Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moving On

I have not written in a while. It’s not that I didn't have anything to say. In fact, watching a small, but powerful minority call President Obama a nigger on national television everyday has moved me to write almost daily. But the truth is, I had grown tired; tired of trying to keep a business afloat in this miserable economy. But even more important, being on the front lines of America’s race war the last 25 years had begun to take its toll.

What do you do when you grow tired of the bullshit?

In the early 1900s, the Reverend James Lee amassed over 400 acres of land in Cotton Valley, Louisiana and sent his first-born off to Southern University. Then one day, the sheriff drove up to the yard and delivered him the bad news: The town bank had been burglarized and all of his life savings were gone. When his oldest daughter - my maternal grandmother- told me this story, I asked her, "Did he go to town to make sure that the sheriff was not lying?" My grandmother looked at me as she sadly replied, "When the white man told you your money was gone, it was just gone."

It has been 20 years since my grandmother told me that story and I have oftened wondered what my great grandfather must have done that day. Did he walk his land wandering how he was going keep it together for his family? Did he meander down the wagon trail to Mt. Sariah Baptist Church and pray? Did he cry? Or did he just give up?

An extraordinary black woman named Eureka Demery gave me the answer two weeks ago. Eureka was born into urban poverty, to a single mother. At the age of 30 she found herself with four young girls, the oldest 14, the youngest 2. All the children had different fathers. They were all living in one room in her mother’s house. But Eureka had made a decision that she was going to change her and her children's lives.

Eureka believed that the first step was getting her children out of a decaying inner-city neighborhood into a decent house. Not just any house, but a home where the girls would have their own room. She was fixated on a house with a large den, where she and the girls could sit around a warm winter fire. A house where they could lounge together and watch television and, most importantly, feel safe.

She learned of a city program where first-time buyers would receive financial and technical assistance to find a new home. She signed up, took the class and was accepted in the program.

For a whole year Eureka and the girls went house-hunting every weekend. After a diligent search, they finally found their dream home. It had red bricks, a beautiful front yard and, yes, a big den. And to top it all off, Eureka was in the midst of a new romance. She was engaged and excited that there would be a father-figure in the new home for her three girls. The City inspected the house and approved the purchase. Eureka was off to a fresh start.This was in 1999.

But fairy tales are read to children as they drift off to sleep and happy endings only occur in the movies. Shortly after moving in, Eureka discovered that the house flooded whenever it rained. The oldest girl’s bedroom had an awful stench during the rainy season. The wooden floors began to buckle, large sinkholes appeared in the front and back yard, and she soon realized that the foundation had cracks in it.

Eureka complained to the City, but the bureaucrats told her the house was her problem. She pleaded with the City, reminding them that they had "inspected and approved the property for habitation," but the City refused to take any responsibility.

Making matters worse, Eureka’s fiancĂ© was killed. Devastated, Eureka continued to try and make the home livable. However, in 2002, raw sewage backed up into her bathroom commodes and flooded the entire house. In 2003, the house again flooded after a rainfall.

It was around that time that Eureka began to change. The girls remember her placing black trash bags over the windows to keep her bedroom eternally dark. And she would only come home when it was time to go to sleep. Eureka was becoming deeply depressed.

By the end of 2004, after she had hired another company to fix a sinkhole in her back yard, Eureka learned the city owned a drainage line running under her house and that it had been leaking for decades, washing the soil from under the foundation. Her dream home was literally sinking. To make matters worse, the city knew that the previous owners had complained of sinkholes and foundation problems with the house before they sold the property to Eureka. It had hired an engineer to investigate a previous owner's complaint, and it had to know that the drainage pipe was causing the problems.

Life was a heavy burden. Besides problems in her personal life, Eureka was also battling racism on her job. She and 30 other employees filed a discrimination lawsuit against her employer and the weight of being a single mom with four children, making bad choices in men and a sense of failure that she had let her children down by moving into a death trap became too much.

In January of 2005, Eureka was hospitalized for suicidal behavior and severe depression. She would be hospitalized two more times before the year ended, but Eureka did not give up and she got better.

And she found love, again.

Soon after her engagement, she came to see me in 2006. And I subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city.

Three weeks before the trial, Eureka's husband was found shot to death outside of a local nightclub. I called to offer my condolences and suggested we move to get the trial continued. Her response: no way. She wanted to move forward for her daughters sake.

At the trial, I was magnificent.

I flew in an expert with a doctorate in structural engineering, who testified that the city's leaking drainage pipe had destroyed Eureka's house. A real estate expert testified that no broker would ever list a house with problems identified on Eureka's property and that a comparable house would cost $175k. I introduced documents, going back to 1987 that showed that the City knew the pipe was leaking and did not bother to tell Eureka when she purchased the house. Nor did it say anything when she complained of the flooding.

I fought with the City’s lawyer, a white southerner who asked my real-estate expert whether she had looked for houses in a black neighborhood when she was researching comparable homes for my client. When I objected, the trial judge told me that I misunderstood the question.

The city put three witnesses on the stand.

I dismantled and destroyed them all on cross-examination.

And then there was Eureka. She gave the most gut wrenching testimony I have ever heard from a witnesses. But it was also the most brave. You could have heard a feather drop when Eureka recalled that her daughter dropped out of nursing school just shy of finishing her clinicals. She thought the child left because of bad grades, and only recently learned that her daughter was in fact carrying a 3.9 GPA and had quit to come back home and get a job to take care of her mother and younger siblings.

At the end of the trial, I was confident that I had so overwhelmed the city’s lawyer with evidence and law that the judge had to rule in my client‘s favor. Well, he did.

The Judge found that the city was liable to Eureka. However, he awarded her $6,000.00. We had asked for $1.6 million.

He told Eureka that he did not find her claims of mental illness credible, despite the medical records of six physicians who had documented her condition; despite her attending psychologist’s confirmation that the problem house had worsened my client's condition.

I will take to my grave the look on the judge's face as he walked by Eureka and I as he left the court room. But Eureka did not shed one tear. She showed no emotion as she helped me gather up my folders.

We stood outside of the court house and agreed that we would appeal. Eureka hugged me and, with dignity, walked away with her daughters. She called the next morning and was even more determined to keep fighting - to show her daughters that you do not give up. She said she wanted to take her story to the media so that others would know what the city had done. And in that moment I knew what James Lee did over 100 years ago. Like Eureka, he picked himself up and he moved on.

I know he did this because I have lived an incredible life as a free, educated black man. I know he moved on because Jim Crow is just a term my children read in a history book.

I know he moved on because on Wednesday night I watched a courageous black man stand at the center of national power and told the country that on his watch he will ensure that every American citizen has access to affordable healthcare. He was not fazed when a Southern Congressman called him a nigger at the most hollowed and sacred moment a nation can have - a Presidential address to the full chamber of Congress. Nor had he become less determined as the subject of the most vicious public attack a President has ever endured. He keeps moving on.

You see, every generation has its cross to bear. Our's can be no lighter than James Lee's was a century ago. Nor can we be any less resolute to keep moving on when "life’s trials and troubles make us wish we were born in another time and space."

God just did not bless me with the ability to stand on my feet and dominate a court room. He also touched me with the impulse to write. I once read a black gay writer who said, "If I had not become a writer, I know I would be spray painting graffiti on walls." So strong is the gift of words.

So, moving on, I will write an appellate brief befitting Eureka's courage. I will write for her and all the poor women, especially those of color, that get up off the floor everyday and move on.

I will write for the Reverend James Lee, who on that hot Louisiana day over a century ago, kept moving on for a great grandchild he would never know, but who has grown to love him as if he had been raised at his knee.

And I will write for myself. Because I have to keep moving on.