Power, politics, and policy and the influence they have over African American people
Abraham Lincoln once stated, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” I say nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, educate him on the tools needed to empower his people and watch to see what he does with it!
In the 1920s, African American neighborhoods all over the United States were in vogue. Jazz artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington were soothing the souls of Americans everywhere.
Harlem, New York was experiencing what we now call the “Harlem Renaissance Era.” Great literature, art, poetry, music, and Black-owned businesses filled the streets of Harlem. Black folks had taken their claim to America despite the race tensions, and business was good!
Much of the success of Black’s in the 1920s had to do with World War I. With many Whites being away at war, that meant somebody had to fill the jobs that were left behind. Considering the war had just ended in 1918, African Americans had taken their hard earnings from their jobs and, like many foreign communities of today, had reinvested back into their own people!
The Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, better known as “Black Wall Street,” is a prime example of just how affluent African Americans had become during this time period. Black Wall Street was completely independent of outside sources. Praised as one of the most affluent African American communities of all times, it should come as no surprise to learn that this community had it’s own airplanes, banks, grocery stores, two movie theaters, a hospital, post office, library, school, law offices, a bus system, and Black millionaires.
This community created for itself what America had said they were not worthy of having. The community of Greenwood was unique: They had power, but it was a special kind of power. That power is what I like to term “cultural power with.”
“Cultural power with” is the notion that, as a culture, we all are in this together. This concept was common practice in the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many of the residents worked together to build wealth. They understood subconsciously that when their neighbor succeeded, the entire community succeeded.
Now that is power! In fact, the power Black Wall Street illustrated was so successful that it made Whites in the area envious. So envious that they formed their own air strike and bombed Black Wall Street along with taking their guns into the streets to destroy the legacy these African Americans had built.
Like Tulsa, Minnesota had its own Black Wall Street, only not to the same magnitude of Tulsa. It was called the Rondo neighborhood. I know many people who celebrate the annual Rondo Days festival, but how many truly know the history behind the historical Rondo neighborhood?
Rondo was not as affluent as Greenwood, but they were independent of the virtually White dominance that surrounded them. The demise of historical Rondo came in the 1960s when Interstate I-94 was being built. What was supposed to be built around Grand Avenue was built instead through the middle of Rondo, a predominately Black community. Eminent Domain was set in motion, and many of the families were given only a fraction of what their homes, businesses and land were worth.
If you visited cities around this nation, you would hear hundreds of stories about how African Americans invested their wealth to build power among themselves. They understood that the concept of “power over” meant that somebody was going to have the ability to rule over people, while “power with” meant that everybody succeeded.
As a people we must continue to hold on to our great culture and seek opportunities to exercise power with each other. It is important for us to understand that wealth in Greenwood was not measured simply by dollars, but by the success of the entire community. In fact, one could argue that the greatest wealth the Greenwood community possessed was their ability to support and invest in each other.
If the African American community wants to seek out real power, we have to rebuild our own institutions, invest in our own schools, recycle our dollars in our own community, and help each other out.
Thank you to reader Rodney Smith, the winner of the contest we held in December. Mr. Smith talked about the potential power we have as African Americans that we have not used and compared what we have today to what the community in Greenwood had.
In my opinion, the only difference between Greenwood and the community now is that we have more opportunities; however, we have grown dependent upon a system that is not designed to help us. The key to stripping any community of power begins with dependency.
Now that you understand the basics of power, what are you going to do about it?
Mary Anderson is a community engagement facilitator for a local nonprofit in the Twin Cities area who has served more than 17 years in civic engagement, community organizing, and a host of philanthropic initiatives in the U.S. and abroad. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.