The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, 2016.
I am a child of Chatham.
I grew up in black segregated Chicago. Not in a neighborhood decimated by the 1968 riots, blight, poverty, white flight and boarded-up buildings. My South Side black cocoon was a solid black middle-class neighborhood. Judges, teachers, lawyers, doctors, city, postal and social workers live in Chatham. The neighborhood has an assorted housing stock: ranches, Georgians, sturdy bungalows, bi-level chic mid-century moderns. An unusual showstopper mansion, modeled after the White House and built with Robin’s egg blue bricks imported from Italy, stood on display around the corner where I grew up. Our family of five lived in a four-bedroom brick Cape Cod with an unfinished basement prone to flooding. The lower level had dark wood paneling, a bar and milk crates crammed with dusty records from my parents’ era – from a Redd Foxx comedy album to the Ohio Players to Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
When we were growing up, ice cream trucks jingled in the summertime. We girls jumped double-dutch rope – despite my occasional double-handed turns – on the sidewalks in front of our homes. We rode our 10-speed bikes to buy Jay’s Salt N Vinegar potato chips, Now and Laters candy and dill pickles at the nearby Amoco gas station. We rotated having crushes on David, who lived around the corner and rode his bike incessantly up and down the streets. Pajama parties meant Jason and Freddy horror flicks on loop. We avoided the loose Doberman pinschers that would escape the gate of that big blue mansion. We jumped through lawn sprinklers in our swimsuits in backyards while our parents barbecued. We played makeshift baseball in the alley with tennis racquets. We blew out candles on pound cakes at our birthday parties. We had the kind of dramatic childhood fights that resulted in the silent treatment or smack talking. Posters of Michael Jackson, bedecked in the yellow “Human Nature” sweater, decorated our bedroom walls. We walked the track and swung on swings at Nat “King” Cole Park, named after the Chicago-born crooner. The park’s basketball courts hosted some of the city’s best street players in the 1970s and 1980s. Former Illinois U.S. Senator Roland Burris lived around the corner from our house (in gospel powerhouse Mahalia Jackson’s former residence) and he exemplified the cliché “it takes a village” by cajoling my parents to let me attend his alma mater, Howard University.
In our backyard, before the term “organic” entered mainstream culinary lexicon, my dad harvested vegetables. On Saturday mornings, my younger brother, sister and I pulled weeds to clear the way for him to plant cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, collard greens, eggplant, tomatoes and radishes. Every year he gently reminded me that Chicago weather wouldn’t allow him to grow my favorites – watermelon and strawberries. My mother drove a red Camaro for the better part of the 1980s. Not fire-engine or candy-apple red. More like the color of smeared red lipstick.
It would be years before I realized that I grew up in kind of a cozy racial cocoon of black middle-class vivacity in a city otherwise torn by racial division.