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Of Joy and Visibility

4 years ago

1523 words

Photo Credit: HBO. The Wire was produced and filmed in Baltimore. This is a real street in that city somewhere.

What a weekend. I am so full of joy! Yet there are things that pull at my today, so I’m writing with a bit of reflection.

Let’s start with context: My uncle and his wonderful partner, who have been together for some 30 years, were legally married on Saturday thanks to the great state of Maryland giving equal marriage rights to its citizens and the Supreme Court dismantling Federal law that discriminated against same-sex couples. I’ve never met more loving people, and as I’ve expressed before, I don’t know anyone in the family who love my sons more than they do.  This was a long time coming, and though the wedding was planned at the last minute (Literally 7 days from planning to execution) it was well timed and well worth the energy. This weekend was also an opportunity to say goodbye to my sister, who is moving to Austin, Texas with her wonderful boyfriend in pursuit of a career in art and graphic design. They are both incredibly talented young artists, graduates of a fantastic art school, but they have been struggling to find work in Baltimore’s market. It is time to move on to greener pastures, and Austin is the perfect little place for two talented 25-year-olds in love.

So there was a fully romantic theme for the weekend intertwined with acute joy. I was happy to be a part of it, even if I’d only gotten 3 hours of sleep on Friday night.

Going home to Maryland always feels good. I don’t consider Baltimore to be my “hometown”–DC is the city that I identify with. But Baltimore has always been a playground–I spent many a summer day in Camden Yards***, and spent much time at the Inner Harbor for various affairs. Of course, I went to college at the very edge of the city (our address was Baltimore, but we were really in Arbutus) and so I spent very important years of my life hopping from this place to that place within city limits. There is also that wonderful gem, the Lexington Market, where I spent many a Christmas season with my parents purchasing pig-feet, chittlins and the must beautiful collard greens around. The fried chicken is pretty good from there but the crab cakes from Faidley’s are to die for.

Outside of the memories, Maryland culture always makes me happy. I’m not invisible when I’m in Baltimore–I walk with more confidence, I smile more. Men address me and open doors for me. There is nothing like being a Black woman in Baltimore. While sometimes the behavior can be harmlessly untoward at the least, lecherous at the worst, for the most part it is simply a genteel mannerism that I miss. As soon as I received my first “good morning, ma’am” when I got off the airplane, I knew that it was going to be a good day. I don’t think I touched a door the entirety of the 24 hours I was down there. And the food. My Lord, the food. I will never forget the crab cakes eggs benedict that I ate on Saturday morning. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve had one. Stop what you’re doing, go to Baltimore, and get you some of this right here!!

Being with family always fills the soul so encouraging my sister and celebrating my uncles was wonderful. The ceremony was short, but beautiful. The joy seemed to fill the house to bursting. The food was lovely but the company was better. I was so filled with joy that I was even able to suffer my loud mouthed cousin without too much exertion! Being able to embrace my grandmother and give her a big hug and kiss also filled me up.

But in the background of all of it, I was constantly reminded of just how privileged we are. Baltimore is a city filled with poverty. The poor and working poor of Baltimore live in deplorable conditions, and while there have been great lengths taken in order to keep the realities of poverty away from the tourist areas, it seems to spill out into every corner of the city. We cannot deny the lives of the people in that city. We cannot deny that behind the smiling faces of the many men and women in service positions who I encountered during my visit there are narratives that include struggle. Maybe not all of them, but some of them.

We drove through some neighborhoods in Baltimore that looked straight out of The Wire. While I know that the entirety of that city is not like that television show, I was reminded that parts of that city do look that way and they are not a joke. It made me think about power and history and institutionalized racism and classism. It made me think of the children I taught when I was student teaching and made me wonder about the children who grow up on those streets. It made me wonder about what I would do if I was forced to raise my boys under those circumstances. Could I survive? I don’t know.

It wasn’t the neighborhoods that got to me. It was the prostitute who we saw on the way to the airport. My parents picked me up from my over-priced and overrated hotel at 4:30 in the morning, and as we were pulling away, she walked in front of our car. We stopped so that she could walk on by, but she screamed angrily for us to pass. I got a good look at her. There is no way to know how old she is exactly, but she couldn’t be that much older than I am.

I couldn’t get her off of my mind for the rest of the day. I thought about my two sleepless nights in warm beds that were safe and accommodating and contrasted that with mean streets, high heels, and lonely places with paying Johns. I thought about her invisibility to the world, how I go through my days without a thought to poverty and its consequences until it comes up to me, screaming at me. Poverty isn’t always the homeless man on the corner who we walk by with a frown. Poverty is a young woman selling her body. Poverty is rows and rows of boarded up buildings, holding secrets and tragedies and slowly fading hope. Poverty is the few men and women who are able to get the service jobs but must make their way back to unsafe places to try to make ends meet. Poverty is walking next to you, talking to you, bringing you meals and goods, smiling and greeting you, happy to serve you. Poverty is the most visible invisibility there is.

I think what is most jarring about all of this is my lack of options. I have nothing but compassion, but no means of making change at this point. While I have certainly dedicated my intelligence and passion to teaching for justice and teaching to fight generational and cyclical poverty, I’m now sitting here a pampered housewife. I’m not doing anything to stop poverty. I’m not doing anything to preventing another young woman from having to make a desperate choice. I understand that I cannot move all mountains, but poverty was a mountain that I wanted to be part of moving. It is a hurtful thought to know that while I’m languishing as a desperate housewife in a pretty Boston suburb, there are people in my home state who suffer.

I am mindful that there are some small things that I can do, and I’ve already spoken with my husband about reconsidering our charitable giving at the end of the year. As I research charities, I may share a few toward the end of the year for your consideration.

I wish I could focus more on the needs of my home state, but I have two toddlers to move to a new place and a house to buy. My husband and I are putting in a bid for the house this week. I’m looking forward to negotiating a reasonable price and doing what needs to be done to get in before winter.  I also have to begin preparations for running our playgroup again in September. Can you believe it? Summer is almost over. Here and gone in the blink of an eye.

Be mindful of your neighbors. We’re all part of a larger community. Seek the invisible and illuminate them if you can. Acknowledge them, at least, if you can do nothing else.

***(and by the by, yes, I’m am quite pissed off at David Ortiz, seeing as I have to hear about how freaking precious Fenway is every day. I think I hate the Sox more than I hate the Yankees now, and that’s really really saying something. If someone came into Fenway and started smashing up stuff, this city would explode in self-righteous outrage. Football is my sport of choice, but Camden Yards is close to my heart. Such disrespect is intolerable.)

3 Replies to “Of Joy and Visibility”

  1. I get so angry when I consider the wider issues of deprivation and look at the waste and self serving foolishness of government policy, pandering to a public that seems to have swallowed the propaganda and turned away. I put my efforts into raising my kids to understand cause and effect and to question everything. Perhaps I am being too defeatist delegating responsibility for change to the next generation who will suffer the most from the short termism of our current administration. It can be hard to know what one person can do for the best.

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m not so sure if blaming government (current or otherwise) is the way that we break through barriers. While I commend your efforts to teach your children compassion (and I plan to do the same) I think that we have to make more personal choices for uplifting our neighbors. There is infrastructure to do that, through charities and religious institutions as well as some government programs. We have to change the wiring of our own brains before we can demand the same of our government.

      1. You are quite right; blaming government is not the way to achieve positive change. We each have a personal responsibility to be role models for the way we wish the world to be and to work towards affirmative action in whatever way we can. Sometimes I despair but that does not mean I should give up. Certainly I had no wish to rain on the happiness that you conveyed in this post – the joyous celebration of love. I wish I could get to see my wider family more.

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