Friday, August 17, 2012

Will anyone listen to the pain of black men?

People get upset when I talk about being black.  It becomes amplified when I do it within the context of poverty.  I’m beginning to feel many are fed up with black folks talking about overcoming.
My anxiety related to people avoiding issues of poverty and race is further complicated by the notion that white people are being discriminated against.  How and when did that happen?  The trend hit me in the face when I heard a man state on NPR that he wasn’t voting for Barack Obama because he hates white people. Isn’t Obama the child of a white mother?
Those comments forced me to reflect on the energy behind the statement.  Is it rooted in public policy or some proposed initiative?  Was there something said on the campaign trail that led to the conclusion?  I’m one determined to get at the root of what a person feels versus attacking before allowing them to get to the end of the statement.  That gets hard when comments are taken from the hole on the backside.
Never have I felt such hostility when it comes to conversations about race.  The common theme trickling through most of what I read is “we have come a long way” or “we should focus on the good instead of bringing up the bad.”  In other words, “we don’t want to talk about that anymore.
The sadness in the avoidance is in how race continues to matter, and how race shows up whenever poverty is discussed.  Race shows up in academic achievement.  It’s there when one considers disparities in health.  There are more who are black and brown who are unemployed and underemployed.  That is not to imply that pain escapes those who are not black and brown. It does assume a fact that can’t be swept under the rug because it makes people feel uncomfortable whenever we raise the question.
So, I have embarked on a journey to understand poverty in Durham, North Carolina.  I’m using the bus as a way to know the lives of those forced to use public transportation.  I’ve concluded that public transportation, as it currently functions, is part of a culture that defines what it means to be poor.  There are other pockets of society that do the same.  A trip to the Department of Social Services, a day at the county courthouse, a visit to a check cashing center or a drive past the county jail will remind you of the correlation between race, poverty and pain.
In a recent blog, I explored comments made by a black man on the bus.  He claimed that a black man can’t make it in this country.  Is he right?  In his mind his statement is valid.  My time on the bus has uncovered many black men with the same story. Many readers were critical of my using his remark as a way to uncover the mindset of those on the bus.  Important in this conversation is the realization that the man who spoke his version of truth is not alone.
“It’s hard out here,” a passenger recently told me. “My faith in God keeps me doing what others do out here to make it.  I can’t go down like that.”  The nodding of his head revealed something deeper than his words.  Something wasn’t right.
“I would leave Durham, but I don’t want to leave my children,” he continued. “That and my grandma.  I take care of her.  She’s 84.  She’s like my mama.”
When I asked him the ages of his children he listed five.  His criminal record keeps him from finding work.  His love for those children and grandma keep him in Durham hoping and waiting for a breakthrough. 
Many will claim it’s his fault for getting in trouble with the law.  It’s not race or poverty that keeps him on the bus; it’s the consequence of his decisions. Does that mean we should give up on those who make mistakes?
“I retired early,” a black male passenger told me as he showed me the bus pass he was able to obtain because he receives Medicare.  “I got disability when I was 34.  I hear voices.  Doing better because of the medication.  It’s bad when I don’t take my medicine.”
He talked about the day his daddy died.  It was shortly after his mother’s death.  “Daddy dying hurt me bad. I was in college.  Had a 3.8 GPA.  I couldn’t go back after daddy died,” silence followed his statement like a brick wall.  I could tell he was fighting back the tears.  I couldn’t fight back a few that came because I knew it could have been me sitting in his chair.
Most of them remain silent.  Their gaze into their imagination speaks to a gloom that can’t be fixed due to things they can’t control.  The ride is a reminder of what could have been if they had done more to prevent the madness. 
People don’t want to listen to the pain of black men doing their very best to find a way.  No, it’s not all about race.  Some of it is self induced.  Knowing that doesn’t make the pain go away.  What does one do when that pain becomes too much to carry?
They get on the bus.
Many stay away from pain by refusing to ride the bus.  Some will say it’s not safe.  Others will say it’s an inconvenience.   Maybe it’s too much to ask them to get on board.  Who wants to watch all that pain?
The face of poverty is hard to face.  My ride on the bus won’t make it go away, but the least I can do is ride and attempt to understand.
There’s so much to learn.  I hope others will listen.


  1. I grew up riding the bus in Durham, lived one block from the Projects. My Grandmother lived in the Projects, and I probably went to elementary school with some of the folks you encountered on your bus ride. The fact is that McDougald terrace produced, City Council Members, Educators, School Principals, and many OUTSTANDING citizens in te community. I read in the local newspaper about some of those poor choices made by some of my childhood friends, and one thing I knew for sure is that the Teachers at Burton Elementary, Shepard and Whitted Jr High and Hillside lived in the community, went to Church in the community, visited your home at least once a year and taught us right from matter where you lived. Self inflicted pain can only be soothed by a self inflicted will to distinguish it, through seeking relief. sometimes we just need to show them the way, and show them how..... You ride he bus to enlighten yourself and improve your understanding, and then you communicate your feelings, and that is good. Now YOU have more insight........they continue to deal with their pain.

  2. Carl, even if there was increased ridership middle class riders, both black and white, would not be on the same bus routes as are the people you are concerned about. Our riding the bus would not offer the demonstration of solidarity or brotherhood you are advocating.

    Bus patronage is not the, or even a, solution. We who are not living that life don't have sufficient insights to propose a a path for those in poverty that would lead to self sufficy but in an earlier blog you indicated as a youth you were on a track that would have led you into the same life as the man whose story you told.

    You found a way out. Your way out, or one like it, is the path the subjects in your articles need to find.

    Journalists report a story and as a journalist you've done that, but doesn't your training and instincts condition you to be more than a journalist? Are you the pathfinder?

    If the path you advocate proves to work you'll find Durham is full of people who will help. Certainly existing plans are not working, we have long ago lost the war on poverty.