This is not a political article, though I have been influenced in part by the fact that our 44th President, Mr. Barack Obama was a proponent of the use of personal initiative. There is a belief in some circles that personal initiative and hard work is enough to overcome obstacles confronting young black men. Others pooh-pooh the “bootstrap” approach. They believe that better living conditions, better education opportunities are also necessary to help a young man achieve his potential. Both are good points.
There is also a modern day belief that Black men born into poverty are good candidates for being drawn into a life of crime other than a life of legitimate success. Some modern day beliefs are that “soundbites” in the news contribute to the mindset that Black men (when arrested in t-shirts and low-cut jeans) are seen as a threat. (Blacks in the News: television, modern racism and cultural change By Robert M. Entman-journalism quarterly, pg 35.)
In 1910, when my father was coming of age Blacks made up only thirteen percent of the population but twenty-seven percent of those were in prison. In the South in 1910, Blacks comprised 30 percent of the population yet made up 60 percent of those incarcerated (US Census Report 1910).
This racial incarceration gap could have had many causes, including discrimination in arrest and sentencing, differences in family background, lack of job opportunities for blacks, higher urbanization rates of blacks, and differences in educational attainment. (Access to Schooling and the Black-White Crime Gap in the Early 20th Century US South: Evidence from Rosenwald Schools. Katherine Eriksson December 31, 2014.)
When my father, Eddie Green, left home at the age of nine in 1900, the presence of structural racism, the after effects of slavery, the lack of education for Black people, and the lack of healthcare was not a problem for him. The constant objections of White Americans to African-Americans was, evidently, not a problem to him. The lack of job opportunities and differences in family backgrounds was not an issue. He had discovered he could thrive on his own without resorting to criminal acts but through his own talents and his ability to take care of business. He had been raised right. HE HAD ACQUIRED PERSONAL INITIATIVE-THE ABILITY TO ACT AND OVERCOME DIFFICULTIES.
For a child born into poverty that life-style is normal. An infant does not realize poverty. I believe Eddie’s mother provided his early nurturing. Eddie did not have a close connection with his father. I hold the idea that Eddie received love and attention mostly from his mother. Eddie had a love for his mother that he spoke of to my mother.
He learned his work ethics from watching his mother washing countless loads of other people’s clothes and he was hurt by this. He saw that no matter how hard his father worked nothing got any better. But he also knew hard work was necessary to survive.
He learned confidence in his ability to take care of himself, he acquired fearlessness, otherwise how could he have gone out into the mean streets alone. His situation at home prepared him for the streets because what could be worse.
Emotionally, he became the “comedian.” With his comedic talent eventually tending dry humor. He would later become known as a “droll” comedian. Drollery according to the dictionary is a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.” Evidently Eddie tapped into this natural aptitude early enough to boost his rise to success.
Eddie taught himself to read and discovered books on magic. He found that he liked performing magic tricks and that he was good at it. It was a way to take a person out of the mundane and into a world of fantasy and wonder. He had also determined that he could thrive by traveling through the city offering to perform as a “Boy Magician”.
More than likely Eddie would have read about or heard about successful Black magicians such as William Carl, who in 1890 was billed as the King of the Magicians with a minstrel troupe called Boston’s Merry Musicians, or Alonzo Moore (c.1870-c.1914) who joined Billy Kersands’ Minstrels in 1904.
Eddie had grown up, also, during the time of great African American role models. Men like W. E. B. Dubois, a Black historian and sociologist, who was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, or Frederick Douglass who was also born in Maryland, a slave and who became a social reformer and statesman.
When Eddie left home at the age of nine, he was a good, self-confident, eager, willing, forward-looking, honest and talented young person. He left with the love of his mother cradling him. His circumstances had not made him angry but became a source of determination to have a better, happy life. When money permitted he moved his mother into Gotham City to be close to him. Over the years he would become successful as a Broadway and movie star, a filmmaker, a composer and as an Old Time Radio icon. By the time of his death he had risen to become one of America’s most beloved comedians.
As a testament to his feelings about being Black, this is what Eddie wrote to a radio program titled “The Negro Hour” in 1938 regarding their theme music: “Or you might even pick a suitable stanza from the pen of our poets (Dunbar and others), set it to music. Brilliant forceful music, and thus have a theme song that tells the world, “Here comes an upright, fearless, man”
As a testament to his early learning which I am certain came from his mother, he told the radio announcers this: You must remember that you are gentlemen addressing ladies and gentlemen and if for no other reason than that, a gentleman never raises his voice”.