Last week in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, a team of young artists, Amira Caire and Danielle Milke, were commissioned to paint a mural series, an homage to the Black Lives Matter movement. While painting, a white male stopped his car to harass them, calling their work “racist” and threatened to tear it down.
He then demanded their names and addresses so he could report them to the police, yelling that they didn’t belong in that neighborhood. He went on to quote how much he pays in rent…I suppose, to drive home the point that he shouldn’t have to see Black faces in exchange for that price? In light of current events, (and let’s face it, the history of our country), the young women feared for their safety. Onlookers and neighbors shared this concern, and moved to protect the artists using their own bodies as shields. When the police arrived…they chose to do nothing. In fact, one officer was seen congenially laughing with the suspect, Randy Abendroth, now a former executive for EMS Industrial Inc, which fired him the day after his racist attack.
“You never faced any real racism” — — words I and many other Black Americans have heard, who hail from families or neighborhoods where “inner city” was not part of the equation. Any perceived lack of “legitimate struggle” apparently signifies that the impact of the racism that quietly wormed its way into our daily lives, did not actually exist. So, when Madison was recently ranked as “the best city to raise a family” in America, those of us who grew up Black in Madison knew there was a missing asterisk and footnote with that headline.
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My grandparents, Margaret and Alfonso Studesville, arrived in Madison via St. Louis in 1948 —hoping for jobs, better schools, and housing that were more abundant “up north.” They found those things, but also found another American city with a complicated relationship with race.
Eighteen years later, when my parents married and had me, a new version of this complicated relationship with race unfolded.
“We got a lot of calls. And not very nice ones,” my Grandma Betty (on the White side of the family) shared with me one day. “They’d call and say awful things. And daddy, your grandpa, would just shake his head, not wanting to give all of it any more fuel to add to the fire. We lost friends — well, they weren’t really our friends, I guess, now, were they?” When I asked what had been said, she got very serious. “Oh, I don’t even want to repeat it, honey. I’ve always hated that word. I wish it never even existed. And it makes me sad that people have that kind of hate in their hearts.” At the moment my parents had signed their marriage certificate, there were still 16 states in America with anti-miscegenation laws on their books. I learned that in order to rent our apartment on the east side, my mother had to go view the unit without my father or me in tow, for fear that we would otherwise be turned away, as though her family was something of which to be ashamed. “That was no way for a man to be treated,” Grandma Betty said in hushed tone, patting my hand.
My first memories of racist “othering” was the near-constant dodging of White women’s hands. It was always complete strangers who felt they had license via their privilege to touch, grab, pull at, and incessantly question me about my curly hair. It was always while I was with my mother and grandmother, implying that the questions were asked to discover what genetic mystery had produced this child from that lineage? It might seem a small thing in comparison to the threat of bodily harm in the news today. But it is merely a different chapter from the same book. Each instance was an assault upon the right of my body being mine and not of public domain, existing to be pet and assuage Caucasian curiosity. It happened in grocery stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, or simply walking down the street. And it was such a regular occurrence, this invasion of my space and body, that by the age of just 3 years old I had a necessarily precocious response getting straight to the truth of their inquiry:
RANDO WHITE WOMAN
My, what curly hair you have! Where on earth did you get that from?!
My mom is White, and my dad is Black, so I gots curly hair, ok??
Once my school years began, I learned the annoyance of constant and unwanted intrusion had simply been the warm-up for what was to come:
· In the first week of kindergarten, I am called a nigger by one of the “dirty grey kids,” for the crime of being one of the first in class to read aloud, thereby irritating his 5-year-old sense of world order.
· In 2nd grade, during a game of “boys catch the girls,” (problematic rape culture game for another article on another day) I am told I couldn’t play because two of the boys “don’t wanna touch a nigger girl.”
· In 3rd grade, Mrs. Gerland tells me in front of the entire class that my new favorite little dress that my mother made for me is “not cute and not appropriate,” and begins a habit of singling me out and shaming me for the exact same behaviors, clothing, or singing that other [White] kids do daily without any reprimand.
· It is also in 3rd grade that I am attacked during recess, in the field next to school. The much older, white boy leaves me with the warning, “I’ll kill your nigger dad and that nigger loving mother of yours if you tell anyone.” My [8-year-old] absence the rest of the day is never brought up.
· By this point, hearing my peers use “nigger” is just another Tuesday. But they routinely add, “Not you. I don’t even see you as Black.”
· Mr. Reynolds, our 8th grade English teacher, hands back tests each week and tells me I’m “so bright for a Black student.”
· Mr. Ostrander, a science teacher, makes fun of my hair as he holds court during passing time each day, and recruits some older boys to join in.
· Miss Pautsch, a gym teacher known for not being a fan of any Black students, harasses me for the entire quarter after I get my body cast off following spinal fusion surgery, for not participating in the track unit in gym class, “especially since you are a Black, and running should come naturally to you.”
· The boy who “went with me” on a dare from other boys from our church, because dating a Black girl is seen as a joke.
· The Catechism teacher who I overhear referring to me as “that sassy little nigger”…which moves me to drop out of classes just weeks before our Confirmation.
· Our Commons area has The Black Section, which everyone knows from the first day of freshman year.
· When I pick up my toddler-aged brother from daycare and bring him back to school with me for pom pon practice one afternoon, another student yells, performatively for her friends, “Is that little thing your kid? Cuz niggers are always gettin’ pregnant,” to which her friends reward her with laughter.
· Constant bullying for my “frizzy Black people hair” by the mean-girl clique-leader. The same girl asks “Why are you talking to that crazy Black lady? Does she have a lesbo crush on you?” every…single…time… the only Black teacher stops me in the Commons to check in with me during freshman year.
· Pom pon coach / gym teacher daily micro-aggresses and sexualizes Black students, who are then gaslighted by her co-opted, flying monkey posse of white students who urge us each time to “get over it,” since “she doesn’t mean anything by it.”
· A group of white girls who nickname a friend “Fudgy” in elementary school, based on his deep brown skin, continue to call him out of his name throughout high school. When I tell one of the girls it is fucked up and wrong, and makes him angry and sad (because he told me so, and shared a poem about it, privately), she flippantly and dismissively shoots back, “He likes it. His skin looks all fudge-y. And it’s not like we’re calling him anything bad.”
· When a white girl in Spanish class says nigger for the umpteenth time, and I tell her to knock it off, she explains, “You have to understand, it’s because my cousin was jumped by a bunch of them from East [High School]. So, our family just hates Black people now. It’s nothing personal against you.”
· High school guidance counselor encourages me to set my sights on “the technical school route” — — despite me being a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, and proceeding to get accepted to top colleges (and, later, law schools) across the country.
· White male student spits at me and calls me “nigger bitch” during a tennis tournament at West High School. My coach takes no action, telling me to “just ignore them.”
· While attending the annual Minority Student Leadership Conference, a White man tries to hit us with his truck as a group of students cross the street, while another white man hangs out of the passenger side window yelling, “Niggers go home!”
· A professor sexually harasses me based on his “attraction to how you represent your ethnicity,” when I am simply attempting to ask a class related question during his office hours.
· On Day One of my summer job at the District Attorney’s Office, I am forced to supervise the only other Black filing clerk and ask her “to stop snapping her gum,” so the actual supervisor doesn’t “look racist.”
· My White college roommate requests that I not have my [Black] boyfriend in our apartment when her parents visit, because they are “from the South.”
· While working at Brooks Fashions, the manager directs me to “keep an eye on them” every time Black females enter the store.
· Presumably because I get hella pale during Wisconsin winters, I am a fly on the wall and get to hear things like, “bunch of stupid nigger jocks on the football team” in class…and then witness the same guys demand high-fives from a group of my friends the following Saturday night…who are all Black football players.
· Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house , aka FIJI house, throws an “island party.” And to welcome guests, they display a life-size cardboard cutout on the lawn that features a “native” [black] man with exaggerated, red lips and a bone through his nose. Party guests show up in island attire and blackface.
· Zeta Beta Tau fraternity hosts a mock slave auction, where members and guests wear fake afros and blackface.
· Even after the university renamed a large landmark rock, it’s still commonly referred to as Niggerhead Rock by white students.
This list is merely the highlight reel from one person’s life. Madison, and cities like it across the country, are all complex ecosystems of societal issues. But the complexity at play is ignored whenever the communities are myopically romanticized, negating and erasing the realities of entire segments of the population. As this last week has shown, my hometown is as rich in prototypes of racism, inequality, and daily micro and macro aggression, as it is in natural scenic beauty and Big10 football traditions. It is a reality that leaves this native Madisonian still feeling like the title of one of my first stories on growing up Black in Madison is as apt today as it was when I wrote it 25 years ago — Same Old Mess. I was compelled to document this history publicly for the first time in order to underline and bold the sense of urgency in our collectively moving into the uncomfortable company of truth now. If not, the past will continue to haunt us, instead of teach us. If we have learned anything over the past few months, it is that the stench of ugly truths brushed under the rug will eventually taint the air we all breathe.