Growing up during the Civil Rights era, I can vividly recall watching national news at night with images plastered all over the screen of sit-ins and police with fire hoses aimed at Black folks while their German Shepherds barked furiously. My mother, a lifelong member and activist with the NAACP, would take us to conferences. I remember going to hear Louis Farrakhan who spoke about strategies used by “the man” to destroy Black men. (Seeing the fall of Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, and so many of our previously highly revered heroes, I think Farrakhan was spot on.)
I can even remember learning back then, the year that Hispanic people would surpass Black people as the largest U.S. minority. I watched Ruby Bridges on the national news walking into school in New Orleans, the first Black student to desegregate a school in Louisiana. I watched the Little Rock Nine head into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. If I’m being honest about it, I became rather numb to all those images—my people getting hosed, being spit at, having dogs—ferocious and foaming at the mouth—sicked on them. Young people look at these old black-and-white documentaries with sadness and fury, but this was our daily life. We saw it every single day on the news.
There was a weird dichotomy of being Black [on the block] back then. There was both the numbness to our people’s overall situation (and maybe it wasn’t even numbness, but a lack of awareness of some things because I was a child) and the joy we still found in daily life. Playing with my friends when I got home from school; eating dinner prepared by my mother, seated at the table with her and my sister; going to church on Sundays with my grandfather and listening to his endless lectures about life and what we needed to do to be able to take care of ourselves as young women. The balm of my family, our neighbors, and the community, softened the realities of our experiences as a people.
I lived in an all-Black neighborhood, went to an all-Black church, and because of the structure of Catholic school (run by nuns) thankfully there was no room for overt racism. I don’t know if I didn’t get invited to parties and outings because I was Black, but I assume so. Then, I attended the University of Illinois where Black students were less than 10 percent of the student body. My first roommate freshman year was from Washington, Illinois. When I went home with her one weekend people stared at me everywhere we went. I remember her church being almost unbearable.
While I was at the university, they introduced the “500 Program”, in which they recruited 500 Black/African American students. Up until then there were fewer than 300 of us out of the 27,000 students enrolled. We knew our routes to class and which days we might see another Black person on campus. With the addition of 500 minority students, the university attempted to comply with demands of the Black Student Union. They made tiny changes—having ethnic food like collard greens in the dorm cafeteria and adding relevant courses to the curriculum.
As an upperclassman, I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and lived in Gamma House. It was a wonderful experience. Gamma house had been founded as a result of Black girls not being permitted to live in university housing. The Alphas, Kappas, and Omegas also had houses. Our Greek houses were not only our sanctuaries but the hub of our social lives.
After college I moved to Detroit, which was a whole new wonderful world. The city thrived with dynamic Blackness. After living in small-town Illinois, Detroit was a little bit of heaven. There were not only multiple Black radio stations and a television station, but jaw-dropping neighborhoods, fabulous nightclubs, Motown, and more Black businesses than one ever could have imagined. Black wealth was evident. This period of my life is marked by the beauty of the afro, women’s rights, my first job where women were permitted to wear slacks, going to nightclubs on the weekends, and sitting at red lights in the summertime with windows down and Al Green blasting from everyone’s radios all at the same time. It was magical.
I’ve been Black on the block in many different places in my life, from my childhood neighborhood to the lively streets of Detroit in my early 20s. Each experience was so different, and yet the pulse that our people and our culture put onto a place created experiences that I will never forget.
How has living during your particular era impacted your Black experience?Leave a Comment