Jane Marchant: A Century of Progress
Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Uncovering the story of a grandmother’s racial passing and its effect on following generations.
It is winter here and there are no leaves in sight. I am standing in front of what was once 684 East 39th Street, once part of Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing projects. Gray dust swirls to the sides of the roads; it also covers cars. Gray light shines through gray clouds and gray glass litters Bronzeville’s streets, in the South Side. The Chicago Housing Authority demolished my Grandma Barbara’s first home. In place of the two-bedroom apartment that housed my Grandma Barbara, her two siblings, and their mother – and generations after them, as the city’s public housing projects shifted from idyllic dream to dangerous nightmare – are three-story apartment buildings for rent or sale. Demolition of the Ida B. Wells Homes began in 2002 and construction for the Oakwood Shores replacement development is nearly complete. A manufactured park cuts the new housing development in two, Lake Michigan breaks against the shore barely a mile east, and skyscrapers rise in the distance. Barely five months ago, I did not know my Grandma Barbara grew up in Chicago’s first housing projects segregated for black residents. She kept many things hidden from me, and the outside world. Among Grandma Barbara’s secrets was that her mother was black.
I love my Grandma Barbara. I loved her as I grew up in a predominantly-white neighborhood; I loved her when I wasn’t allowed to play with her hair, when she ate peanuts and jelly beans at our dining-room table, and when I understood she and my mother were somehow different from the white mothers around us, but I did not understand why. I loved Grandma Barbara in her hospital bed, as she told the nurses she was from Spain, as she lay dying. I love her as she rests in a jar on my aunt’s mantelpiece. But Grandma Barbara told her children and grandchildren lies about who we are.
I find myself, repeatedly, asking, Why? Slavery’s dangers do not exist anymore. The segregation of Grandma Barbara’s youth does not legally exist anymore. When she was on her deathbed in 2007, she was no longer called a mulatto, my mother no longer called a quadroon; I am not called an octoroon, my children will not be named mustifees and my grandchildren will not be mustifinos. We are not in the French Southern States of the 1800s and my great-grandchildren will never be called quarterons, and their children sang-meles. Our one drop will no longer enslave us all. So what was Grandma Barbara hiding from?…
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