Today's Stamp: The Lunch (en)counter: Black History Month, Chicago IL, USA
Chicago, a place I called home for three and a half years. A place I loved yet left after encountering colder winters than I grew up with in the Delaware Valley .Chi* treated me well in those years, forging lifelong friendships and creating wonderful memories. Each time I go back I experience it differently. Though, I lived on the Northside all that time, I only spent one New Year’s Day in that town, so this year instead of heading to a warm destination, or staying on the East Coast* with family, I opted to spend it with chosen family in Chicagoland*.
I knew about special (spiritual) place on the North side, in Wilmette. A good friend once took me there, where I experienced an incredible positive shift in my life. That story will be shared in a post to follow which will go more in depth about the Baha’i House of Worship and the Baha’i Faith in general. For now, I’ll share with you a side of the third largest city in the States* I was surprised to discover, and touch base on something perhaps we can learn from and apply in our daily lives both at home and in our travels.
NOTE: As previously stated in earlier posts: none of my posts are lessons in history. I will include some references to articles pertaining to subject matter mentioned here, though I welcome you to do your own research, dig deeper learn more. These posts are an account of experiences, both mine and of those whom I meet. I encourage you You (the reader) to contribute to your own experience/s. I also invite you to contribute your experience/s and opinions in the comments section below each post. Some of your comments may vary widely and opinions differ greatly. Many of the experiences and opinions expressed in these accounts are quite personal, and do not claim to be the same opinions or experiences of ALL. The commentary here is about observation and aimed at igniting conversation, not closing it. I am not here to tell anyone how to feel, or how to react to one's own experience.
In 1999 in search of a future with bigger lights, and more opportunity I hit the road in my friends Mazda RX-7 changing gears with and 8 ball shifter while hauling a 5x8 trailer and 2 cats in tow. Windy City here we come. Some may ask, ‘why didn’t you just go 2-3 hours up the road to New York if you wanted ‘bright lights big city?’ Yes, NYC was only a day trip away but that was the problem. Sometimes to expand ones circle is to expand one’s mind.
Moving to Chicago wasn’t like moving to Indonesia, I mean Chi is still in the USA, same language and big city surroundings were not new to me. However, sometimes you can go just a few kilometers to expand a circle and be surprised at what you may find. At first I did not understand the differences of each neighborhood. I did understand cheap rent, by the water, nice roommates, easy parking, close to train, ‘yes, I’ll take it please’, so on the Northside I settled. Shortly after moving in, one person welcoming me to town said ‘well you KNOW people are going to assume you live on the South side right?’ Of course I had ZERO idea what he was referring to. He eagerly shared with me how segregated Chicago was at that time (1999), quickly told me ‘black folks live on the South side’. Mind you, HE was black, and live a few blocks from me. He was saying this to share with me ‘we’ generally didn’t live up there. OF course there were different people living everywhere it was 1999 not 1899, but yeah, it was kind of ‘separate’. Having previously lived in Louisiana & my father being from Mobile Alabama I was no stranger to segregated neighborhoods. The LAST place I thought would have this (in 1999) was the gateway to the West. The city of the great migration, the third most populated city in America. No way, surely we had moved passed this.
Listen, Chicago is AMAZING and in no way do I mean to portray it as Birmingham in 1950. EVERYONE was more than welcoming, people stop and say “Hi how are ya’ with that cute accent I was getting accustomed to. Streets were so clean seemed like you could eat off of them (compared to Philly & NYC at that time). People seemed to put family first rather than the almighty Benjamin (unlike $$$ worshipping New York City). This place was and is FABULOUS. With all that greatness, there still was one thing that could not go unnoticed, it was to my surprise very segregated.
This ‘surprise’ to me was not so much a surprise to find in the United States, it was a surprise for such a progressive major American metropolis. Most places in America are segregated to a certain degree some more than others. Even in New York, you will see streets full of buses with Hebrew lettering, Chinatown, little India, Caribbean section of Crown Heights, Dominican inwood,but at least then all ride the train together…or do they? On Saturday Night Live January 26, 2019 one of the skits was a music video showing cast member Leslie Jones rapping about living in the predominantly white (inhabited) Upper East Side neighborhood in Manhattan (NYC). The video is HILARIOUS, mostly because it’s so true. She says in one of the lines, ‘movin on up like the Jefferson’s show’. She references people thinking there are ‘no black folks’ up there then mentions there are: ‘nannies, nurses and the doorman who’s Jamaican’, of course all of those jobs being in servitude to (implied) mostly rich white people with perhaps a few rainbow sprinkles*. Watch the SNL video clip here, and just in case NBC changes the link, here it is on YouTube:
Fast forward 20 years after having moved there, I figured, well now things must have changed. When I lived there as a racially mixed person, it seemed like I really stood out. I’m saying I stood out to the point where at a party someone hollered out ‘Octoroon…. Hey octoroon’ and ran up to me giving me a hug because she herself was an ‘octoroon’*, a term which is actually derogatory, but amongst each other it seemed a kind of solidarity because we were so excited to see one another at the same party we jumped up and down (yes that actually happened and we are close friends to date).
In Chicago today it’s far more common to see mixed couples happily parading in the streets of any neighborhood. It is 2019 after all, and things have moved forward, yet complacency is dangerous. Just because things have moved ‘forward’ doesn’t mean we should overlook areas in how we can continue to move forward and come closer as humans (regardless of race, religion, political preference or what have you). We (as a nation let alone one city) still have a long way to go.
Circling back to where we began, it’s New Years, day on my 20th anniversary of having moved to Chicago, so I went back to bring in the new year in a special way honoring a city that helped create who I am today. I went back to this spiritual special place in the Northern suburbs to meditate on the good/bad and in-between of 2018, then start fresh & clean for 2019. In my walking around the Baha’i House of worship I came across so many wonderful individuals, of all different races, religions, cultures it was such a bright way to bring in the New Year. One of the people I came across was a gentleman by the name of Van Gilmer. Van is the music director at the Baha’i House of Worship. He was generous enough to sit with me for an interview about where he came from and how he came to Chicago and how he sees Chicago today.
Van Gilmer is from Greensboro, North Carolina. He was a senior in college at the time of the lunch counter sit ins. He shared with me that he grew up in the (legally) segregated South, never having interacted with any white people until after college when he went to work in DC. He share with me that while he was in college he heard about two schoolmates going down to sit at a segregating eating establishment to take a stand by sitting at the counter waiting to be served, of course knowing they wouldn’t be and understanding they were putting their safety at risk. So, Van along with others went down to that same lunch counter and thankfully many to follow to participate in ‘the sit ins’. These sit ins eventually led to the desegregation of that Woolworth’s food establishment, and continued onto more non-violent protests which without these actions I would not be sitting here writing to you today. Without the actions of brave folks taking a stand for basic human rights, my (mixed race) parents may never have married.
Further into my conversation with Van, he shared with me what it was like to come from such segregated surroundings, and how complacent many people accepting ‘it was just the way of things’. He expressed what I felt like to know his schoolmates were down there at the lunch counter, taking a stand, and that perhaps it is time to stop being complacent and do what we can to initiate much needed change. Fast forward back to the 2000’s, Van shared with me what it was like to move to Chicago, a home of the great migration. Chicago, a city where for many blacks at one time was somewhat of a promised land. He shared with me though that when he moved (to Chi) he moved to the North side, and as I mentioned earlier about the North side, he was amongst no blacks, or at least very few. Van shares an interesting observation that we as humans are truly by default products of our environment. I can go into detail about what he shared with me, but rather than butcher his experience with my writing, you can listen to his words for yourself and watch his interview here:
I believe we can get so caught up in our own bubble we can’t see things from the perspective of a different bubble, and just because it's different doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different. Perhaps is we begin to listen to each other, before coming to conclusions based on our preconceived notions we can begin to truly understand where each other are coming from, and with this we can continue to move forward in coming closer together rather than hiding away in each other’s perspective neighborhoods. This applies not only to race, but nationality, faith, gender political stance etc.
As previously mentioned, I will be going more in depth about the Baha’i house of worship and the beautiful Chicagoland itself but for now, (at the time of this post going live) at the start of Black History Month 2019, I would like to honor those who came before me and stood up for the equal treatment of all people, even at the risk of their own lives (or torment). Thankyou to all who have stood up before us that we may come closer together today. Thankyou to those standing up today, when it’s easy to be complacent in a post Obama country. Thank You to those continuing to take a stand for what’s (humanly) right so that we may move closer together for a better tomorrow.