G is for Ghetto

Louis Chude-Sokei


I’d been in America for years before I learned that we lived in the ghetto.  It wasn’t until I began hearing my neighborhood described as such by people who didn’t live there and witnessed the pall on their faces when I mentioned my address or the names of streets like Crenshaw or Slauson that conveyed a particular confluence of media hearsay and racial myths.  That’s when I knew the place we had landed in had meanings other than those we’d brought with us.  It wasn’t quite America, apparently, though it looked better than anything I’d ever seen.  It was hard to hide my excitement at such abundance.  I remember writing letters back to friends and family spread out over three countries—Nigeria, Jamaica, England—just to tell them that although these streets weren’t really paved with gold, it wasn’t that far off from those dreams we’d shared publicly.  One could and did find money in the cracks of these streets, behind couch pillows and in random public spaces.  This news was enough to send those I’d left behind into paroxysms of envy and expectation.

Actually, since I arrived just in time to be a part of a generation that took joy in spectacular linguistic rituals—changing meanings as a concession to the impossibility of altering reality–it was no longer being called the ghetto.  At least not by those who lived there, or by those of a certain age who lived there.  This was the very late 70s and the early 80s.  We’d ended up in Inglewood, California, biking distance from South Central L.A.  Hip-hop, Rodney King, and the riots hadn’t happened yet.  Radio was still segregated, “immigrant” meant those who spoke Spanish, and only a bold and truly dangerous few dared wear their trousers below their waists and hips.  However the linguistic and affective transformation had begun.  Inglewood was in the process of being renamed as first “the wood” and then “the hood.”  Or was it the other way around?  It’s hard to remember now because when hip-hop did hit, its attitude to history was distinctly scorched earth.  By the time NWA and other rap groups emerged to crystallize everything I’d been learning about the area into a coherent set of intentions, attitude had became synonymous with history and resentment turned memory into myth and counter-myth.

By the time “hood” had become official I’d joined my generation in exaggerating its location until it became larger than any map could hold yet so small that only we could tell where its borders actually ended.  Even now I encounter people who claim to have grown up in my “hood” only to hear them describe streets far closer to the ocean than any of us had ever gone or farther up in the hills than we were welcome.  We have the riots to blame for that geographic elasticity.  After they happened, most black people my age wanted to have been involved.  The riots enabled anyone to append him- or herself to what was now seen as a mere chapter in a larger struggle, widening its significance though erasing its specificity.  By the time I felt the need to claim a particular “hood,” I’d begun evolving into an American, or to be more specific about the trajectory of my assimilation, African-American.  I’d discovered very early on that there were two Americas, one black and one white, two distinct regimes of pain and promise.  Black immigrants had to assimilate into one or the other, not both.  We then made an enduring spectacle of our choice to contend with the never-ending suspicion that we were frauds—meaning, anyone who had the luxury to choose in the first place.

I’d thought we were immigrants in paradise, or at least a distant suburb of it.  My whole family thought so, as did those few other black immigrant families we knew that were sprinkled through the area and those even fewer that had moved enough beyond the neighborhood to speak of Inglewood or South Central without regret.  In Jamaica where we’d most recently arrived from, the word ghetto meant much more than it did in Los Angeles.  It was never used casually and didn’t amplify one’s virtue as it often does now.  In Jamaica—or at least, our Jamaica––it loomed so large in the cultural imagination that people who lived there did their best to diminish its size and scale so as to imagine its borders near enough to cross.  It was something other than poor, which I knew because poor was everywhere.  Our Jamaica was without the luxury of economic and social segregation: everyone was everywhere at once all together.  It was a kaleidoscope of want and fear, need and hope.

In Jamaica “ghetto” didn’t mean hot and cold running water, a television in every or any room, fast food on every corner and a beneficent government that doled out delightful colored paper with which to buy Kool-Aid, bread, canned vegetables, and full meals that could be kept in the freezer.  I’d imagined these to be middle class or elite luxuries.  Along with free education and regular electricity, they were why I thought our family had come here.  We’d arrived from countries where the state was largely nominal.  To imagine that a government could actually do things for its people or to even expect it to was not part of our notion of citizenship.

For my mother, aunts, and uncles, however, those “free” items were signs of decadence, as much to be guarded against as the envy they could inspire.  There were times I told my mother that I’d spent the evening with friends next door or down the street enjoying these gifts of the state purchased freely with food stamps that looked oddly like our now valueless native currencies.  She would punish me as if I had stolen them.  And when I told her the economics of things, that for example, there were ways to use food stamps to buy items not earmarked for their use, she threatened to send me back to places that could no longer be called home.

To my mother these things weren’t free at all.  Their costs were just too vague for children to acknowledge.  Along with my uncles and aunts, she worked hard to inculcate a strong sense of guilt for what I’d seen as innocent pleasures or as the privileges of a democracy we’d been lucky enough to append ourselves to.  This was not so noble as it might seem, for it was accompanied by a suspicion of those who embraced welfare as a right or an obligation.  As you can imagine, my family’s fierce denials and rejections made no sense to me as a child.  How could we reject free food?  What was wrong with lining up with the other kids while strong-shouldered men handed out hard bricks of cheese in the grocery store parking lot?  It was like a carnival: everybody was there.

Whenever I used the term ghetto at home as a sign of my growing ease with my new world it was guaranteed a sharp slap across the lips.  For example, to laugh at the absurdities of life in our neighborhood; to nod knowingly at the violence around us; or to celebrate that violence as in keeping with an emergent understanding of black male “cool.”  To my family it all signified a too-eagerness to become something else and we were not to exult in that process.  Before that I don’t recall the word ever being used to describe anywhere other than parts of Kingston.  That city had taken on a reputation for violence that we assumed no American city could possibly have.  The American television shows we watched in Jamaica didn’t convince us that there was more violence in America, just more heroism and better-structured narratives.  So when I saw street-gangs ambling along Crenshaw Boulevard or Manchester Avenue, and as my new friends dragged me into the doorways and bushes to let them pass, it took time to learn how to fear them.  It took only a few severe bloodlettings and many near misses to teach me.  A few weren’t so lucky.  But given the state-sponsored fury of late 70s Kingston and the arrogance of immigrants who migrate to softer surroundings, these boys at first seemed quaint.  They wore colorful scarves and shiny glasses and were given to elaborate and endearing hand signals.  They trumpeted names like Inglewood Family, Blood Stone Pirus, and Rolling Sixties.  Even when they started singling me out due to my accent and my inability to tell them apart, they seemed more a threat to themselves, not to anything as small as an island or as unknowable as a nation.

For the Nigerian side of my family, ghetto wasn’t even a recognizable word.  Sure, in Lagos there were surreal places like Ajegunle or areas where people had built islands out of decades of untreated waste or dwelled literally on mountains of garbage.  There were zones in that city that could be differentiated from a whole that would seem uniform to Americans in its shabby and desperate madness.  Unlike the “hood,” those areas in Nigeria were immune to metaphor.  They could not be made to signify other things.  These areas were also immune to nostalgia because they would only seem truly horrific upon arrival in America, when we would realize just how far we had been from this country and its privileges.  We would be marked by the true size of a world that could hold such extremes in it and would therefore resist any identity—racial or otherwise––that would separate us from traumas greater than those America imposed.

The word ghetto had yet to seep over to West Africa with its complex posturing and claims of authenticity.  In those days satellite dishes were uncommon.  There was no Internet and no cellphones.  Migration seemed close to oblivion.  America remained a secret, or a rumor that could bend to the storyteller’s needs.  Tales of racial suffering or economic disparity brought back by the fortunate were signs of an enviable cosmopolitanism.  It was a case of those with wings to fly complaining about the thin air above.  But I can guarantee that for the Nigerian immigrants in the family, ghetto easily meant shame.  It was not a space of imprisonment but instead the architecture of choice.  As such, it was in some way connected to the African-Americans who lived there and whom we met first upon arrival—after all, we’d assumed it their country too and their hostility to us only confirmed that it was.  To find them in neighborhoods like these was for us to think them in a world utterly of their own making.  We were too preoccupied with our own history and the difficulties of our arrival to think charitably of theirs.

Photo: Robert Prather 2008 / airpanther

As is the case with many immigrants, black Americans were the front line of our experience with this country’s ambivalence towards new arrivals.  Being of the same “race” was meaningless to us.  We didn’t share that method of self-knowing.  In this crucible of Inglewood and South Central LA, the term ghetto said more about how different black Americans were from us than it did about how this glorious new society treated them.  It had to because if it didn’t we would have had to abandon the sometimes-unrealistic hopes that fueled our migration and take seriously the suggestion that our “race” had something to do with our possibilities.  Failure was not an option and so like many immigrants before us we projected it onto our black neighbors.  What they projected onto us deserves its own essay, books even despite the known reluctance to engage it.  But at its root was ambivalence towards their historical origins and a deep sense of resentment towards us for having arrived from those origins and beginning to excel in this country despite their belief that racism made such ambition impossible.  After all, if racism was what they said it was and what they believed it was, then why didn’t it seem to impact us?  And if it didn’t affect us, then what did that do to those claims of racism and beliefs in the intransigence of white supremacy?

Unlike our neighbors, racism had yet to introduce the sometimes crippling doubt that seemed central to their sense of identity and their view of the country they had been brought to.  But it did affect us, just in ways that would take years to recognize.  It inspired quite different responses, some so subtle that they seemed unruffled or naive.  For example, given that whites at times seemed willing, sometimes eager to accept us in preference to native-born blacks did not initially signify racism.  It seemed its opposite.  It would become clear that this acceptance, these flamboyant gestures of welcome were given as a rebuke to African-Americans whom they continued to resent and who continued to resent them.  We were without that history and could afford to be exotic; but since we were also black we were not allowed the luxury of indifference.

In retrospect it makes more sense to see that old neighborhood as a space of competing views of America rather than the static prison-house of possibilities we now often mean by the term ghetto.  While for many of our black neighbors it was a sign of America’s failure, for our immigrant families it was merely the first stage of a promise.  Both communities did find a way of sharing the neighborhood but it was proximity without much intimacy.  Our parents insisted that we see space as wider and borderless as our sense of the world.  We shouldn’t claim the ghetto because to do so would be to accept its limitations.  And though we were the same color as our neighbors, we shouldn’t accept the suggestion of similarity.  Race in this country seemed to signify a special intimacy between African-Americans and whites and there was little room for others in this particular relationship.  We were to steer clear of it despite its voyeuristic pleasures.  This meant we essentially lived in different cities.  The streets we shared led to different destinations from our neighbors and our economies never merged.  I’ll go one further and say that we lived in different countries, shaped less by race or our shared condition but by the nature of our arrivals.

To be then told years after my arrival that my family’s great accomplishment in simply getting here was in fact the failure of others—ghetto being the sign of systemic indifference or institutional conspiracy—was bewildering.  It was tantamount to having mistaken hell for heaven, or less dramatically, discovering that you had merely moved to a bigger island.  And to learn that living there wasn’t a choice and that “choice” might in fact be one of the great myths that immigrants are particularly susceptible to was traumatic.  There was nowhere else left to go.  My family, a combination of migrant and refugee, was tired.  We’d lost too many and too many depended on us.  But I was learning that the appropriate response to what I’d thought an incalculable privilege should instead be resentment.  That was how I should carry myself, embittered, a walking sign of blame.  My initial gratitude for all things American embarrassed me.  It marked me an easy mark, worthy of whatever came my way in that long walk down Florence to Crenshaw and then up Slauson and back.  Thus another education began while walking to and from Crozier Junior High, bounded by Inglewood High School and the public library on one side, Juvenile Hall on the other and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s building across the street.

In what I’d assumed a sincere gesture of welcome, of wising up the newcomer, my new friends and neighbors made to teach me new ways of thinking.  Looking back, I know they also resented my optimism.  Remember, racism had clouded their sense of possibility.  So their generosity was also a kind of violence, against what they’d never been allowed to feel.  Their cynicism eventually began to seep into me just as my accent began to change and I began to acquire a taste for the type of violence that generated a certain type of respect.  I began walking like the boys who’d beat us up in grocery store parking lots, began dressing like them and went into the streets seeking provocation.  I still blamed myself for having been such a dupe.  It would still take some time before I began to blame America for my failures (that, I would discover, was what universities were for).  Then I would be embittered by my proximity to those who lived in a world that I had begun to see as intolerable, so much so that to endure it was proof of moral weakness.  It was evidence that my family had traveled all this way just to be victim of something far worse than poverty or racism: pity.  I was still too young to understand the power of victimization or the games of guilt and moral authority I could play with it (that, I would discover, was what graduate school was for).

Photo: Adebayo Alao, Sept. 2007

I could never report back to Nigeria or Jamaica that I lived in something that fell this far short of a dream that both those countries now shared in the wake of the faded dreams of British imperium.  You must understand that immigrants are held hostage by their own optimism.  We cannot betray the dreams of those left behind.  To those eagerly anticipating our phone calls, packages and remittances the only limits and failures possible in America are individual ones.  There is no room for racism, systemic, institutional or casual in this way of seeing.  My letters to Jamaica and Nigeria began to dry up.  They had turned into grievances and complaints, which because they came from America sounded like boasting.  I was asking for even more of what they didn’t have.  Consequently immigration, which had seemed a heroic achievement even for someone too young to make significant choices, became rendered in my mind as a kind of fall.  What had been a source of pride became shameful; and in that shame I felt myself becoming a citizen, not of the United States, but of this particular province within it, one as much marked by space as by race.

I was also ashamed of having believed what my parents said about America, especially as assimilation and manhood became intertwined.  I was no longer proud of my hopes and dreams because hopes and dreams began to take on a distinctly feminine cast.  Perhaps I could have blamed those few American television programs I’d seen in Jamaica for my illusions, and the comic books and occasional magazines left behind by tourists.  More than anything else I began to blame the novels I’d been devouring since before I’d started school.  I was a reader before my arrival in America, an obsessive one.  Now I began to suspect that that was what was essentially wrong with me.  Unlike in Jamaica where reading guaranteed respect, here it seemed a crime.  A political crime, it brought charges of racial treachery—“acting white.”  A moral crime, it was seen by many as “unnatural,” proof that one’s “blackness” and one’s masculinity were suspect.  The written word unmanned you before your first wet dream.

Being young and increasingly American, it made more sense to blame my family.  They were immigrants after all, what did they know?  It was they who continued to stress work, education, religion and responsibility—things that I was now being told didn’t matter and were in fact being used against me (though the word “oppression” had yet to enter my lexicon, the idea that one’s view of things was not only incorrect but had been actively made so had only ever been encountered in science fiction).  My path through America was beset with snares my elders couldn’t know anything about.  My friends who told me these things would know, they were American and they were black––the specific type of black that mattered in this country.  It was my family who were naïve, insisting that reading was stronger than racism and that books were key to an achievement that was beginning to seem to me so fantastical as to be unworthy of effort.  This, of course, is how self-doubt finally found its way into my mind, through the narrative of racial conspiracy and the melodrama of rebellion against it.  It displaced responsibility for my own insecurities.  It made my fears systemic, institutional, and therefore always beyond my control.  Yet innocence was no consolation.

Thank God this period was temporary, though its impact would last what I can now call a lifetime.  As is often the case, the country we now lived in strengthened the values of my family, made them fanatical actually.  In response to my dual assimilations, my mother, uncles, and aunts became vicious, downright fundamentalist about traditions that were never so inflexible as after our arrival.  Tradition, it must be said, is never as unyielding as where children are concerned.  I could never fully abandon certain habits.  Whenever I attempted to rebel, like many other immigrant kids I would be sent back to our old countries for a stringent dose of perspective and a reminder that neither black nor white Americans thought of us as kin and that our freedom here lay in that knowledge.

My family’s intransigence meant that even though the desire to read had been abandoned the daily practice was inescapable.  Reading became a chore instead of something I craved.  This would serve me well because when the expectation of pleasure was gone I began reading things I normally wouldn’t have.  Reading became a discipline, and it is that which sustains you far more than mere passion or inclination.  Eventually it became an escape from my environment, better still a lens through which to see it.  I sought endless space, less littered landscapes and peoples I had much more in common with than assumed trauma.  In books I could avoid the prejudices of black immigrants and the harshness of our traditions while simultaneously dodging the indifference of my teachers and the often-violent intolerance of my black neighbors and schoolmates.

As a compromise with my environment I learned to hide my books as well as I did my accent.  It was safer not to distinguish myself with foreignness or academic prowess.  I began to lift weights obsessively in hopes of being ignored by the street gangs and so that no one would ever take me for a reader.  I eventually took up football.  Along with the gangs it was an inevitable option for those craving respect and eager to meet violence head on.  I affected a certain swagger, learned to project indifference and inculcate doubt in others.  In other words, I began to pass not for African-American, but for what passed as African-American in the hood.  I was so successful at it that I was the first to abuse those who were new to the neighborhood and who saw in my aggression an unquestionable authenticity.

Thankfully deception can return us to ourselves.  It’s possible to avoid something by becoming it or at least appearing to do so.  Because of this relationship between racial identity and disguise, my experiences in the neighborhood didn’t lead to sympathetic alchemy.  In other words, I didn’t assimilate despite becoming indistinguishable from those around me.  No matter how I tried, the cultural lines between our neighbors and me remained as clear as they were when my family first arrived.  Inglewood or Los Angeles never became home because we remained foreigners even to those who’d become friends and lovers.  I emphasize this because some could argue that race or more accurately, racism should transmute the cultural and historical differences between African-Americans and immigrants into shared wealth, into a community.  They could argue that my neighbors and new peers laid bare the system for someone like me who was ripe for exploitation by it; that by choosing a racial side, the contradictory values of our cultures would easily subside as solidarity was forged.  Solidarity, however, is a powerful placebo, as narcotic as it can be erotic; and once you blame whites for history, it becomes necessary to blame them for whatever is left and that is too much to lose.  Despite years of academic indoctrination, I thank science fiction stories about possession, invasion or brainwashing for reminding me of this: those who reduce the world to sides wish to control your affiliations.  And where there is no choice there is coercion and where there is identity there is also conscription and fear.

What was true about my experience is that these new meanings of ghetto and race didn’t necessarily lead to me “becoming black” or to that political “coming into consciousness” so beloved of racial mystics, ideologues and peddlers of irresolvable grievance.  Because just as ghetto had divergent meanings for us as immigrants, so did black.  For example, the Jamaican side of my family had long achieved “lower-brown” status due to education and a work ethic that would terrify Protestants.  In Jamaica, “brown” was not black and the lines between the two were as guarded as the lines between black and white, perhaps even more so due to their visible similarities.  Their sense of identity had entirely different meanings, expectations and pressures that were not reducible to American racial categories, this despite being treated as black in America.  Though there was racism in their self fashioning, there was no self-hate: it was just that the maniacal upward mobility of Jamaican brown militated against an American blackness that in that neighborhood seemed to them a relentlessly downward spiral.  The Nigerian side of my family were too busy being Igbo in the wake of the Biafra war to subordinate their identities to American ones.  Racism for them was a distraction and so they cultivated heartlessness towards it and towards those who they thought defined themselves by it.  In their minds African-American grievances were often a sign of opportunities being actively denied in order to claim unearned privileges.

What these admittedly complex and arguably racist views of African-Americans made possible upon arrival, however, was a reluctance to reduce our experiences to race.  We were not at ease filtering the cosmos through it or seeing in it the primary explanation for phenomena.  Another way to guarantee myself a smack across the lips was to come home from school or from the street with any kind of racial grievance, even if it were true.  For people who’d survived genocide—one where murderers and victims were of the same race—my complaints about certain teachers or police officers or other students or store clerks or Korean grocers were intolerable.  For people who had known racism of a far more virulent and violent sort—for example in England during the 1950s or colonial Nigeria and Jamaica–to hear me use racism as a justification for my responses to this country was an insult.  And to hear racism claimed as something that was stronger than we were, was enough to guarantee a sore back on the way to school the next day.  It wasn’t that my family didn’t believe in the existence of racism or didn’t suffer its effects.  They simply feared me so believing in it that I would be either crippled or debauched by it.  In other words, they feared me becoming ghetto or as a notorious uncle once defined it, becoming too free to be any good to anybody.

So even after learning to pass so well for African-American that the boys who owned the streets knew my name; even after learning far more about racism and American history than most would care to; even after my cousins in Nigeria and Jamaica began to imitate my way of speaking so as to hasten their long distance Americanization, assimilation still remained incomplete.  The word ghetto would come to define a hesitant space between racial solidarity and cultural disparity, between a neighborhood and its choices and a planet with its demands.  As such it featured an endless back and forth amongst communities and histories, political habits and cultural options; like migrating all the time.  This drama did have its upside, though.  It had everything to do with me being one of the only people in the neighborhood to go to college.  As immigrants it was an expectation but for most of my neighbors and friends wasn’t even a thought.  Though I thought a football scholarship would have done it, it turned out to be those science fiction books after all, as well as friendships with other readers who also had to be maintained in secret for they too ran afoul of what passed for black in my hood.  UCLA was just a few miles across town.  But to them with whom I’d spent those years in “the wood,” it turned out to be further than the distance traveled to America in the first place.