BACK IN CHICAGO…

BACK IN CHICAGO...

The ability to love everyone starts with children. We are blank slates. We see the world bathed in equality—until, as we grow, we begin to become aware of differences. Or they are pointed out to us. Regardless, there is always hope.

In a world where we are truly now a global nation, where we could look like the United Nations, differences should not be an issue.

But there is something in an individual’s DNA that makes them cling to those first times when we see differences or feel different or are taught to claim a difference. Why? I don’t have an answer. 

EVERYONE HAS SOME PREJUDICE 

There are people on this earth who claim that they have no prejudices. That everything in their purview is equal. I say, that’s impossible. Maybe you are or have always been comfortable with the differences that exist in humanity regarding skin color. Awesome. Wonderful. But I proport there isn’t a person walking this earth that isn’t prejudiced in some way. And it may be as simple as food choices.

Because life is about choice and within each of us is some small voice telling us that THIS is better than THIS. It just depends on what we are talking about. But we must be honest.

HOW PREJUDICE BEGINS 

As a child, I lived on the southside of Chicago. But—in a neighborhood that was all white. The people of color I knew were few. There was Jenny, the Sioux Native American who cared for us when we were very young. (read here). And there were the two Black women who cleaned and ironed for us. (read: here.)

OPENING MY EYES

But what did I notice as I grew up in Chicago? (I am doing my best to be honest.)

  • That all our neighbors, the people who worked in stores, the kids in school, the people in church, our doctors—they were all white.
  • That when my mother drove me through neighborhoods to downtown Chicago (before the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was geographically laid out to separate many Black neighborhoods from white ones) that the sidewalks were crowded with people walking; that there were people missing limbs, people in wheel chairs, maybe even people who had lost hope. READ: people who had to rely on public transportation; people without good healthcare. People who lived in food deserts and healthcare deserts. Please note that in certain decades THE CAR was everything. This was before we began to look on public transportation as a positive way to travel. I did live three blocks from the Rock Island train that zipped my mother into Chicago for her job. From that train, I could look out upon housing, old apartments, yards bare of grass, sometimes filled with trash… Okay—poverty.

What did I notice during my years of education?

  • Well, I’m certain I would never have looked around for a Black child in my grade school. That possibility wasn’t even on our radar. There were two girls in my class whose skin was actually tan all year long: read, darker than mine. Damn, that I noticed that. Is there something in our DNA that points that out?
  • But after high school, working in the city every summer in downtown Chicago, the variety of people along the sidewalks was fascinating.

What did I notice off and on just living and working in Chicago and its suburbs?

  • That even though I was white, there were sales women in high-end stores that were not interested in helping me return a blouse or search for a size. Because prejudice can move through all tribes—I obviously wasn’t dressed in a way that indicated my buying power. That memory still stings. But GET OVER IT, You Privileged White Woman.
  • That working in an integrated high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then much later working as an RN at Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, were some of the best years of my life. If there was some ignorant, leery, unsure person hidden inside me—those career choices made me push her aside.

MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW 

“Some of our students have knives,” the Superintendent of the high school where I was interviewing told me. I needed the job. I said that was okay. I spoke out of ignorance. What did I know about dealing with a student who might be carrying a knife? I learned to be open and caring of all my students. Was I lucky? Yes. But there were so many students throughout my teaching years that showed me their humanity.

It was the same at Mercy Hospital when I first started working in maternity. I might be nervous walking into a room to help a stranger deliver her child. But the bond of the female species, of motherhood, of helping someone in pain—damn, humanity was flowing through those rooms and continued to do so.

NOTE: It is 2021, and thank God, Mercy Hospital, that will always serve minority families, was saved from the wrecking ball. But close by in Bronzeville, Michael Reese Hospital did not survive. (read: Life and Death in Englewood by Linda Villarosa, New York Times.) 

WHEN THINGS CAME TOGETHER–FOR ME

“Gresham went over night.” You would have to live in Chicago (or maybe a different urban city) to know what THE HELL that means. Translation: the white folks moved out and the Black folks moved in. THIS IS OUR HISTORY. It’s Chicago’s history and it is the history of many cities in this country. It is wrong. 

Other terms are contained in one blistering sentence (a friend said this): “Yes, for sure there is gentrification going on in that neighborhood, cause they are getting rid of the slum.”

Definition of Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. 

Actual Definition: an area of a city where people unable to find good-paying jobs are forced to live. And regarding history, people of color are forced to live there, a place where houses are abandoned because of job loss; stores and hospitals close. When I grew up, the hospital where I was born was a quick drive away. I took that for granted. Again, from a recent article in the New York Times: Now you drive through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot…  And I recently learned that the south suburbs of Chicago do NOT have a trauma center. They have hospitals, but not a trauma center. The trauma center is   Christ Advocate Trauma Center which is three miles from me, within the city limits. 

EDUCATING MYSELF BY READING…

There was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. But now there is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Then I read WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, which wasn’t just about the Obama era, but about Reconstruction, the freedoms initially given to freed people of color and then taken away. The continuation of brutality, of lynching and home burning. The device of red-lining which is to refuse (a loan or insurance) to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. Short version, because they are Black. 

When Black folks left the South, looking for employment and better lives for their families, white men devised ways to isolate them in run-down neighborhoods, to prevent the breadwinner of the family from getting ahead. White people have always been able to get ahead by buying a home for their family, which provides them with shelter, but also the possibility of increasing their initial investment.

Getting ahead is the key to everything, for everyone. In America, each one of us should have that chance.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?              

From Kitchenette Building by Chicago Black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks

PS Fighting prejudice must be an ongoing but oh so worthy effort. 

Photo: Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois. Honoring the World War I 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.

10 thoughts on “BACK IN CHICAGO…

  1. I grew up with my wonderful sister, Elizabeth, who wrote this post, regarding the south side of Chicago. My peaceful day to day life changed when I elected to go to St. Ignatius High School, run by the Jesuit priests. The school was on the outskirts of downtown Chicago amidst a sea of different nationalities, cultures, and people. One had to “learn” how to navigate these neighborhoods as the commute by bus was 45 minutes to an hour. And one had to respect the neighborhoods and people that inhabited them. I had several encounters that were not pleasant, one when I was leaving school, after a hockey game and was stopped by around six of the locals who wanted to empty my wallet. All I had was three dollars, enough to get me home. There were no negotians in these circumstances, but the other hockey player and I were able to distract the “leader” of the group long enough to use our hockey sticks to hold off our aggressors and get bak to the safety of St. Ignatius. When asked by the police detective several days later, if I wanted to press charges against this “gang’, I said absolutely NOT!!!! The detective looked at me and said, “Son you have learned your lessons well.” I graduated, not only scholastically, but socially…..

  2. I grew up in public housing in New York City. It was integrated when we moved to that project in 1953 (because of the post war housing shortage) but by the time I left, it was definitely not integrated anymore. I was able to escape. White privilege. It took me years to learn how fortunate I was, and I am still learning.

  3. I lived in a prairie terrarium. Everything beautiful and peaceful within, with windows only on the outer world. The world I read about and occasionally caught on TV when our one channel was working.
    But in our small town were a host of Japanese Canadians, recent ‘graduates’ of the horrifying internment camps (who thought THAT up!) of WW2. Wonderful people. Hardworking. Ambitious. Frighteningly intelligent. (I’ll just let you imagine how many intellectual tests I lost out on to Joanne Saga!) We had several come out to work with us on the ranch and we loved them all.
    But throughout my growing up years, though there were a few families who were known to struggle financially, we really didn’t have a slum.
    And (other than the Japanese families who were as white as I) not one single person of colour.
    I think we were poorer for it. The kaleidoscope that is the human birthright. What a blessing it could be!

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