Amid the mourning of the deaths of writers James Baldwin and John Oliver Killens and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, all of whom fought to help ensure a better life for blacks in America, one thing this week stood out as worthy of gratitude: the positive reflection of the rising tide of fortune for blacks in this metropolitan area.
Buoyed by the success stories of a new black middle class of unprecedented size emerging primarily in the suburbs profiled in this newspaper by reporter Joel Garreau, many residents are experiencing a confluence of emotions. Those feelings range from satisfaction at seeing positive portrayals of blacks in media to a determination to build on their progress and accelerate the pace of change for the less fortunate.
In the series, the demographics proved what has long been known: that the middle class has moved out of many black communities instead of choosing to upgrade within their neighborhoods. Obviously, upgrading within those neighborhoods would have enhanced not only their own economy but that of their neighbors.
It's true, of course, that the central decision of many families to move was their awareness of the importance of a quality education, which unfortunately is not uniformly available in the D.C. public schools.
But it's equally true that while they have moved out of the city, whites and Asians have moved in, rehabilitating the housing (which pushes out poor blacks) and filling the entrepreneurial void left behind.
Some people say that better city schools would make some black suburbanites see what many New Yorkers have long known, that concrete streets have certain advantages over green grass, even when raising children, especially in a city as rich in museums and cultural events as Washington.
Furthermore, they point out that blacks in particular can hardly afford to lose touch with the pillars of their identity: the black culture and spirit that are alive and well in areas such as Anacostia or on H Street NE and the abundant opportunities to keep in touch with their roots that only an urban setting can offer. Indeed, many middle-class blacks are still tightly linked to the District through the churches, as the lines of cars with Maryland tags double-parked in the city's Bible Belt on Sunday mornings will attest.
But I am thrilled with this new success and see a lot of merit in black suburbanization, as long as blacks do not get confused and totally buy into the myths of the American Dream. For it is important to remember that the other affluent groups that moved out of the nation's inner cities did not leave behind isolated, denuded communities defined by frightening statistics.
These statistics are well-known: Nearly 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock. Single mothers, many of them teen-agers, and their children are the fastest-growing segment of black America -- and the poorest. And there are more black men in the nation's prisons today than in the nation's colleges. In other words, we can keep the underclass down, drug them, imprison them and rewrite the definition of success, but that does not change reality.
Many people are looking for solutions to this complex problem of the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and one key may have been contained in the Garreau series.
Several experts spoke of the need for the emerging black middle class to change its mind-set from being tied to a paycheck to entrepreneurship as a source of wealth, a complicated psychological process that involves learning to take risks.
As the Garreau series pointed out, "Being tied to a paycheck is the same no matter what the source of the check. It is in the area of entrepreneurship and owning a company that the big opportunities lie." Ironically, the movement of the new black middle class to the suburbs has also served as a detour from the entrepreneurial path of economic progress.
One step back onto that path, I suspect, is for black suburbanites with entrepreneurial leanings to help the neighborhoods they left behind by seeking to build and own businesses in those sections and hiring neighborhood people to run them. What could be their stock in trade? The special sensitivity they could bring to their task.