Black Dreams Matter: My Family's Legacy with Racism
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Pictured left to right: myself, George R. Greenidge, Jr., my paternal great grandfather author George R. Margetson, my paternal grandmother M. Norma Margetson (Greenidge), my father George R. Greenidge, Sr., my mother Paulina Heard (Greenidge), and my maternal grandmother Thelma Burke (Bailey).
Under four years of a Donald Trump presidential administration, we have witnessed the worst side of America in my lifetime. Through news reports, social media, new congressional and presidential federal policies, we have seen first-hand racism, white supremacy's double standards, and how they affect the lives of Black Americans and the BIPOC people in the United States.
As our former president refused to denounce white supremacy, we watched the glorification of self-armed militia movements of Kenosha, WI and the formation of the Proud Boys, the protests from Charlottesville, VA to most recently the Capital Hill attempted coup and insurrection in Washington D.C. These events and new organizations remind me of the dark history of the Ku Klux Klan. We must stop these acts of discrimination by remembering the horrific history of racism, murder, and targeting of Black Americans in this country.
Pictures from the Capital Riot on January 6, 2021
I was recently involved in the summer and fall peaceful protests regarding the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police officers. I participated in the Atlanta protest with the students I teach at Georgia State University, and I even organized several community standouts and Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts in Boston with the Greatest MINDS students and the Black college alumni in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The protests were a reminder that there are people willing to stand against injustice. I was also amazed at the number of allies from all races, ethnicities, and gender identities that came to support these demonstrations, marches, and protests. These international rallies could have been arguably the largest protests the world has seen in regards to addressing structural racism.
Pictures from Black Lives Matter Rallies in Atlanta in Summer 2020
While we must commend these efforts, our work must go deeper. What are the root causes of these problems plaguing the black citizens of America since we arrived in bondage over 400 years ago in 1619? In the late 1860s, the United States was fascinated with the novels of Horatio Alger, who highlighted "rags to riches" stories of young white boys. These stories have become folklore on how to attain the American dream; that one can conquer all obstacles through hard work, honesty, and determination. These fictional tales (of success) have been rationalized by mainstream America as a reality, which is not the case for Black Americans. There are serious historic barriers that Blacks have generationally faced while living in this country for centuries.
These generational stories of struggles, discrimination, and racist acts have been passed down through oral tradition from family members as the whispers of our ancestors. I recall the story of my great grandfather, George Reginald Margetson, who immigrated from the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts to Ellis Island (New York) in 1901. He was told that America was the "golden land of opportunity" and the streets were "paved of gold". He moved here to pursue his dream of writing fiction and poetry. However, his dreams were deferred. His works were not initially published due to the editorial houses believing that there was no audience for the work of a Negro. In the 1950s, my great uncle, George C. Greenidge, from Roxbury, MA was discriminated against by Pullman Company (Amtrak), being refused the position of conductor because of his race. In the early 1960s, my mother, Paulina Heard, just graduated from high school and wanted to fly the skies as an airline stewardess. However, when she applied to an airline training school in the South, she was politely reminded at her interview in Boston, MA that they did not hire black women as stewardesses. She was told to forgo her dream. All of these incidents were not because of the lack of talent; they were due to their skin color.
I even had my share of blatant racism and discrimination in the workplace as a young black professional. In the 1990s, I asked for an educational leave of absence from my job to attend a Master's program at Harvard University, like many other colleagues in the same department, to get an advanced degree. I realized that I needed an advanced degree to get a managerial position in the department. My request was denied by my supervisors and they ignored their own policy because they believed or assumed that after I received my degree I would not come back. However, several of my white colleagues had the freedom to exercise that leave of absence benefit at the same job, same department, and same university, to climb the ladder in managerial positions, and achieve upper mobility and economic self-sufficiency. These are some instances of my family's exposure to the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.
Pictured top right is my great grandfather, author George R. Margetson, my mother Paulina Heard (Greenidge), my great uncle George C. Greenidge (bottom left) my father George R. Greenidge, Sr. and myself George R. Greenidge, Jr. in the center.
So I look at these stories of my family members and realize that we are a part of what historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall calls the Long Civil Rights Movement. Black Lives Matter, as argued by Black Studies scholars Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, Clarence Lang, and other black activists, is not separated from the struggle of early black Americans throughout cities across the nation wanting full participation in American society, it never dies. It lives on today. Black Lives Matter is a continuation of many movements in this country's long African American freedom struggle legacy.
These legacy family events of obvious discrimination are not separated from the seminal Long Movement work of Fannie Lou Hammer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eartha Kitt, and W.E.B. Dubois to the living legends of Charles Ogletree, Elaine Brown, Howard Fuller, Caroline Hunter, and Colin Kaepernick. I agree with Cha-Jua and Lang that these movements are woven into one fabric. Last year, a local journalist categorized me as a Black Lives Matter activist [as if it were a choice]. As a black man, I don't have a choice. My presence benefits all my ancestors' dreams, pain, and hard work. So, as we continue these days in this health pandemic, and as Congress' House and Senate recently passed a new $ 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package for Americans. While this might address some immediate needs, we must collectively focus as an agenda item on the disproportionate mistreatment of black Americans as we work to fix and correct America's problems. At the State of Black Union Symposium in 2009, Law School Professor Lani Guinier contested that "the Black Agenda is an America Agenda."
As we look at shrinking budgets from the city, state, and federal governments, we must look at the laws on a systemic level, for example, in our American judicial system that behaves as black people belong in prison more than in college. We must address how many of our banks have made billions of dollars off black people through high overdraft fees, opening fraudulent accounts, redlining, and predatory loans. Moreover, we must defend diversity and affirmative action and stamp out college legacy admissions and "pay to play" by wealthy white parents. Minority children are left grasping the fictional tales of Horatio Alger and are constantly reminded that their only option is through merit and talent.
A 2018 New York Times article featured a study by economist Raj Chetty which concluded, "Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children. White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households." These are, again, due to income disparities, property transfer, prejudicial treatment, and inheritance. These issues must be at the forefront and center as we address and dismantle racism and white supremacy in this country.
As we review local city budgets, we must implement zero-based budgeting practices, especially in this economic climate as we look for the best ways to support American and black families during these days of our health pandemic. As the country grapples with police reforms, we must continue to consider defunding the police as the primary strategy. It is the only way. Black lives have always mattered in my eyes. However, we need bold creative steps by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and other courageous leaders, state and local politicians, and engaged citizens to make this society work for more than just a few - but a democracy that works for all. BLM has mattered to Black Americans for 400 years in the United States. So, let's turn those ancestral whispers of the Long Movement into shouts.
This article is dedicated to all my ancestors, especially my grandmothers, Thelma Bailey and Norma Greenidge, my mother Paulina Heywood and my "sheroes" and colleagues in social justice Fanshen Cox and Jodie Patterson who showed me through their own actions to use your voice "to speak truth to power". Let's shout together people!
A Special Closing Note: Check out my great grandfather George Reginald Margetson's poetry featured in author Kevin Young's new book "African American 250 Years of Struggle and Song" released in 2020. Check out his link: https://www.africanamericanpoetry.org
About George R. Greenidge, Jr.: George R. Greenidge, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology with a concentration in Race and Urban Studies at Georgia State University (GSU). He recently was an Economic Fellow with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and an Urban Fellow with the GSU Law School’s Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth where he researched urbanization, minority populations, and the interdisciplinary dialogue on urban growth and management issues for cities. He lives between Atlanta and Boston and serves as the President and Executive Director of the Greatest MINDS and participates as a member of the Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute. In his free time, George enjoys community organizing, the sport of triathloning, traveling abroad, collecting vintage comic books, listening to world and house music, and taking pictures of urban neighborhoods, downtown architecture, and city landscapes. You can reach him on LinkedIn or at www.georgegreenidge.com.