Home

“Perhaps home is not a place but an irrevocable condition.”

― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Home. When you say it, what images come to mind? Family? Neighborhood? Playing with your friends as a kid? How does the word make you feel? Content? Happy? Melancholy? Such a small word fills your heart with powerful emotions. Not only does it bring forth memories, but the reality of that place has implications throughout your lifetime.

I think about growing up in the Northside section of Richmond, Virginia. It was a beautiful part of the city with Four Square style houses from the early 1900’s, manicured lawns, mature trees, and sidewalks to play hopscotch on. I think of security and peacefulness.

Home
The author’s childhood home in Richmond, VA

As a kid, I didn’t know my parents had secured a part of the American Dream that wasn’t available to all. My family was among the first wave of African-American families to move into Northside in the early 1950’s. Because my parents were moving into a white neighborhood, they could qualify for a bank loan, from a white bank. That’s right. It wasn’t financial capability that made them able to secure a loan with good terms; it was timing.

I hadn’t heard of redlining until I was in college. As I recall, it was discussed briefly in an urban sociology class. Neither the professor nor I focused much on it. While the term wasn’t coined until the 1960’s, the reality of the federal government refusing to insure loans in undesirable areas—literally drawing a red line around neighborhoods on a map—began in the 1930’s with the Federal Housing Administration. It wasn’t until I heard a presentation by Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, that I understood. The federal government had intentionally suppressed the likelihood that African-Americans could purchase homes by designating all black neighborhoods as undesirable. By doing that, the federal government quietly and powerfully said it wouldn’t insure loans for home purchases in black communities.

Now that didn’t mean that black families couldn’t buy homes. In fact, somehow both sets of my grandparents had purchased homes. It was just more difficult, often with less than desirable loan arrangements.

In my grandparents’ day, I can only see three options: 1) pay cash—a choice that was very unlikely for most black people; 2) purchase from an owner by signing a contract, often with a white owner, for payments to be made over 20-30 years. While the length of the loan was not different from the length of a mortgage today, there was a significant risk and potential for swindling. For example, the contract could state that if one payment was late or if repairs were not made, the agreement was void; causing the buyer to lose all that had been paid; or, 3) secure a loan from a black-owned bank. The last option was viable, particularly in Richmond. My home city had several black-owned banks dating back to the late 1880’s, but their ability to lend and the conditions of the loans were typically somewhat less desirable than those offered by white-owned banks merely because they had fewer resources.

I suspect that my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandparents, secured a loan from St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the one founded by Maggie Walker, the first woman in the United States to charter a bank. She and my grandparents lived in the same neighborhood and knew each other. I can imagine my father listening, with pride, as my grandparents discussed the importance of saving at Miss Maggie’s Bank as it was called.

It was my father who taught me the value of owning property. He told me repeatedly that a homeowner could live in his/her home, rent it out in whole or in part, or use it as collateral for a loan when extra money was needed.  He understood that a home was far more than a place to live, a place to create memories. It was an investment.

Only in recent years have I come to know that where you live dictates much about the quality of your life. People in African-American neighborhoods have shorter lifespans than people in white neighborhoods. In the Greater Washington, DC area, where I live, that difference can be as much as eight years. Environmental toxins are more prevalent in communities of color. Educational funding, and the quality of education is driven, largely, by local property taxes based on home values. And, too many recent incidents have shown the difference in policing practices depending on where you live.

Today, as white people move into black communities it is disturbing, but perhaps not surprising that the term “gentrifying” is used. The “gentry”—the upper class—has come to the neighborhood and the community is seen to be on the rise. In my parent’s day, black people moving into a predominately white neighborhood was seen as signaling decline. Not much seems to have changed. The underlying narrative remains:  black is bad, white is good.

And still, for all of us, home is where the heart is.

 

 

 

 

 

When the subconscious is in control

Q: Who was the president of the Confederacy? A: Jefferson Davis.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I’ve known the answer to that question all of my life; so, on page 131 of my book, Daughters of the Dream, why did I reference Robert E. Lee as the president of the Confederacy and why wasn’t this error caught by the multiple readers who reviewed the book before publishing?

I think there is only one answer: Robert E. Lee looms larger than life in most conversations about the Confederacy. It wasn’t until writing Daughters of the Dream that I knew there was a statue to Jefferson Davis on the venerable boulevard in my hometown that features effigies of Confederate notables (along with one statue to Richmond native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe). I did, however, know about the 60-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. For whatever reason, Jefferson Davis seems to have taken a back seat, at least in Richmond, to Robert E. Lee. Even one of the local high schools is named Lee-Davis High, not Davis-Lee.

conscious.subconsciousWhy am I bringing this up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to erase/correct the negative images about black people that have proliferated in our country for so long. I incorrectly wrote that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy because that false reality rang truer in my subconscious than the truth. And his role—Lee’s—as the dominant figure in the Confederacy mythos and pantheon, seems to have also permeated the psyche of many readers who did not catch the mistake.

I think the same thing has happened to many white people in America. The traits they associate the most with black people are negative. This rings in their subconscious. They hear about the number of black people committing crimes and who are incarcerated. They hear about the inability of black children to learn or for black boys to attend to their school work. They hear about, or see, the distressed nature of some black neighborhoods. They hear about the high black unemployment rate. The list goes on and on. Criminal, ignorant, unstable families are the media messages, the tropes that populate minds—often crowding out reason—with words and images. They give people the shorthand ability to make quick decisions. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in his book Blink, quick decisions are not uninformed decisions. They may occur in the blink of an eye, but information is being processed and acted upon that has been accumulated over a lifetime and fed by the experiences and perceptions of parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers.

Against the negative imagery defining black people, there is often little real-life experience to provide balance and truth. In predominantly white communities, there may be few black teachers, lawyers, doctors, store managers to offer a counterweight against the negative images, no interaction in the homes and communities of the ‘other.’ And when you are the majority population, there is little reason to question your reality. It just is. There is little delving into the structural racism and implicit bias that shape reality. No one is being prompted to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law to learn of the federal government’s overt role in ensuring residential segregation and then questioning how residential segregation has led to differential policing in certain neighborhoods, differential public services like street cleaning, differential educational opportunities. No one is reviewing studies, like the one that shows when teachers are asked to watch a group of children in a classroom and then note which children are acting out, the answer is the black boy even when an impartial observer notes no distinction in the behaviors of the gender and racially diverse group.

Robert E. Lee rose higher in my consciousness when I thought about the Confederacy than did Jefferson Davis because images and messages had accumulated in my mind over a lifetime that positioned Lee in closer proximity to my sense of the Confederacy than Davis. I think many people experience this same effect. And perception, not facts, rule. I had been taught that Davis was president, not Lee. In the recesses of my mind, I knew this, and the error has been corrected in Daughters of the Dream, but what happens when there is no one teaching about black people as contributors to society on all levels and no one is pushing you to think a lot of what you ‘know’ about black people may be stereotypes. How do we address these culpabilities and overcome the ‘blink’ syndrome of implicit biases? We have to bombard the media with cell phone videos that show common prejudicial behaviors. We have to elevate the stories of the black doctors, scientists and those of ordinary people doing the right thing. Just as a reader told me of the mistake in Daughters of the Dream, we must all point out the faults in people’s thinking and work toward that dream of a racially just America.

P.S. — During this holiday season, I hope you will — consciously — consider purchasing my book Daughters of the Dream for the friends and family on your gift list.