Everyone's love for me in my hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, seemed unconditional, but my love for my birthplace has often come with reservations.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — There’s a good chance my mom doesn’t know this, but when my dad was a school bus driver and I was in preschool and kindergarten, he’d take me to a diner on the black side of Bowling Green, Kentucky, after his morning route.
He’d sit me at the counter and let me order lunch for breakfast: Hamburger with pickles and ketchup, and a grape Nehi soda to wash it down.
Third Street, a hub for black social life of the pool-hall-and-backroom, dice-throwing kind, wasn’t necessarily the place for a kid to hang out, but my dad took an embarrassing level of glee in bragging about his little boy.
His buddies on the strip were working-class fellas, and in between complaining about trying to put two pennies together and the white man’s quest to keep a brother down, they encouraged me to reach for the stars.
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In the evenings later in my boyhood, I’d go with him to my elementary school on the white side of town where he worked as a janitor after his bus route was done.
I remember running and sliding down hallways he’d just buffed. There he was, scrubbing down my middle-class, white school, all the while instructing me to perform twice as well as all of my white peers to be considered just as good.
If you are black in America, you have to blow everyone away. For me, back then, I aimed high knowing that my whole community was watching, and hinging their own uplift on my success.
My parents’ tough love and emphasis on education served me well.
But they also taught me that Bowling Green wouldn’t serve me well at all, that this was no place for a black kid with potential.
They didn’t want me feeling guilty for leaving.
What I never told them is that I always feel guilty when I come home.
When I cross over from my life in Seattle to the one I lived in this town, I cross a bridge that I feared I’d burned. I left Bowling Green thinking I’d never come back to live here, that this place was too small and too full of the rotten racial history of the South to bear the fruit of my dreams.
I didn’t know just how rotten it was until fairly recently, when my parents started opening up about their younger years.
I didn’t know, for example, that my mother had attended segregated schools in my hometown up until public schools were integrated in the 1960s. She told me that white kids would call her the n-word on the bus and that she’d gotten into fights because of it.
My dad told me about African Americans having to go to the back door of restaurants to order food because blacks were not allowed to eat in the dining rooms.
I knew similar stories from history books. These were the suppressed memories of the people who raised me.
While they had endured the worst of the black experience, they envisioned in me, and all of the kids of my post-Civil Rights Era generation, the best of the black experience. But they also warned me to never forget where I came from, even if I never wanted to move back to it.
Driving around my hometown is an exercise in soulful remembrance. Everywhere I look, I don’t just remember my roots. I remember where my values were born.
After Sunday school at Seventh Street Baptist Church each week, we’d pray for the Lord’s mercy. But after that, we’d lock hands and sing a few lines from an inspirational Diana Ross song that was a call for the kind of social justice that African Americans practiced every day for each other: Reach out and touch/ Somebody’s hand/ Make this world a better place/ If you can.
Bowling Green, a pretty college town, has grown so rapidly that there are whole new neighborhoods where there once were corn and tobacco fields.
And the black community that I knew as a kid seems gutted.
The house my dad’s mother, known as Big Mama, lived in when I was a little boy — gone. It’s a parking lot now.
The old segregated high-school that my dad went to, and where I attended Head Start — gone.
The church building where I got baptized by Rev. Jones on Easter Sunday when I was 9 — gone too. It’s the site of a minor-league baseball park.
Third Street’s infamous nightlife is a memory.
The area has been designated a historic black district called Shake Rag, though.
One theory is that the name stems from the fact that so many women in this neighborhood were housekeepers who took their white bosses’ laundry home to wash. The air-drying linens and clothes, rags in local parlance, would flap or shake in the breeze.
I love that Bowling Green has acknowledged the history of this neighborhood. But I wonder whether the actual people who brought this area to life, and who gave me life, have been swept aside.
That’s just how Bowling Green is — they don’t really care about us. I kept hearing that. So much about my hometown has changed but that haunting sense of second-class status clings to the black imagination here.
When I moved away, there’s so much I left unsaid about the world I grew up in.
On this trip, I saw and spoke by phone to cousins I hadn’t been in touch with for 20 or 30 years, some of whom also left home to pursue their dreams and who might have had the same misgivings.
One of my second cousins, who now lives in the Nashville area, was sent a link to my first social-justice column. I dedicated it to exploring my small-town values and honoring Big Mama, real name Alpha Omega Beason — my grandmother and his great-grandmother.
We were such good friends when we were little, but I hadn’t spoken to him in decades. He loved Big Mama as much as I did.
“When I read your story,” my cousin told me, “I heard my own voice.”
What I realized is that coming to terms with Bowling Green — and putting that connection into words — has helped me discover mine.
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