Sunday, January 13, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 2: Cherokee Street

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story.

“We’ve found the house we want to buy!” I excitedly told our real estate agent over the phone one fall day in 2009.  “It’s on Cherokee Street, and we know the people who are selling.  It’s not even on the market yet, but this is the one.”  
“Well, we’ll keep looking.  I have lots of houses that are coming out on the market, and I’ll keep sending them your way,” she replied.  “This is the fun part, where you really get to shop around for what you want.”

“No, really, you don’t have to send any other houses… we really want this one.”

“Well, let’s see what it appraises for.  I mean, it is on Cherokee Street.  I think we will be able to get the value down.  Are you sure you want to buy in that ZIP code?”  

Right down to the point of closing on our first house, I wasn’t sure our real estate agent was convinced we had a good hold on reality.  She still comments to my in-laws how “unique” my husband and I are, how much she admires us.  I think she means it as a compliment, but it carries with it the same dubious tone that we get from other friends and family when they question us about the safety of the neighborhood. 

 At the time my husband and I got married, we were sure we should buy a house.  We weren’t exactly sure where we wanted to live in the city, but we knew we wanted to live in the city. It wasn't just about saving money on property taxes, although that was a nice perk. We sincerely thought that the city would be the best place to live and raise children.  We wanted to live simply. We had no desire to shop around for houses, though.  It was as if we were waiting for the right house to appear.  When some of our friends on Cherokee Street told us their parents were going to sell their house, we knew it was the one. It just felt right.  I told my husband, “This is antiracism.  We are moving against ‘white flight!’”(Tatum, 2003).

My history with Cherokee Street didn’t begin as an antiracist move, however.  In fact, my first encounter with Cherokee Street began with a search for the cultural “other” and ended in a traffic ticket from a very angry cop, who yelled at me something about “clueless kids who come to the city.”  In fact, I was a clueless city driver, and had unintentionally blown through a stop sign, not suspecting that there might be one on every block.  I had come to Cherokee Street the very same day I had interviewed the director of Hispanic Ministries with Catholic Charities as part of my senior thesis on Latin American immigration to Missouri.  She had commented that it was a “little Mexico” on Cherokee Street, and so as soon as I left her office, I headed in that direction.  I was disappointed to find that there were only a few Mexican markets.  I don’t know what I expected to find, but it was admittedly smaller and less Mexican than I had hoped.  

A few years later, my best friend bought a house on Cherokee Street in order to be close to an urban ministry located on the same street.  My friend and I had worked with this ministry, which focused on meeting the practical and spiritual needs of immigrants and refugees in St. Louis City.  I actually had been assigned to a different ministry to work with right out of college.  I was supposed to do office work in an urban development company.  When I realized the job was little more than filing, however, I quickly reassigned myself to the much more interesting job of accompanying my friend to visit refugee families from Colombia.  Again, my obsession with the cultural “other” obscured the systemic societal issues about which my mentors were trying to inform me.  

I moved in with my friend on Cherokee Street about a year later, and then when she got married, I moved next door.  My friend’s father owned the four-family flat adjacent to her house, and so I enjoyed the next few years with very low rent.  I also rode the public bus to school because my roommate used my car to go to work very early in the morning.  Since I worked very close by, I was able to use public transportation easily.  I prided myself on my bravery for riding public transportation, as well as walking home at night on Cherokee Street occasionally.  It felt like being back in Mexico, where everything was an adventure.  Of course, I had the luxury of a car on the weekends, when I would go out the county for church and other activities. On top of that, I didn’t actually know anybody else in the area besides my friends next door.  One incident stands out in my mind about my lack of integration in the neighborhood.  

I noticed racial patterns riding the bus.  Going up Grand Avenue, the bus was filled with Black folks, except for me.  As we went north towards the highways, more and more White people got on.  By the time we reached the MetroLink, the crowd was fairly diverse. I felt a sense of pride that I was so culturally “diverse” in my experiences.  One day, a White man got on the bus somewhere on Grand.  He started talking to people on the bus, cracking jokes, and pretty soon the whole bus was laughing.  He mentioned he was from another city.  As he got off the bus, people were still shaking their heads and laughing. 

I turned to the young Black woman sitting beside me and said with a chuckle, “You can really tell he wasn’t from around here.  I mean, we don’t talk to each other on the bus.” She replied, “I don’t know… I mean, I talk to people on the bus…”  I suddenly knew what I meant by “we.”  I quickly interjected, “No, you’re right.  I think I don’t talk to people on the bus… now that I think about it, I don’t think White people really talk to other people on the bus.” 

In fact, White people talked to other White people on the bus, but that fact eluded me at that moment.  Whiteness was completely invisible to me, and Blackness seemed overwhelming.  What followed was a mutually interesting conversation as the young woman and I walked home in the same direction.  We even exchanged phone numbers when we found out that we were more or less neighbors.  I never called her, nor did I see the young woman again, a fact that still pains me to admit.

These select anecdotes are  evidence of my pretense that I am a White person who "gets it."  I have taken pride in my urban life, when I really hadn't done the work to enter into solidarity with my neighbors.  I am not the only one.  You can read other places about young White folks migrating back to cities, as they abandon the vestiges of what they consider to be the empty, segregated and unsustainable suburban lifestyles of their parents.  However, the results in the city are not that much more integrated or fulfilling unless White folks make an effort to break out of their White social circles. I have to constantly reevaluate myself and the lifestyle I lead, who I hang out with, and where I want to end up.  This is my journey.  I may be off to a good start, but unless I'm intentional, I may end up standing still, or worse--going backwards. 

Autobiography Pt. 3: English as a Second Language


Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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