“They’re not interested,” he told me, shaking his head. “Like a bunch of lemmings running towards a
I had felt bad for Marty. I had felt worse for Angela. She hadn’t said a word throughout the entire meeting, but as I pulled out of the union parking lot to drive her home, she had turned to me and said, “I didn’t understand a word Marty was saying.”
And I suppose it was then that I understood the difficulty of what Marty had tried to pull off, and the depth of his miscalculation. It wasn’t so much that Angela had missed some of the details of Marty’s presentation; as we continued to talk, it had become apparent that she understood Marty’s proposal at least as well as I did. No, the real meaning of her remark was this: She had come to doubt the relevance to her own situation of keeping the LTV plant open. Organizing with the unions might help the few blacks who remained in the plants keep their jobs; it wouldn’t dent the rolls of the chronically unemployed any time soon. A job bank might help workers who already had skills and experience find something else; it wouldn’t teach the black teenage dropout how to read or compute.
In other words, it was different for black folks. It was different now, just as it had been different for Angela’s grandparents, who’d been barred from the unions, then spat on as scabs; for her parents, who had been kept out of the best patronage jobs that the Machine had to offer in the days before patronage became a dirty word. In his eagerness to do battle with the downtown power brokers, the investment bankers in their fancy suits, Marty wanted to wish such differences away as part of an unfortunate past. But for someone like Angela, the past was the present; it determined her world with a force infinitely more real than any notions of class solidarity. It explained why more blacks hadn’t been able to move out into the suburbs while the going was still good, why more blacks hadn’t climbed up the ladder into the American dream. It explained why the unemployment in black neighborhoods was more widespread and longstanding, more desperate; and why Angela had no patience with those who wanted to treat black people and white people exactly the same.
It explained Altgeld.
I looked at my watch: ten past two. Time to face the music. I got out of my car and rang the church doorbell. Angela answered, and led me into a room where the other leaders were waiting: Shirley, Mona, Will, and Mary, a quiet, dark-haired white woman who taught elementary school at St. Catherine’s. I apologized for being late and poured myself some coffee.
“So,” I said, taking a seat on the windowsill. “Why all the long faces?” “We’re quitting,” Angela said.
Angela shrugged. “Well…I am, I guess. I can’t speak for everybody else.”
I looked around the room. The other leaders averted their eyes, like a jury that’s delivered an unfavorable verdict.
“I’m sorry, Barack,” Angela continued. “It has nothing to do with you. The truth is, we’re just tired.
We’ve all been at this for two years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it.”
“I understand you’re frustrated, Angela. We’re all a little frustrated. But you need to give it more time.
“We don’t have more time,” Shirley broke in. “We can’t keep on making promises to our people, and then have nothing happen. We need something now.”
I fidgeted with my coffee cup, trying to think of something else to say. Words jumbled up in my head, and for a moment I was gripped with panic. Then the panic gave way to anger. Anger at Marty for talking me into coming to Chicago. Anger at the leaders for being short-sighted. Anger at myself for believing I could have ever bridged the gap between them. I suddenly remembered what Frank had told me that night back in Hawaii, after I had heard that Toot was scared of a black man.
That’s the way it is, he had said. You might as well get used to it.
In this peevish mood, I looked out the window and saw a group of young boys gathered across the street. They were tossing stones at the boarded-up window of a vacant apartment, their hoods pulled over their heads like miniature monks. One of the boys reached up and started yanking at a loose piece of plywood nailed across the apartment door, then stumbled and fell, causing the others to laugh. A part of me suddenly felt like joining them, tearing apart the whole dying landscape, piece by piece. Instead, I turned back toward Angela.
“Let me ask you something,” I said, pointing out the window. “What do you suppose is going to happen to those boys out there?” “Barack…”
“No, I’m just asking you a question. You say you’re tired, the same way most folks out here are tired. So I’m just trying to figure out what’s going to happen to those boys. Who’s going to make sure they get a fair shot? The alderman? The social workers? The gangs?”
I could hear my voice rising, but I didn’t let up. “You know, I didn’t come here ’cause I needed a job. I came here ’cause Marty said there were some people who were serious about doing something to change their neighborhoods. I don’t care what’s happened in the past. I know that I’m here, and committed to working with you. If there’s a problem, then we’ll fix it. If you don’t think anything’s happened after working with me, then I’ll be the first one to tell you to quit. But if you all are planning to quit now, then I want you to answer my question.”
I stopped there, trying to read each of their faces. They seemed surprised at my outburst, though none of them was as surprised as me. I knew I was on precarious ground; I wasn’t close enough to any of them to be sure my play wouldn’t backfire. At that particular moment, though, I had no other hand to play. The boys outside moved on down the street. Shirley went to get herself more coffee. After what seemed like ten minutes, Will finally spoke up.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think we’ve talked about this same old mess long enough. Marty knows we got problems. That’s why he hired Barack. Ain’t that right, Barack?” I nodded cautiously.
“Things still bad out here. Ain’t nothing gone away. So what I wanna know,” he said, turning to me, “is what we gonna do from here on out.”
I told him the truth. “I don’t know, Will. You tell me.”
Will smiled, and I sensed that the immediate crisis had passed. Angela agreed to give it another few months. I agreed to concentrate more time on Altgeld. We spent the next half hour talking strategy and handing out assignments. On our way out, Mona came up and took me by the arm.
“You handled that meeting pretty good, Barack. Seems like you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t, Mona. I don’t have a clue.”
She laughed. “Well, I promise I won’t tell nobody.”
“I appreciate that, Mona. I sure do appreciate that.”
That evening, I called Marty and told him some of what had happened. He wasn’t surprised: several of the suburban churches were already starting to drop out. He gave me a few suggestions for approaching the job issue in Altgeld, then advised me to pick up the pace of my interviews.
“You’re going to need to find some new leaders, Barack. I mean, Will’s a terrific guy and all that, but do you really want to depend on him to keep the organization afloat?”
I understood Marty’s point. As much as I liked Will, as much as I appreciated his support, I had to admit that some of his ideas were…well, eccentric. He liked to smoke reefer at the end of a day’s work (“If God didn’t want us to smoke the stuff, he wouldn’t have put it on this here earth”). He would walk out of any meeting that he decided was boring. Whenever I took him along to interview members of his church, he’d start arguing with them about their incorrect reading of Scripture, their choice of lawn fertilizer, or the constitutionality of the income tax (he felt that tax violated the Bill of Rights, and conscientiously refused to pay).
“Maybe if you listened to other people a little more,” I had told him once, “they’d be more responsive.”
Will had shaken his head. “I do listen. That’s the problem. Everything they say is wrong.”
Now, after the meeting in Altgeld, Will had a new idea. “These mixed-up Negroes inside St. Catherine’s ain’t never gonna do nothing,” he said. “If we wanna get something done, we gonna have to take it to the streets!” He pointed out that many of the people who lived in the immediate vicinity of St. Catherine’s were jobless and struggling; those were the people we should be targeting, he said. And because they might not feel comfortable attending a meeting hosted by a foreign church, we should conduct a series of street corner meetings around West Pullman, allowing them to gather on neutral turf.
I was skeptical at first, but unwilling as I was to discourage any initiative, I helped Will and Mary prepare a flyer, for distribution along the block closest to the church. A week later, the three of us stood out on the corner in the late autumn wind. The street remained empty at first, the shades drawn down the rows of brick bungalows. Then, slowly, people began to emerge, one or two at a time, women in hair nets, men in flannel shirts or windbreakers, shuffling through the brittle gold leaves, edging toward the growing circle. When the gathering numbered twenty or so, Will explained that St. Catherine’s was part of a larger organizing effort and that “we want you to talk to your neighbors about all the things y’all complain about when you’re sitting at the kitchen table.”
“Well, all I can say is, it’s about time,” one woman said.
For almost an hour, people talked about potholes and sewers, stop signs and abandoned lots. As the afternoon fell to dusk, Will announced that we’d be moving the meetings to St. Catherine’s basement starting the following month. Walking back to the church, I heard the crowd still behind us, a murmur in the fading light. Will turned to me and smiled. “Told you.”
We repeated these street corner meetings on three, four, five blocks-Will at the center with his priest’s collar and Chicago Cubs jacket, Mary with her sign-in sheets circling the edges of the crowd. By the time we moved the meetings indoors, we had a group of close to thirty people, prepared to work for little more than a cup of coffee.
It was before such a meeting that I found Mary alone in the church hall, making a pot of coffee. The evening’s agenda was neatly printed on a sheet of butcher’s paper taped to the wall; the chairs were all set up. Mary waved at me while searching a cupboard for sugar and creamer, and told me Will was running a little late.
“Need any help?” I asked her.
“Can you reach this?”
I pulled down the sugar from the top shelf. “Anything else?”
“No. I think we’re all set.”
I took a seat and watched Mary finish arranging the cups. She was a hard person to know, Mary was; she didn’t like to talk much, about herself or her past. I knew that she was the only white person from the city who worked with us, one of maybe five white people left in West Pullman. I knew that she had two daughters, one ten and one twelve; the younger one had a disability that made walking difficult and required regular therapy.
And I knew that the father was absent, although Mary never mentioned him. Only in bits and pieces, over the course of many months, would I learn that she had grown up in a small Indiana town, part of a big, working-class Irish family. Somehow she had met a black man there; they had dated secretly, were married; her family refused to speak to her again, and the newlyweds moved to West Pullman, where they bought a small house. Then the man left, and Mary found herself beached in a world she knew little of, without anything but the house and two manila-hued daughters, unable to return to the world she had known.
Sometimes I would stop by Mary’s house just to say hello, drawn perhaps by the loneliness I sensed there, and the easy parallels between my own mother and Mary; and between myself and Mary’s daughters, such sweet and pretty girls whose lives were so much more difficult than mine had ever been, with grandparents who shunned them, black classmates who teased them, all the poison in the air. Not that the family had no support; after Mary’s husband left, the neighbors had shown her and her children solicitude, helping them fix a leaky roof, inviting them to barbecues and birthday parties, commending Mary on all her good works. Still, there were limits to how far the neighbors could accept the family, unspoken boundaries to the friendships that Mary could make with the women-specially the married ones-that she met. Her only real friends were her daughters-and now Will, whose own fall, and idiosyncratic faith, gave them something private to share.
With nothing left to do for the meeting, Mary sat down and watched me scribble some last-minute notes to myself.
“Do you mind if I ask you something, Barack?”
“No, go ahead.”
“Why are you here? Doing this work, I mean.”
“For the glamour.”
“No, I’m serious. You said yourself you don’t need this job. And you’re not very religious, are you?” “Well…”
“So why do you do it? That’s why Will and I do this, you know. Because it’s part of our faith. But with you, I don’t-”
At that moment, the door opened and Mr. Green walked in. He was an older man in a hunting jacket and a cap whose earflaps hung stiffly against his chin.
“How you doing, Mr. Green.”
“Fine, just fine. Getting chilly, though….”
Mrs. Turner and Mr. Albert quickly followed, then the rest of the group, all bundled up against the hint of an early winter. They unbuttoned their coats, prepared coffee for themselves, and engaged in the small, unhurried talk that helped warm up the room. Finally Will walked in wearing cut-off jeans and a red T-shirt with “Deacon Will” across the front, and after asking Mrs. Jeffrey to lead us in prayer, he started the meeting. While everyone talked, I took notes to myself, speaking up only when things started to wander. In fact, I thought the meeting had already dragged on too long-a few people had slipped out after an hourwhen Will added a new item to the agenda.
“Before we adjourn,” he announced, “I want us to try something out. This here’s a church-based organization, and that means we devote a part of each meeting to reflection on ourselves, our relationships to each other, and our relationship to God. So I want everybody to take out just a minute to think about what brought them here tonight, some thoughts or feelings that you haven’t talked about, and then I want you to share ’em with the group.”
Will let the silence build for several minutes. “Anybody want to share their thoughts?” he repeated.
People looked down at the table uncomfortably.
“Okay,” Will said. “I’ll share something that’s been on my mind for a while. Nothing big-just memories. You know, my folks weren’t rich or nothing. We lived out in Altgeld. But when I think back on my own childhood, I remember some really good times. I remember going to Blackburn Forest with my folks to pick wild berries. I remember making skating carts with my cut buddies out of empty fruit crates and old roller skate wheels and racing around the parking lot. I remember going on field trips at school, and on the holidays meeting all the families in the park, everybody out and nobody scared, and then in the summers sleeping out in the yard together if it got too hot inside. A lot of good memories…seemed like I was smiling all the time, laughing-”
Will broke off suddenly and bowed his head. I thought he was preparing to sneeze, but when he raised his head back up, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He continued in a cracking voice, “And you know, I don’t see kids smiling around here no more. You look at ’em listen to ’em…they seem worried all the time, mad about something. They got nothing they trust. Not their parents. Not God. Not themselves. And that’s not right. That just ain’t the way things supposed to be…kids not smiling.”
He stopped again and pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket to blow his nose. Then, as if the sight of this big man weeping had watered the dry surface of their hearts, the others in the room began speaking about their own memories in solemn, urgent tones. They talked about life in small Southern towns: the corner stores where men had gathered to learn the news of the day or lend a hand to women with their groceries, the way adults looked after each other’s children (“Couldn’t get away with nothing, ’cause your momma had eyes and ears up and down the whole block”), the sense of public decorum that such familiarity had helped sustain. In their voices was no little bit of nostalgia, elements of selective memory; but the whole of what they recalled rang vivid and true, the sound of shared loss. A feeling of witness, of frustration and hope, moved about the room from mouth to mouth, and when the last person had spoken, it hovered in the air, static and palpable. Then we all joined hands, Mr. Green’s thick, callused hand in my left, Mrs. Turner’s, slight and papery to the touch, in my right, and together we asked for the courage to turn things around.
I helped Will and Mary put back the chairs, rinse out the coffee pot, lock up, and turn off the lights.
Outside, the night was cold and clear. I turned up my collar and quickly evaluated the meeting: Will needed to watch the time; we had to research the issue of city services before the next meeting and interview everyone who had come. At the end of my checklist, I put my arm around Will’s shoulders.
“That reflection at the end was pretty powerful, Will.”
He looked at Mary and they both smiled. “We noticed you didn’t share anything with the group,” Mary said.
“The organizer’s supposed to keep a low profile.”
“It’s in my organizer’s handbook. Come on, Mary, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Will mounted his bike and waved good-bye, and Mary and I drove the four blocks to her house. I let her out in front of her door and watched her take a few steps before I stretched across the passenger seat and rolled down the window.
She came back and bent down to look at me.
“You know what you were asking before. About why I do this. It had something to do with the meeting tonight. I mean…I don’t think our reasons are all that different.” She nodded, and walked up the path to her daughters.
A week later, I was back out in Altgeld, trying to stuff Angela, Mona, and Shirley into my subcompact car. Mona, who was sitting in the back, complained about the lack of room.
“What kinda car is this anyway?” she asked.
Shirley moved her seat up. “It’s built for the skinny little girls Barack goes out with.”
“Who are we meeting with again?”
I had scheduled three meetings, hoping to find a job strategy that would meet the needs of people in Altgeld. For now at least a new manufacturing boom appeared out of our reach: The big manufacturers had opted for well-scrubbed suburban corridors, and not even Gandhi could have gotten them to relocate near Altgeld anytime soon. On the other hand, there did remain a part of the economy that could be called local, I thought, a second-level consumer economy-of shops, restaurants, theaters, and services-that in other areas of the city continued to function as an incubator of civic life. Places where families might invest their savings and make a go of a business, and where entry-level jobs might be had; places where the economy remained on a human scale, transparent enough for people to understand.
The closest thing to a shopping district in the area was in Roseland, and so we followed the bus route up Michigan Avenue, with its wig shops and liquor stores, discount clothing stores and pizzerias, until we arrived in front of a two-story former warehouse. We entered the building through a heavy metal door and took a narrow set of stairs down into a basement filled with old furniture. In a small office sat a slight, wiry man with a goatee and a skullcap that accentuated a pair of prominent ears.
“Can I help you?”
I explained who we were and that we had spoken on the phone.
“That’s right, that’s right.” He gestured to two large men standing on either side of his desk and they walked past us with a nod. “Listen, we’re gonna have to make this quick ’cause something’s come up. Rafiq al Shabazz.”
“I know you,” Shirley said as we shook hands with Rafiq. “You’re Mrs. Thompson’s boy, Wally. How’s your momma doing?”
Rafiq forced a smile and offered us all a seat. He explained that he was the president of the Roseland Unity Coalition, an organization that engaged in a range of political activities to promote the black cause and claimed considerable credit for helping Mayor Washington get elected. When we asked him how our churches could encourage local economic development, he handed us a leaflet accusing Arab stores of selling bad meat.