Archive for September, 2009

Black Oregon

September 25, 2009

“When times are tough for everyone in Oregon, it is exponentially so for black folks.” This according to Marcus Munday, President of the Urban league of Portland. The Sunday Oregonian newspaper’s July 26th , 2009, headlline screamed: “State of black Oregon: precarious.” The column continued “Unemployment and other miseries troubling the state are multiplied for African Americans and went on to list the litany of ills and misfortunes that continuously befall the black populations in Oregon.

For example, sixty percent of black children in Oregon live in households with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This compared to thirty-three percent of white children in Oregon. The percentage of Oregon students meeting the state’s 10th-grade reading benchmark in 2006-2007, was only thirty-eight for blacks as opposed to sixty-eight percent for whites. Also, the Oregon incarceration rate per 100,000 of the black and white populations is thirty-four percent for black compared to sixty-eight percent for whites.

We are constantly bombarded with negative stories in the media of the failings and shortcomings of the black population of Oregon (and America at large.) On Friday, July 24, 2009, the Metro section headline was “Schools confront racial gap.” Occasionally, of course we do hear success stories, but these tales are oftentimes, tempered by the “exception to the rule” insinuation. There is a latent, and insidious, belief within the general population, of the inferiority of black people. I concede that it would be hard not to believe with negativity channeled, unrelentingly, when it’s black people propaganda, whether current, or historical.

What if there is an ulterior motive with this negative press? Extreme? Paranoid? Perhaps, that is your call, but consider this: They say the winners; the conquerors; the dominant ones, get to write history. I understand that. What if that history contained more truths about the losers; the conquered?

What if it was general knowledge that during the formation of Oregon, blacks were not allowed to be here? They were not allowed to own property here. It was the Law. In 1844, Oregon residents passed laws banning slavery and excluding African Americans. An act passed by the Oregon territorial legislature in 1849, provided that negroes that “it shall not be lawful for any negroe or mulattoe to come into or reside within the limits of this territory.” This was precipitated by a fear among the settlers that  the Indians and free negroes would become allies against them. “Whereas, situated as the people of Oregon are, in the midst of an Indian population, it would be highly dangerous to allow free negroes and mulattoes to reside in the territory or to intermix with the Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility against the white race.”

In 1859 Oregon became a state. Its original constitution included an article banning African Americans from residence, employment, owning property or voting. Some might say, that was then, this is now, but could that not have created instability in the foundation upon which a person might ultimately build their “home?

Wealth in America is through home ownership (the acquiring of property) and education. Sixty-eight percent of white Oregonians own their own homes. Only thirty-four percent of black Oregonians own their own homes. Twenty-eight percent of all Oregonians hold bachelor’s degrees, only nineteen percent of blacks hold bachelors degrees.

What if the true story was told to all, of how blacks, after World War II, were denied access to the GI Bill and Federal Housing Authority loans, while whites used this privilege to gain, and maintain, their head start to the American dream in all areas?

Predominantly black schools are constantly failing. The disparities in test scores between African American and white students is ever increasing. We read and hear about it all the time in the news media.

Comparing data on Lincoln High, Portlands most white school, and Jefferson High, Portland’s predominantly black high school, these disparaties are glaringly apparent. Statistics from the Portland Public Schools document, “Source 2008-2009, School Profiles and Enrollment Data,” state that Lincoln’s Talented and Gift students number 26.9%, while Jefferson’s numbers 7.4%. Special Education at Jefferson is 21.4%, and Lincoln’s is only 4%. Tenth Grade students meeting or exceeding State standards in reading (2007-2008) are 16.8% at Jefferson against 85.2% at Lincoln. Average graduation rates and drop-out rates for 2007-2008 at Jefferson and Lincoln are 68.7%, 7.52%, and 94.63% and 1.35% respectively.

What if the history we are taught, told, in no uncertain terms, that the “colored” schools, and resources therein, in the former “separate but equal” public education system, were intentionally inferior?
In 1867 in Oregon, though the Black population totaled 128, Portland assigned black and mulatto children to segregated schools.

In the landmark case, “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” the key phrase in the ruling delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren illuminates:

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system. … We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

I highlight the sentence “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.” What if this knowledge was weapon? Would it not make sense that this “sense of inferiority” could be fueled by the bussing of the colored children to intentionally superior white schools, and the ostracizing melees that resulted? Why didn’t the Government, instead of spending all that money on buses and security, simply improve the tools and resources within the inferior colored public schools? Maybe this is a simplistic question. Maybe everyone’s lives needed to be affected for change to truly be effected. As my father used to say, “If you cannot hear, you must feel.”

Could it be that yesterday, and today, that “sense of inferiority” is the self-loading magic bullet; ammunition that, like the EverReady bunny, keeps going and going and going, and which fills the barrels of the guns that are the various institutions in our society, not least of all the media?

What if it were mandated that everyone know the story of the Code Noir Laws, the Jim Crow Laws, and all the other nameless “Laws” enacted and hiding out within the auspices of “Diversity,” “Multicultural,” and “Tolerance,” programs?

What if, instead of the same old slave stories, the story was told of how the Africans that were brought here, and from whom many black Oregonians (and black Americans) are descended, were Queens, Kings, Princesses and Priests, nobles, regal, revered and innately powerful people? A shaking loose of the inflicted “sense of inferiority” and the gifted “sense of superiority?”

What if the story that the first slaves held in the United States were not black, but white, (and let us not forget the enslavement of the Native American populations) was told. These first slaves were Europeans, mostly British, who died like flies on the slave-ships across, 1,100 out of 1,500 perishing on one voyage and 350 out of 400 on another. Could that suggest at least a superiority of the constitution of the black people?

What if, as an alternative to the stories of the disproportionate incarceration of those criminal blacks, the tale of how there were no prisons in the villages from whence the noble African’s came, the Africans having no need for same? Could that imply that the “statistically proven” criminality of the black population is taint, as opposed to trait?

The state of Black Oregon might still be precarious, but public perceptions might be changed? And what if public perception changes, might that lead to real, physical, spiritual, emotional change? Could it lead to an end to system dependency, claiming your “place” as opposed to learning one’s “place?”

I don’t know, but might it be something to consider?

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Love sometimes means letting go

September 11, 2009

I love to watch my sons play soccer. It’s exhilarating observing their finesse on the field as they charge around like wild mustang in focused abandon. Their skillful control of their feet and the ball conjures images of graceful gazelles darting through the African savannah.

On a recent Saturday morning, I was watching my son Moses’ Westside Metro team, called “Revolution,” play. It was a sensational game of fast, intelligent soccer, the boys passing and juggling the ball, dancing, almost, in harmony. Then, Moses went down, hard, and so did my heart – dropped right out of me, taking my breath with it.

I stood frozen in fear as Moses lay writhing on the turf in obvious pain.

The black panther, or mother lion, in me bared teeth and prepared to pounce, wanting desperately to retrieve him, carry him off to the safety of shelter and lick his wounds all better. But, the all-too-human Sharon in me, sensitive to the feelings of a 13-year-old classic soccer-playing youth, squelched the big cat’s roar and stayed put.

I willed steel pins through the soles of my feet pinioning me. I didn’t trust myself to not shape shift and spring free without them. And then I silently begged for divine intervention.

I implored God, Goddess, Universe, any deity who would listen: “Let him be OK. Let him not be badly injured. Please. Please. PLEASE?” I pleaded, chanting in mantra. No response. Moses remained wincing and squirming on the ground.

Fighting desperately to stay put on the sidelines, I dug my conjured steel pins deeper into Mother Earth. Eventually, surrendering, I resigned myself to making bargains with the almighty white, bearded, smiting dude, when Moses rose unsteadily to his feet. My breath returned exultant. But Moses could barely walk. Each belabored step he took trod footprints into my heart.

A soccer field is large but, as I watched Moses limping across the land, a tiny, solitary urchin, it appeared the size of North America. It became increasingly excruciating to watch him shuffle lamely by, pulsing with pride, pain and disappointment. His ambulatory impediment goaded me, daring me to intervene.

Delirious with anxiety, I witnessed a chasm open between my injured offspring and his fellow teammates, and before my eyes, he metamorphosized. It was no longer Moses out there alone in the center of a continent-sized soccer field, it was me. Me, solitary, rejected, ostracized, betrayed, abandoned, an outsider, exposed and vulnerable, all alone in the U. S. of A.

Visually schizophrenic now – one minute it was Moses on the soccer field, the next it was me in America – I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going in to save him. Sod his teenage pride, he’d get over it. He needed me.

Suddenly, an “angel” in chartreuse-colored cleats swooped in, putting his arm around Moses’ shoulder, lifting him off his injured leg, supporting him in his walk off the field. My breath took its leave again. As I struggled to keep my composure, another “angel” swept in supporting Moses from the other side. My heart swelled to bursting. A liberating howl of joy, gratitude, and relief, percolated and boiled over in torrents of tears within me. I exhaled: “Hallelujah!”

Moses’ world was not my world. Moses was part of the team. His teammates cared for him. He was accepted.

Emotionally recalibrated, sensitive again to teenage emotion, I bit down hard on my lower lip. This to prevent creating a noisy, runny-nosed scene that most definitely would have resulted in my being carted off in a straightjacket, thereby terminally embarrassing my son – a crime for which I would never be pardoned. I didn’t try to hide, however, the healing salty tears that trickled from my eyes as I sheepishly confessed to another soccer-mom how the players’ show of unaffected, spontaneous, active love had deeply touched me.

Call me naïve, call me gullible, call me cliché, but I am telling you, standing on the sidelines of a soccer field at the aptly named Powerlines Park, I saw love incarnate.

Sharon Martini is an English “mummy.” She lives in the Bridlemile neighborhood with her two sons and several pets. A local singer and actress, she also writes and illustrates little picture books.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009, edition of The Southwest Community Connection Newspaper.

It’s scary, but true! I think that growth, maturity and liberty is achieved when we can recognize when it is time to, and then, let go.

Neighbor’s exclaimation reveals the heirlooms that bind us to our past

September 11, 2009

Aaaarrghhhh!!!

That was the sound of delighted recognition, involuntarily escaping the throat of my neighbor’s cousin, upon spying a strainer in a cupboard.

It was Independence Day. Invited to dinner at a neighbor’s house, we ladies were in the kitchen and the boys were outside practicing legalized pyromania, under the supervision of a responsible adult, of course.

Boisterous chatter and laughter filled the air, mingling melodically with the distant staccato crackle of sparklers and Pop-its. Suddenly, my neighbor ducked beneath the counter to retrieve a utensil, but her access was impeded by uncooperative cabinet mechanism. Her cousin bent down to assist and then, screamed.

My vivid imagination shifted, immediately, into overdrive – unlike my legs or body, which, I will confess, did not even deign to feign activity. Picturing a cache of rodent droppings, or a rodent(s) deep in rigor mortis, I was quite content to be on my side of the counter and was congratulating myself on my good fortune, when comprehensible conversation resumed.

“I have that strainer, but mine is bigger! It’s got to be 60 years old!” Exclaimed my neighbor’s cousin.

“You do? This was my grandmother’s!” Responded my neighbor.

“It might even be 70 years old.” Said her cousin.

“I bet it came from a set.” Declared my neighbor.

Passing the strainer tenderly between themselves, my neighbor and her cousin (whose grandmothers were sisters) bantered excitedly back and forth, delving into their memories, reminiscing. I marveled at how a simple strainer had so effortlessly opened a pathway to their pasts, their present and their familial connections. It was as if magical memory tentacles poured forth from this strainer and bound them, no, hugged them, together.

Their excitement was palpable. I sat utterly enchanted, smiling, my heart filling, honored to be a sentimental observer, allowed to bask in their joy, when out of nowhere an ill-mannered curmudgeon clonked me out of my heart and into my head.

Abruptly, I was no longer in my neighbor’s kitchen. I was inside my own head, and thinking. Thinking how I didn’t have kitchen accoutrements with memory tentacles that had been passed down my family tree, to me. How I had no fancy wedding crockery, not even a chipped mug, with sentimental, scream-inducing value, for my poor, evidently deprived, sons to inherit.

I don’t recall purchasing a ticket, but I had boarded the “Woe Is Me” train, which was hurtling down a track that I was laying. About to sign the papers promoting me from “track layer” to driver of said train, the Universe mercifully intervened, bonking me on my noggin, bringing me back to “Life.” As I “regained consciousness,” I heard my guardian angel, (or was it my inner child?) admonishing: “You don’t even believe in fancy china, Silly Billy!”

Puttering alone around my house the next day, I caught a glimpse of my late father’s red guitar. Halted mid-putter, a silent scream ricocheted and resonated within me. Instantly, I remembered how my siblings and I had loved to sit at my dad’s feet, luxuriating in the sound of his strumming and singing; how my dad had insisted I take the guitar from his house when I had, once again, rushed back to England to visit him in the hospital. (How I couldn’t do it because it would have meant admitting he was going to die.) I recalled how, when I finally received the guitar, (my dad died a year later, peacefully at home), I taught myself to play, beginning triumphantly with the D, G and A7 chords. I chuckled when I thought about how when I play this red guitar, my sons will sometimes, unconsciously, sing along with me. (Don’t tell them I told.)

And I realized that I did, too, have my own scream-inducing family heirloom. Only my “Aaaarrghhhh!!!” is more of an, “Huuummmm!” and definitely in the key of D.

Sharon Martini is an English “mummy.” She lives in the Bridlemile neighborhood with her two sons, several pets. A local singer and actress, she also writes and illustrates little picture books.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009, edition of The Southwest Community Connection Newspaper.

Are there family heirlooms in your life that make you squeal?