From his post at the edge of the bus shelter bench, James Anderson spotted the two police patrol cars heading slowly towards him and snapped to attention, or at least, as briskly as humanly possible for a 53-year-old man with a bad back. He reached for his cane and struggled unsteadily to his feet, shielding his eyes from the vehicle’s blinding head beams.
Hauling everything they owned in two grocery carts, Anderson and his three teenage children had put in a good 12 hours in their arduous trek from Silicon Valley’s northern edge en route to the Promised Land, Berkeley, which was still another 14 miles away as the crow flies. Fueled only by a 20-piece chicken McNugget divided unevenly between the four of them, they were bone-tired by nightfall, and had decided to settle down for the evening in the Bay Area suburb of San Leandro.
It was two days before Christmas, 2014.
The sleeping arrangements were strategic, almost militaristic. James and his oldest child, 18-year-old Khalid, would man the perimeter–bus benches were preferable to park benches since they’re typically canopied and located at well-lit intersections–flanking the youngest, 13-year old Malik, and his big sister, Malika, who’d just celebrated her 15th birthday a few weeks before. “My baby girl sleeps next to me,” James insisted, “always by me.”
Uneasy since they’d been evicted from their Union City motel earlier that day, James viewed the wee hours of the morning as a sentinel might regard the graveyard shift at a watchtower, getting only a few winks here and there to keep an eye out for trouble–”I’ll sleep when we get where we need to be; if I was gonna drop, I was gonna drop,” he would say later to describe his approach –and he and Malika were still awake when the two patrol cars materialized from the blue-black of a winter’s night, as though a hallucination.
Both would acknowledge later that they were a bit apprehensive in that moment. For months, cable and network television newscasts back at the motel had been preoccupied with the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown, in a St. Louis suburb, and the videotaped strangulation of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, by a lynch mob of New York City cops, simply for selling loose cigarettes. Concerned that police might accuse him and the kids of stealing the two grocery carts they’d found abandoned on the streets, James had earlier in the day tried, unsuccessfully, to pry the nameplate from one of the shopping carts. The cold night air seemed pregnant with menace as the San Leandro police officers unfurled from separate patrol cars and deliberately approached the bus bench.
“Good evening, officers,” James said, as disarmingly as he could, before proceeding to explain to the patrolmen that the family was homeless and just resting for a spell. Come daybreak, he promised, they would be on their way.
But before he could finish, one of the officers held his hand up to interrupt.
“We’re not here to hassle you, sir, “ he said. “Someone saw you here and called it in because they were worried about you. We just wanted to know if you needed anything?”
Poor but proud, James thanked the officers but told them that they were fine; they just needed a little rest.
The officers, however, would have none of it. “Wait here,” said one. “We’ll be right back.” Climbing back into their police cars, they sped off, returning a few minutes later with a coffee and three hot chocolates from Starbucks, and a 12-pack of tacos from Taco Bell. It was an unusually cold winter in Northern California, and the officers asked James to take the kids to the nearby Starbucks to eat and wait for the officers to return. Again, they raced off, and returned an hour later with four sleeping bags. Discreetly slipping $100 into James’ hand, one officer hugged James, followed by the other, and as they returned to their patrol vehicles, they both wished him and the kids a happy holiday.
The Anderson family Christmas two years ago was both banal and Biblical, the product of a global financial meltdown that was the worst since the Great Depression, and simultaneously reminiscent of Joseph and Mary’s pilgrimage to Nazareth.
But to retrace the steps of one family’s obscure nomadic odyssey is to gaze upon a map of the known world and see clearly, as if for the first time, its most glaring contradictions: how a faith nearly as old as mankind can sustain us when the most modern technology cannot; the dialectical relationship between a season of charity in an age of austerity; and the thunderclap of clarity, that attends the realization that for all intents and purposes, Africans in the Americas, by-and-large, have no greater material stake in the New World today than when we arrived four centuries ago.
“If hard work is all it takes to get ahead in America, Black folks would own this country lock, stock, and barrel.”
First the war, then the deluge:
As the United States geared up for World War 2 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Blacks fled the hardscrabble hamlets of Texas and Louisiana for Northern California in droves, searching for work in the shipyards and munitions plants. Nearly a quarter found cheap housing, such as it was, in San Francisco’s dilapidated Fillmore neighborhood that had been evacuated of Japanese residents at the war’s onset, herded, like criminals, into internment camps.
By the time James Anderson was born two decades later, the Fillmore was known as the “Harlem of the West” a showcase for entertainers and public figures as diverse as Etta James and Malcolm X. James’ birth also coincided with an effort by the San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority to raze thousands of “blighted” homes in the neighborhood, forcing nearly 10,000, mostly Black households to relocate just as they had the Japanese a generation before, and transforming Geary Street into an eight-lane monstrosity which sealed off the Fillmore from whiter and wealthier Pacific Heights.
In a 1963 interview with the Boston television station WGBH, about his iconic documentary, Take This Hammer, James Baldwin said this:
“A boy last week—he was 16, in San Francisco—told me on television….He said, “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Now, he’s only 16 years old, and I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house because San Francisco is engaging—as most Northern cities now are engaged—in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.”
Said James Anderson: They told us they were just going to make some improvements and we could come back when everything was ready. We never got the call to come back. “
Bused to a public school in a mostly-white neighborhood, he and a cadre of fifth-graders banded together one day to repel an attack from a gang of white, high-schoolers. When police arrived, they made clear their intention to arrest only the Black youths, and would’ve done so were it not for the intervention from an adult bystander who had witnessed the entire ordeal,
When a football scholarship was yanked, James dropped out of the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn some money, and eventually found work driving a municipal bus. In 1996, a few months after Khalid’s birth, James drove over some railroad tracks, and a searing pain thundered through his entire body from the base of his skull to the heel of his feet. He tried surgery and rehab to repair the three ruptured discs but nothing took.
Perhaps even more painful than the injury, however, was his inability to collect either disability or a pension from his employer. The loosening of New Deal-era labor laws began, in earnest, under the Reagan administration, were relaxed even further by Clinton’s White House, and have, over time, casualized and redefined the very notion of work as Americans had come to know it, reducing the most prosperous and stable working class in history to a precariat of Uber drivers, temps, and independent contractors, sans any benefits worth mentioning.
Medically retired and unable to work, James had only a monthly SSI check to support a wife and three children in the most expensive metropolitan area in the country. With the Federal Reserve replenishing bankers’ coffers following the Great Recession, asset bubbles that popped in 2008 were beginning to re-inflate by 2011 and by 2014, real estate prices in the Bay Area were more expensive than ever. The Andersons were evicted from their suburban Oakland apartment in October of 2014 when their landlord raised the rent. Estranged from his wife, James moved the kids to a Union City motel near her job, where the four of them squeezed into a single room that cost $400-per-week.
That endured for two months. James’ wife had been helping pay for the motel but decided, abruptly, to stop just days before Christmas unless he relinquished custody of their children. Believing that her lifestyle had grown increasingly volatile, James told her, essentially, that if she wanted to kill her fool self, she could go right ahead, but the kids stayed with him.
That meant no more room at the inn, or more accurately the Islander Motel on the border of Union City and Hayward, with only two days left before Christmas. Checkout was at 11 am, and so in the morning, James had the kids stuff everything that would fit– crock pot, an electric skillet, shoes, clothes, everything– into two suitcases and a green duffel bag for the journey to Berkeley, a college town that James remembered from his youth as the hub of Bay Area liberalism, and relatively hospitable to the homeless. Already thinking ahead, Malika days earlier had spotted a discarded shopping cart lying on its side in a shallow ditch along a nearby frontage road and made a mental note that it might come in handy should they need to relocate; she and Malik ran to retrieve it, and wiped it down with some of their clothes that they couldn’t manage to squeeze in the luggage.
And then, sometime before noon, the Anderson family headed north.
James had $20 in his pocket.
This Far By Faith
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
James was a bit startled by the middle-aged white woman who approached him– in broad daylight no less–as the family trudged up a major thoroughfare, Hesperian Boulevard, in Hayward. They had only left their hotel hours earlier.
“Uh, no, I’m okay, thank you,” James said. But much like the two police officers in San Leandro later that day, the woman simply wouldn’t entertain the notion. With her well-coiffed hair and natty attire, Malika sized her up as a professional, perhaps in the growing tech sector that was again firing on all cylinders by late 2014. The woman returned minutes later with a steaming cup of coffee, and clasped James’ hand in both of hers as she handed him the Starbucks cup, discreetly slipping him a $20 bills
“Can I hug you?” she asked and no sooner had James gotten the word out of his mouth, she had pulled his towering 6-foot-3 inch frame close to hers for an embrace so deep and sincere that the kids started to wonder if they wouldn’t need a crowbar to extricate their father.
As they continued on, a pickup truck approached not three minutes later.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
Unsure of his meaning, James politely replied that they were okay. Undeterred, the man stepped from the car, handed James two $20 bills, and wished them well.
If most big-city homeless shelters in the United States tend to resemble a slaveship, or an immigration roundup, the Good Samaritans who doled out money, tacos and hugs to James and the kids seemed emissaries from a United Nations delegation. White, Black, Latino, Asian, men and women, all contributed to the Anderson’s 2014 Christmas..
“We never asked anybody for anything,” James said. “Some of it was people saying ‘we’re so glad to see a father with his kids doing this’” and some people just wanted a hug or to wish us well. But we got a lot of help. I hadn’t counted on that.”
They needed every bit though. Among their myriad challenges was simply figuring out which way to go. James had never walked from Union City to Berkeley before and the most obvious route was along Interstate 580. Obviously, that wasn’t an option for the Andersons. And leaving San Leandro they encountered a roadblock that did not signal any obvious detour for pedestrians.
The map indicates the distance between Union City and Berkeley is 26 miles but James estimates that they likely walked in excess of 30.
But if their sense of direction failed them at times, neither the Anderson’s faith, or love for each other wavered. Of all his children, James says that Malika’s antenna is the most sensitive; she knows almost immediately when her father’s mood darkened, and she would just encourage her father, reassure him that they would be okay as long as they stuck together, or engage him in banalities such as the odd green flash of light that flickered in the night sky and wondering aloud if it was a flare, or a UFO.
And James would return the favor when he felt the kids’ energy ebb. One night, with the family hunkered down on a bus bench, an Asian man walked by and James pretended to greet him in Chinese with a nonsensical “phong chow yong fat” that cracked the kids up with raucous laughter.
By midday on Christmas Eve, the Andersons had reached Emeryville and were closing in on Oakland just south of Berkeley. The only food available was the chips and sodas they managed to round up from an off-brand convenience store. As if on cue, food began to just appear out of thin air: motorists dropped off sandwiches, and drinks, and homeowners who lived within view of Telegraph Avenue began pouring out of their homes to deliver big platters of food. One woman even delivered a plate of her jambalaya.
The family arrived at Wall Peace Park in downtown Berkeley Christmas day with nearly $300 in donations.
Berkeley was no longer the accommodating college town that James remembered. Indeed the police harassed the Andersons almost daily and it would be more than two months before the family could get into a shelter.
A study published earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation For Economic Development found that an almost Biblical plague has been visited upon Blacks in the United States, the most prosperous country in the history of the world. Looking at trends in household wealth between 1983 and 2013–a period that closely mirrors James’ working life and the shift from Keynesian macroeconomic policies to the neoliberal monetarist policies espoused by Milton Friedman– the average Black household in the country will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today.
Barring either a tectonic shift by policymakers, or an act of God, Blacks will never close that gap.
Which is to say this: from the cradle to the grave, from the slave trade to foreclosures, the Fillmore to the Islander Motel, what defines James Anderson’s life and that of the vast majority of Blacks in the US and across the Americas, is dispossession.
What he has managed to keep–and really, the only thing he has managed to keep–is faith, this conviction, for which no earthly evidence exists, that if he continues to do the right things, if he loves his children, obeys the law, treats others as he would like to be treated, that things might well turn out for the best in the end.
It is simply an extraordinary pact, a bargain struck with an invisible dealer, by gamblers with almost no chips to play.
Africans have always had a complicated relationship with Christianity. There is, of course, the indictment often attributed to Kenya’s independence hero Jomo Kenyatta that when the missionaries first arrived on the continent they had the Bible and Africans had the land, but it wasn’t long before Africans had the Bible and the missionaries the land. And indeed, it is documented that the benediction by the priests for enslaved Africans as they piled into a ship headed for the New World appealed to God for their “obedience.”
But many of the most well-known African revolutionaries–Mandela, Mugabe, Nkrumah, and others–matriculated from Christian missionary schools, and religious devotion inspired some of the most radical acts of resistance in US history, from Nat Turner to John Brown, Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King Jr.
Moreover, there is the Bible itself, which is, in essence, a manual for how to escape from oppression, first, from the Roman Empire in the Old Testament, followed by the Egyptian pharaohs in the New Testament. Specifically, the book of Exodus has played a central role in the African Diasporic experience for two centuries, featuring in slave spirituals and Bob Marley’s most iconic album.
But James Anderson’s pilgrimage to Berkeley of all places, on a Christmas day not long ago, provides a clue, perhaps, of what inspires our fealty. Despite all the roadblocks, literal and otherwise, that his children have had to hurdle, they have done remarkably well. Both Malik and Malika are honor roll students at one of the better high schools in Berkeley, and Khalid has enrolled in college courses. At the homeless shelter, Malika will often wake her brother for school by playing tunes from The Sound of Music, one of her favorite movies.
“I tell them all the time,”James Anderson said 18 months after their ordeal, “that we’re going to get through this, that we’re going to be okay. And we will. I really and truly believe that. The only thing I need them to do is believe it as well.
Because when you get right down to it, what choice do we have?”