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فصل 03

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Somewhere along the way, my normally laid-back brother started to sprout worries. I can’t say exactly when or why this began, but Craig—the boy who could high-five and what-up his way around the neighborhood, who blithely catnapped anytime he had ten free minutes, regardless of his surroundings—grew more fretful and vigilant at home, convinced that catastrophe was creeping our way. In the evenings at our apartment, he rehearsed for every outcome, immersing himself in hypotheticals the rest of us found bizarre. Worried he’d lose his sight, he took to wearing a blindfold around the house, learning to navigate our living room and kitchen by feel. Worried he might go deaf, he began teaching himself sign language. There was also apparently the threat of amputation, prompting Craig to fumble his way through various meals and homework sessions with his right arm tied behind his back. Because you never did know.

Craig’s biggest fear, however, was also probably the most realistic, and that was fire. House fires were a regular occurrence in Chicago, in part due to slumlords who let their buildings slide into disrepair and were all too happy to reap the insurance benefits when a fire tore through, and in part because home smoke detectors were a relatively new development and still expensive for working-class people to afford. Either way, inside our tight city grid, fire was almost a fact of life, a random but persistent snatcher of homes and hearts. My grandfather Southside had moved to our neighborhood after a fire destroyed his old house on the West Side, though luckily nobody’d been hurt. (According to my mother, Southside stood on the curb outside the burning house, shouting for the firefighters to direct their hoses away from his precious jazz albums.) More recently, in a tragedy almost too giant for my young mind to take in, one of my fifth-grade classmates—a boy with a sweet face and a tall Afro named Lester McCullom, who lived around the corner from us in a town house on Seventy-Fourth Street—had died in a fire that also killed his brother and sister, the three of them trapped by flames in bedrooms upstairs.

Theirs was the first wake I ever attended: every kid in the neighborhood sobbing at the funeral parlor as a Jackson 5 album played softly in the background; the adults stunned into silence, no prayer or platitude capable of filling the void. There were three closed caskets at the front of the room, each one with a framed photograph of a smiling child on its lid. Mrs. McCullom, who with her husband had managed to survive the fire by jumping out a window, sat before them, so slumped and broken that it hurt to look in her direction.

For days afterward, the skeleton of the McCulloms’ burned-out town house continued to hiss and cave in on itself, dying far more slowly than its young occupants had. The smell of smoke lingered heavily in the neighborhood.

As time passed, Craig’s anxieties only grew. At school, we’d been put through the paces of teacher-led evacuation drills, dutifully enduring lectures on how to stop, drop, and roll. And as a result, Craig decided that we needed to step it up on safety at home, electing himself the family fire marshal, with me as his lieutenant, ready to clear exit pathways during drills or boss around our parents as needed. We weren’t so much convinced we’d have a fire as we were fixated on being ready for one. Preparation mattered. Our family was not just punctual; we arrived early to everything, knowing that it made my dad less vulnerable, sparing him from having to worry about finding a parking spot that didn’t require him to walk a long way or an accessible seat in the bleachers at one of Craig’s basketball games. The lesson being that in life you control what you can.

To this end, as kids, we ran through our escape-route possibilities, trying to guess whether we could jump from a window to the oak tree in front of the house or to a neighbor’s rooftop in the event of a fire. We imagined what would happen if a grease fire broke out in the kitchen, or if an electrical fire started in the basement, or if lightning struck from above. Craig and I had little concern about our mom in an emergency. She was small and agile and one of those people who, if her adrenaline got going, could probably bench-press a car off a baby. What was harder to talk about was Dad’s disability—the obvious but unstated truth that he couldn’t readily leap from a window like the rest of us, and it had been years since we’d seen him run.

Should things get scary, we realized, our rescue wouldn’t unfold the way rescues did in the tidy after-school movies we watched on TV. It would not be our dad who’d throw us over his shoulder with Herculean grace and carry us to safety. If anyone, it would have to be Craig, who would eventually tower over my father but was then still a narrow-shouldered, spindle-legged boy who seemed to understand that any heroics on his part would require practice. Which is why during our family fire drills, he started conjuring the worst-case scenarios, ordering my dad to the floor, instructing him to lie there limp and heavy as a sack, as if he’d passed out from smoke inhalation.

“Oh, good Lord,” Dad would say, shaking his head. “You’re really going to do this?”

My father was not accustomed to being helpless. He lived his life in defiance of that very prospect, assiduously looking after our car, paying the bills on time, never discussing his advancing multiple sclerosis nor missing a day of work. To the contrary, my father loved to be the rock for others. What he couldn’t do physically, he substituted with emotional and intellectual guidance and support, which is why he enjoyed his work as a precinct captain for the city’s Democratic Party. He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees. Even if he’d been half forced into it, though, my dad loved the job, which baffled my mother given the amount of time it demanded. He paid weekend visits to a nearby neighborhood to check in on his constituents, often with me reluctantly in tow. We’d park the car and walk along streets of modest bungalows, landing on a doorstep to find a hunched-over widow or a big-bellied factory worker with a can of Michelob peering through the screen door. Often, these people were delighted by the sight of my father smiling broadly on their porch, propped up by his cane.

“Well, Fraser!” they’d say. “What a surprise. Get on in here.”

For me, this was never good news. It meant we were going inside. It meant that my whole Saturday afternoon would now get sucked up as I got parked on a musty sofa or with a 7UP at a kitchen table while my dad fielded feedback—complaints, really—that he’d then pass on to the elected alderman who controlled the ward. When somebody had problems with garbage pickup or snow plowing or was irritated by a pothole, my dad was there to listen. His purpose was to help people feel cared for by the Democrats—and to vote accordingly when elections rolled around. To my dismay, he never rushed anyone along. Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people. He clucked approvingly at pictures of cute grandkids, patiently endured gossip and long litanies of health woes, and nodded knowingly at stories about how money was tight. He hugged the old ladies as we finally left their houses, assuring them he’d do his best to be useful—to get the fixable issues fixed.

My dad had faith in his own utility. It was a point of pride. Which is why at home during our fire drills he had little interest in being a passive prop, even in a pretend crisis. He had no intention, under any circumstance, of being a liability—of winding up the unconscious guy on the floor. But still, some part of him seemed to understand that this mattered to us—to Craig in particular. When we asked him to lie down, he’d humor us, dropping first to his knees, then to his butt, then spreading himself out obligingly, faceup on the living room carpet. He’d exchange glances with my mother, who found it all a little funny, as if to say, These damn kids.

With a sigh, he’d close his eyes, waiting to feel Craig’s hands hook themselves solidly beneath his shoulders to start the rescue operation. My mother and I would then watch as, with no small amount of effort and a good deal of awkwardness, my brother managed to drag 170 or so pounds of paternal deadweight backward through the imaginary inferno that raged in his preadolescent mind, hauling my father across the floor, rounding the couch, and finally making it to the stairwell.

From here, Craig figured he could probably slide my dad’s body down the stairs and out the side door to safety. My father always refused to let him practice this part, saying gently, “That’s enough now,” and insisting on getting back to his feet before Craig could try to lug him down the stairs. But between the small man and the grown man, the point had been made. None of this would be easy or comfortable if it came to it, and there were, of course, no guarantees that any of us would survive. But if the very worst happened, we at least had a plan.

Slowly, I was becoming more outward and social, more willing to open myself up to the messes of the wider world. My natural resistance to chaos and spontaneity had been worn down somewhat through all the hours I’d spent trailing my father through his precinct visits, plus all the other weekend outings we made, dropping in on our dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, sitting in thick clouds of barbecue smoke in someone’s backyard or running around with neighborhood kids in a neighborhood that wasn’t ours.

My mother was one of seven children in her family. My father was the oldest of five. My mom’s relatives tended to gather at Southside’s house around the corner—drawn by my grandfather’s cooking, the ongoing games of bid whist, and the exuberant blasting of jazz. Southside acted as a magnet for all of us. He was forever mistrustful of the world beyond his own yard—worried primarily about everyone’s safety and well-being—and as a result poured his energy into creating an environment where we were always well fed and entertained, likely with the hope we’d never want to move away from it. He even got me a dog, an affable, cinnamon-colored shepherd mutt we called Rex. Per my mother’s orders, Rex wasn’t allowed to live at our house, but I’d visit him all the time at Southside’s, lying on the floor with my face buried in his soft fur, listening to his tail thwap appreciatively anytime Southside walked past. Southside spoiled the dog the same way he spoiled me, with food and love and tolerance, all of it a silent, earnest plea never to leave him.

My father’s family, meanwhile, sprawled across Chicago’s broader South Side and included an array of great-aunts and third cousins, plus a few stray outliers whose blood connection remained cloudy. We orbited between all of them. I quietly assessed where we were going by the number of trees I’d see on the street outside. The poorer neighborhoods often had no trees at all. But to my dad, everyone was kin. He lit up when he saw his uncle Calio, a skinny, wavy-haired little man who looked like Sammy Davis Jr. and was almost always drunk. He adored his aunt Verdelle, who lived with her eight children in a neglected apartment building next to the Dan Ryan Expressway, in a neighborhood where Craig and I understood that the rules of survival were very different.

On Sunday afternoons, all four of us normally took the ten-minute drive north to Parkway Gardens to eat dinner with my dad’s parents, whom we called Dandy and Grandma, and his three youngest siblings, Andrew, Carleton, and Francesca, who’d been born more than a decade after my father and thus seemed more like sister and brothers to us than aunt and uncles. My father, I thought, seemed more like a father and less like a brother with the three of them, offering them advice and slipping them cash when they needed it. Francesca was smart and beautiful and sometimes let me brush her long hair. Andrew and Carleton were in their early twenties and dazzlingly hip. They wore bell-bottoms and turtlenecks. They owned leather jackets, had girlfriends, and talked about things like Malcolm X and “soul power.” Craig and I passed hours in their bedroom at the back of the apartment, just trying to sponge up their cool.

My grandfather, also named Fraser Robinson, was decidedly less fun to be around, a cigar-puffing patriarch who’d sit in his recliner with a newspaper open on his lap and the evening news blaring on the television nearby. His demeanor was nothing like my father’s. For Dandy, everything was an irritant. He was galled by the day’s headlines, by the state of the world as shown on TV, by the young black men—“boo-boos,” he called them—whom he perceived to be hanging uselessly around the neighborhood, giving black people everywhere a bad name. He shouted at the television. He shouted at my grandmother, a sweet, soft-spoken woman and devout Christian named LaVaughn. (My parents had named me Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, in honor of her.) By day, my grandmother expertly managed a thriving Bible bookstore on the Far South Side, but in her off-hours with Dandy she was reduced to a meekness I found perplexing, even as a young girl. She cooked his meals and absorbed his barrage of complaints and said nothing in her own defense. Even at a young age, there was something about my grandmother’s silence and passivity in her relationship with Dandy that got under my skin.

According to my mother, I was the only person in the family to talk back to Dandy when he yelled. I did it regularly, from the time I was very young and over many years, in part because it drove me crazy that my grandmother wouldn’t speak up for herself, in part because everyone else fell silent around him, and lastly because I loved Dandy as much as he confounded me. His stubbornness was something I recognized, something I’d inherited myself, though I hoped in a less abrasive form. There was also a softness in Dandy, which I caught only in glimmers. He tenderly rubbed my neck sometimes when I sat at the foot of his reclining chair. He smiled when my dad said something funny or one of us kids managed to slip a sophisticated word into a conversation. But then something would set him off and he’d start snarling again.

“Quit shouting at everyone, Dandy,” I’d say. Or, “Don’t be mean to Grandma.” Often, I’d add, “What’s got you so mad anyway?”

The answer to that question was both complicated and simple. Dandy himself would leave it unanswered, shrugging crankily in response to my interference and returning to his newspaper. Back at home, though, my parents would try to explain.

Dandy was from the South Carolina Low Country, having grown up in the humid seaport of Georgetown, where thousands of slaves once labored on vast plantations, harvesting crops of rice and indigo and making their owners rich. My grandfather, born in 1912, was the grandson of slaves, the son of a millworker, and the oldest of what would be ten children in his family. A quick-witted and intelligent kid, he’d been nicknamed “the Professor” and set his sights early on the idea of someday going to college. But not only was he black and from a poor family, he also came of age during the Great Depression. After finishing high school, Dandy went to work at a lumber mill, knowing that if he stayed in Georgetown, his options would never widen. When the mill eventually closed, like many African Americans of his generation he took a chance and moved north to Chicago, joining what became known as the Great Migration, in which six million southern blacks relocated to big northern cities over the course of five decades, fleeing racial oppression and chasing industrial jobs.

If this were an American Dream story, Dandy, who arrived in Chicago in the early 1930s, would have found a good job and a pathway to college. But the reality was far different. Jobs were hard to come by, limited at least somewhat by the fact that managers at some of the big factories in Chicago regularly hired European immigrants over African American workers. Dandy took what work he could find, setting pins in a bowling alley and freelancing as a handyman. Gradually, he downgraded his hopes, letting go of the idea of college, thinking he’d train to become an electrician instead. But this, too, was quickly thwarted. If you wanted to work as an electrician (or as a steelworker, carpenter, or plumber, for that matter) on any of the big job sites in Chicago, you needed a union card. And if you were black, the overwhelming odds were that you weren’t going to get one.

This particular form of discrimination altered the destinies of generations of African Americans, including many of the men in my family, limiting their income, their opportunity, and, eventually, their aspirations. As a carpenter, Southside wasn’t allowed to work for the larger construction firms that offered steady pay on long-term projects, given that he couldn’t join a labor union. My great-uncle Terry, Robbie’s husband, had abandoned a career as a plumber for the same reason, instead becoming a Pullman porter. There was also Uncle Pete, on my mother’s side, who’d been unable to join the taxi drivers’ union and instead turned to driving an unlicensed jitney, picking up customers who lived in the less safe parts of the West Side, where normal cabs didn’t like to go. These were highly intelligent, able-bodied men who were denied access to stable high-paying jobs, which in turn kept them from being able to buy homes, send their kids to college, or save for retirement. It pained them, I know, to be cast aside, to be stuck in jobs that they were overqualified for, to watch white people leapfrog past them at work, sometimes training new employees they knew might one day become their bosses. And it bred within each of them at least a basic level of resentment and mistrust: You never quite knew what other folks saw you to be.

As for Dandy, life wasn’t all bad. He met my grandmother while attending church on the South Side and ultimately found work through the federal government’s Works Progress Administration, the relief program that hired unskilled laborers for public construction projects during the Depression. He then went on to log thirty years as a postal worker before retiring with a pension that helped allow him all that time to yell at the boo-boos on TV from the comfort of his recliner.

In the end, he had five kids who were as smart and disciplined as he was. Nomenee, his second child, would end up with a degree from Harvard Business School. Andrew and Carleton would go on to become a train conductor and an engineer, respectively. Francesca worked as a creative director in advertising for a time and eventually became a grade school teacher. But still, Dandy would remain unable to see his children’s accomplishments as any sort of extension of his. As we saw every Sunday arriving at Parkway Gardens for dinner, my grandfather lived with the bitter residue of his own dashed dreams.

If my questions for Dandy were hard and unanswerable, I soon learned that many questions are just that way. In my own life, I was starting to encounter questions I couldn’t readily answer. One came from a girl whose name I can’t remember—one of the distant cousins who played with us in the backyard of one of my great-aunts’ bungalows farther west of us, part of the loosely related crowd that often turned up when my parents drove over for a visit. As the adults drank coffee and laughed in the kitchen, a parallel scene would unfold outside as Craig and I joined whatever pack of kids came with those adults. Sometimes it was awkward, all of us managing a forced camaraderie, but generally it worked out. Craig almost always disappeared into a basketball game. I’d jump double Dutch or try to fall into whatever banter was going on.

One summer day when I was about ten, I sat on a stoop, chatting with a group of girls my age. We were all in pigtails and shorts and basically just killing time. What were we discussing? It could have been anything—school, our older brothers, an anthill on the ground.

At one point, one of the girls, a second, third, or fourth cousin of mine, gave me a sideways look and said, just a touch hotly, “How come you talk like a white girl?”

The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place. It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.

“I don’t,” I said, looking scandalized that she’d even suggest it and mortified by the way the other girls were now staring at me.

But I knew what she was getting at. There was no denying it, even if I just had. I did speak differently than some of my relatives, and so did Craig. Our parents had drilled into us the importance of using proper diction, of saying “going” instead of “goin’ ” and “isn’t” instead of “ain’t.” We were taught to finish off our words. They bought us a dictionary and a full Encyclopaedia Britannica set, which lived on a shelf in the stairwell to our apartment, its titles etched in gold. Any time we had a question about a word, or a concept, or some piece of history, they directed us toward those books. Dandy, too, was an influence, meticulously correcting our grammar or admonishing us to enunciate our words when we went over for dinner. The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it. They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness—to inhabit it with pride—and this filtered down to how we spoke.

Yet it also could be problematic. Speaking a certain way—the “white” way, as some would have it—was perceived as a betrayal, as being uppity, as somehow denying our culture. Years later, after I’d met and married my husband—a man who is light-skinned to some and dark-skinned to others, who speaks like an Ivy League–educated black Hawaiian raised by white middle-class Kansans—I’d see this confusion play out on the national stage among whites and blacks alike, the need to situate someone inside his or her ethnicity and the frustration that comes when it can’t easily be done. America would bring to Barack Obama the same questions my cousin was unconsciously putting to me that day on the stoop: Are you what you appear to be? Do I trust you or not?

I passed the rest of that day trying to say less to my cousin, feeling put off by her hostility, but also wanting her to see me as genuine—not trying to flaunt some advantage. It was hard to know what to do. All the while, I could hear the trickle of conversation going on between the adults in the kitchen nearby, my parents’ laughter ringing easy and loud over the yard. I watched my brother in the flow of a sweaty game with a group of boys on the adjacent street corner. Everyone seemed to fit in, except for me. I look back on the discomfort of that moment now and recognize the more universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go. I also realize that I was a long way, still, from finding my voice.

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