The pants are taking different direction this go round. I’m not going to blog about my kids or the stuff they do. I’m going to blog about myself and I’m going to be serious.
I generally hate when someone latches on to a hot news topic and writes a blog or article titled “I am (insert person or event). I hate them because they are usually full of shit and miss the point completely. However, after a pretty heated Twitter exchange that included the comedian Ava Vidal and another guy, I immediately felt I needed to write this.
It was about Rachel Jeantel, the close friend of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager murdered by George Zimmerman last year. I’m not going to go over the murder because unless you’ve been living on Mars or have no idea of current affairs, you’ve heard of this case.
Rachel Jeantel has been testifying about the last moments of her friend’s life. I can’t imagine what this girl has gone through; first hearing in real time her friend’s life being extinguished for no fucking reason at all, being called to testify about it and later facing ridicule for her weight, appearance, her alleged lack of intelligence (despite being fluent in 3 languages)and her demeanor. She’s committed the cardinal sins of being overweight, dark-skinned, and the worst crime of all, ghetto.
The word ghetto is what prompted me to write this post. You see, some well-meaning white person tried to tell me that ghetto was not code for black. “Anyone white or black can be ghetto,” he said. I suppose he had no fucking clue who he was tweeting to.
You see, I’m from the ghetto. I spent the early part of my life in the Woodlawn area of Chicago, before I moved to the Washington Park area. This area had been rough for a while– my grandmothers and great-aunts said it was called the “Bucket of Blood” in their youth. My area was your classic ghetto area; burned out abandoned buildings, vacant lots strewn with weeds, backyards were grass long stopped growing and zombiefied drugs addicts wandering around in search of crack and heroin. It seemed like a place where hope goes to die.
People find it hard to believe that I’m from the hood. Not you, some say, with your love of vintage dresses, your Cath Kidston addiction,your appreciation of Scandinavian pop music. You’re so well-spoken (vomit) and well-traveled–you couldn’t possibly be from the ghetto. You’ve actually done something with your life! You’re not like those ghetto girls.
I am exactly like one of those ghetto girls. I’m not ashamed of where I came from. I’m actually proud of it. Not in a “keeping it real, never forgetting where I came from” way, but just that I had a fucking great time growing up.
As much as people would like to think the ghetto is just like The Wire (and in some cases, watching that program was like watching a documentary), it wasn’t like that the majority of times. Our area was filled with good people. People that worked hard. People like my friend Monica’s mom who worked long hours and studied in the times she wasn’t working to get a college degree (she is a successful social worker now.) People like my parents (yes, there are two-parent families in the ghetto.) There were homes filled with aunties, cousins and grandmas that kept the families together and kids out of trouble.
It wasn’t an awful life growing up on 58th and King Drive. We lived across the street from a beautiful park, a couple of blocks from a communal swimming pool and a field house that had all sorts of activities laid on by the park district that cost nothing. When I was younger, I rode my bike and roller skated on the tennis courts that had no nets. My younger sister and I would make use of the many playgrounds that were housed in the park– the best being the adventure playground that was a bit further in the park than the others.
What I remember most about growing up are the seemingly endless summers. We’d be up at the first crack of light to eat breakfast and then tear off into the park for hours on end, if my parents didn’t have anything lined up for us. My sister and I would play for hours on end– sometimes taking sandwiches with us so our play would be undisturbed. If we were feeling truly adventurous, we’d keep walking east until we hit the lakefront, and then we’d play on the beach. We’d sometimes walk up to my dad’s job and visit him in his office. He’d buy us lunch at Morrie’s Deli and then we’d walk back home. It was pretty goddamned idyllic even though many people don’t associate idyllic with ghetto.
My teenage years, though fraught with the usual angst-ridden bullshit that affects teenagers of all socioeconomic backgrounds, wasn’t terrible either. The bike rides around the tennis courts were replaced with hanging out on the basketball court, watching cute boys that looked like Trayvon Martin practice their jump shots and silently hope that one of them would pay attention to us, though we’d die on the spot if one of them actually spoke to us. We sat on back porches talking shit. We sat on balconies and stoops talking shit. We sat in bedrooms, imagining what it would be like to be married to one of the singers from Bell, Biv, Devoe or later on, Jodeci. We made mix tapes of all of that seriously amazing early 90s R&B. We danced to house music, filled our school notebooks with song lyrics and worshiped Mary J Blige as our deity of ghetto girls everywhere. What wasn’t to love about 90s Mary J? She rocked that blonde weave, those combat boots and baseball jerseys. She looked like us. She sang songs that us 14 year-old girls found incredibly real. We loved TLC because these girls looked like the girls we hang out with.
We wore hair weaves and fake ponytails that we sprayed with glitter or colored electric blue or magenta. We wore airbrushed shirts with our names on them, OPP jackets and Cross Colours. We loved boys that wore Karl Kani and Jordans. We got our first kisses from gangly boys who gallantly turned their hats backwards so they could kiss us without obstruction.
We were aspirational. We would talk about making sure we got accepted into the same colleges after high school so we could always be together. We watched television shows like A Different World and Living Single and we wanted to be just like those smart, successful, stylish and funny black women we saw on those programs. We dreamed of moving out of our areas, becoming professionals and having all the trappings that a successful life has to offer. We never stopped dreaming. This is one of the reasons that I fucking hate “ghetto” being used as a pejorative. There is no ghetto mentality. It is a place where a lot of people are simply forced to live thanks to institutional and outright racism. It is a way of making sure black people know their place. I have heard of Beyonce, Kanye West and Barack Obama being called ghetto–three of the least ghetto people you can possibly imagine. If you call a white person “trailer trash” or “chav” (the UK equivalent) you are talking about a specific type of person. You can label someone ghetto just because they are black.
Some of us made our dreams a reality and some of us didn’t. The reasons for this are varied and complex and should be tackled by someone a whole lot smarter than I am. Rachel Jeantel is only 19 years old; barely a whisker on Father Time’s beard. She has so much time to do whatever she likes with her life that is is completely unfair to label her as a piece of trash as many have done. When I was 19, I was enrolled in city college and making steps toward a career in the industry where I currently work. I never thought for a moment that I would end up living in a prosperous UK suburb and deciding which part of France I’d like to visit for this year’s vacation. That dream is available and achievable for Rachel and every other ghetto girl out there.
To all the Rachel Jeantels, the Latanyas, Nikkis, Shakitas, Trinas, Carmalitas, and Tashas out there in the ghettos throughout America , don’t let people put you down by calling you that. Speak the way you speak because what you say is important and you deserve to be heard. You are nobody’s goddamned stereotype and fuck anyone, black or white, who tries to put you down. You are entitled to be treated like the beautiful, complex, thoughtful human beings that you are. You deserve to be teenage girls and not held to bullshit adult standards. You are products of your environments, as am I, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You may have to work extra hard to get them, but the rewards are there.
*An extra-special message for all of the black people making fun of her:Fuck you all the most. You should be thoroughly fucking ashamed of yourselves because let’s keep it real; a lot of y’all have cousins, aunties, grandmas, sisters and mamas that look and sound just like Rachel. Yeah, I said it.*