I live in the constant fear that one of my White neighbors is going to call the police on me.
My apartment is located in a very gentrified section of Nashville. I pay a hefty sum of money to live within walking distance of Vanderbilt University. Just across the street is a comfy Asian market—the door opens with jangle of wind chimes and the scent of braised garlic. Sometimes when it rains, I put on my forest green raincoat and walk down to the corner coffee shop, wishing I had a loyal greyhound to go with me.
I love my neighborhood. But I know that at any time, the people who live here could strip me of my dignity—all in the name of ‘just making sure’.
I have learned to do my best to avoid such scrutiny. I wear cardigans and loafers. I wear my college hats and sweatshirts to indicate my level of education. If I run at night, it is not in my neighborhood. On the rare occasions that I do take a night stroll down my street, I intentionally phone a friend and discuss something related to literature or the arts.
Yet this is not enough, and it only gives way to respectability politics. The other night, a young lady was walking her dog in my direction. She saw me and immediately began to walk way over into the street. I think of Zora Neale Hurston’s statement of perplexity: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
I had hoped that some of these young White people would be wiser than their parents, but that hope is burning up. It seems that when it comes down to the studs, preservation of investment is given priority of preservation of dignity. What I mean by this is, these young folks who have come to Nashville and purchased homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods may be just as willing as their parents were to oust any threats to the creation of a beautiful white state—even if it means that innocent people get mistreated.
Gentrification is very much like colonization, with Black bodies on the line. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gives us a useful example of this. The Europeans force their way into the Congo, quickly establishing a center for operating power. It is at this center that they decide who lives and who dies, or in other words, who belongs and who does not. I cannot help but see the parallel between this and the pricey coffee shop that sits in the middle of what used to be the ghetto. The longtime Nashville residents who still live nearby (many of them POCs) cannot afford to patronize these places. Imagine not being able to afford a service that was right in your neighborhood. Or not even knowing if the neighborhood in which you grew up is still ‘yours’.
And this business of ownership is funny stuff. In a recent video, a White woman in St. Louis refused to let her Black neighbor enter their apartment building because she didn’t think that he lived there. She kept referring to their living space as “my building” and demanding that he tell her where he lived. We’re still dealing with public policing of Black people, folks. As it was in the country’s beginning, so it is today. Some Whites still feel the moral responsibility to keep the little Black ones in check—essentially acting as extensions of the police, who will always arrive and reinforce their right to behave in this manner. The issue of gentrification is not only about rent increases, or expensive coffee shops. It’s also about people moving in and taking ownership of everything surrounding them.