Monday, April 28, 2008


I spent several hours yesterday booking plane tickets and hotel reservations for our trip to North Carolina in July. Keith and I will be spending two days in Wilmington with my dad's family (an experience that will no doubt give me writing fodder for years) and then going to Charlotte for a day to do I'm not exactly sure what.

My friend Donna, who we'll be seeing there, told me the hotel I picked for our stop in Charlotte is in a "really bad place." I picked it because it was only a few miles from the neighborhood where I grew up. I picked it because it was on the way into town from Wilmington, and because it was close to the public pool in Matthews where mom used to take us swimming in the summer after we'd done all the vacuuming. I picked it because it was a zip code I recognized. "I don't think you want to stay there," my friend said to me on e-mail today. "I'll find you a different place." She said she hasn't visited the neighborhood much. She'd rather remember it the way it was.

I wrote e-mails to my aunt and cousin in Wilmington yesterday to give them our flight information. I closed each e-mail with "I'm really looking forward to coming home." And each time I pressed SEND, my heart opened. I am really looking forward to coming home. And I know that it isn't home. Not anymore. I know that what I remember has vanished with the thirty years of living that have happened since we moved. I know this in my head, and I know I'm still going to cry when I see it again with my body.

The picture at the top of this post is Idlewild Elementary School. This was my elementary school. The exterior is the same blue it was in the 1970s. See that window right behind the flagpole? That's where I sat my second grade year in Mrs. Whisenhunt's class. I looked out that window all the time at the traffic going by on Monroe Boulevard. In the warmer months, the windows were open because the school of course had no air conditioning. If we were lucky, and had a dime, we could get an ice cream sandwich after lunch on the warm days.

My sister and I could walk to the school. We were Beaver-Cleaver suburbia with our straight fine hair and matching backpacks. After school we played in the woods alongside the property. I learned to ride my red bike with the white banana seat in the school parking lot. I had a special tree in the playground I would sit under and read HARRIET THE SPY and write in my journal in all capital letters, just like Harriet. I loved this school.

In 1971, in the landmark case of Swann vs. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Charlotte schools were ordered by the federal courts to force integration through busing. I watched the sweet Baptist church women of my neighborhood march to the parking lot of Idlewild Elementary when the African-American children were getting off the buses and throw rocks at the five and six year old children. I watched them shout things I didn't remember hearing at church, and I saw the five and six year old children cry and cling to each other. I was bused 25 miles away to Lincoln Heights Elementary school. The bus ride to south Charlotte was the first time I'd ever seen the housing projects. The bus ride to south Charlotte showed me that suburbia wasn't life. I saw people on stoops of tiny row houses sleeping on couches. I saw drug deals on the corner. I saw poverty for the first time. What the white Baptist ladies thought was a black thing (or, you can imagine, an n-word thing) was most definitely not that. It was a poverty thing.

Because I am white and privileged, I was only bused one year before my parents pulled me and my sister out of the federally mandated system and placed us in private schools. But I couldn't go back to being an Izod-wearing preppie girl anymore. I had grown much more than a year during those long bus rides.

In 1981, we sold our house to an African-American family. Our next door neighbors, the man and woman who had given me my first New Testament, the man and woman who had literally saved my father's life in 1976 when he had his first heart attack, built a screaming orange fence on the property line between our house and theirs and never spoke to us again. Rocks were thrown at our house. A cross burned in our yard. Neighbors who had once brought us chicken and jello when dad was in the hospital called us "n----- lovers" (I can't even write the word it scalds me so) and swore that no n----- would ever move into that neighborhood. They held neighborhood meeting without us, and when we pulled away from the house for the last time to move to Phoenix, the only person waving goodbye was my friend Donna.

Today, I checked the demographics for Idlewild Elementary School. 53.8% African-American, 5.2% Asian, 28.8% Hispanic, 0.3% Native American, 2.4% multi-racial, and 9.6% white. 9.6% white. Guess there weren't enough stones to throw at the buses to keep the numbers as white as they wanted them in 1973.

The kids at the top of the blog are from Idlewild's 2007-2008 Odyssey of the Mind team. They won the state competition and will compete in May in Maryland for a national title. Go Idlewild Eagles!

They sure are beautiful kids, aren't they? Check out all the different colors. Check out all that smiling.

These kids come from my neighborhood.

My neighborhood.


Andi said...

I so appreciate the complexity of home that you delve into here. Sometimes I think my home - after I've lived in at least ten different houses - is the place that, on that day, I have memories. Sometimes I think it's where my parents are. Sometimes I think it's where I live. Sometimes it's nowhere except where the pain comes from.
Best wishes for your trip.

Laraine Herring said...

I agree completely. Home is so complicated. I've thought of it often in terms of when I felt safe -- those times are home. Or when I didn't know I couldn't be safe. Or maybe something even more complicated. I'm a kapha dosha -- I'm an earth woman -- very connected to land, and I didn't respond well to being lifted off of NC kicking and screaming. AZ hasn't connected with me, but knowing NC probably won't anymore either leaves me in limbo. What is home? There's a question for a book!