Paying Homage to Black Space in Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”

Becoming .jpg

Like every black woman in the United States, I sprinted to buy Michelle Obama’s Becoming when it was released in late 2018. For a quick second, I thought about buying an electronic copy, but as soon as I saw my forever first lady’s beautiful smile and flowy hair in front of an angelic blue background, I knew I needed my very own hard copy. In 2016, I wrote a piece titled “Once Upon a Time, Our FLOTUS was Black” which paid homage to Michele Obama and all she represented as the first black First Lady of the United States, so when I began reading “Becoming” I felt overwhelming excitement that I was being brought into her world and getting to get to know her on a more personal level (because of course, she’s my best friend in my head!).

 Nothing surprised me about the way the book was written or Michelle’s honesty about her life because even throughout her family’s presidency, she always had a vibe of authenticity and connectedness that made her so relatable.  

 As an urban planner, one of the things I appreciated most about Becoming was Michelle’s description of black spaces through her life – in her childhood home in Chicago, at Princeton where she reflected on finding her tribe, and even in the White House where her family worked hard to create and be in community with other people of color despite navigating their predominately white environment. I decided to go back to the text and pull out the accounts that stood out to me the most so here are a few.

Michelle obama’s childhood home. southside, chicago.https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/celebrity-homes/g4121/first-ladies-childhood-homes/?slide=3

Michelle obama’s childhood home. southside, chicago.https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/celebrity-homes/g4121/first-ladies-childhood-homes/?slide=3

1. Aunt Robbie’s House – Michelle grew up in a house in Southside, Chicago where she lived with her mother, father, brother, great aunt, Terry, and Terry’s husband. She and her family rented the second floor of the house, while Terry and her husband lived on the first. As Michelle describes her multigenerational upbringing, I am reminded of how common this story is within the black community. Historically, we have opened the doors of our homes to those outside of our nuclear family, carving out small rooms and even floors for our relatives, and sometimes outsiders, to reside. I think back to my own experience in New York City, where my mom, brother and I lived with my aunt Mildred who had migrated from the South in her 20s to live in New York City. As Michelle talks about great aunt Terry, we get the sense that she was a stern and curt woman, but we also learn how growing up during Jim Crow impacted her life, how she “carried around an unseen history” (p.7).  The beauty of great aunt Terry’s home is that it reminds us of the complex memories and lived experiences of black folk living under one roof.

the Carl A. Field’s Center for Equality and Cultural understandinghttps://www.archdaily.com/140245/princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects/50148dcc28ba0d395000051d-princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects-photo

the Carl A. Field’s Center for Equality and Cultural understandinghttps://www.archdaily.com/140245/princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects/50148dcc28ba0d395000051d-princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects-photo

2. Princeton’s Third World Center (TWC).  Renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in 2002, TWC was homeplace for many of Princeton’s students of color, including Michelle Obama. During a time where black students represented only 9% of Michelle’s freshman class, she found community with other students of color in this space. These types of spaces matter, especially at historically white institutions where students of color are often expected and sometimes even required to adjust to and navigate spaces that were created to exclude them. Recently, Dr. Eric Grollman, a sociology professor at The University of Richmond wrote a piece about the toxic culture of cisgender, heteronormative white supremacy at the University of Richmond (I know. Heavy stuff, but a good one). In it he writes, “campus buildings are overwhelmingly named in honor of white men donors and former university presidents. Worse, some of these men are known for their active resistance to equality”(The Collegian). Even growing up in Southside Chicago, Michelle was used to way more diversity than Princeton offered. Like many people of color who endure TWI’s, our survival literally depends on having access to spaces where we feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, some universities don’t even offer full lodging for students of color to access this, but Michelle describes how this space became a safe haven for students.

black kids at play in chicago. 1950s. https://mymodernmet.com/southside-chicago-great-migration/

black kids at play in chicago. 1950s. https://mymodernmet.com/southside-chicago-great-migration/

3. South Side Chicago. Michelle has always claimed her Southside roots. She describes how during her time at Princeton when asked where she was from, she’d always say Chicago, and add South Side with great pride. She recognized that this probably evoked images of crime, destitution, and poverty in the minds of her wealthy Princeton peers, but she didn’t feel ashamed of where she was from.  “Southside,” she writes, “was something entirely different from what got shown on tv…home was my past, connected by gossamer threads to where I am now” (p. 85).  Even today, whenever someone asks me where I am from, I say Manhattan and am always sure to add Harlem, “the upper Westside,” to be exact.  These urban spaces, although portrayed as poverty stricken neighborhoods in the media, are home to extraordinarily black folks. They represent our roots, our pride, and places that reflect our identity and resilience. No matter how far removed we are from them, when we claim our spaces, we remind people that, “yes, even the First Lady can come from the Southside of Chicago.”

I’d share more, but I don’t want to tell you everything. If you are interested in learning about how Michelle Obama pays homage to black space in her text, I definitely recommend reading Becoming. And if you didn’t pay attention to the ways she reminds us of exactly who she is and where she’s from, read it again. It’s worth it.

 

 

On Being a Conscious Tourist and Celebrating Blackness During Our Travels

I’ve been to New Orleans a few times before, but during my most recent trip I decided that I wanted to be more intentional about exploring the city. Admittedly, when I’ve gone before I’ve been the girl on Bourbon and Frenchman streets who didn’t venture out much past the French Quarters. Wait, I lied. I drove outside of the city to do a good ol’ gator tour, which was actually a disappointment because I didn’t get to see any alligators up close. Apparently, this happens from time to time.  In any case, this time around I decided I wanted to do things a little differently. I wanted to explore and get to know a different part of the city, and most importantly, I wanted to be intentional about supporting black and other minority owned businesses in New Orleans.

The Airbnb I stayed in located in the Ninth Ward.

The Airbnb I stayed in located in the Ninth Ward.

It is no surprise that post Hurricane Katrina, the redevelopment efforts throughout the city have been high key predatory and racist. From companies like Airbnb to private developers coming in to take advantage of abandoned and low cost properties, the poor, working class, and people of color bear the brunt of these redevelopment efforts. When I first arrived to the city, I drove through the Lower Ninth ward to visit Cafe Dauphine for brunch, and I was surprised by how many abandoned homes there still were. I would soon hear stories from black New Orleanians about how many of their family members had decided not to return to rebuild and how the city prioritized rebuilding the tourist areas. They weren’t surprised, and honestly, neither was I. Side Note: Cafe Dauphine was closed when I went but TRUST that I will be back when I visit again.

My Airbnb didn’t have all of the amenities like the ones I would have gotten staying somewhere more upscale or in a hotel, but it was home, in a neighborhood where other black folk lived. That was important to me. And I felt safe.

Being hyper aware of the way people of color have been treated post Katrina, I told myself that I wanted to be a tourist who took some time to venture out, to get to know locals. My people. Unless you know someone, lodging in New Orleans provides you two options: a hotel or an Air Bnb. I didn’t want to pay the outrageous prices for a hotel so I decided to do an Airbnb, and recognizing the contentious housing environment Airbnb has created for working class residents, I was adamant about renting a home owned or rented by a black person. And so I did. I stayed in a nice little shot gun home in the Ninth Ward. A big shout out to my host Tess, a black woman who was born and raised in New Orleans. My Airbnb didn’t have all of the amenities like the ones I would have gotten staying somewhere more upscale or in a hotel, but it was home, in a neighborhood where other black folk lived. That was important to me. And I felt safe. In fact, anytime my friend and I left the Airbnb, we were met by our elderly neighbor. When we opened our door, she opened hers. “Y’all be safe okay? And have fun. And make sure you come to see me before y’all leave, okay?”  “Yes ma’am,” we said in unison. Oh yes, she was the proverbial prayin’ grandma we all have.

Congo Square. In 1724, slaves were permitted to visit during their days off on Sunday. They would come here to dance, sing, drum, and eventually sell goods.

Congo Square. In 1724, slaves were permitted to visit during their days off on Sunday. They would come here to dance, sing, drum, and eventually sell goods.

Louis Armstrong Park

Louis Armstrong Park

My second choice was to create a list of potential things to do throughout the city that had to do with black culture, where I knew I’d be supporting a minority owned business in some way and where I’d encounter other black people.  During my 3 days there, I visited Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, which is a public space that does a phenomenal job of commemorating New Orleans’ African American greats. When I walked into the park, I was met by a statue of black jazz players, trumpets and saxophones in hand. A few feet away was a memorial dedicated to the African American slaves who would come to Congo square on Sundays to dance, sing, celebrate and eventually sell goods in order to earn money to buy their freedom. At the back of the park is the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Theater. The park is designed in such as way that as you move through the space, you can either relax and lounge or become engrossed in a part of black history.

Another place I visited was Studio Be, which is owned by a black visual artist, B-mike, who uses his art to tell stories and make bold statements. His work is truly transformative and visceral, and most importantly, it is a reminder to the world that people of color are beautiful, strong, and persistent.

I wanted them to know, “I see you” and “I appreciate you” because so many people are conditioned to unsee our blackness.

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Finally, while this is never an issue for me because I believe wholeheartedly in respecting people no matter who they are and what they do, I made an even more conscious effort to be kind and thoughtful to the folks that served me at restaurants, bars and other retail spaces. The reality is that in cities with successful tourist economies, the service industry is crucial. People of color often make up a significant portion of service sector jobs. In New Orleans, most of my waiters and waitresses were black men and women. I sometimes witnessed the disregard for who they were as people or the overall non-chalantness towards them by the people they served. I wanted them to know, “I see you” and “I appreciate you” because so many people are conditioned to unsee our blackness.

Tourist economies have changed the fabric of our neighborhoods and our culture has been commodified by local governments in order to attract tourist who want to consume black culture but have nothing to do with black people.

Being aware of the historical narratives of the cities we travel to is crucial to being a responsible tourist. Understanding the spaces we inhabit and move through, if only for a few days, is how we acknowledge the people who call our temporary destinations home. For people of color throughout this country, our land and homes have historically been up for grabs. Physically and psychologically, we have suffered from displacement. Tourist economies have changed the fabric of our neighborhoods and our culture has been commodified by local governments in order to attract tourist who want to consume black culture but have nothing to do with black people.

In the same ways that buy black movements have become a priority for us within the cities we live in an effort to keep our dollars within our communities, we can also take this mindset with us as we travel and explore new cities and destinations. I challenge you to be intentional about how you experience the spaces you visit. I urge you to dig deeper into the various ways you can support minority businesses during your trips and to seek out the spaces that have meaning and value to our culture, that tell our stories, and that uplift who we are. More importantly, I encourage you to treat the black and brown folk who serve, greet, and nurture you during your travels with love, kindness, and respect.

Here is a list of things to do as a Black traveler in NOLA.

Until the next black space blog…