Thursday, March 12, 2009

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 “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.

Welcome to the Jewel of the American South (I)

This column first appeared on August 26, 2006 in the Weekly Trust newspaper.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
As regular readers of this column already know, I have relocated from Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia. This relocation explains the change in the name of this column. But why should the name of this column change to “Notes from Atlanta,” and not “Notes from Georgia”? Georgia is, after all, the name of the state of which Atlanta is only the capital—just like Louisiana is the name of a state where I used to reside and write this column from.

Well, the answer is straightforward. When I used to live in Louisiana, I lived in a quiet, little-known, mid-sized city called Lafayette (which locals love to say has the sophistication of a big city and the warmth and intimacy of a small town) that does not have instant name recognition beyond the American Deep South. It therefore made sense to me to name my column after the state instead of the city.

But Atlanta is a different city. It is not only the state capital (unlike Lafayette which is only the third biggest city in Louisiana) of the most prosperous state in the American South, and one of the most prosperous in the nation; its name is probably more popular than the name of the state it is capital of. That explains why I had no hesitation attaching the name of the city to my column. Well, but who cares?

Although I had visited this charming, exquisite—and, yes, intimidating!—city that its inhabitants fondly call “Hotlanta” (actually pronounced something like H-AA-T-L-A-N-A), I cannot resist being held spellbound by its lavish architectural beauty, its infectious energy, its ornate drawing rooms and manicured gardens, its awe-inspiring skyscrapers and delightful skyline, its high-speed express ways, its meandering main streets and, above all, its pleasant and energetic people.

After only a little over two weeks here, I perfectly understand why the state of Georgia is dubbed the “Jewel of the South” by Americans.

This is a state of robust variety, gaiety and contrasts. Nature, culture and history intermingle here with a vibrancy that is sure to delight and tickle the admiration of just about any body who loves people and society. This state is a thoughtfully composed symphony of natural and synthetic wonderments. Like someone I met here remarked, quite correctly in my view, Mother Nature not only generously smiled on Georgia; she pampered her like an only child!

However, one of my friends from Europe, in what I consider a reluctant praise, told me he couldn’t live in Atlanta because the city is “too new,” too flashy, too disconnected from the past, too preoccupied with the present, and too arrogant and self-assured about its future. Strange, isn’t it?

But he is partly right—and partly wrong. True, there are scarcely any buildings in this city that bridge the past and the present; no buildings dating back to several centuries exist here. It’s all modern, even postmodernist, architecture, unlike many European cities—and even other American cities.

And the reason is not far to find: During the American Civil War, precisely in 1864, Atlanta was literally burned down to smithereens by federal forces. It was the war headquarters of secessionist Southern states.

But, like the mythical Phoenix, it emerged from its ashes and became one of the most flourishing cities in the United States. In spite of its “newness,” however, Atlanta is still steeped in history. History hounds can visit several places of historical significance here.

I am not, however, going to bore my readers with place descriptions here. As a reader of travel narratives myself, place descriptions bore the pants off me. I find them self-indulgent and denuded of social and historical content—which are my reasons for reading travel literature in the first place. I imagine that this is the case for most people who are concerned with cultures, social history of places, and the contemporary struggles and realities of the real living people of particular places.

Atlanta occupies a special place in the United States not just because it is home to CNN, the world’s first 24-hour cable television; or because it is home to Coca Cola, the world’s first bottled drink (introduced in 1886); or because it is the birthplace of Martin Luther, the icon of the American civil rights movement and first Black man to win a Nobel Prize; or because it is the national headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control, the United Parcel Service (UPS) and the American Cancer Society—all central institutions in America; or because it is the 9th biggest and the third fastest-growing city in the United States; or because it is home to the world’s biggest and busiest international airport. All of these—and many more too numerous to bother with in a newspaper column—do make Atlanta important.

But more than that, this city is the symbol not just of what is called the New South, but is an embodiment of the historical and cultural dialogue between the Old South and the New South. In very simple terms, the American South refers to states that attempted to secede from the United States between 1861 and 1865. This, of course, precipitated a bitter and sanguinary civil war in which the federal government, called the “Union” in American history books, emerged victorious.

The war was fought, according to mainstream American history, over the abolition of slavery. The Southern states didn’t want slavery abolished because their economy depended on it. The Northern states, on the other hand, had advanced beyond agriculture and could afford the luxury to prick their consciences and remind themselves that slavery was abhorrent. Georgia was one of the states that wanted slavery in perpetuity.

After the war, the South was devastated and reduced to the economic backwaters of the United States. The Old South was not only comparatively economically backward but was glued to the emotions and sentiments of the Civil War and the cultural singularities that stood out the South from the North.

States of the New South are the economically prosperous states that have not only come to terms with their new realities but have embraced them. Georgia intersects the New and the Old South.

In this lavishly prosperous and modern city, people have not lost the cultural uniqueness that makes them “Southern.” People still beam broad smiles at strange faces, address everybody “sir,” or “ma’am”—even if they are their social inferiors—and call total strangers “my darling,” “my sweetie,” “my love,” and such other words of endearment that we ordinarily reserve only for people who are intimate to us. Personal warmth, politeness, chivalry, community, and family values are still much cherished virtues here.

However, Atlanta is not all perfect. It has its own ugly sides. There is, for instance, a subtle, even suppressed, but nonetheless strong racial tension in this city that American Blacks love to call a “chocolate city” on account of the significant numerical strength of Black people here. (Chocolate is a metaphor for the color of the Black skin).

The mutual suspicion and distrust between black and white people here is palpable. It is manifested in the (voluntarily) racially segregated housing in the city and in the crying—I think obscene is a better word—economic disparity between blacks and whites.

Downtown Atlanta swarms with Black beggars like flies on a decomposing carcass. And all they usually beg for is a quarter, that is 25 cents. (A hundred cents make a dollar.) It is not only embarrassing; it is deeply depressing. It makes even the most confident and self-assured person of African descent to suffer from feelings of low self-worth because the status of black people here directly or indirectly has a bearing on every black person in the city.

For instance, it is infinitely frustrating asking for directions if you are a new black resident in the city. People, both black and white, mistake you for a beggar (well, they call beggars “panhandlers” here; some way of conferring dignity on an absolutely shameful thing!) when you stop them to ask questions.

The best way to find directions here if you’re Black, at least from my personal experience, is to be bold, dispense with civilities and pleasantries, and directly make your inquiries. That sets you apart from the army of Black beggars here.

And asking a black male for directions can lead you to a little trouble here. He may turn out to be a beggar who would insist on being paid for his “service,” and could get violent if you disoblige him. I have been a victim of this situation at least twice since I have been here. There appears to be a mass madness (if there is any such thing as that) among Black people in this city.