Our house had a cottonwood tree in the backyard. In the excruciating Texas summer, it bloomed, and cotton flew around the house like summer snow. It caked over the window screens and blocked the wind from coming into the house.
Some of our neighbors had water cooler fans that blew out a cool mist. It made the whole house feel like a swamp and made everyone feel like they were trying to breathe underwater. I hated those fans and was grateful we couldn’t afford one.
We were poor, but not in the ways that mattered. No one went hungry. No one was homeless. There were no drugs. No gangs and no neighborhood blight. The front door to our house was never locked. And everybody owned the home they lived in. My parents purchased our home in the 1950s, and it was a significant accomplishment for them.
When I enrolled in elementary school, all of my teachers were Black, and they preached excellence like a well-rehearsed Sunday sermon. By the time I began middle school, I was a track star in sixth grade, held the first chair in the band, and was among the top five grade earners.
But all of that changed in 1974 when I was in seventh grade. As part of the mandate issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, my classmates and I were among the first group of Dallas students to take part in a new busing program.
On May 17, 1954, the Brown case signified a cultural reconstruction project of enormous proportions for our country. It successfully ended legal segregation in education and laid the groundwork to dismantle segregation in all sorts of other areas, including housing, transportation, voting, employment, and public accommodations. It is viewed as the most significant case of race in America’s history. However, the ruling was marred by violent confrontations delaying its implementation in some parts of the country for more than 20 years.
But when the Brown ruling finally etched itself upon the country, the social stuff of that imprinting behaved in ways other than intended.
My fellow students and I were bused to the north side of town to attend a school with a predominantly white population. While riding through their neighborhood in the big yellow bus that took my neighbors and me out of our community to experience what educational authorities called “excellent education,” and then back to our neighborhood to live where no good thing could come from, it occurred to me that something was wrong. The scene outside my window rolled by in slow motion. The large and lavish houses struck me as something out of a fairy tale. As I took in the palaces of white people that I passed, a question occurred to me: “Do I need new dreams?”
The experiment only lasted one semester for me. For others, it lasted longer — some a year, some two years. My classmates and I were divided into three groups, based on where we lived, and assigned to different trial periods and different schools. A seemingly random sampling of all three groups never participated in the busing program at all. What happened to the data from the experiment is still unclear.
After that trial semester at the predominantly white school, I returned to my neighborhood school, but it had changed. More than half the teachers had been replaced with younger white women and disaffected Black teachers, who seemed to have lost something. The academic program was weak, I went to school only two or three days per week, yet I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class.
I didn’t return to the running track or to the band. I hadn’t been allowed to join the running team of my new school because though I had been seen as talented in my old school, I was not at my new school. I wasn’t even allowed an opportunity to try out. And though I had been the first chair in the band at my old school, I was relegated to the eighth chair in my new school. So I stopped doing both activities for the semester I was there. The break proved to be too disruptive, and I lost interest in the band and never played again. I considered rejoining the track team at my old school, but my confidence had been unsettled, and I decided against it.
Five years after I graduated high school, just a decade after the Brown initiative went into effect in 1974, my mother sold the family home and became the neighborhood crack house. I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University but returned home to visit my old neighbors and to see the place where I grew up. The wretchedness of the block disoriented me. I had nightmares in which I tried to go home for the next decade but could not find my house. It was simply missing.
My childhood neighborhood was a product of what happened when the 1970s “integration” replaced the 1954 fight for “equality,” which would have been better translated as “equity.” Black Americans, who were prepared to “integrate” into mainstream America, began to move out of Black neighborhoods in the ’70s — and these neighborhoods, as a consequence, began to deteriorate. Black neighborhoods across America were quickly and unexpectedly shifting as the professionals moved from homeowners to renters, from single-family homes to massive subsidized multifamily projects, from professionals to low-wage earners.
By the 1980s, crack cocaine found its way into many Black communities and rendered them utterly incapacitated.