... My inquisitor was asking me to explain my existence. Why was I successful, law abiding and literate, when others of my kind fill the jails, morgues, and homeless shelters? ...The only answer is life itself. (p 256)
Brent Staples Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, 1994
As I thought about what to write for a weekly blog which would be interesting and something that would capture people's imaginations, something that would be worth reading and would articulate a particular point of view. At first, I thought about taking a policy approach given that public policy influences so much of our lives and shapes the playing field of human interactions. Then again, I thought that it might be better to focus on an authentic story that weaves the political, policy, economic and social context together.
First things first however; the first story is something that begins to frame and provide context to who I am and how policy, culture and economics shaped me and many African-Americans who lived in the upper Midwest. It is my hope that I can get plenty of feedback and hear other people's stories as a way of creating a dialogue to foster better understanding of the American dilemma.
The Promised Land
I was born on West Bank of the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1957, in a hospital where I now sit on the board of trustees. My birth certificate says that I was born a Negro. The man listed as my father on my birth certificate was not my biological father. He and my mother were separated at the time, but not divorced, so I became Gary Leonard Cunningham. In many ways our nuclear family was no different than many of the families in the African American community at that time. My four siblings and I had different fathers, although that never seemed to a matter much to us. We were very close in our formative years. My mother's parents, two generations out of slavery, moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1946, as part of the Second Great Migration of African American. More than 5 million African Americans from the South migrated to northern industrial cities from 1941 to 1971.
My grandparents, like most African Americans of their generation, came to Minnesota to escape Jim Crow laws, the Klan and sharecropping. They migrated like the Swedish, Norwegians, Germens and Jews before them to make a better live for themselves and their children. My grandfather worked as a shift worker at Munsingwear clothing factory for over 20 years until his retirement and death soon thereafter in 1971. He supplemented his regular income developing a real estate business catering primary to African Americans in the Twin Cities. My grandmother worked part-time as a maid and cook for wealthy white families. They raised a family of six children on unless than $9,000 a year in the 1960s. They owned their own home and car. Each of their children was required to take music lessons, to do well in school, and to be involved in the local church.
In 1985, while working on my first research project on the role of people color and women in real estate occupations in Minnesota, I discovered that my grandfather was one of the first Black licensed realtors in the State of Minnesota. In a subsequent study on people of color and women in construction occupations in Minnesota I also discovered that my great uncle was one of the first African American carpenters admitted into the Carpenters Union 1644 in Minneapolis. This was not something that either of these two men talked or bragged about at the time. However, these revelations were important to me as a young man; realizing that some of the men in my family were trailblazers who had forged the path before me, which had a powerful influence on my own life trajectory.
What I didn't realize was at the time, my grandfather was one of the positive male role models in my life as a boy growing up. He would take us boys to baseball and football games and family picnics. He would also provide discipline and guidance when we kids needed it. He provided for his family and I never seen him once raised his hand to my grandmother.
While I didn't live with my grandparents, the environment at my grandparents’ house provided stability that was elusive and fleeting at home. I remember being envious of my Uncle Charles who was two years older than I was. He knew who his father was and had a relationship with him. He also had stability and normalcy, something I longed for as a young boy. Psychologist Dr. Joseph White, the godfather of Black psychology, refers to this phenomenon as “father hunger”.
The role models we see as young children establish patterns for our future lives and relationships. My grandfather was an exception; most of the Black men I knew until I was about 13 years old were hustlers, pimps and drug addicts. Being successful from their point of view was having a nice car, lots of women, very nice clothes and a nice house. In some ways, these material trappings of well-being are no different than many White middle-class people want to obtain, but in the case of people on the streets they want to obtain the material goods and earthly pleasures by any means necessary.
One has to ask the question, was it choice or necessity that some of these men became predators within their communities? I would argue that it is the confluence of culture, policy and economics that create the circumstances and the conditions for the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty. The lack of access to opportunity on the one hand coupled with personal choice on the other.
In his ground breaking book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, Elijah Anderson deciphers a complex code of rules that govern African-American life in inner-city communities, and how these cultural norms give rise to frustrated ambitions and perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Through his ethnographic study, Anderson acknowledges the impact of discrimination and institutional racism in shaping the culture of street life; he also convincingly demonstrates that street culture plays a significant role in the perpetuation of drugs, violence and out of wedlock births. The struggle between raising a "decent family" and being part of the street culture is something many African-American families grapple with. My family was no exception to this dualistic reality.
Next Week: Unintended Consequences