Guest blogger, Anita Wilson is a musician and writer in Chicago. She performs professionally as Zanyia
Growing up black in American suburbia provided me with several lessons, but also robbed me of a cultural connection to other children that looked like me. I guess I should elaborate. Both of my parents were Naval officers in the United States Navy. Travelling was no stranger to our family. My oldest brother was born in Japan and I was born in the United Kingdom. We moved back to the States when I was about 2 or 3 years old. My mother often jokes that had we stayed in the United Kingdom just a few years longer my British accent would have stuck with me.
Not only were both my parents officers in the Navy, but they were also the strictest most maniacal “bible beaters” that you could ever meet. We practically lived at church. When it wasn’t Sunday morning service or Monday night choir rehearsal, it was Wednesday night bible study and Thursday night prayer. As a child, my parents did their best to shield me from the secular world around me so that my siblings and I would follow the right path.
I remember as a child meeting another girl at church my age who was singing a song I was unfamiliar with. We were not allowed to listen to music that was not gospel. The only rap I ever heard came from Christian artists like T-Bone and Lacrae. In fact, I didn’t even know that other genres of music existed until I was about 11 or 12 years old. At the time the song was a Britney Spears classic, “Hit me baby one more time”. You would think a song of that much popularity would be known to all children. All children, that is, except me. I was teased for not being aware of its lyrics, but more so because at the time I didn’t even know who Britney Spears was.
There were other restrictions too. The popular book, Harry Potter by author J.K. Rowling was all the rage at my elementary school. Every kid had a book and you were lucky if there was an extra copy to check out from the school library. My brother brought home a Harry Potter book one day. He had been in his room reading for hours.
The television set was off and my mother felt the need to investigate. My brother had read a massive amount of the book and when my mother saw the cover she immediately turned to a rage. “Witchcraft!?” she screamed. My mother immediately snatched the book from my brother’s hands and slammed it shut. She wouldn’t allow him to complete the book because the characters were wizards who casted spells and no child of hers would practice witchcraft. Funny, usually parents were happy to see their children reading, but this was not the case. I tell this story in order to stress the fact that my siblings and I were sheltered from a “bad world” for quite some time.
We lived in a large house in a small suburb just outside of Houston. Five bedrooms, large backyard, community pool, the works. Sometimes, on the weekends we would drive to my Grandmother’s house into the heart of Houston. The area was extremely different from the area where my family and I lived. Instead of manicured lawns and swimming pools there were scary looking black men posted on every corner. Liquor stores flooded with crowds out front, lots of yelling and cigarette butts scattered across the streets. Having lived in the suburbs and never seeing this type of environment, I must admit that I was always slightly afraid to be there.
My father would often tease us, “If you don’t get good grades, I will make you spend the night at Granny’s for a week.” And he would laugh because he could see the distaste on our faces. My granny’s house was infested with roaches. When we would come to visit, they were literally peeking out of every corner. I had cousins around the same age as me who didn’t seem to be phased by the roaches that were crawling across their bodies. They would simply swipe them away as if they were specks of dust and continue with their activities.
Even as a child, I knew in my heart that no one should be living this way. I couldn’t understand how we could live together in this large house everyday while just 20 miles up the road another part of my family was suffering. Living with the carcasses of roaches. And why was this so normal to all of us? Why was this area that didn’t look like any other area in the city so run down and impoverished while castles sat just miles away?
It wasn’t as if wealth wasn’t possible. Wealth could be seen in the surrounding areas every day. But why was this area in particular so different from everything around it? And the sad realization that I wouldn’t understand until adulthood is that the reasons why these neighborhoods were experiencing such a large amount of lack is because the people within these neighborhoods were black.
Is this what my parents were trying to shelter me from? Is this the life they sought to hide from me because of their shame? Were they embarrassed to have come from this? But regardless of the social decay and the obvious flaws presented in these neglected neighborhoods how could my family sit in this large house just miles away? How could we be aware that our families were living in squalor while we grilled T-bone steaks on a Saturday afternoon? Why were we so content with the fact our family, our blood could live in such a dismantled community right in front of our faces and we take no action to stop it? The simple answer is: we settled.
We settled for the income gaps. We settled for lack. We settled for mistreatment. We settled for discrimination and neglect for so long that at some point it became normal to us. At some point it became okay to share a bed with roaches and a drink with an addict before packing up the car and returning to the manicured lawn and the swimming pool.
I wrote the song, “Settle” to empower people of color and let them know that if it doesn’t feel normal, that’s because it isn’t. We cannot continue to allow our race to suffer. We all hold a moral obligation to speak out against injustice at every turn.
And that goes for ALL races. Not just my own. We have accepted the brutality, the social neglect, and the need for government action within our starving communities. I can no longer accept these flaws. I will not settle for anything other than change. The song is meant to give encouragement, to provide assurance that if we all work together that this situation can and will change. It is a song of hope, a song of raw emotion and I hope when others hear it they will think of people other than themselves and take a look into a story that has been ignored for so long.