Thursday, June 23, 2011

It takes practice

          It was apparent to me, immediately upon my arrival in Columbus, that I was out of practice living in an integrated community.  Okay, let me be a little bit more bold and a little bit more accurate: I was out of practice living in a predominately African American community.  If I needed confirmation that we had made a good decision to move, this was it.  Right?  I mean, I’m raising three black children whom I love and adore, I can’t be unfamiliar with what it feels like to live with black people, now can I?
          It reminded me a little of what it was like to attend a women’s college.  How even though I was already a feminist, the experience of living in a community where women did everything, helped reshape my brain a little bit.  Women led the student government, women cooked in the kitchens, women drove the security van.  They were the EMTs and the comedians, the athletes and the scholars.  Of course I had already known women could do all these things in turn, but the experience left me with the expectation that they would do them every turn.  If someone was going to give a rally speech to demand the college stop buying Coke products until the company divested in South Africa, it would be a woman.  If someone was going to set a new conference shot put record, it was going to be a woman.  If someone was going to run the lighting and sound board in the campus theater, it was going to be a woman.
          I thought of this experience as I walked the streets of our new neighborhood, noting the architecture of the buildings, the landscaping, the upkeep, or the lack thereof.  And I listened as my brain fought with itself.  Part of it could not conceive that a block of houses across from the park--banked with beautiful gardens overlooked by generous porches--that they might actually be inhabited by black people.  I turned the corner onto another kind of block altogether--50 percent abandoned, boarded-up buildings--and I thought, oh no, what if this is where the black people live and those houses around the corner are all full of white folks.  How will I ever forgive myself for landing us in the middle of this racially stratified disaster?
          I thought of this some more when we were overwhelmed by warnings to lock our windows and doors.  If we’re upstairs we shouldn’t have the downstairs windows open, they told us.  No, there are no windows to air out the basement, we had to block them in, they said.  These warnings came as much from our gay, white landlords as they did from our friendly black neighbors.  We are generally a leave-everything-open kind of family.  If you want to steal something and the car's locked you’re going to bash in the window, and then I'll need a new window.  That’s how I see it.  But the warnings were so persistent I had to consider them.  I kept close watch on our moving van.  I fastidiously locked and unlocked the bikes.  Even the tricycle!  But I felt so self conscious.  I mean here I was, living in a black neighborhood for the first time in my life, and becoming a lock freak for the first time in my life.  My kids had never seen me lock a door before, shut a window when I went upstairs, leave on the radio as we headed out to the grocery store.  What kind of message was I sending them?  And what kind of message was I sending myself?  This is not how I wanted the retraining of my brain to go.  My brain was supposed to be working on expecting the people walking out of those beautiful banked houses down on Franklin Park South to be black.  It wasn’t supposed to develop a new fear of break-ins.
          And then lo and behold, there were a few break-ins.  Not our house, but a couple of neighbors' across the street and another three doors down.  The weird thing was, now that there were some actual break-ins, everyone was saying how nothing like this had happened here for years.  Ten years some said.  More than that even, said others.  They talked to each other a bit about the burglaries and surmised it was someone right here on the block.  Someone who was around during the day, who could see the comings and goings and get in at opportune but unexpected moments when they knew no one would be around.  It must have been someone new to the block; why else would there be a rash all of a sudden?  I’m not sure my writing skills are good enough to convey to you how relieved I was to hear that everyone (white, black, gay, straight) suspected the passel of young, gay, white men who lived diagonally across the way.  Apparently unemployed, they spent a lot of the day on the second floor porch, smoking and laughing.  I hoped and hoped and hoped that the suspicions were right.  Never in my life have I wished so ill of my gay brethren.  But I really wanted this one to go down the way my brain needed it to.
          And, thank God, a few weeks after the patrol cars started circling, the gay boys got the jitters and were never seen again.  That was the last of the break-ins.  Eight months later, I’m proud to say that I’m just as dumb as I used to be: leaving the car doors open, the bikes strewn about, downstairs windows carelessly taking in the Ohio breeze.  And on Halloween when we went trick or treating down Franklin Park South, well, I’ll just let you guess who answered the doors.


  1. My friend who lived in your area when her daughter was younger is TERRIBLE about locking up, much to her loved ones' dismay. But when she lived there the only time she was ever a target of crime is when she left her car unlocked WITH her keys in the ignition (because she is that kind of girl) and a tart pan with a freshly baked tart in the front seat. The theif took the tart and who could blame him/her? I'm sure it was delicious; my friend is a good baker!

    Speaking of the complexity of that area, did you know this old documentary is about it?

  2. BTW, I do know how to spell thief. (sigh)

  3. Dawn, thanks for the link. I had heard about that documentary before we moved, but decidedly haven't watched it yet. (In my last post I mentioned we didn't do enough research on Columbus to know what we didn't like about it. Avoiding this documentary was part this anti-research project.) :)

    I think I might be ready to check it out now.

  4. I understand completely where you're coming from. We moved to Ghana to spend time with my husband's family. Part of the motivation was the chance for my daughter to spend time with the other half of her biology! She is very fair skinned so is automatically lumped in with the white community (predominantly expats) who make a lot of assumptions about black Ghanaians. It's hard to separate from those views and find a space you're comfortable to inhabit. It's such a process of feeling your way.

  5. Thanks for sharing another insightful and inspiring post. And thanks for the shout-out to women EMTs at MHC. :)