Undoubtedly, this post will make you either uncomfortable, or feel completely understood. I can only think of 3 of my readers who would certainly feel at ease reading this, so, beware. I warned you.
I was born and raised in Liberty City, a ghetto in Miami that is known for its high crime and lack of tourists. (Trust me, you won’t see buddy boy with his Hawaiian shirt and camera walking down 79th street unless he’s trying to get a lil somethin’ somethin’ that he ain’t getting at home.) I never really knew that I lived in the ‘hood’ until I went to middle school. It’s something about driving 30 minutes from your house to the ‘good school’ that grows you up real fast. Hearing my peers discuss what they heard on the news or what happened to their cousins who lived in ‘The City’ (an affectionate term for Liberty City), created a deep, painful sense of shame within me. I didn’t want my friends, and definitely not my teachers to associate me with ‘that place’. I wanted people to think that I came from a place that was free from struggle and pain and most importantly, poverty.
In 7th grade, I was given an assignment by my English teacher, Mrs. Serio, to compose an autobiography. I vividly remember sitting on my grandma’s faded purple carpet, back propped up on the couch, trapper keeper on my knees, erasing and rewriting the words ‘Liberty City’ on my college ruled paper. It just looked wrong. I’d practically worn a hole into my manuscript when I finally decided to re-name my neighborhood for the sake of this assignment. The nearby medical center, ‘North Shore’ was the fanciest establishment in the neighborhood that I knew of, so, I re-named Liberty City to ‘North Shore’. “I live in the North Shore area of Miami.” I wrote.
Fortunately, over time, the shame and regret faded away. I’m not sure what the series of events were, but I do know that InterVarsity had a huge voice in the change. I would hear older students in my chapter talking about their excitement to go to the ‘inner city’, not to be charitable, but to learn. “What on earth were these people smoking?” I often wondered. To me, learning anything from the hood meant that you wised up about a couple of things:
1. Don’t carry your money in your purse, wallet, or pockets. You stuff your dollar bills and quarters either in your socks, or, if you had enough to secure it, in your bra. That was never an option for me.
2. Move large, valuable items in your house at night. Moving that plasma t.v. into your house in the daytime is understood as ‘I REALLY don’t want this T.V.! First one who can make it through the obstacle of a locked house can have it!’
3. When you hear loud sounds, you fall to the floor. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. I don’t care if you are in the sanctuary, without hesitation, you drop to the floor.
So, hearing these older students and even more so, staff, talk about learning about Jesus from hoods like mine were mind boggling. The more they talked, the more I reflected, and the more gracious Jesus was to me. I began to see things with fresh sight. The community that exists in ghettos are unlike anything that I’ve ever seen or experienced. I remember playing for hours with all the neighborhood kids on the street, and at times, getting disciplined by all the neighborhood mamas on the street. No matter the amount of crime that polluted our city, as a child, I remember feeling safe and secure. I knew that as long as I was in hollering distance of any of our neighbors, someone would come out to defend me. I remember dancing in the street with the neighborhood little girls, having dance contests, and not being afraid of the neighborhood cars. I knew that they’d slow down and sometimes yell out ‘Alright lil mama! Y’all gettin it!” I remember those times with an unexplainable fondness, but somehow, along the way, those things escaped my mind.
I believe that one strong force in my self -inflicted distance from the hood has been the evolution of the word ‘ghetto’. If you ever want to make me skeptical of your character, compassion, and sometimes intelligence, you should use the word ‘ghetto’ as an adjective. Really, try it. You will instantly see my jaw clench, my eyes look up to the heavens, and if my husband is around, you will see him whip his arm around my shoulders. It is his affectionate way of saying “Do not beat down that person! Yes, you’ll feel great in the moment, but we don’t have enough money to bail you out!”
Recently, I don’t know when it started, perhaps the last ten years, young people have began to use the word ‘ghetto’ interchangeably with the words: bad, bootlegged, trashy, inappropriate, tacky. The use of the term in this manner is not only demeaning, it assaults one’s identity. While at an InterVarsity Conference for Black students, 2 years ago, a meek, tender young woman stood up to speak in front of about 200 of her peers, and spoke words that will forever grip my heart. “ Sticks and stones will break my bones, and words will kill my soul.” It is true. We are people who were created with rich and beautiful identities, and I believe, that a large part of our journeys on earth is to discover over and over and over again who and what we are. We are unique and beautiful creations created by the Un-created.
When I hear the word ‘ghetto’ being used as an adjective by those whom I know are not from a ghetto, or from White Americans (I’m just being honest. I’ve got my junk too!), many times, I don’t hear ‘ghetto’. I hear ‘Black’. For instance:
“Wow! Look at all that bling! That is so black.”
“Wow, look at that tricked out car! That is so black.”
“Why are you talking soo loud?! Stop being so black.”
Sigh. It used to kill my soul. Now it just gets me damned angry. My bestie and I often chanted to each other “Born in the ghetto, raised in the hood!” a song made by Miami locals about their life experiences. We would chant it when were being especially resourceful, when we made a way out of no way (and trust, me that has to happen in college). We chanted this when we were feeling particularly proud of ourselves for being independent women. This is what I think of when I think of the ghetto. Now, I’m no idiot. Ghettos desperately need the love and redemption of Christ. Everything ain’t peachy keen in the hood. But what the ghetto doesn’t need, is more people creating institutionalized racism. The ghetto doesn’t need more onlookers and outsiders to deem it bad, and the ghetto surely doesn’t need the weight of society’s voice aiding in the crippling and crushing of its children.
I am a child of the ghetto. I have been hurt, like many others, by the ignorant, humor-intended words of others. My prayer, as I minister to students, just like me, and as I think and dream about being the mama of little biracial babies, who may end up living in the hood, is that more people would undergo the transformation that those older InterVarsity students went through. That more and more, this generation would see and strive to see Jesus in the most unexpected of places.