Welcome to the first in a continuing series that highlights the memories and messages of our favorite songs here in The Bottom:
Title: “Thieves in the Night”
Album: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Artist: Black Star
not strong, only aggressive
not free, we only licensed
not compassionate, only polite
now who’s the nicest?
not good, but well-behaved
chasin after death
so we can call ourselves brave?
still livin like mental slaves
hidin like thieves in the night from life,
illusions of oasis makin you look twice
The lyrics to “Thieves in the Night” spoke to me a few years ago when I first heard the track on Black Star’s album. The words were so raw and real. And never did they ring more true to me then when I lived in Atlanta, Georgia for a few years after college. (Listen to Mos Def performing the song live.)
I loved Atlanta. I lived in Decatur, a suburb right outside of the city. I’d attended a historically black college and never took for granted the comfort of going to school with people who looked like me; black students, professors, and administrators. It boosted my self-esteem and enhanced my class performance. Atlanta was simply a continuation of this experience, the inevitable migration point for the distinguished alumni of the HBCU diaspora.
There was something so incredibly comforting about going to the grocery store and seeing black doctors in their scrubs shopping for salad dressing. And I always felt a sense of pride when I saw black children riding bicycles through beautifully, landscaped mega-mansion neighborhoods. I had truly arrived in the Black Mecca.
Or had I?
Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, I began working as a paralegal for a non-profit, homeless law center. Day in and day out I interviewed and counseled clients that looked just like me. And if I didn’t see their face in my reflection, I saw the faces of my father, my uncles, my sisters, or my mother. Many of them, like many of my classmates, had also taken the pilgrimage to Atlanta’s Mecca in an effort to take hold of its promises of opportunity.
Yet, instead of opportunity, many found poverty. They found rising housing costs and an employment market that didn’t reward non-skilled labor or a high school diploma. As a result, many fell between the cracks in Peachtree Avenue, unable to navigate the increasingly, elitist landscape of the city. Some of my clients were natives of Atlanta who sat by on the sidelines while the better educated and more privileged class of Atlanta immigrants enjoyed all of the sweetness that the southern, Chocolate City had to offer them.
“What’s to complain about in the Black Mecca? Black people are doing it big down there!” my friends would often ask. Black Star’s words sum it up perfectly. We were not free, we were only licensed. We were not compassionate, only polite….still livin’ like mental slaves.
Somewhere along the way, we’d lost ourselves in the Black Mecca; praying to the gods of Lenox, Phipps, and Buckhead.
Yet, we were only doing what everyone for years told us that we were supposed to do. Go to school, get a good education, get a good job and buy a big house. But what good were these licenses, if we weren’t somehow using them to reach back to lift our people up? Why did we think that we’d all arrived on Highway 85 free of all moral obligation? We could no longer see the people that slept in the parks that we passed by on our way to our downtown office buildings. We saw and heard reports about the growing population of black, poor and homeless people in the city; yet, we were too busy making sure that we had VIP tickets to the latest Hot-Lanta night spot. Not compassionate, only polite…hidin’ like thieves in the night from life, illusions of oasis, makin’ you look twice.