Black History and the Coming of Black Rain
Black no more? I was always curious about the Africans who saw that first European boat “swimming” off the coast of their neighborhood. Was the sky that day a lovely blue? Going back just a few years here in DC I thought the first white jogger might have been mistaken for a missionary. Even now I’ve been told one can detect the signs of global warming by listening to new arrivants to the city trying to decide what to wear two days in a row.
Is climate change another way of saying gentrification without moving one’s lips? Once the challenge of living in this city was filled with dangerous romance. Wealth and poverty co-existed like college roommates in a dorm. Wealth was always touching Poverty’s hair and searching for an explanation. But there is nothing like a kink to keep someone in their place. How did Poverty simply turn into displacement? What “weave” might one day tell? Sometimes we survive and sometimes we don’t.
It doesn’t take a magician to understand black people are disappearing from DC. For some strange reason one never sees any moving trucks. No footprints for my native blood to track. I was born into a West Indian family in New York City. It was the pursuit of a college education that introduced me to DC and the Southern road. The year was 1968 when I walked across the Howard campus just a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Like many cities in our nation, Washington D.C. felt the hard lash of flames. In the late Sixties destruction became an urban thing. Detroit was renamed Destroyed. Even James Brown couldn’t stop black people from dancing in the streets.
History contains the fine print of memories. A few weeks ago I was sitting in my daughter’s condo in Anacostia. She was softly rubbing her pregnant belly. February is the month she will give birth to her first child. Another black boy will enter the world during Black History Month. The historian Carter G. Woodson selected February to pay tribute to blackness because it was the month Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born. It’s nice the month is also known for Valentine’s Day and love. Yet in 2016 one ponders aloud whether the once famous Chocolate City has been reduced to a box of chocolate. In many places around the city one will see small pool pockets of black people sitting near curbs or doorways as if time was fanning herself and waiting for a blind date.
I wonder what stories I will one day tell my grandson. How will I describe what this city was like before he took his first step? Every day it seems impossible to describe what is taking place. If this city was a vessel we would all be seasick from the motion of change. My daughter is giving birth during the time of the crane. New buildings being erected everywhere as if God’s plan consisted of a divine set of Legos. It’s not just the new buildings that are spreading the fever of despair among black people, it’s the attitude of a non-black minority counting its numbers and realizing that after addition comes multiplication. Black people are skilled as the masters of division and subtraction. The new math equals a new city.
At times white people just don’t see black people. Black people at times only see white people. If you’re Korean or Japanese you’ll always be Chinese to someone in the hood. Race relations have become the new slippery slope. Meanwhile, the 21st century is shaping up to be a take home exam on religion.
Today when I walk the city streets they no longer recognize me. When my daughter (and son) were children we could walk from Adams Morgan to Vertigo Bookstore near DuPont Circle. The place was a destination, a meeting place, a cultural beacon where books were like flavors of ice cream. The taste of books has also changed; the smell of print being pushed aside for the glow of a screen. Like old electronic equipment some of us are simply being pushed aside. Walk the streets and the newness can blind the old residents. Yes, the city is more beautiful but it seems as if beauty is not engaged to my future.
There is a loneliness that comes with a city in transition. It’s walking into a new restaurant and having the patrons look at you as if it you were from Money, Mississippi. It’s standing in a new grocery store and having someone move your food out of their way without politeness. It’s sitting on a crowded bus and being a crowd of one. Every seat is taken but the one next to you. Your Bible tells you later that the plague you suffer from is not contagious nor is your blackness. But you wonder.
I could lose myself in this city. Where is home these days? If I were from North or South Carolina I might think about returning to the rural area of old folks. Even my West Indian blood at times begs for a sip of bush tea and the joy of carnival. But I have no dreams of moving to Barbados or returning to New York. The South Bronx of my youth is now called SoBRO, and so even the Bronx Tales have been painted over and maybe the Puerto Ricans are lighting candles praying for some saint to save the last remains of el barrio.
I have often asked my African friends which is worse, being taken from the land or having the land taken from you? Do we dare compare the scars of slavery with those of colonization? All I know is that beneath the many the circles of this city, beneath the higher frequencies, beneath the stares, beneath the shadows of condos, there exists a quiet rage that will not disappear. One day this city will hear the thunder and there will be no quiet storm but instead a black heaven opening and delivering the howl of the newborns and the hard rain of justice and salvation.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. His Collected Poems edited by Kirsten Porter will be published by Willow Books in March 2016. Miller was inducted into the Washington DC Hall of Fame in April 2015.