by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Dear Russell Stamper II:
Congratulations. It has been with great anticipation that I waited for you and others from the class of 1994 to officially stake your claim as emerging Black leaders. You are now the second from your class to enter the political arena, as a candidate for the Milwaukee County Board’s 5th supervisory seat to be vacated by Lee Holloway.
I should say from the outset that I’m somewhat at a loss in explaining to you the mess we’ve left you with. Brothers and sisters of my era fought beyond measure with the hope that we would leave the world a better place for the next generation. Instead, it looks like we’ve left you a Black community in a state of total disrepair and dysfunctionality.
When you and your classmates were growing up, it seemed as if our quest for basic civil rights and equality of opportunity were within reach. We knocked down most of the barriers, and slightly cracked open the doors of Black empowerment. It was our hope to implant the seeds in your generation to take the struggle to the next level.
I remember attending your graduation and telling someone seated next to me that your class represented what W.E.B. Dubois had called the “Talented Tenth.” Your smiling faces and confident demeanors illuminated the Messmer High School auditorium. My son, and your best friend Malik, was part of that class, and the fact nine out of 10 of you were headed to college, successful careers and leadership positions was a foregone conclusion. A few years of seasoning and we would confidently hand over the reigns and the future of the Black community to you.
Unfortunately, while most of your classmates fulfilled your end of the bargain, we kinda fell short. We blinked, turned our backs, let our guards down and when we looked up again, the Black community was in shambles.
Before we could pay off our cultural debts, the community we invested our life’s work into building collapsed like a snowman in July.
Before we knew what was happening, a large segment of the community gave up on our African culture, our time tested mores and even on our quest for equality. They either forgot what we were fighting for, or became drunk off the Kool-Aid of social and economic dependency.
One day we were talking about community control, and the next day we were being controlled by the larger community.
Apparently, someone lied and said we had won the fight, when in reality we merely exchanged chains.
Our community stepped backwards into the shadow of poverty, and let the missionaries and special interests redirect the Freedom Train– dropping us off at Misery Avenue and Hopeless Drive.
Poverty pimps took over our neighborhoods (along with foreign merchants and payday loan stores). We threw marriage and morality out the door, and turned on each other while the media told us how to think, dress, speak, act and even how to willingly accept the miseducation of our children.
Much to my chagrin, we left you a situation far worse than what confronted us in 1994: 50% drop out rate, forth most impoverished state in the country, nation leading teen pregnancy, out of wedlock birth, infant mortality and Black incarceration rates.
It’s a perplexing situation, but not a hopeless one.
One important piece of the puzzle is that new political leadership must emerge, not only to address the external factors that plague us, but also to break the cultural chains that bind us.
That means if elected, you must redefine the role of politician to become an elected leader.
Fortunately your unique upbringing, world vision and cultural foundation make you uniquely qualified for the job. A culturally attuned education, supplemented by community activities and strong mentors has grounded you. You have also had the advantage of being brought up in a superior Black nuclear family, including a father who is a culturally attuned judge and a mother who was an educational pioneer who specialized in African culture and linguistics.
And at every step of your journey you were advised and mentored by strong community leaders and were a willing recipient of their wisdom.
You turned out all right, my village son, along with the other members of the Talented Tenth we hope will soon join you in the battle to reclaim Black America.
And that’s exactly what is at stake. It’s not simply a political position you seek, but a position of leadership, trust and responsibility. Black Milwaukee doesn’t need another accountant to balance the governmental budgets or beg for crumbs to moderate our pain. We need a visionary, an advocate for Black Milwaukee and a field general who is willing to put his soul on the line for Black people.
We need someone to advocate and raise questions about why Milwaukee leads the nation in seven negative social indicators, and unabashedly point fingers at the culprits, whether it is them, or us. We need someone to join the ranks of the few Black politicians who put the people before their political party, and finally, we need someone who is willing to challenge his Black colleagues to come together around an agenda, and to put to the fire the feet of those who bury their heads in the sand.
That latter point continues to loom like an invisible vulture over the Black community. A case in point:
Several years ago the state was deciding how to distribute over $4 billion in federal stimulus money. As it turned out, Black politicians were not even at the table. Lenard Wells, Jason Fields and I (at the time pundits on a weekly talk show on WMCS-1290) issued a joint challenge to our legislative corps to develop an agenda with specific dollar amounts to ensure the Black community got its fair share; whether it took the form of business investment capital, job development or a mini-Marshall Plan created specifically for a Black workforce. We asked the Black reps to take a stance and refuse to vote on a budget that didn’t earmark funds for the Black community.
They not only ignored that sensible plea, but also couldn’t even come together to discuss the proposal. As a result, the Black community got nothing. Not even an IOU for our blind faith in the system.
Since then, how many times have you heard a Black politician, much less a ‘unity caucus,’ decry the 55.8% Black male unemployment rate? Can you recall the last person or group to call for a state of emergency when it was announced the city has the fourth highest poverty rate in the country? Last week, it was announced Milwaukee fourth graders continue to have the worse reading and math scores of any Black children in the United States of America. Not a noun, verb or adjective out of anyone.
It’s as if acceptance of our abysmal state is the new norm. Or maybe they don’t have any answers. Or maybe they feel impotent.
Whatever the case, it’s become apparent that silence has not served us well and the plight of the Black community has become a passing thought even to some Black elected officials.
Simply put, Russ, we need more tree shakers and fewer excuse makers. We need someone to take the city, county and state to task, to scream from the highest mountain and take our issues to the national level if necessary. We need another Mike McGee who is willing to threaten boycotts and throw verbal hand grenades until someone starts to listen and something is done.
The reality is we’re not on anyone’s priority list. No political party, no special interest, no branch of government. And that’s not going to change until we have bold leadership that puts our interest before the status quo.
I don’t have the solutions. But I’m among the last few hundred that can help come up with some if we have someone to channel them through. I also strongly believe we need fresh ideals, new energy and a youthful spirit. That’s where you come in.
Your right hand must shake a mighty fist, while your left should be extended to point the Black community back in the right direction. You must be a 24-7 role model, advocate for Black youth, champion of Black business and provocateur for Black self determination and empowerment.
You come from an excellent family, have the right education and motivation and are culturally grounded. Yours was a household where Kwanzaa was celebrated, and Black history was taught and understood. You attended schools that stressed community service and critical thinking. And your resume is ripe with community involvement, political awareness and Africentric values.
All of that said, I’m ready to hand you the baton, to clear the path and to push and prod. If you’re in this race to improve the quality of life for Black Milwaukeeans, as I wholeheartedly believe, I’ll be with you every step of the way.
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