Because the piece below is long, I will give a short introduction. Feel free to skip this and go straight to the piece.
Most of what I write in general is true because I have no imagination, so I think this piece lays everything out for you. But here are some pointers for clarification. First, section ii is not meant to be sarcastic in any sense. Second, the neighborhood I’m referring to throughout is East Sac, or, more specifically, the “Fab Forties” (37th to 47th Street in East Sacramento). Third, section iv is heavily inspired by a class I visited at Mount Holyoke College in which we discussed what makes for a stereotypically good neighborhood. Fourth, I apologize that this reads like a journal entry; I wrote it recently, and I don’t think this is the final draft.
. . .
I never realized just how “American” my neighborhood is. I define “American” as like that setting in those deep-Southern romantic dramas, where knights do exist. And every girl with commitment issues “gets over them” in the last half hour of the film. More like fantasy dramas.
I’ve always seen my “Brownness” above everything else—I mean, I think of my color first, then my gender, then my class, then my neighborhood. I’ve never seen myself in those dramas (not because of my emotional unavailability, but) because of my color. That only White “American” kids could live out those big-screen fantasies. So my whole life was immediately disqualified from bearing any resemblance whatsoever to those films.
But now I walk through my neighborhood, and while I never forget my color, I process the scene without that lens. I see the local bank on the corner. I see young teens biking around, playing basketball, baseball in the park. I see the local mart (here it is a chain, but it has a small-town vibe to it, so it counts). I smell the marijuana. I see the expansive lawns with bright flowers and fountains and shabby lawns with parked cars, trucks. I see many bars, many bikes, many dogs, many children. I see those “vintage” pickup trucks so quintessential in those films, and I see couples.
My neighborhood is American because a Black man driving through was yelled at — Go back to your own neighborhood — and a firework thrown under his car. Fourth of July. He talked to me because I’m Brown. I bore witness to his story because I’m Brown. That made me a first-class citizen. That I could bear witness. No White person on that block would have heard that story. I alone had that privilege.
The Brown-skinned fear that comes with walking in my neighborhood — that’s American.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about that man with a bottle in one pale hand and a firework leaving his other. I am not surprised, and I do not hate that man. Of him I’m only in fear. That fear overcomes everything else. I felt that fear when sitting on the sidewalk across the street from people setting off fireworks; I only wanted to see the lights and colors.
He was in the middle of the street, only to set it down, but he was facing us, and I fought off the strongest impulse to flee. The first time I’ve had that impulse.
I live in a neighborhood with a very low crime rate.
I live in a neighborhood with a neighborhood watch.
I live in a neighborhood with big green parks. With playgrounds.
I live in a neighborhood with a grocery store at walking distance.
I live in a neighborhood with two pharmacies at walking distance.
I live in a neighborhood where people bike, skateboard, walk, run in the street.
I live in a neighborhood with lots of children and couples and dogs.
A man crossing the street toward us with a lit firework in his hand. Is he going to throw it at us? He’s walking right toward us. Should we run? My chest and legs ache with the urge to spring up and sprint as fast as I can away away from that White man with that bright firework. What happens to someone when a firework explodes in their face? Without the safety of a car? I do not want to get scorched. Run. Run.
It was months before I could walk through my neighborhood again without wanting to run back to my room, close the blinds, curl up, pull over the covers, shut my eyes. It took everything. It was months before I could walk through my neighborhood again without thinking about the Fourth of July and breathing faster, and trembling.