This past Monday I went to see Kelela perform live at a venue called 'The Promontory' in the Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago. If you’re unfamiliar with Chicago, Hyde Park is on the South Side of Chicago; famous for being Barack Obama’s old neighbourhood and also recently visited by Prince Harry as part of the Obama Foundation conference.
Chicago is one of (if not the most) the most segregated cities in America. Nope, it’s not some backwards small town in the South and nope, segregation is not legally implemented, it’s a social thing. This article from Politics & City Life speaks of the creation and foundation of Chicago. When people of different races and backgrounds migrated to the city, they didn’t invest in the local banks or buy from the communities already established there, instead they created their own banks and self-sufficient communities. Drive around Chicago with a local and they will tell you, ‘we’re in the Polish district now’ or ‘here’s the Jewish quarter’. As a visitor I was aware of it, but never more aware than when I’m in the South Side.
I’m staying in the North Side, in the Jewish quarter, so I’ve become used to seeing Kosher aisles in the supermarkets and the stillness of a Sabbath Saturday. So, when I venture to the South Side it’s common that I’ll pass many different neighbourhoods with many different peoples as I watched the skin tones darken and the weaves increase.
It’s bizarre for me to see such clear segregation. Maybe because I’ve always lived in predominantly white communities. Maybe because I’ve always lived in England where there is considerably much less space in which to segregate. Maybe because my mum made the purposeful decision to integrate us as much into the English community as possible to help alleviate the feeling of being a foreigner and help us succeed.
I don’t write this to make judgements, I write this because it fascinates me. My [white] best friend grew up in a borough of London where she was a minority at school. That’s fascinating to me.
I’ve always been used to standing out. I’ve become accepting, and somewhat nonplussed about attracting attention just by being. I’ve embraced the fact that I’m going to stand out regardless of how I dress or act, simply because I’m ‘foreign’ and so I’ve embraced my big hair, bold lipstick, and brightly coloured clothes.
Then I went to this Kelela concert in the South of Chicago and, for the first time in my life, I blended in.
As we queued up to check our coats, I turned to my [white] boyfriend and said, 'I should have dressed blacker.' Now you should know by now how I feel about assigning traits to a group of people who share nothing in common except skin colour (not good), but I stand by my comment. I'd gone to the gig straight from work so I was dressed fairly conservatively, wore no makeup, my hair was big because it's always big, but otherwise I was just another average Jane on the streets. I thought of my headwraps and lipsticks in all the colours of the rainbow sitting in drawers at home, of the Africa earrings my sister makes that I wear nonstop and hadn't gone out in that day, of the fact that there was not one iota of yellow on me, and I was severely disappointed in myself. My big hair wasn't even a fro but crochet braids. At least I'd chosen a curly hair texture. The realisation that I would have blended in at the peak of my obnoxious, in your face, style made me feel like I'd missed a big opportunity. This was my chance to dress outrageously black and I'd missed it.
I'm still learning and I'm still growing and I discovered this past Monday that black for me has always meant 'different'. I'm not for segregation, integration is what's going to help us get past our differences and prejudices, but when I think of my future children and the possibility that they might grow up to see black as different and never experience the ease of just fitting, it makes me sad.
On the flip side, Rogers Park neighbourhood in the North Side of Chicago is one of (if not the most) integrated neighbourhoods in America. In my nieces Kindergarten class there is no minority race because there's such a vast mix of races. I guess if everyone's different then nobody is?
I guess for all my bravado, and even after over a year of writing this blog, I'm still learning how to embrace being fully African and fully English and what this means in terms of style, dress and attitude. Add to that, being fully black, whatever that means.
I guess being a coconut is a lot more complicated than I thought.