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.

We’ve Tried To Create Rainbows Before…

We've Tried To Create Rainbows Before...

We’ve tried to create rainbows before. But the powers that be are the powers that stomp out such ideas and their prejudices are still raging. In some sectors. Like the attack on the Capitol.

But there are also those who find other ways. But they take time, and they take being aware. And we are all guilty of not being aware.

Then there are headlines like this one: A GRIM PAST WE’RE STILL LIVING WITH.

This two weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune. Yes, we are still living with it. And it’s quietly personal to me.

FRED HAMPTON AND MARK CLARK 

A piece, by Michael Philipps in the Chicago Tribune, refers to another film coming out concerning the deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Phillips calls this new film a “leap and a bound ahead of the recent Netflix production ‘Trial of the Chicago Seven’”. He even calls the first film a speechifying fraud. (Wow, Aaron Sorkin must not be happy about that, as he wrote the script for the first film.) 

But where am I going with this…The new film is “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It deals with the death of Fred Hampton and also focuses on the FBI informant William O’Neal, a one time petty thief, who using his prejudice as a motor, became head of Hampton’s Black Panther security. Thus he could provide intelligence as to where Hampton was staying that led to the FBI breaking into Hampton’s apartment and killing him.

The article provides the history: “On December 6, 1969, 14 plainclothes CPD officers fired more than 90 times on Hampton and other Black Panther Party members. Two died, first Mark Clark, who was on guard that night, then Hampton.”

ME and LACY M. 

Searching Google, the day of the murder was a Saturday. So I am uncertain what day the Pep Rally was to be held the following week at Bloom Township High School.

I was a freshman English teacher, wet behind the ears. I mean I was innocent to a fault, though I had done my student teaching in an integrated Chicago school, one of the finest—Lane Tech. I was openhearted and eager, doing my best with my students. But I was truly inexperienced.

Each morning, students wandered into my third floor classroom for Home Room. This was a time for announcements over the PA system and for students to hand in signed report cards—general things, not related to their individual classes.

Lacy M. (will never forget his full name, but for privacy concerns won’t include it here) sat five seats back in the first row, by the door. He was tall, Black, quiet. That morning I don’t remember if I noticed the Black glove he was wearing on his left hand.

The assistant principal came on the PA for announcements which included reminding all students that the Pep Rally would be held in the gym at second hour. I don’t remember if that was my preparation period, meaning I didn’t meet with students, or if my second class arrived and we then immediately made our way to the large gymnasium on the first floor of the building.

AND THEN…

What I do remember and will never forget, it that Lacy M. walked over to my desk at the end of homeroom period, leaned over and said, “Don’t go to the Pep Rally.” That was all he said, and then he left.

Truly, Lacy hardly knew me. I mean, it was December. He had been in my classroom for maybe 20 minutes each morning, since September. I wasn’t his teacher. I was just some young woman trying to teach English to high school juniors. I did have three preparations (teacher talk for 3 different presentations to be given each day) so I was busy. I don’t remember how I responded to Lacy. But he was looking out for me. 

The second hour Pep Rally went as planned until the very end when Black students moved down from the bleachers and began throwing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

THE RIOT

It’s all vague in my memory, because we had two of these episodes during my teaching years, and they flow together. They were definitely riots, because chairs and desks were thrown, windows were broken, I was told to go into a classroom that wasn’t mine, where students were huddled. Another time the principal grabbed a student who was coming into the library to do me harm. I was okay. I had to give a deposition.

WE DID OUR BEST, BUT WAS IT ENOUGH ?

I write this, because it’s so clear as to why these events were happening. But to enable students to still go to class, and keep things calm, the school went to a split schedule—half the students attending from 8-noon; the other half from 1-5. There were police on campus. We got through it, made it work. Things calmed down. Curriculum was changed. I mean, these were good things. We needed to dust off some of our old ways. Stop teaching plays or novels that as another student once told me “Has nothin to do with my life.” And that changed. A combination of the classics and new authors of color provide a diversified and immediate curriculum that students WANT to take part in.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

In a recent interview in TIME MAGAZINE Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman talked to Michelle Obama. Gorman: Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movement for change. If we look to Black Lives Matter protests, you see banners that say: THEY BURIED US, BUT THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS.

I still wonder about Lacy M, and how his life proceeded. He did good by me.

For more information: Judas and the Black Messiah 3 and ½ stars. A Grim Past We’re Still Living With by Michael Phillips  Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 2021

Artwork: WESTWAYS Spring 2021

I LOST A FRIEND THIS WEEK…

Kruger National Park, South Afirica

Isaac finally was able to see all of his native country: Kruger National Park Safari.

I lost a friend this week, he died peacefully in his sleep. I wasn’t there when he left us, surrounded by his loving partner Therese, and many family members. But for me, Isaac Thapedi will always be alive in a special way. He allowed me to write about his life. He recorded his memories and I transcribed them, creating a few different versions–Isaac led an amazing life.

Isaac Thapedi was born in the township of Sharpesville, South Africa during apartheid. Living in a township meant that you were basically locked in every night. Yes, the men and some women could leave during the day, bussed into cities to work for the white folks. But they had to be returned by six in the evening, bussed back, locked in, prevented from creating their own full and true lives.

Isaac once told me: “When my parents were forced to move from one township to another, it was carried out in darkness. Families, belongings were loaded on trucks and buses, driven to the new place in the depth of the night, deprived the view of their native land.”

When you think about it, the white man had his reasons. Africa is a startling beautiful place. If native peoples were allowed to see more than a crowded township or a busy city, they might fall in love with anger, revolution. They might realize even more the value of the land that had been taken from them. Isaac was a middle-aged man, an accomplished physician, before he finally went on Safari–witnessed the rolling grasslands, mountains, wildlife that can power the heart, make one eager for freedom. Tyrants disallow love of country. They fear that native peoples will fall in love with the land that is their very identity. Much better to deny them, perpetuate another form of slavery. But I’m ahead of my story.

GROWING UP, THE FROG

Isaac was the only boy in a family of eight sisters. He slept right by the stove in the living area, avoiding the female bedroom. Each morning, after consuming the porridge his mother provided, he roamed the township, often getting in trouble as there was little to do. But—there were frogs and Isaac had a pocketknife.

One day he grabbed a big one, cut open its chest, then used a metal tab from a pop-can’s flip-top to spread the skin, examine the internal organs, study the beating heart. Later, he snatched his sister’s sewing needle and thread, and taught himself how to sew up the incision, then cut and do it all over again. That was the beginning.

Later Isaac would demonstrate this skill for his fellow students during the township school’s Show and Tell. He told me he was fortunate that the frog didn’t croak. But all of it fueled his desire to understand what procedures the human body might tolerate, might benefit from. “It was very early in my life, but it set me on a path,” Isaac said. “I wanted to be seen as an individual. I knew that being educated would allow me to achieve unique goals, to stand out. I might also be able to discover and create my own life, one my hardworking parents would never know.”

ALL YOU NEED IS A MENTOR

Isaac found mentors in his teachers and the editor of a newspaper he wrote for, Hank Schneider. And he found his pathway out of apartheid through the International Institute of Education. They agreed to sponsor him, educate him in the United States. Looking back on this trajectory Issac told me: “It wasn’t until much later that I realized the program devolved down to a kind of brainwashing—I was to be a spokesperson for America’s societal ideas. But being a black man, I often found those ideas directly opposed to my welfare and my personal philosophy.”

ESCAPING APARTHEID  

Isaac had to escape South Africa in the darkness of night. He wore only the clothes on his back and “…carried the blanket I had cherished as a child. It bore the power head, the insignia of my Basotho Tribe, a symbol of authority that would remind me of my Bantu heritage which I did not want to forget.”

The drive from Sharpeville to the airport was fraught with worry as the Prime Minister of South Africa had signed Isaac’s paperwork, but done so when he’d been drinking. What if he remembered? What if a guard arrested Isaac at the airport?

But the plan went through and Isaac escaped, flew through darkened skies to eventually see: “the lady, the Statue of Liberty holding her torch, arising from a haze, surrounded by vivid blue water. I’d seen her in books, knew the words printed on her base—and now here she was, letting me know I had not only arrived, but I was free. I could lose myself in the land that lay before me. Now, no one could touch me.”

SO MANY ACCOMPLISHMENTS….

Isaac studied at Yale and Northern Illinois University. One summer, he went south to help fight American apartheid by sitting at lunch counters and asking to be served. After graduating from Howard University Medical School in Washington DC, he went to Canada to do his residency and choose a medical specialty: neurosurgery. Isaac continued to excel in his specialty working first with pediatric patients and eventually concentrating on the spine and the brain.

Later in his career, Isaac fell in love with my sister-in-law Therese, one of the most amazing women I have even known, a nurse who taught me nursing skills and advised me on so many health issues.

But now Isaac has left us, dying this past week after leading an amazing life. He did go back to South Africa to visit his mother and sisters. He was even interviewed by Nelson Mandela who saw what Isaac had achieved and wanted him to return to the land of his birth. Now Isaac is finally returning, his ashes to be buried in his native land by his mother and the father he never saw again.

Isaac struck a blow to apartheid by revealing to white America what a child of an African township can achieve and what a person of color can achieve–just open the damn door. Just give him a frog and a pocket knife. Or give him freedom and the chance to pursue his dreams–he’ll go from entertaining during Show and Tell to becoming an accomplished and giving American Neurosurgeon. Rest In Peace, Isaac. And thank you for sharing the STORY OF YOUR LIFE with me.

I am currently looking for a magazine, newspaper etc, to publish the full story of Isaac’s Life.

Photo Credit: Kruger National Park; and always, thanks to Therese;