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Giving the Devil Its Due 

Violence takes many forms

On Feb. 8, a press conference was organized by local black activists to address the fact that Pennsylvania has the highest black murder rate in the nation. It was inspiring to see leaders and citizens voicing their concern and expressing their desire for solutions. Surprisingly, however, many of those present stated that the "root cause" of the violence was not poverty or guns but "the devil."

As a historian, it made me think about how "the devil" has been identified over time, particularly by black folks. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, openly identified the devil as "the white man." He had many reasons, not least of which is that, as a young child, he witnessed white men lynch a black man just yards away. Later, Muhammad's most prolific minister, Malcolm X, had a similar definition of the devil. The devil, Malcolm said, was the teachers who dashed his dreams of becoming a lawyer and suggested that he shore up his janitorial skills instead. The devil was the white kids who taunted and tortured him in school, and the Klan members who killed his father and left his mother clinically insane and institutionalized. Talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder! No wonder he became a thug until his conversion.

This history was playing through my mind as I stood at the press conference, listening to statistics about young black men killing one another at record rates. I wondered how "the enemy" supposedly became "us," especially after the civil-rights and black-power movements in this country. Is white supremacy off the hook these days?

Unlike willfully burning up black towns or people, these acts of violence by young black men should be seen as a kind of self-hatred. It's a hatred borne of the frustration of (seeming) powerlessness, mis-education and disrespect from a society whose popular culture celebrates their death, destruction and lifelong imprisonment -- all while applauding their capacity for sports and their beautiful, shiny black bodies.

Last month I traveled to Nebraska and, excited by the prospect of finding Malcolm X's birth site, I began my trip in Omaha. I rode down long streets that traversed at least one black neighborhood, then a white one, and ended Downtown. I could see a trail of disinvestment that was as obvious as, well, the Centre Avenue corridor in Pittsburgh, which runs from Downtown through the Hill District and ends just a few blocks from Whole Foods and the "EastSide" development complex.

But at one point in my drive through Omaha, the disinvestment simply stopped. As soon as the light changed, so did the environment: No more boarded-up windows, no more weed-filled lots. It was so obvious it made me want to fight somebody right then and there.

I thought about what I read on a Web site about "North Omaha": Beware the crime! Caution! You could be the victim of a violent act! So I engaged in my drive-by tourism with my eyes open, making sure to lock my doors.

But despite my efforts, I did become the victim of a violent act. It happened when I got to the corner at which the black businesses were closed ... and then crossed the street to the clearly developed white business and residential side of the block.

It was an insidious, callous kind of violence. The kind that occurs in phases, and with plenty of excuses from The Man: corporate, white, Negro, suburban, elected, whatever.

When I found the birth site of Malcolm X, I concluded that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was his birthplace too. These are the times for an entire cadre of Malcolms to be born. Pennsylvania has the highest black murder rate, and Pittsburgh is in the top tier of its cities. By the time they reach high school, 60 percent of black and/or poor children in Pittsburgh cannot read, write or do math at an appropriate grade level. Community after community -- be it the Hill, Homewood, Manchester or the East End -- is displaced so the gentry can have closer access to Downtown, better parking and more elbow room to live and play.

Yes, these are acts of violence, declarations of war. And any time somebody tells me "the Hill District is full of crackheads and prostitutes," those are fighting words too. And there are three pulsating rivers here, beckoning a rebirth.

Dr. Goddess says: Thou shalt not die, but be fruitful and multiply.

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