Tuesday, November 25, 2014

things I remember about St. Louis.

I arrived in St. Louis, MO in 1982, where my father taught at Washington University and lived there until 1985, when he took a sabbatical at the University of Washington in Seattle. We moved back to St. Louis for part of 1986 - one semester of 1st grade - and then back to Seattle. Dad had gotten tenure at Washington University, mom balked at living in the Midwest for the rest of their lives, and he was offered a job at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We came back to Seattle in the dead of winter, to an unfinished house still in the midst of renovation.

There is not much I remember about St. Louis, because I was very young and my world was contained by the small boundaries of the street where we lived, Clayton Child Center where I went to daycare and then preschool, Chinese school on weekends, the brick campus of my father’s university. I remember winter snow and summer heat that left the lawn prickly and stubbly under my feet. We lived in Ladue, a couple of miles from the university, which I did not then understand was predominately wealthy and predominately white.

We were the only Chinese family on our block, a long cul-de-sac of nearly identical brick houses; I was not old enough to see this. I did not understand that my dad drove a BMW (back in the days when professors drove BMWs) and my mom drove a Mercedes (a hand-me-down from her father). I did not know that sometimes the police would see them driving their nice cars in our nice neighborhood and pull them over. I was not told that these were all factors when we moved to Seattle and my parents bought a house adjacent to the predominately-black Rainier Valley and sent me to public school in South Seattle. I would not understand until later that our Asian-ness gave us a level of protection somewhere between the privilege of white folks and the complete lack thereof for black folks. We might get hassled occasionally, but we didn't worry about getting shot by the police.

What I also didn't remember is that St. Louis is a city of suburbs connected by endless freeways. I didn't know that about 11 miles to the northeast of our comfortably upper-middle-class-white-suburb of Ladue lay the black suburb of Ferguson, and that the fault lines that had been apparent when we lived there 30 years ago would burst into flames with the death of a black teenaged boy at the hands of a white police officer. The song of the south is a wail of anguish at the injustices of this country. Last night I heard the roar of people chanting as I sat in my living room and turned to see over a hundred, maybe two hundred protesters marching down my street.
I thought about a moment from an early draft reading of Robert Schenkkan’s THE GREAT SOCIETY, when a simple traffic stop in a Los Angeles neighborhood explodes into what became the Watts Riots of 1965, a small moment that turns into something cataclysmic. I thought of Italo Calvino’s words after he witnessed the Montgomery protests of 1960: “The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation…without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York Public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.”* How little we have changed in 54 years.

*Italo Calvino, March 6, 1960, Montgomery, Alabama. (from HERMIT IN PARIS: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITINGS).

No comments: