“That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood,” the new president had said earlier at the inauguration to nearly two million people in Washington, DC. The economic crisis clawed at the nation’s confidence. The Great Recession loomed. It was Inauguration Day 2009 and we were in Iowa City. The race had started in Iowa the previous year with the primary caucus. Barack Obama secured a victory in that first, essential contest and many Iowans took pride in the part they had played to launch his pursuit of the presidency. It was late now and we were in the bar. Ethan and Jeffrey practiced lines for their play and I was closing down the back. I washed pint glasses and scrubbed surfaces, lifted stools and turned them upside down on top of the bar.
Ethan leaned into Jeffrey, who was much shorter, and said, “You almost there. Now say that shit like it’s natural.” Ethan was playing Miles Davis and Jeffrey was John Coltrane. The play was scheduled to open in a few days in a small black box theater on campus. We would all be there tucked into seats, watching our friends succeed. Jeffrey wasn’t even an actor. He was an undergraduate writer who read books and drank too much. Ethan had failed to find enough black actors in Iowa City to act in his play about the life of Miles Davis. When he was casting a couple of months earlier, he had come up to me in the bar, laughing, “Dre, we gotta find some niggas or this play gonna be some one-man show shit.”
Becca walked toward us from the front bar where it was still open and rowdy. She stumbled into us and wrapped her arms around Ethan and me. “My two favorite black people in Iowa City,” she said, looking up at us through her red bangs. Jeffrey swayed in the background, clenching his fists, looking down at his shoes—trying to hold on to his character.
“Fucked up, right?” I said. “It’s Inauguration Day and all of the black people are hanging out in the back of the bar.” We laughed and Becca walked past us into the back room. I fed the fish and turned off the lights. Up front, people were less noisy now. The bar had closed and it was the after-hours crew. I walked to the front, poured a beer, and took a seat on a stool. The warm lights behind the bar illuminated the bottles of whiskey, vodka, and gin. I knew I should head home and write but I decided to indulge the evening with old friends.
The ritual began with a neat shot of Tullamore D.E.W. Ethan spoke with reverence for August Wilson, his favorite playwright. He slapped his hand on the bar, his voice heavy with experience and hope and said, “Damn, we gotta get out there and make something good.” By there he meant the world.
I hugged him. He laughed and looked at the bartender and pointed for another round of whiskey. Ethan had grown up in Chicago. He wore that legacy proudly though he had left the city to go to college. He said it had been a necessary step—an escape. He loved his home: the Bears, the White Sox, and the South Side. And he also understood the value of leaving all of that behind. Chicago had borne out so many children stripped of possibility and privilege and Ethan honored the luck and determination that had helped him evade a less fortunate path.
My mother had also grown up in Chicago. Her mother had extradited them from Jim Crow Texas when she was eight years old in the early 1950s. Other members of their family had relocated to Chicago much earlier, part of a robust migration that witnessed the city’s black population increase from 40,000 in 1910 to almost 300,000 by 1940. Redlines had determined my family’s geographical fate. Through racially-motivated “covenant laws” Chicago had infamously constructed a “Black Belt” that limited its black population to specific neighborhoods. My mother lived in Bronzeville. Like Ethan, she loved Chicago and the rich spirit of her neighborhood despite the subtler racism of Northern segregation. And yet she would also escape in order to find her success. She would seek opportunity elsewhere, moving beyond the city’s imposed limitations for black people. She would move from one kind of isolation to another.
Ethan was relaxed now, sitting on a barstool, his head bent down to his whiskey glass. He smiled and said Jeffrey would pull it off. It would be one of Ethan’s last plays as a theater student at the University of Iowa. He didn’t even ask if I’d be there but rather which night. It was part of our code. Black artists supported other black artists. Perhaps such obligations existed everywhere else in the country, but it felt especially important there in the heart of a cold midwestern winter.
On the way home I passed a group of young drunks pushing each other around: a portrait of Iowa City, the college town. A black guy grimaced back at a large white kid. Another black kid held the white kid back and he was laughing. The white kid was bursting, “C’mon, let me just talk to your boy. We’ll settle this shit out.”
The black kid was still laughing, holding him back, “Naw, man, I think you better go home.”
I didn’t like this part of the walk, floating past the lowest common denominator bars, where boys brewed outside just past closing time. They had failed to find resolution in the grip of alcohol and now they wanted to fight.
Further down the road, away from the clamor of the bars and into the calm hum of residential living, I approached a boy and a girl, drunk and bumping into each other as they walked. They stopped abruptly on the sidewalk. The girl was apparently trying to remember exactly which house she lived in. I passed them, my shoulder sliding lightly across the boy’s jacket. “Oh pardon me,” he said, his voice aggravated and taunting.
“No worries,” I said and kept walking.
As I pulled further away, he called out, “Obama’s going to be a great president, right?”
I answered him but I didn’t turn around, “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
They kept talking, but now to themselves. “Are you a liberal?” the girl asked him, as if the answer to this question would determine whether they spent the night together.
“Ha,” he said. “I am so conservative.”
I could hear them walk up the stairs of her porch. She said something but I couldn’t make it out. I imagined uneasiness in the tone of her voice, a quick moment of hesitation before she committed to slipping out of her clothes and into his arms.
At home I sunk into the covers of my bed—my thoughts atmospheric from the drinks I had consumed in the last hours of the bar. My computer sat on a white, wooden desktop, static and cold. I thought of the book that lay within it—thousands of words and ideas that had yet to cohere into a vision that could be shared or considered by anyone else but me. It was wholly unclear how long the process would take. But for those last moments of the night I was at peace with the uncertainty. Soon, the president would be the only black man in the whitest house in America. The winter held steady outside, insistent in its rough grasp of the flat lands.
I was asked to be on a panel at a writers’ conference. They titled the panel something like “Writing the Midwest” and they wanted a short lecture about what it meant to be a midwestern writer. I had only moved to the Midwest to pursue an MFA. I had really wanted to go to New York but it was too expensive. So if getting the degree in the Midwest made me a midwestern writer, then okay, I could assume that role, but I felt a bit like an actor publicly presenting myself as such. I wondered, in earnest, what I would have to say about being a writer in the Midwest. I thought of race. Or, more accurately, I wondered if the people in the room watching our panel would be thinking of race, would want to hear something about race because that was a script with which we had all become familiar. Would I be expected to speak about what it meant to be a black writer in the Midwest? Whatever the expectation, I questioned if it would be clichéd to bring up the idea of myself as a black writer. Wouldn’t people look at me and see quite clearly that I was a black writer and, upon hearing that I was from Iowa City, wouldn’t they understand that I was also a black writer from Iowa City? Wasn’t that enough? Deeper inside, I knew it would be dishonest to ignore my skin, for it affects me wherever I go. If I didn’t bring it up at all they would say, “Does this man even know that he’s black? Is he so traumatized by the Midwest that he’s forgotten who he is?” There’s nothing worse than a room full of white people asking me to acknowledge my blackness. They are really just asking me to acknowledge their own expectations of my blackness—and in doing so they are very, very quietly calling me out—exposing me when I would rather just fit in.
Ethan and I called back and forth to each other on late drunken nights: Make your shit. We wrapped each other around the shoulders: You better get home and make your shit. And by shit we meant art. Better make your art. There was an implied nigga, hanging invisibly at the end of that phrase. You better make your art, nigga. There were so few of us out there that we felt a pressure to succeed, from our parents, from our friends back home, and from the deans’ offices that had lured us there with fellowships. But the story was not new: black artists in white spaces looking for recognition—alone and isolated, almost like expatriates. I have always felt like I am on the outside, even in crowded American cities like New York and San Francisco where cultures bleed over each other, where it’s no surprise to see groups of blacks, whites, Latinxs, Middle Easterners, Asians, gays, straights, and unknowns milling about the subway station maybe even talking to each other and holding hands.
When I lived in San Francisco in my twenties in the early 2000s, I felt especially alone pacing the streets of the Mission or climbing the avenues of Nob Hill where I frequented dive bars, drinking with strangers, erasing myself from expectations. I was a writer and a musician. I was a refugee from the East Coast where I had grown up and gone to college. The northeastern ritual had choked me and to loosen the bonds I had moved west to a foreign place, which promised some form of bohemian respite. I hung out with other musicians, writers, and artists. They were supposed to be elevated, enlightened creatures of an ever-impending urban renaissance, wielding their post-modern paint brushes, their lyric prose, their mutated guitars, and retro-futuristic fashion. But there is nothing like sitting in a room of well-educated and cultured white folk and hearing someone say the word nigger—not using it as an insult but bringing up the term, in some abstract capacity, to discuss it intellectually as if the contexts of theory and rhetoric take away the fatal edges of a hurtful word. What’s worse, the intentional racist or the unknowing one? Sitting there in that marvelously diverse city I was still a black man hovering around a large group of self-proclaimed outsiders. I was on the outside of the outside. I was freezing.
Despite its vast mix of people, San Francisco embraced segregation: stark separations across lines of money, skin, sexuality, and ethnicity. If you walked the streets intently you could see the cities within the cities: Asian American populations in Chinatown, Richmond, and the Sunset; Latinxs in the Mission and pockets further south; the destitute in the Tenderloin; the blacks in Bayview-Hunters Point; and the gay men in the Castro. Yet even these segregated districts experienced no safety from eventual conquest: The growth opportunities in the Mission glistened brightly in the eyes of urban prospectors. Buildings that couldn’t be easily vacated for new projects might mysteriously burn to the ground only to resurface as modern structures with affluent occupants more fitting for the neighborhood’s rising property values.
As a pioneering tram line stretched from the ballpark down 3rd Street, the previously unseemly Bayview-Hunters Point braced for the pending storms of annex and renewal. It had been a public housing development south of downtown in the 1920s and welcomed an influx of African American residents during and after World War II. For several years, it existed as an interracial community with a lively business district running along 3rd Street. After the war, the black population increased significantly as redlining and white residents’ reluctance to have black migration into other neighborhoods in San Francisco forced the home-seekers into the public housing developments in Bayview. In the 1950s urban renewal pushed black residents out of the Fillmore district, with many of them relocating to Bayview. By 1968, the neighborhood was 97 percent black.
I was black but, during my San Francisco years, I didn’t live in Bayview. My privilege—class and education—offered me passage to live among various stratifications of the white world: Twenty-First Century Passing. I moved first to the Haight, then Dolores Park, and finally, the Mission. Despite my artistic leanings, I always had a steady job and I had gone to the right schools. Even among the artists, such credentials were increasingly expected. San Francisco was always comfortable with its Pre-Approved Negroes, those who knew enough about the rules of the white system not only to navigate it, but to tread carefully enough not to disrupt it. The existence of such Pre-Approved Negroes justified the idea of the city being truly diverse in the minds of the liberal, entitled white people who inhabited it. And they sincerely cared about their Pre-Approved People of Color, Pre-Approved Children of Immigrants, and Pre-Approved Homosexuals. The existence of these different people completed a circle the well-educated, well-meaning white people had hoped to finish on their path toward a fully realized, self-sanctioned adulthood. Our very presence made them feel like the world was going to be okay after all.
A dear friend of mine pulled me aside after I announced my plans to leave San Francisco for Iowa City. “Be careful,” they said. They wanted to protect me from the engulfing whiteness of Iowa, a shroud that would surely overwhelm me. They told me a story about a black friend of theirs who had left California to take a professorship at the University of Iowa. The cultural solitude and discrimination had traumatized their friend, eventually leading to a departure from Iowa City. My friend implored me to make sure I knew what I was getting into before I left. In their heart, they believed they were only looking out for me. They couldn’t imagine me being comfortable outside of San Francisco’s protective borders.
I appreciated the warning, but I am always left to wonder why white people don’t understand that we are under emotional assault almost everywhere we go. The question our defensive systems ask is not always how much whiteness surrounds us but more often what kinds of whiteness surround us. To rephrase an earlier inquiry: What’s worse, the enthusiastic, purposeful racist or the one who thinks they are not even capable of being racist, the one who could never imagine stepping on your sensitive, colored toes and is indeed offended when you have suggested they have done so?
I was nine years old and traveling with my parents in Europe. We were in an airport in France. At a kiosk my mom told me to pick up a comic book, something to keep my attention while we waited for the next plane. I saw a Tintin book. It was in French. Even if I couldn’t read the words I could recognize the characters and piece together the story through pictures. My mother bought it without considering the content. It was Tintin, it was harmless. When I opened it up and began scanning the panels she looked over my shoulder and shuddered.
“Dammit,” she said. Her voice was sharp. “These white people.” I held the copy of Tintin au Congo, first published in 1931. Its images of the Congolese reflected fierce stereotypes of black Africans. The depictions fed into an iconography whose intent was to demean: A legacy of pitch-black natives running across the continent with ivory spheres for eyes and watermelon lips curved around teeth—white and crude like the broken keys of an old upright piano. My mom made me close the book and at first I thought she was going to throw it away. But then she told me to keep it. “I want you to remember this,” she said.
From Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now by Andre Perry, published by Two Dollar Radio.
Copyright © 2019 by Andre Perry.