Last Saturday night, I was honored to be asked by Tammy Job to tell a story at Etown Live, the bimonthly show she created and produces and hosts at the American Legion Post 42. If you haven't checked out the show, you should!
I've been asked by some folks (i.e. Lonnie Wilson and others) to post my story, which I'm doing with great trepidation. I hope it's taken in the spirit in which I wrote it: my really personal journey.
I hope the amazing people I've met and mention in the story are okay with it. I wish I could list every single person who has made me question and learn and think and grow in Evanston over the past few years.
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during apartheid. We lived in Victory Park, a quiet, well-heeled suburb with green front yards, lazy blue swimming pools, and live-in Black maids who called our parents Madam and Master.
There were 22 million black people in South Africa. There were 6 million of us. Africans were ubiquitously and intimately a PART of my young life, and utterly APART from it. Though we saw them, they were also invisible.
On their knees they polished our floors. They polished our school shoes and placed them at the foot of our beds each morning. They made our breakfast and served us tea each afternoon. At the sound of the dinner bell, they’d arrive in our dining room and serve our supper. And with another tinkle, they’d clear the table, and disappear.
They were bound by strict laws. They required a “pass” signed by their employer if they were out on the streets. They were frequently picked up for various infractions by roving police vans we called Black Marias, which I’d see rolling by as I splashed in the pool. I felt sad for them, and guilty, but that was life. It’s all I knew and there was nothing I could do. I went back to my homework, played with my friends, had my tea.
Our maids knew our families and friends, our language and customs. They knew the insides of our closets, the corners of our couches, and the color of our underwear. Though we thought we loved them, we knew so little about them. We didn’t think to ask.
Our maid Franscina’s “room,” a no-frills, concrete square, was separated from our house (by law) by a small, concrete backyard. It was mysterious to us, and we’d shyly peek in: her bed on bricks to keep the tokeloshe away; the different smell of her soap and food, the cold stone floor with the hand-me-down carpet. As much time as she spent in OUR house, her room, for us, was a world away.
By law, a servant’s spouse, partner, or children could not live with them. Franscina left her children in her village a few hours away. Sometimes they’d visit her for a few days, crowding into her room to sleep. At Christmas, Franscina would go back home, to a place called Phokeng. To us, it could have been Pluto. What did her house look like? Who knew. We never asked. We never visited. It was not something to even consider.
The black township of Soweto lies just 20 miles from Johannesburg, but like Franscina’s room, and Phokeng, to me it was a faraway place, another dimension. All I knew was that it was poor. I read in our government-controlled newspaper that it was dangerous. Grumpy green buses crammed with workers from Soweto would unload in Johannesburg each day.
My parents had a painting I loved of a Soweto street scene by the African artist Ngatane hanging in our living room. All I knew of Soweto, I knew from the confines of my world, my house.
And then, around 1975 when I was about 11, somehow my class was taken on a field trip to Soweto to visit a school there! We went by bus. I remember being stunned at how quickly we arrived at the township border. How close it was.
I smushed my nose against the bus window as we bumped along, the Ngatane painting I loved passing before my eyes: paved roads edged with jagged corrugated-iron shacks; red-dirt roads lined with little brick houses; dusty boys chasing a tire. At the school, we were swarmed by excited students who grabbed our hands and pulled us in to play.
It was the first time I had seen Black South Africans where THEY lived (yes, were forced to live). And it was just one day. As the sun set, we boarded the bus and rode the million miles back home.
The Soweto riots happened just a year later, and helped speed up the end of apartheid. And two years after that, in 1978, age 14, my family emigrated to Chicago.
It’s 40 years later, and I’m 8,600 miles from Johannesburg. I’m on another bus, this time with Leadership Evanston. We’re learning about the history of Evanston. We’re driving through the streets of the fifth ward.
I’ve lived here for 20 years. My husband and I chose Evanston because it was DIVERSE. As self-satisfied as we are with our choice, we’ve only ever had white neighbors, lived on white blocks, shopped in white areas. “Black” Evanston is out of reach to me. I’ve never taken the time to consider why, in its diversity, this city is so segregated, how African Americans got here, or what redlining was.
The fifth ward is the historic heart of the Black community. If I’m honest, most of what I know about it is reports of arrests or gun violence I read in local papers. I know there are many low-income families living here. I’ve never shopped here or visited anyone here.
Church and Dodge, the center of the fifth ward, is a five-minute car ride from the shiny 6th ward. But it’s a world away. I stare out the window, remembering that other bus ride so long ago.
I learn that though I consider myself a well-meaning, nice person with decent social justice creds, I’ve never really lived in Evanston. I don’t know it at all. Its duality. Its disparity. I know so many people just like me. And suddenly I know for sure that this time, I’m getting off the bus and not getting back on it.
I’m determined to get uncomfortable. Get closer to a community I don’t know. Champion its businesses. Visit people's homes. Highlight its many strengths. Understand violence by talking to people who’ve experienced it. Tell their stories and change the narrative, and try to build a bridge between our separate realities.
I’ve known Lonnie Wilson for two years, though it seems like a lifetime. I met him at Curt’s Cafe one afternoon. Someone suggested I talk to him. So I nervously interviewed him about youth gun violence in the Black community for my brand new Facebook page, Dear Evanston. And somehow we became friends.
We’re an odd match. He’s 62, 6 foot 2, an ex-ETHS football player, recovering crack addict, former Gangster Disciple, outspoken, determined, lifelong Black Evanston activist. He has a booming baritone and a huge heart for humanity. He struggles to make ends meet. His passion for his people explodes from his fingers on his frequent Facebook posts or from his mouth at the meetings he makes sure to attend.
I come in at 5’1. I’m a wealthy, white, Jewish South African. My voice is softer than Lonnie’s, but I’m an activist of sorts, too--having unintentionally become one over the past two years. I use writing and organizing and hope as my tools.
Lonnie and I talk often. We’ve planned and attended events together, driven around Evanston together, and compared news and notes about our lives.
It often amazes me that few of the white people I know have heard of Lonnie Wilson. I have to remind myself how new our friendship is, how recently my old Evanston became unrecognizable to me as my eyes and ears and heart discovered his.
Sometimes Lonnie’s outspokenness and his anger--or simply the facts he forces me to face-- push me away and I have to root my feet to the ground to resist being blown flat onto my back or turning my heels and heading back to the comfort of home.
I don’t always agree with him or the ways he approaches things. And I’m sure my naiveté, my whiteness, my privilege, and my blinders frustrate him.
But he cheers me on--a white woman on a mission to reconcile my Evanston and his, my history and his, and to try my best to tell the stories I hear from the overlooked, extraordinary, and resilient Evanstonians whose voices are seldom heard.
There are so many other people who share this city with me--once strangers--who’ve told me their about their lives, their truths, their strengths and weaknesses, their anger. How this country and this small city’s history of racism and discrimination and prejudice have limited them and traumatized their families. Some have overcome the odds; others have succumbed. Each one has irrevocably changed me.
Tiff Rice, Dajae Coleman’s mom, channeled her devastating loss and started a foundation to help young people living in at-risk situations. I asked her, “Before Dajae was shot and killed, did you ever worry about this happening to him?”
“No,” she replied. “My kid wasn’t the kid to get shot. And not in Evanston. If I worried, it was more about whether, as an African American boy, he would have negative encounters with the police or with educators.”
There’s Joyce Hill, a forthright, smart, and funny woman whose son went to prison for shooting a friend in a fight. We talked about young men lost on both ends of a gun.
“Young men in Evanston carry guns because they feel powerless and vulnerable,” she told me.
Nathan Norman manages the City’s Youth and Young Adult Outreach department, which works to keep kids off the street.
He spent three years in prison for drug trafficking, found God, overcame untold obstacles, and turned his life around. “I was in a street gang from a young age. I was involved in violence,” he told me.
“My mom was on drugs and I had no sense of family and no stability or structure at home. I got my support and family from the streets and the gang structure.”
Bruce Allen King is a writer, a poet, a chef, and a recovering addict who had his first child at 14. He is brilliant and kind, open and honest.
I spent hours interviewing him and his dad about Evanston then and now--Bruce’s grandfather, at 20, fled to Evanston from South Carolina in the early 1900s to escape the threat of lynching after he refused to yield the sidewalk to a group of whites.
Melissa Blount is a fierce activist and artist. Cicely Wilson Fleming never minces words. Clarence and Wendy Weaver opened C&W, a snack shop and ice-cream parlor at the corner of Church and Dodge to invigorate the area. Tamara Stewart Hadaway started a one-room private school, Kingsway Preparatory School--the fifth ward’s only Black school--in a classroom at Family Focus Evanston. Shannon Sudduth and her company Noir d'Ebene Chocolat et Patisserie makes incredible chocolates and other goodies. Jennifer Eason opened Jennifer's Edibles, Inc and offers heaping servings of excellent food. And of course there's Susan Garcia Trieschmann and Rick Marsh who do amazing things for the young men at Curt's Cafe, and Patrick Keenan-Devlin at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, and Sheila Merry at Evanston Cradle to Career, and the folks at OPAL, and Evanston Collective.
There are just too many more to list (please see DE's list of organizations that work on race and equity).
Recently, in one of my frequent moments of doubt, I messaged Lonnie and asked him why he thinks Dear Evanston matters.
“It highlights the dark corners,” he wrote back, “Because the average media won’t talk to Bruce or myself, or Joyce--we remain faceless Black Evanston.”
DE’s sudden size and reach sometimes overwhelm me and I worry: who am I to tell the stories, and speak up on issues of inequity and racism? What do I know? AND WHAT IF I’M NOT DOING ENOUGH?
And the only way I can answer my own question is that DE is simply this: my personal journey I share with others: from darkness to light; blindness to sight.
A great South African band, Juluka, sings:
Spirit is the journey
Body is the bus
I am the driver
From dust to dust
Trying to be near you
Searching for a way
Listening to your life song
Before it fades away.
[AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Dear Evanston began as a group project through the Evanston Community Foundation's Leadership Evanston program. Our group chose to mount a two-month social media campaign to address youth gun violence in Evanston, and I continued and expanded the project from there. Working with my group, Juliet Bond, Mitchell Smith, Teeneka Jones-Gueye, Nicholas Gehl, and Amy Monday, and LE's guru Jennifer G. Moran was a true honor!]