I’m always negotiating with homeless folks, and my daughter hates it. Last Sunday, as we were picking up our pizza for that disheartening Jets and Eagles game, a man approached me while I was in line.
“Hey sister,” he started — ‘cause you know they always hit you with the “sista” to soften the blow before they put in their request — “you have a dollar you can give me?”
I remember when folks used to ask for a nickel, a dime, a quarter. Now they’re asking for whole dollars? In southeast DC? Plenty of times, I barely had that much in my wallet for my doggone self, much less to be handing it out. But if my checking account isn’t running on fumes, I’m always willing to help. I didn’t have cash, I told him, but I’d be happy to buy him something to eat. He asked for a personal pan, I paid for it and we wished each other happy holidays.
When I got to the car, I was in trouble. “Why do you always do that?” my daughter scolded. “He’s a grown man. He needs to be able to take care of himself.” Hmph. What you won’t do, I told her, is be sadiddy about somebody else’s circumstances, particularly when you’re burning through my money by leaving every light on in the house and throwing perfectly good food away because it doesn’t tickle your fancy that particular day. But I digress.
I give, I told her, because it’s the right thing to do and because I was raised to see the power in sharing blessings. I give because it’s part of my culture. Say what you want about Black folks — we have always rallied around each other and taken care of us. We can be our own worst enemy and we have our issues, our hang-ups, and Lord knows we have our fair share of nuts, crazies and straight-up disappointments, but we are a community. Taking care of one another is part of who we are as a people.
When someone is sick or passes away, you can best believe there will follow shortly thereafter a string of ladies with foiled-covered hot dishes and a comforting word. If some man is out under his car trying to play mechanic, you can watch a little cluster of other dudes assemble around him, if only to hand him tools and offer tentative wisdom. I can’t even think of how many times there’s been some poor, drug-addicted or neglected child with a mama that just can’t get it together who’s adopted by an auntie or a grandmother or a neighborhood lady and loved on like he or she was her own. We are natural-born caretakers.
When you look at a list of some of the most active philanthropists in the world, recognizable Black names are there. There are the Bill and Camille Cosbys and the Russell Simmonses and the Holly Robinson and Rodney Peetes, and a heap of other celebrities who lend their big names and even bigger money to causes near and dear to their hearts. And that makes me proud that they’re using their notoriety and good fortune to create positive change. But there are also the everyday folks, the Big Mamas and the Keishas and the Mr. Whitakers from down the block who, in their own special but significant ways, take from their own households and their own time and their own pockets to help others. They don’t have a lot. But they spread what they do have selflessly and willingly. And that to me is even more special than somebody with millions to throw around and write off come tax time.
There’s a difference between charity and philanthropy. Charity is a one-time hit and quit for a particular cause, like writing a check for the American Red Cross during the Katrina cleanup or randomly buying a man a personal pan pizza in the store. It’s a good thing — don’t get me wrong. But philanthropy is the building block for lasting change. It’s ongoing and it’s an investment in improving whatever community it’s assigned to improve. That’s exactly what we do, except we don’t label it “philanthropy,” especially during the holidays. We just call it taking care of home.