The Home That Made Me Doesn’t Exist Anymore
As a kid living in one of Chicago's poorest black neighborhoods, I learned to look past dysfunction and violence to see the beauty of a place I could call home.
I am 11, and as we leave the eye institute at 35th Street, I feel like I have the vision of an eagle or some other large, keen-eyed predator. My irises are dark, dark brown, almost indistinguishable from my dilated pupils, but I like to imagine the small black pools slowly growing to obscure the irises surrounding them, performing a tiny, ocular eclipse. Widened pupils take in more light, and for some people this makes their vision blurry. But for me, dilation makes my vision extra sharp, allowing me to see details I normally can’t discern even with my glasses. I can see the dozens of rough, tiny bumps that make up the concrete sidewalk, the way that scales make up an alligator’s hide.
It is fall in Chicago, but summer lingers in the air and in my summer-browned skin. I am wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved yellow T-shirt, my colorful windbreaker knotted around my waist. We board the 29 State Street bus and my sensitive eyes spot a friend, one of the older girls from Washington Park summer camp, which I attended until a few weeks prior. She is darker than me, her skin a deep auburn with reddish undertones that my grandma called mahogany. That day her prettiness almost makes my eyes water.
She waves, and I make my way to her. She hugs me and I try to distance myself from my grandma and auntie, to look as old and mature as she is, riding the bus alone. Her hair is down and pressed straight, lightly skimming her lovely shoulders, while my own mane is pulled and gelled into two ponytails, as always.
We chat as much as two girls can in eight stops, which is a remarkable lot. We talk about classes and her upcoming freshman year of high school, whether we will return to camp next summer. I pull the metal chain for my stop, at 43rd and State.
“You live in the projects?” she asks. Her face twists and her lips pull in tight.
“My grandma does,” I reply.
My rebuttal isn’t really a lie, since my grandmother does live in the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects, and I live with my grandma. But I need my deflection to distance me from whatever ugliness she obviously associates with where we live. My whole life is here, and it has never occurred to me to be ashamed of it. But her question, the harsh set of her face, the way that she quietly says “bye,” her eyes avoiding me, plant the first seeds of shame about the place that I call home.
As we walk to my building, the seed grows into something big and vile enough to choke me. The 16-story buildings, which I had always called white, to my new eyes seem dull and stained. I take in every individual bone-colored brick, each one uglier than the last. We pass the playground where I learned to ride a bike, and the ground shimmers like it’s covered in diamonds or crystals. I realize that the glitter is actually millions of shards of glass from liquor bottles and other broken, delicate things.
I never saw that girl again, but I have met dozens of versions of her; I’ve learned to expect that reaction when I tell people where I grew up. We lived in the Robert Taylor projects until I was 14, and I returned to hang out there until they were demolished when I was 18. My mother was unable to care for me and my two sisters, so my grandma welcomed us into her home, which she had moved into when the projects were first constructed in the 1960s.
By the time we came to live with my grandma in the 1990s, she had already raised nine children and a handful of grandbabies in that apartment. Every surface of her home was covered in pictures, mementos, diplomas, bronzed baby shoes, and random odds and ends: all the vestiges of a life well lived. My aunt lived in the building next to us, with half a dozen cousins, and my other aunts and uncles were never too far away. Every holiday and birthday brought a horde of relatives to our home, with my grandma spending days cooking and preparing, calling in my cousins to help clean. I cannot remember a birthday or report card that was not celebrated or acknowledged in some way, when the phone didn’t ring constantly with relatives sending their well wishes.
I didn’t learn whiteness as a default, or the limitations placed on those who exist outside of it, until I was much, much older.
Growing up in this home, I was ensconced in blackness — and as an adult, I now see and appreciate the ways that affirmed my identity. I finally saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when I was 24, and I was shocked that it was lauded as a “staple of teen comedy.” I had always thought that the classic tale of Chicago youth skipping class was Cooley High. I didn’t learn whiteness as a default, or the limitations placed on those who exist outside of it, until I was much, much older.
All of our movies, the music we listened to, the books we read, the food that we ate — everything was a representation of Black American people and culture. I think that the first time I saw a picture of white Jesus was at a friend’s house; I remember thinking he was an entertainer or model, with his big blue eyes and blonde hair. At our house, a large picture of Martin Luther King Jr. was framed and hung up as if he were a member of the family, and I think the first time I used the word “handsome” was in reference to a print of Marvin Gaye we kept near the living room table. Sparkle, What’s Love Got to Do With It, The Five Heartbeats, Fat Albert, Super Fly, and The Mack were all on an almost endless loop in our home, and the soundtracks of Claudine, Waiting to Exhale, and Dead Presidents are all a part of my DNA. Troy from Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Eve from Eve’s Bayou were girls I loved as deeply and personally as if I had known them.
When I was 12, I picked up Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and when I put it down, I knew that I was a writer; Maya had given me permission. I was permitted to be a sensitive, curious, whip-smart black girl because all around me were black girls who had done the same, from Cassie Logan in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to the cache of brilliant black women who were my teachers and mentors. If Ms. Wright had never handed me Sula in seventh grade, how would I be able to give words to the living, tender thing between me and my best friend, my Nel? How could I have become a writer of Midwestern ghost stories and lover of Southern conjures and root work if my older cousin hadn’t passed me her copy of Beloved?
Our neighborhoods are broken in so many ways, but there is light here as well.
This is what movies like Chi-Raq get wrong: Not all poor and black environs are dysfunctional. And even if there is dysfunction, it does not always exist independent of warmth and happiness. Our neighborhoods are broken in so many ways, but there is light here as well.
This is not to say that our home was perfect, because it wasn’t. When we had get-togethers, family members would either leave early or spend the night, concerned about their safety in the projects after dark. I also had several suburban cousins who were forbidden to spend the night with us. Sometimes we slept on the floor, because my grandma was afraid that the gunfire she heard outside would make its way through our seventh-floor windows. Gang violence turned our playground into a war zone, once keeping us indoors for an entire summer.
I remember having nightmares about Girl X, the young girl from the Cabrini-Green Homes who had been held and tortured in a vacant apartment. She was the same age as me when her victimizer left her mute, partially paralyzed, and brain-damaged. I asked everyone I knew why we didn’t know her name, why news outlets never printed or stated it. It seemed callous and reductive to not at least speak her name when we were rattling off her injuries and the brutalization of her 9-year-old body. Referring to her as “X,” an unknown, meant that she would always be defined by her trauma, which somehow, intuitively, I knew that she wouldn’t want. I watched the court trial closely, hoping to at least place a face to this girl we talked about so often, to know her beyond her tragedy. This year, I learned that her name is Shatoya Currie.
The city of Chicago eventually decided that the Robert Taylor projects, a social experiment in affordable housing and urban development, had failed. Demolition of our buildings, lining State Street between 43rd and 47th, began in 2003. The last building, 4429, fell in 2007, and by then it was a wasteland, but people still grabbed and kept bricks from the demolished building as mementos. My grandma died the following year.
With my grandma gone, my family doesn’t have a matriarch to prevent the petty bickering and infighting, so my Christmases and Thanksgivings are usually spent at two or three homes. Gone are the days where everyone gathers to give thanks or celebrate a child’s birthday. I still live on the South Side, and there are Robert Taylor reunion picnics every year in Washington Park, within walking distance of my apartment. Former inhabitants gather to catch up and talk about who lives where, who’s had a baby. Sometimes this regathering is nice, but sometimes it feels regressive. Sometimes I wonder if nostalgia has mythologized all of our pasts, added a sepia filter so that we remember them as prettier and softer than they really were.
As a people, Black folks are deeply familiar with the miles of distance between where your feet are planted and where your heart calls home. Maybe placelessness, whether emotional or spatial, is just another pillar of the diaspora; maybe that is the invisible, hurting thread connecting all of us. We grasp at home wherever we can, even if it is full of snares and maws that eat our young with such ferocity, so often that I begin to hate myself for the non-reaction I have when I hear of another felled black body. Last summer, I went to a boy’s 19th birthday party for the second year in a row. Twice now, I have watched his mama barbecue and laugh between the tears she sheds for her boy, chopped down by bullets before he could be a man.
For so many Black Americans, home and the concept of it are as transient as we are.
From Fred Hampton to Hadiya Pendleton, Chicago is a city bathed in black blood, and I often wonder where all these ghosts go. What becomes of black girl haints and black boy phantoms who take their last breaths here? Do they make their way back to the South, where our grandparents came from, or do they stay and haunt the PJs, the only home that mattered to a lot of us? If black Chicago ghosts make tracks for the South, why not keep going further, back to whatever West African coast our ancestors were dragged away from? Between slavery, reconstruction, the great migration, mass demolitions of public housing projects, and now our rapidly gentrifying hoods, the majority of us are unlikely to be able to live in the same home claimed by an older sibling, much less a parent or ancestor. For so many Black Americans, home and the concept of it is as transient as we are.
I still ride the 29 State Street bus, pulling the metal chain to get off at 55th and State. I look out the window, and neat townhomes stand in place of those 16-story monoliths that once grew out of the ground. The Black Belt, Bronzeville, or the Low End have all been names for my former home, the place I spent my formative years. My elementary school is dark and eerie now that it’s boarded up. A lone, sickly tree stands in the yard to the left of the entryway. I pass by and even though my eyes say otherwise, my heart still says home.