THE IRONY of celebrating the just-concluded Black History Month is that history for blacks is still happening; their history is their present, and their future their past. All the degradation, intolerance, enmity and inequality still exists. Life for them has never has been nor ever will be the "crystal stair" poet Langston Hughes spoke of.
The distance this country still must traverse to achieve racial equality is most apparent outside the big cities. The city has a way of covering over its inequities. But in the rural areas huge numbers of black Americans have fallen through the cracks. Perhaps our expectations are for these people to be in the city, concealed in an urban mold that makes speaking of racial inequities a moot subject. Whatever the case, the rural areas of the country exhibit disparity to a far greater degree than the cities.
When Marylanders travel to the ocean this summer, they might try the following exercise. About a half mile before the Perdue chicken plant, swing right off Route 50 and onto Route 349. Take the first left and continue until you see water. This is the Wicomico River, the historical waterway into the unofficial capital of the shore, Salisbury. Now you are in a position to see why racial equality in the state's rural backwaters is mere hyperbole.
As you traverse the uneven pavement that covers the defunct rail spur running down to the feed plant and the old drydocks, the murky grey river to the right says nothing; it flows steadily, unaffected by the tides which influence its more westerly reaches. To your left, six or seven two-story houses squat together, each holding its neighbor upright in a sad show of unity. Looking at the line of hovels from the river, it is difficult to tell whether the houses cast their reflection in the water or vice versa.
Yet the longer one stares, the more one realizes there is nothing to see: a dirt front yard covered by a rug, a yellow curtain in a window, a chair with no back on a porch with no rail. No American Dream dances for the men and women trapped in this poor section of the town called the "hub of the Eastern Shore." If this is the hub, then these poultry workers, soup canners and pickle packers were flung off the rim long ago.
Across the river about a quarter mile downstream is another world: a world of cabin cruisers rolling lazily by a dock; of manicured lawns rising up from the river; of in-ground pools and cherubim-spitting water; of single houses larger than all seven dwellings across the tide; of steady jobs, investments, clubhouse fees, little league and booster clubs. The black people can see this world that exists beyond their pitiful rowhomes, but for them it remains permanently out of reach. That is the way things are in this country.
Here is the river, the divider of worlds, which takes in everything. On one bank a man smashes aluminum cans with a broken bat; on the other, a father hits easy grounders to a boy with a huge baseball glove. On one side of the river a broken bicycle lies in a heap; on the other, water skis dry on a dock. On one side a man dons high rubber boots and a plastic bonnet to kill chickens; on the other, a man in a Brooks Brothers suit climbs into a Jaguar and heads for the office. The river sees all this, but it says nothing. It simply moves along.
Who or what is responsible for these inequities? The blacks? The whites? The river? Over the generations African Americans have moved in a cycle of poverty, preceded by hopelessness, followed by apathy, often sidetracked by desperation. The disintegration of the nuclear family and the decline of the black church have hastened the cycle. Many have been tempted to simply sit down on the stairs rather than keep climbing to the next landing.
But if the staircase seems extraordinarily steep and narrow, it is because white Americans built it that way. The standards measuring black progress are white standards, which white Americans have made almost impossible for black Americans to meet by systematically denying them opportunities for decent jobs, decent housing and, most of all, a decent education for their children.
White Americans never tire of asking themselves, "Why can't they just be like us?" But they have done everything possible to ensure that blacks can never be "just like them." The river has seen it all. It rises from a spring somewhere in the backwoods of the Eastern Shore and flows toward the towns and cities, seeing everything, saying nothing, touching both shores.
David H. Britton is a Baltimorean who spent the last six years teaching high school English in Salisbury.