Lessons of the 'hood

November 05, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

YOU don't belong here any more." She didn't say it with hostility, but she said it nevertheless. An observation, a bland statement of fact between friends. "You don't belong here anymore."

We were back home in Los Angeles, my wife Marilyn and I, for our high school reunion. We had given one of our classmates a ride, dropping her off in the old neighborhood, where wrought-iron bars cover every window and cautious people don't venture out after dark.

That's when she said it: "You don't belong here anymore."

It is, of course, the last thing you want to hear if you're a black child of the inner city who has moved on. It suggests that you've forgotten your way home, abandoned kin. That you think yourself "too good." Or worse, not black.

It is, of course, foolish to equate living on the rough side of town with being black. By that logic, neither Oprah Winfrey nor Michael Jordan qualifies. But logic has little to do with this.

So what she said stayed with us that night and for days afterward when we returned home to our house on a quiet street where there are no window bars and families stroll together in the twilight.

And we wondered. We really wondered. But a funny thing happened the other day. Marilyn and I were arranging furniture and I suggested placing a particular chair by the front window. The way my dear wife objected, you'd have thought I had suggested putting it on the roof.

You might figure she simply had a different arrangement in mind. That's what I thought at first. What she thought, too. When the truth dawned upon us a few moments later, we were dumbfounded. Didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

You see, back in the old neighborhood, anyone foolish enough to sit near a front window was begging to be caught in street gang cross-fire. Begging to be killed.

I'm reminded of how I once spent the first few moments of every New Year lying flat on my stomach, far from the windows. You see, folks in the old neighborhood used to celebrate the holiday by getting drunk and firing guns blindly. The 10 minutes before and after midnight sounded like war.

"You don't belong here anymore," the lady said. And indeed, it has been nearly 15 years since we left. But some things you never forget. So here we are, all these years later, filled with survival skills left over from another life. Discovering that they were still in us was sobering. And yet, strangely reassuring, too.

It told me that we never lost the things we feared we had, never betrayed what we once wore. We only became children of two places, of a duality that challenges even our own preconceptions of who and what we are. A duality that is perhaps most succinctly expressed in the fact that, when New Year's Eve comes, my new chair will be placed by the front window, but I won't be sitting in it.

It's silly, I know. Silly, yet the past defines us, constrains us, grounds us, in ways that have little to do with what does or does not make sense.

That's true whether you're a woman hoarding pennies out of some memory of Depression indigence. Or some old soldier living with the ghosts of Normandy. Or just children of the slums who've somehow managed to land in a place of white picket fences, 2.5 kids and soccer practices.

Each of us is the sum of many parts, a compromise among what we were, what we are and what we aspire.

"You don't belong here anymore," she said. Maybe she had a point. And yet I find that, in ways both large and small, we never really left.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Miami Herald columnist. His e-mail address: elpjay@aol.com.

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