So, earlier today I saw a post on my Facebook feed about an N/NE Portland neighborhood that is historically African-American, refusing to allow a Trader Joe’s grocery store to open up in their neighborhood. After skimming the article (I was in the process of heading out the door), I shared the post on my Facebook feed and added the comment that “…if this is true, then I’m all for it”. A few hours later I checked my Facebook feed to find a discussion happening and a lot of my friends asking, “Why [do you agree]? I don’t get it”. My thoughts began to pile up as I read through the discussion and rather than spend an inordinate amount of time on –what would essentially be- a lengthy, block comment post, I decided to answer here on my blog. For me, the answer is simple; I support this rejection of Trader Joe’s in this historically African-American neighborhood based on the principle of the idea.
First off, let me say, I get it really, I do. It doesn’t seem to make sense, especially from an economic standpoint, to not want a successful business chain to move into your neighborhood and bring in more money. It’s a radical idea, a radical move that these Black activists and politicians made, particularly when it comes in the face of the fact that they are claiming to want change. However, sometimes change requires radical ideas, and if we as a society are honest with ourselves, we celebrate radical ideas and radical change. Isn’t that what “our forefathers” did with the foundation of this country?
It may sound sensationalist to bring up the “founding of our country” into a discussion that is easy to look at through the lens of economics; but that is precisely why I see this differently. I’m not looking at this situation through an economic lens. If I did, I would be more inclined to agree with many of my friends lamenting on my Facebook feed now, about how this doesn’t make logical sense. There’s the rub, Britain’s socialites more than likely said the same thing about the colonists leading up to our independence. The forefathers were bucking a system that was viewed as “working” and “logical”; going off on your own without support of the crown was considered lunacy in public conversation (I do realize that I am glossing over a ton of details about the founding of our country; but going deeper into that derails my point in this writing). There is something more potent and poignant at stake here that is easy to misunderstand from an outside-point-of-view-looking in. This is about image, pride and self-preservation. Sometimes doing something radical even if it may seem stupid or crazy -even if you fail at it- can spur something greater further on down the line.
Second, the Black community needs another Harlem, New York in my opinion. A place built by blacks, run by blacks and one that celebrates blacks and their achievements. Harlem, New York during the 1920’s was the national center for African-American achievement and success. While it failed economically due to the devastating combination of the Great Depression and gentrification, what it represented to the black community is something that has had residual relevance and effect all the way up to today. Some of the most celebrated music of our time has elements and influences that can be traced back to places like Harlem and Memphis, TN.
Bands and musical groups like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, and Eminem can trace their musical and lyrical ideas, tics, patterns and voice inflections back to this time period and beyond. People from all over the country used to come to these cities, sit in the smoke filled clubs and bars and listen to Black artists pour their hearts and souls into their instruments and songs. Then they would bring those sentiments back home with them. These were the places that young Black artists could dream about going and playing in; it gave them something to look up to that contrasted with the environment they were surrounded by. Basically, it gave African-Americans a sense of hope.
Third, this all hits home for me and not simply because I’m African-American, I’m really tired of Hip-Hop and Rap being the mainstream representative image of my ethnic and racial background. My unseen struggle in life is that I have to straddle a cultural fence. I am someone who is knowledgeable about his racial, ethnic and national history, but I also have to endure the constant stereotypical imagery and depictions of my ethnic, racial culture and who I’m supposed to be in the media. I’m tired of seeing images of my race being overly aggressive; sexually aggressive; violent; uneducated; drugged out; materially obsessed and it all being celebrated on the national mainstream stage and touted as the hottest, new trend. I’m tired of seeing scores of people of color in their early 20’s and 30’s pour into the Audio Production programs at colleges and universities and see them only churn out Rap and Hip-Hop albums that are carbon copies of rappers like Lil Wayne, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. I’m tired of having to shrug my shoulders when my European-American friends ask me about street slang or ghetto references when watching a movie or listening to a Rap or Hip-Hop song. For me, personally, this is about hope for my ethnic and racial culture and our future.
Finally, will this all work? Will this neighborhood actually be able to prosper without a large, multi-store grocery chain nearby to bring in the money of non-people of color? Honestly, probably not, but that’s not the point. At least they are trying. It’s the principle. They are trying something to break out of the mold. Let’s be honest, we LOVE people who do that in this country, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Johnny Cash, etc. Maybe this economic stance will push this neighborhood flat on their face and they’ll be poorer for the next 20 years. But what if it doesn’t? What if the idea of rejecting the comfortable, European-centric economic mold, inspires some young African-American mind out in the country somewhere, to come up with a new way of supporting a community that no-one has ever thought of; rather than try and become a millionaire by being the next Macklemore-carbon-copy? It’s that brazenness, that principle, that built our country and I’m all for that idea.