Reader’s Forum–Michelle McCleary

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem. Today our second installment is from Michelle McCleary.

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The Notion Of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 21: Home on Braddock Avenue, 2007

I felt a familiar wave of depression descend upon my body like warm honey moving through my veins as I perused Latoya Ruby Frazier’s book The Notion of Family.  The somber faces, bodies mangled from neglect and destitute living conditions reminded me so much of my life growing up in Harlem.  The picture in Latoya’s book on page 21 brought back the memories of the destruction of nearly every poor, black and brown community in America.

I remember the early morning when my family had to climb down the fire escape because my building was on fire. I was eight years old.  I can still remember my mother’s sharp shove and anxious command to ‘get up.’  Smoke was rapidly filling up our apartment as firemen came through the door and helped usher my family down the fire escape stairs.  I honestly don’t remember where my family and I stayed until day light but I do remember that I went to school that day.  I remember that I was silent and didn’t tell a teacher nor any of my wealthy classmates what I had experienced that morning.  I was a gifted scholarship student at a private school on the upper east side of Manhattan.  Even at the tender age of eight years old I had already begun to experience the vicious rejection of being poor, black and female in America. I had also begun to learn an ugly truth: You don’t talk about your suffering because no one wants to hear about it and no one really cares.

I moved back to Harlem 18 years ago.  Harlem was still in its pre-gentrification days.  As I walked the streets, tears filled my eyes.  Nearly every building on every block had been deserted, burned down and neglected for decades. I could literally still smell the smoke.   I was no longer a naïve little girl trying to figure out why some people seemed to have everything while others had nothing.   I had spent years reading and learning the lessons of writers who eloquently wrote about the nightmare of the American dream.  I had also spent decades involved in political activism both on the college campus and in poor and wealthy communities around the country.  I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault.  Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.

I recently participated in a march through Harlem with dozens of caring people from all around New York City.  We were marching to protest the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to basically get rid of its poor residents.  I cried tears of anger and pain as we marched and raised our voices in protest.  As we marched and chanted the people who lined the sidewalks chanted with us.  I had the spirit of my mother, a woman who was raised as a sharecropper and never learned to read and write, and millions of women like her with me.  I had the spirit of my father, a black man raised in the midst of vicious southern racism who came to New York alone at the age of sixteen in 1945, like so many other black and poor men, to try to make a life in a world that did not want him.  In the midst of my tears I remembered that ordinary people in America and around the globe had changed the world in big and small ways.  We were marching and chanting in solidarity with the children of Birmingham, Alabama, some as young as five years old, who had faced the viciousness of jails, dogs and fire hoses to say NO MORE!!

One day WE. WILL. WIN.

~Michelle McCleary

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Michelle McCleary is an independent leader with the NYC Independence Clubs and Independent Voting. She is the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.





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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

5 thoughts on “Reader’s Forum–Michelle McCleary

  1. Your extremely intimate review really moved me. The fact that I could not personally relate yet feel so much, reminded me of the emotional response I experienced while reading The Grapes of Wrath.

  2. “I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault. Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.”

    As someone who spent a childhood experiencing similar feelings (along with 2 ½ years as po’ white trash in the late sixties in a small southern city), I can relate. The “pain and shame” must have been manufactured, since those emotions should not come naturally. Whether they were “designed to keep us in our place”, or whether they are the inevitable result of an economic system that survives on a multitude of rationalizations is debatable.

    It makes me think of a line from the movie “Mississippi Burning” when Gene Hackman’s character is telling Willem Dafoe’s character about his father killing a black man’s mule, because his father did not own a mule. When he asked him why he killed the mule, his father said, “If you’re not better than a nigger, then what good are you.”

    Being white, I will not presume to equate my experience with that of my black acquaintances during my early years in the South, but I would suggest that, even though unemployment and underemployment still disproportionately affects blacks, the more recent trend to dismantle the American middle class is color blind. I would also suggest, that those responsible continue to use deeply engrained racism to their advantage.

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