“The problem with the black American psyche,” my roommate in college informed me, “is that we don’t know where we came from.” He explained to me that when Africans were pulled from their homes throughout West Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, they did not bring with them any trace of their ethnic-communal-regional roots. Once transplanted they were split up, auctioned off, and forever separated from their history.
With few exceptions, such as recently immigrated Guyanese and Nigerians, the average black American has not the luxury of a sense of generational, ethnic identity.
As my roommate brought me up to speed, I remember having a feeling of hopelessness for my black brothers and sisters. To some degree it was a familiar feeling for me being raised by a single mother with no sense of cultural identity with which to tether my track through the world. Having a blurry Scotch-Irish heritage, I remember watching Braveheart for the first time and being caught in such raptured excitement of belonging that I rushed out and bought a pair of bagpipes ($1200), joined a local Scottish pipe band and attempted to force my way into Scottish culture (which ended in abysmal failure).
Recently, the initial conversation that started with my roommate has received a serious kick in the butt from a source I wasn’t expecting. Clicking around on Netflix one night I discovered a series by the rapper-comedian Killer Mike. After watching the first episode, the hopelessness I first felt after the discussion with my roommate was obliterated.
The episode was basically Killer Mike attempting to go three days without spending a dollar outside the black community. And to make things really difficult, he was on tour at the time and had to scour the streets like a CIA agent to try to locate black owned businesses. He couldn’t eat, drink, travel, or smoke anything that wasn’t black produced and sold at a black owned business. He eventually made it through the three days but not without serious hardship.
Killer Mike made me aware of a significant piece of the solution to the black struggle in America – and its revelatory for all ethnicities.
As I watched I began thinking of all the other ethnic groups in America. I thought about Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Jews, etc., and what they all have in common: (a) cultural identity roots stretching back to a homeland, (b) skills passed on from generation to generation, and (c) ethnic communities with their own businesses providing goods and services specific to that community. These ethnic groups can live for literally months or even years without their dollar ever leaving their ethnic community, if they so choose. Psychologically this is extremely significant for an individual (my own take on the issue found here).
Imagining myself as a black man, where would I go to indulge in my culture to the point that I could live for months or even years without my dollar leaving my ethnic community? In the vast majority of American cities today the answer is ‘nowhere’.
I never would have thought along these lines even two months ago because the idea would have smacked of segregation. What’s strange is that it never dawned on me to apply this same standard to any other ethnicity. Why?
Chinese have plain and unambiguous self-sustaining ethnic communities in most major US cities. No one ever accuses them of some nefarious segregation plot. Quite the opposite. Most people I know celebrate the array of ethnic communities without any hang up whatsoever. Nobody walks the streets of New York’s China Town shouting “this is segregation!”
With that hurdle cleared in my own conscience, I immediately began putting my money where my mouth is. In all seriousness, what exactly can a person outside an ethnic community really do about another ethnic community’s issues? Not much. It’s basically an in-house cultural concern that needs to be confronted by that community if changes are going to be real and sustaining. But there is one undeniable way to influence an ethnic community in positive and lasting ways – a method that has been proven effective for several centuries of human history – spend money on goods and services provided by that community. Voila! Prosperity follows.
This is where Black Wall Street comes in. The term was made famous in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma which hosted one of the greatest flourishing black communities in America during the turn of the 20th century. This “modern, majestic, sophisticated, and unapologetically black” community boasted of “banks, hotels, cafés, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes,” complete with modern luxuries, such as “indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated black children,” writes Josie Pickens.
And this was not because of government intervention, quite the opposite. Christina Montford explains, “In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African-American from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land that he made sure was only sold to other African-Americans.” These in turn created every kind of business necessary for sustaining life and luxury in the black community.
This amazing realization of an opulent, thriving black community was brought to a sudden and despicable end by a white mob burning its 36 city blocks to the ground and killing an estimated 300 blacks in what is now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Despite its tragic end, Black Wall Street settles once and for all what a people group – any people group – can accomplish regardless of alienation from historic roots, or deficits in inherited skill and wealth. Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is first and foremost a story of inspiration.
Killer Mike ended the episode by encouraging everyone to observe a new weekly holiday – Black Friday. Not the consumeristic, demonic one right after Thanksgiving, but rather a commitment to intentionally buy products or services from black owned and run businesses. Doing so provides both the stimulus and encouragement for black businesses to develop and grow. There are several websites, such as We Buy Black, which host black owned businesses making the effort totally doable for just about anyone. A constant influx of wealth aimed at black owned businesses has, in my estimation, the potential to solve issues on a scale that no other single intervention could.
Imagine a 1920’s Black Wall Street revival on a nationwide scale.