I feel that I have spent the majority of my life passing through only semi-aware of the color of my skin. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, south Maywood, and went to Proviso East High School where the halls were full of Black and Brown kids trying to figure out their next steps.
I remember hearing about friends of friends getting shot. Some gang-related, some police-related. I remember believing I wasn’t “that type” of Black person. I remember how worried my mother was anytime my brother didn’t come home. I remember when I helped her bail him out of jail with the money I saved working as a summer camp counselor at our local park district. I remember being told that I wasn’t “really” Black because of the music I listened to, the clothes I wore, or the guys I dated. I remember believing that was true.
I believed that if you wanted to succeed then you would. Simple. Get good grades in school, keep away from drugs, don’t have a kid before you’re ready. This was my mantra through high school and college. And if I did all these things, I would have a life worth living. When I would hear about younger kids getting shot, my mind was wired to think that they were somewhere they shouldn’t have been. I attributed the constant presence of police in our neighborhood to gangs and/or drugs, or living in a bad area. I remember being blind.
I moved out of Maywood and eventually settled in the relatively mixed community of Berwyn, just a few towns over. Occasionally, I still travel through Maywood, and almost 20 years later I notice that not much has changed. Many businesses such as daycares, restaurants, and stores have closed down. Maywood has no grocery store. It is a food desert. And the first question I ask myself is “Why?” The second question I ask is “Who is to blame?” And lastly I ask, “What is the solution?”
As if things weren’t bad enough for such a community, the coronavirus pandemic opened a can of worms that had been sitting on the shelf of this nation, stewing for centuries, waiting to explode. It showed that government mechanisms such as our welfare, Social Security, and health care systems, along with this nation’s ideologies on race, policing, housing, and education, are rife with a disparity that only supports the haves.
Meanwhile, the voices of the have-nots have been squelched to the point of docility and complacency for far too long. Many of us, myself included, now fully see how the slave revolts of the 1700-1800s, the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, and the marches of the ’90s did not solve the racial conflict that still exists in this 21st century.
The killing of George Floyd was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. It’s what made that can of stewing worms finally explode. And now, instead of trying to put those worms back in the can and placing it back on the shelf to ignore for another 50 or 100 years, we need to deal with them, and we need to deal with them together. We cannot stay blind and silent any longer, thinking that the socio-economic discord that exists in this nation doesn’t affect us because we go to the better school or live in the better neighborhood.
We are all part of this problem. We all have to be a part of the solution.
Of the questions I previously posed regarding my hometown of Maywood, the most important is “What is the solution?” I don’t have a concrete answer for that question, but one thing I do know is that the litany of Black men and women being killed by police officers; the billboard view of the systematic disenfranchisement and under-served black community; the national unrest due to our current president being devoid of leadership qualities, compassion and empathy for the citizens of this nation is starting to turn the tables of “common” thought.
I want to think that the people of south Maywood are realizing they do not have to stay complacent about the governing of their town. That they realize their voices can make a difference and they must step up to that challenge of doing so.
I am thinking differently and, of late, am not walking so discreetly through this veil of being “not that type of Black person.” I am every type of Black person because the systems that are in place in this nation can hold me back just like they can my neighbors in the town where I grew up.
My heart goes out to all the families who have suffered the loss of a loved one or friend due to police violence and this raging pandemic. My spirit goes out to all of those people protesting in the streets and making their voices heard. They are the next generation fighting for the continued rights and liberties of the many.
Some of them may have, like me, thought that they were not “that kind” of Black person too. No matter the circumstances we’ve been born into and the vicissitudes we have individually had to overcome, we deserve the equalities that will allow us to flourish as human beings. We deserve to have our voices heard and our stories told.
I hope that these words find you well and that you choose to never sit on the sidelines. That you continue to tell and share your story. But most importantly, that you continue to echo love.
Cheryl Lynn Tomblin is the board president of Echo Theater Collective, P.O. Box 1645 in Oak Park. This essay first ran in the Echo Theater Collective newsletter.