“If the educated Negro could go off and be white, he might be happy. The large majority of this class then must go through life denouncing white people because they are trying to run away from the blacks and decrying the blacks because they are not white.” -Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
When my mom told me we were leaving Camden, I was glad.
As a small child, I loved my elementary school. It was a half-block from our house – so close that my mom could literally watch my sister and I walk to school every day. It was there that I learned I was Young, Gifted and Black. I felt safe and protected there, almost as if I were wrapped in a beautiful cocoon.
But middle school was different. Aside from the general trauma associated with entering middle school, I had to tackle the 6th grade without most of my close friends, many of whom went to other schools outside the city because everyone knew that Hatch Middle School was rough.
The school’s reputation caught up to my family partway through my 6th grade school year when my parents heard through the grapevine that one of my schoolmates planned on bringing a knife to school the next day so that she could stab me. That was it for my them.
I never went back.
My school troubles coincided with the ending of my parents’ marriage. In separating from my father, my mother became wholly concerned with finding a safe community for her girls to live, one that she could afford and had great schools.
Camden was not that. So, we left.
The post-civil rights era of the 70s, 80s and 90s was a peculiar blip in the black experience in this country. In many respects, the Civil Rights Movement was our finest hour, producing a cascade of new rights and the promise of equal opportunity for all. However, the backlash was crippling.
The wholesale attack on black leaders, both state-sponsored and otherwise was completely debilitating. The seeds of hard fought policy change were quickly snatched at the root by a Reagan administration hell bent on dismantling whatever social advances it could, while effectively closing off the nation to further social progress. And when all else failed, there was the ceaseless stream of crack cocaine that for whatever reason always found its way to those who were poor and black.
For many of us, our communities began morphing into places we didn’t recognize. Poverty was becoming intractable and violence was pervasive. As a black community, we were emotionally exhausted and psychologically wounded. We didn’t have the leadership, resources, or the bandwidth to mount a new cause. So, we did the only thing we could do. We gathered our families and we left.
While we don’t talk about it much, “getting out” has been the collective mantra of an entire generation of aspirant black folks. In all, 9 million blacks migrated from the cities to the suburbs between 1960 and 2000. Cities like Houston, Miami and Washington D.C. have seen the greatest flight and in Atlanta, a place considered the Black Mecca, only 10 percent of metro area blacks actually live within the city limits.
Not only did we get out, we stayed out. And many of us have not looked back. The hood is neither our problem, nor our concern. Just the thought of it triggers a shudder and a throwing up of hands. It’s a Gordian knot of historical wrongs, individual choices and societal folly. It’s no one’s fault and everyone’s fault.
For all intents and purposes, we, those of us who left, have learned how to assimilate. We relish the calm of suburban life and hope that if we just fly below the radar we’ll be given the same opportunities and access as our white neighbors. Key to this is telegraphing in every way possible that we are a different sort of black person.
A smart “black.”
A successful “black.”
A “black” with well-mannered and articulate children. We too can learn how to play golf and go out for drinks after work. We drink $5 lattes and take international vacations.
We’re the new black, worthy of integration, worthy of being seen. Just like you.
And we believe that fantasy. That is until one of “our” children gets shot down in a suburban yard by someone who didn’t have the good sense to see the distinction. Then all at once, we are reminded that when it comes to being black, we’re all in the same, flimsy dinghy together. And no matter how many degrees we amass or how much money we make or how far away we move from the ghetto, we will never be able to outrun our blackness in this country. That’s a fact.
I wish I could say that Black Lives Matter, but I’m not sure they do. Not even to black people. Somewhere along the way, we’ve chosen to perpetuate a very real evil, one that is at the root of our racist experience in this country and that is one of social hierarchy. And if we’re not careful, one day, those of us who have “made it” will look in the mirror and realize we have become that which we despise.
Here’s a 400 year-old truth: we are them, and they are us. And if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s not that black people suffer from state-sanctioned violence.
That’s old news.
Rather that our fates as black people in this country are inextricably linked and shame on us for thinking otherwise.
There is so much work to do. But first, we must accept the responsibility that a lion’s share of the work of restoring hope within the communities we’ve exited lies with us. I know it’s not fair, but when in this country has our plight ever been fair? If not us, then who?
So, here is the big question. What is our work? Where is our cause? What is our fight?
I don’t want to be remembered as the generation that stood on the shoulders of the ancestors just to “get out and get theirs.” We owe our foremothers and forefathers more than that. We owe the communities that forged our dreams and made us tough, resilient and resourceful more than that. We owe all of our children a legacy that is more than that. I want future generations to be able to say we reached back, we closed the loop, we finished the race and finished it strong.
I don’t know the way forward. God knows there’s nothing about this path that seems clear. But something in my heart tells me that the journey begins with finding our way back home.
Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back home.
Kelly Burton Ph.D. is an accomplished entrepreneur with over a decade’s experience launching and scaling start-up companies. She is the founder of Bodyology, a tech-based clothing line and Nexus Research Group, a social research firm.
Follow Kelly Burton on Twitter and Instagram @iamkellyburton or at kellyburton.net.
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