An Answer to the Question: Why are You a Race Scholar?
Growing up in Southern Indiana is like growing up in the North of the South and the South of the North. What this means is that white people console themselves with the supposed progressive history of the North, while aligning ideologically with the often-demonized politics of the South. They do this while ignoring their own racist and colonial history.
It also means that the rest of Indiana—the long, straight shot up and out of the state seems impossibly far from the southern enclave, where small rural towns are surrounded by farmland and national forests, where basketball, football, and performances of youthful masculinity capture the hearts of towns, and where children learn that there are Good and Big things in the world and that these things are from their bus stops and hideaways.
Growing up Black in Southern Indiana is like growing up in the North of the South and the South of the North. It is both knowing how to step over a cattle grid and how to spot a confederate flag a half mile down the road. It is knowing every church in town on every block and where you should never go to eat. It is knowing that you are both the exception and the rule.
I am most interested in Southern Indiana as a place because I am interested in the ways whiteness undergirds a place, suffocates a place, and becomes the place itself. And I am most interested in these things because I am not white but I know whiteness, because I am Black and have chosen to be a race scholar, and because I believe I chose this to make sense of the Southern Indiana in me—what it can and cannot be for me that it cannot and can be for others.
A place, according to Doreen Massey, is always being built, is a convergence of meanings and histories, is shaped from the inside and the outside. A place is different than space. Space is more abstract. Space is the kind of stuff we “leave” and “make” and “fill” without ever clearly articulating what substance it is we mean to act upon. Place, though, is named. It is imbued with meaning. It is what we know and what we confine with words and attempt to contain. This is why I am writing—to contain, to exert a sense of control over that which once contained me.
My parents joked at some point in my childhood that they wanted to drop my friend and I off at a random location in town and force us to find our way home. It should not have been difficult. The streets in Bedford, Indiana are numbered: 6th street comes after 7th, which comes after 8th. And the cross streets are similarly ordered, with E street, then F, then G. The grid is simple and yet it was always a struggle for me, not to know where I was, but to know how I got there, how to get from point A to point B.
This is not a metaphor for not being able to find my way. It is, instead, a testament to my ability to see and experience something so long—to have my senses enveloped so fully—and to still not understand how I arrived. It is about knowing a place but not understanding how or when or by what means I came to be within it or it came to be within me.
Once when I was watching America’s Next Top Model with my mom and her friend, I was taken aback by a particular sob story—the story each girl tells to explain why she looks the way she looks and has decided to compete. Tyra asked one Black girl to explain the way she talks, and the Black girl talked about being raised in a predominately White area. It was part of her tragic backstory, this voice she had. I did not, then, have the words to articulate the feeling in my body when I turned to my mother and asked if this is the way that others perceived me when I first talked. She said yes.
It had never occurred to me. I assumed that everyone knew that some Black people talked like my cousins and some Black people talked like me. AAVE or AAL in its many variations is not a natural part of my speech pattern, besides a few syntactical or word choices that I occasionally employ. And although AAVE/AAL is a dialect built from centuries of racial exclusion and segregation, following years of violence against native African languages, it is also an ethnolect in that it is closely tied with a sense of ethnoracial identity. It is a part of the performance of U.S. Blackness. It is a performance that I do not take up.
When people ask me why I speak the way I speak, I know that it is because of the grid that contained me—the way 16th street ran one way on the other side of the middle school, the way M street stood for Main, the way highway 37 buckled us all in. I know that I speak the way I speak because I grew up in a town in which the gas station Johnny’s Junxion sold the best fried foods and Appleacres sold the best apple cider shakes and the white church I attended gave out small wafers and grape juice every month. And I ingested them all.
To be Black and from Southern Indiana is to take up space within a place. It is to discern the edges of what is held in. It is to be the edge. It is to be a place within yourself—a marking, a naming, a delimiting of what is not articulated but what is always left and made and filled. To be Black and from Southern Indiana is to become a race scholar to make sense of the ways Southern Indiana is in me, a few thousand miles away, as I write this by the glow of a flashlight, waiting for darkness to close in.