Systematic Destruction and Chicago….my hometown

This past weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot and in a 24/7 news cycle kind of world where our attention flits from one tragedy  to another, rarely are we given an opportunity to go deep.  Instead we hear the grim stats, we feel bad and if we are given to empathy we may wonder why the people in “those” communities live like that. But rarely do we allow ourselves to go beyond the usual stock answer that involves a need for better gun control. Without a doubt, gun control is something that this country needs to get serious about but the gun lobby isn’t too fond of that idea and the chances of it happening anytime soon are slim to none in my opinion.

Chicago’s violence problem is less about guns and violence and more about what happens when people lose hope and communities are systematically stripped of the resources that allow people to live fully and completely. It’s also about how underneath the surface, racist policies set in motion decades before impact future generations when the bill comes due. This recent piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic pretty much breaks it down and explains how racism is still very real and impacts Blacks in ways that are often hidden from the average white person.

This post today, though, is personal; in reading about the shootings that occurred over the July 4th holiday weekend, I realized that several occurred in an area that I’ve long considered home, an area that for many years was the only home I knew.

In the mid-60s, my grandparents settled into a neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, they were one of the first Black families to move in and by the time I was born in the early 70s and was old enough to be aware, all the white families except for one had long since moved out of the area.

As a kid, my grandparents’ house was like the promised land; my grandparents were firmly in the Black middle class. Unionized factory jobs allowed them to own a 3 bedroom brick bungalow with a yard and access to the American dream which back when I was a kid included an annual vacation to Jamaica and Texas to visit family! My parents on the other hand had fully embraced a lifestyle that was counter to my grandparents’ “uptight” middle class life, having proclaimed themselves Black hippies. Looking back, I admire my parents for the choices they made but as a kid, I wanted the lifestyle that my grandparents had, which included Saturday morning trips to the grocery store where my Granny allowed me to put whatever I wanted in the cart! Overnight weekend visits to my grandparents was one of the highlights of my childhood: Saturday mornings involved a visit to bank, the barber, the grocery store and maybe even a special treat after all the errands were ran. Late afternoons involved playing with the other kids and grandkids on the block, the only rule being that when it started getting dark, it was time to come in. This was a tight knit community, so tight that at 14 when I started smoking and had snuck out for smoke while running to the store for my mom, a neighbor spotted me and had called my folks before I made it back home! In other words, it was a community, people knew each other and cared for one another and looked out for each other. It was a community with the things in a community that you expect to have to function; things like a grocery store.

Fast forward to my early 20s, after the breakup of my first marriage. I was 22 or so, divorced with a young child with no nickels to rub together and I desperately needed to get myself together. By this time, my grandfather had long since passed away, my grandmother had fallen out of the firmly middle class category and was teetering on the edge financially but she still had the house. My grandmother offered my son and I the chance to live with her so that I could get myself together but it didn’t take long to realize that this neighborhood was not the same one from my childhood. This was around 1994-95 and gone was the grocery store and many of the things from my childhood. The area had changed and not for the better; walking to the local library was a no-no because of gang activity. Several times I tried to order food delivery, only to have it not show up because the area was deemed not safe by the drivers. On more than one occasion, I had to beg cab drivers to drive me home. Our time there was brief but life-changing because when I left, I did indeed change my life around and my times there as an adult will forever be a part of me. But looking back, it was clear this was a community in decline. Yet none of the people on the block had changed. In fact, many of the families who had bought when my grandparents bought were still on the block and in the area.

Pressing the fast forward button once again to about 10 years ago, which is the last time I stepped foot in the old neighborhood and, well, I didn’t really know it anymore. Two days after my mom died, I was in Chicago and after making arrangements for my mom, my dad and I drove to see my grandmother. We were almost at her house when in my bleary eyed state, I realized that I needed some coffee, now for most of us the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee in the afternoon is something that just happens. Yet there was no coffee to be found in my grandmother’s immediate area, we had to drive a few miles over to the predominantly white neighborhood to procure a cup of coffee. A community in the third largest city in the US, one of the largest cities in the world, yet a cup of coffee cannot be obtained without going to another neighborhood…this is not good.

My grandmother passed away 18 months after my mom did and a few months before she passed away, she was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight on her way to the store. A neighborhood she helped to create, a neighborhood that had risen and fallen in less than 40 years!!

I shared this personal tale because despite my current residence in Maine, Chicago is my home. I know it. It is in my blood. I also know that when Blacks moved in and whites moved out there was a brief golden period and then these same communities slowly devolved into something that no one could even imagine. Communities without grocery stores, doctors, banks, or any of the things that most readers of this piece assume to be the norm.

A dear friend of mine, after a decade away from Chicago, recently moved back home and told me there are parts of my hometown that look like literal war zones. I have relatives who tell me that places that I grew up going to are no longer safe areas, where going to grab a bite to eat might very well mean the end of your life.

At the same time in the 12 years since I have moved away, millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into beautifying Chicago and turning the parts of Chicago that are seen by tourists and white folks into showpieces. Millenium Park was completed after I left and while it is gorgeous, why couldn’t some of the money that helped create this showcase of a park be put into the communities that actual Chicagoans live in? In recent years, schools and public health clinics in almost all minority areas have been shuttered while resources have flowed abundantly into areas that have few minorities.  This is no accident; this is how systemic racism works. The systems are not equal yet it becomes easy to blame “those people” rather than to acknowledge the structural inequity that is very real in large swatches of brown and and black communities.

We all make choices but sometimes the choices are made for us and we are victims of chance. If one is hopeless, longevity of life and aspiring to something greater than ourselves is hard to fathom if we have no role models or means to make such things happen. The lure of the streets and quick money suddenly makes sense when the systems that should work to help us to be a part of something larger than our base selves are simply absent from our reality.

Excuse the typos, this was written after a very long day.

Black History Month and the Lies We Tell

It’s Black History Month here in the US, that time of year where we supposedly honor the contributions of Black Americans to this great nation of ours by giving Black folks their very own special month… all 28 days. Oh, Black History Month is a glorious time, where we lift up the acceptable and safe Black folks such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and where we get to feel good and pat ourselves on the back because Black folks can now sit in the front of the bus, drink from any water fountain and now they can even become president. It’s a glorious time I tell you…not.

I know that this post is going to piss a few people off and that is okay, I will probably lose a few readers and that is okay too. Life is too short for me to be anything but honest and intentional in all that I do.

The sad sack reality is that most Americans are no more vested or interested in Black Americans than they were fifty or sixty years ago, it’s just that it is no longer socially acceptable to say that. Instead we pretend to care and value everyone but our actions speak louder than our words, sure we might have a Black friend or two. Hell, if we live in a large, diverse, urban area we might even have more than two Black friends, shit we might even date or marry Black people. Imagine that! However for the vast majority of White Americans at the end of the day they live and love in communities of people that look just like them. I say that with no judgment because frankly it cuts both ways, my hometown despite being the 3rd largest city in the United States and the 88th largest city in the world is an extremely segregated place. Sure, in the downtown and near north side lakefront communities you will see a diverse array of people but overall blacks live with blacks, whites’ lives with whites, etc.

Which brings me to my point, in my hometown last year, 440+ school aged children were shot, 60+ were killed. A few names like that of Heaven Sutton, a seven year old girl who was shot and killed outside of her house while standing with her mother where they were  selling snacks; made the national news, most dead brown kids are simply a footnote.  Think about that for a moment, a little kid outside her house selling snacks with her mother is shot and killed. Heaven’s story made the national spotlight but most of the 60+ kids killed in 2012 in Chicago weren’t deemed important enough for their stories to be shared far and wide. Just another day in Black America, where violence has reached epic proportions and kids no longer dream of growing up to become a teacher or an astronaut, they dream that they simply live long enough to grow up.

A few days ago, a young lady with a promising future, Hadiya Pendleton’s life was cut short by a bullet. However Hadiya’s story is making the news because you see, just a week before her life was cut short, she had performed at President’s Obama inauguration. Hadiya’s life ended just a mile away from Obama’s home in Chicago. Hadiya got caught in the rain and took cover under a canopy and a gunman started shooting. Truly a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for hundreds of black and brown kids in Chicago, they are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time all the time; as public streets and parks, places which should be safe, are no longer safe spaces. Yet while some grumble and complain, it’s business as usual where if you have the means you move your family to a safer place and if you don’t have the means, you live on your knees praying and hoping that your kids come home every day and that you don’t receive a call or knock at the door. This violence has been going on for years, it didn’t used to be like that but I am convinced as the divide widens between the have and the have-nots life is not valued.

On the flip side, late last year when 26 precious souls lost their lives to gun violence in Newtown, CT it captured the nation’s attention. Discussions started, a task force was formed and for once a real dialogue about gun violence in this country was launched. It’s too early to see where these actions will go but the point is people want change. The mass shootings have reached a point of no return and even some people who are very comfortable with the second Amendment are willing to admit, maybe, just maybe we need to see what we can do so that little kids aren’t being slaughtered in the one place they should be safe…school.

From my perch, I hate to state the obvious, but I will. See, the souls lost in the Sandy Hook tragedy were primarily white and of comfortable means. In America, schools and streets must be safe for white middle class kids, sadly though that same concern often is not extended to black and brown kids (or financially vulnerable whites either). Maybe it’s because no matter what we tell ourselves at the end of the day, we just aren’t as vested in people who are not like us and therefore we can’t feel for them on the same level. It might be the same reason that it took weeks for news of the death of Trayvon Martin to capture the nation’s attention and that is only because black and brown activists refused to let Trayvon’s story go untold because as mother’s and father’s we all knew our boys could be the next Trayvon.

As we enter Black History Month I find myself wondering what point is there in glorifying dead great Black Americans when at the end of the day, Black life is simply not valued or equal to white life. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that things are equal, our words are cheap because our actions as a collective whole tell a different story.

Home on the brain

It’s no secret to those close to me that this year for the first time in years, I have gotten terribly home sick. I haven’t been back home to Chicago since my Mom’s untimely death 5 years ago. Part of the reason has been money but the truth is after my Mom’s passing, I didn’t feel like I had a home to go back to. After all my Dad lives in an efficiency apartment, so no place to lay my head should I visit. My brother lives in a bachelor pad and with my Granny passing a mere 6 weeks after girl child was born, for the longest I felt there was simply no home to go back to.

Maybe it’s my daughter getting older and asking about our extended family or the fact that elder boy has been in Chicago lately checking out colleges, but the past few months, Chicago has been on my mind and in my spirit. I am reminded that while I make my home in Maine, deep down I am a city girl. I find myself missing my favorite diners, missing rides on the el during rush hour and just being able to get some real Mexican food without having to travel from hell and back to find it.

At the same time I think of all the pleasant parts that I miss about Chicago, I am reminded of why we eventually came to Maine. It did start because of my ex-husband but truth was I was very nervous raising my son in Chicago. My parents left a decent area in the early 1990’s because gangs were checking my brother out and he wasn’t even a pre-teen. I admit I was scared of what my son could get into by merely just walking around and the fact is living in a good neighborhood in Chicago is no guarantee that trouble won’t find your kid. Yesterday in my old neighborhood, the very one the Spousal Unit and I were living in before we moved to Maine, a 14 yo boy was brutally beaten and left on the street where had it not been for a passerby the child could have died.

I watched the video that accompanied the story in the link I provided and was struck by the fact that Chicago’s top cop mentions that kids are in need of conflict resolution skills, I agree they would help but as a parent I can’t help thinking a large part of what we are seeing happen in Chicago is that kids need parents. I know times are rough and folks are working hard to put food on the table and a roof over their kids heads. I know this all too well because I spent 6 years as a single parent who at one point worked not one, not two but three jobs. I know when you are working like this its hard to parent but you know what? Too many parents feel guilt over not being present with their kids and ply them with the latest gadget or the hottest pairs of sneakers and its got to stop.

I used to be conflicted about the fact my parents chose for my Mom to be a stay at home parent despite the fact that it meant we spent most of my childhood living pretty close to the financial edge. Yet the older I get, I see the greatest gift they gave me was the gift of being present, being there when I came home from school to hear me and be a part of my life. Look, I know in some families a stay at home parent is a luxury but there are ways to be present in our kids lives, it just requires some creativity and even more a committment to our kids.

I think the epidemic of child violence we are seeing back in my hometown is directly related to the fact that for many kids there are no parents or loved ones playing an active role in a kids life. Instead kids are left to fend for themselves and receive a diet full of unhealthy images pumped directly into the home via the idiot box. How else can we explain why kids so young would be filled with so much rage.

Conflict resolution classes are nice and most certainly helpful but what we need are parents and adults who can take a positive role in the lives of kids. In some cases just an adult who cares is more than enough to make a difference; I see it daily in my line of work. The center I run is located in a low income ,high density area where dysfunction is the norm yet our center provides a safe harbor for kids. We need more such places in communities throughout this country. What we are seeing in Chicago may be garnering national attention but kids mistreating each other daily happens all across this country even in a small rural state like Maine.

So while I am saddened by the violence back home, I won’t let it deter me from going home soon. After all there is a deep dish pizza and a night at one of the best spots for jazz in the country calling my name!