Donney Rose: The Freedom Myth of “Getting the Bag”

Yesterday I was afforded the tremendous privilege of performing the debut of my multimedia spoken word poetry performance,The American Audit,” to a sold-out audience in my hometown of Baton Rouge. “The American Audit” is an extended metaphor of America as a business being audited by Black Americans 400+ years after the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. I call into account the material, psychological, physical, social and emotional toll placed on Black Americans throughout our timeline in this country.

I decided to fashion it as an audit simply because the original motive for Europeans invading coastal African countries was the economic gains afforded to them by way of forced free labor. Maybe one day I can bring it to your city, but I digress. Much of the research and interview work done for “The American Audit” gave me a deeper understanding of America’s impenetrable relationship to capitalism and all the mechanisms involved with maintaining a system of individual valuation based on socioeconomic hierarchy.

As one of my interviewees, Chris Tyson of Build Baton Rouge said, the ideals of capitalism and democracy have always existed in perpetual conflict with one another, as true democracy calls for a fairness of personhood that capitalism generally does not allow for. We tend to link the ideals of democracy in its purest form with that of freedom/liberation. But if absolute liberation finds itself in disharmony with capitalism, what does it mean for the pursuit of “the bag” for Black Americans attempting to scale up the socioeconomic ladder?

Let’s begin with a truth: in a capitalistic society driven by the acquisition of material goods and access to resources, money tends to make life easier. And I’m not referring to boatloads of money that affords someone a mansion and foreign cars and offshore accounts; I’m talking about having enough money to deter anxieties around finance related issues with a little extra to indulge in minimal luxuries.

I live in a city with a median income gap of nearly $50,000 between the average white family and the average Black family. That gap makes the difference in the quality of food that can be purchased, how much money can go into savings, a full tank of gas vs. just enough to get from point A to B. Mostly, it is a gap that creates a distinction between having to choose what living expenses absolutely have to be paid and what can roll over until the next pay period. Again, I’m not talking about wealth here. I’m talking about base level earnings that are essential to survival. I concede that the income gap in Baton Rouge is an egregious example, but the reality of race-centered income gaps in America is not an anomaly, it’s the norm.

When we consider years of systematic disenfranchisement that has often been linked to a lack of material resources, it is easy to believe that a surge in income en route to some semblance of wealth will equal freedom. But that’s not how America has ever worked.

It is often a philosophical error of affluent Black people to conflate wealth and freedom. From their purview, especially if their wealth is first-generation, money functions as an equalizer, a sturdy seat at the elusive table of valued humanity that America touts. It would be disingenuous to suggest that millions and/or billions of dollars do not increase a person’s lot in life materially, but it would also be inaccurate to suggest that class puts race on equal footing.

The history of Black wealth in America is not a new phenomenon. We know that well before Oprah existed in the physical realm and before Madame CJ Walker was a millionaire. What has been consistent in the Black American experience is open hostility which often is amplified towards Black folks of means. It has never been uncommon to hear stories of Black folks being accosted outside of homes not believed to be theirs or to hear stories of Black folks being profiled in high end stores they absolutely could afford to franchise, let alone shop in.

Race and class have a close kinship but have never been twins; therefore a divide has always been there along dollar lines. Whenever I read or occasionally hear gripes from everyday white folks regarding the opulence of (insert Black millionaire or billionaire), my response is always for them not to compare the social advantages of a Beyoncé or Rihanna to their own lives, but rather compare how Beyoncé or Rihanna is able to navigate in relation to a Taylor Swift. Money, like other facets of American life, has to be looked at comparatively through the lens of people who share a similar status. Black wealth has made many of Black lives materially better. Black wealth has not liberated Black people collectively as the acquisition of immense wealth is antithetical to the basic principles of equality.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that any Black person commit to poverty to avoid being disillusioned by wealth. By all means family, get your coins. America owes Black folks a great amount of wealth from literal generations of siphoning it from us. But even if this country settled its tremendous tab with us economically, that does not recuse it from ponying up a freedom dividend that cannot be quantified by a treasury. Anything other than a reassessment of human equity would just be hush money. We have endured too much for a mere silent payout.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, educator, essayist and Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow from Baton Rouge, La.