There are moments in each day lived as a brown girl in Lincoln Nebraska that I forget there are other brown people in the world. I can forget that I am the only, or one of few brown people in a room full of white students, a restaurant full of white patrons, or a grocery store full of red and white Husker fans, on a Saturday before a home game. I’ve lived in southwest Lincoln for 18 months and when I do see a brown person, I smile, make eye contact, and connect, but remember to contain my enthusiasm and not call out HEY YOU BROWN! YO BROWN PERSON, ITS ME--OTHER BROWN! GLAD TO SEE YOU! I won’t chest bump, soul shake or even vigorously bobble my head up and down as if I was made of felt and plastic perched in the back window of a car.
However, I have noticed that when I return to my hometown of Chicago and drive, or ride the bus in my old neighborhood, I’m acutely aware of how many brown people also live in that neighborhood with me. Until I left town I never considered any collective of brown people as a consequential number until their numbers were removed from my world. I find I am glad to see lots of brown people—it is quite the euphoric moment. I feel like Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins, stuck on the ceiling laughing and singing “I Love to Laugh.”
As I’m gleefully humming from Poppins, I realize this sea of brownness isn’t something I’m just noticing about my hometown or even my ghetto neighborhood. I moved into my beautiful craftsman bungalow with its stained glass windows, wood burning fireplace and several deceased spirits at a time when I really wanted to live around home-owning, God fearing, grass-cutting, equally ordinary but interesting brown neighbors like myself--as community built in the ghetto. I laugh while driving, reminded of Dr. Tommie Shelby’s essay “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto” and his curious take on the never-ending business of gang warfare and violent crime that, like the only other economic ghetto entities—the casino, gas station or liquor store—operates day and night. I park my car in front of my home, aware of the irony of this quiet street in my ghetto neighborhood, looking at the manicured lawns, porch lights on, teens sitting on front steps, soft laughter drifting in my direction. I see my neighbors’ son, locks freshly twisted, white tee, pressed khakis perched recognizably low on his hips. I know he’s in a gang, but I also know he keeps his business away from the block because he is a single father, raising a little girl. I remember when he first brought his baby home—the big grin when he pulled back the blanket to introduce his daughter, named after a character from a Hurston novel. The look on his face when she offered up a bubble, he cooed and said, “I will never let harm come to you.” I knew at some point we would catch up, usually at the local gas station where he would be buying a new white tee-shirt to wear while he worked. Each night he stops at the local gas station to buy a new white tee—he knows that if anything does happen to him, he will die wearing a brand new shirt.
While Shelby’s vision of gun-toting children has some merit—my young neighbor has resorted to violence and once, cars on our street did experience bullet holes as a retaliation—this occurrence was the exception. This young man has role models in the men on our block—men who have jobs, own homes, cut grass and whose worst vices include fussing about crabgrass and drinking too much at family barbecues on holidays. His choice of being in a gang, selling drugs and living a gangster’s life has more to do with the economics of Chicago and not the illusion of glamour associated with organized crime.
I am now over my horror of Shelby’s gun-toting children, roaming the streets of the urban ghetto on a mission to kill. I do question the binary nature that associates good neighborhoods as those without black gangsters and bad neighborhoods as ones with ghettos and black gangs. As I grew up in a transitional ghetto (our neighborhood was mixed, then became predominantly black) then bought a home in another ghetto, I can honestly say about both experiences, that while we did experience crime, we also didn’t own a gun—we did have a very good home alarm system, and the respect of our neighbors living as a community and without judgment. Organized crime in the ghetto occasionally came to our front door with bootleg food and electronics with the understanding we were not obliged to buy. Neighborhood ghetto politics valued organized community and supported self-regulating systems of protection, surveillance, and justice. Ghetto economy is driven by a combination barter system (including government subsidies as commoditized) along with the underground economies of vice and extortion. The sale and distribution of illegal narcotics generates revenue outside of the community—while the ghetto provides the supply, most demand occurs from a steady stream of customers from good, white, suburban neighborhoods. There is balance, and while the violence is real, we, as members of the community live as self-aware, remembering that the history of Chicago has always been violent.
Finally, I question the idea that organized crime as brown is bad, but as white can be glorified and legitimized. Crime, organized or not, cannot both be good and bad. I wonder about the politics of criminality—why is it that black organized crime has to be defined by race and only in terms of failure?
Historically, organized crime has occurred in the evolution of many immigrant communities. During the first half of the 20th Century, the white American (Irish, Jewish and Italian) gangs of the United States all had the same characteristics of the Black and Brown gangs of the ghetto and barrio of the last half of the 20th Century. Shelby makes a point to define the nature of crime and criminals as “Gangsters” and “Hustlers” perpetrating fraud, violence, and extortion without an ability to manage the capital generated by these occupations. He mentions the sources of revenue as theft, swindling, prostitution, extortion, gambling and the sale of illegal narcotics. All character traits and sources of revenue identical to white American gangs. The only difference Shelby does not address is that each one of the white American gang cultures creates, or has available to it, opportunities to become legitimate. Gambling is legal in most parts of the country, and while prostitution and most narcotics are still not legalized, strip clubs, gentlemen’s clubs and medical marijuana dispensaries exist as lucrative and thriving legal forms of these formerly illegal pursuits. All of these industries are predominantly owned and operated by white Americans. There is an argument to be made that the white gangs of the 20th century found ways to legitimize their industries through the active participation in political action contributions as campaigns to achieve these results.
I often wonder about my young entrepreneurial neighbor and his survival rate. The odds are against him living to middle age. His choice of occupation, the violent nature of his colleagues and customers, and the long history of inequities in our legal system guarantee this black man’s crime world has little chance to become legitimate. As a child, I lived next door to another black teen, Vernon, a neighbor who started all the gangs in our neighborhood. He eventually went to prison for second degree murder, served his time and now works for one of the local public utilities. That was a long time ago, when we as hybridized Americans had a different kind of challenging relationship to the law that protected but didn’t serve us—today we have neither protection or service.
Several generations back, we were beginning to make inroads into the traditional paths to success as legitimizing behavior. We could become middle-class, own homes, create spaces of no collar, blue collar, white collar selves—starkly showing up against deep brown skin. Now, we are straddled with living up to the image of the “superbrown” achiever, making excessive amounts of money pulling ourselves up from impossible odds because “poor” and “average” are suspect—and really isn’t anyone not white entering the workforce, coming from some horrific economic circumstance? I wonder, will we always be expected to jump those pole vault heights without the pole? Will America tap its foot waiting for us to get that game-winning in triple overtime, nothing but net basket at the buzzer, with every memo, article, film, art piece, song, or poem we produce? We come from horror, steeped in trauma, exhaling the potential catastrophe of hyper-sexualized aggressive reaction at any exaggerated action, event, and interaction. We build communities, reflecting culture, circling the drain of history, driving down suspicious streets moving toward the illusion of trust—our hot spot is a not spot.
I was in Houston, Texas last weekend, remembering how much I missed brown people as I walked around the University of Houston and looking into thousands of brown faces. One night I went looking for food, finding Navy Seafood—a chicken shack of a fish house with the tagline “You Buy It--We Fry It.” I smiled knowing I would have home-battered fried chicken wings (the only part of the chicken you really need to eat), coleslaw or a single-slice topped pale green salad with French Dressing and Ridge-Cut French Fries. I would have to buy a pop—there would be no water or cup for water or working water fountain.
I placed my order with the non-native speaking Korean woman (I eventually asked) and when I handed her a twenty, she held it up to the light, looked at the bill, looked at me, looked at the bill again and then, punched the keys on the cash register to give me change. My Stockholm-syndromed, ghetto-fied self smiled knowing I had passed the test of legitimate blackness. She smiled back and asked if I was in school, waving my change in the direction of the university—I said yes. I asked if I could eat there—again she smiled and said yes.
After I finished my chicken and walked back toward the university I discovered I had fallen into a pimp-stroll as I sipped my pop through a striped bendable straw. Each person I passed got a slight head bob—some even said good evening. I walked past deconstruction and gentrification—saddened to think Navy Seafood would one day be gentrified by a Starbucks or worse—become a Starbucks. The light rail across the street had everything to do with what was the inevitable fate of Navy. I walked past a big sign attached to a chain link fence advertising the new mixed use development being built next door. The ad had young white, young light, young mixed race, mixed up, mixed thin, mixing happy with living—all employed, no questionable job holders need apply. I thought, how will brown find its way into the future without being super? I don’t think it will, and not because I’m some afro pessimist, but because I am a bonified AfroCentrist, AfroLatinist, AfroRealist. There once was a time when I grew up in a neighborhood, with shops and stores, merchants and fine proud ladies, marcelled, afroed and corn-rowed, non blonde after fifty, wearing hats and wigs but not weaves. The shop keeper, bank manager, restaurant owner, was middle class, proud and brown and no matter how crazy the world got, Sunday sat in the front row of church, noshing on homemade fried chicken, good potato salad and punch in the church basement. I want to know I can find that again, but the world seems not to want me to want that. The world would rather not see me—unless I’ve got a decent portfolio from all that pole vaulting.