Black and White in Atlanta

The subway platform is everything that subway platforms are in the inner cities—it is grimy, unclearly lit in the night, the air is stale and smells of grease. We are past, what is known in some circles as, the respectable hour to ride MARTA, the mass transit rail in Atlanta. It is eleven o’clock at night. The commuters with 9-5 jobs have all fled the city and arrived at their suburban homes. Those who ride the rail now do so out of necessity, not as a way to avoid the traffic congestion.

I hold my three-year-old daughter in my arms and take care not to stand too close to the platform’s edge as we wait for the expected train. She is sleepy, but not overly so. Our internal clocks are still on Pacific Standard Time. We only arrived here in the Eastern Standard time zone yesterday, to search for housing. We are moving back to Atlanta, or at least, my husband and I are moving back. My daughter has never lived here. She was born and adopted in Nevada, as was her twin brother who is sleeping in my husband’s arms, his little head flopped over drowsily into the crook of James’ neck.

As a racially blended family, I am always conscious of the racial make-up of a space, and I am conscious of it now. Our family so often lives our life in all white spaces, where my children are the only individuals of color, and I am painfully aware of the fact. I notice. I notice when they notice, especially now as they are growing older and becoming more aware of themselves and the world around them.

This is an all black space tonight, with the exception of my husband and myself.

We stand silent on the platform, the air unusually still, the crowd unusually quiet. No tinny music filters in from someone’s headphones. No one is talking into a mobile phone. No one coughs or sneezes, and if they had, you would have noticed. We all wait—eyes staring ahead, bodies near motionless. It is strange, but it is peaceful.

The day has been long. My family spent the morning in a more expensive part of town, in mostly all white spaces. We walked through neighborhoods, drove by schools, did some shopping here and there. We ate all three meals in restaurants. All day, we were in public. All day, we interacted with the public.

As a white/black interracial adoptive family, it can often be difficult to exist in public. Nearly everyone notices when we are moving through a space. Many people feel the need to interrupt our movement with a question or a remark. Today, for some strange reason, the question with which we have been interrupted has repeatedly been the same from three entirely different women, all three upper middle class, all three white.

“Are they from Africa?”

From the woman reapplying her lipstick, while I attempt to wash my hands in a public restroom—“Are they from Africa?”

“No.”

From the woman browsing the same rack of shirts as I am, in a store—“Are they from Africa?”

“Which nation in Africa?”

She had looked confused. I had wondered if she could name a nation on the African continent.

“No. They aren’t from Africa,” I answered.

From the woman exiting the TexMex restaurant in which we ate lunch, passing by our table—“Are they from Africa?”

To which I finally snapped, “Nope. Just regular American black kids.”

She startled and frowned and moved quickly away. I felt regretful afterwards. I know she didn’t realize the depth of her own naïveté and rudeness, but I was tired and I was hungry, and this was the third time today, and she interrupted my quesadilla.

During the day we’d been in an, for lack of a better word, uppity part of town. We aren’t in an uppity part of town now, though. We are in Downtown Atlanta. There is no uppity white woman who can’t name an African nation standing on this platform. If she were, she’d probably be clutching her purse.

I wonder to myself, “Do I look like an uppity white woman?” I’m often worried about being one, accidentally, without realizing it.

One Marta stop earlier, I had sat down on a bench with my daughter—the least crowded bench on the platform. The young woman who was seated next to us—black, beautiful, full of all the angst of youth—scowled and moved to a more crowded bench.

“Why’d she move, mommy?” my baby girl asked.

“I don’t know,” was all I could bring myself to say.

But I knew.

What a day it had been. I worried over the comments from the ignorant white women. I worried over the open disgust from the young black girl. I worried over what my tiny daughter had absorbed over the course of this.

It had been a long day. My family was tired. We waited for the train.

Then a distant screech cut through the silence. All the faces on the platform shifted toward the tunnel on the right, suddenly filled with light. We all turned together toward the flash and the sound. All the black faces turned, my white face turned, my husband’s white face turned. My daughter’s black face turned, and it was in that moment that she must have recognized the racial make-up of the space. Everyone looked like her, she suddenly noticed, save for mom and dad.

The train came barreling toward us, ripping up the stale air in the process, flailing moths and bits of stray dust upwards in the platform lights, blowing my long blonde hair back, making my daughter blink her brown eyes against the wind. For a moment, with the silver train streaking and glinting towards us in the night, the grim subway platform was full of all sorts of stirred up magic. I heard my daughter catch her breath at the marvel of it all. Where had this silver train come from? She must have wondered. On what enchanted journey were we going?

“Mommy!” she whispered breathlessly, her eyes locked on the squealing train, her small lips pursed right up against my ear, “Mommy?!” she breathed. “Are we going to Africa?”

It had been a long morning, and in it she had learned something. She’d learned it from the white women in the bathroom and also the store and also the restaurant. She’d learned it from the black girl that moved her seat away from us on the subway platform. In all of this, she’d figured out that we were different, and the difference was housed somewhere in our skin. Apparently (as she’d overheard) her own dark skin was synonymous with Africa. So surely that meant that all these similarly dark skinned people, standing here on the subway platform, were synonymous with Africa too.

And maybe we were all going there together, to Africa, on this magical arriving train.

In the transcendence of that moment, with my daughter held tightly in my arms, I felt acutely what I had already known. It was real now, rather than a distant possibility. This city we stood in—Atlanta—it would shape my children’s understanding of race more than any other. They would come of age on these streets. The racial make-up of these spaces would form their hearts and minds. The racial history would become their own, as they stepped into its present reality. No place that we’d lived prior, and no place that we live since, will have such a profound effect.

What a city to bear that burden and, simultaneously, that honor. It is like no other.

The city of Atlanta, like all historic cities with a rich and complex past, suffers from a few things. One of these things is white flight.

White flight is a term that originated in the United States, starting in the mid-20th century. It applied to the large-scale migration of whites of various European ancestries from racially mixed urban regions to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions. Or at least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me.

White flight in Atlanta, today and for me especially personally, means that all the wealthier professional folks (predominantly white) flee the city after 5pm, and all the poorer service workers (predominantly black) homogenously fill up the Marta trains in the evenings, because the poorer people both work and live in the heart of the city. The folks with better paying 9-5 jobs, who are overwhelmingly white, most certainly do not.

It’s 2015. There are many reasons why the city is now this way, but the history of public schools is largely to blame. Here’s how.

Atlanta was a paragon of racial progress during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It earned the nickname, “The City Too Busy To Hate.” When the rest of the American landscape was decrying Supreme Court efforts to desegregate their schools, Atlanta surprised the world by saying, “Bring it on,” and then they brought it with notably little violence. This was, after all, the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (This is, however, saying less than you might realize.)

JFK congratulated Atlanta, publicly before the nation, for the “responsible law abiding manner with which the people of Atlanta have desegregated their schools.”

While angry white citizens in other cities rioted and while mobs rolled empty school buses down the street with their own bare hands, Atlanta had, for the most part, taken a more passive aggressive tone. There were self-righteously indignant articles in the newspapers, and black people suddenly found it even more difficult than usual to catch the attention of a gasoline attendant or to purchase their groceries. But at least no one had beaten up any school children. (Or at least, not all that many school children.)

Congratulations.

The white liberals, the progressives, the small faction of light-skinned men and women of Atlanta who had fought tirelessly alongside her black citizens for civil rights—they breathed a well deserved sigh of relief. Tolerance was winning. The Supreme Court, the Federal Government, had won against the parsimoniousness of the States. Alongside these Southern progressives, Atlanta’s moderate white citizens, those who felt a little uncertain about desegregation but sure as heck weren’t brash enough to speak out against it—they found a bump of confidence. The President congratulated them, after all. Surely they were on the right track?

Integration was winning, for a brief breath of time—one glorious breath. And then.

The segregationists didn’t always call themselves segregationists, nor would you necessarily have been able to spot them if your feet were on the ground in Atlanta in the 1960’s and 70’s and even 80’s. These segregationists were quite fine and upstanding citizens. They lived on every respectable street, and they held stable and necessary jobs within the city. They believed in Atlanta. They believed in America. They believed in freedom, in autonomy. They believed in the right to do as they pleased with their private property and their personal business. They cast a skeptical glance towards Uncle Sam. They were wary of his hand in their pocket. They didn’t so much trust where their tax dollars went.

They didn’t so much like the Supreme Court getting up in their business—especially pertaining to this mess about integration.

The segregationists weren’t saying they didn’t like black people. Ok? The segregationists were just fine and dandy with black people, so long as they kept to their own parts of town and their own ways of life. Wasn’t that what America was all about anyway? Wasn’t it about choosing how you wanted to live your own life? And if that meant you didn’t want your child going to school with a black person, well? That’s what you wanted. It was your own child, for crying out loud. What could be more important to you than your own child? This wasn’t the government’s child. Ok? This was your own child, and how dare Uncle Sam try to tell you how to raise your own child. How dare Uncle Sam tell you that your child had to share a school with blacks, (and you sure as heck weren’t calling them niggers, because that’s not politically correct now-a-days.) Well so be it. You don’t want it, ok? You don’t want some black boy looking up and down your own daughter in her own school, for crying in the morning. Ok? That’s her school. She’s supposed to feel safe there. She’s supposed to be able to focus on learning.

This is about individual rights.

This is America.

The archives of public opinion pieces in the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal during the 1950’s and 1960’s showcase a wealth of feelings just like the ones above. They are legion.

But despite vocal opposition, the schools integrated anyway, slowly at first and then more rapidly. The poor black kids from the poor black neighborhoods trickled and eventually surged into more affluent white schools—the schools with new chalkboards, and new desks, and better lunches, and field trips, and stocked libraries, and microscopes, and science labs, and college educated teachers…and everything else that most of the black kids had never even seen in their impoverished and segregated lives. For one tiny moment, the moderate white families hovered for the breadth of a school year. Could this work?

But then, at dizzying speed, the segregationists left in unprecedented numbers. They pulled their children and their tax dollars out of the schools. The moderates eventually followed, rattled by the changing demographic of the hallways and the flight of their white friends.

During the two decades of desegregation in what constitutes much of Fulton and Dekalb County today, from 1961 to 1979, nearly half of all white residents fled to the Northern suburbs. In 1970, Cobb County was blooming at an unprecedented rate. Its residents were fully 96% white. Gwinnett County’s population surged; it was 95% white. The suburban section of North Fulton swelled; it was astonishingly 99% white.

The other half of Fulton and Dekalb County’s white residents, who could afford the cost of tuition, overwhelmingly moved their children to all-white private institutions. Most of these schools did not have specific by-laws barring black children from enrolling, but they still somehow managed to casually either lose or find a reason to deny every black child’s application that crossed their admissions desk. Their white enrollment numbers soared.

By 1970, white enrollment in Atlanta public schools was half of what it had been at its peak in 1963. By 1973, white holdouts in the public schools made up 23% of the population. By 1985, that figure had fallen to 6%. By 2002 the percentage of white students in Atlanta public schools was nearing zero.

Somewhere in all of that, Benjamin Mays, who was himself black and the head of Atlanta’s school board, threw up his hands in a meeting and declared, “I don’t know! I don’t know what you can do to keep white folks from being scared if you move into their neighborhoods.”

And the white folks just kept leaving. They took their money with them.

“I can drive for half an hour down to work,” said the segregationist and the ambivalent moderate, “to allow my child a better school.” Traffic on Atlanta’s interstates, from the suburbs to the city, for the first time, developed into what is now an enduring problem.

Meanwhile, Atlanta private schools delightedly hiked their tuition.

Can you imagine what this all must have looked like through the eyes of a young black child, born into an impoverished black neighborhood in 1965? Her mother and father have servile jobs that pay very little and are difficult to keep. They work constantly and live hand to mouth. They rent a small apartment. They will never qualify for a mortgage on a home, because they have nothing to put down, and even if they did, the white bankers wouldn’t lend to them at a reasonable rate anyway, if at all. They’ve spent their lives keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble—in effect, surviving. They’ve lived through Jim Crow. They knew men who were lynched. Personally, they’ve on occasion been beaten by the police for walking around too late at night in a too white part of town. It still haunts them.

They want a better life for their daughter. They want the world to change. They want her to have a decent education so she can get a decent job and live a more decent life than they have. During the height of bussing integration in 1972, they sign her up for bussing to one of the better white schools—Kirkwood Elementary. Integration feels like a miracle. They’d never have been able to afford a home in the Kirkwood neighborhood. (They’d never have been allowed to buy there anyway.) But thanks to bussing, they can now send their daughter to the Kirkwood school, with its pristine building and its seemingly endless educational resources—resources never known in her current school. On their daughter’s first day, they’ve carefully pressed her clothes. They’ve strictly warned her not to make any trouble. They are both elated and terrified to send her off on the bus.

That afternoon, upon her return home, they receive the following report from their daughter and from the other bussing parents. Of the 470 white girls and boys that had been enrolled at Kirkwood, only 7 remain. Every single white teacher has resigned. The last white employee left at the school is the principal.

I asked you to imagine how that must have felt, but imagining actually isn’t necessary because this is a true story. It happened exactly like this, and those Kirkwood kids are still alive today. You can hear their stories for yourself, if you want to ask them.

During the failed bussing efforts of the 1970’s, many of the affected children developed negative attitudes towards their school boards, and rightfully so. They came to understand that the people in charge were not willing to protect them, and not much has happened since to change their minds. Those feelings stuck, and now adults have children and grandchildren at the mercy of the same school system that abandoned them decades earlier. It clouds their sentiments about interacting with local school boards.

In other U.S. cities, like Boston, where bussing resulted in more pronounced and widespread violence, current community outreach efforts exist today (such as the Union of Minority Neighborhoods) with the express purpose of helping the now-adult children of the bussing era grieve their experience and regain trust in the educational system that failed them, for the sake of their own children today. That trust can be difficult to rebuild.

No such organization exists in Atlanta, to my knowledge. I’ve even had difficulty getting some of the people that I’ve interviewed to admit there is a historically rooted problem to begin with.

“Why are you bringing up the past, Heather? We need to move on from this.”

And meanwhile the impoverished community still suffers.

“Well. That’s probably their own fault.”

Today, Kirkwood Elementary, from whence so many white students and teachers fled in 1972, has been rebranded Toomer Elementary. In 2008, it was comprised of 99% black students. An astonishing 98% of its students were economically disadvantaged, and it was struggling to meet state standards. Today, it is outright failing.

What happened over the span of 40+ years at Kirkwood/Toomer Elementary is indicative of what has happened to Atlanta city’s, and much of Fulton and Dekalb’s, public schools as a whole. What began as an effort to educationally uplift impoverished black children, ended in schools and communities thrust overwhelmingly into poverty and completely drained of resources because of white flight. Children subsequently received sub-par educations. They then obtained sub-par employment, regardless of how racial barriers were finally (finally!) beginning to lift on employment in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The cycle still repeated with little uplift from child to adult to child to adult again, ad nauseam, for four decades.

(Add to this understanding, the myriad of narcotics that have appeared within the past 30 years—powerful drugs never before known to mankind, that can if only for a brief moment, transport a disaffected youth from a measly grimy world into ecstasy. The drugs are cheap and the pull is strong. And because of the so-called “war on drugs,” which disproportionately affects young black men—because of that, if one does succumb to the chemicals he will likely end up in jail. Once there, the prospects of ever achieving any future success are largely snuffed out, because no one likes to hire an ex-convict. Because of drugs and the “war” on drugs, the future for disaffected minority communities often looks even bleaker than it did when the barriers were limited to institutional disadvantage and inferior education. But that is more recent history, and that is a topic for another essay someday.)

The past still affects us now. We are not beyond the segregation era; we still live in her shadow. This is why my family passed over the Kirkwood neighborhood (among others) when we were looking for housing in Atlanta. This is why we are now paying much more than we are comfortable with, for a moderate home in a rare good school zone.

Does this make me a victim of white flight, or does it make me part of the problem? It is difficult for me to decide on one or the other fully. Perhaps both are true. I am the problem even while I suffer from the problem. Families of a mind like mine (and now-a-days of all colors, thankfully), financially stable and successful, who stay away from disadvantaged areas and the lesser performing public schools of Atlanta (regardless of how convenient they are in terms of commute)—we are the problem. To be sure, though, we also suffer for it. We want to be in those schools, we want to give them our resources, but we need them to be a little bit better first. The segregationists before us created the problem, but we now help perpetuate it, whether we realize it or not.

Were we all to join arms together tomorrow though, and enroll our kids in our local schools…dear me…how the world might change. But it isn’t something that one lone citizen can fix.

This is one of the things that I was contemplating as I held my daughter on the Marta platform during that late night last summer. It is something that I have contemplated since.

In our housing search, we eventually settled on a neighborhood on the Northern end of Dekalb County, with a rare high-ranking elementary school that feeds into a mid-performing middle and high school. In this particular part of town, middle class parents of my own generation (the majority of whom are white) are breaking with history and are choosing to enroll their children in local elementary schools in record numbers, rather than flee the city or enroll in private institutions. Whether parents will continue this trend when our children reach the middle and high school years, and thereby integrate with children coming out of other lower performing elementary schools, is yet to be known.

Recently, in a rare moment without my children in tow, I asked a just-met neighbor, a white woman in her early forties and with tweenaged children, how she felt about the middle school assigned to our neighborhood. She sniffed scornfully.

“Oh I mean, I just couldn’t handle it. I pulled my kids out and sent them to Marist.” Marist is a nearby private school.

“Oh really?” I asked. “I was under the impression that Chamblee schools were in relatively good shape, all things considered.”

“Well. You might say that,” she shrugged, but then cut her eyes to the left and then the right, as if we were in danger of someone overhearing. “But I guess it all depends on how comfortable you are with having your children attend school with a bunch of black kids.”

Without missing a beat, I also cut my eyes to the left and then the right, as if I also felt in danger of someone overhearing.

“You know,” I half-whispered. “I think that will probably be ok, especially considering that my children are black kids.”

She looked stricken.

It would appear that we are perhaps not so far past the attitudes of segregation-era Atlanta as we would like to believe. And if you happen to live in Atlanta and you don’t believe me, I challenge you—knowing what you now know about our history, especially, just bring up the issue of public schools with your neighbors.

It is illuminating.

It happened at a tiny Vegan soul food restaurant, owned by a round and vibrant black woman and her family, in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. When I described it to my brother, he said, “That sentence was a roller coaster of contradiction from start to finish.” And I suppose he is right. The restaurant does feel like many contradictions. The menu items are decidedly hip (Vegan KaleBone Steak with Sage Gravy,) but the setting itself looks like any other from a greasy Southern diner, yellowed from use, simple type on the menu, many misspellings.

The crowd in the restaurant was a contradiction as well. Two impeccably dressed young stereotypically gay men in skinny pants and bright tight shirts in one booth, holding hands. Loud and vibrant black families in three other booths, children spilling out of the sides, all the families intermingling with each other though none of them appeared to have arrived together. And then there was my family in a booth—two white adults and two black children, happily chowing on Vegan gravy.

Such is Inman Park. I like it.

We can’t live in Inman Park because the public schools are awful and appear to be about ten years away from hitting the upswing that some other neighborhoods are experiencing. But we do spend as much time as we can in this part of town, and we attend church just a few streets over.

And we sure do like this Vegan soul food restaurant.

When we were finished eating, my husband and daughter headed out to where we parked the car a few blocks over, but I stayed a moment more to run my son to the restroom and wash him up. Upon leaving the restroom and heading toward the exit, I found a slight and elderly black man blocking my path. He’d been one of the jovially loud members in the booths earlier, cracking old-man jokes with the younger children, being pleased by their ensuing laughter, and waving exuberantly to people as they came and went. But now he frowned.

I guessed at his age. He was no less than seventy, might have even been in his eighties.

“Lemme ask you something,” he began, his chin tilted upwards in the air, his gaze skeptically on me and my child.

“Yes?”

“You’re a white woman?”

“Yes.”

“And you have a white husband?”

“Yes.”

“And you have black children?”

“Yes.”

His eyes were daggers. His head was jerking a bit from side to side, whether from age or anger, I wasn’t sure.

“I do not approve,” he told me, and set his dry mouth in a thin firm line.

My small son looked up at me questioningly, his round face taking in the whole of the situation. The restaurant, formerly bustling, was now in tomblike silence.

There is sometimes a difficult truth about white people that adopt black babies. I know this. White America often looks at us (and sometimes we parents look at ourselves) as if we are living proof that racism no longer exists. The world is comforted in the progress marked by our families, all the while shutting tight their eyes to the racial inequality around us—an inequality that is likely to blame for why our children needed to be adopted in the first place.

It is difficult. And I know this. And this old man knows this.

I felt my answer for him even before I said it. I saw the history of the city in his brittle body. Fear and slurs and Jim Crow, and the warning when he’d reached his teenage years to never ever make eye contact with a white woman on the street, the restaurants that would not serve him, the shops that would not hire him, and then desegregation and bussing and riots and persisting employment barriers and persisting poverty, losing some of his own children to drugs and prison, and then finally—perhaps a decade or two past the last time he heard someone yell nigger at him—the majority of the white world asking, “What’s the big deal? The past is the past.”

I grappled with how to explain myself to him in that one suspended moment—how to tell him that I knew about the struggle. No, I do not know it in my own body. I do not know it the way he does, not the way my children’s own biological family does. But I do feel it by association, and I have adopted it as my own, even as I’ve adopted my children.

I am a white woman, but I am not an ignorant white woman. I suppose it is probably difficult to tell us apart.

“I understand,” I finally said, extending my hand and grasping his. “I really do. I hope you have a nice day.”

Then I bustled my son out the front door and onto the dirty and littered sidewalk. I hurried to join my husband and daughter, but about the time I reached them, I heard a commotion from behind us. It was the restaurant owner and the old man’s granddaughter, both robust black women wearing brightly colored smocks and turbans, breathlessly running to catch me.

“Wait!” cried the granddaughter, and she came stumbling to a stop beside me. “No no no!” she cried. “I am so sorry.”

“No it’s really alright,” I assured her. “I really do understand.”

She began clapping her hands, lost for words. “You do! You do,” she said. “But you don’t have to… We can’t just let him… We’re going to have to work on Grandpa!” Tears sprang into her eyes.

“Oh girl,” I sighed. “If you only knew. We have to work on Grandpa in my family too.”

At that she burst into a mirth of laughter and threw her arms around me. I leaned into the embrace and found a grip on her as well. In the air that was pressed out from between us, I found something tangible and wonderful. It was in the audacity of her compassion, in her unabashed boldness that had followed me out onto the sidewalk. It was in my tenacity to understand and empathize with a people that have not always been my own. It was contained somewhere in the physicality of our embrace, fierce and warm and healing, black and white, on a dirty Atlanta sidewalk.

In a world that so often seems stuck, it felt like progress.

And it felt good.

About Heather

Heather is a freelance writer and editor located in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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