Sunday, October 9, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "There seems to be one question black people keep asking over and over again. Year after year...Where do we go from here? How would Charles Johnson answer this question?"

I would answer that deeply troubling question this way: 

Everything in America today is broken. Let us count the ways. The public schools. The military. The economy. The nuclear family (for black people). Traditional dead-tree journalism. The hope for home ownership. The American Dream. Small businesses. The cost of a college education and the prospect of it leading to gainful employment. Government jobs---local, state and federal---that are being cut back steadily (and which black Americans depended hugely upon). A federal government locked in gridlock between Tea Party Republicans and the first black American president. On and on, we can add to this list of things that are broken in contemporary American society.

 The Civil Rights Movement was predicated or premised on an America in the 1950s and '60s that was economically prosperous, so that Martin Luther King Jr. could title one of his books, Why We Can't Wait when every white American was living in a country that was the most powerful, economically, on planet Earth. Why, he reasoned, should black Americans be left behind in a period of prosperity? But now, in 2011, that era of prosperity is long gone. This is, as we are reminded every day, a new and frightening period of "austerity," one comparable to the Great Depression in its numbers of the unemployed, a period that well might last for a decade. 

 Abdullah Pollard, who is 58-years-old and was interviewed in New York at the Occupy Wall Street protest this past week, said he came to the United States from Trinidad in 1996, and became a citizen in June. In April, he was laid off from his job in telecommunications. "I didn't feel empowered as an immigrant," he said. "Now I am citizen, and I want to stand up for the downtrodden. Both political parties march to the same drummer---the powerful corporations. You leave your own country and you expect things to be better in America, a step or two up from what you left back home. And then there's this rude awakening. America is just not what it used to be."

No, America is not what it used to be. And I will venture to say that what it used to be---in the decades following World War II and the financial crisis that began in 2008---is something that it will never be again. We can kiss that period in American history goodbye, along with all the individual and collective hopes and dreams (and, in some cases, fantasies) that were premised on the belief in unending prosperity and increasing, uninterrupted upward mobility for every successive generation. What we are witnessing, I believe a Buddhist would say, is a "rude awakening," to quote Mr. Pollard, to the fact of the impermanence of all things. A rude awakening that is about the inevitability of change. A rude awakening to the fact that the things we desperately cling to (and ourselves) will one day die after running their course. When things change, as they must, many of our personal desires and dreams are dashed to pieces. And so there is nothing to cling to. Nothing a wise man or woman will be attached to. We know about entropy. Ultimately, all systems will fail. We all walk daily on a high wire and beneath us there is no safety net. To be frank, there are no safety nets that can endure forever. One day the universe itself will experience proton death.

Having no crystal ball, I cannot predict the future. But I do know this: our black parents and predecessors who experienced the Great Depression "made a way out of out no way." They handled the greatest forms of adversity with dignity and courage and the highest ideals, and during the darkest days of the 1930s created things of beauty---political, social and artistic---that we are still building upon today. In a broken society, a broken world, we can---and must---do the same. In this matter, each of us individually has no choice but to do our best, each and every day, to serve others and the common good. So no, this is no time for selfishly singing the blues. Our work is always before us and we know, each and every one of us, what that is. Who the people are who are relying on our help, support and compassion every day. Are we Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill only to see it roll back down again? I daresay, yes, we are. And, as Albert Camus put it long ago in The Myth of Sisyphus, rolling that rock back up the hill once again (only to see it roll back down) is an action repeated again and again throughout the history of our species that demonstrates both the profound tragedy and the triumph of the human condition.

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