WASHINGTON, December 31, 2013 ― Watching and reading news stories over the past week takes me back to a quote highlighted in my book, “Drinking Muddy Water.” The quote, by respected black educator and social activist Nannie Helen Burroughs, is shocking but painfully true: “Black people buy what they want and beg for what they need.”
It was stunning to ride around town and witness first hand many people who have little extra capital standing in line for hours to buy the $200 Jordan Gammas. It was unbearable seeing reports on the news and social media about the fights inside and outside of stores over an ugly pair of shoes that you cannot even shine back into shape after they are accidentally scratched if they get stepped on in the club or on a crowded metro train. A few months later that same ignorance of good priorities will lead many to buy another pair with money that could best be used to do more productive things.
This is exactly what Burroughs was talking about over 50 years ago, but is even more prevalent today. Why? Because one hundred years ago, there was a higher percentage of blacks determined to kick down doors to become engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. It’s a good bet that most of the blacks standing in line for those Jordans last week were unaware that the synthetic rubber used to make many shoes today was invented by a great black scientist named George Washington Carver.
If a pair of rubber-soled shoes are worth fighting and dying over, is it any wonder that our youth will heist a car for a joy ride on its four rubber tires even if it endangers innocent people? It’s tragic that the shoe buyers and the joy riders did not learn to focus on being producers, like Carver, whose inventions enhance people’s lives even today.
There was at least as much racism and economic disparity when Carver was achieving great things as there is now; it was probably much worse in his time. So why is it that the aspirations of so many black folks are no longer to be inventors and business owners committed to building strong families and productive communities? It is because back then blacks bought into what Booker T. Washington said: “Our ability to make the world better depends entirely on our ability to make ourselves better.”
Sadly, many of us who benefited from the accomplishments and great sacrifices of Burroughs, Carver, and Washington have become takers and have forgotten to pass on to the next generation the meaning of success, responsibility and purpose. Too many of us are the first to buy the bling we see in the latest rap video instead of building and rebuilding the institutions of success which made us a once proud community. We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as people of government-dependent broken families, people who value shoes over school and joy rides over freedom rides.
Only Nike benefits from this mentality as it brings out the next shoe in its never-ending line of Jordans. Nike knows that people who can’t afford those shoes will not only buy every new model, but will stand in line all night and fight and die if necessary in an attempt to satisfy a void manipulated by deep insecurities that only a fool could honestly think a pair of shoes could fill.
Institutionalized racism is still an obstacle to be overcome and eliminated in America, but racism was not responsible for people standing in line last week to buy expensive sneakers as if it they were in line for the last bus to heaven. Money is power, and blacks are producing wealth for others by being primarily consumers rather than developing the art and skill of producing things. If the black community used its money in the right way, we would have more power and respect.
It is said that the collective spending power of the American black community would make it the ninth wealthiest country in the world. There is no reason why blacks cannot change the economic equation in America, but only if we go back to the traditional values that got us through slavery and Jim Crow and that fueled the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties.
It begins with family and personal responsibility. The goal should be to rewrite the words of Nannie Helen Burroughs to read, “Blacks buy what they need and build what they want.” Then the future would look like this:
• Parents would line up for their children’s PTA meetings like they do now for the new Jordans.
• Citizens would line up for city council meetings and sessions of Congress to ensure that the people who represent us create policies that elevate us and do not put a strangle hold of dependency and submission upon conditioning us to be satisfied with crumbs and not striving for prosperity.
• Communities would line up to start investment cooperatives in the very neighborhoods where we are being displaced by gentrification.
• We would honor the line that goes back to our glorious, but difficult past when obstacles like racism were overcome rather than used as excuses for failure to build strong families and thriving communities.
Ultimately, reclaiming the values of our past would produce a people to whom a pair of shoes is not a god. More value would be placed on the great gifts and potential the true God has blessed them with; their value is within. There is a saying, “a fool and his money shall soon be parted.” Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that happiness and value can be found at the end of a line to buy a pair of shoes. Then let’s walk proudly in the shoes of our ancestors, past family members and all those who made our world a better place.
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