By Frank M. Conaway
I once knew a proud man. He was called "black" or "Negro" - or worse. This man worked long hours to provide for his wife and five children. Rain or shine, he rose early and went to his job at the docks. It was a tough job, a thankless job. He didn't mind because he knew he had to provide for his family.
He didn't graduate from elementary school. However, he made his children stay in school because he knew an education would open doors for them that had been closed to him. He made sure he instilled in his kids a sense of values and good moral judgment. And, yes, he voted in every election.
When hard times came, he did not complain. This man was not angry, because he knew anger destroys the soul. Before civil rights became a reality, he dreamed of a better day. He dreamed that his children would become productive citizens.
Our forefathers, like the man I speak of, suffered, fought and died to make our lives better. As they look down on us, they must be so disappointed in what little we have done with our lives. They struggled to make black people equal, to get us the right to vote. What have we done with those hard-won rights? Many of us do not exercise our right to vote, much less become politically active. It is easier to sit back and complain about how unfair life is to African-Americans.
True, sometimes we are stirred to action. It was heartening to see how the African-American community bonded during the recent "Jena 6" ordeal. Black people from all walks of life went to Louisiana, or met at colleges and churches across the United States, to show their solidarity for the six African-American students who were unfairly charged in a racially motivated incident.
But such cases are rare. I have not seen this type of coming together of African-Americans for a long, long time - not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We, as a people, need to keep this momentum going. It is fine to support the Jena 6, but will we change how we run our own lives?
To quote Gandhi, "The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems." We need to cure ourselves of our apathy. We need to rid ourselves of the collective chip on our shoulders and stop asking what's going to be done for us. If our noise-making isn't followed by action, it serves no purpose other than to grab headlines.
Many immigrants, legal and illegal, have arrived in the United States with little money in their pockets, not speaking English and with no transferable education. Yet they are industrious and find ways to make a living. Often, they work long hours in what others would call disagreeable jobs. However, within a generation, many become productive citizens who give back to the community. Many immigrants struggle to send their children to college. In turn, many of the second generation become professionals. Once immigrant families are established as citizens, they become politically active so their voices can be heard.
Many African-American dreamers have also turned their dreams into reality: people such as Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These men and women and countless others paved the road for us with their blood, struggles and suffering. We need to get back on this road and travel together to keep their dreams alive.
The African-American community needs to wake from its collective sleep and begin to live its dreams. We began to wake up with the Jena 6. Now, we need to take a cue from the examples set by immigrants. If this is too uncomfortable, we should look back to our forefathers, who fought for our equality.
It will take hard work. Blacks are a strong force, one to be reckoned with - if we would only get our acts firmly together and stop lamenting what could or should be. African-Americans need to finally begin to be accountable for their lives and take action to improve their lot in life - like that man with the five children and almost no education, who yet managed to achieve a better life for his family.
He was my father.
The fact is that too often, we are our own oppressors. A strong dose of self-respect is greatly needed to cure the many social ills that plague the black community. We need to stop making excuses for our misfortunes and get on with it. These are tough words, I know. But sometimes the truth hurts.
Frank M. Conaway is clerk of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.