fillmore-district

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I was 4 when my older sister, Tenisha, was shot and killed while walking down a San Francisco street with a friend one Friday night. It was the type of bullets-don’t-have-names misfortune that was, and remains, unshakably common in many black neighborhoods across the country. Reward posters went up, but no one was ever arrested in the case. The reality of Tenisha’s absence has shaped every facet of my family’s being, but has most profoundly defined the way that we do — or don’t — engage with the political process.

Take, for instance, the moment a few years later, when I was walking past the Northern District Police Station in San Francisco’s Fillmore District with my mother one afternoon. I was 7, maybe 8, when I noticed a huge black dog chained to the flatbed of a truck parked outside the station. The dog lunged and growled at me, and I hid behind my mother, terrified. My mother grabbed my hand and marched me into the police station a few steps away, where she demanded to talk with someone on duty. The person she met was white and loomed very large behind his desk. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that she was so angry when she said it that spit was flying from her mouth. Even at that age, the subtext of her demand was clear: Prove to me that you can show the slightest bit of interest in my daughter’s life.

The officer’s response was dismissive, at best: “We’ll take care of it.”

To my surprise, my mother wasn’t angry when she left — she seemed affirmed. She also knew that these folks were not to be trusted.

It was around then that we stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It didn’t matter the occasion. Graduations, assemblies. If I dared to stand and place my right hand over my heart, my mother gave me a knowing glare that demanded I have a seat. It was a silent protest — radical now that I look back on it. “It just wasn’t fair,” she said about the pledge when I asked her about it recently. “We never had the same rights as other people.”

Despite her disillusionment with American patriotism, she would still call me before every election to talk through candidates and ballot measures. One time, I asked her if she’s always voted.

“Oh, yes,” she told me.

My mother is one of the roughly 20 million black women who have proved extremely loyal to American democracy. These are the women that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have courted aggressively in their bid for the White House — and for good reason.

How black women like me reckon with America’s political process

Soon as I was big enough to get a job
Save me some money
Buy me a ticket
Catch the first thing smokin’
I left
And I made a promise
If they could just keep the thought out of my mind,
I’ll keep my feet out the city limits
Because my part of Chicago
Just as all cities have this particular residential area
In Detroit they call it Black Bottom
In Cleveland they call it Euclid Avenue
55th, 105th, Central Avenue
In Philadelphia they call it South Street
In New York City they call it Harlem
Drop down below the cotton curtain, in Atlanta
They call it Buttermilk Bottom
But then you come out west
Where it’s the best
In San Francisco they call it the Fillmore District
In Los Angeles they used to call it Watts
They changed the name though
Ah baby
I speak about this place because I’m quite familiar with it
Everyone is in some sense or other
So it all boils down to the same thing don’t it
I’m speakin’ about this place because
You see
Like, in the wintertime, when it’s very very cold
And it gets colder in Chicago than anywhere else on Earth
Cause when it’s around ten above zero
And there’s about twelve inches of snow outside
And the Hawk
I’m speaking of the Almighty Hawk
Mr. Wind
When he blows down the street around 35, 40 miles an hour
It’s just like a giant razor blade blowin’ down the street
And all the clothes in the world can’t help you
When you lived in a place like I lived in
Where everybody had a key to the front hall door ‘cause
It once was a flat but then they cut it up into a kitchen and apartments
And you be at that front hall door, open it and the Hawk get in there, boy
You’d be called a bunch of dirty names before you could get in your room
I speak about this as I said before
Because I know.
— 

Lou Rawls, “Lou Rawls LIVE!” 1966, Dead End Street Monologue

Rawls would recite the story of how he grew up in Chicago with the Hawk (an African-American slang term for the Chicago wind, sometimes called Hawkins) at the start of every performance of Dead End Street. There are endless variations on records and live performances, but this is my favorite. It’s off the 1966 LIVE! album and darker than many of the others, structured differently, and he recites it at the start of Tobacco Road instead of Dead End Street (the two are very similar, thematically). 

You can hear him recite this variation of the monologue live here. Stick around for Tobacco Road, it’s worth hearing.