Thursday, 11 September 2014

In the ghetto. . .

I grew up in the age of cassette tapes and vinyl records.  Cassette tapes were seen as the latest big thing, although it was soon taken over by the emergence of the compact disc, especially for me from the mid 1990s.

A cassette tape that had frequent air play in our house had the track In the ghetto by Elvis Presley.
I can't really remember what the other songs were on the cassette.  Hazily in my mind's eye I can make out that it was a greatest hits compilation with black lettering.

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago morn
And a poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto (in the ghetto) 
And his mama cries
'Cause if there's one thing that she don't need
Is another little hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto. . . 

With the elections in Aotearoa being the focus for the past few months, one of the major platforms that parties have been talking about (specifically the left-wing parties) has been the issue of child poverty.  In the ghetto highlights particularly for me the reality for some New Zealanders, despite the clean green and Middle Earth image that has been portrayed on the global stage.

People don't you understand 
the child needs a helping hand
or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me
Are we too blind to see?
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way?

We have a collective responsibility as a society to truly look within ourselves and think about how we speak to other, how we act towards one another, how we treat one another.  As a former high school teacher, it was my job to continually "build up" students and their self-esteem.  Even if some of those students came from really tough backgrounds in terms of scarcity and not having enough food on the table to eat, warm clothes to wear or adequate housing to live in - as an educator, I was placed in a position of trust.  Those students looked forward to my classes because I was able to provide a safe learning environment and a context of care.  No child would be able to learn and see the best in themselves, if we don't give them a helping hand and gently offer support, not because we pity them, but because we would want to be helped in return.

Well the world turns
and a hungry little boy with a runny nose
plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto

And his hunger burns
so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal
and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto

It was always a challenge as a teacher to try to "break through" to those students who were borderline.  They wanted to do well because they knew that you cared about their wellbeing, but their reality was always going to be so different to yours.  The adults in their lives had made poor choices based on desperation and revealing that their circumstances were a by-product of the consequences of those poor choices. I didn't grow up in a rich family, but what we lacked in money, we were definitely wealthy in love, care, faith, hope and respect.  When push comes to shove, did you learn how to steal and fight, just so that you could survive?

Then one night in desperation
The young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car
Tries to run but he don't get far
In the ghetto
And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers 'round an angry young man

face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto

It is too easy to assume that we associate the "ghetto" with a slum area where minority groups live.  That's too easy and at its worst (despite the lexical definition) almost akin to racial profiling.
I believe that everybody lives in their own version of the "ghetto".  The last part of this verse angers me because the crowd gathers 'round the angry young man as if he is some kind of spectacle, but were never there for him during his times of need.  Is this what we have become as a society?  That instead of helping each other in times of need, we stand by as onlookers to witness someone's tragedy unfold because we've become desensitised to responding to human need and instead we have become voyeurs of our own making?

As her young man dies 
on a cold and gray Chicago morn
and another little baby child is born
In the ghetto. . . 

I hope that in your "ghetto" you take a long hard look at what you are doing to contribute to it.
I know I can't save the world, I mean some parts of the world don't want to be saved.
But I hope that you will join me in doing your best to be that light, that beacon of hope for someone who needs it most, especially when they stare you right in the face and their eyes plead with you not to film their tragedy and take photos of it, but genuinely reach out and touch their lives in a meaningful, productive and caring way.  Rather than let the cycle repeat, let's think about how we can break it for the better.