150 years since the emancipation proclamation, African Americans still are trying to make the American Dream make sense. Freedom has opened up new opportunity, new responsibility and old pitfalls. It turns out that slavery and racism were not only personal preferences; they were powerful institutions. They determined the law, the language, the land use and the overall social, political and economic opportunities. The emancipation proclamation and subsequent landmark civil rights legislation mostly outlawed overtly using power arbitrarily. The freedom struggle in American was successful in changing the kinds of words and images that Americans felt were appropriate. However, the underground system of state control over the legal, political and economic opportunities still carries the sludge and stench of second-class citizenship and group disenfranchisement. The movie Django satirizes this truth. The city of Detroit lives this reality.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie Django Unchained has recently come under fire from notable filmmaker Spike Lee. Lee thinks the movie is disrespectful to African-American history. The movie is set in the South two years before the Civil War; Jamie Foxx plays Django – a freed slave who is intent on saving his wife Broomhilda. Django Unchained may be disrespectful, but it rings true. African-Americans live in a context ultimately framed by political, economic and social forces beyond our control. In the movie, Jamie Foxx’s character is an ex-slave who can kill white criminals because he is a bounty hunter empowered by the federal government. His bride and other African Americans have no rights and are the property of Mr. Candie according to the laws of Mississippi. Django’s freedom and empowerment and ultimately that of his wife and race rest on the imposition of federal government power over state authority. The persistent problem of African-American economic equality and a successful resolution to the problems of poverty and the creation of a permanent underclass are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of state government and federal jurisdiction. 150 years after the emancipation proclamation and 50 years after the I Have a Dream Speech, we remain in a tug of war between disenfranchising state governments and an empowering federal government.
Detroit, Mich. is in turmoil many say because of a lack of leadership. The tale suggests that the mayor of the city has little credibility with the citizens and the city council members are already gearing up for their reelection campaign. It is unclear what the county government is willing to or can provide. The truth is there is a lot of leadership in Detroit – the state government. Much like Mr. Candie, a character in Django Unchained, Governor Rick Snyder thinks he can do whatever he wants with his Negroes according to Michigan law. He can put them in the hot box, feed them to the packs of feral dogs running lose in the city, or simply watch them shot each other to death from the comfort of his high chair – the governor’s seat. Indeed, for many, Michigan has become the new Mississippi. Strangely enough, the federal government seems more interested in bigger reform issues like immigration reform, gun reform and health care reform rather than protecting democracy and fighting poverty in the state of Michigan. The state of Michigan has unilaterally restricted the right of local citizens to control their own cities and school districts, it has ignored its duty to ensure that children learn to read in cities like Highland Park, it is apart of a seemingly new national movement to experiment with the electoral college by diluting the voting power of African Americans and other minorities and supports a plan to turn the city of Detroit into a neo-plantation. There is a lot of leadership in Detroit. It is the kind of leadership that intends to use institutional power to keep people poor, uneducated and uninformed. Our empowerment depends heavily on the willingness of the federal government to aid us in fighting state oppression. In the end, Django destroys the Big House. With federal government help, Detroit must do the same thing to the owners that occupy the state capital in Lansing and transform state oppression into opportunity.
D. Alexander Bullock is the senior pastor of the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, as a local leader he serves as president of the Highland Park NAACP and president of the Rainbow PUSH Detroit Chapter/ State Coordinator. He is the national spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium.