by Atim Annette Oton
First published in Calabar Magazine.
Every other day, I have the same discussion with someone: an African, a Caribbean or an African-American person. It goes like this: When will we get it together? They complain about how little progress has been made and how we as black people are not ready and why? I listen, nod and wait until they are done talking. This last month, I have been listening, and listening, more carefully. And quite frankly, the noise has been just too much to bear. I call it noise because we need to stop and really hear ourselves speak. And my one lesson from it is: say something if you have a solution to the problem.
I can begin by looking at black people in Nigeria where I was born; yes, we missed the boat for 20 years (about 1983-2004), but in the last 8 years, we have begun to move forward. Not as fast as we want, expect or are able to drastically see…but we are moving. Sometimes, we forget as a nation and as a people, we are not just young but we have been isolated for about 20 years. With 150 million people, we are more educated than most of Africa, and yes, we need to use this educated populous, and sadly, we have not done so. But, when a people have been isolated, how do they know what they need to change and grow? How do they change when their leadership is not changing too?
For the last 6 years, I have traveled back and forth to Nigeria. I can say as a witness, Nigeria has changed, gotten better and is finally growing its other industries besides oil. That small shift is significant, for a country that only spoke oil, it is the start of a shift in thinking. And it is not too late. We just have to build on this slowing. Just look at China. Another shift is the return of its diaspora. This is not to say that Nigeria cannot be changed without them, but it is a return of some of the brain drain. Nigeria is experiencing what India experienced finally – a brain gain. Simply, Nigerians stopped complaining and went home…and more importantly, the west got too hard to live in.
Now, a return to the Americas, with the US and New York, in focus. We have to stop lamenting the losses of Harlem and Bed Stuy. If you did not buy in either places, it’s time to stop. You were and are also part of the problem and could have been part of the solution, if you bought in these neighborhoods. And more importantly, stop crying over spilled milk put your money where you mouth is.
My first response is to look beyond New York, and look at Maryland, Washington DC, and Atlanta, blacks own property and they bought there. If we all remember our history, a good number of blacks came north for work with every intention to return to the south…and they did. The only issue here is their kids did not leave, and have no property where they live. My accountant and lawyer would say, some of us have no estate planning skills.
The other places I hear the noise is about our businesses. I love how many people talk about black businesses but spend their money at Macy’s. And I don’t know how many black owners will tear my ear on this. I hear both sides. Black businesses would do 10 times better if just 25% of our community shopped with us more. But, some of us in business make it difficult. Hey, I am saying it. How many times do we get bad service? But here is the irony, we get treated badly elsewhere and still go back…but when we get it with black businesses, we stop going back. I am just saying.
Yes, black businesses are in a bad state, but so are those who go it alone in business and our community is one that goes it alone. Other communities build businesses as groups of people. We build it alone with very little money and support. I am tired of the reasons we claim are the issues: we do not trust each other, can’t get along and are selfish. Actually, none of that is really true. I mean, how many of us are doing “Susu’s” together? The simple reasons are not having the capital, not having great credit; most of us do not build relationships with banks, and we do not make the effort to do business with one another. Yet, we work harder for others for a pay check.
Today, I was on Lewis Avenue: Bread Stuy, Brownstone Books and Lewis Gallery are all gone. It is not my place to judge or to point fingers, but these were striving businesses in an up-and-coming community in a “rennaisance”. And something happened here. There are lessons to learn and share but we do not do that in our community. One business had tax and health department issues; the other two, I am told via neighborhood gossip (which we are good at doing instead of helping grow the businesses) did not do the marketing needed. I remember a time when local people used to do the marketing by circulating flyers for businesses they loved carry. And word-of-mouth was the way businesses survived. This was the New York I loved. This New York, I am worried about.
This month, I begin a small experiment called “The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.” It is a place where I retreat to see and look at things. But it is a place I will come out of often to voice my thoughts and observations. So, I declared on Facebook:
“This is the week of SILENCE…time to be quiet and just LISTEN, time to be REFLECTIVE and GROW new ideas. Time to work on existing projects and FINISH. Join me in the SILENCE FACTORY. IT IS A FUN PLACE.”
I think black people across the world need to go into the SILENCE FACTORY. It’s time to stop talking and do the work that is needed. I spent sometime with my brother who said to me – if you want this thing, you must do the work for it. It is not easy work, it is not quick, it will take time. I hear you loud and clear. I am listening.
Today, I look at China, and remember the days when we all used to laugh at them. Now, who is laughing at us? The lesson here is simple…Work your hardest, do the work well, ask for help, pay for the help, collaborate, partner and stop the noise, you are wasting time. But most importantly, come to the table ready. We need our best and brightest. And bring down the NOISE.