When I was growing-up in the 1950’s and 1960’s they used to refer to Black folks as being “Poor.” The new word for poor today is “Poverty” – a word with terrible implications. Webster’s dictionary defines poverty as being destitute, being a beggar, lacking in nutrition, and lacking in fertility. We need to stop referring to ourselves and our people as being poor or living in “Poverty.”
African American scholars and community leaders like Professor Mahmoud El-Kati, Alfred Babington-Johnson, and Yusef Mgeni, back in the 1960’s and 70’s, began changing the narrative about referring to Black folks as being “poor.” They stated that “We aren’t poor – we just don’t have any money!” And, there’s a BIG difference. Being without money or material resources doesn’t define our existence. They stated that, in point of fact, we, as a people are rich – in heritage, in culture, spirituality and tradition.
Professor El-Kati told us that Black folks in Africa had the world’s first colleges and universities in Timbuktu, Mali and Songhai, during a time when people on the continent known as Europe were still living in caves. He argued that we, as a people, were the inventors of the only original American music art form – jazz!! Babington-Johnson argued that in African American culture, it is about the “We” and not the “Me.”
We have a long history of African American scholars and leaders, who grew-up without money or material means; but, none of whom were poor or living in poverty! Many were born into slavery, but the cruelest form of material deprivation did not stop them from becoming leaders. Like Fredrick Douglass, who was an abolitionist, a suffragist, and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln in the 1800’s; Ida B. Wells, who was a journalist, newspaper editor, and women’s voting rights advocate in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; and, George Washington Carver, also born a slave, who became a college professor at Tuskegee Institute and an inventor, who was a renowned scientist in the early 1900’s.
W.E.B. DuBois, graduated from Fisk University in the 1880’s, and was the first African American to obtain a PhD from Harvard University in 1895. He went on to establish the Niagara Movement, which went on to become known as the NAACP; and, Paul Robeson, who, along with President Barack Obama, is one of my all-time favorites. In 1919, Paul Robeson was an All-American football player, Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian at Rutgers University. He spoke 15 different languages, performed in movies, on Broadway and in theatres in London. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of the Howard University Law School, crafted the legal strategy that struck down American Apartheid in schools, colleges and universities, hotels and public accommodations, and more. Very few of these outstanding leaders, if any, came from a background of wealth and comfort; but, none were “poor.” In fact, the opposite is true – they were all very rich – with the history, culture and traditions of our people.
And, let’s not forget our President, Barack Obama, who came from very humble origins. He was raised by a single mother and grandparents – who, by today’s standards, might have been living in poverty. President Obama’s father, a Kenyan African, left him when he was a young child. His mother remarried an Asian man, and Barack lived for a period of time in Indonesia, among people that our society would label as living in “poverty.”
But, Barack did not grow-up poor and he didn’t live in “poverty” – He wasn’t destitute, a beggar or lacking in any way, shape or form. To the contrary, he was rich in understanding other people, their cultures and traditions; riches that have served him well as President of the United States, as he moves seamlessly between leaders of Asia, India, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. What other president of the United States can you name that has accomplished what this man of humble means (read poverty), has accomplished? He’s reversed the worst economic disaster the United States has experienced since the Great Depression of 1939; he created more jobs in one year (2010), than his predecessor, George Bush, created in eight years in office; and, during his administration, more than 10 Million jobs have been created; the American stock market is trading at its highest level in the history of the country; he kept the automobile industry from bankruptcy and in the process created and saved as many as 1 million jobs; middle class tax rates are the lowest they’ve been since the 1950’s – cutting taxes to 95% of working families; and, he’s passed Universal Health Care – commonly called “Obama Care,” which has insured millions of Americans who did not have insurance; and, he’s gotten America out of the two longest running wars in U.S. history – Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, we use the “P” word – “Poverty” – to describe people who don’t have a “socially acceptable amount of money or material means. Poverty originates from the Latin word “pauper” – someone who is poor or without means. Other definitions include scarcity, debility due to lack of nutrition, lack of fertility. Synonyms for poverty include beggary, destitute, needy and impoverished.
It is critically important that all people have the opportunity to earn a decent wage, and to support their families with the material possessions that we desire. But, we can’t let money and material possessions define who we are as a people. If we do, we’ll go down the same slippery slope of materialism that we’ve seen in the broader culture.
It’s going to be hard to stop using the “P” word of Poverty, because everywhere we go, from the federal, to state and local government, we see it being used to describe our people – so much so, that we, too, bandy it about as though it has no meaning or implications to the people it seeks to describe.
Is there anyone who would want to be defined as living in poverty? By these definitions, I, and most of the folks I grew-up with, were living in “poverty.” However, no one ever told us that, so we didn’t think of ourselves as “living in poverty.” We grew-up with healthy positive self-images of ourselves. By the time we found out we were living in so-called “poverty,” it was too late. We were already on our way to claiming our rightful place in the world – not shackled by the constant drum beat of negativity of not having material means. We must give everyone that opportunity – Let’s stop using the “P” word!!