Welcome to America and the South: Harlem, Jackson and Chokwe Lumumba


Jackson’s New Mayor

My grandmother was born in Harlem around turn-of-the-previous-century, and now Chokwe Lumumba is mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.  I can’t decide which is more significant, or a better lead-in to the theme of this write, but it’s obvious we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  Such are the parameters of my accidental inheritance of Deep South heritage, something I’m still not totally reconciled with.

Now my grandmother probably never considered Harlem home, but if she did, she never mentioned it.  How could she, what with all the changes it and she had been through?  She ended up in Texas and never looked back, not to New York anyway.  For even a second-generation immigrant, ‘home’ is likely to be the old country, in this case Germany, something I could never fully appreciate until I actually went there for the first time in 1996, and it all came back to me at the bed-and-breakfast table—the same white dishware, the same well-oiled furniture, the same well-oiled machinery and smiles.

The little Mississippi towns roll by the window like a dream, many of them struggling to hang on to their little ‘downtowns’, though the New York-derived appellation hardly seems applicable out here in the down-and-dirty back reaches of civilization, where a new Walmart out by the Interstate can signal a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions for a small southern town, many of which were not much to begin with, and still aren’t, a few houses clustered around a church to create some semblance of community around settlements largely self-sufficient through the fruits of its harvests.

I love the gardens down here, rows defined by the items on a menu of a typical ‘soul food’ restaurant in Oakland or Kampala: peas, beans, squash, corn, and of course okra (Bantu: gumbo).  On that level there’s not much difference between black and white, except for a history of domination by one over the other.  Money will do that to you, and so will racism.  But in the ruins of this once-great civilization is hope for the future, a culture accustomed to survival through faith and perseverance, a culture less dependent on the so-called ‘media’ du jour. 

You can laugh at the rednecks on Duck Dynasty all you want—I do—just like a previous generation laughed at Andy Griffith and Beverly Hillbillies, but there’s a self-sufficiency there that transcends the latest trends of the Good (Face) Book and Twitcher.  If that’s the best that modern America can produce, then we’re in real trouble (given the advent of 3-D printing, I’m sure that social media is not the best we can do).  Still there’s a lesson there, and that lesson is: share and share alike; be honest; and be open.  That ‘strong silent’ sh*t is definitely a paradigm best left to the past, too, along with 2×4’s and guns-as-fences.

Which brings us back to Harlem and its now nearly all-black population in what once was a neighborhood of (voluntary) immigrants, which brings us back to Jackson, capital of the former slave state of Mississippi.  Which brings us back to Chokwe Lumumba, Jackson’s new mayor and former instigator of the Republic of New Afrika, which I vaguely remember from the 1970’s, a naïve (not native) attempt to start an all-black political entity in the South transcending modern state boundaries.  It failed, of course, but it created Chokwe Lumumba, lawyer to Tupac and Jackson city councilman, in the process.

When I graduated Millsaps College in Jackson in 1980, it was still a largely white city.  Blacks who left the countryside stayed in their traditional black neighborhoods in the city.  That’s all changed, mostly due to a desire on the part of African-Americans to upgrade their conditions.  This has led to a ‘white flight’ to the suburbs.  It’s a tiger chasing its tail, though, as upscale blacks soon desire those areas as well, and sellers are prohibited by law from discriminating.

Much of the ‘flight’ by both races is to escape high crime levels.  It ain’t Johannesburg yet, but it ain’t pretty.  Blacks in Jo’burg make two bucks a day.  I suppose whites will soon start moving back to an almost-empty center here in Jackson.  But don’t assume too much.  The last time I lived here, back from Thailand over a decade ago to care for my ailing father, the black family across the street in a middle-class ‘hood were my best friends.  The ‘white trash’ down the street were the thieves.

Few whites expect Lumumba to improve things, but I suggest they withhold judgment and give it a try.  Sometimes political points must be made before change can occur.  Dignity is important, and is hard to define, but some soldiers should give it a try along the border with Palestine.  It is probably second only to wealth as a source of personal satisfaction, and its opposite second only to racism in its evilness.  Lessons must also be learned before change can truly occur.

I only learned one word of German from my grandmother—Pfannkuchen, which I always heard as ‘funny cookin’, though I couldn’t see what was so funny about pancakes, which is what it really means.  I know one thing, though: you can’t go home again, not in America, because it’s not really there, like trying to step in the same river twice.  You’re not the same person, and it’s not the same river.  Except in the South, that is.  The South never changes.  That’s what I like about it.  That’s what I hate about it.