This story appeared in the February 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
"It’s the dump! We’re in Saint Lou. . .sis.”
For the longest time, when we would drive to St. Louis to visit my parents and the handful of other relatives who were left, my son, then a toddler, had an interesting reference point that let him know we were very close.
Along Interstate 55/70, in Fairmont, Illinois, just east of downtown St. Louis, sits the Milam landfill. I used to see it when I traveled to school for a year at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, then later at my first daily newspaper job in Edwardsville. That was twenty-five years ago.
Driving by, I watched it grow as trash was trucked in, according to a recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “from St. Louis and as far away as Kansas, Ohio and Iowa . . . piled more than twenty stories high.”
Once we passed the dump, the Poplar Street Bridge was a few minutes away and the Gateway to the West, the Arch, was a far prettier sight to behold.
Unfortunately, my son’s gleeful reference to the dump was a reminder of how I’d grown to hate my hometown.
Hate is a strong word, and its banal use doesn’t do any good. I passionately dislike my hometown. That fits, even though it doesn’t quite capture my deep, fatalistic feelings for a town that I thought was the greatest city when I was, well, my son’s age.
Forest Park, one of the country’s great public parks, was literally two blocks away from my house, as was Art Hill, one of the nation’s great sledding hills. The park contained one of largest zoos in the country, a great art museum, and a planetarium—all free. There were 1904 World’s Fair pavilions still intact.
A large, Carnegie-built library downtown, Busch Stadium, the Arch and riverfront—all within easy driving or a cheap bus ride (when I was a little older).
I thought I was a prince of the city when my dad, then a civil engineer, and I would go to construction projects around town, or on Saturday morning trips to Union Market downtown. We’d look for fruit, vegetables, and meat, and he would answer, in his most patient way, my every strange question about life, the universe, and why the St. Louis football Cardinals always managed to break our hearts.
I had a marvelous family, extended family, friends, well-wishers . . .
I was in St. Louis in August, visiting my mother for her seventieth birthday, when Michael Brown and Darren Wilson met on a Ferguson street for the first and last time. My brothers were there, as were our wives, sons, and daughters. So was my uncle, Moses Andrew, my father’s brother; he moved in to help out mom after my dad died in May 2013.
We all sat around the TV and watched from the very early moments, as the news crews gathered, and the crowds gathered, and the police gathered, and the politicians gathered. Fools talked and talked and talked. And rocks and bottles and bullets and fires disrupted the protests. And people who didn’t live in Ferguson pointed with anger and said “those people” ought to be ashamed.
The oddity, however, was that St. Louis became the epicenter of a crisis that went national. As black neighborhoods around the country burned in the late 1960s, St. Louis did not. When unrest hit cities after the Rodney King verdict, St. Louis was largely silent. Indeed, the silence was a matter of pride for one white TV anchor.
Thankfully, St. Louis didn’t burn. No, the city’s northside—where the black community existed—fell apart from the weight of numerous conditions: desegregation paved the way for families to move to places like Ferguson; gangs and drugs moved in; and neglect from the city’s establishment killed the rest.
I have written about Ferguson and what it meant nationally, but I was leery about lifting the lid off my life in St. Louis. Was I bored, after writing so much about it, my editor asked? No, but remembering is painful. There were good times with my family, and later, the formation of who I was to become as a twenty-something bar hopping and band-chasing writer for newspapers and magazines.
But, even before Ferguson exploded, my visits conjured up plenty of ghosts that still grind on my psyche. I could remember a friend in second grade telling me that his father referred to Martin Luther King as Martin Lucifer Coon. I can still hear the word “nigger” being whispered or yelled behind my back in high school. I remember my parents crying when they heard that a young man who lived down the street walked home wet and smelling of piss when a car full of white kids stopped and threw a bucket of urine at him.
I remember being told by the landlord of a southside girl (read: white) I liked that we couldn’t talk on the porch because he didn’t like niggers and he would throw her and her mom out of their apartment. Ironically, I was wearing my JROTC uniform. I never talked to her again.
I remember two officers banging on the door one Sunday morning. My mother answered, and was told by this John Wayne-looking guy, and his partner, Richie Cunningham, that she was being arrested. Parking tickets.
I shit you not.
My mother, who was moving out of editing and into writing, was not in the mood to play that morning. Parking tickets, she barked. This is crazy. I’ll pay them on Monday.
No, you’re going right now.
Officer, my infirmed grandmother said, in a respectful tone, we don’t need all this acrimony on a Sunday—
Sit down, old woman!
And that’s when Patricia C. McKissack went all Angela Davis. My mother sat on the steps in the foyer. John Wayne pulled his cuffs. Pat sat on her hands.
Hell, no. I’m not moving. Not today.
I ain’t puttin’ up with this, the cop said, putting his hand on his holster.
Well, it’s a good goddamn day to die.
I look at Richie Cunningham, and he looks at me, and we both seem to be having the same thought: This is going to get much worse.
The door had been open and the commotion had drawn neighbors from all over Pershing Avenue.
And just as it looked like we were headed for a mini Sunday Bloody Sunday, my father shows up from his Sunday ritual: buy a cup of coffee and read the Sunday Post-Dispatch in the car. (My father was Tepper before Calvin Trillin wrote his novel.)
Dad, confused, walked toward this cluster-cuss: a crowd of people out in front of his house, two cops, his wife, his mother leaning on her walker, and his three sons. Only an hour earlier, life was quiet.
As my father walked into the house, a district lieutenant showed up: Richard Roundtree, to continue the pop culture motif, and he looked as though he wanted to Three Stooges slap everybody. He hustled the officers out of the house. Got my parents to promise that they would, on Monday, pay the parking tickets.
Then, as fast as they arrived, the police left.
The theory as to why John Wayne showed up was this: He guessed that he was dealing with a single black woman. The car in question was in my mother’s name. He figured, low hanging fruit.
My father tried to soothe my mother’s nerves. He tried to hug it out of her, but he was in too much anger himself. What if the gun had been pulled? What if John Wayne drew on my unarmed father as a would-be attacker?
The moment didn’t define St. Louis for me, but it solidified all the angst that had grown inside of me as I grew from wide-eyed boy to cynical late teen.
My stories are mine, but when I talk to other black people from St. Louis, we recognize that our indignities are similar. And, it can’t be quantified; the conclusion is that St. Louis’s racism is just so much more fucked up than anywhere else.
Even when I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, the specter of the Dred Scott decision always had a place in the minds of black people I knew. St. Louis was the epicenter of that case. At barbershops, churches, family grill-outs, b-ball chill-outs, whenever the subject of race would inevitably come up, someone would mention Dred Scott.
For me, even now, when I walk by the Old Courthouse, I think about Dred Scott. Yet, my father’s construction company thirty-plus years ago laid new bricks around the courthouse—bricks that are uneven as time, nature, and the neglect that trumps even the best craftsmanship. It was a big contract and he was proud of it. For my father, the contract was proof that black folks had survived the Dred Scott decision. It was, he said, a dual function of perseverance and paranoia that had saved black Americans from extinction.
In 1995, my parents moved from their home of twenty-five years to a cul-de-sac in a secluded area of Chesterfield. They have the most caring neighbors. The sort of people who smile and wave, and I’ve gotten to know them and enjoy seeing them.
My parents didn’t want to move from their home in the city, but the neighborhood had changed. If you want to know how fast things can change with crack, read Ishmael Reed’s essays about how it destroyed black dreams in Oakland.
The neighborhood I grew up in was full of working and middle-class people, folks who tended their yards and flowers with the skill of master gardeners. There were some houses that had, as the old heads would say, “that faraway look.” But in the spring and summer, it was showtime. I mean we’d ride our bikes or run all day; we’d play hide-and-seek at night, as our parents sat out and sipped beer or cocktails and took in the idea of urban contentment.
Less than twenty years later, the soul had been stripped.
My dad was nearly killed by a drug dealer when he went out the front door to try to rescue a young man from being beaten to death in front of his house. What saved him was people telling the dealer that this was Mr. Fred. A good man.
A’ight. A’ight, the dealer said. But next time both them muthafuckers are going.
Not too long after that, my parents moved. They were, I think, the last of their friends to leave the city.
In the St. Louis metropolitan area, only one police department has minority representation equal to or greater than the racial makeup of the community. Of the fifty-five officers employed by the Ferguson department only three were African American.
For all the memes decrying the support of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as a support for lawlessness, the racial composition of the power structure is too important to dismiss because it adds to the siege mentality of black citizens in Ferguson and other hyper-segregated towns and cities.
Integrated departments aren’t a panacea. To paraphrase comedian Larry Wilmore on The Daily Show, this isn’t black men versus white cops, it’s blacks versus police. You can diversify the workforce, but if the training is the same, it’s not out of bounds to assume that the results will be the same: a mutual distrust between blacks and police officers.
Consider the parking ticket crisis: there were three distinct personalities among the police present: John Wayne, Richie Cunningham, and Richard Roundtree. Too many stories from too many people I know see police officers as John Wayne types, just as, it appears, too many police officers see black men as criminals in waiting.
Bob McCulloch, the county prosecutor, only added fuel to that fire by doing what is damn near impossible to do: not win an indictment against Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. McCulloch, a Democrat, is part of a power structure that had long courted black votes but continues to play white overseer rather than act as true guardians of truth and justice.
From Dred Scott to this debacle of a grand jury in the Michael Brown case, how can those in power dare to ask black people to keep the faith?
After Ferguson, I started telling people that if my mother did not live in St. Louis, I wouldn’t visit. I can watch the baseball Cardinals on television. Clearly, St. Louis does not need me. But to be honest, while it sounds funny, it actually hurts to say it, because I know there’s more to the place. There are whole sections of town that have changed dramatically—places where I was once fearful or forbidden by unspoken racial rules to go as a teenager and young adult. Yet the ghosts are still there and I can’t shake them. The socialization is too engrained for me to overlook.
My angst over my hometown is my lived experience. However, the experiences have a universal feel. For example, I love Milwaukee. I loved living there in the early 2000s, just as the city was undergoing a renaissance. However, there are black and white friends and acquaintances who lived through its turbulent racial past—from police brutality to intense school and housing discrimination—and still see things about the city that I do not recognize. (For a history lesson, I suggest reading Barbara Miner’s Lessons from the Heartland, which details the struggle to desegregate Milwaukee schools and the city.)
Wide-eyed newcomers ought not dismiss anger about the past. There can’t be a future by burying the past with boutiques and microbrews and wishes for postracial America.
There are no ghosts personally haunting me in Milwaukee. Or Chicago. Or Fort Wayne.
Just the ghosts of my St. Louis past. And the farther away I am, the softer the voices become.
Still, I can’t dump them.