Yesterday my sweetheart and I went on a garden walk in a local neighborhood. Families who were especially proud of their planting this season got organized and created a map, and picked one of the most gorgeous summer days so far to open their yards to strangers to walk through and admire their flowers. We stumbled onto it after brunch. I know things like this happen in neighborhoods all over Chicago, but it was the first time either of us had actually taken a garden walk, and so it was a little new. I found myself holding his hand, walking down streets lined with homes, some that had been there for decades, some giant single family brick fortresses only constructed within the last five years or so. The neighborhood (as many tend to be in Chicago) was largely homogeneous, and because of its socio-economic status, was largely white.
We were walking down a dappled sidewalk toward someone's backyard, and I remarked, more to myself than to him, "This feels like a very white thing to do."
His dutifully thoughtful response, "What do you mean?"
"I just mean that something like this would only happen in a white neighborhood. Like, if this happened in Humboldt Park or on the South Side somewhere, the map would read, 'This is where Bootsie got shot,' and, 'this is where Ray-ray held up an elderly couple with a knife,' and 'this is where the 5-0 made that huge bust and had the block locked down for eight hours, 'member that?' You know?"
He laughed. "So it would be more of a crime walk than a garden walk."
We lapsed into silence for a while. I thought about what I'd just said, about how a garden walk was only the kind of thing that white people would do, that it was something inherently cultural, and that no one else could or would want to replicate an experience like this. I know it's narrow-minded and defeatist to maintain this kind of attitude. Why should I think that my people don't possess the drive, or aren't entitled to the joy, of a walk through God's nature to enjoy His handiwork? Why should it be that only white people get the privilege of enjoying nature, that in Lakeview and Andersonville the sidewalks are ensconced with gladiola and hens and chicks and tiny red begonia, and in Garfield Park and Chatham they're littered with empty takeout containters, used rubbers and fliers for last night's party at the club?
People talk a lot about getting out, getting out of the ghetto, out of the neighborhood, and moving up, making progress, moving forward toward something better, toward a yard with flowers and sprinklers and walls you can't hear every cough through. Good schools, good neighborhoods with thriving economy, good community, these seem to be things that white folks have cornered. As some of them are concerned that people of color are going to move in and take over--with out chicken bones and ghetto blasters and magic spells and foreign languages--we just want a place where children shriek with joy of play, not pain at the hand of their mothers, where we can sleep without the bleeding incessant blue light of the police camera tattooing itself behind our eyes. We just want a square of the earth that feels fertile and safe to call our own and do our lives.
Both my parents came up hard, in large families with absent fathers (in body or in mind) and without much money at all. I imagine as they look back at what an upbringing that was humble at best and fraught with discouragement and struggle at worst, they must think now, with a large house in a fine suburb, a daughter with an education that was both good and expensive, several cars and a comfortable life, well, they must feel like they've come up. Like they've finally got a piece of the pie. Isn't this a part of the mythological American Dream, that our kids would have it better than we? Neither of them talks much about it, but when I reflect on my childhood I can sense the work, the clawing, sweaty,dogged work that it took them, borne came out of a naked desire to have better than what they had as children. There was talk of waste, and of how I must be and behave because the white people are always watching, and of what a lucky girl I am to live the way I do and I should be more grateful. I was raised on the idea that once you achieve a thing, you never rest on your heels and maintain what you've got, you always push forward, onward, to more. The freshman squad this year, next year maybe JV? Fifth chair up from ninth, great, now you can see the first chair from where you sit. A B+ in French, maybe you can get an A next semester. Alright, cross Northwestern off your list, now when do you go to grad school?
I never realized the kind of pressure it made me feel. I just always thought that whatever you got, you always wanted better.
I don't know about this gnawing desire; it seems to me it might create hardship. I feel as though I'm already struggling to live in each moment of my life because I'm so fixated on what's coming next, how to get the next thing that I want off the list. Five year plans can be encouraging and motivating, but they're also just a drag on one's attempts to stay present. It's so easy for me to associate this desire for better, for the good life, as one particularly indigenous to people of color, to immigrant families and black working class or poor folk, but really this is an issue of class, of money, of caste-shifting. Oh it's such a dirty word that conjures images of the marble hallways and servants and the tall iron gates of Imperialist India, but let us not kid ourselves that we Americans live without castes; perhaps ours are just more cleverly hidden. Of money, of race, of education: we have ways of fencing people in and keeping others out; what happens when we shift the lines is always a sociology experiment. So maybe there isn't a whole lot of moving up that needs to happen in me, for me. Maybe it's okay if bundle the strange and arbitrary dreams I ever had of what "making it" was: of owning a home, of a yard I could garden in, of a cushy tenured job at a prominent university, of enough room to write and room for the kids (maybe), and still a place to call my yoga space, of fancy dinners on a regular and real leather bags and purses. Maybe I tie these together and put them on an altar to sacrifice, and Dear God make my hand swift and unflinching. Unlike Abraham, I'm not sure God should give me this thing, once He sees I'm ready to sacrifice it. I might be better off without them.