George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, is remembered for his oft-quoted warning, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Atlantic City is blessed to have for reflection and discussion the recently published book by Nelson Johnson, "The Northside - African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City." The book gives us the opportunity to read about the existence of significant institutions and people who once were essential to the stability, sustenance and survival of Atlantic City's predominantly black Northside in the past. It is important to remember the positives these people and institutions represented without repeating the racial segregation that shaped their success and failures.
Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Washington Post, has written a book that is an excellent complement to "The Northside." In "Disintegration - The Splintering of Black America," Robinson writes that instead of one black America, there are now four: "A Mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society; a large Abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end; a small Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power and influence that even white folks have to genuflect; and two Emergent groups - individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants - that make us wonder what 'black' is even supposed to mean."
It is obvious that the four groupings did not come into being solely because of the efforts and failures of black people and communities. They, with their pluses and minuses, were shaped by all of America and not just black America. Therefore, it is all of America that must give special attention to that portion of our society that Robinson describes as being "with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since ... Reconstruction" - the Abandoned.
I, as a newcomer to Atlantic City, believe that this city, possibly more than any in America, has an opportunity to respond to the Abandoned in ways that challenge, encourage and empower them to find their way in this city and beyond.
Some would describe this segment of Atlantic City's population as "the last, the least and the lost." Others would describe them as "the black poor" when in fact they are not all black.
Still others would describe them negatively as being "a drain upon the city's resources" and say in different ways, "I wish they would go away." It is important that none of us demean or dehumanize those whom Robinson calls the Abandoned, even as "tough love" compels us to help them acknowledge their complicity in their present plight. They are our American brothers and sisters with whom we share a common humanity. Many of them at one time wore the uniforms of our nation's military, and some are physically and mentally ill and need and deserve medical care rather than life on the street.
Black history is human history and must always be embraced as belonging to all of us, regardless of our racial, cultural or linguistic backgrounds or place of national origin. I offer these suggestions to all of us as ways to transform the poverty and the dysfunction that is linked to it. Poverty and dysfunction in America are not a black problem. They are a human problem, and if we continue to allow this problem to exist in its present state, not only will our economic system be viewed as a cause rather than a solution, but the greatness of our nation will be viewed by many as being "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
1. W.E.B. Dubois described the 20th century as "the century of the color line." I would suggest that we would do well to think of the 21st century as "the century of the poverty line." If we fail to acknowledge that reality, we and those who will follow us will live to regret our inaction.
2. My grandmother, "Mama Irene," used to challenge the laziness, lack of seriousness and the tendency to "shuck and jive" of some of her grandchildren by saying, "It's time for you to get up off your rusty dusty and take responsibility for your life." The Abandoned, if they and we in the 21st century are going to seriously confront poverty, must admit that too often they abandon themselves while blaming others for their plight.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, founder of the hospice movement, made popular the phrase, "I want to live until I die." Only if a person is physically or mentally unable to take responsibility for his or her life should we take responsibility for them. Otherwise, each person, regardless of race, education or economic status, is challenged each day to love, respect and value himself or herself in their talk and in their walk in ways that express a desire to be "the best that they can be, until they die."
3. There is nothing we can do today about that greatest of America's historic contradictions - slavery and racial segregation. Some have described racism as "America's original sin." Honesty, logic, rationality and an accurate regard for American history compel us to admit the relationship of America's racial contradictions to the gaps that still exist today between the well-being of some blacks and other Americans. But rather than denying or brooding over that history, feeling guilty or angry or using that history as an excuse for anti-social behavior or laziness, I suggest the following: Atlantic City, get up off your rusty dusty and bridge all of the gaps that still exist between the Northside and all of the other sides of this great city that could be greater.
The two books by Nelson Johnson, Eugene Robinson's book and the Jan. 30 editorial in The Press, "Black History Month: Yes, it's needed," could become resources that every book club, library, church, community center, civic club, executive board room, etc., in and near Atlantic City, could use for discussion and planning purposes from now until Black History Month in 2012. If that happened, not only would "Mama Irene" be pleased, all of us would be as well.
The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and Boston University School of Theology. He also has an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. Caldwell has pastored churches in Boston; New Haven, Conn.; Brooklyn; Harlem; Chester, Pa., and Denver. He has been senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City since the end of August 2010.