Letter to the Community

By Nouk Bassomb, Ph.D.

 I wish to share with you something I learned very recently. It is the field of human/social work that will make a difference in our community, not anthropology, not sociology, or history, and especially not Africana, Hispanica, African/Black Studies or Hispanic Studies Departments. If you want to explore the halls of higher learning for its sake, choose the field of your liking; but if you want to make a difference in our community, get into human or social work via academia.

For the last 24 months, I have been an Assessment Worker/Intake Specialist in a shelter here in New York City. Most nights, I conduct the assessment of two clients, that is, I interview them, using the Applicant Information Document. This one-on-one is the secret weapon. I hear their stories, assess their needs, pinpoint their dreams, their hopes, and together, having defined the next step they ought to take, steer them in the right direction. Clients, in their own words, tell me how they perceive their current situations, their immediate goals, and their plans to reach those goals. I, in turn, analyze the perception they have of their quagmires, determine whether or not they have the physical as well as the mental means to meet their goals, and suggest a placement recommendation. In the New York municipal shelter system, there shall always be a program able to assist this or that client in changing his life for the better.

In this work, anthropology, which is my own academic background, helps me but remotely. (Cultural) anthropology gets its best expression when it compares the cultural traits of two groups. If I do compare two groups, say, the New York homeless and the Khoisane of the Kalahari, it is in my head. Clients do not profit from that. Whatever comparison I effect does not take them to the next step.

Africana, which is the cultural sum of my birth and early social circumstances, also helps very little. It wouldn't help clients for me to engage them in a discussion on whether King Solomon was in reality Thutmosis III. The professionals of Black Studies hold these sorts of debates all year round and believe firmly that they make a difference. In the meantime, incidence of our young in jail/prison/shelter increases exponentially. I may remind a particularly receptive client that we were raised by giants, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X to Nkrumah, Lumumba and Mandela, whose project of society was never transinstitutionalization for our people, a life between institutions, from prisons to shelters, and back again, in an endless back-and-forth that deprives our community of its life force, but this is as far as I can go.

Sociology attempts to understand social facts, not cure them. I may further explain that perhaps because Dad was not present, thus not involved in his upbringing, Client lacked guidance, which explains his life'-- endless crisis. But does he have a son? Is he, Client, absent from home? Then what will happen to Junior? Same causes producing same effects-- are same conditions being duplicated? Social facts are not things. They are phenoms, very complex occurrences. When you approach something, anything, as a "thing", you tend to minimize its import.

Black Studies and Hispanics Departments were created to address the problems of the African-American and Hispanics communities. Thirty years ago, they mushroomed and flourished throughout the nation. Every college, university, had to have its Black Studies Department. This made sense. The government caved in. Look at the numbers today: If then one or two out of five African-American youth between the ages of 19 to 29 were in prison, today it's three or four, depending on where you are in the nation. The majority of shelter clients in New York City are people of African ancestry and Hispanics. Most of them come from jail/prison, are on parole, that is, one step back to incarceration. In other words, our youth is controlled by the penitentiary, not the education system, as it should be. What does that say? And what does the future hold for our people?

It says that Africana, Black Studies Department, Hispanica, Hispanic Studies Departments, not only have failed, but are failing our community, having distanced themselves from the very reason they were created.

In our future, I can see nothing but jeopardy.

Author's note: I was born in Cameroon. At age twenty, I was arrested for distributing leaflets in support of worker's strike and was held for four years without trial in a concentration camp. Subsequent to my containment, I migrated to France and enrolled in the Sorbonne, where I received a Ph.D. in archeology. Upon moving to the United States, I started doing field work in New York City homeless shelters. The poignant plight of the dispossessed compelled me to establish the Homeless Self-Help Program to assist homeless men.

I am the author of a memoir relating my experience in the concentration camp in Cameroon and two volumes of plays on the political situation in Cameroon, all of which were published in France. I am a storyteller and write on various subjects, including myth, tradition and rites of passage. I am currently working on an account of the three-month initiation I underwent in the African rain forest in order to enter adult society. I can be reached at bassomb@hotmail.com.