Sunday, February 20, 2011

From the vault: There are no black people there




[Okay, I know I'm pushing it pulling another post "from the vault." But yesterday I attended a wonderful lecture by historian Dr. Quintard Taylor, who specializes in the history of blacks in the West. And while I listened to the story of Nicodemus, KS, and Junius "The Potato King" Groves, I was reminded again of how the black experience in America so often gets flattened in the telling. Our history and present gets narrowed to a few people in a few places and the stories that can't be squeezed into a rigid framework are erased. And so, I was moved to pull an old post out of mothballs...]


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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?

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