Photo: Miss Robinson’s Nursery School .n.d. Shorefront Legacy Center, Evanston, Illinois. Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
[Disclaimer: Longtime readers know that I usually write a more serious essay right before Thanksgiving and wrap a little bit of commentary on American life into it. When the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture reached out to me a few weeks ago about their new exhibit, Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson, I knew I had a place for them in this post. While they invited me to visit, I was not able to, so I cannot speak to the size and scope of the physical exhibition. I have not been paid to write about this exhibition, either. I’m sharing because I’m grateful that this research center exists and that it’s telling stories that I think are essential to American life and thought. I hope that you will choose to visit it in the near future. The exhibition runs now until December 31st in New York City.]
A few times a year, I take the boys down to the city to play at the baby lab at one of the local universities. We’ve been going since both boys were infants and they always have a fun time. The procedure is always the same: I drive down and park, I call up to the lab, some young lady in a stylish outfit comes down to give us a parking permit so we don’t get towed, then we go up to the lab to do our thing. It’s been a parade of many young researchers, none of whom I remember. Except one. Only once has there been a young Black woman, and she gave me the same look that I was giving her: that, “Oh my God, you’re Black and I’m Black and we’re Black together in this white space!” look. Of course, that meant we needed to spend some time to chat for a moment.
She was a graduating senior and a local, hailing from a very nice suburb that is west of me–quite affluent, very white, great schools, gorgeous houses. When I told her where I live, she nodded her head in a knowing way. “Oh yeah, you get it. You totally get it,” she said.
Then she told me something that only a suburban Black girl would say: “It’s just easier to say that I’m from Worcester, you know? People get that. I don’t have to explain.”
Yeah, I totally know. I had to tell her a story about my very first day of college. My first day at Hampton, not a single item unpacked yet, I was surrounded by my family and a “greeter” came in to check in on us. My parents (both Hampton alum) were so happy to see this grown, established student come through the door and I wanted to make a good impression, of course. We did the small talk thing, and finally she asked me, “so where are you from?”
“Oh, um, D.C.” I answered.
“Oh yeah? So am I. Which neighborhood?”
“Oh… I’m actually not from the city, I’m from Silver Spring…”
Her face changed, no longer impressed, a bit annoyed. “Don’t tell people you’re from D.C. if you’re not. Many of us are actually from there. That won’t earn you any points.”
With that, she picked up her little greeter clipboard and made her exit.
Welcome to college, Kyra. You screwed up within the first few hours.
I am still, to this day, navigating the complicated geography of claiming home spaces. I consider “home” to be the “D.C. Area,” which is a literal ring of suburbs that span from Maryland to Virginia. I spent three years of undergrad in Baltimore, not to mention many a childhood day frolicking in its many museums and gathering places. To the unfamiliar, I often say, “D.C. is home, but Baltimore is my playground.” Rarely does anyone want to drill down further from there. When they do, though, I find myself sputtering. I grew up in a town just outside of the city called Silver Spring, which is in the affluent (though changing) Montgomery County, Maryland. Known for its great schools, Montgomery County has some of the richest and most powerful families in the state living in it, and while it has its diverse spaces, there are clear dividing lines between the haves and have nots. I had an above-average childhood, but we weren’t rich by any means, especially after the divorce. It was a pretty normal suburban life for me and my sister. But you never get all of that narrative out. People stop at the familiar, or they stop at the place where they feel comfortable enough to pass judgement.
To be Black and suburban means to walk on many fault lines of racial and class identities. It means to stand outside of many groups, though you may actually belong to each of them. To be Black and suburban means that your parent’s choices to go for the “better” life, set apart from so much of what is considered to be the “Black experience,” must be constantly justified to the myriad of people you encounter in your life. We must learn a different sort of code switching and we live with an extra layer of imposter syndrome. You end up having no land at all, no people to claim as your own.
To many people, “Black” and “Urban” are interchangeable words. To be Black is to be Urban (though to be Urban is not necessarily to be Black, as gentrification is teaching us). To live a Black life is to be irrevocably tied to city living. It’s hard to remember that we used to be a rural people (for nefarious reasons, to be sure) and migrated into the cities, where we weren’t terribly welcome at first. (Hell, are we now? Wander out of your designated neighborhood and do things not get funky fast?) However, as the Schomborg Research Center’s new exhibition, Black Suburbia: Levittown to Ferguson shows us, there are many communities in this country that live somewhere in between. There are pockets of Blackness at the crossroads of rich and poor, urban and rural, set apart and defined by a few families that wanted to create a different sort of Black experience.
What I like about this exhibition, now open in Harlem to anyone who would like to visit, is that it gives voice to an often overlooked group. To be Black and Suburban means to be misunderstood at best, utterly silenced at worse. Not Black enough for some, not schooled enough in “our” life and “our” history for others, always half-a-step behind in whatever we’re supposed to know as Black people. We’re labeled snobby or bougie, aloof, disconnected. How many times was I called an “Oreo” coming up? It seems like only a recent phenomenon that the Black suburban experience has been portrayed in popular media and has been able to enter the spotlight of American thought.
Our lack of representation erases our experiences, but our experiences have merit and must be told. Especially in the current context of Black Lives Matter and the pushback against “respectability” that so many of us young and Black people are having right now. We should not look at those who have made the choice to step away from the city to pursue their best lives as somehow playing the dangerous respectability game, or denying their blackness in favor of other. I believe that there is merit to living your best life wherever you want to. You can choose different geography, love yourself, love your community and love your race. We should not forget that for many Black people who live and work in white spaces, by the very act of getting up everyday, we are living radical lives. We break barriers and change minds, push boundaries and set new rules merely by being our best selves in the places we’ve decided to be.
Yet, it’s also true that “respectability” is a lie. Nothing, especially not geography, can save us in a racist and dangerous world that hates us. We two Black girls, standing in that parking lot on an elite campus, she a graduating senior, me a graduate and a homeowning mother of two, are always in danger. In the face of racism and hate, we have learned all too often that narrative and accomplishment are poor shields against bullets.
As Blackness, Black life, Black thought and the Black future are all multifaceted, utterly nuanced, highly influential and yet so powerfully impressionable, places like the Schomburg Center are essential to our thought life. Stories like those on display at the Black Suburbia exhibition challenge the ideas of what Black life is, was, and could be, and that’s a huge gift during times such as this, when we’re all wrestling to refine and redefine what it means to be Black in America. I highly recommend that you visit the center’s website and read a bit about the exhibition, and if you happen to be in the New York City area over this holiday season, I hope that you will go over and visit it. The exhibition is running until December 31st.
Take these stories with you as you travel the country to visit loved ones this season, and be sure to share your own stories along the way. You play a key role in the larger American story. The more that we share, the stronger we become.
Happy Thanksgiving, Dear Reader. Be safe out there, walk in love, and give a little of yourself as your give thanks with loved ones.
See you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.