“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me”
— Jack Nicholson (“The Departed”)
A few weeks ago, while sitting on one of the apartment steps in Durham’s McDougald Terrace public housing community (aka “The Mac”), I thought about the numerous meetings I had attended over the years, all trying to brainstorm ways to stop the crime and violence in an area where babies are lullaby-ed to sleep every night by the crescendo of gunshots .
Most of the time, the meetings ended according to the script, with people advocating for hourly jobs or a greater police presence.
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As I sat there, I was reminded of the book, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” where the tree is symbolic of surviving against all odds. Then it hit me! The Mac doesn’t need a Mickey Dees or another darn police station. It needs a baobab tree.
For those unfamiliar with African culture, the baobab is a mystical tree that grows in the Motherland. It is sometimes referred to as the “tree of life” because of its ability to be a source of food, water and shelter, even in the midst of a drought. But, to me, the tree symbolizes the transformative power of African culture even when the last drop of hope has dried up.
Although some may choose to downplay the power of cultural aesthetics in revitalizing a community, in reality, it is really the only thing that has ever worked.
In the annals of Hip Hop history, it is recorded that, at a time when street gangs wreaked havoc on the South Bronx, after a trip to Africa, Afrika Bambaataa , one of the founding fathers of Hip Hop, recruited members of rival gangs into the culturally based, Zulu Nation — after which, instead of using each other for target practice, they settled their differences through breakdance battles.
Locally, over the last 25 years, I have attended many cultural festivals in the Bull City with thousands of people taking in the positive vibes and not once have I heard even as much as a cuss word uttered. Hey, I’m no sociologist but there has to be a connection there.
Unfortunately, too many politicians have bought into the myth of “ street knowledge,” the false idea that there is some advanced certification you get from selling drugs or spending time in jail that makes you uniquely qualified to communicate with the kids in the proverbial “hood.” So instead of raising the collective consciousness of the community they engage in condescending conversations that imply that residents of public housing are incorrigible .
In reality, that mentality only reinforces existing negative stereotypes and gives children the idea that spending time in prison is a normal rights of passage to manhood. This cannot be the solution. Nor does the solution lie , solely, in syphoning a few minimum-wage jobs into the public housing areas.
Don’t get me wrong. Jobs and more importantly, job creation is always a good thing for every community. However, as the Good Book says, “Man cannot live by bread alone...” While many reminisce over Durham’s Black Wall Street glory days which shared the “do for self” economic philosophy of Booker T. Washington (Up From Slavery), it was Marcus Garvey ( Philosophy and Opinions) who took Washington’s ideology and infused it with African culture.
Garvey stressed the fact that without pride in oneself and one’s culture, everything else is meaningless . So, in 1921 he used the colors Red, Black and Green to give African Americans a renewed sense of pride in a country that had stripped them of it. Red symbolizing the blood of African people. Black symbolizing the people and Green standing for the continent of Africa. At one point, his movement, the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), is said to have had upwards of 2 million members in the U.S., alone. If it worked back then, it can work today.
I have a novel idea. Why not put a cultural center and some African art in the Mac ? If Carrboro can create a rainbow crosswalk for the LGBTQ community to express their pride, is it too much to ask for Durham to put a Red, Black and Green crosswalk in the predominantly African-American McDougald Terrace ? All it would take is a few cans of paint.
As Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire once said “if there ain’t no beauty, you have to create some beauty.” Will a baobab tree stop all the stray bullets that fly across the Mac every night? I don’t know. But let’s plant some seeds and see what happens.
Paul Scott’s column appears on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Follow him at NoWarningShotsFired.com or on Twitter @NWSF