Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Relationship with Rap Part Two: Leaving the Old Neighborhood

For those of us who grew up in poor neighborhoods who managed to leave, there is constant inner tension. First of all, there is the survivor guilt. Why are our old friends still poor? Why are they still boarding their windows after break-ins and learning which gang colors to avoid? The unfairness of life is thrust in our faces, especially if we didn't "earn" our way out, i.e. if our parents were the reason we were able to leave. (By the way, this is one reason why those who escaped homelessness often end up back on the streets. They are constantly thinking of their close friends still suffering hypothermia and are crippled by that knowledge).

Second, there is the nostalgia. The love of home is sometimes strongest for those who grew up in hard times. It goes beyond mere nostalgia though: the passion for home is defensive in nature. The more one's home is mocked or hated by others, the stronger one's passion grows for defending her honor. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion because they don't understand. Think of the classic examples: Sicily, North Ireland, China, Myanmar, Russia, Cuba, Brooklyn, Appalachia, the southside of Chicago. The deadliest example of course is Nazi Germany, but it appears in subtler forms in American ghettos. We would rather be feared than condescended to, because with fear comes power.

Third, there is the shame mingling with the love. In her brilliant memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette describes how she washed herself with snow before school to hide the fact that they lacked running water in the 70s. Underneath the bravado, there are parts of our old lives that we despise, that we never talk about with outsiders, that we wish we could erase. We tell lies about the past to disguise our self-hatred, to distance ourselves from the shame of growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because most of growing up poor is not cool, which is why it's so grating when middle class white kids try to be "gangsta."

In my own life, my parents had a stroke of luck which allowed us to move from the old neighborhood to a better part of town. Suddenly we had a two story house with a dishwasher, and I had my own bathroom. The ceiling didn't crack and shed; the kitchen didn't have mice behind the stove; I didn't have roaches crawling over my bed; the nighttime was dark and quiet. I was relieved by many of these changes, but I was also afraid. Change is scary, even good change. I couldn't sleep at night because I was used to noise. The streets were scary in a new way: there were no sidewalks, and these folks drove SUVs and huge pick-ups must faster than they should have. There were few pedestrians; the children played video games instead of street-ball.

I took walks every day because I believed in facing my fears, and the neighborhood seemed so empty - except for the speeding trucks of course. For one thing, I wasn't used to streets where everyone worked. Most of our neighbors either couldn't or wouldn't find work, and they sat on their porches getting drunk most days. These neighbors were busy even outside of work, and they had comfortable, air-conditioned homes to escape from the heat and mosquitos. The empty streets were lined with two-story houses, which seemed to tower over me. As I said in the previous post, we lived in a neighborhood with dumpy one-story houses, not the brownstones you would see in Brooklyn, and the "fancy" (to me, I was sheltered in that way) homes intimidated me. I was accustomed to tidy blocks with avenues and streets intersecting, and I was baffled by the rabbit warren of culdesacs and curling streets. They had almost identical names too, called drive or place instead of the more sensible street or avenue. Once I got so lost that I wandered for hours before finally making my way home.

These changes made me defensive of my home. Before I had avoided bringing friends home; now I bragged about my past. I was disgusted by the spoiled kids on my street, and I was eager to distinguish myself from those kids. I mocked my classmates that got new cars on their 16th birthdays, and I stopped trying to hide the fact that I still wore second hand clothes. Part of this defensive stance was delving into the music I had hated, but it was a long journey.

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