“Every ghetto, every city and suburban place I’ve been
Makes me recall my days in New Jerusalem.”
– c. Lauryn Hill “Every Ghetto, Every City”
The ghetto is defined as “a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominately by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures or hardships.” If you go to the lovely search engine so powerful, I dare not speak its name, and begin to type in “ghetto,” it yields interesting results. “Ghetto names.” “Ghetto dictionary.” “Hot Ghetto Mess.” I even see “ghetto university.” Ghetto is a punchline. Ghetto is a joke. Ghetto is something and somewhere no sensible person ever wants to be, and if you do, you’re mocked.
I grew up in the hood. In the ghetto. East Shore. My play area consisted of my yard, and the span of sidewalk in front of the two houses on either side of mine. I heard gunshots. My park was a haven of drug activity. Our ice cream man sold more than bomb pops. And I lived on “the good street.” I lived in the neighborhood people wanted to leave, but couldn’t. My home for 18 years.
My hood was never a thing to be ashamed of. “Where you from, Red?” was always answered proudly, with my hands on my hips in my perfectly effected hood girl inflection: “Ees Show!” Because with the gunshots and the police sirens, there was so much love there. One of the reasons I love Khandi Alexander’s character on Treme so much, is because she reminds me of my favorite neighbor, Ms. Roanna. When I started coming home alone in middle school, she and Ms. Janelle would watch what time I came home and made sure I was okay. Mr. Payne, our neighbor at the corner, would always fish at the lake and give us the first pick of whatever he caught for next to nothing. I cried when my next door neighbor Rashonda moved away. I couldn’t understand why she would or could leave.
My first poem was written in that tiny bedroom, and I performed my first monologue for my mother in that micro-kitchen we had. It’s where my dad introduced me to Antonín Leopold Dvořák, and I first cracked open Shakespeare. I lived in that house when I got dressed to see my first Broadway play, and rehearsed my lines as Rizzo in my bedroom. And I also learned how to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, pop open a lock with a credit card, push start a standard car. When money as tight, I learned we could go to the store and get a “special” that gave you enough Grade B meat to feed a small country and three antelope.
Being in the ghetto wasn’t something you chose. It’s something that just sort of happened to you. As ghetto folk, we took it in stride. When people use ghetto as a pejorative, it speaks to me of an anger at the audacity to grab happiness, regardless of your situation. I loved my ghetto stars. I idolized the girls who dyed their hair with Kool Aid, stacked it out, and wore huge door knocker earrings. As soon as I bought my first curling iron and bottle of spritz, I did everything I could to get my hair like theirs (failing miserably). Of course, I liked brainy boys with weird faces and off the beaten path interests. But, you could bet your check that at any given time, I was equally in love with a boy in baggy jeans, a polo and a fitted with a stud in his ear. Hearing “Say Red…” in that slow New Orleans drawl still makes me melt inside just the tiniest bit. That’s something that will never change, and I wouldn’t if I could.
I read the classics. I listen to bounce music. I’m not a dichotomy. The ghetto completes me.