|On my street in Harlem, October 29, 2009, © Amber Schley Iragui|
I'm not sure I should write this. It is difficult. It is full of potholes and heartbreak. Heartbreak that is not particularly mine, but to which I stand witness. There is a young man standing on a corner in south Harlem. It is an early November evening, and violet light deepens in the shadows between the buildings. He is looking at me earnestly, shifting his weight back and forth between his feet. He is smartly dressed, a messenger bag slung over an unbuttoned pea coat, with tan corduroys and brown wingtips. He is asking me for something. My mind is jogging back for an answer, coming up with answers which will not do--not for him. I don't have an answer. He speaks gently, as if to assure me, but also with an edge of desperation. He's sure I have the answer. I am uncomfortable and afraid. I don't know if he will let me go home, let me walk the few short blocks toward Central Park and my infant son with his sitter. Part of me worries that the young man will follow me; part of me longs to help him--but his questions triggered a mental avalanche. What he wants is reasonable, but the implausibility of him asking for it from me lodges between us. There is too much between us. I walked home, but he remained standing on that corner in my mind for six years now.
I sit before an open window of a beach house. Beyond the scaly limbs of a shore pine, a shallow beach rises toward electric lines and low shingled homes. A stretch of Hwy 101 bisects the seaboard and from where I sit the sound of passing traffic is just slightly louder than the sound of the surf. Yesterday, before driving west two hours to the Pacific ocean, I saw one person of color. He was working at the car rental where my friend Julia and I had hired a car, and he explained that it was only his second week on the job. He was well dressed, overdressed even, as he walked with a clipboard around the white economy, apologetically checking for dents and scratches.
I do that now, count the black people I see. The day before yesterday I saw two: a mother with a magnificent afro and flowing orange gown pushing her fairer-complexioned toddler, similarly afroed, in a grocery cart. They were leaving the market as I was arriving, and she was narrating their departure in motherly sing-song. The day previous I saw no Afro-Americans, although a Hispanic family of four walked by our home around lunch time. And the day prior to that I espied a black arm resting on the window ledge, in a car ahead of me one lane to my right.
I recently moved home, to the eleventh whitest city in America, from New York City, arguably the most diverse place to live in the US. My husband and I moved here to be near my family, but also because the school situation in New York City was frustrating. For one thing, the students in my son's kindergarten class, at a public elementary in upper Manhattan, were primarily Dominican. It was by no means a bad school, the principal--a diminutive Afro-American woman who glowed in pastel cardigans--was a stellar leader. I whole-heartedly adored her. But the natural concerns of a school with a majority-Dominican student body (for whom English was mostly a second language) were at odds with my goals for my son. I just wanted him to like school, to love his teacher, to associate learning with positive emotions. I didn't need to "bridge the literacy gap"; whether or not he learned to read in kindergarten was irrelevant to me. After months of fighting with him over homework, and regular reports on his failure to learn to read, it was clear his education wasn't going the direction I'd hoped. He disliked school and I began longing for a simpler, and more appropriate, educational environment. And so, for that reason and others, we moved to Portland, Oregon. To a tree-lined neighborhood with craftsman homes and a novelty butter shop. A neighborhood with antique malls and boutiques selling linen smock dresses and raw-crystal jewelry. And not a black person, not a brown person, in sight.
It took a few months for it to sink in that I didn't see many non-white people in my day-to-day activities. When I'd moved New York in 1999 it took a few months to realize that the cloudy weather I was accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest wasn't going to appear. Ever. In New York it was mostly going to be blue skies. And now moving home it similarly took awhile to register the homogeneity around me. The cashiers, baristas, gas-station attendants, receptionists, garbage-haulers, even my friendly postman, were all white, mostly tattooed, and generally thirty-something. The families transitioning through the homeless shelter where we volunteered were surprisingly all white too. The parents and teachers at my children's new school were white. One child in my son's class had olive-complexioned skin. Blink, blink: one child was a wee bit not white looking. So I started noticing the people of color I saw each day--I spotted a young black man with dreads riding a skateboard north on 33rd, another young black woman crossed Williams at the slow pace I associated with people crossing the street on 125th in Harlem. Once a day, or once every-other-day, I saw a person who was, or could pass for, black.
I'm not sure what I think of this. I'm sad. I'm sad for the loss of color and I'm sad that this loss of color makes life simpler and less exhausting. Life is flattened, less beautiful but easier. School here is good for my children, they love their teachers and classmates and excitedly relay what they are learning. Playdates do not involve bridging inscrutable social barriers, or a require tireless diplomacy. When I express my concerns for my son's education with teachers or other parents there is nodding and recognition. We are on the same page, a mostly white page it seems. And I chose this page, dare I say fled to this page, out of frustration and fear.
When I moved to South Harlem in 2008, a few months before my son was born, I had already lived in New York for nine years. I loved the diversity of people and languages in New York. I loved the Jewishness, the way you could go just a few blocks and find an entirely different ethnic group, a Puerto Rican barrio aside a Polish enclave. I enjoyed the way people in New York asked "what I was"--a baffling question in any other American city. So when we moved to a renovated building on 111th street, between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass, I expected much of the same. To me it just seemed like we were moving near our parish so that Charles could be on time to church and I could be late with minimal hassle. Columbia University was close, and Central Park was one block away. It was an easy commute to work. I hadn't considered Harlem at all.
But we did live in Harlem, albeit a rapidly gentrifying corner of it. And almost immediately I sensed the hostility. Not from the black tenants in our building, who were young and upwardly mobile, but from the people on the street who felt my presence meant the displacement of their people. I was used to being largely ignored by black people, a geeky white girl in glasses with long brown hair. But suddenly I was visible to them because I represented the white people taking over. I didn't understand this; I didn't self-identify as the white people taking over. At that time I was mostly concerned with the things first-time mothers are concerned with: lack of sleep, nursing, teething, high temperatures, what happened to the person I'd been before I'd had a child. I was walking to Duane Reade to get more diapers not to make a point about race relations. Not to flaunt my white privilege. I don't think I'd even heard that term, white privilege.
But despite my foggy brain something of what was happening around me did sink in. I found myself packing my son into his stroller and heading south, out of Harlem. Away from where my presence meant anything. I walked to the Duane Reade that was farther away because it caused less anxiety for everyone. And there was also the fact that when I stayed in Harlem I was asked for money, more than once with the preface, "I'm not going to hurt you, but..." A black man once yelled at my husband, across a street: "You rich white people moving in and pushing us out! You know that!" I also noticed something else, black people attributed far more importance to my actions than I did. I often stopped to take photos of light falling into empty lots between buildings, but whenever I did someone would pass by and make a comment like, "Gonna put a building here?" or "Is that lot going up for sale?" It took awhile for me to register that when black residents saw me taking a photo they thought I was in the position to own, or sell, the empty lot--or at least I was working for someone who was. I wanted to say, "Look I'm just some bedraggled mother who likes to take photographs. I can't buy and sell New York real estate." But over time it became clear that for them that I was in that position, that somehow being white made me eligible, in some way that they weren't, to buy empty lots in Manhattan.
Which brings me to the boy on the corner and what he wanted that November evening. I was raised poor, in poverty that was, at least economically, more severe than the average black Harlem resident. My parents, while more than qualifying for food stamps, never applied for them because food stamps meant not depending on God. We prayed that God would provide our modest mortgage payment, because often my parents didn't have it. And sometimes money did arrive in a white unmarked envelope, brand name groceries in brown boxes. We also prayed that the gas in the tank of our car would stretch like the oil in the widow's jug in the First Kings story of Elijah and the famine. We were homeschooled because our public school was abominable and there was no money to live elsewhere or for the unbelievable luxury of private school. I do not want to dwell upon this too much, but suffice it to say that what I carried with me to New York and into Harlem was the sense that I was far less privileged than most people. And although my adult choices, and education, had propelled me out of poverty I did not feel particularly entitled. I had arrived, a white woman with a baby and a hardworking husband, in Harlem because Harlem was conveniently located and had reasonably priced housing. And I arrived into a Harlem coffee shop with free wi-fi where I was busily working on freelance design project when I realized my babysitter's hours were nearly up. And I stood, stowed my laptop, and headed for home--noticing as I did so that a young, well-dressed black man had watched me get up, had got up also, and had followed me out the door. I noticed that he followed me to the corner, where I stopped and he stopped and I gripped my laptop bag tighter and he turned to me and asked, politely, what work I did and how I got my job and that he was looking for a job and didn't know how to get one. He said he'd applied and applied and never got any responses. He said he'd finished college but still couldn't get a job and that he'd been to libraries and read newspapers and asked friends. And he wanted to know how I'd gotten my job and what I did to get it. And did I know of any jobs he could apply for?
And that is when it first occurred to me, foggily, as I paced back through my life for some answer, some bit of direction, that while I had risen a good way in my life due to university and wise choices and good friends and a few moments of serendipity, the culture I'd risen into was my own. I did not have the obvious barrier he had. The world I now inhabited, old Harlem residents aside, held no animosity or fear or anxiety on my part. I stumbled over a memory of a job posting I'd accidentally come upon a year after graduating from university that sent me to a small publishing company. And the publishing company didn't hire me but offered me an unpaid internship. And when the internship was done, a part time job, and from there a friend sent me a job opening at a publishing house in New York. And my godmother happened to know the director at the publishing house, and sent a letter of recommendation. And here I was, gainfully employed doing work I loved, with a home and a husband and a baby. And while it was not impossible that a similar train of events could happen to this young man within the circles he inhabited, there was something more--what exactly I couldn't say--between myself and his reality. Between where he stood, earnestly asking, and my minor successes, backing away unsure.
I wish I could say now that I took his name and number and helped him find a job. I didn't, though. The street was dark and my babysitter needed to catch the train, and I needed to nurse my son, and I was awkward and anxious standing there. Why was he asking me, I wondered, and not someone more obviously qualified to help? Charles told me, later that evening, that I should have taken the young man's number and he would have called him. Why hadn't I thought of that? Maybe I hadn't thought of that because when his questions revealed to me the gulf between us, a gulf I hadn't acknowledged was there until that moment, I was left off balance and speechless.
Other people have written eloquently about this gulf, about the difference between the reality of Afro-Americans and white people in this country, and that is not my purpose here. I write this because it is mine to stand witness. To acknowledge my part in this sadness, and my flight nonetheless from gazing too closely at it. A year or so after the incident with the young man, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I begged Charles to let us move someplace less stressful. Less black. Where I didn't have to face animosity walking down my street. We moved up to Hudson Heights, a diverse but predominately white (and Jewish) neighborhood in the Northern reaches of Manhattan. A cliff overlooking the Hudson river with nice parks and large apartments. And then, when the school situation there seemed less than ideal, we moved here--to the eleventh-most-white city in America. Where the number of black people I see in one day has never exceeded the digits on one hand.
The young man still stands on the corner in Harlem. I still don't have any answers.