I’m in the middle of the second chapter of Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” and I am already in awe. I relate to her so much. I just love every word I have read. The preface discusses some of her most horrible and jovial experiences during her eight years in the white house, a pronoun I can no longer capitalize due to the way it’s being tarnished by the current administration’s lack of dignity. I was caught up in the first chapter as she vividly described precious memories from her childhood that characterized her development into the woman she is today. What I am most captivated by, though, is her writing style. Her words are fluent, powerful and pulled me into the tiny Chicago apartment where she was raised. The way she shared her perceptions of the adults around her made me feel that I was looking at everyone through her eyes. I saw her on a late night TV show promoting her book and got so excited when she mentioned her grandfather, whose nickname was Southside, like I knew him personally. That’s what I want to do. I want to write and speak words that mesmerize people the way she has.
Some of the pains that First Lady Obama discussed included the public referencing her as an “angry black woman” a topic I recently wrote a poem about. She is an intelligent and woman who is able to articulate herself as well as any powerful man. She was an ambition student who became a successful lawyer, yet her gender was challenged by the very people who questioned her husband’s citizenship. What a typical method to shoot down a strong woman, regardless of race. Society hits us all in the guts with that one but you would think that someone who served as First Lady of the United States would get more respect than the average woman. I guess we don’t have to question the current first lady’s gender because we’ve seen everything she has on the stage, in movies and magazines.
As I read the first chapter of Becoming, I started thinking about my own life, the things that took place that impacted my development without my being aware. I’m talking about really unpacking who I am in the context of American history. It’s no wonder why I am an angry black woman. The odds were stacked against me before I was born, before my parents and their parents were even born. I see the odds continue to be stacked against my children’s future and I’m pissed off about it. Reading less than two chapters of First Lady Obama’s book has forced me to look at how politics has influenced who I have become.
I’ve concluded that the goal of American politics has always been to exclude and or eliminate me, my family and people of my race. Some people don’t wanna hear it but I’ll summarize here in the next few paragraphs. It’s that simple. My ancestors who were enslaved in this country were considered the property of their oppressors, not human beings with equal rights. In fact, the people who colonized this county only partially count us human in the U.S. census count used to determine voting districts in 1787. We were legislated as 3/5 a human being and they had the nerve to call it the 3/5 compromise between the northern and southern states. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments only rectified this when slavery was abolished in 1865, granting former slaves citizenship in 1867, and giving black men the right to vote in 1870. Slave owners developed a sharecropping system as an alternative to slavery. They rented homes to former slaves in turn for work that was never adequately compensated, creating the legacy of debt that perpetuates the black community today. Some of the newly freed slaves were able to acquire property, create businesses and even participate in the US Congress. This infuriated the white elite and they create Jim Crow (separate but equal) laws to ensure we remained a subculture of America’s society. Our right to participate in democracy was taken away once again. We were segregated for half a century, bullied, terrorized and lynched relentlessly by nationalist who was infuriated by our presence in a society we never asked to be in. Laws were developed to give us substandard education.
Somehow, my great-grandparents were able to acquire land, my dad’s’ family in Louisiana and my mother’s adopted family in South Carolina. I don’t think any of my grandparents ever attended high school. My mother’s biological family was from Alabama. I don’t know much about their life there but at some point, my Grandma Freddy brought her family to Battle Creek, MI. I don’t know anything about her parents but I don’t think she ever owned her home. She lived in poverty. Social and child welfare laws penalized families who had multiple children and headed by single women. This resulted in her giving my mother up for adoption. My mother always wondered how she kept the two daughters who were born after my mother. I think it was because she married their father. Marriage was a very important value in the 1950’s. Single women with kids were not respected. Women were pressured to be married for various reasons.
My adopted grandmother, Gran, bought her home in the late 1940’s after she migrated to Battle Creek from South Carolina with her son my Uncle Sherry, my Great Aunt Jessie and her husband Uncle John, and my Uncle Bo. They left South Carolina because my uncles were offered work at a foundry in Albion, MI. Their relocation costs were paid and they were provided housing near the foundry until they established themselves in Battle Creek. My uncles proudly served in WWII and the Korean Wars. Like I said, my grandmother was happy to be the first black person to own a home in Washington Heights, what was then a prominent white neighborhood. Little did she know that she was a victim of black busting. Segregation was legal in Michigan but it was still practiced legislatively. If blacks could afford to own a home, they were steered to buy it a black community. Banks only approved loans for black people in those areas. This was a practice called redlining. White people’s neighborhoods were assigned high property values than black people’s neighborhood. As soon as one of those neighborhoods were integrated, property values went down and white residents moved to areas with higher property values. This practice was known as blockbusting. Sure enough, shortly after my grandmother moved in, the local army barracks used in WWII was converted into a housing project. Other well-to-do black families were moving into the community. She had no idea that her very presence as the first black person in the hood, as Washington Heights is also called, turned the neighborhood into the hood. It was her purchase that resulted in the property values declining and lead to the white migration in Battle Creek. Gran was also proud that she was able to afford it without the assistance of a husband. She was already in her 40’s so she wasn’t concerned with America’s misogynistic values. She did settle down with my grandfather when they adopted my mother. I think that may have been for the purpose of the adoption though. Gran and Granddaddy (Booster) were in a self-proclaimed common law marriage, which isn’t even legal in Michigan. I’m pretty sure they did this because a single woman could not adopt a child in the 1950’s.
That’s what was going on when my parents were born in 1954 and 1957 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Equality was supposedly achieved while they were growing up in the 1960’s. They watched MLK give the I Have A Dream speech on black and white televisions or had to listen to it on the radio. They remember when King, and Malcolm X and President Kennedy were assassinated. The Civil Rights Act ended segregation and the Voters Right Act was passed when they were in grade school. The Vietnam War ended while they were in junior high. I bet they thought the world was their oyster by the time they reached high school. They probably weren’t aware of how drugs were getting ready to terrorize and wipe out their generation in ways that slavery could not. We laugh about the hippies and their free-loving, weed puffing exoticness, but the horrors of Vietnam had soldiers hooked on heroin and LSD. They shared their addictions with their civilian peers. It got so bad that the feds started introducing laws to reduce drug addiction. My parents had older brothers who served during and right after the war ended. The legislation wasn’t successful for my relatives. They joined the military to escape poverty and my father followed suit. My dad wound up in Michigan with my Aunt Mae. She moved up her to work as a school teacher and acquired a bunch of property. My great-grandparents eventually moved up here too even though their family had a ton of land in Louisiana that I think came from sharecropping relatives. My dad’s mother, Helen, like my mom’s biological mother, had several kids. Grand Freddie had nine and Grandma Helen had eleven. I think my dad came to stay with Aunt Mae to get a break from them as a teenager in the 1960’s and then again after he got out of the Army in the mid-1970’s to run Aunt Mae’s gas station.
The drugs of choice switch from marijuana, heroin, and LSD to marijuana and cocaine in the 1970’s from what I can gather. I was born in 1977 and watched crack cocaine enter the seen through the eyes of a young girl. I remember when everyone had a relative who was “beaming up to Scotty.” I don’t know the extent of my parents’ experiences with drugs, but I know I really sympathized with my classmates who were belittled because their parents were called “crackheads”. When I was in elementary school, we had to keep certain relatives out of our house or really watch them if they were invited because they were known for stealing televisions, VCR’s, and even children’s video games to buy crack. I remember when Ronald Reagan declared War on Drugs using images of men who looked like my uncles. Officer Friendly came to my school to teach us to “Say No to Drugs”. Even Jesse Jackson had us chanting “Up with hope and down with dope”. If my memory serves me correct, this all happened between 1982 when I started kindergarten until 1989 when I attended a drug-free rally in Boston when I was in the sixth grade in 1989. From that point on, I’ve watched as George W. H. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. demonize drug addicts and criminalize drug dealers in ways that have disproportionately affected my family.
It wasn’t until I was in junior high that I realized my aunts and uncles were using crack. Their addictions were bad. After the Civil Rights Movement, addiction to heroin and crack became the new slavery, the new Jim Crow. Our country has profited from drug deals worldwide. Our government arms other counties knowing that it’s going to increase drug production and trafficking to the United States. Our soldiers smuggled heroin out of Vietnam in the 1960’s. Our government created conditions for cartels in South America to thrive in the 1980’s when Reagan claimed we were at war with drugs. We continued to do the same during the Gulf War in the 1990’s. Our soldiers have been guarding poppy fields in the Middle East while they are fighting insurgents. Then our government refused to fund mental health and substance abuse services to combat the crack epidemic. It fulfilled the Nationalists’ agenda to irradicate this country of those who are not mainstream. Drug sells have caused several black men, including some of my beloved family members, to get trapped on that treacherous pipeline to prison. What is most heartbreaking is the toll it has taken on my parents siblings, especially my mother’s biological siblings.
My knowledge of American history and policy has turned me it an angry black woman. My family’s entire existence in this country has been dictated by racist, oppressive laws that are systematically implemented by people who think we are so ignorant that we cannot see their destructive ploys. Systemic racism, misogyny, and poverty prevent my Grandma Freddie from coming near the American dream. I’m sure she hoped that the Civil Rights Movement would afford her children with more opportunities than she was given because of their service to the country and their education. All of her children obtain a high school education, but the realities of being black in America caused them all to escape into some type of addiction (heroin, crack, alcohol) that impaired their abilities to reach their goals as well. In fact, I believe that their mental anguish rooted in their second and third-class citizenship has significantly lowered their quality of life and life expectancy in unthinkable ways before they knew what happened. My mother only has three siblings alive now. The oldest is 65 years old. He’s the longest living member of our family because even my granny died at 63. None of her children who have passed have lived that long. I believe it is because they all had very severe addictions to a hard drug at some point in their lives. They recovered from the drugs but it damaged the bodies to the point that my families average life expectancy is only 57 years old. America created the conditions for this to occur and my family never realized it. I may be the only one who recognizes it now. Five of my mother’s siblings and her mother have died prematurely and the four living siblings have major health issues, including my mother. Unfortunately, their burdens have been passed down to my generation.
Most of my cousins had to grow up with the stigma of having a parent addicted to crack or at least knowing that their parent dabbled in it. At one point, one of my aunts lost two of my cousins to the foster care system. No one in our family was in a position to care for them because of finances, addictions, and criminal backgrounds. Another aunt voluntarily placed her two children in guardianship with her adult daughter because she wanted to concentrate on her addiction. I respect her a lot for that; because to my knowledge, CPS wasn’t even involved. Several of my aunts and uncles have been incarcerated for drug possession, one of them in front of my house when I was in high school. My mother wouldn’t let me watch even though it was common for me to look at people being arrested in front of my home. Drug trafficking in front of my house was prevalent because I lived two doors down from a prominent convenience store. A few of my aunts engaged in prostitution to support their addiction. That makes me so happy that VCR’s are antiquated because I’d hate for someone to bring that up to me. I’m sure all of my aunts and mother are survivors of both sexual and physical abuse. I know at least one of my uncles was almost lethally abusive to women.
Processing my life in the context of the privilege and respect denied to my family for centuries is difficult. My story is staunchly different than the first few pages I read in the First Lady’s book. I’m sure my future will be as well. I’m just glad to get this off my chest. Writing this has been very therapeutic but leaves me with the dilemma of how I am going to turn the curve so that future generations of my family doesn’t have to relive the experience of previous generations. My hope is that those who honor me by reading this post find it as alluring and creatively-written as I’m finding Michelle Obama’s book. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. I need to get back to reading. I’ll add some pictures tomorrow.
Leonica “DaLoveLEE1” Erwin, Another Angry Black Woman