BLM and Harlem: What the Renaissance Should Teach Us

In an offensive post by one of the professional forums I belong to, I heard the often-typical mischaracterization that all “socialism” is evil. The individual, a clinical social worker, went on to compare Nazism to socialists’ movements. He went on to quote Marx by relying on an article from Forbes Magazine. Other social workers called him out, as I did. The reality is that the U.S. was in no hurry to liberate Jewish people.

The truth is much more complicated. The Russians also liberated many from internment camps, while, a few years earlier, they looked on as Poland got steamrolled by German forces. Many of our most successful American institutions are socialist: social security (if we stop raiding its funds), the postal service, the military, libraries, and our voluntary first responders. These are all structured on socialism, as many of our allied countries are: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, are all socialist democracies. Currently, Russia is not socialist. It’s a capitalist dictatorship, as is China. China uses socialism in the same way the U.S. uses democracy.

What this author’s over-generalizations and tropes fail to acknowledge is that there has always been much socialism in freedom movements. Such is very true with the Black Civil Rights movement that has gone on for nearly 400 years, one of its forefathers, Frederick Douglass; its foremother, Harriet Tubman.

Their Lives Lost is Our Commercial Gain

In its unimaginable brutality, the concentration camp is the perfect capitalist system. You pay people only enough food to survive for three months and work them to death. They don’t even need clothing. Those deemed worthless, women and children, babies, can be put in incinerators, using the cheapest gas possible to suffocate them. It’s the cheapest of labor and keeps costs down. Many of our medical advances came from the inhumane and brutal experiments done on children, women, and men, some of which our nation and national security agencies adopted as a form of “enhanced interrogation.” Others benefited us medically.

Similar exploitation can be seen by U.S. businesses all over the world, where people make pennies, a handful of cents per week. We can wave the U.S. flag that is made in China, and we can hold our AR-15 rifles as symbols of freedom while our fear and misdirected anger is at those least responsible for our own misery.

That is how politics work. The master politician pits citizen against citizen while taking advantage of them for personal gain. There is no such thing as love of country, just a predatory self-interest.

“America Means Only [White] Me”

When a young woman was shown two graphs, one from Norway and one from the United States, it was the U.S. that was most unequal. As a “developed” nation, the U.S. has the worst economic disparity rates of any other [should I say white] nation. We incarcerate the most, and we have the most violence of any other “developed” nation. Even if we take away all gun crime, according to James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who’s an expert in violence, the U.S. would still rank the worst in violence. When the woman was told that it was the U.S. that had such awful disparity, nearly 40% of the U.S. population has 0 wealth and less than 1% has nearly 80+%, she paused and said, “Well, that is okay because at least I can dream of becoming that less than 1%.”

At what human cost should we cherish our selfish American Dream?

That dream only applies, almost exclusively, to powerful white males: Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, the Koch Brothers, even Trump, and the lowly Limbaugh. They are our masters; we, their slaves. But most of us poor whites are the enforcers of inequality, the racist equivalent of us making the rich man’s coffee in hopes he will notice us. In the end, we are trash, too, but white trash, the “fly-over people.” We still are better than People of Color. We go through great lengths to keep a geographical distance.

Build Communities, Not Your Own Self Image

All of these individuals have been ruthless in securing their own interests, I think; however, I am here to appeal to them. We cannot make the U.S. better without them. The immense power they have can finally make the change we need to realize the true American Dream. I suggest we look no further than the Harlem Renaissance as a way to put Black Lives Matter into practice. In this way maybe “All Lives Matter” will finally include all lives and not discard and deny the painful profiling and targeting of the many People of Color upon who’s backs we built the superpower called the United States.

I write to these wealthy men and ask, if you want to be remembered, then please invest in our communities of color. You will be remembered. Invest, redevelop, but listen to their voices and include their requests in the development. The Washington Redskins may be forced to change their offensive and racist name, but the owner has no intention of including Native American voices in that renaming, yet claims he is honoring Native Americans. Nothing is more offensive and racist from an NFL team owner. Name change or not, the Washington Redskins will still continue to perpetuate racism and hate.

People are social by nature, not capitalist. “Survival of the Fittest” is often used by shrewd businessmen, but like our socialist critics, they fail to get the basic premise Darwin was making. Fittest does not mean predatory as in lions eating gazelles. Lions don’t have a choice and say, “I think I will have a salad” all the while lacking prehensile thumbs and more developed brains.  If we take our personal bias and prejudice away, Darwin meant that the most “flexible” and adaptable survive. If doves notice that another dove is selfish, they push that dove out. Should we arrest them and put them on trial for being socialist doves? We’d say, let the selfish dove win and starve all others. That is “America?”

Is that your America?

If tough guys win, then why are the dinosaurs extinct? In place of them, we have modern-day chicken? Maybe the world is sending us a stark and brutal message?

Sadly, many if not most, Americans see socialism as the evilest thing ever created, but to do so is to deny the many evils of capitalist societies: at their center, they are predatory institutions that take advantage of the subjugated to profit a select few. The idea that any of us can be Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos, or even Trump is a fantasy, an unrealistic American dream that very seldom exists for Americans with European heritage let alone People of Color. In sum, what killed the USSR is the same thing that is killing the U.S., greed, and the cycle of propaganda that the reason the US is in trouble is because of Black men, the “Mexican,” the illegal. The real problem is that we are a Plutocratic nation pretending to be democratic and excusing it away by saying, “Gosh, we are not democratic, we are a democratic republic.

The Harlem Renaissance Connection

We needed rich white people to invest in African American art, to believe in the talent and the ability that many Black artists gave us. The investment that the wealthy whites made created the artistic community in Harlem, made jazz and artwork visible to the mainstream, and gave voice to the many brilliant and talented Black writers of the day and paved the way for those after: Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry and the many women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman laid the foundation. Those of the Harlem Renaissance built the house, and, in it, that house led to the visibility of some of the richest and most beautiful American art in U.S. history. Out of this came, not only the music of jazz and later rap and hip-hop, but I personally witnessed the transformation from a Black kid rapping to white kids rapping in an all-white school. Such did not take away racism, but it laid the foundation toward a connection between all of us.

He may have a controversial history, but Michael Jackson changed the face of music. As a young white boy from the country, he was the first African American artist I loved, and his song “Beat It,” I played over and over. Then others followed: Prince, MC Hammer, and the beautiful Star-Spangled Banner that Whitney Huston nailed without any practice at the Superbowl between Buffalo and the New York Giants in 1991. Without Black performers, including professional athletes, there would be no NFL, NBA, WNBA, and baseball would be severely compromised.

Kaepernick Was Not Disrespectful; He Just Gave Us A Mirror

Colin Kaepernick is a true hero because since when is kneeling in front of a flag disrespectful? In the military, when your brother- or sister-in-arms falls, you kneel as their flag-draped casket goes by. It’s the military combat version of Disney.  When we pray, we often kneel. Kneeling is respect. Kaepernick’s actions where that of grief, the grief People of Color have experienced for over 400 years. He is grieving for a nation, a flag, that never lived up to its ideals. That is not disrespect. Kaepernick, like so many artists and athletes before him, is simply holding a mirror up to all of us and is saying, “Look! This is who we all are, and we are hurting all the while you enjoy the game.”

Whitney Huston died of drug addiction. Michael Jackson died of drug addiction. Prince died of drug addiction. Yet, Harriet Tubman is not being put on a green bill, an honor only given to white men, former slave owners. Many star football players died of brain damage while performing for us, Junior Seau, and many others, some white and Black. When people are in pain, they try to stop the pain. Drugs became another form of institutionalized slavery: since 14% is useless, let’s lock them up and make money off them.

As one congress member said to the United States Sentencing Commission that argued against the racially targeted policy of charging those with crack cocaine 100 times worse than those with powder cocaine: “These people are killing our kids. These people are a danger to society.” What he meant was Black people are a danger to our society and are killing our [whites] kids. This, of course, is not true. Black kids are dying in war zones we disguise as “Ghettos’ and many kids show the same PTSD symptoms as war veterans.

A Modest Proposal

I ask those of you with the power and resources to work with social workers in the field to invest in communities of color. Let the community lead and tell you where your dollars can go that would help them. Good policing is critical and a backbone of safe and stable communities, but let the community have a voice in police training, hiring, and police accountability. I often say that whites use drugs just as much if not more than people of color. If the police in my county “threw resources” at a rich community, they would make just as many arrests if not more. Rich white communities are covered in drugs. But rest assured, if the police did that, they would not have jobs the next day.

Drugs are like sex. People will always do them. No law will ever work. Such laws will just exploit and harm people. Overuse of drugs or sex is a symptom of a problem, not the problem. Often law enforcement simply chases symptoms. The disease is inequality, something COVID-19 is shoving in our faces daily at horrific rates.

In the US, a zip code provides one’s life expectancy. Does such make us proud? Though the Harlem Renaissance is not ideal, wealthy buyers could eroticize People of Color, and one of my favorite Black writers, Zora Neale Hurston, was banished by many in the movement because they feared her works and focus on folklore would further stereotype African Americans (she died penniless and alone), such was an extraordinary accomplishment between wealthy, white elites, and the most subjugated peoples.  I think now, we need a Black Lives Matters Renaissance, so that all lives can truly mean that all lives matter.


Feature Image by UnratedStudio from Pixabay