In North Michigan Park, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood in the District, hundreds of residents gathered Saturday for a community reunion picnic. It had plenty of food and music and lots of hugs and laughter. Then I started asking people how they felt about the Republican campaign to defeat President Obama.
Talk about a mood killer.
“The whole slant of the Republican campaign is an outright lie and overtly racist,” said Billy Hudson, a retired D.C. firefighter, seething as he spoke.
Sharon Goines, a retired Verizon employee, said: “These new voter ID laws are nothing but a scam to suppress the black vote. It feels like people are trying to send us back to the days before we could vote.”
Ola Borders, a retired employee for the Internal Revenue Service, added, “Better hope and pray that they get some honest election officials, or else Obama might find himself cheated out of a job.”
I attended the festivities near Fort Totten in Northeast to see if black people could really be having much fun at a time like this, when Obama’s opponents are trying to tag him as “food stamp president” and “welfare king” and a “foreigner,” all part of a campaign to stir up white resentment — not just toward the president but black people in general.
North Michigan Park is part of the backbone of black Washington, where residents earn respect through hard work, sacrifice and fiscal responsibility. It is not a place where black residents walk around with racial chips on their shoulders. If only their eyes could gloss over a racial code word or their ears deafen to racist “dog whistles.”
But as wearisome as it is to be on constant guard against racial threats, relief through denial is a luxury that the black survival instinct simply won’t allow.
“The Republicans are saying that Obama wants to take Medicare away from whites and give food stamps to blacks,” Hudson huffed. “Incredible. Baldfaced lies. And they are getting away with it.”
He sure didn’t seem to be having much fun at that moment. But before he could finish talking, a friend he hadn’t seen in years grabbed him in a bear hug. In an instant, Hudson’s frown had turned to a smile again.
Remarkable how joy and pain can exist in such close proximity, how we can appear so carefree amid a cacophony of racial alarms, suppressing rage until it’s safe to vent among friends.
Or until the pent-up emotion kills us.
A study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health pointed to a correlation between racism and depression among black men, especially those who try to deal with the stress alone — through “stoicism and emotional control.”
Black men 40 and younger were “more depressed, experienced more discrimination and had a stronger allegiance to norms encouraging them to restrict their emotions than men more than 40-years old,” according to researcher Wizdom Powell Hammond, assistant professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “[W]hen black men felt strongly about the need to shut down their emotions, then the negative effect of discrimination on their mental health was amplified.”
There are few places available for frank discussion about racism — a word that is often dismissed these days as representing a figment of the black imagination. Not even Obama, the first black president, has been able to seriously broach the subject.
“Is there racism in some of the attacks on Obama?” asked William Martin, who worked 38 years for the D.C. government. “You know [expletive] well it is. Then again, I grew up in D.C. during the 1960s, so when has racism not been there? You just have to prepare yourself mentally to deal with it and hope that your health holds up.”
Before leaving the picnic, I asked a group of teenage boys whether they had any thoughts about Obama — or knew anything about racism at all. The youngest answered without hesitation. “We know about Trayvon Martin,” he said, referring to the unarmed 17-year-old black youth who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., earlier this year.
Just the mention of Martin’s name seemed to cast a pall over the boys. They, too, felt safe venting among friends in North Michigan Park, though I never saw their frowns turn back to smiles.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.