It is perhaps 1970. I am playing peekaboo with a little girl with black pompon pigtails and very dark skin under the divide between our two mothers in the dressing room at JCPenney in downtown Benton Harbor. We giggle at each other. I think her smile is beautiful. I think we could be friends. My mother makes me stop, a harsh whisper between teeth. Perhaps hers does, too.
It is the early 80s. Our neighbors across the street are the one and only black family in our school. The girls from across the street only wear skirts to school. The boys play endless games of basketball. My brother plays with them once or twice but, as I remember it, only after we get a hoop installed on our side of the street. Their family goes to their church on Sundays. We go to ours, sometimes. Their father is a reverend. Mine is often irreverent, Monday through Sunday. One of the girls is in choir with me. I sing in my church. She surely sings in hers. We ride the same bus to school. Not once do she and I speak. Not once do we walk home together from the bus stop. We exist in parallels, with grass and gravel, pavement and wariness between.
I grew up and live still in St. Joseph, Michigan, the weirdly Pleasantville-esque white, affluent town featured in Alex Kotlowitz’s book, The Other Side of the River. The city across the river is Benton Harbor. Our towns are commonly referred to as the Twin Cities, but these twins couldn’t be more different.
It is 1999. My husband and I, with our oldest daughter, have moved home to Michigan from a southwest Chicago suburb where we lived for a couple of years, to open a restaurant in downtown Benton Harbor, and because living two states away from his daughter is untenable. Our old-fashioned diner-style counter hosts people of all kinds, sitting next to one another, enjoying the food my husband dreamed up from his days as a firefighter and paramedic, when he cooked in the firehouse. Together we manage to open, in a segregated community like ours, the rare kind of place where everyone feels comfortable. Three months after opening, however, I am running our restaurant by myself. My husband has taken a job with a two-hour daily commute that includes three to four nights of travel each week to other states. Weekdays in the restaurant are typically slow because there are few jobs in downtown Benton Harbor and, we soon realize, people from St. Joe don’t cross the river to eat breakfast and lunch.
I am managing employees of all kinds. I am welcoming customers of all kinds. I am deeply proud that, unlike when I was growing up, our tween and barely teen daughters are having weekly experiences with people of different cultures, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and different abilities, working together, sitting in a room enjoying food together. Our prep-cook is from Mexico. Our dishwasher is homeless with one arm that doesn’t quite work right. Our weekend hostess/busser has a brain injury. Our customers patrol streets, deal drugs, preach on Sundays, own factories, plumb toilets, and come in droves from Chicago to sail boats on our side of the lake on the weekends. Our oldest daughter is going with a boy with black skin from our neighborhood, two streets behind us, and we adore him.
We throw our daughters a birthday dance at the restaurant on a Friday night in late January. They share the same birthday, two years apart. I have handcrafted the invitations, writing on each one that the doors will be locked, and kids will not be allowed to leave unless someone comes inside to collect them. I add my phone number and my husband’s, with a note to parents to call with any concerns, whatsoever.
My stepdaughter is in sixth grade, my daughter is in eighth; the widest two-year disparity in girlhood. They fight over the music. The sixth grader wants Christian rock. The eighth grader wants rap. We settle on pop music and no profanity. We have installed a disco ball, pushed all the tables against the walls, purchased a Lakeshore cake for the sixth grader and a St. Joe cake for the eighth grader. At our restaurant in Tiger Country, the Bear kids decorate their side of the room with maize and blue streamers; the Lancer kids with red and white. Not one of the sixth-grade boys from Lakeshore shows up. Not one.
Robby, our daughter’s boyfriend, is the only African American kid in the room. The St. Joe boys, including Robby, are nice. They help pin up streamers and dance with the sixth-grade girls. We serve chicken fingers, French fries, potato skins, and endless spurts of self-serve soda leave the machine. Everyone who comes has a blast, including us. Everyone goes home safe, all of us oblivious at the time to how our restaurant in that neighborhood may have contributed to the complications of gentrification.
It is perhaps early summer of 2000, and the restaurant is absolutely swamped for lunch. The phone is ringing, people are waiting impatiently for tables, to check out, to pick up takeout orders. It is chaos, but thankfully my best, most seasoned waitress is on duty. A wisecracking, very sweary chain-smoker in our non-smoking restaurant, who looks as at home on the back of her boyfriend’s Harley as she does pouring coffee behind our lunch counter.
The building owner is a supportive, patient man, and on many days, he is also a customer. He likes the relative quiet of our restaurant during the week and seems to enjoy the chaos on the weekends. He does drive across the bridge from his business in St. Joe, quite regularly. This lunch rush he has been beyond patient. I am the only one allowed to cash people out. I keep trying to break away from the register and the phone and the waiting patrons, to give him back his credit card and have him sign the slip.
A young African American man is last in the checkout line. He is perhaps 17, quiet, polite, scrawny, tall, wearing pants two sizes too big. He is there to collect a takeout order. I race back to the kitchen to check on his order, and then rush back to apologize and tell him it’ll be a few more minutes. I notice that our landlord’s credit card is no longer sitting on top of his ticket where I knew I’d left it. I panic. I look behind me on the desk, next to the credit card machine, on the window ledge, I shuffle papers. It is nowhere to be found. I’m frantic. I look up at the young man, still standing there patiently, “Did you take the credit card that was sitting here?”
His jaw drops. “NO!” “Are you sure? It’s okay. I just need that credit card!” He backs away, shakes his head, pushes out the door. I follow him. We’re standing outside — a boy and a mom — and I actually ask him to empty his pockets. “Lady, I didn’t take no damn credit card!” He yanks open his car door and drops into his seat. It’s a nice car. A well cared-for vintage black Buick with a thin red pinstripe. He peels away from the curb, tires screeching.
I go back inside to tell the landlord that I lost his credit card. Only…he’s gone. His table is cleared. I go back behind the counter and I am confronted with the horrifying truth: that the credit card slip is yellow, a duplicate. That it has Jim’s familiar signature on it.
A couple of days or weeks later, we get an alarm call, rush to the restaurant, and find that a large rock has been thrown through one of our front windows. It is sitting there on the black and white floor, amid glittering shards. A sick feeling lands with a thud, and the question that has been pecking away at my heart and my stomach repeats itself: would I have even asked if the boy were white?
I’m not ready at the time to fully explore that question, but on the inside, I am devastated. Ashamed. I tell no one about my encounter with the young man. Not my husband, not the police. I make a joke of it. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was in his wrestling heyday, so I stick on a label that says, “The Rock. Wanted to know what was cookin’.” And it is displayed on the window ledge until we close in 2002, after 9/11.
I treated my employees well. I empowered them. We paid all of them a decent wage. I loved my customers and my employees, and they loved me. I thought I was doing enough. I’m a mom. I’m nice. AND I live at the nucleus of a moment that young man has probably never forgotten. I could be one of the stories he repeats about why he doesn’t trust or maybe even hates white people. He drove a nice car. He had money for food. I can see now that he was a hard-working kid. He didn’t hurt me or come back and rob me. He didn’t do anything worse — if it even was him — than throw a rock through our front window. Even though — and this is what has haunted me, what has informed my work all these many years since — when confronted with an opportunity to trust or to panic, even with everything I knew and everything I thought I believed to my core, I got sucked back into racial biases I’d witnessed since before I could talk, and I quite likely wounded that young man’s soul.
We weren’t having brave, informed conversations about race then, certainly not in Benton Harbor and St. Joe, not outside a very tight Race Relations Council, that I wasn’t yet aware of. But that’s the heartbreak of segregation. When we don’t get to know one another, when we don’t see and fully appreciate and celebrate one another as human beings, with lives and experiences that are vastly different and also the same; interesting and informative and ugly and beautiful and worth celebrating and hashing out and talking about with one another.
I am a storyteller. And even though I’m known as someone who talks about hard things, like rape and being suicidal as a young single mom, and the F-word — *feminism* — it was incredibly difficult to imagine telling this particular story. It occurs to me that someone reading this today — maybe someone I know and love and have worked with, maybe on Coming Home, Coming Together, maybe on Listen to Your Mother, at The OutCenter, at ALPACT — may have heard this story from the other side of the river that still divides us. That someone could even be the young man himself.
But what I need you all to know is that I kept The Rock. It moved with us twice across country in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket filled with other smaller rocks I’ve collected over the years. Rocks my husband dug from the earth when the US-31 Bypass was built, to gift me with a retaining wall in our landscaping when I was pregnant with our boy. Rocks our son plucked from the beaches in San Diego where we lived for a couple of years when he was in elementary school. Rocks collected from walks along the shores of my beloved Lake Michigan.
These rocks live at the bottom of my fountain in the summers. When the water is still and the sky is bright, when all I can really see is my own reflection on its surface, I know The Rock is there. The words from its label are long gone, but its message remains. And in big and small ways, every day I’m alive, The Rock and that young man, and the neighbors we never knew, and that little girl from the dressing room with the beautiful smile, all inform the work I’ve done since and the work I will continue to do as long as I’m breathing.
As I learned in the Community Grand Rounds Brave Spaces training I attended in October 2018, “In order to have successful gender equity, we must first solve racism.” And that is up to all of us. To try and keep trying, even when we don’t know how to begin, and even when we fail spectacularly.
There is so much value in working outside our own homogeneous communities. Because racism is the mountain between us, and successful communities. Between us, and successful schools. Between us, and mothers and their babies, particularly those of color, no longer dying in childbirth. Between us, and beautiful, proud, hardworking young black and brown men no longer being assumed guilty just because they are the ones standing there.
God-willing, my boys will graduate in 2021 as St. Joe Bears, from the same school my brother and I graduated from; the same school my daughters, and my parents graduated from. I understand generational pride in ones alma mater. The kids in Benton Harbor deserve the same excellence in their public school education my kids receive. And they also deserve to own their identity and feel that same pride in where they come from. The issue of whether or not to close Benton Harbor High School is about the soul of a community and it’s about the souls of these kids.
We have a rare opportunity, and I believe responsibility, to work to heal the harms that have been done in communities with predominantly Black schools, particularly in Michigan where a DeVos defunding agenda, privatization, schools of choice, and Proposal A have been devastating. We have this one chance in Michigan to innovate, with solutions like online curriculum and learning that can take place in the school the kids love, where they are loved, and in the school the community needs. We have this one chance to affect the national conversation around race from one of caution and avoidance, to one of courage and correction, as state representative and candidate for Michigan’s 6th district Jon Hoadley recommends. And above all, to one of empathy.
We must stand up and be brave and begin and begin again and keep talking with one another, hearing one another and believing one another when we tell you we are wounded. We must risk trusting one another and take steps together to work to stop the hemorrhage.
Excerpt from Kim Jorgensen Gane’s book-in-progress, Mother Activist: Raising Ourselves and the Men We Fall For.
© Copyright 2019, Kim Jorgensen Gane, all rights reserved.