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Welcome to the Jewel of the American South (II)

This was first published on September 2, 2006 in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria. By Farooq A. Kperogi I was forewarned about the...

This was first published on September 2, 2006 in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
I was forewarned about the “mass insanity” among Black people in Atlanta. When I was flying from Amsterdam to Atlanta on August 9, I sat next to a Black American lady. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, she struck up a conversation with me by asking what I was traveling to Atlanta for.

I told her that I was going to start my doctoral studies in communication. She was quiet for a while and then asked, “So you’re studying to be a medical doctor?” I was taken aback by the illogic—and illiteracy— of the question. But I answered in the negative and corrected her that I was going to study for a doctor of philosophy degree, hoping that would be clearer and save me from further questions.

Then she asked again, “Does that mean you’ll be studying the mind and all that?” I thought that was at least a close approximation of the meaning of philosophy for someone with such an obviously modest educational attainment. Not wanting any more “trouble,” I answered in the affirmative. Then the forewarning came: “Oh, then, you have chosen a nice place to study. Atlanta is a real laboratory to study mind disorders because there is lots of mad Black people out there!” I gave up. But I got the message.

A regular reader of this column wrote to ask me what I meant by “mass madness among Black people in America” in last week’s installment of this series. My answer is: I was being plain and literal when I wrote that. You need not read between the lines to decipher the meaning; simply read on the line. The number of hungry, angry, homeless, mad Black beggars (sorry, panhandlers) in this city, especially in the downtown area, simply beggars belief.

I have been told that most of the insanity that plagues Black males here is the consequence of drug abuse and alcoholism. But that explanation leaves unresolved the question of why Black people here disproportionately take recourse to drugs and alcohol. Because of my sensitivity to the psychological and emotional effects that centuries of physical and mental slavery has wrought on Blacks here, I am normally reluctant to blame them entirely for their present state, as most African immigrants here are wont to do, which provokes needless frictions.

You cannot undo in less than 40 years what has been done in over 400 years. Black people were liberated from the clutches of legal racism only in the late 1960s. I will return to this shortly.

Let’s get back to the downsides of Atlanta. For a city of its size and sophistication, it is rather disappointing that Atlanta is not wholly a 24-hour, seven-day city, especially in its downtown area. In America, downtowns are usually the hearts of cities.

In Atlanta, however, while the downtown is actually physically located in the heart of the city, it is not emotionally the heart of the city. The heart of the city is in its fringes. The downtown here feels and looks desolate and deserted after 6:00 p.m. It sucks in all the people of the city in the afternoons and spits them out in the evenings.

This is so precisely because of the “invasion and occupation” of the downtown by vagrant, panhandling Black men. They litter the beautiful parks and other relaxation points in the downtown and effectively scared away white and black middle-class elements. Whites and upper-middle-class Blacks have now been consigned to the suburbs.

However, this is largely true of all major American cities. And this has given a new meaning to “suburbs” here. It has become a byword for upper-middle-class housing. Contrast this with the situation in a city like Abuja where only the poor and the not-so-rich are condemned to the margins of the city—and el-Rufai keeps driving them further to the very edge of existence in the name of some inhuman, immutable master plan.

Some of us who have a romance with what we like to call progressive theories of society often feel a twinge of compunction when we come to America and live in what poor black people here call “white neighborhoods.” The sad and bitter truth, however, is that “inner-city” neighborhoods (that’s the cute euphemism for poor, usually crime-infested, black residential areas) here, as elsewhere in the United States, are usually dangerous places to live in.

And it would seem singularly foolhardy to risk living in those places in the name of racial or social solidarity when you can afford to live more safely among the “oppressors.”

So the separate, seemingly racially segregated, housing here is in reality class-based. No law prevents anybody from living in any part of the city. Only money does. A successful Nigerian businessman I met here a couple of days ago, who lives in a “white neighborhood” told me to liberate my conscience from the encumbrance of guilt for “running away” from our racial cousins.

He asked me if I would feel guilty for not living in Ajegunle in Lagos, for instance. Good analogy. But I think it is still an oversimplification of a really deep and complex issue.

The effects of centuries of the enslavement and oppression of Blacks still linger in this country very evidently. A lot of American Blacks still find themselves vegetating hopelessly at the lower end of the social and economic scale because of the combined effects of time-honored institutional racism and the self-perpetuating vicious circle of negative self-fulfilling prophecy it breeds.

Many Blacks, especially Black males, have lost faith not only in the system, but in the possibility of ever rising superior to the limitations imposed on them by centuries of systematic exclusion from the orbit of the mainstream American society.

This frustration finds expression in many forms—crime, drug addiction, begging, prostitution, gang violence, counter-culture, etc. Call it post-slavery traumatic stress disorder, if you like. That is what you get on your hands when you have an army of economically disaffiliated people who feel they have nothing to lose and nothing to hope for in life.

I know my analysis renders itself vulnerable to the risk of exaggerating the condition of black people in this country. Even though there are extremely poor Blacks here who would inspire pity even in Nigeria and in countries poorer than Nigeria (Americans call those kinds of people “dirt poor”), American Blacks are still collectively the wealthiest and most prosperous Black people in the whole world.

Their combined annual purchasing power is a whopping $400 billion (I am too innumerate to convert that into Nigerian Naira!), which by far exceeds the annual budgets of all sub-Saharan African countries combined. And American Blacks in Atlanta are the wealthiest Blacks not just in America but in the world.

The problem, however, as is the case in all capitalist societies, is in the distribution of this wealth. It is scandalously skewed in favor of an unrepresentative few.

In this incredibly affluent, astonishingly splendid, and “over-fed” city, I met a man who had not eaten for two whole days. I met him at a fast-food restaurant. I noticed him sitting by a dining table without food, looking famished and pitiful. I don’t know what he saw in me that inspired him to ask me for two dollars (about N260) to eat.

There was something about the way he talked that convinced me that he was no run-of-the-mill panhandler. He was decent enough to be ashamed to ask for assistance. I obliged him, even though I am myself a mere struggling student trying to understand my new environment.

A few days after this incident, I met another hungry (and, oh yes, angry) Black man who went to a food counter to protest the profligacy of American restaurants. He lamented that he hadn’t eaten since morning but that the restaurant was soon going to throw away all the unsold food. I was touched.

It is not only Black people who beg here. There are white beggars, too, who solicit for money from just about anybody who cares to give them. Of course, they are comparatively few—about two or so percent of beggars here. When I was barely one week old here, I had an experience with a white female beggar (female beggars of any race are not common here) that will endure in my memory.

She accosted me to ask for a dollar. I was at first startled because it is unusual to see a female beggar here, especially a white female beggar. A combination of chivalry, involuntary male chauvinism and racial “otherness” conspired to persuade me to oblige her.

But just as I was about giving her the money, an angry white man who had been observing us from the distance of his posh car came out and stopped me from giving the money. He instead gave her the money—I think more than she actually asked for. I was shocked. Some racial pride! I don’t know how many more Black people he will stop from giving the lady money.

But after all is said and done, this is a great place to be. The beggars and homeless people here represent only an infinitesimal proportion of the entire population. It’s just that it’s hard not to be attracted by extreme poverty, however isolated, in one of the most affluent cities of the most advanced country in the world.

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