My mother turned nine years old the day after Detroit stopped burning. A three-day race riot had sparked 15 minutes from where she lived. She was old enough to throw bottles (she didn’t) but young enough to be told to stay indoors where it was safe (she did). From her family’s home in the Charles Terrace housing projects, she watched her city smolder, watched rage sizzle into ash, watched nothing rise from the soot but smoke. How could she know Detroit would not be a phoenix? My mother would have to bear witness to the communities that would never return to their previous glory. The scars on Detroit that started in the Long Hot Summer of 1967 left their mark on my mother, too. She would leave in the next decade and never return again to live permanently. The deliberate distance she put between herself, the hood, and her embattled hometown is the reason I stay quiet in discussions about class in the Black community.
My mama left Detroit and scarcely looked back, but she never forgot she grew up poor and in the hood. I know this because she often told me stories. She has known the metallic comfort of a razor blade tucked flat beneath her tongue. All her life she had to fight–outside and inside her home. It was not her intention that I come of age with a false idea of our shared history. Detroit never left the girl who lives inside this woman.
The psychological vestiges of poverty appear in her overabundance of caution, in the deep-seated pessimism we both share too often about human nature. So she hides everything in sight in her car: a purse, a Bible, a pen she likes. From her experiences, she warned me away from excessive credit card use and check cashing joints with the fervor of a preacher fishing souls from hell. She told me about what her childhood was like and then did her best to make sure mine did not replicate it.
My mother (and my dad, who also grew up poor) ruthlessly succeeded in that mission. I know only the Detroit of my idyllic summers with family; we never visited her old east side neighborhood. I grew up in an environment where, even if we were not financially so, I was raised “middle class.” Whatever that means.
“Some of ya’ll talk like you never been to the hood.”
As a general rule, I keep the hood out my mouth. It’s not prudent to talk slick about places you’ve never been. I have not been to the hood enough to know intimately its joys and pains. So I maintain that silence out of respect for the very real people who love and live there. Their voices deserve amplification. I take extra care not to speak rashly.
However, I also understand within my own imposed reserve lies a type of privilege. I can still my tongue because I do not face certain challenges. I can avert my eyes because it is not my neighborhood under siege. Once, I ranted to a friend about trying to find a place to live when the only affordable areas were food deserts. I had never experienced that phenomenon. As an Army brat, I grew up on or near military installations, which usually provide a commissary. Shame enveloped me when my friend pointed out that she grew up in food deserts. Food deserts weren’t new; they were just new to me. I am guilty of the middle class sin of not caring about systemic inequalities faced by disadvantaged communities until they hit you personally.
Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood. –Ice Cube
Black Twitter taught me by making an example of nitwits who imply hood folks are automatically homophobic or transphobic, sexist, poorly read, or politically unsophisticated. I listen and learn, because it’s free to STFU, amen? They chide, “I can tell you ain’t never been to the hood,” when people pop off about hood this or that. I understand the admonishment for what it is. The saying shows that outsiders fail to see these neighborhoods as complex environments with three-dimensional people. Our classist biases against poverty emerge when we make false judgments on poor people that reveal we don’t know any. The hood is a culturally vibrant, diverse place.
What does it really mean for Black suburbanites to have a “hood” side?
Here’s the rub…it’s actually not a secret that the hood is rife with culture and creativity. Language, aesthetic, activist movements, and art (dance, music, etc), especially within popular American culture, all have origins in the hood. How much of Black cool do we owe? I say that it’s not secret because people do capitalize on and appropriate the genius that lives within poor communities. Corporations are good for snatching an aspect of hood culture and repackaging it for mainstream markets, without giving credit to the originators.
It’s not just the corporate types who plunder poor minority communities for their entertainment. The Black middle class is also complicit in this. They play “hood,” when, as the accusation says, they’ve never been there. It’s easy to do when you can remove hood culture like a costume without having ever lived it. There is more to “ratchet” or “ghetto” than word choice or clothing or a posture or an attitude or poverty. (See: I’Nasah Crockett’s ratchetness as praxis.) The waters muddy for me when it comes to separating Black culture in general from hood culture. The two mix so frequently.
Still, I cringe at portmanteau terms like “sophistiratchet,” even though I think Black people can move within and without class structures fluidly. It’s just not a word I feel comfortable using in jest. For too many middle class Black people, and White ones, the hood is the site of their funniest joke. The implied ridiculousness of them ever being authentically hood sets up the punchline. Nothing is funny.
Is it possible for me to be respectful of the hood without having ever been?
It’s complicated. I consider myself middle class fully understanding that my economic status is precarious. I do not possess White middle class wealth and we know Black folks have practically none collectively. My sense of being middle class comes mostly from the fact that I cannot rightfully claim to know poverty. I recognize being middle class as an ideological and value-based privilege I have in that regard. (Word to @daniecal for the concept).
In July, I read a book that made me realize most of our #BlackHistoryMonth faves were part of an elite group of Negroes who were unfailingly classist, baptized in colorism, and borderline hated poor Black people for “setting the race back.” They viewed their own achievements in part as proof counterbalancing the indolence and uncouth nature of those disadvantaged masses. Their excellence aimed to impress the White gaze as much as it represented for all of “us.”
Inasmuch as the Black middle class wrote and worked to “uplift the race,” they also did so to separate themselves from 90% of it. I don’t think capitalism is set up for any of us to truly love those who we see as threats to our well-being. We fight to climb, and lift as we climb, without resenting the weight of those we purport to carry with us. But Black middle class people cannot fully respect the hood while actively trying to be its savior.
The question I ultimately want to answer for myself is this:
As a Black “middle class” woman, what is reasonable engagement, social responsibility, and respect of culture to the hood, without classism?
I am still figuring that out. Until then, I commit to consciously unlearning classist bias and behavior, and avoiding the tendencies that the Black bourgeoisie has historically shown. Now that my eyes are wide open about classism within the Black community, I have a responsibility to change. I may never have truly been to the hood, but I hope to never sound like I do not see its humanity.