I learned some of my most important life lessons while sitting around the campfire with the Village Chiefs.
Actually, the campfire was a bar stool at the House of Joy on 8th and Wright Streets, and the Chiefs were my father, grandfather and their friends, many of whom had migrated from the deeper than deep south for employment opportunities and basic rights that weren’t provided to people of color who ventured outside the southern plantations.
They found the former, but not the latter, as Milwaukee was laying the foundation to evolve into what several national organizations today determine to be the worse city for African Americans south of the Canadian border.
But that fact did not deter from the lessons provided, the cultural education acquired and the camaraderie and sense of community that emulated from around the campfire.
Some folks might not comprehend how the venue equated to a campfire, but the bars, pool halls and barbershops were among the handful of places where men congregated to tell lies, dream dreams and discuss survival skills.
It was where fathers took their sons to sit among chiefs who taught the young men about life’s harsh truths and joyful noises, to essentially take them through a rite of passage, an African cultural process that dates back to Adam and his two sons.
At the House of Joy, I learned how to navigate life as a Black youth, how to treat women and ladies (I was taught there was a difference), and how to “exaggerate” and play the dozens without losing my cool.
I also learned of African American history, and of our greatness as a people—we were/are God’s true Chosen—the struggles Black families had to overcome to survive and the trials and tribulations that would hinder—but not redirect—my journey as a member of the tribe, and eventually a griot (my anticipated career).
Most of the chiefs were first generation migrants from the south, as were my family, which left Georgia seeking a better life during the first of three great migrations, which took place just prior to WWII.
My father once explained that thousands of Black families were enticed by ads in Black newspapers—specifically the Chicago Defender—to move north for jobs and “freedom.”
(As a historian, I would later tell readers those Black newspapers were outlawed in the south, as the exodus of cheap Black labor had a negative impact on the southern economy.)
Despite coming from a dozen different southern states, all of the Black migrants could relate to an entrenched system of apartheid. White supremacy was a fact of life, and to challenge it—as many did—was to risk life and liberty. The other options were to follow the North Star on the “Overground Railroad.”
Most of the migrants had heard of, or witnessed a lynching, which was as much a warning as it was an execution for the Black men—and women—who spoke out, looked up or asserted their manhood (and womanhood) and humanity.
The status quo of the Deeper than Deep South was in truth a black and white photo I had witnessed up close and personal when my family made its annual visits to the back woods of central Georgia. There was no way I could imagine living under those circumstances, and while I enjoyed being among family, I couldn’t wait to return to the covert racism of the north.
Separate water fountains were but the tip of the iceberg “down south.” “Colored” folks were not allowed to shop where Whites acquired their groceries, they couldn’t occupy available bus seats; or dine at public lunch counters. Every Black man was a “boy” and our queens were called “gals.” We were viewed as inferior, and even the “good whites” often treated us with irrelevance.
Not to respond to a White with “proper respect” (“yes sir” or “no sir”) could lead to a beatin’—or worse—particularly for an “uppity Nigra”.
And in case you plead ignorance of the “laws of bigotry,” posters of Emmett Till’s mutilated body were plastered on fence posts, government buildings and church billboards to remind the “darkies” of who the “massa” was.
(A 1955 edition of Jet Magazine with a photo of Till’s deformed body was the highest selling issue in the history of recently bankrupt Johnson Publications.)
The migrants brought those experiences and lessons to Milwaukee and passed them down to their children at campfires, along with their aspirations and hopes for our generation.
The north, including Milwaukee, offered vast opportunities—better schooling, jobs and sanctuary, albeit under adverse and unequal conditions. Our parents drilled in us the importance of schooling, hard work and family responsibility as essential weapons to tear down the walls of apartheid. The Black church was the epicenter of our community, and our ministers talked both of the rewards in the next life, but also of the treasures to be found in this one. The key was to learn to navigate the experience.
The life they encountered “up north” was better, but challenging because apartheid existed in various forms in Milwaukee, even if it wasn’t as blatant as what they had in racist South Africa at time.
My grandparents were forced to live in a segregated area, and while there were no longer “whites only” signs, there were covenants, written and implied, that kept the races separate and unequal.
Black and White children were not allowed to attend the same schools as whites, or to buy homes outside the community. I remember sitting in a Colored section at a movie theater, and at the ballpark.
Factory employment was in abundance and directed African Americans down a path of financial security, although people of color were paid less and not allowed to seek promotion to supervisory posts, much less white-collar positions.
I later learned that many if not most of the first-generation migrants were functionally illiterate, but back in the day that was not a handicap, nor was the absence of a high school diploma.
Hard work was not alien to them, and as my grandfather once told me, “education only teaches you how to spell experience.”
The police were hired to protect and to serve the White community (and property taxpayers), while keeping “the Coloreds” at bay. If you read the book or saw the movie “Green Book,” you may have noticed the “nigger don’t let the sun catch you” signs. Such signs were commonly posted in Wisconsin, which is another illustration of what my fore-parents encountered here.
But from adversity comes creativity and sometimes prosperity of a different sort.
Forced to create and maintain our own, our fore-parents built a thriving Black business and entertainment district here. They lobbied for Black teachers for our segregated schools and utilized Black doctors, many of whom worked at a Black hospital.
They called a Black plumber when the toilet overflowed, a Negro electrician to fix the circuit and a Colored auto mechanic to fix their car.
They also created a Black financial institution, a Black brewery and even a Black professional baseball team, the Milwaukee Bears (who will be honored at the Milwaukee Brewers annual Negro League Tribute game in July.
The entertainment district was second to none (and one of the few commodities Whites entered the central city to enjoy), as were the African American restaurants, which at the time specialized in “soul food.”
It was no accident that my generation produced army generals, a congresswoman, doctors, lawyers, engineers and dozens of politicians, many of whom were at the vanguard for equal rights and justice.
We were the products of a culture that promoted excellence and opportunity, warriors to challenge the unequal conditions, if not racism as an entrenched mindset.
And then, there was the disconnect of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the bars are no longer the fireplaces for the rites of passage, and the kitchen is not where young girls are taught to be ladies. The African American nuclear family is relegated to the Black middle class, and the Bible has become an evolving document that is misinterpreted to fit the lifestyles of the reader and prosperity preacher.
There are infinitely more opportunities today, but fewer people taking advantage, particularly in the area of education.
And far too many parents (actually a single parent since 70% of the households are headed by women) subscribe to the culture of poverty in which there is a sense of apathy about education, morality and traditional family values.
This culture promotes symbolism over substance, day-to-day survival instead of prosperity.
It is a culture that believes white ice is colder and whose role models are female rappers with big butts and misogynistic men who debase our queens and promote drug use.
The bar or pool hall as a symbolic site for the fireplace is not the point of this article. Instead, my posit is that we are missing an important, vital cultural medium that during my youth provided me with the keys to manhood armed with a cultural foundation and vision for the future.
My late son, Malik, left the world with an outline of a program to fill the void left by the absence of Black fathers. An exceptional teacher, he put into action his upbringing in the classroom and helped his students create a fraternity called the “Kids of Kemet.” Without getting into specific details, it was premised on an Africentric mentoring program—a Boys Scouts— in which “each one would teach one.” The basic premise was an enrichment program that focused on spirituality, African culture and martial arts.
The Boy Scouts, in case you didn’t know, was conceived from the observations of a British military officer who studied the Zulu rites of passage.
I’m giving serious thought to bringing together Malik’s peers to make his dream a reality. It would be my small contribution toward rebuilding our community, from the inside out.
Hopefully, I’ll create a space at the bar for a few tribal members of the next generation.