Models Monday: Residing in an Ownership Society

Once again I’m turning to Chris Gardner to reflect on an alternative model for living. In this “Mentoring Minutes” video Gardner shares another memory of his mother but this time it is her analysis of the fate of a lone Hollywood cowboy faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges:

When all seems hopeless and lost, remember this: “the cavalry ain’t coming.” Gardner’s mother was a thoughtful, witty woman. Her analysis reminds me of a few things. It reminds of Barak Obama’s national convention speech in Denver when he described the Republican trickle down philosophy:

In Washington they call this the “Ownership Society,” but what it really means is that you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it? You’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You are on your own.

The situation is one that American citizens understood in light of the current state of the economy but the experience of being “on your own” is an experience that black folk have known for much longer. So Gardner’s mother’s claim that “the calvary ain’t coming” also reminded me of Cornel West’s remarks about black folk having a history of making community in the absence of being recognized as full citizens. As an example, West’s remarks remind me of the hospitality black folk created for one another in the face of Jim Crow segregation. Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, makes this point when discussing black society in Washington D.C. when segregation revealed that the distance between black celebrities and common black citizens was effaced as those luminaries boarded with black families as they were denied access to other facilities.

In the face of the indignities of Jim Crow, black folk devised ways of making it better for themselves and others through self-help and mutual aid. The calvary wasn’t coming and black people responded with creativity and generosity. I have a cookbook entitled Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine that describes the ingenuity of black folk as they traveled South.

Norma Jean and Carole Darden are sisters who enjoy good food. Their cookbook records family recipes and stories of their origin. In the section “On the Road,” they tell of the shoeboxes their mother prepared for them to eat from after their last stop at the non-segregated Howard Johnson’s on the New Jersey turnpike. The shoebox meals and the kindness of black strangers supported the family for the remainder of the trip:

Any discomfort we experienced during these yearly travels was balanced by a sense of adventure, for after we finished our shoebox lunches we would have to keep our eyes peeled for black-owned establishments, which usually took us off the main route. If we needed a place to sleep before reaching our destination, we would have to ask random fellow blacks where accommodations could be found. Often total strangers would come to our rescue, offering lodging and feeding us as well. We made many new friends this way, as hospitality and solidarity were by-products of the rigid segregation of the times.

The sisters offer some of the favorite recipes of those strangers who became their friends as they traveled South. Reading their story alongside Chris Gardner’s provided me with a new definition of friendship: A friend is someone who also recognizes “the cavalry ain’t coming” for you just like they didn’t come for them and so they help you in any way they can.

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