highway, race, public housing
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Politics and Activism

The Highway That Divides Us

A perspective on the modern-day effects of racist housing policies, and the damaging de facto segregation that was left behind.

Highway, cars, city
Tom Barrett

Whenever I went to sleep at night, I could hear the sound of cars on the highway from my window, especially if it was open; this is why I kept it closed most of the time, even when it was hot and humid, it was too noisy.

The hot heat stayed in my room as I got dressed the next morning for school; sometimes I had to change shirts right after I put one on because of how sweaty I was. "Only 2 more weeks until it cooled down," I told myself, but our public housing sure needed air conditioning.

After eating a quiet breakfast with my mother and father, I chugged the orange juice in my glass, then washed my plate quickly in the sink, then ran out the door, I was not going to be late any day during the first week of school. To get to school, I had to take the school bus, which would stop only two blocks away; only a couple of kids from my neighborhood including me got on it. My high school was on the other side of town, and to diversify it, the city changed the school district boundaries to include my part of the neighborhood in it; which was mostly made up of low-income and public housing.

When I got to school and walked into my first class, I was disappointed again as I saw no one with my same complexion in the room. I really wanted someone else like me in the room as well, but I've always noticed that the more successful I am, the lighter it gets, and the more I stick out, it was incredibly lonely.

I was able to go through my entire first 2 periods of the day without a problem, and met up with my friends in the quad for recess.

"Kayla, did you understand the concepts we learned in Econ today?" Joe asked me. "Yeah, did you understand them" I responded. "No, that's why I was asking you" he replied. "Well, if you need help with the homework, we can do it together after 7th period in the library" I offered. "Sounds good! And by the way, do you have any plans for Labor Day weekend? My folks and I are having a BBQ on Sunday afternoon, and wanted to ask if you could join us; they would really like to meet you" he said. My other friends stopped talking and looked at Joe and I when he asked this.

"I'd love to join you and your family, thanks for the invite!" I replied enthusiastically. "Ok, great, see you after school!" Joe yelled as he went back to join his friends. My friends Sarah, Jennifer, Samantha, and Regina looked at me, and I had to spill the deets to them. They blushed as I told them that Joe and I went out a couple of times before school started, and it was starting to get serious. My friends and I continued this conversation until the bell rang, and at that time, we all headed to English class together.

After basically tutoring Joe in Economics that afternoon I took the late bus back home; the bus itself was a lot more quiet, and gave me more time to think. I grew sad again as I noticed the closer I got to the highway, the less nice the houses got, and when the bus crossed under the highway, I saw only public housing and apartments. It always made me sad when I would see this because it was a painful reminder of history that I didn't want to remember.

When I got home and was telling my parents over dinner about this, they did not have the best reaction. "I thought you liked Joe" I said, "Well, honey, we just don't want you to feel uncomfortable over there. You know what it is like on the other side of the highway, you see it at school" my mother explained. "Mom, I don't understand. Why don't you like him? I mean you haven't even met him yet, but you seem dead set against me going out with him" I replied. "Kay, it's not you, it has nothing to do with you, we're concerned for you" my father said. "You see, do you know why that highway was built?" my mother asked me; she could tell that I didn't know the answer from the blankess on my face.

"Honey, they built that highway so that they could keep us in poverty, so they could keep us down. Have you noticed that there are little to no people of your same color at your school, or even on the bus? It's because of what happened a long time ago, in the time of segregation. The White realtors wouldn't sell houses or even build public housing in those neighborhoods across the highway to people like us, they didn't want us to be near them. And that's why the highway was built, to keep us here. And yes, I would fully support your decision to go to the BBQ, and I would love to meet Joe but, just be prepared to get stared at honey. Be prepared to be asked questions about yourself that we would never ask, be prepared for you hair to be touched without people asking permission. Be prepared" my mother stated.

"Mother, don't worry I am" I responded, and hugged her and my father. I walked under the highway that separated my district and continued walking to the BBQ with my head held high. However, my mother was right, and I saw this because I got stared at by neighbors when I was close to Joe's house. But he didn't act weird when he saw me, he even gave me a tour of the house.

When I met his parents and family, I have never been asked so many questions in my life. "How old are you? What are you studying? How long have you lived in Chicago? Where do you live in Chicago? How did you meet Joe? What do you do to your hair? Can I touch your hair? What do you and your family eat often? Are there any good restaurants around where you live? How do you cook fried chicken? When did your family move up here from the South?" was a sample of the questions they asked me, some offensive, some not, all really curious ones.

However, when Joe's grandfather saw me, he asked me "Why are you outside? My wife needs help cleaning up in the kitchen". I stared at him in total shock, and when Joe tried to explain how we were dating, he started laughing, saying that it could never work, and that I needed to go back to my side of town, across the highway.

I apologized to Joe and walked swiftly out of the party, as I had noticed tears had begun to run down my face, and I didn't want anyone to see me cry. Joe tried to explain how many of them had never had a conversation with a Black person before, but I still left, and stopped before crossing under the highway.

When I reached the divide called the highway, I felt a great pain in my chest. And when I looked up at the highway itself, and then at the nice white houses on one side, and the deteriorating public housing on the other, I had a flashback to what my mother said, and to all of the things my grandparents told me what they experienced. The racism, the being spit on, the marches, the signs, and most of all, the still living "separate but equal" ideology. When this thought crossed my head, I became so mad not only at what just happened to me, but for my community, and what happened to them.

I decided to continue to see Joe, but when before I walked under the highway one last time to get home, I spit on the cement, and told myself that no matter how many rooms I must sit in, always being the darkest in the room, I promised myself that I would try and represent my family and heritage well. And when I graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science, I did just that.

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