure out "Where African-Americans Are Today" we have to understand who African-Americans are today.
Unfortunately, the greatest insight into Black America comes from idolized rappers, athletes or superstars like 2-pac and Michael Jordan. When the team was in West Africa, for example, being African-American meant people could relate to me best through hip-hop music and wearing baggy clothes. Though I may associate with those icons, they are not what defines my culture. Here in Turkey, people are still watching the Cosby Show, which depicts a time when African-Americans were moving into the upper-middle class. After shows like "Good Times" and "Different Strokes", which portrayed Blacks as poor, ghetto-dwelling, poverty-stricken, welfare recipients, the Cosbys were revolutionary in representing Blacks who were intelligent, articulate, doctors and lawyers with solid, strong families. As we move into the future, we all search to be grounded with knowledge of who we are. For African-Americans, I realize more and more that our cultural identity is one that we have had to make up as we go.
Of all the world's most horrific events of genocide, no group was as culturally devastated as the Africans who were brought to America and enslaved. They were stripped of all ties to any cultural identity, dehumanized and forced to live as chattel. They were forbidden to speak their native tongues, and even given new American names to replace their given tribal names. Families were separated: men from women, mothers from children. Blacks were systemically turned against one another. Light-skinned Blacks were chosen to work indoors and pitted against their darker-skinned brethren who were then treated especially harsh for being dark. Overseers, or "Uncle Toms" , were given special privileges to remain loyal to their Masters and expose other slaves who "got out of line". I bring these issues up because they are the trace elements that shape our culture today. The Black family never fully recovered from the damage done during slavery. As a people, African-Americans still face lack of unity, issues of self-hate, and injustices in our judicial system, in housing, education, employment, and health care.
Still that's only a small piece of the puzzle. While a large percentage of African-Americans face these struggles in the urban centers of our country, there are growing numbers who have reaped the benefits of the blood lost in slavery and during the civil rights movement . This class of African-Americans form an economically powerful middle, and upper-elite class in America. This positive economic trend was first noticed in 1985 when talk show host Tony Brown initiated the Buy Freedom Campaign. His call for African-Americans to support black-owned firms and professionals was greeted by a massive response. By then, the number of black-owned businesses had risen from 50,000 black-owned or controlled businesses in 1968 to 350,000 in 1985. The increase has remained steady and has given us quite a bit of leverage. In 1999, African-American buying power reached $533 billion, up from $309 billion in 1990. (Study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth released by The Coalition of Black Investors, 1999)
This buying power has resulted in a new trend commonly known as "The New Color of Success", after a new book written on the topic. "The New Color of Success" refers to a generation of African-Americans, mostly under the age of 40, who have built million-dollar businesses in diverse fields. "The goal of the book,"said author Niki Mitchell, "was to document that young black, successful entrepreneurs first, exist and, second, are starting successful and profitable careers in businesses other than sports and performance entertainment." This and other contributions are forging breakthroughs that are moving us away from the readily available negative images of Blacks so often portrayed in the media.
Still the question remains, "Where Are African-Americans Today?" Many use this example of prosperity to discount slavery and the struggles of our distant past. We have to be reminded, however, that as horrible as it was, that era is not as distant a past as it may seem. Its ghosts are fresh and still haunt us today. We may have the blessings of a generally prosperous and optimistic age, but not all is well.
Public education, for example, and the "Digital Divide", remain key concerns as we move into the age of technology. The Digital Divide was a term coined about four years ago to describe the disparity of Internet access and PC accessibility between whites and minorities in the United States. The report, commissioned by The Department of Commerce and released in June of 1999, concluded that blacks were considerably behind whites in terms of access to PCs and the Internet. The report added immediate legitimacy not only to our need to get wired, but to the fact that we are behind in this and numerous other areas. While this news is despairing it is not a losing battle. I hope that, YOU, the leaders of the next generation, use this knowledge to step up to the plate with inspiring solutions and perseverance to see them through. We must all remember those less fortunate than us and encourage disadvantaged young people, especially, to have high expectations, stay in school, study hard, and take the right courses to go to and succeed in college.
Thank you for being a part of our tribute to the legacy of African Heritage in America. It's purpose is to break down barriers, bridge cultural gaps, and motivate activism through the power of knowledge! Now that you have this power, what are you going to do with it?
"Holding Africa At Arm's Length", Justin Brown, The Christian Science Monitor
"A Message for Black History and Technology", Net Noir.com
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
You Be the Judge…
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Kavitha - Part II: Behind the Veil
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