37208: How the Rest of America Could Be, If We Wanted

Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.

Not 37208, but the tree looked just like this.

Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.

When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.

I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.

And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley.  They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.

I went back to my apartment that night grateful that my new neighbors had extended belonging to me- someone who arguably doesn’t belong- by virtue of being there and needing help. It’s the sign of a good neighborhood, when new people can withdraw goodwill from the bank without having paid in first. That kind of thing makes people want to pay in, and pay it forward. It creates safety and trust in a place where it is understood that calling the police is the last resort.

So when I recounted this tale to my hairdresser a few days later, the last thing I expected was her response: she wrinkled her nose and said “You bought a house in Cracktown?”

Her reaction tempted me to walk out of the salon half-shorn. What stopped me was remembering all the times I have said carelessly ignorant things, and the fact that she’s been exceptional with my hair for six years now. I owed her at least a conversation.

She does good work.

We don’t usually talk when she does my hair, and I have liked it that way. Not only does she work in the companionable silence that I find comforting, but she’s the only one who understands that I like my hair’s natural inclination to reflect the things I take pride in: it’s big and unruly, like me. She cuts it in a way that emphasizes those things and has never suggested something more sleek and “professional” like previous stylists all have.  That alone made her a kindred- someone who appreciates the essence of someone and sees them how they wish to be seen. Those kinds of people are my favorite.

So what she said jarred me. Cracktown. It’s a word in which many things are implied, none of them acceptable, kind, or true. It’s a word that people have been fed, and not one they come up with themselves.

It wasn’t characteristic of how I saw my stylist. I thought of her as an expansive person- someone open to ideas and who appreciates people for who they are. To me, that quality seems diametrically opposed with the use of language that has its origins in racism. My new neighborhood isn’t any more of a “cracktown” than any of the other neighborhoods in Nashville.  

North Nashville is a neighborhood created by the descendants of the enslaved that the city has historically left to fend for itself as it re-directed resources into the more affluent parts of town. These are the same parts of town that their ancestors have been excluded from by law. Generally, those are also the whitest parts of town. These same policy-makers who blighted my neighborhood have a vested interest in convincing the affluent white people that they deserve everything they have been given, with the unspoken corollary being that those who haven’t been given must not be deserving. People who buy into that choose not to think too hard about why this is.

1935 “security map” of Nashville, in which the red areas, which are historically black, are deemed “hazardous”, from Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.

But how do I convey all of that in the time it takes to trim my bob?

I told her I was a military brat who grew up mostly in military housing on bases in Europe. As people of color make up nearly half of our enlisted population, North Nashville looks like the neighborhoods in which I grew up. It reminds me of home: mixed incomes, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and racial backgrounds. This to me is an indication of safety; an indication that an outsider like me will fit into an ecosystem that has already made room for difference.

I moved to Nashville from Scotland thirteen years ago and have lived in every part of this city. Although I’m white I still have a lot of markers of difference, so I haven’t felt entirely safe or comfortable in the whiter parts. While the majority of people there were perfectly nice, these parts of town have taught me to stop valuing niceness. In each of these white neighborhoods, I have encountered people who not only disliked people like me, but who felt emboldened to say it to me, or make my life difficult to encourage me to leave. And generally, the perfectly nice people there did not want to cause a fuss or sour relations with more established neighbors, so they looked away and let it happen, even when I asked for help.

Meanwhile, living in South Nashville, an area with a high population of black Americans as well as East African, Central American, and Kurdish immigrants, taught me that a mixed neighborhood is an indicator of neighbors who won’t bother me unless I do something that infringes on their ability to enjoy their space. We realized we were not the same, but we respected one another’s rights to difference.  Everyone’s personal philosophy made room for the dignity of each individual. North Nashville feels like that, too. It reminds me of how the rest of America could be, if we wanted.

So how did the story with my hair stylist end?

It didn’t. And it won’t.

I couldn’t convey everything during one haircut, and I also want to make sure I’m hearing her, too. One offensive comment does not an active racist make.  I’ve also made throwaway comments that upon second thought were not true reflections of how I think and feel about the world. Or, perhaps they were. But they weren’t true reflections of how I wanted to think and feel about the world. Every white person, myself especially included, has some internalized white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. that rears its head even after we think we’ve excised it, because this progress isn’t linear. It’s an inevitable result of growing up white in a society like ours. Thought processes that have taken decades to develop don’t end with one exchange. We’ll need many.

 It’s every (white) person’s job to facilitate these conversations, because we all have a vested interest in a collective understanding. Lack of understanding hurts black people very obviously, and it hurts white people too, in insidious ways that threaten the stability of our nation. It has the potential to destroy our fragile and crumbling democracy.  

The healing is painful, and uncomfortable. I know that it is ultimately not optional. So does my stylist, which is why she gave me permission to write this piece. We both want to heal, and we can help each other.

James Baldwin pointed out that so many of the pervasive stereotypes that persist deep in the minds of Americans when it comes to any oppressed population exist as a foil to the myth of a nation devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty and democracy.

In other words, you cannot have a just society in which things like homelessness, drug violence, and child poverty exist. And yet they exist, and they exist in North Nashville at higher levels than most other parts of the city.

James Baldwin at a press conference for his book “If Beale Street Could Talk” at the Americainhotel Amsterdam, 1974. Photo Courtesy of the Dutch National Archives. Read more about his thoughts on white America here.

To reconcile this cognitive dissonance, society ignores the past, and lies about it. They blame these issues on character flaws of marginalized populations rather than widespread social and economic trends and histories of institutionalized neglect. It’s how terms like “cracktown” are born, and why they so quickly spread.

Back in 1970, Baldwin understood that white people’s refusal to face these lies would see America consume itself. Fifty years later, here we are.

I don’t want this for our country. I don’t want it for our state. I don’t want it for our city. We have good people here. Nashville is such a microcosm of America, the good and the bad. It has the most phenomenal and unique history. We have the cultures, religions, and languages of every continent. Nowhere is more diverse than here. Yes, our origin was in genocide and enslavement, and people of color are bearing the burden of that legacy. Yet we have everything we need to heal ourselves, make it right, and move forward together. That all starts with the full truth.

America is not just. Nashville is not just. It’s healthy for us white people to see it, and to say it. Once we admit it, we can do something about it. We can prevent this city, and our nation, from eating itself.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity. Not that they need it- these guys are great.

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