What happens when that favorite saying of young people, “back in the day,” happens to be today? When confronted with stories of racism, the civil rights struggle, or slavery, that is often the response out of our young. “That was back in the day” will flow from their lips faster than flies swarm to garbage. Yet the stories and images coming out of the South following Hurricane Katrina has put a pause in many a young person’s mouth.
Here was a catastrophe that was visual. Young people couldn’t turn on the TV, the Internet, look at a magazines or newspapers without seeing it before their eyes. The images were not of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents in clothes that they couldn’t identify with. Instead, like a “sucker punch” to the senses, there were images that could have been out of the 1950s-60s civil rights movements, or the Port of New Orleans in the 1750s at the height of the slave trade, except the folks in those pictures look just like our young folks of today.
There were young, black hip-hoppers, do-rag tied in knots, screaming and shouting at cameras just like their forefathers did when marching and fighting for the civil rights that those same young folks take for granted today. There were young women with scarves tied around their hair, looking like they had spent hours in the sun picking cotton. They had spent hours in the sun all right, but those hours were on rooftops, trapped on the interstate or in make-shift shelters where food and water was at a minimum.
In a country where even the poorest amongst us has a microwave and color TV, where hunger and starvation has multiple levels of safety nets, our young people learned in those 4-5 days what they didn’t want to hear from us over the past 45 years. Even the ones watching the travesty on TV were affected. For once in their lives, our young people saw folks who looked just like them. Even the most jaded of them couldn’t help but look and think, “Damn, that could be me!”
Our youth got to see folks just like themselves begging and screaming for food, just like our enslaved ancestors once had to beg and scream for food. They saw black people being held at bay at gunpoint, the same way their parents/grandparents were once held at gunpoint to keep them out of schools and and away from lunch counters. The “shoot to kill” order, given by the Governor of Louisiana was no different from the one given by Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1968. Black lives are always easily turned into a target.
Our young people in New Orleans, who had never experienced being shot with a water cannon, instead had floodwater surrounding them, effectively doing the same thing.
When I looked at the rows of beds set up in the Superdome, it looked just like the cargo hold of the slave ships that brought our ancestors to this country. I pointed that out to my young people. And for once, the silence was rewarding. They cannot argue the reality of what they saw. The cannot “excuse” it away. Even that “back in the day” comment was hard to utter, seeing with each day another news reporter making it into New Orleans while supplies of food and water as well as rescue just couldn’t seem to come.
Our youth, who have been weaned on TV, now had TV giving them the best history lesson of all. I know it had to be our young people who quickly spotted all those photos on the Internet that highlighted blacks looting while whites salvaged. It was our youth who sent those photos across the Internet of blacks escaping the hurricane in the back of trucks while dogs were taken out in luxury buses. Who amongst us didn’t see the photo of the black women surrounding and comforting an elderly white woman who lay dying in the Superdome? For a second that photo could have been of “mammies” (the common term for female slaves) surrounding the white plantation mistress as she lay dying.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the black community has stepped up to the plate like it hasn’t done in 45 years. Even the poorest amongst us offered help, gave donations, and generally met the call of our people who suffered from this catastrophe.
But there is only so much water, food, clothing and diapers we can send. At some point, we need to remember that “back in the day” was a time when we had businesses in the black community that consisted of banks, movie theaters, restaurants, attorneys and doctors. We had neighborhoods so filled with businesses that many a person never had to leave their neighborhood to find what they needed.
We now have an opportunity to make “back in the day” today. The question is, will we?
(Or join me on Saturday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m., City Hall to demand that Daley resigns. Many of the mayor’s policies are the reasons the “back in the day” businesses no longer exist on the West Side.)