She began her tour before I was born, when the block’s windows were adorned with flower boxes - when a westerly breeze might carry lilac into the city. These were also the years when the tension was obvious. The sprawling urban streets were plastered white, and the fear of new, black residents – climbing north for jobs – sent the neighborhood into a frenzy. Some crumpled, old men point to “era” as an excuse for their racism: “Our houses would be worth less if black families moved next door.” This is denoted with the same cavalier smirk as when they explain atom bomb survival techniques -- “We’d hide under our desks and cover our heads.”
The average house had two prices: three thousand for whites, four thousand for blacks. This was the result of deficient realty laws and racial zoning. It became advantageous, to the shoe-shined narcissist, to force white families out of the city – to the burbs – and replace them with the more profitable blacks. Movement is created by fear.
Some men who measured moral foresight in nickels tried to scare the white residents away. They created black ghosts. These spirits were released as rumor: “A negro family is moving into the Smith’s house.” As slander, “The nigger child is ripe with disease.” And as a beautiful, black woman in a red cardigan, “Just have her push a carriage through the streets. Don’t let her talk, just walk. They’ll assume. Hell, they’ll assume.”
My middle school clan used to hang out behind the boarded windows of an abandoned storefront. The building sold televisions - records prior to that - and before that, women’s shoes. The interior light bulbs were smashed, and the circuits mutilated, so we’d have to assemble during the day – when channels of light would sneak through cracked walls. Dust particles were heavy in the beams. Four others, and myself, all thirteen or nearly thirteen, would argue about the White Sox, punch one-another’s arms numb, and consider sex from afar. We were boisterous until three o’clock. The woman arrived at three. Her clicking heels would stop in front of the boarded windows. Her head turned toward the dilapidated storefront. With halted breath, we watched her through the porous timber. Johnny, who was slight yet brash, would whisper, “Damn she’s fine.” James, whose father was shot while holding a gram, concurred, “The things I’d do to that ghost.” Richard, tall and straight-jawed, promptly reminded us, “I heard she worked for them, and did a fucking good job. I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. She’s not real, you can’t touch her.” The woman would proceed to take off her right shoe. She then examined her calloused toes – fifty years on two-inch heels. She peered into the vacant glass, to the shoe store past. The woman will never afford comfortable shoes, but she will come again tomorrow.
She was, one might surmise, like thousands of others – ambitious, black, and berated by the south. She could legally vote, but large men who wore white hoods at night stood in the doors of the polling centers. She could legally buy a house, but it might be set aflame. She was taught with shoddy books, in a shoddy building, where she urinated in shoddy toilets -- “Don’t flush, the city hasn’t fixed the plumbing.” Her relentless spirit longed for freedom – to own a car - a home - herself. She scaled north on a bus, and was dropped into Chicago, where her cousin said the jobs were. The bigotry was not obvious. She could walk on white sidewalks, but discrimination bubbled discretely beneath. She pressed for a meaningful career, but was repeatedly turned down.
White men considered her ass, and then considered their net-worth. White women envied her rouge, and then solidified racist dogma. White children wanted to see the black baby, but they were packed into the Studebaker and shipped forty minutes west. Nobody sees the baby.
Her stiletto blades have worn grooves into the cement. She watched the neighborhood change hands, and kept walking. She watched her loved ones default on dirty loans, and kept walking. She watched houses crumble under racially burdened debts, and kept walking. She watched nature crawl through the cement cracks, then trampled the weeds in her path, and kept walking. She is the lasting moniker of our demise. But I’m used to her poodle skirt – this ghost in the daylight.
Written by: Dan Rousseau
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart