That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere … I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
– Sojourner Truth
Delivered 1851 Women’s Convention
With these startling, yet simplistic, words Sojourner Truth brilliantly captured the duality of being both a Black American and a woman as the fight for equality for both of these groups was being deliberated in earnest in the mid-19th century. It saddens me to say that, though we are nearly two centuries removed from that era, this same debate of intersectionality — for Black women and men — is something with which we wrestle daily, both collectively as a people and individually as we navigate our own places in society. In light of recent and seemingly countless incidents in which we find ourselves skeptically considering whether the rights outlined in the US Constitution are really applied fairly and equally to people of color, I find myself painfully pondering the questions, “Aren’t I a man? Aren’t I an American?”
On paper, one would think that such a quandary would be as distant today as 2016 is from 1851. Sadly, it is not. Whether it’s our Republican presidential nominee’s reluctance to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, the Tamir Rice killing and other police shootings, or the consistent questioning of President Obama’s birthplace and religion, questions regarding rights, citizenry, respect and equality still permeate everyday interactions for Black Americans. I’m a father, brother and son. I’m a Southerner. I’m a Christian. I’m Harvard educated, firmly middle class, and I’m a patriot. But I, too, face a strained duality: I’m the son of a military officer, grandson of a sharecropper, and the great great grandson of a slave. I am a Black man completely cognizant of my community’s plight and struggle and unapologetic about the beauty and pain of America. I’m grateful to this country for the opportunities that it has given me to gain an education, worship in freedom, and provide for my family. Yet, I’m panged by the harsh reality that, by many of my fellow citizens, I am seen first as a Black man and all which that connotes and as an American second, if at all. Yet, such a demarcation is pretend.
Being Black in America is as American as apple pie. This country was built on the backs and free labor of my ancestors. And as America has worked to atone the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, I have had the privilege of working to ensure that America’s neighborhoods are economically strong and sustainable. As a national and international economic development expert, I have garnered the respect of my peers for the work I’ve done in economic development in some of the more vulnerable regions both at home and abroad. And yet the sad, stark reality is that, in many everyday common spaces in which I find myself like other Black men — the bank, the grocery store, or driving along the highway — none of that matters. Even more importantly, many people who look like me, work hard every day and contribute to this country don’t feel they can truly answer my questions in the affirmative. “Aren’t I a man and aren’t I an American?”
As an award-winning economic development expert, my work has always been rooted in a desire to serve and improve the lives of all people. I have been blessed throughout my life to not want for much. However, as a child of the military, I have been exposed to deplorable living conditions here in the states and abroad. This experience has shaped my world view and placed a distinct calling on my life. At present, I find myself perplexed by the conundrum that, overwhelmingly, the place that makes me proudest — my home, the United States of America — at times subjects its most vulnerable citizens to conditions that the international community deems unacceptable and downright criminal outside of our borders.
We over-incarcerate and under-educate people of color. We espouse systems that are designed to keep them in places of poverty. Furthermore, a clear line of demarcation still exists between Black, Latino and Native Americans and our White counterparts. Whether it’s infant mortality rates in Detroit, police brutality in Chicago, or educational achievement in California, race is still one of the most significant indicators of quality of life. Don’t believe me? When was the last time a White man had to have “The Talk” with his son or daughter about how to be overly docile in chance police encounters to ensure their safety? Do the rights afforded under the 2nd Amendment apply to Black and brown people? Is equal access to the full breadth and beauty of the freedoms outlined to pursue life, liberty and happiness a real thing?
While some would like to gloss over the recent murders of Black women and men at the hands of those who are employed to protect and serve, the reality is we have a systemic problem that must be addressed. Of even greater concern to me is a feeling that we as Black Americans have been treated as second-class citizens for so long that we have become accustomed to and accepting of unequal treatment. Even Blacks who have achieved the American dream in social and economic status understand that they must bow to the ingrained notions of white superiority and learn to be content with merely being allowed in the room or included in the dialogue, or risk their success easily being stripped away. How dare we question or challenge anything with the same indignation as our White counterparts or expect equal pay, treatment, or respect? We understand White superiority and her companion, privilege, to be a fait accompli that cannot be combated. We have accepted the truths that the freedoms afforded to other Americans do not necessarily apply to us. We have become used to birthing our children, watching them be snatched up by one indignity or the other, mourning and having absolutely no one but our Heavenly Father to hear that cry. We have accepted the truths that the freedoms afforded to other Americans do not necessarily apply to us. I unconditionally reject this current reality with the truth that I am an American and should not need to be “included”, have to skirt around the edges or soft-pedal my opinions to mollify White guilt or bolster ideals of White supremacy, but rather, I should have all the rights, privileges, and belonging as the extension of my American birthright. America, why don’t you love me and those like me?
Americans remain the most innovative and in many cases righteous communities in the world; there are very few problems Americans cannot solve if they really want to. Americans possess a strong sense of right and wrong and champion a broad array of causes ranging from protecting the environment and animals to pushing for greater human rights in remote parts of Asia and Latin America, yet the civil rights injustices at home remain largely ignored or denied. The Christian right remains silent or falls on the wrong side of many of these conversations while the liberal left often wraps this discourse in paternalistic patronizing ideology or policy. The apathy of everyday Americans to openly engage in a thoughtful process to confront our inherent racism and recognize the full humanity of all Americans is a deep source of pain for many.
On nearly every measure of well-being, Black Americans lag significantly behind the rest of the population. All populations can count some amongst their ranks that lack drive, ambition and merit. However, most people want to achieve, establish a foundation for their children to be better off than they are, and live in a safe and clean community. Sadly, this notion seems out of reach for Black communities and other communities of color, and it’s impossible to divorce race from our shared understanding of well-being if we truly want to make things better. Lack of purposeful investment in neighborhoods, concentrations of poverty in urban communities, incarceration, limited educational resources, and disproportionate health outcomes all highlight race as a critical factor. In select cases, the truly fortunate and in some cases talented can push beyond these barriers. However, until the mass of Black Americans can achieve the same quality of life and feel the same measure of safety as average white Americans, the concept of America isn’t completely honest … and the answer to the question of my completeness as a man and American in these United States will remain elusive.
Rodrick Miller is head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. Miller comes to Detroit from New Orleans, where he was founding president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance.