By Kelly Curry
This is an excerpt from the book Until the Streets of the Hood Flood with Green co-published by Reimainge! and Freedom Voices.
My father was Horatio Alger… or at least the kind of character made famous by the Horatio Alger, the 19th century writer who chronicled through his fiction the archetype of the poor boy who works his way up from very little to achieve great riches, respect and love from the community. When my dad was a kid, America was still a place where this could happen. America was a place where the ethos and consciousness of many of its citizens understood and valued equal participation.
Born in 1946 in Raymar Alabama, my father was the son of bona fide country beauty. Mama Baby, as she was known, was the daughter of African and Blackfoot Native American folk who sharecropped the land at Pine Level, a tiny, rural community a stone’s throw from Montgomery. They worked, lived, ate and breathed country life, country air and had simple down-home ways.
After a brief tryst with a handsome, married, middle class businessman from the neighboring town, once she found herself in the family way, Baby was promptly abandoned to deal with the situation on her own.
So though he would carry the Curry name, my father’s rearing, his loving, his spiritual development and common sense understanding of the world around him, would come from his mother’s people, the Guice clan. When my father was old enough for his mother to realize that he was “different” or “special”, as I’ve heard it called, it was with a broken heart and a head held high with hope that she left him temporarily to go find work in Detroit, Michigan. Her intention was to sow the seeds of a life that held the promise of more opportunity than the meager existence she could eek out of Jim Crow, on the red clay of Alabama. She wanted to organize an environment where a boy like her son, Charles Henry, could be well educated and reap fully the benefits of what seemed to his family and community to be a sharp, gifted mind.
Like many young, single mothers, through her focused determination and hard work, she blazed a pathway for my father’s education and a future for him that would exceed anything she could ever dream of for herself.
While she was in Detroit, my father was left in the care of his grandparents, Mama Deah and Daddy Morgan. During the days he ran with his older cousins. One afternoon his destiny unfolded when on a short visit back home, Mama Baby put some money in the hands of my dad’s eldest girl cousin. “Ya’ll go on down to the store and get some candy n’ things. Make sure Charles Henry get some too.”
I imagine that my grandmother’s strategy was born of the idea that providing candy money for all of the kids, would mean that her own love, her only child at the time, who she missed terribly and was working diligently to be reunited with once things came together in Detroit, well he would definitely get some.
As fate would have it, things didn’t quite come together the way Mama Baby had planned. Instead of happily buying the candy and sharing with my father, his cousin bought the candy and passed some around to every one of the kids except my father. When he protested a squabble broke out and little Charles Henry was pushed and rolled down into a ditch.
While the other children continued on down the road back to the farm, eating, drinking and enjoying the fruits of his mother’s labor, their voices became distant echoes and my father was left to contemplate his lot.
He shared this story with me and I’ll share it with you in his own words.
“Lying in the ditch, crying over the fact that my cousins all had more stuff than I.
We’d just left the store and they had Igey Mikes and drinks and maybe even some candy. I got to drink a sip from them, if one of them felt like sharing. I had to ask them and they had the power to say no and often did. I cried in that ditch and said “one of these day I won’t have to ask nobody for nothin’. And then I proceeded to live my life intentionally with a plan to get to that point where I wouldn’t ever have to again.”
My father was probably four year old when all of this happened. And with the clarity and zeal we often experience when we are deeply wounded by the ones we love and trust, my father used his wound and his pact of to never have to ask nobody for nothin’ as rocket fuel to catapult himself from that ditch, to the highest ranking member of any and every school he attended. Charles Henry, who became Chuck or Charles once he moved to Chicago, had so much athletic, social and academic success by the time he graduated from college that he was courted by Oxford University to join the coveted Rhodes Scholarship program and also had invitations from the University of Chicago and Northwestern to complete his graduate education.
He chose Northwestern, where he completed his Masters in accounting and finance. When I asked him why he chose not to follow the path of Rhodes Scholarship (which must have been a thrilling opportunity for this child from the red dust of rural Alabama) he related this.
“Your mother and I had a son and you were on the way. I’d been so impressed with the impact of not having my father in my life or being raised by him, that there was no way I could even consider studying abroad and leaving my little family such a long distance. I wasn’t ever going to go live anywhere that I couldn’t take you all.”
Running into li’l homie on 7th and Peralta made me think a lot about my father, the circumstances of his life, the players and agents that supported his opportunities, as well as my country. The United States of America.
Like many of us who get so caught up in the story of our day to day, I probably never would have thought about many of the facts of my own lineage the choices and decisions of my mother, my father, my grandmother going to Detroit back in the 50’s… or the world that supported these choices… the USA attitude back in those days that said “if there was a will there was a way” and that it would be a waste, no matter what color or how impoverished, for a mind like my father’s to go to waste…he must have every opportunity to thrive and organize his energy into the great miracle of a healthy successful, positive life…raise a family if he wanted to and participate fully as a healthy, contributing member of society and the world.
That afternoon on 7th and Peralta and meeting that bright, beautiful boy…li’l homie, made me deal with the fact that that time had come and gone. Somewhere, somehow, something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
My father chose to pursue a career in marketing and advertising. I guess because it was competitive and interesting enough, while still being super stable and potentially lucrative. In the seventies, while we lived in Chicago and he worked at Proctor and Gamble, my father would come home every night and we’d have dinner at a large dining room table my mother’d procured from an antique shop and brought home to accommodate me and my brother’s school buddies.
Back in those days, our classmates were from parts of the world where the US government was making mischief, doing the things that tear up communities, families and homes, entire countries, under the name of “freedom and American ideals.” Some were from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, others from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and other occupied zones.
Like a lot of kids do after school we gathered to do home work. Since our mom was one of the only mom’s who didn’t work and was cool with them chillin’, our place was the spot. Our friends would end up staying for board games and at some point my mom would get a request from one or all of us about them staying for dinner. Mom was ahead of us, she’d already talked to their moms .
The night would culminate with all of us eating together as a family at that table.
Those were great times.
It was at that table, on a street called Belle Plaine, where I heard the stories of an American community, South Chicago, all bundled up in a neat package as seen by my mom and dad—young parents, two kids really, who had been childhood sweethearts—who grew up during a time when folks believed that anybody could achieve anything in this country, as long as they rolled up their, sleeves, worked hard and stayed late. The only way you couldn’t make it in America, is if you were lazy. Of course Black folks and people of color had to work harder to make it, but you could still make it.
To me, that was America.
And it seemed, at least to me, from mom and dad’s stories, because people had come from so many places to enjoy a better world and here we were, enjoying that better world, it seemed to me, that America was a place that would continue to feel that way. Continue to feel that everyone deserved an opportunity and that everyone in this country felt that way. After all, there was so much movement in the 50s, 60s and 70s. People like my grandmother were migrating every day from one part of the US to the other, knowing that where they were going held one thing they could count on, hope. There was an agreement that America would become more inclusive, more prosperous, more egalitarian—at least it seemed that way.
So there we were at that table, the motley lot of us and we’d all listen as my parents transported us back to their world, Post-World War II, Baby Boom Chicago. It was a living, breathing, mystical moment where for a time, America was beautiful and proud and hopeful and strong. Not because of its army or its stupid meddling wars, but because of the people who agreed that this place would be better. My parents would share the most beautiful, funny and uplifting tales, the way they did with anyone who visited their home, especially at the dinner table, especially about the neighborhood they grew up in.
South Chicago was a small multi-ethnic enclave that ran along Lake Michigan towards the end of Illinois and bumped up against the Indiana State Line. It was a bustling, thriving and upwardly mobile community that stood in the long shadows of the Chicago Steel Mill.
“You had everybody,” my mother would say. “The Greeks, German folks, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Hungarian, and of course our folks were pouring in everyday because of the lynchings Down South. And there were all kinds of food. On one side mama owned a BBQ restaurant and bar, and on the other you had Frank’s tacos. We all lived there together and everybody got along. You had the rail lines, the steel mill, the port. You never had to leave unless you wanted to because anything you needed was right there. It was like we existed in our own world. You were every neighbor’s child, you didn’t talk back to grown people and you had respect. I mean, we had a neighborhood drunk who would fall down in the street, I mean pass out DRUNK with a capital D and somebody, a neighbor or one of the guys comin’ home late from work at the mill, would cover him up so he wouldn't get sick. We weren’t even really a part of the rest of Chicago. We were South Chicago. It was beautiful.”
One of these nights, long after we’d finished eating, my mother shared with us the story of a sunny afternoon where she and her little girlfriends were playing on her porch. An elder neighbor, who’d been enjoying watching them play with their dolls, jump hopscotch and skip rope, called my mother over and asked her to sit down next to her.
“I have something to tell you.”
She told my mother about a man, who came to her city and made sure that everyone of her family was taken away, including her.
“They came and put us on the trains and we walked. They put us in long houses...no heat...it was cold, everyone slept in the same area, there was so little food...so many got sick...so many died. Then she rolled up her sleeve and showed me a tattoo of numbers, permanently inked into her skin. This was a very bad man and this is what he did to me.”
The man’s name was Hitler. That was how I learned about the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II. My mother’s neighbor had survived the camps and had come to the US to start a new life.
I met my own life lessons at this table as well. I’ll never forget prepping the condiments for mom’s delicious tacos, with the recipe she got from Frank’s Taco Stand. It’s a combination of chorizo and ground beef. Nowadays it can also be made with vegetarian ingredients, just as delicious. Anyway, it was my job that night to prep the lettuce, tomato, onions and cheese with my dad. Everything was goin’ good until I pulled the lettuce out of the fridge. It was soft. I knew that if the lettuce was soft then I was gonna be dispatched to “run to the store”...CHE...across the street.
CHE was short for CHECKER. Story was the painter had run out of red paint so instead of CHECKER, it was known as CHE, so was the owner.
My mother and her favorite command “Run across the street right quick to CHE,” was looming someplace in my not too distant future. I didn’t wanna put on my shoes and coat and go to CHE’s. So I decided to do it my way. I would wing it. Winging it meant hustling the lettuce to the faucet past my dad so he didn’t see it AND rinse it so well that a miracle would occur and I’d bring the lettuce back to life. If I couldn’t bring the lettuce back to life with the ice-cold-winter-Chicago-tap-water, I’d have to employ some magical thinking and hope no one noticed the wilted, melting lettuce on the platter of otherwise hearty, robust vegetables and cheeses.
When the resurrection did not occur, undaunted, I put the lettuce on the platter and started sliding the knife through green layers of wilt. My father who’d been watching me organize this nonsense the whole time, unbeknownst to me, finally took pity on me and stopped the show. The kitchen rumbled with the boom of his voice, Moses-like, from the other side of the room “Kelly, what are you doing? That lettuce is gone.”
What followed was a verbal chain link of “B...b..b..but I, ..it’s just...umm...ya’ know…” I was busted and embarrassed. Not only was I caught, but I’d let my dad down and I was probably still gonna have to go to the store. My father took my hands in his and pulled my embarrassed chin up to meet his eyes.
“I want you always to remember that whenever you put food in front of someone to eat, that it must be wholesome, these aren’t ornaments, the food we serve is for the nourishment of their Body and Soul.
I can’t remember whether I had to bear the elements and march off “right quick” to CHE’s, but I never forgot my dad’s words. I realize now that Belle Plain Avenue and that fabulously large table of my mother’s was where I received 90% of my spiritual development as a kid.
It was around that time that my dad shared with us his first experience making money, picking cotton in the fields of a neighboring farm back in the country, at Pine Level.
“I was the first one on the truck. Wasn’t even daylight. Soon as we got to the farm, I was off and running, so excited to make some money, make my contribution. I worked all through the day, never took a break, picked more cotton than any of the boys, or men for that matter and when it came time for work to end, I stood there with all my bushels, I was so proud because I had more than anyone, so naturally I assumed I would get more or at least as much. So I waited as he made his way down the line and I saw him pulling out dollars to pay the other men, everyone got a dollar or two, when it came to be my turn he looked down at me and reached down into his pocket, when he pulled a coin out, I knew it must have been a special coin, but when I saw it... I looked at it twice because I thought that my eyes deceived me.
It was a dime.
I was five and I spent alot of time trying to figure out why, if I’d worked just as hard...harder... why I didn’t get paid just as much, I’d done just as much...more.”
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face which expressed the disharmony of the experience and this new feeling I had in my belly that my father had been hurt as a young boy. That he’d been hurt and exploited. That he’d been betrayed by the adults in his life, all of them—the neighboring farm owner and the other men from his family who didn’t stand up for him. It was the first time I felt that way, but it wouldn’t be the last. It made me so sad and angry and for the first time I felt true helplessness. Something in me wanted to be the person that went back in time and protected him.
In my world, every adult in my life was looking to protect me, not exploit me or trick me or steal my energy. It was through these stories that I realized how unlike my life was compared to the two people who had brought me into the world and what a complex place America was. There were parts of their stories that I loved. Trust me, I would have traded anything to be a part of that world they lived in as kids. But things like that farm story or like my mom’s mother having mistreated her or the other things... It seemed to me as a kid hearing these stories, it was my belief that we were moving towards a world where there would be more protection for children and community.
The safety around me said so, the safety of my community said so. And the fact that we were living in my parents vortex of positivity and baby boom abundance said so.
In 1979, everything in my life attested to it.
And I think that somehow, so many years later, when I ran into little homie on the corner of Peralta and 7th, the same corner that Marcus Garvey organized on in the 30’s and the Black Panthers organized on in the 60’s and 70’s, I think all the lessons and the stories that I’d heard at that table, and my own my little buddies... kids whose families were taking refuge here from all over the world whose moms were struggling to make ends meet...like my grandmother had...so my Pop could make something of his life... something about those stories, that training that I received at that table... all the love, our laughter... what I believed America was… and what it certainly was not... made me make a promise to li’l homie that had its roots in justice, common sense and love.
About a year or so after we moved to Belle Plaine, Ronald Reagan was elected to the highest office in the land. He announced on TV one afternoon that ketchup was a vegetable.
So was relish.
So was mustard.
Relish and ketchup and mustard would replace the vegetables that the American government had promised public school breakfast and lunch programs when the Black Panthers shamed them into feeding children school lunches and breakfasts just a few years earlier.
My mother shook her head and sighed, “Lord have mercy. I’ll just be damned...”
That was when another America started to take shape for me. One where every night, on television, from the nightly news and Mork and Mindy, people who looked like me, my brother, my friends were profiled as criminals, lazy, lawbreakers and losers.
The steady stream of propaganda coached anyone who would listen on the terrors of “inner cities,” “Black Crime,” “black-on-black crime” and the evils of somebody called “The Welfare Queen.” She lived in Chicago, cheated the system, bought Cadillacs and Mercedes with her welfare checks and had more and more children at the expense of hardworking taxpayers. Anyone with any sense should resent her because she was lazy, liked to lay up and have babies, so she could collect more welfare... so she could drive her Mercedes to the market and buy steak and lobster for her “welfare babies.”
This was the nightly news—American media—shaping the opinions and thoughts of one citizen against the other, building fear and sowing the seeds of discord, weaponizing race and class when less than twenty years years prior, Dr. King had shared his dream of folks coming closer together.
The federally funded “bootstrap” programs in our Chicago neighborhoods that had sent folks back to school and gave people a second chance at participating if they were high school dropouts or had had struggles with drugs or otherwise peripheralizing circumstances were cut and replaced with, get this, nothing.
People were left out in the cold and the energy in the country not-so-slowly started to change. Reagan would come on TV and say things like, “We are going to take things back to the good old days,” and my mother would get that same tone in her voice that she had when the ketchup as a vegetable thing happened and she'd look at me and say, “You know what he’s talkin’ bout baby don’t you? The good ol’ days?”
When I didn't answer, she’d school me. “He's talkin’ about Jim Crow. He's talking about slavery. Lord have mercy.” This seemed outlandish to me, but he had said that ketchup was a vegetable and I knew that was nonsense. So maybe mom had a point...but slavery? Jim Crow? How could they do that? Jim Crow was when my father, a child laborer had received a dime for before sun-up to sun-down labor. I couldn’t picture me or my brother doing that, or my mom and dad or Michael Jackson or James Earl Jones on an auction block.
Could my mother be right, could they put us back in chains and find a way to pay us nothing for our work?
Could you even make kids work?
Not in America...
The beat continued and the nightly news was doing plenty of reporting about how aimless and lazy Black Americans were and if we could just stop being so paranoid in thinking that there were “conspiracies” working against us that we would truly be able to join the American middle class and things would get better for us.
The mood at our dinner table started to change too. I started hearing words like “propaganda” and we would discuss, especially my parents and their friends, “look how ignorant they make us look on TV these days,” and “Why do they always choose the most ignorant Black person in the crowd to comment whenever something happens?”
After Reagan had taken office there were alot of changes in the community too. A depression of spirit hit.
Very quickly, communities and cities in our country that had been organizing and fighting for equity and human rights were flooded with crack cocaine and a gap, a large void began to take shape that created gulfs as big as the Great Lakes that would further disconnect Black folks from white, middle class from poor, and everyone else from everyone else.
That other America, the one where you could roll up your sleeves and work hard and make something of your life, even if you were poor, the one where folks could safely care about one another was receding and the one where folks were being seduced by one of the richest opiate—fear—loomed.
And the poor, they were pariahs, to be discarded, couldn’t be trusted.
They were poor because they were wastes of time and energy and belonged at the bottom.
The poor were poor because they were lazy losers and deserved to be poor.
The America of my parents dreams, the beautiful, idyllic stories of their Baby Boom community seemed further and further behind us, as distant and unrealistic as the promise of a job with a great future with US Steel, which slowly downsized until it announced its closing in 1992.
I didn’t know it back in those days, as a kid sitting at that table, but all of these things were forming and coloring and shaping and shading the outlines of the world and circumstances of a little boy who would appear on my horizon... and that I would meet thirty plus years later on a street corner in West Oakland.
Somehow,I would enter, the intolerably bleak void that he stood in, called out from and dwelled within and meeting him would change the world for me. It would be that gleam in his eyes, the sound of his voice, his laughter and the fact that my heritage and teachings and ancestral traditions told me that even though we’d only met once, that he was my brother, my cousin, my nephew... my son....
I’d see all too clearly how Reagan’s promise and my mother’s fears had come true. He said “We are going to take things back to where they used to be.” They made good on that one..
That boy, that child, was mine... he belonged to me and every other American that had been convinced of his worthlessness. The programming and propaganda of the nightly news and America's original, shameful wounds of land theft and enslavement of the African had slowly and methodically coerced Americans into a solid hatred and fear of poverty and Blackness.
Once and for all... obliterating any sense that this place would be different... that this place would be better.
As my father shared with us at our dinner table, from his training at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, “All you have to do to make something the truth is repeat it over and over and over and over again. One day, people wake up believing it is true and that it has always been true..”
That’s what commercials are. That’s what advertising does. Program us.
Smoking is sexy.
Indians are red.
Drink Cow’s Milk for Calcium
Coca Cola is good for you.
Trust a man in a white coat.
Beware the Welfare Queen.
Beware Black youth.
By the time I run into li’l homie on 7th and Peralta, Reagan's peeps are reaping the dividends on their promise to “take things back to the good old days.” and I see what I could not have imagined when I was eleven and my mother pronounced the outcomes... Jim Crow... Slavery.
Neo-slavery would not be a public auction block in the public square. It would happen behind God’s back and manifest through an elaborately tight weave of manufactured consent on behalf of Americans who forgot all about Martin Luther King’s vision of equal economic participation for all races. His poor people’s campaign had been flipped to the war on the poor launched by Reagan and his boys.
- A completely chemicalized, weaponized food system that makes people sick, disorients them and dumbs them down.
- School systems that organize youth into despair, despiritualization, and hopelessness.
- Corporate sponsored, locally run correctional facilities and police forces who act as herders for youth into local justice systems as first step to a life of free labor behind the bars of state and federal prisons. Neo slavery.
- An American populous that through corporate control, media, advertising, and materialism is being herded and does not have time or resources to unravel the truths of the manipulation and the reasons for it all: control of energy and resources in order for a few folks to control most of the wealth and resources in the land.
In 1974 Gil Scott Heron released his prophetic Winter In America.
It took us a while. But Gil knew that we’d make it. Now here we are. 44 years later, we are living it. Our children stand within the void and Horatio Alger is long gone.