Reparation Ghosts

America’s greatest living poet, Kevin Coval, posted a photo on Instagram of spray-painted artwork on an abandoned building. His caption read: “there’s some ghosts in this house”.

Yes, indeed there are ghosts. And they’re whispering at my door.

For the past fifteen months I’ve shut the door on quite a few ghosts. I hear dead friends whisper “it’s ok to let me in now. to miss me. to mourn me”. There are the terrifying ghosts I’d boxed up and shoved into the southwest corner of my noggin. They’ve gotten loose. They’ve inched their way from the outer part of my field of vision to standing right in front of me. 

“Go out,” they command. “Talk to people. Meet friends. Make mistakes. Fail. Be brave.”

Then there are the ghosts of abandoned homes in Chicago. As the shutdown got rolling, anti-racist Zooms flew out of virtual networks and landed on my computer screen. I heard the voices and faces of Black families who were systematically denied family wealth in mid-century Chicago. Black and white activists explained contract-buying and redlining. Poets spoke of the mental wreckage caused by whites colonizing their neighborhoods.

I’m haunted by the stories in Beryl Satter’s 2009 book, “Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.” Unscrupulous brokers sold homes by contract and convinced Blacks they were making monthly mortgage payments. But there weren’t mortgages. They didn’t own their homes, didn’t build equity, couldn’t sell, and couldn’t pass the deeds on to their offspring. The massive housing scheme drained as much as $500 million from the Black community.

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about North Lawndale’s contract buyers in The Atlantic article The Case for Reparations.  He made the case. Denying Black families access to generational wealth through home ownership and other racist practices has caused the poverty, social ills and violence in the Black neighborhoods of the nation’s cities.

Coates had a solution. Reparations.  A word that makes a lot of people shiver came out of the Congressional closet where it had been languishing in a bill first introduced in 1989. About 12.5 million slaves were abducted from Africa. Reparations for their 35 million African-American descendants today would be approximately $1.5 to $2 trillion. 

White powerhouse hustlers say, ”The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead.” 

Oh those ghosts. They’re falling from the sky like rain and irrigating seeds of change. Evanston Illinois is the first place in the country to make housing reparations for Black families victimized by redlining, a practice that defined clear racial boundaries. The Evanston program is funded by (get this), marijuana sales. Illinois is expected to receive $1 billion in marijuana revenue in 2021. Uh. Oh. Someone may get the idea to use half of that for housing reparations for descendants of the swindled families in Chicago’s North Lawndale. 

That might satisfy the Chicago ghosts. Might not. I have a feeling it won’t satisfy the poets.

Mammy Minnie

Mammy Minnie

Her name was Minnie. At least that’s what we called her. When I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, “The Help,”  I was surprised that Stockett named one of her household maids Minny.  Perhaps Minnie is a mid-century modern name for black women who cared for white children, similar to Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”, one of the most iconic racist caricatures of black women ever created.

White families wouldn’t have consciously known how demeaning it was to replace a black woman’s given name with a generic. Nor would they have cared.

My family’s long-gone photo collection had a picture of Minnie surrounded by my toddler sisters and me. We were all born a year apart beginning in 1945 in post-war Annapolis. All the Navy officers had black help to clean, cook and iron for their families. When we moved to Washington, D.C. Minnie came with us. I don’t know if she ever lived with us but I do know she had her own family.

Her dark skin captivated me. I desperately wanted to touch her face, but feared her blackness would rub off, as if it were like the watercolors in my little tin paintbox. I’ve coveted curly hair my whole life, a direct result of knowing and wanting to be like black-mammyMinnie. She smelled as fresh as her starched dresses and aprons. In contrast, my parents and their friends had an unrelenting stench of cigarettes and beer.

Minnie was older than my mother. She may have been a grandmother, though I only knew the notion of age from my parents. My grandmothers were dead and I have no early memory of my grandfathers, nor any other old person.

My mother, Agnes, allowed my sisters and me to spend our own separate weekends at Minnie’s house. I don’t know whose idea this was. Surely no black woman would have volunteered to be responsible for the welfare and safety of a white child for a weekend. I like the idea of my mother introducing us to life in a black household, to expand our horizons, as it were. An unconventional mother, Agnes could have sent us off to the projects in southeast Washington just to shock the neighborhood swells. Then again, maybe all white parents foisted their youngsters onto the family lives of their maids.

Minnie had a white two-story new house full of people, food and laughs. The little girls around her home taught me to hopscotch. I played that game the rest of my childhood on the sidewalks of all the myriad towns my family moved in and out of. For years after, the words “projects” and “southeast Washington” evoked a neighborly feeling full of kindness and fun. I was safe there. Even now, with all the negative information packed inside my head about “the projects”, my thoughts are pierced by a loving instant, Minnie.

I never heard Minnie’s name again after we’d been evicted from our house in Washington. I hope she missed me.