Chapter Two: “Do I belong here?” A Glimpse of Two Communities

As an undergraduate at Northeastern Illinois University, I took an Urban Sociology course. One of the major projects was to visit a neighborhood we had chosen to research and write up a community area summary of that neighborhood using both our observations of the community and Census data. In preparing us to go out and collect field data, the professor instructed us, “When walking around the community and interacting with the people there, pay attention to your surroundings. What do you see? Who lives there? Ask yourself, “Do I belong here?””

A few days after arriving in Madison, I ventured out into my new neighborhood. I needed to furnish my apartment and buy toiletries. As I pushed a cart full of merchandise around the Super Walmart, every aisle was plastered with “Welcome Back Badgers” signs. University of Wisconsin-Madison paraphernalia dominated the aisles dedicated to school supplies. White families pushed carts filled with clothing and bedding up and down the walkways while excited teenagers chatted about the upcoming year. I found myself scanning the crowded store looking for other faces of color; Black and Brown people tossing UW-Madison merchandise into their carts.

I didn’t see them. Instead, I saw several Black women working cash registers, a middle-aged white woman pushing a broom, and later, a few Latinos bringing carts in from the lot. I parked my cart near the aisle for shower rods and curtains; it seemed to be the only aisle, at least at that moment, not crowded with people. I let the tears fall. What was I doing here? I don’t belong here.

I called Larry, a friend and fellow McNair cohort member. Larry, since finding out I was accepted into graduate school, had taken up the charge of helping me prepare for the transition. He helped teach me to drive and we talked often about our hopes for the future. Even though he saw graduate school as inevitable, he took a community-organizing job in Chicago shortly after we graduated. He joked that he would watch me go through it first. We communicated more after my arrival to Madison.

As I stood in Walmart bombarded by “Welcome Back Badgers” signs, and entire families (largely white, seemingly middle-class) shopping for their kids, I needed someone more than ever. But he didn’t answer. I left a message for him to call me as soon as he could. I stood there, in the aisle, for a few more minutes, pretending to look through shower curtains while trying to pull myself together.

(Journal entry from Aug 2013)

The Story of Two Communities

The university is a vital part of Madison. Indeed, to walk around the downtown area, you would think the town developed around the university, even for it; and it makes sense given that many people construct important parts of their lives around it — work, study, and recreation. Most housing rentals especially within 2–3 miles in any direction of downtown are occupied by people who have migrated from other parts of the state, other parts of the country, and even other parts of the world. They have come here in order to claim membership to this community. Cafes, restaurants, and other businesses — chains and small businesses alike, located in the downtown and east areas near the Isthmus cater to the influx of people who use them as spaces for study, work meetings, or quick places to grab a drink.

State Street, Madison, WI

On an average weekday during the academic semester, college kids on bikes and mopeds ride along side other motorists; others wait at designated stops for metro buses that will no doubt be packed to capacity, while others walk in clusters along side each other on the sidewalks and in the streets. The sounds of eager conversations, the hum of buses and service trucks fill the air setting a soundtrack to the chaos of masses of people navigating public spaces, bus drivers and passengers negotiate how to fit as many as possible on already overcrowded buses, and graduates and other university workers strategize about how to avoid the crowds of undergraduates as they make their way to their respective offices and classrooms. The students eventually make it to their destinations; graduates and other workers make it to their offices in the various buildings that align most main streets in the area.

The physical constructs of the buildings vary widely. Some buildings are newly built with the latest of technology and décor while others remain reminiscent of the time in which they were erected over half a century ago. Most of the contemporary buildings line the avenues of University, Park, and other main streets while many older, historic structures sit atop hills, set apart from busy streets, like monuments that speak to a legacy that holds each of us, its members, accountable to it. To be a member of a prestigious university is to commit to goals much larger than the ones we typically set for ourselves. The prestige of the university is like a living thing. Some of us wear the reputation of places this as a badge of honor, touting it out when making distinctions between our qualifications or loyalty to the community. Still for others, the prestige of this place, its historic structures, its legacy acts as a constant reminder of our conditional status even as we take on the roles of students and instructors.

In contrast to the university community, tucked away on the far Southside of Madison, another community sits about 3 miles away from the historic structures that sit on steep hills, the crowds of undergraduates, and busy coffee shops. This community’s members are largely working class and poor people of color with some middle-class white folks. There are no mopeds here; no preparation by community members to celebrate the next Badgers game, there is very little cycling. Instead, there is a memorial that sits on Badger Road just a few doors down from my apartment complex in remembrance of the 25 year old man who was murdered there just weeks earlier. The teddy bears and prayer candles, soggy from the previous evening’s rain, sit in front of a discreet liquor store.

Memorial site of 25-yr old Black man murdered in September of 2015. Picture taken by me on September 24, 2015

Adjacent from the apartment complex on next to the memorial site sat an open lot that used to be an abandoned car wash and beside it, a Burger King. Across from it sits a McDonalds and the South Transfer Point where on an average morning, Black and Hispanic (a few white) school aged kids congregate and talk excitedly, young to middle-aged adult men and women wait with backpacks, purses, and other daily necessities as they wait to board buses that will take them to their jobs and their schools. While a few of the people waiting at the South Transfer Point will head to UW’s campus, many of them will not. Many of the people who live in this community are not students, employees, or otherwise members of the institution that their home (the city of Madison) seems to thrive around.

Heading back to my apartment after a long day on campus, I drive slowly up Badger Road. I pullover and watch as a few people, Black men, leave items and congregate briefly at the memorial of the young man killed there weeks earlier. After they leave, I get out of my car, walk over and read the hand written letters left by the people who knew and loved him. “No one outside of this community has mentioned him,” I think silently. I walk back to my car and continue the short drive home.

Navigating Two Communities:

It is quite an experience venturing from my apartment on the south side of the city to my office on campus. Some mornings, I absolutely dread it. Not just because it is physically taxing but because I feel like a circus attraction roaming through this maze of people who stare at me, give me strange sometimes even disdaining looks, and yet move as if I am not there at all.

They see me but they don’t see me.

Here I am, a large Black woman. I take up space. I probably do not take up as much space as I think I do but I definitely take up space. I do my best not to apologize to the world for it day in and day out. The world, right now and every day that I make the trip to campus, to the grocery store, to wherever asks even demands an apology from me for being large. Yet, even while I feel like a spectacle, people here still manage to block my path as I walk, barrel toward me as if they don’t see me walking. I literally have had to jump out of their way. So, even while I command space with my size, I often am not seen. I am pushed, forced out of the way.

I am not a particularly religious person but I say a prayer every morning to make it to my office, without mishap. Then I sit at my desk and I both thank whomever it was I was praying to and curse them, as well. I think about the rest of the day. I think about the end of the day in particular and I am filled with both dread and excitement.

I get to leave …go to my apartment and find peace there for a while…but I have to maneuver through this maze in order to get to safety.

Then, the morning will come too soon. If I let the day’s events invade my thoughts or think about how I will need to do it all again tomorrow, I won’t sleep well. I have done that a lot. So that my apartment, the place I think of as a kind of refuge, in those moments, is not a refuge. During my first year, i had most of my anxiety attacks there… in my apartment on Badger Rd, miles away from a community that renders me both hyper-visible and invisible at once, yet steps away from a site marked by violence, loss, and love.