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Home gradually began to feel more distant, almost like a place in my imagination. While I was in college, I kept up with a few of my high school friends, most especially Santita, who’d landed at Howard University in Washington, D.C. I went to visit her there over a long weekend and we laughed and had deep conversations, same as we always had. Howard’s campus was urban—“Girl, you’re still in the hood!” I teased, after a giant rat charged past us outside her dorm—and its student population, twice the size of Princeton’s, was almost entirely black. I envied Santita for the fact she was not isolated by her race—she didn’t have to feel that everyday drain of being in a deep minority—but still, I was content returning to the emerald lawns and vaulted stone archways of Princeton, even if few people there could relate to my background.
I was majoring in sociology, pulling good grades. I started dating a football player who was smart and spontaneous, who liked to have fun. Suzanne and I were now rooming with another friend, Angela Kennedy, a wiry, fast-talking kid from Washington, D.C. Angela had a quick, wacky wit and made a game of making us laugh. Despite being an urban black girl, she dressed like a preppy out of central casting, wearing saddle shoes and pink sweaters and somehow managing to pull off the look.
I was from one world but now lived fully in another, one in which people fretted about their LSAT scores and their squash games. It was a tension that never quite went away. At school, when anyone asked where I was from, I answered, “Chicago.” And to make clear that I wasn’t one of the kids who came from well-heeled northern suburbs like Evanston or Winnetka and staked some false claim on Chicago, I would add, with a touch of pride or maybe defiance, “the South Side.” I knew that if those words conjured anything at all, it was probably stereotyped images of a black ghetto, given that gang battles and violence in housing projects were what most often showed up in the news. But again, I was trying, if only half consciously, to represent the alternative. I belonged at Princeton, as much as anybody. And I came from the South Side of Chicago. It felt important to say out loud.
For me, the South Side was something entirely different from what got shown on TV. It was home. And home was our apartment on Euclid Avenue, with its fading carpet and low ceilings, my dad kicked back in the bucket of his easy chair. It was our tiny yard with Robbie’s blooming flowers and the stone bench where, what seemed like eons ago, I’d kissed that boy Ronnell. Home was my past, connected by gossamer threads to where I was now.
We did have one blood relative in Princeton, Dandy’s younger sister, whom we knew as Aunt Sis. She was a simple, bright woman who lived in a simple, bright house on the edge of town. I don’t know what brought Aunt Sis to Princeton originally, but she’d been there for a long time, doing domestic work for local families and never losing her Georgetown accent, which sits between a Low Country drawl and a Gullah lilt. Like Dandy, Aunt Sis had been raised in Georgetown, which I remembered from a couple of summer visits we’d made with my parents when I was a kid. I remembered the thick heat of the place and the heavy green drape of Spanish moss on the live oaks, the cypress trees rising from the swamps and the old men fishing on the muddy creeks. There were insects in Georgetown, alarming numbers of them, buzzing and whirring in the evening air like little helicopters.
We stayed with my great-uncle Thomas during our visits, another sibling of Dandy’s. He was a genial high school principal who’d take me over to his school and let me sit at his desk, who graciously bought me a tub of peanut butter when I turned my nose up at the enormous breakfasts of bacon, biscuits, and yellow grits that Aunt Dot, his wife, served every morning. I both loved and hated being in the South, for the simple reason that it was so different from what I knew. On the roads outside town, we’d drive past the gateways to what were once slave plantations, though they were enough of a fact of life that nobody ever bothered to remark on them. Down a lonely dirt road deep in the woods, we ate venison in a falling-down country shack belonging to some more distant cousins. One of them took Craig out back and showed him how to shoot a gun. Late at night, back at Uncle Thomas’s house, both of us had a hard time sleeping, given the deep silence, which was punctuated only by cicadas throbbing in the trees.
The hum of those insects and the twisting limbs of the live oaks stayed with us long after we’d gone north again, beating in us almost like a second heart. Even as a kid, I understood innately that the South was knit into me, part of my heritage that was meaningful enough for my father to make return visits to see his people there. It was powerful enough that Dandy wanted to move back to Georgetown, even though as a young man he’d needed to escape it. When he did return, it wasn’t to some idyllic little river cottage with a white fence and tidy backyard but rather (as I saw when Craig and I made a trip to visit) a bland, cookie-cutter home near a teeming strip mall.
The South wasn’t paradise, but it meant something to us. There was a push and pull to our history, a deep familiarity that sat atop a deeper and uglier legacy. Many of the people I knew in Chicago—the kids I’d gone to Bryn Mawr with, many of my friends at Whitney Young—knew something similar, though it was not explicitly discussed. Kids simply went “down south” every summer—shipped out sometimes for the whole season to run around with their second cousins back in Georgia, or Louisiana, or Mississippi. It seems likely that they’d had grandparents or other relatives who’d joined the Great Migration north, just as Dandy had from South Carolina, and Southside’s mother had from Alabama. Somewhere in the background was another more-than-decent likelihood—that they, like me, were descended from slaves.
The same was true for many of my friends at Princeton, but I was also coming to understand that there were other versions of being black in America. I was meeting kids from East Coast cities whose roots were Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican. Czerny’s relatives came from Haiti. One of my good friends, David Maynard, had been born into a wealthy Bahamian family. And there was Suzanne, with her Nigerian birth certificate and her collection of beloved aunties in Jamaica. We were all different, our lineages half buried or maybe just half forgotten. We didn’t talk about our ancestry. Why would we? We were young, focused only on the future—though of course we knew nothing of what lay ahead.
Once or twice a year, Aunt Sis invited me and Craig to dinner at her house on the other side of Princeton. She piled our plates with succulent fatty ribs and steaming collard greens and passed around a basket with neatly cut squares of corn bread, which we slathered with butter. She refilled our glasses with impossibly sweet tea and urged us to go for seconds and then thirds. As I remember it, we never discussed anything of significance with Aunt Sis. It was an hour or so of polite, go-nowhere small talk, accompanied by a hot, hearty South Carolina meal, which we shoveled in appreciatively, tired as we were of dining-hall food. I saw Aunt Sis simply as a mild-mannered, accommodating older lady, but she was giving us a gift we were still too young to recognize, filling us up with the past—ours, hers, our father’s and grandfather’s—without once needing to comment on it. We just ate, helped clean the dishes, and then walked our full bellies back to campus, thankful for the exercise.
Here’s a memory, which like most memories is imperfect and subjective—collected long ago like a beach pebble and slipped into the pocket of my mind. It’s from sophomore year of college and involves Kevin, my football-player boyfriend.
Kevin is from Ohio and a near-impossible combination of tall, sweet, and rugged. He’s a safety for the Tigers, fast on his feet and fearless with his tackles, and at the same time pursuing premed studies. He’s two years ahead of me at school, in the same class as my brother, and soon to graduate. He’s got a cute, slight gap in his smile and makes me feel special. We’re both busy and have different sets of friends, but we like being together. We get pizza and go out for brunch on weekends. Kevin enjoys every meal, in part because of the need to maintain his weight for football and because, beyond that, he has a hard time sitting still. He’s restless, always restless, and impulsive in ways I find charming.
“Let’s go driving,” Kevin says one day. Maybe he says it over the phone or it’s possible we’re already together when he gets the idea. Either way, we’re soon in his car—a little red compact—driving across campus toward a remote, undeveloped corner of Princeton’s property, turning down an almost-hidden dirt road. It’s spring in New Jersey, a warm clear day with open sky all around us.
Are we talking? Holding hands? I don’t recall, but the feeling is easy and light, and after a minute Kevin hits the brakes, rolling us to a stop. He’s halted alongside a wide field, its high grass stunted and straw-like after the winter but shot through with tiny early-blooming wildflowers. He’s getting out of the car.
“Come on,” he says, motioning for me to follow.
“What are we doing?”
He looks at me as if it should be obvious. “We’re going to run through this field.”
And we do. We run through that field. We dash from one end to the other, waving our arms like little kids, puncturing the silence with cheerful shouts. We plow through the dry grass and leap over the flowers. Maybe it wasn’t obvious to me initially, but now it is. We’re supposed to run through this field! Of course we are!
Plopping ourselves back in the car, Kevin and I are panting and giddy, loaded up on the silliness of what we’ve just done.
And that’s it. It’s a small moment, insignificant in the end. It’s still with me for no reason but the silliness, for how it unpinned me just briefly from the more serious agenda that guided my every day. Because while I was a social student who continued to lounge through communal mealtimes and had no problem trying to own the dance floor at Third World Center parties, I was still privately and at all times focused on the agenda. Beneath my laid-back college-kid demeanor, I lived like a half-closeted CEO, quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement, bent on checking every box. My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault, I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened onto the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.
Kevin, meanwhile, was someone who swerved—who even relished the swerve. He and Craig graduated from Princeton at the end of my sophomore year. Craig would end up moving to Manchester, England, to play basketball professionally. Kevin, I’d thought, was headed to medical school, but then he swerved, deciding to put off schooling and instead pursue a sideline interest in becoming a sports mascot.
Yes, that’s right. He’d set his sights on trying out for the Cleveland Browns—not as a player, but rather as a contender for the role of a wide-eyed, gape-mouthed faux animal named Chomps. It was what he wanted. It was a dream—another field to run through, because why the heck not? That summer, Kevin even came up to Chicago from his family’s home outside Cleveland, purportedly to visit me but also, as he announced shortly after arriving, because Chicago was the kind of city where an aspiring mascot could find the right kind of furry-animal suit for his upcoming audition. We spent a whole afternoon driving around to shops and looking at costumes together, evaluating whether they were roomy enough to do handsprings in. I don’t remember whether Kevin actually found the perfect animal suit that day. I’m not sure whether he landed the mascot job in the end, though he did ultimately become a doctor, evidently a very good one, and married another Princeton classmate of ours.
At the time—and unfairly, I think now—I judged him for the swerve. I had no capacity to understand why someone would take an expensive Princeton education and not immediately convert it into the kind of leg up in the world that such a degree was meant to yield. Why, when you could be in medical school, would you be a dog who does handsprings?
But that was me. And as I’ve said, I was a box checker—marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result—a devoted follower of the established path, if only because nobody in my family (aside from Craig) had ever set foot on the path before. I wasn’t particularly imaginative in how I thought about the future, which is another way of saying I was already thinking about law school.
Life on Euclid Avenue had taught me—maybe forced me—to be hard-edged and practical about both time and money. The biggest swerve I’d ever made was a decision to spend the first part of the summer after sophomore year working for basically nothing as a camp counselor in New York’s Hudson Valley, looking after urban kids who were having their first experiences in the woods. I’d loved the job but came out of it more or less broke, more dependent on my parents financially than I wanted to be. Though they never once complained, I’d feel guilty about it for years to come.
This was the same summer, too, when people I loved started to die. Robbie, my great-aunt, my rigid taskmaster of a piano teacher, passed away in June, bequeathing her house on Euclid to my parents, allowing them to become home owners for the first time. Southside died a month later after having suffered with advanced lung cancer, his long-held view that doctors were untrustworthy having kept him from any sort of timely intervention. After Southside’s funeral, my mother’s enormous family piled into his snug little home, along with a smattering of friends and neighbors. I felt the warm tug of the past and the melancholy of absence—all of it a little jarring, accustomed as I was to the hermetic and youthful world of college. It was something deeper than what I normally felt at school, the slow shift of generational gears. My kid cousins were full grown; my aunts had grown old. There were new babies and new spouses. A jazz album roared from the home-built stereo shelves in the dining room, and we dined on a potluck brought by loved ones—baked ham, Jell-O molds, and casseroles. But Southside himself was gone. It was painful, but time pushed us all forward.
Each spring, corporate recruiters descended on the Princeton campus, aiming themselves at the graduating seniors. You’d see a classmate who normally dressed in ratty jeans and an untucked shirt crossing campus in a pin-striped suit and understand that he or she was destined for a Manhattan skyscraper. It happened quickly, this vocational sorting—the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and executives of tomorrow hastily migrating toward their next launchpad, whether it was graduate school or a cushy Fortune 500 training-program job. I’m certain there were others among us who followed their hearts into education, the arts, and nonprofit work or who went off on Peace Corps missions or to serve in the military, but I knew very few of them. I was busy climbing my ladder, which was sturdy and practical and aimed straight up.
If I’d stopped to think about it, I might have realized that I was burned-out by school—by the grind of lectures, papers, and exams—and probably would have benefited from doing something different. Instead I took the LSAT, wrote my senior thesis, and dutifully reached for the next rung, applying to the best law schools in the country. I saw myself as smart, analytical, and ambitious. I’d been raised on feisty dinner-table debates with my parents. I could argue a point down to its theoretical essence and prided myself on never rolling over in a conflict. Was this not the stuff lawyers were made of? I figured it was.
I can admit now that I was driven not just by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval, too. When I was a kid, I quietly basked in the warmth that floated my way anytime I announced to a teacher, a neighbor, or one of Robbie’s church-choir friends that I wanted to be a pediatrician. My, isn’t that impressive? their expressions would say, and I reveled in it. Years later, it was really no different. Professors, relatives, random people I met, asked what was next for me, and when I mentioned I was bound for law school—Harvard Law School, as it turned out—the affirmation was overwhelming. I was applauded just for getting in, even if the truth was I’d somehow squeaked in off the wait list. But I was in. People looked at me as if already I’d made my mark on the world.
This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly. Maybe you spend three years in Massachusetts, studying constitutional law and discussing the relative merits of exclusionary vertical agreements in antitrust cases. For some, this might be truly interesting, but for you it is not. Maybe during those three years you make friends you’ll love and respect forever, people who seem genuinely called to the bloodless intricacies of the law, but you yourself are not called. Your passion stays low, yet under no circumstance will you underperform. You live, as you always have, by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions—including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.
What happens next is that the rewards get real. You reach for the next rung of the ladder, and this time it’s a job with a salary in the Chicago offices of a high-end law firm called Sidley & Austin. You’re back where you started, in the city where you were born, only now you go to work on the forty-seventh floor in a downtown building with a wide plaza and a sculpture out front. You used to pass by it as a South Side kid riding the bus to high school, peering mutely out the window at the people who strode like titans to their jobs. Now you’re one of them. You’ve worked yourself out of that bus and across the plaza and onto an upward-moving elevator so silent it seems to glide. You’ve joined the tribe. At the age of twenty-five, you have an assistant. You make more money than your parents ever have. Your co-workers are polite, educated, and mostly white. You wear an Armani suit and sign up for a subscription wine service. You make monthly payments on your law school loans and go to step aerobics after work. Because you can, you buy yourself a Saab.
Is there anything to question? It doesn’t seem that way. You’re a lawyer now. You’ve taken everything ever given to you—the love of your parents, the faith of your teachers, the music from Southside and Robbie, the meals from Aunt Sis, the vocabulary words drilled into you by Dandy—and converted it to this. You’ve climbed the mountain. And part of your job, aside from parsing abstract intellectual property issues for big corporations, is to help cultivate the next set of young lawyers being courted by the firm. A senior partner asks if you’ll mentor an incoming summer associate, and the answer is easy: Of course you will. You have yet to understand the altering force of a simple yes. You don’t know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and unseen fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip. Next to your name is another name, that of some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder. Like you, he’s black and from Harvard. Other than that, you know nothing—just the name, and it’s an odd one.
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