“Does your grandmother still live there?” eager learners ask me as I unfold a personal family story related to the history of American housing discrimination and redlining. In short, from 1933 to 1968, while increasing America’s housing stock, local, state, and federal housing policies mandated racial segregation. The government’s efforts were designed to provide white, middle- and lower-class families home ownership in new suburban communities, while African-Americans and other people of color were pushed to rent in urban housing projects.
In response to learning this “forgotten” history, students are given the opportunity to pause and reflect on how this type of geographical sorting has shaped their family’s stories. To model this reflective process, I pull back the curtain on my grandmother’s house where she remained after my grandfather died in 1987. I allow learners to take a peak. I display a picture of the modest, shack-ish house, flanked by a tiny yard in the front and Interstate 40 in the rear. I display the numbers, 59, 18, 10, and guide learners on a journey connecting history to the present.
59. Even though my grandfather served in the Korean War, African-American soldiers were not given access to the GI Bill that helped white veterans buy homes. My grandparents began renting this house in 1959.
18. The house is currently worth around $18,000.
10. In rent, over the years, my grandmother could have bought the house ten times!
Students gasp, and always, someone squeaks out, “Does your grandmother still live there?” Implied in the question is, “Why does she still live there?” I feel obligated to justify her choice to maintain secured within her community, cocooned by family, friends, and our church within walking distance from her front door. She did not own a car, had no need for one, and did not know how to drive.
But while my mind focuses to encapsulate the forced limitations of a rental property in an economically poor, black neighborhood, my heart celebrates the wealth overflowing from my grandparents’ presence and love in my life.
I am honored to be the first of their grandchildren. They were my daycare while my parents worked. I remember roaming and exploring endlessly through what I now know were narrow, cramped rooms connected only by door frames. There was no extra square footage for a hallway. Somehow, as children do, my youngest uncle (only a few years older) and I would sprawl out on the floor to engage in coloring oversized coloring books. At will, I pushed all the buttons on the 8-track player — stop, play, stop, play, repeat — and made the volume rise and fall to each extreme. I must have been the most annoying DJ.
Reminiscing, I hear my grandfather’s voice echoing, “Stand back,” while he chucked wood into the warm morning stove. I hoped to get close enough to share his view of the flames rising and jumping up from the stove’s open eye. In this case, curiosity did not kill the cat. I am told that I touched the stove once, and that day it was curiosity that died.
While describing to my students how the one bathroom, formally an outhouse, had been installed on the back porch, adjacent to the kitchen cabinets, I see my grandmother sitting in a kitchen chair carefully and skillfully guiding laundry through the washer ringer, maneuvering bedding through that primitive washing machine that invaded and overtook the entire kitchen.
As I disclose how walls, highways, and interstates strategically carve through low-income neighborhoods, I refer back to the picture showing a clearly visible wall behind my grandmother’s house where a vegetable garden and fruit trees used to be. The joy of biting into a raw radish returns to my taste buds. My uncle and I were both horrified and tickled when we discovered a worm hole after we took big bites from the apple that used to be its home and food source. To this day, I wonder if I unknowingly ate the worm.
Recently, my grandmother, severely weakened by Parkinson’s disease, had been spending less time in her home and more time in the care and homes of her adult children. She was cared for like a queen. At times, I wondered if she was relieved and elated to be outside of the cramped spaces of her shack-ish house and walled-off community. On January 3 of this year, my grandmother requested to spend the night in her own bed, in the house she had called home since 1959. Two of her children assisted her with her nightly routine. My dad, her oldest, stopped by on his way home from a prayer meeting to kiss her goodnight. Comfortably and peacefully, she drifted off to sleep and into eternal rest.
For the first time in my whole life, my grandmother does not live in that house.
My grandparents were not able to give their children an inheritance, but they were able to leave a legacy of love. Their love continues to nourish me, and I am honored to have been loved by them.
Your circumstances may not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but your life has the substance of a true love story.
What love stories do you carry in your own family?
Your circumstances may not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but your life has the substance of a true love story. -@brownicity: Click To Tweet