“So, Harlem?” a friend said to me recently, when we ran into one another near our sons’ Upper East Side high school. She was referring to my family’s recent move to St. Nicholas Avenue and 146th Street, officially Sugar Hill, a once wealthy African American enclave immortalized in Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and home to such Harlem Renaissance luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and W. E. B. Du Bois. “Good for you.”
I tried to parse the meaning of the compliment, which I knew, because I love this friend, was paved with the best intentions. Good for me because she knew we’d been hit hard by the recession, and we needed to move to a cheaper neighborhood, so we moved? Or good for me because we’d been squeezing three children into a two bedroom apartment and now, for significantly less rent every month, we have three bedrooms, an office, and a deck? Or good for me because I’m now a white denizen of a predominantly black neighborhood, and that, along with a black man in the White House, is a sign of progress?
“Thank you,” I said, with a slight interrogatory rise of my voice, giving her an opening, I hoped, for elaboration, but she’d already skipped ahead to helping me find geographically suited babysitters for my toddler. She had a niece who lived in the area, or at least close enough, or okay, so maybe it wasn’t exactly Harlem, but Columbia University was close, wasn’t it, or… Flustered, she turned to her friend. “You have a daughter who babysits, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” said this other woman, with a nervous laugh. “But I’m not sending her up there.”
For all of the post-election media chatter about our post-racial world–one of the underlying impetuses, if I’m being honest with myself, for our move–I wonder if my generation, which is more or less Obama’s generation, will ever be able to fully embrace colorblindness. I’m not talking about colorblindness that would simply eliminate racial profiling and compensatory beers in the Rose Garden. I’m talking about colorblindness on a fundamental, subconscious level.
I was born in 1966, smack dab between Selma and Dr. King’s assassination, and though I, unlike my parents’ generation, was given frequent history lessons about our country’s legacy of slavery and segregation, though I was eleven years old when “Roots” glued every family I knew to their television sets after dinner, I’m also old enough to remember when the first black family moved into our neighborhood. It wasn’t a scandal, as it would have been twenty years earlier, but it was definitely a novelty, and how you felt about that novelty said a lot about when you were born.
I was interested only in the number of ponytail holders required to hold my new neighbor’s hair in place. My father couldn’t stop talking about the black kid he once invited over to his house after school in Kansas City in the late 1940′s, only to be told by his mother, who in every other domain was as liberal as they come, that such a thing wasn’t done. It wasn’t that she was against it. It was that the neighbors would get upset.
Now, nearly four decades later, we’re the minority kids on the block, by no means the first white family to move to Harlem. but still novel enough to draw attention.
My youngest, Leo, is blond, and nearly every day since we’ve moved here, someone has made a comment about the color of his hair. “Hey, Brad Pitt!” I’ll hear. “Look at the hair on that kid.” Then there was the older African American woman who started crying, right in the middle of Bradhurst Avenue, watching three-year-old Leo skipping hand in hand down the sidewalk with a girl several shades darker than him. “Do you know who that person is on your t-shirt?” this woman asked him.
“Obama,” said Leo, with a duh undertone. We bought the t-shirt for him to wear on election night, but he’s since taken to wearing it the minute it exits the dryer.
“That’s right, President Obama,” said the woman, wiping a stray tear. “Look at the hair on that kid.” Now she turned her attention to my hair, which like the rest of my family’s is dark. “Where’d he get that hair?”
“I don’t know,” I said, holding myself back from responding with what I imagine to be the correct answer: The Cossacks who raped my ancestors. In the context of her emotions, it didn’t seem appropriate.
Then there’s the three-generation African American family who live in the connected brownstones next to ours, whose initial feelings about our arrival were harder to gauge. “Hi,” I said to the patriarch, Arthur, a retired City College professor, the day we moved in, extending my hand to shake his. “I’m your new neighbor.” The family has turned their three front yards into a single social space, and they were in the middle of hosting a large dinner there in the summer air.
Arthur’s expression was impossible to read: a definitive smile, but no, wait, what else was under there? “Don’t worry, I’ll get to you later,” he said, which I took to mean either its face-value version–I’m a little busy right now entertaining guests, but I’ll be sure to talk to you later–or something more portentous like, Look, we’ll discuss your invasion of this hallowed ground when I’m ready to address it. I had an irrational urge to shout out, “I’m a renter, not a gentrifier!”, but I realized this was a ridiculous statement.
I am a renter, yes, but as a white person in Harlem I am, a priori, diluting the character of a neighborhood that is synonymous, arguably more than any neighborhood in America, with black. And once Harlem is no longer black, what is it? To gentrify, in my Oxford English dictionary, is defined as “to renovate and improve (a house or district) so that it conforms to middle class taste.” But Sugar Hill has always been middle class. It’s just that it’s also always been a haven from people who look like me.
I met Arthur’s wife Mary later that night, when I accidentally placed my trash in her family’s spot on the curb. She corrected me without malice, but I couldn’t help feeling we were off to a lousy start.
Then, about a week after our move, Leo fell in love with Arthur and Mary’s granddaughter, Nyae. The two began meeting at the shared fence between our homes to giggle at absurdities and touch each others faces through the wrought iron slats, and then one Sunday afternoon it was Nyae’s third birthday party, with pink balloons everywhere, and Mary invited us to cross both fence and Rubicon and join in the fun. Which, after Leo’s nap, we did.
“Hey, Brad Pitt,” one of the women called out as we walked into the party, which was already in full swing by the time Leo woke up. “Check out the hair on that kid.” I looked around and noticed that ours were the only white faces in the crowd. Leo looked around and saw only a party. A really fun party with awesome rap music and a big pink cake. He started making faces in the mirror with Nyae, which caused both to fall into paroxysms of laughter, and it struck me in that moment that while it’s too late for my generation–we may, in fact, be entering a post-racial world, but we will never be fully colorblind–for kids like Leo and Nyae, the mere fact of being born into a “post-racial” world, coming of age in a racially mixed neighborhood with a black man as President, might actually render such a phrase both redundant and meaningless.
A few days after the party, we invited Nyae and her mother to play at our place, and a few days after that, having woken up earlier than usual, I happened to catch Arthur in the act of sweeping up, with his broom and a dustpan, some random bits of debris on the sidewalk in front of our house: a couple of cigarette butts, some fallen leaves, splintery shards of broken glass.
I smiled at him. He smiled back. Now whenever I’m the early bird doing the sweeping, I do my best to return the favor.
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