Sharlene looked at me with her big, watery brown eyes. "No," she said emphatically, with a definite doleful tone in her voice. "I have never felt like I fit in here." Sharlene, who is 31 years old and has two children, is a black woman that falls into what Mary Patillo-McCoy calls the "black middle class." However, unlike the men, women, and children that Patillo-McCoy interviews for her book Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, Sharlene lives in a predominantly white neighborhood. Her neighbors are not all Anglo-Saxon or WASP; some of them are Hispanic-American and Asian as well. However, Sharlene is one of the few people in a two-block radius of African origin. Because of this, Sharlene feels completely disconnected from her community.
'I like the neighborhood," she says with an upbeat tone and gracious smile. "I liked it since my husband and I moved here ten years ago. But at the time we were more optimistic and idealistic. We thought that since we were college graduates with Masters Degrees that we'd fit in seamlessly. What with all the talk about racial equality, especially among upper socio-economic groups, that the people in the neighborhood would become our friends and we'd fit right in. I mean, it isn't our neighbors' fault. They're all nice, they're all fine. We all get along and we even socialize occasionally when there is a block party or when our kids hang out. But we all tend to keep to ourselves generally. And my husband and I also missed a sense of belonging and connectedness that we feel most strongly when we visit our relatives. Now, Bo's parents live in Liberty City," she said with a raised eyebrow.
Liberty City is a very poor, almost all African-American community about ten miles from where Sharlene lives. Almost a ninety-degree turn from the relative luxury of Anderson Avenue, where Sharlene and Bo's two-story, three bedroom home is located, Bo's parents live in near-squalor. They have no central air conditioning or heat, the home is run-down, and they hear gunshots almost daily. The cops circle overhead with helicopters at least once a week, and gangs rule the streets.
Sharlene continued her story. "They live in Liberty City, which as you know, is a far cry from here." I noticed Sharlene slipping into what Patillo-McCoy calls Black English, the specific, unique linguistic manifestation of the African-American community. Regardless of socio-economic class, Black English solidifies and identifies Black Americans. As such, Black English can be a positive force, although Patillo-McCoy deems Black English as often being a detriment, a symbol of segregation and a means by which whites can make blacks feel inferior.
Sharlene demonstrates dignity in her dialect, though. As she relays her tale of how her husband and she copes as blacks in an all-white neighborhood, Sharlene does speak in Black English but the level of her discourse remains solid, strong, and intellectual. Sharlene is a head city planner who earns over $50,000 per year. Her husband Bo is an architect with many awards and accolades; he pulls in six figures a year. The Graysons have no trouble making ends meet but they do feel distanced from their neighborhood and their community. The identity crisis that they occasionally experience affects their relationship with each other, with their neighbors, and with their family of origin.
Sharlene and Bo Grayson have detached themselves considerably from their current community. For child care, they rely on the services offered at Bo's firm, as well as on their parents. They visit Bo's parents once every few weeks in Liberty City. Sharlene feels that it is of the utmost importance to show her children where Bo came from, to introduce them to the realities of daily life outside the upper-middle class enclave they enjoy and taken for granted. Therefore, in many ways Bo and Sharlene feel more spiritually connected to Liberty City and other poor black neighborhoods than they do to Lofland Heights, the community in which they have lived for about a decade.
Sharlene tells me that her parents were and are slightly better off than Bo's. She grew up in a neighborhood very much like Groveland, the South Chicago district that Patillo-McCoy focuses on in her book Black Picket Fences. Like many of the people Patillo-McCoy interviews for her ethnography, Sharlene experienced the racial segregation, poverty, and "economic fragility" that characterize many American black lower middle-class communities (9). Although Sharlene did not experience the brunt of Jim Crow, she did realize that she was being perceived as different in her school. As an honor student she was usually the only African-American girl in her high school classes. Sharlene readily admits that she was admitted to Dartmouth because of affirmative action programs.
'I know I didn't have the total credentials they were looking for!" she laughs. "I had great grades, don't get me wrong. I even wrote for the yearbook and played sports and all that. But my test scores were really bad, compared to my classmates," Sharlene admits without embarrassment. "I am the first to admit that those things are biased, unfair, and need to be changed." Her tone grew solemn.
Sharlene's opinion of school standardized testing is echoed in all of my interview subjects. Like Sharlene Grayson, Hank tremble took advantage of affirmative action programs to enter an engineering internship program that was geared for underprivileged black students. Hank grew up in a neighborhood similar to Liberty City, a lower-class predominantly African-American community with high rates of crime and gang activity. Like many of his friends, Hank dealt drugs and did drugs; he witnessed some of the darker aspects of American urban life, far more so than Sharlene Grayson had. Just like many of the subjects in Patillo-McCoy's ethnography, Hank was exposed to many of the negative manifestations of poverty in black-American communities. Hank pulled himself up, partly due to hard work and partly due to what Hank calls a "miracle."
Like Lauren, who Patillo-McCoy interviews in Chapter Three, "Generations Through a Changing Economy," Hank had developed drug addictions and in general exhibited unhealthy behavior. Also like Lauren, Hank turned to religion and the Church for both solace and healing. Moreover, Hank's story falls neatly in line with Patillo-McCoy's assessment of communities with high levels of generational continuity. Hank's great-grandparents had lived in the home that his parents left him when they passed away two years ago, and therefore Hank completely embraces his neighborhood, his neighbors, his community at large.
'I know nothing else," said Hank. "I feel totally entrenched in this community. Many of my neighbors were my parent's friends. There is a woman down the block who knew my grandmother. I mean, these people knew Jim Crow. They knew separate drinking fountains, separate bathroom facilities, separate schools, separate everything. It was horrible for them. And yet, now it's not all that much different, you see! Now we have gangs and drugs and all sorts of crap, but we go to schools with a few white kids thrown in. Big deal! The problems we face as blacks, they're huge."
When I asked how Hank felt about his community, he continued in his affable manner. "I grew up with these people. These are my friends, like them or not. I can't leave them -- I wouldn't! I've seen them go to jail. I've seen their kids go to jail."
While on the subject of delinquency, Hank confides fully in me, acknowledging that he had done heavy amounts of crack cocaine and had spent time in a juvenile detention center for both drugs and for breaking and entering. Hank and his friends committed a wide range of crimes, although Hank insists he had never directly harmed another human being.
Like Lauren in Patillo-McCoy's account, Hank has since become an active member of his Church and participates in several community-based activities and organizations. A political activist, Hank also plans on running for city commissioner and eventually mayor. Hank feels he is uniquely situated to respond to the needs of his community, which while they change with successive generations and even within the same generation, remain reflective of several overall sociological trends.
For example, Hank inherited his home from two successive generations of Jamesons. Just as Patillo-McCoy points, out, it can be extremely difficult for people like Hank to overcome the barriers that were erected around his community decades, even over a century ago.
'When you grow up in a place like this," Hank explains, "It can seem almost impossible to get out. I mean, in most cases it really is impossible. Think about it," he says. "You have really bad schools, schools that have ten-year-old textbooks and no computers and no arts programs. Then you have these standardized tests that weed out the weed from the chaff, which really entails weeding out the white from the black in my opinion."
Hank pauses to shake his head severely and continues. "So let's say a kid like…