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Archive for Saturday, March 4, 2006

History of adversity feeds black optimism

March 4, 2006

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"My soul looks back and wonders how I got over." - gospel song

Last week, they conducted a poll in New Orleans. Gallup, USA Today and CNN asked 399 white people and 311 black ones about Hurricane Katrina's impact on their lives.

As a rule, there is a numbing predictability to such surveys. They quantify the fact that blacks and whites experience and perceive life differently, which is rather like quantifying the fact that water is wet. In other words, the polls only prove the obvious.

But this one made me smile. That's because of two findings some people will consider contradictory. Number one: Black New Orleans was harder hit by the storm than was white New Orleans. Number two: Black New Orleans is more optimistic than white New Orleans about the city's recovery.

To do it by the numbers: 53 percent of black respondents told pollsters they lost everything they had when Katrina came ashore. Only 19 percent of white ones did. Blacks are also significantly more likely than whites to report major difficulties finding work or getting power restored.

And yet, when asked whether the wounded city will ever heal, 67 percent of black people thought it would, compared with 52 percent of whites.

The despair is not where you would expect it to be.

I am reminded of a conversation I had once with an old black man. I asked him to tell me about the Great Depression, expecting stories of people jumping off bridges because their money was gone. He smiled and told me those were white people downtown I was thinking about. Among impoverished blacks, he said, nobody jumped off any bridges because there was nothing here they had not seen before. In his neighborhood, the fact that you couldn't find a job, that you had to steal coal from the trains, that you ate fish head stew, didn't mean a depression. It only meant Tuesday.

Even allowing for the selectivity of an aged memory, there is something resonant in the tale, something that speaks of how you survive enslavement and beatings and rape and murder and privation and repression, something that explains how Bojangles could dance and Satchmo could blow and Langston could weave poetry and the Temptations make harmony in a nation where their wretchedness was enshrined as a matter of law.

You'll forgive me if the gap of 15 percentage points puts a little swagger in my step. Not from any foolish presumption of native racial supremacy, but from a sense of affirmation that is sorely needed at a time when so much is so wrong in the African-American community.

Health, crime, poverty, education ... to pore over the statistics that delineate black life is to sigh over the unfairness of the way we - meaning African-Americans - are treated and the unfairness of the way we sometimes treat ourselves. To gaze upon our children is to wonder what their future will be and if they will arrive intact to claim it.

Despair becomes too easy. The thing we sometimes forget, the thing quantified in this study, is that we come from people who had - and have - faith in every sense of that word. Faith, determination, courage, hope.

Think Marcus Garvey crying, "Up, you mighty race!"

Think Fiddler promising Kunta Kinte, "There's gon' be another day."

Think Al Jarreau singing, "We got by."

And somehow, we always did, always got by. So in a sense, this is nothing new. And if you wonder how optimism can flourish the most among those who have the least, well, maybe when you've been weaned on hardship, hardship doesn't impress you. You do what you've got to do, suffer what you've got to suffer, to get where you've got to get. And after you do, you realize how much of the journey was owed to simple, stubborn guts.

My soul looks back and wonders, says the old song.

Someday, New Orleans will, too.

¢ Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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