Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Politics in Cleveland, Part II

Roundabout musings on black power, black potency, black excellence
The Souls of Black Folk in the Twenty-First Century

In today’s first post we tried to distill 140 years of black political activity in Greater Cleveland to provide some context for the current deplorable state of our political affairs, where we have more representation than ever, but seemingly less power, and most certainly less public service. Already we have heard directly from several of our readers, mostly in a positive vein, although one — Cleveland NAACP president Mike Nelson — called up to dispute our characterization of his organization as “stirring”.

The prompt for that first post was the euphoria we felt from attending two events the day before yesterday. The first was a program at Case Western Reserve University, hosted by its Weatherhead School of Management. It was a high caliber discussion of macro economic trends delivered by Michael Jeans with such clarity that even nonfinancial initiates could assimilate, followed by a discussion of opportunity structures for businesses and the traps for the unwary that surround those opportunities. What made it special in addition to its first rate quality were two things: a) knowing that two African American bankers — Michael Jeans of JumpStart’s Growth Opportunity Partners subsidiary, and Ndeda Letson of Citizens Bank — were involved in every detail of the event, and that it was carried out to perfection, even to the catering, and b) it was inclusive.

May I digress for a moment? Roger Wilkins earlier this week. He was an unassuming black man of great intellect and integrity, a civil rights champion of national repute, and a path-breaker in many ways. From obituaries [Washington Post[1]; New York Times[2]] I learned, unsurprisingly, that he was in some ways tortured by the pressures he was forced to bear as a black man who came of age in mid-century America. The pressures were by no means unique to him. While they have dissipated to a great degree for many black people, especially those with some economic means, they are nonetheless known to virtually every adult African American of a certain age. President Obama alluded to this fact more than once, although he tended to do so obliquely — precisely because those pressures remain so feral in American society and polity.  (If you doubt that, glance at the White House.)

For Wilkins, who worked at the highest “blue chip” levels of American government and society, the pressure cooker was often too much; he had difficulty reconciling the privileged arenas in which he worked and socialized with his notion of blackness and his understanding and empathy for the less fortunate for whom he was a fierce and relentless advocate.

There are moments in life where the twoness of being African in America, so peerlessly expressed by DuBois[3], disappears because you find yourself in a place where even the micro-aggressions have faded away. That’s what true inclusion can feel like. And I thought how Wilkins would have loved to have been where I was both Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening, in settings where excellence and ethnicity combined in a way that could make grown men cry for joy. Black folk, and the woke part of our nation, got a taste of that during the Obama years, and we ain’t never gonna forget or quit trying to reproduce it wherever we can.

So Tuesday night I had two events to cover, and apologies to the Black Professionals Association Charitable Foundation [BPACF] which was having its annual meeting and announcing to the world that Erskine Cade [“Ernie”] was its 2017 Black Professional of the Year [an inspired choice, we think], I never got there, which means I also missed the tribute BPACF was scheduled to give honoring the life of Charleyse Pratt, a very accomplished sister who died earlier this month.

Truth is, I had barely walked in the door of The Lofts suite at 40th St. and Payne Ave. for the local launch of a political action committee when I knew something special was going down.

To begin with, the room was full and the vibe was warm, natural. Healthy [that no micro-aggression thing again. You can feel its presence or absence in the atmosphere, like extreme humidity.] I saw people whose presence surprised me; they weren’t they types who usually attend political affairs. The crowd skewed millennial but all generations were there, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers and whatever fills the gaps. And significantly, there was a total absence of that segment of the political crowd whose hands are always out, looking for the hustle.

[By way of contrast, I remember when Gov. Kasich came to town a few years ago to tout his administration’s success in achieving the state’s set-aside goals for the first time in history. It was indeed a signal achievement in which he took justifiable pride — “just do it”, I think he said. That accomplishment was an example of what it takes when the intent to be inclusive is real: leadership and commitment from the top, and the willingness to hold subordinates accountable for performance.

There was a huge crowd of folk at that Kasich photo op, but even apart from the hoopty-do of a gubernatorial road show, the vibe that day was different. That particular mostly black crowd had a different flavor than either of Tuesday’s events. The people who hustled over to see and meet the Governor or his posse, to get in the pictures, to secure the right contact, put a chill in the air for this reporter. You could sense they were there, figuratively, with hands out, palms up, grins at the ready.

(That sounds harsh, but then this site is called The Real Deal.)

I think I just broke my promise that this was going to be a 100% positive report, and I know I have buried the lead, which is that

[1] From a young age, he once wrote, he was compelled to spend his life “blasting through doors that white people didn’t want to open.” Mr. Wilkins said he lived at times with a painful duality as an African American who had risen to positions of leverage in white-controlled halls of power.
He felt an obligation to serve the black community, but he also desired an identity independent from it — “my own personal exemption,” he said. … He spent periods of his life at the Ford Foundation, where he awarded grants from its luxurious New York offices, and on the riot-ravaged streets of Detroit, where he was confronted by gun-wielding state troopers unaccustomed to encountering a black federal authority. … Intense and sensitive, Mr. Wilkins … saw himself as a microcosm of high-achieving black America at a time of limited new opportunity amid still-festering historical bigotry.

[2] Mr. Wilkins had little personal experience with discrimination. He waged war against racism from above the barricades — with political influence, jawboning, court injunctions, philanthropic grants, legislative proposals, and commentaries on radio and television and in newspapers, magazines and books.
Outwardly, he was a successful, popular black man with more white acquaintances than black friends. … As he rose to prominence, he came to regard himself as a token black in institutions and social circles that were overwhelmingly white and privileged. It troubled him deeply. In [a] memoir, he acknowledged years of unease with his blackness, of trying to live up to the expectations of whites.
[3] “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” — W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks, [1903]

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