Why Aren’t Blacks Involved/Patrons/Patriotic?

[Thomas Moore, "Why aren’t blacks involved/patrons/patriotic?" Charlotte Observer (01/14/03): 3A]

Why don’t African-Americans in Charlotte volunteer in the community and take care of their own? Why don’t they go to arts events? Why aren’t they patriotic?

I hear these questions often. My work as an early childhood consultant, and as a minister at a local church, makes people from many backgrounds feel comfortable with me. As a result, they ask questions they probably would be self-conscious asking most other blacks. I’m glad to answer, because I believe much about African-American values, traditions, and ways remain hidden from the general community. Though generalities can be misleading, and no one elected me to speak on behalf of all African-Americans, I believe we need all the understanding about each other we can get. So I’ll be a little presumptuous and do my best to answer.

"Why don’t African-Americans in Charlotte take care of their own? Why don’t they volunteer?" Someone posed this question after helping build a Habitat for Humanity house and seeing few African-American volunteers there. I immediately thought of a black friend who did volunteer for Habitat, but found the experience uncomfortable. All the other volunteers thought she was the beneficiary and would receive the house, when she was actually a successful professional. African-Americans tend to volunteer for organizations that include blacks in their leadership. They don’t look for a token black, but for true involvement in the decision-making process.  One wonderful example is Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. With a great deal of volunteer help, the church is building an AIDS house and apartments for seniors. Though the Observer recently covered Friendship’s work, for years it was hidden.

I’ve found African-American organizations aren’t apt to seek publicity for their work. Often, the broader community doesn’t know what these groups are doing. I also know of African-American families who have informally "taken in" children when another family was going through hard times. My parents did it on several occasions when I was a child. The practice continues in many African-American homes today.

One other reason African-Americans might be less visible volunteers: It’s much easier to volunteer if you are middle-class and in control of your work hours. Though Charlotte’s black middle class is growing, it’s still not as big as most whites believe.

"Why don’t blacks go to arts events here?" In my experience, blacks attend arts events when they feel a connection - a sense of community - with the performers. They also attend when arts groups reach out to them on their own turf, at African-American churches, festivals, neighborhoods, and professional gatherings. I volunteer with the Clara Jones piano studio in Charlotte, whose students include African-American children. I have seen many blacks turn out for concerts, including folks who are not related to the performers. They feel a connection with what’s happening on stage, perhaps because they’ve been invited by a parent or friend to attend. In contrast, I’ve seen large ensembles bring in an African-American conductor or soloist, thinking that would be enough to attract a black audience. It usually isn’t.

"Why aren’t blacks patriotic? Don’t they care about what happened on 9/11?" In my circle of friends and colleagues -- which, admittedly, is middle-class, professional, and community-focused -- African-Americans are very patriotic. They vote. They speak out about issues they consider important, exercising one of the basic rights of our democracy. At the same time, they view the events of September 11th a little differently than many whites. Before 9/11, African-Americans age 35 and older had already experienced being terrorized in their own country. We heard stories from our elders and know emotional legacies of slavery. We felt the effects of "separate but equal" schools, the stones thrown at us during the early days of busing. We remember the hotels, restaurants, and bathrooms that weren’t open to us. We learned the police could lock us up for no reason. All that left its mark on the black psyche. Whites aren’t accustomed to attacks because of their skin color and way of life.

For many blacks, 9/11 was not quite as much of a shock, horrible as those events were. This is not to say Charlotte’s African-American community sympathizes with the terrorists. Far from it. One reason many African-Americans have a strong faith is we tend to view the world as an uncertain place. Our faith is our security. There will be people who ask why I bring all this up. Why talk about racial issues that have been long settled?

To me, the attacks on 9/11 are one of the most important motivations for discussing racial and religious differences. When all the peoples of our nation learn to appreciate each other, we will be far more able to fend off those who would tear us apart.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.