“The pot was empty,/ The cupboard was bare./I said, Papa,/What’s the matter here?/I’m waitin’ on Roosevelt, son,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt,/Waitin’ on Roosevelt, son./ The rent was due,/ And the lights was out./ I said, Tell me, Mama,/ What’s it all about?/ We’re waitin’ on Roosevelt, son,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt,/ Just waitin’ on Roosevelt./ Sister got sick/ And the doctor wouldn’t come/ Cause we couldn’t pay him/ The proper sum—/ A-waitin on Roosevelt,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt,/ A-waitin’ on Roosevelt./ Then one day/ They put us out o’ the house./ Ma and Pa was/ Meek as a mouse/ Still waitin’ on Roosevelt,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt./ But when they felt those/ Cold winds blow/ And didn’t have no/ Place to go/ Pa said, I’m tired/ O’waitin’ on Roosevelt,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt./ Damn tired o’ waitin’ on Roosevelt./ I can’t git a job/ And I can’t git no grub./ Backbone and navel’s/ Doin’ the belly-rub—/ A-waitin’ on Roosevelt,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt./ And a lot o’ other folks/ What’s hungry and cold/ Done stopped believin’/ What they been told/ By Roosevelt,/ Roosevelt, Roosevelt—/ Cause the pot’s still empty,/ And the cupboard’s still bare,/ And you can’t build a bungalow/Out o’ air—/ Mr. Roosevelt, listen!/ What’s the matter here?”
— Langston Hughes, “Ballad of Roosevelt,” November 14, 1934
The work of Langston Hughes is proof that the past informs the present and lays truths before us for the future like a map of what is to come. More like what went down is what’s going down, and unless disrupted, will keep going down in the future, you know?
How much longer are you content to “wait on Roosevelt”? Every four years, the political parties parade Black faces across the spectrum — liberal, conservative, judger vs. forgiver, promoting each party’s agenda, reinforcing the myths that to be Black, you must vote Democrat and you must be against same-sex marriage. Then they disappear until the next election.
More promises, and at the end of the day, what did we get? Little to nothing but more lies of the ideology, more hollow promises. Still we vote blindly on promises, IOUs.
Still we wait. More importantly, still our babies wait — stuck waiting on Roosevelt to right all of the wrongs, to bring justice, to do the morally just thing…and then more waiting.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. the Board of Education that desegregated schools — celebrated as victory won, freedom in education for the African American — yielded too little today.
An unforeseen eventuality, say some. I say no: Google the “Pupil Placement Law,” not loudly celebrated, not widely publicized, but a law which, on the heels, literally, of the desegregation decision, allowed White families to use subjective reasons (e.g. income) to re-segregate their students in schools with other students of “like circumstances”!
Don’t take my word for it — for heaven’s sake, please look it up for yourself. Get it for yourself. Remember what Malcolm said: “If they gave it to you, they can take it away.”
We need to build a movement about African Americans, for African Americans. Our babies are looking at cupboards that are bare, and our blind commitment to “waitin’ on Roosevelt” holds us back even as we go homeless and hungry.
What will it take for us to learn a new language that honors trust and unity over historical divisions that mean nothing in the face of 394 years of oppression? Nothing. In the words of James Baldwin, “I picked the cotton, under someone else’s whip, for nothing… This country was built on the victimization of my women, and the murder of my children. For nothing.”
Get it yet? We are still paying the ultimate price in the deaths of our children, in the “sale of the village” for the sake of one or two pocketbooks and deals with the devil that prevent us from doing the work the way revolution demands — truth to educate, education to organize.
I don’t need any more statistics showing that Minnesota has the largest gap in Black/White unemployment in the 50 states according to Dr. Algernon Austin.
I don’t need any more of the countless MN Department of Human Services reports about the almost countless numbers of our babies who are placed outside of our homes by child protection, and who in disproportionate numbers age out of foster care — our children and grandchildren.
We know that we have so many men doing time in prison that the village at times seems to be filled with only women and children And still we wait on Roosevelt? What will it take for us to see?
Who else do you see asking about what matters to you? I am not talking about people saying what is “safe” to discuss in “civilized halls.” I am talking about what is real — no job, no eat, turn to the streets, feed mine, do time…be honest.
If a White man with a high school diploma and a felony on his record is able to get a job in Minnesota three times more often than a Black man with a college degree and no felony, as Dr. Austin says, then you tell me — is it safe for us, for our babies, to keep waiting on Roosevelt?
“Cause the pot’s still empty,/ And the cupboard’s still bare,/ And you can’t build a/ bungalow/ Out o’ air—/ Mr. Roosevelt, listen!/ What’s the matter here?”
Lissa Jones welcomes reader responses to ljones@sp[email protected]