Monday, April 12, 2010

There are no black people there

Saturday night, as my husband and I sped north on a highway in Central Indiana, I had a brainstorm: One day I'm going to write a book and I already know the title--There Are No Black People There: A History of African Americans in the Midwest. The book would tell the stories of black folks like me, who live in places they're not "supposed to."

When my husband and I first moved from Chicago to the Hoosier state, where I was born and raised, we settled in a mid-sized town about 30 miles north of Indianapolis. We loved that the suburban area had great schools, decent property values and a quiet, small town charm, yet offered access to the amenities of a nearby urban area. But our decision flummoxed several of my husband's black co-workers: What'd you move up there for? There are no black people there.

It is true that we have few neighbors of color, though the town's African American and Latino communities have grown over the last five years. It is also true that there have been black people in my town for centuries--a point that was driven home this weekend when a fellow genealogist shared with me the fruits of her recent research. My town once had enough of a black community to support two churches, a "colored" school and a thriving black settlement. A review of early 1900s issues of a now-defunct county newspaper reveals black citizens being born, graduating, getting married, working, dying--living their lives alongside their white neighbors. There are and always have been black people here.

Upon learning the fascinating, and seemingly hidden, history of of black people in the place I currently live, it occurred to me how often I have heard those six words: There are no black people there. I hear them spoken about my current hometown. I heard them spoken during the 2008 election as people across the country analyzed voting results from my home state. There are no black people there. I heard them when I was going to college in Iowa alongside black students from Nebraska and Kansas. There are no black people there.

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that African Americans can only be found in two places: the South and the big city. As always, there is some logic behind that conventional wisdom. It is unfortunate, though, that those logical leaps erase the past and present experiences of black folks like me. There are thriving black communities in many of those places where "black folks don't live." Communities in Omaha and Evansville may not look like the ones in Chicago or Birmingham, but they exist, they have their own unapologetically black character and they should not be denied. To do so would be to narrow the black experience and obscure the rich diversity of African American peoples.

There are no black people there.

How can that be when I am here?


Renate said...

LOL... I thought that for many years, but my eyes have been opened since I started doing genealogy in the 90's, and especially since I joined the genea-blogging community, and have been communicating with so many family historians who have "Colored" roots in the mid-west. I agree, though, that you should write that book! Many folks still need to be enlightened, and even I still find the subject extremely intriguing!


Kelly Hogaboom said...

Wow! What a great post. I too live somewhere where "there are no black people", but that has changed a lot (we are getting a larger and larger populace of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds).

I'd never much thought of how that kind of throw-off sentence erases the people of color that DO live in these places. Thanks.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

I could have written that same book about Branchburg, NJ, when I lived there. :-) However, if I wanted to see us, I could go a town or two over. Oh, and parts of MO. and KS. make you think black people don't exist too.

Moi said...

Ah...*blissful gasp* bring to mind my own residence here in Appalachia.

*blissful sigh*

Well done again, Mz. Tami.

J'Abena said...

Great post, Tami!
~sassy j~

kristine said...

I love this post! I come from a town that was supposedly 'all-white' and while it certainly was majority white I had several black friends growing up. I hope you write that book, it's a part of America that gets overlooked and I think you're right denied.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this, as a young black woman who grew up in Colorado. There are PLENTY of black folks there, and I get sick of reminding people of that.

maevele said...

I've grown up in madison wisconsin, which was always assumed to be pretty much white, but not in my neighborhood.

Akinoluna - a female Marine said...

People say similar things about Mexicans, apparently they think all Mexican live in Texas or California. When one person in particular found out I'm from Maryland, he said "There are Mexicans in Maryland? I didn't know they traveled that far north!

Anonymous said...

This happens at the neighborhood level, too. I once read a history of the African American community in Seattle that claimed there were no black people in my neighborhood at the time I was growing up. It's true there were none on my street when I was little (there still are hardly any), but a block away there were several apartment houses where most of the residents were black. Even a black historian accidentally erased that small community, and other such small communities around the city.

Brigid Keely said...

Playing off what Akinoluna said, I was shocked and appalled to hear a woman claim not to know that there were omg-gasp-MEXICANS in Chicago.



Maud said...

I come from rural northern Pennsylvania, which is overwhelmingly white. My hometown includes a black community whose roots there are quite old. Leaving that town, you would probably have to go some distance before coming to another community where black people lived, at least until recently, other than, perhaps, the few college towns. So people look at that part of the state as an area where "there are no black people" too, which disappears not only the individual black people living there, but their long history as a community, including the stop on the Underground Railroad operated by Daniel Hughes, some of whose descendants still live there.

It's odd that some people, both black and white, will declare an individual to be black based on a relatively small amount of black ancestry, regardless of how the individual self-identifies, yet an entire community of black people is somehow "not there" unless they make up some arbitrary percentage of the population. I wonder what that percentage is, at which these black people suddenly become visible?

The history of these people and their communities will indeed make an interesting book.

Blackgirlinmaine said...

Good post! It made me laugh because I live in Maine, moved here 8 years ago from Chicago. People always ask are there Black folks up there? Um..yes. Turns out that while yes its a small Black community, there are actually Black families whose roots are very much a part of the historical fabric of this state.

I get tired of folks acting like we only can live in large urban areas.

Bellydancer said...

Hello Tami I am a bw who actually lives in Indianapolis and know of the town you are speaking of.
It was actually started by black families after the civil war and even the black folks that live in Indianapolis now know very little about black history in Indiana.

tray said...

Great article. Maybe a kindred spirit.

About 3 hours north up I-65 (Schererville**), in the mid to late 80's, there were black people there. In the schools, I knew of a few. To some that doesn't qualify as none, but it is enough to convey the meaning in the common use of the language. I could see someone saying that about my home town as well.

I looked for other black people. We were scattered around. 1 at the high school, a few that I knew of in 1 of the middle schools. My mother and I moved away a year and a half later.

The high school was Lake Central High School in St. John, 2 miles from my apartment. Great school. 2200+ students that included a few blacks in the vocational/technical wing bussed in from the group home (youth detention center?) and then there was me.

When people say, "There are no black people there." I want to tell them that is probably not true. But, I get what they are trying to say. I'm glad that posts like this one points that out.



Cindy said...

What a great focus for a book! Please do write it. There is a suburb of Portland, OR called Lake Oswego that is affectionately called locally as Lake NoNegro. Amazing how much this idea is perpetuated throughout the country. You could get some great travel in while doing your research.

Anonymous said...

Hoosiers represent! I loved this piece. PLEASE write that book!


jewelrocks said...

yes, it's true. we are everywhere. thanks Tami.

Anonymous said...

Of course you are talking about Noblesville, IN. I grew up there, went to Noblesville High School, and when I graduated I went to Purdue and eventually ended up in Maryland.

Growing up in Noblesville, black people were like a foreign culture, somewhere 'out there' to me (I'm white ). I was told that they are just like white people, but have different color skin, and I believed it. I never thought much about it until later in life.

Living in Maryland for a decade has strained my ability to suppress racist thoughts. There are plenty of friendly nice black people here. Then there are those who won't even look me in the eye, even if I'm trying to make friendly conversation at the checkout line.

I miss Indiana.


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