A Check on Upward Mobility: Observing the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th Anniversary

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by Jeanine Russaw

“This was meant to disprove the southern contention that black people did not work simply because they did not want to,” was the tail end of a sentence I proclaimed while rehearsing for a reenactment of Freedom Summer in preparation for the 2012 Presidential Debate.

It was a mistake.

What was actually written in the text and what I was supposed to say was: “This was meant to disprove the southern contention that black people did not register to vote simply because they did not want to.”

While my mishap garnered the laughter of my scene partners, it bothered me for quite some time afterward. Why would I make such a mistake? I suppose I could have chalked it up to a “Freudian Slip”…or maybe that I was just tired after a long day. However many excuses I made that afternoon, none of the explanations seemed acceptable to me. Why would I say such a thing?

It was only when I paused to think about why this historical performance meant so much to me that I realized why I messed up my lines. The words I spoke were from the 1960’s, but they still carry a different form of importance, as exemplified by contemporary media.

I then thought about the most popular stereotypes of the African-American community. In addition to the ones involving fried chicken and Kool-Aid as the snack option of choice, the more hurtful are the beliefs that all black people are “lazy,” “can’t work,” are “from the ghetto,” “undereducated,” and get job positions “solely because of Affirmative Action.”

As a black woman myself, of course I know those rationales are 100 percent false, and life lessons make me inclined to believe there are many who agree —but why do some insist on thinking in a way that only perpetuates such ludicrous ideologies?

2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the law that gave freedom to all enslaved people at the end of the Civil War in 1863… How far have we come as a race since then? Why are we still haunted by the same stereotypes well over a century later? America has a lot of strong points, but rate-of-progression is not always one of them.

Let’s examine the fact that there is finally a black president in office. It took 150 years. Compared to South Africa—who maintained their system of apartheid well into the early 1990’s and still achieved the election of a black man as nation leader before we could—our present society is quite good at choosing a group of people to make scapegoats and using skin tone as the basis for sharing their “self-imposed” lacking.

A rather popular discussion this past year focused attention on the middle-class black family in regards to the current unemployment rate. In a Huffington Post article by sociologist Lisa Wade, she declares that blacks that have achieved above working class status are few and far between, and those that have can’t achieve the same level as their white counterparts because they are constantly assisting their less-than-successful family members.

Even today, our collective accomplishments as a people get overshadowed by institutional propaganda in the media, education system, and workplace. According to the 2010 U.S. Census:
“All levels of government need information on race to implement and evaluate programs, or enforce laws, such as the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Act, and the 2010 Census Redistricting Data Program."

However, when garnering such information leads to so little results, it feels a lot like exploitation, doesn’t it? The same census that claims that equal amounts of blacks and whites are on welfare does not hold up when looking at a racial unemployment gap of 6.5% (black vs. white from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), and all the stigmatizations that come with it.

This past April, some months after my mishap in rehearsal the previous autumn, I (along with two of my fellow scene partners) was invited to reprise my role in a performance for Hofstra University’s Emancipation Proclamation Jubilee. While I did not make that particular mistake again—knowing what I do now— part of me actually wonders if I had, how many people would have believed it?


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Jeanine Russaw is a junior at Hofstra University pursuing majors in Broadcast Journalism and Rhetoric: Culture and Social Action. She also writes for Turner Broadcasting. Follow her on twitter @jMarieRussaw or keep up with her personal website: jeaninerussaw.wordpress.com

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