This week I’ve been listening to the audible version of Becoming by Michelle Obama. Her vivid descriptions of her childhood make me feel like I’m there with her. In chapter 3, a vivid description of what family life was like and living on the south side of Chicago, she goes into the struggles that some of her uncles and her grandfather went through.
“If you wanted to work as an electrician (or as a steelworker, carpenter, or plumber, for that matter) on any of the big job sites in Chicago, you needed a union card. And if you were black, the overwhelming odds were that you weren’t going to get one. This particular form of discrimination altered the destinies of generations of African Americans, including many of the men in my family, limiting their income, their opportunity, and, eventually, their aspirations. As a carpenter, Southside wasn’t allowed to work for the larger construction firms that offered steady pay on long-term projects, given that he couldn’t join a labor union. My great-uncle Terry, Robbie’s husband, had abandoned a career as a plumber for the same reason, instead becoming a Pullman porter. There was also Uncle Pete, on my mother’s side, who’d been unable to join the taxi drivers’ union and instead turned to driving an unlicensed jitney, picking up customers who lived in the less safe parts of the West Side, where normal cabs didn’t like to go. These were highly intelligent, able-bodied men who were denied access to stable high-paying jobs, which in turn kept them from being able to buy homes, send their kids to college, or save for retirement.”¹
And although I know this is a part of our history, it is also often the underline theme that has continued up through today. I see it in my home city as well. In Tulsa there is a division line between where most white people live and where most black people live. It’s called admiral. Every day the news covers what crimes happened above admiral. They may not speak it, but it’s implied when they talk about “North Tulsa”. Those that are on the south side never cross Admiral (which is a street) because it’s “dangerous” as reinforced by the news. Those on the north side don’t trust those on the south side. The division is so obvious and clear. When I was living in Nashville there was much more of a mesh of people, because it’s a very transient city. Tulsa is not though. I really miss that mesh of different cultures.
I think the person who I owe the most to opening my eyes to this is Ani DiFranco and her song Subdivision.
It began with Native Americans. They were sent to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears which is now called Oklahoma where I live. Later Tulsa would have one of the most devastating race riots in history…
“…the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. During the riot, white residents destroyed the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, which had come to be known as “Black Wall Street.” A report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot said, “It is estimated that approximately 11,000 blacks resided in Tulsa in 1921, most living in the area of the Greenwood section.” As many as 300 people were killed and 8,000 left homeless.² “
And now we see caravans of people coming on the news, seeking the same freedoms we have been afforded. Still we have the same reasoning that we were given during our Native American history and our Black history, all steered by the exact same weapon: fear.
I was born and raised in the Tulsa area. And I don’t talk about these things to shame Tulsa. I talk about them because my heart’s desire is a restoration of the vision of this great country to be infused in our daily lives. Our constitution breathing the words “We the people” were written by men who truly believed in its doctrine. They had lived through the injustices and longed for a place where “all men are created equal” to be actually recognized. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. For this living document to become the vision it was meant to be is going to take some work. It’s going to take each and every one of us to see it through. I still believe in that vision. Do you?
Vigilant Poster Girl
- Obama, Michelle. Becoming (p. 38). Crown. Kindle Edition.
- “Eyewitness to the Desolation of ‘Black Wall Street'” New York Times article by Charles M Blow