Voices from Lafayette's Black community consider democracy and the Black experience.

Democracy, civil rights and the American Dream

Woman in a blue shirt
Natalie Garrett Spencer is an accomplished singer, actress and creative writer. Photo by Travis Gauthier

From humble beginnings until now. What does that look like for me? 

The first part of my childhood in the early sixties was spent living in an all-black housing project in New Orleans. Within that community was my school, church, grocery stores, extended family, friends, and marginal healthcare. Back then as a young girl, I had no idea we were poor. My parents instilled in us to be thankful for everything, even if it was a little. I thought I was living the American Dream as described by the community I was a part of. We were loved by our family, clothed, had a roof over our heads, food and educated by some of the best teachers of color. We also had the best protection in our community by the Black Panthers who had their headquarters in our neighborhood.

Civil rights and voting rights were always the top of the adults’ conversations. Democracy was a sore subject because of the way it was defined and designed. The foundation of its inception was predicated on the Declaration of Independence. 

Twenty-four of the men who signed it were slave owners themselves. That description did not appear applicable to us as African Americans and people of color. In the famous words of the brilliant Langston Hughes, “I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see why Democracy means everyone but me.” 

Langston was wise in his thinking. He recognized the struggles and disparities that African Americans and other people of color face, hindering their advancement. Even after the abolition of slavery, discriminating laws and policies were put in place to ensure that former slaves stayed beneath. This multilayered mindset resonated then and still to this day as structural inequalities continue to suppress people of color.

Still living that American Dream, we later moved blocks away to what we thought was a better place to live. My parents were so proud to finally be homeowners in a new neighborhood built and established again, in an all-black community. My father was a diligent worker, having two to three jobs at a time. Little did we know that our American Dream would turn into a nightmare forever implanted in our family and neighbors’ lives. 

Neighbors started dying of cancer at an all-time rate, and outdoor pets also died. Then it happened: We found out that the land on which our homes were built was toxic ground. It was formerly a landfill. 

My mother, who was so proud of her new home, started a garden in our yard where she spent a lot of time. With no family history of cancer, she later died of ovarian cancer. My oldest sister who lived down the street, also developed cancer. Luckily, she survived. A class action suit was filed on behalf of those in the community. With no respect for the life of the African American community, and the deaths that accumulated, it took close to 40 years for some families to get pennies for the homes they worked hard to get. At what cost was our American Dream? Would it have taken so long if it were a white community? 

The American Dream speaks of hard work and fortitude leading to a better life, opportunities to pursue your dream, self-made success with a house and a “white picket fence”. In my opinion, the American Dream is flawed in such a way that fellow Americans, and especially people of color, are not able to obtain and sustain their dreams. Constant disparities such as social inequality, economic inequality, capitalism, discrimination based on race, ethnicity and systemic racism have a direct effect on the haves and the have nots. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

As I ponder this, I think about my long-standing career as a social service professional. I have gone full circle as it relates to the social ills that plague our communities as well as our nation. I‘ve worked in the penal system, the Department of Children and Family Services System and the school system. The one thing I have concluded regarding all those systems is that they are all flawed. Until the flaws are dealt with in a non-partisan way, it will continue to affect the true intentions of democracy, the American Dream, and the civil rights of an individual.

Regarding civil rights and the importance of Democracy, I attended a conference for artist-entrepreneurs sponsored by the Power Coalition and Cultural Crossroads. They came together to produce ways that the arts community can join in and help promote voter participation and awareness through their art. The requirements were to upload a 3-minute video stating what you would do in your art form if you were given a commission of $5,000. Thinking about the social ills plaguing our communities, I said I would remind our people of the blood, sweat, struggles, and tears our ancestors faced just to have the right to vote. I further stated I would also use our ancestors to tell their stories of how they overcame to empower others.

After being chosen as one of the recipients of the commission, I relied on God to help me to write a script and produced a mini-movie called The Chamber Room. This project allowed me to create a work that spoke to the communities about the importance of democracy, civil rights, voting, using their voices, and power which were the theme of the conference.

Another message I wanted to relay was the importance of not forgetting our past. As the old saying goes: forget the past, you are bound to repeat it. 

It is apparent that some African Americans and other fellow Americans do not honor why our ancestors did what they did. I felt the ancestors needed to come back through a “Mr. Scrooge” type of experience to remind everyone of their struggles, pain and achievements for them to have the privileges they have today. It was so disappointing to know that only 32 percent of people in Louisiana voted in this last election. Of that percentage, the number of Black people who voted was overwhelmingly low. 

What does that say about us as people of color who had such rich ancestors who sacrificed so that we could have better opportunities? Shame on us! Democracy and civil rights were expected to give everyone freedoms, equality, the chance to give input on important laws, policies, with equal representation and participation for all people. Unfortunately, the playing planning fields are not always equal.

Though African Americans continue to face difficulties, the good news is we continue to persevere, make strides, knock down stumbling blocks and pave the way for others. We still have a long journey ahead, but we must continue to be resilient from one challenge to another. Have we truly “overcome”? No, but we are overcomers. Are we at a standstill? To say yes means there has been no growth, but we are continuing to endeavor as we address the elephant in the room called racism. As we prepare for the upcoming presidential election regarding the American Dream, democracy and civil rights, for change to take place, all three must exist as one entity.