This past Saturday at the Savannah Book Festival, I listened to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. talk about his new book Freeman, the story of a freed slave tracking down his wife after the Civil War. During the Q&A, in an auditorium mostly filled with middle-aged white women, the conversation turned to the subject of a piece Pitts wrote to commemorate the January anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which unpacked our country’s racial constructs:
“‘Black’ and ‘white’ are equally artificial, but black fairly quickly took on the contours of a real culture. The people to whom it was applied, after all, were required to live in close proximity to one another, sharing the same often-squalid circumstances, the same mistreatment and oppression, conditions that no degree of personal excellence or achievement could mitigate or help them escape. These pressures shaped them, drew them together. ‘White,’ on the other hand, was held together only by the single condition of being not black, being a member of the advantaged class. It has little existence apart from that.”
There are the words and then there is the context. I was not in Savannah for the book festival but to visit my father. As a writer, I can’t stand listening to writers talk about themselves in those venues. I had never heard of Pitts, even though he’s one of the most widely read black journalists in the country. I grew up in Washington, D.C. with a multiracial group of friends and learned about race from Chuck D, from being, as a 10-year-old, the only white person in the gym at Clubhouse #2 of the Metropolitan Police Boys & Girls Club on a cold Tuesday night, and from being accused of racism as an after school program director in Boston. My dad, on the other hand, grew up in Sheffield, Alabama during segregation, the son of a man who believed in the separation of races in a state where George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan would soon hold sway.
As a city, Savannah is about 60 percent African-American, but the crowd in Telfair Square for Pitts’ presentation was 95 percent white. I would guess that most of the people in the auditorium voted for Barack Obama and nearly every one of them approved of the message. This is a long-winded way of setting up a simple point: The problem of race for my generation does not have to do with our ideas about race or the laws that enforce equality. It is cultural and it has to do with the auditorium. If the leaders of the previous generation, black and white, used the force of ideas to stand up to violence and coercive authority, break the color barrier, and end legal segregation, the leaders of our generation, like me and like the subjects of this week’s feature, have to bring the same courage to the project of integration. We have to sit next to each other, eat food together, watch our kids play side by side, and stand up for each other. We have to own each other’s issues.
If you read this column in the newspaper, it ended there. But I had more to say. Sometimes the restriction of the print deadline and the space constraint lend a formality to the process that inspires me. Other times, those factors make it harder to say what I mean. In any case, I’m adding on this week.
While race may be a construct, unequal opportunities for a large section of the African-American population in our city are a stark reality. A recent community health survey showed that Charlottesville’s black community has a much higher infant mortality rate and a considerably shorter life expectancy than the rest of the community. School statistics show African-American students lagging behind in nearly every category. A recent Pew study with a national scope concluded that African-American males who haven’t finished high school have a better chance of going to prison than getting a job. The widely circulated Orange Dot Project report, which evaluated our city’s income gap by neighborhood using information gathered in the 2010 Census, shows that the city’s traditionally black neighborhoods are its poorest. The realities of school segregation and limited job opportunities have created an underclass in the middle of a thriving and affluent town. It’s a shame. An even greater shame is that the lack of affordable housing in our city will whitewash it in less than a decade. Is that a future you’re buying into?
Since I’ve been in Charlottesville, I’ve seen the community’s notion of exceptionalism practiced in inspiring and less inspiring ways, but I’ve always been impressed by the idea that our people don’t accept status quo solutions, whether it’s chloramines in the drinking water or a shoddily planned highway or an ugly version of the Belmont Bridge. On March 4, City Council will vote whether or not to create a permanent Human Rights Commission with enforcement authority. As a legal improvement, it may not be a game-changing step, since in the case of a commission in northern Virginia only about 1 in 600 complaints yielded a finding against an accused party. But as an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is with regard to racial equality, it’s a huge opportunity. It’s a chance to send a public love letter to the black community, and to all other minority groups in the city. It’s also a chance for us to put aside anger and guilt, which are personally and publicly destructive forces, and embrace innovation and faith, which are creative forces.
To finish, I’d like to thank Quinton Harrell, Corbin Hargraves, Sarad Davenport, and Wes Bellamy for their courage to step into the spotlight and take on the responsibility of providing a voice of leadership for a younger generation that’s not well-represented in local government. I’d also like to acknowledge the people who have helped develop them, some of whom are named in the story and many others who are not, including Rick Turner, Holly Edwards, and Kristin Szakos, to name a few.
If you’ve ever felt guilt about the way our city’s racial divisions separate us or anger at how you’ve been treated, show up at City Council next month. If there are 11 of us or 2,000, it will feel good and maybe someone who knows all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” can lead us in a song and we can send a positive message to the rafters together. You don’t have to stay for a five hour meeting, just come for a few minutes and cut loose.