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COLUMN: Into the thicket

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“Here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am … tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram …” — Phife Dawg, “Check the Rhyme,” A Tribe Called Quest

I am excited and honored to be writing a new regular column for the Yellow Springs News called “The Briar Patch.”

Before I introduce myself, I must tell you that I cannot claim credit for naming my column. A friend of mine graciously suggested the name during a conversation in which we explored different topics I could write about. A briar patch is a “thicket formed by any number of unrelated thorny parts.” The briar patch figures prominently in the escape route of “Brer Rabbit,” the trickster figure in African American folktales in the mid-1800s.

Brer Rabbit was a symbol of hope for enslaved Black people. In the stories, Brer Rabbit, through trickery and diversion, was able to get out of seemingly inescapable situations, and escape bigger, more powerful animals including Brer Fox. One of his legendary exploits was told through the story of “Tar Baby,” in which Brer Rabbit used his wit and survival skills to extricate himself out of a “sticky” situation and escape into a briar patch — a place he’d navigated since birth. As a Black woman born and raised here, gone for a spell, and now returned to a much-changed community, Yellow Springs is, indeed, a briar patch of sorts.

In introducing myself to you, I am upfront in my spiritual beliefs — that our ancestors walk amongst us, as they are in our thoughts and memories and often direct our actions. This concept of ancestral legacy, and what that means for the present and future, will be pervasive in this column. We are because they were, and in my family, introductions often begin by discussing “your people” before talking about yourself.

“Ma Mat got that gal by some white man” were the whispers about my biological grandmother Ira’s origins. My mother believed it was true, recalling the white man who stopped by the house in Georgia where she grew up with food when she was a little girl. “These for Ira’s chillum,” he said.

“Yard chillum” is what they called children with no daddy where my mother grew up. But my mother, the youngest girl of 14, had a daddy. He was just married to someone else. Born somewhere between joy and despair in Pennsylvania, she was an infant when she was sent, along with her four older sisters, to live with an aunt, Elsie D., who eventually became her adopted mother.

“You better get that gal outta town,” they told my grandma, Elsie, when it became clear my mother was too spirited and intelligent to live amongst the racist white folks in Griffin, Ga. She’d just beaten up a little white girl named Harriet, who my grandma looked after, for calling her the N-word. That incident cleared her way to Spelman College in Atlanta, where mom majored in sociology and worked her way through college in the school cafeteria.

After college, my mother, along with thousands of other African Americans, traveled north to Chicago, to the “Warmth of Other Suns,” as Isabel Wilkerson eloquently titled her book on the Great Migration. There, she met my father, whose family traveled from Alabama to feel the same new sun in hopes of a better life.

My father, an electrical engineer, could not find an industry job in Chicago. My parents ended up in Ohio when he was offered employment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The federal government  was one of the only employers hiring Black people with some education in the 1950s. My mother, after years as a social worker, became a special education teacher for the Springfield City Schools.

My parents never saw Yellow Springs as “this cute little tourist town they fell in love with and decided to move to,” though they did enjoy the summer Shakespeare festivals on Antioch’s campus. Movement and migrations for African Americans are often less whimsical and more complicated journeys, and my parents’ experience is but one example out of millions. In the 1960s, our town was one of the few places they could build a home in the area. Although they wanted to remain near their close-knit and supportive community of friends in Springfield, everywhere they tried to purchase land, they were denied through the systemic and racist practice of redlining. Yellow Springs, by no means perfect, offered an opportunity for an expanded life for them, and by extension myself and my three older siblings — preteens and teenagers when they moved here. I was born a few years later.

As for me, as an artist and arts administrator living on the East Coast, first in Philadelphia and then in Brooklyn, I never thought of returning to Yellow Springs after graduating high school. An occasional visit to see my parents was more than enough. Being a Black girl growing up in this town was a bittersweet experience of contrasts. As I often felt isolated, it was not ideal for building self-esteem. But I also had great childhood adventures with friends in the Glen.

I also attended Spelman College, one of the best decisions for my life, but apparently problematic for a classmate I grew up with. She voiced her unasked-for displeasure in my school choice, declaring she was against Black colleges, and didn’t understand why I was segregating myself — she was completely ignorant of why HBCUs exist in the first place. I responded she could easily apply to Spelman — they don’t discriminate — and she might learn something. But this encounter highlights a lasting series of problematic encounters I continue to have with “well-meaning white liberals” here.

Despite the micro-aggressive ridiculousness, I recognize that I grew up with some privilege. An undeniably beautiful thing about growing up in Yellow Springs in the 1980s is that I lived among people with diverse incomes, generations and backgrounds. I could never have navigated the neighborhoods of Philadelphia doing public art projects without the contrasting experience of being called the “N” word during away sports games when I was a student athlete. Growing up with such juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness was an opportunity for growth.

I returned to Yellow Springs for what I thought would be an eight-week trip to care for my aging parents eight years ago. Almost two years after my mother’s passing, I live in Yellow Springs in the house I grew up in.

And yet, I end my first column with queries of concern. When I was a child, Yellow Springs’ population was 30% African American. It is now down to around 12%. Would my parents and others have been able to accomplish the same feat in 2020 as they did in 1968? Is Yellow Springs still an economically and socially desirable place for people of different backgrounds to reside? Is there a desire among the village to seriously honor the legacy of this community with a real diversity and an anti-racist plan of action — not in lip service to the past but by doing the actual work to ensure that it happens?

Welcome to the Briar Patch.

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6 Responses to “COLUMN: Into the thicket”

  1. Andrea Cobbs-Waterman says:

    Didn’t realize it was monthly. No matter can’t wait to read it each month. Wish it WAS weekly.

  2. Andrea Cobbs-Waterman says:

    Super excited! I’m looking forward to reading this column every week Cheryl!

  3. Jamie says:

    Beautiful Cheryl! Can’t wait to read more!

  4. Ernie Schell says:

    Though provoking. And a wonderful first installment
    Class of 1970

  5. Carisa Holmes says:

    Wonderful! I’m looking forward to reading your Briar Patch updates. My relationship with my ancestors is so important to me, and I’m glad to hear you honor and acknowledge them as well.

  6. Opal Plum says:

    Wonderful article! ((Thank you.)) Yellow Springs is an expensive place to live; most properties of the same type can be purchased more reasonably in nearby localities. I don’t know why real estate is so astronomically priced now that Antioch College is less than thriving. This may contribute to less minority populations as a consequence of wage discrimination but I haven’t statistics on that.

    I remember the discrimination against Blacks in Springfield vividly from my own early childhood in the 60’s. My family was the first on our street to sale our house to a Black family and the consequences that that family endured were horrible. One had to do with their new neighbors depositing human waste all over the white picket fence that graced the Black family’s new back yard. My eyes still blur with disgust when I think what that family endured to stay and live in their new home. Good luck with the new column; I’ll keep reading. God Bless. BLM

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