Last month the NAACP issued its first-ever travel advisory for a state—a whole entire state—for people of color. That state was my home state, the place of my birth and home to the people I love most in the world: Missouri.
The advisory was shocking in that it wasn’t for other states much more historically maligned for their oppression of black people (*cough* Mississippi *cough*) or places deemed among the worst states for black people to live (*achoo* Wisconsin *achoo*). Instead, it’s for Missouri, a delightfully screwy place with an insane government and history of racial animus that goes back much further than Mike Brown and the Ferguson uprising.
So, yes, I was shocked, but why was I shocked? I’m from there! I experienced the racism first-hand and watched it turn me bitter and angry and hard! Still, the fact that Missouri won the statewide-oppression sweepstakes, beating out such hefty contenders, is illuminating in the worst way. It confirmed everything I always knew in my heart: I was right to get the hell out of there as soon as I could.
Now, if only I could say the same for my family.
Everyone I hold dearest to my heart lives in Missouri. My loyal and loving father. My sickly, but resilient, mother. Both my treasured sisters and a nephew I love so much in my heart, it physically hurts. In fact, it hurts to be away from all of them. Yet I left because Missouri is—pardon my language, Daddy—a racist shithole that I do not miss and would never, ever visit if you all (and my high school BFF Tiffany) did not live there.
All of them live in St. Louis—home of the Cardinals, gorgeous Forest Park, the Gateway Arch and widespread systemic racism. A place where, years after the Ferguson protests, activists and leaders from the movement keep popping up dead. A place where racial apathy is real. A place where they just reduced the minimum wage and where a meth epidemic has been roiling the rural areas for at least a decade or more.
When I left St. Louis, I was fairly angry over the oppression I felt while growing up there. It didn’t matter that my family was loving or that I had great friends or that we lived in a “good” neighborhood. The microaggressions and regular aggressive aggressions were too much. The fact that I was an A student who had to fight to get put in Advanced Placement classes because my guidance counselor didn’t think I could “handle it,” and thought I should take stellar classes like home economics and “office work” instead, was annoying. So were the police in my school threatening to arrest us.
So were the constant comments from the kids I babysat of me being lesser than because I was black. So was the fact that white kids with whom I was “friends” wouldn’t claim me or acknowledge me if they were out with their “real” (i.e., white) friends. So was the time a little white boy literally stepped on my head to get ahead of me and to a higher position on a playground. So were all the times I was called nigger. So was watching more than half of the black boys I grew up with end up in the school-to-prison pipeline before there was even a term for such a thing.
My father, a Texan who grew up under Jim Crow, came to this shitty state after college to work in the then-booming aerospace industry. Several years later, he met my mom, a schoolteacher originally from Arkansas, fell madly in love, wasted little time getting married or starting a family, and the rest is history.
He claims that as we grew older and became adults, long before my mom started showing signs of dementia, he suggested that maybe they should move back to Texas or Arkansas. Why stay in St. Louis? Why not go back to the South? My mom, hater of any and all change, vetoed the idea on the spot.
St. Louis was her home, even though she, too, talked shit about it. It was the place where she created her family and built a life and made friends. She was comfortable living in North St. Louis County, where it’s more than 50 percent African American. Sure, racism ran amok, but she felt safe, and that’s all that ever really mattered to her.
Can’t say that I felt the same.
It’s strange what you can get used to. And you can get used to living in a racist police state. You can grow numb to the daily signs of your oppression and just try to keep your head and hypertension down and focus on the task at hand—raising a family, keeping a job, paying your bills. That’s what my family does. They cope with it, mostly because they don’t know anything else and have no other choice.
I, an emotional creature in a creative field, couldn’t take it (nor could I find decent work there), so it’s accepted by all of us that I had to leave in order to survive. But I’m here to make the case that, hey, maybe you all can leave, too.
This note to my family would have been different 10 years ago, before my mom started to deteriorate. Back in 2007 is when everyone really should have left—before Ferguson, before the NAACP’s advisory, before my mom’s illness made them all stuck. I wish my family could move, but my mom can’t handle change, for real this time.
My father is 100 percent dedicated and devoted to my mom and keeping her healthy. My sisters are 100 percent dedicated and devoted to supporting my dad and my nephew, ever oblivious to the obstacles he’s about to face as a black boy about to start kindergarten in a world wholly hostile to black children. They can’t go, and I can’t stay.
Despite the NAACP’s warning about traveling to Missouri, I’ll likely go back, sooner rather than later, to see my family. And I’ll keep going back for as long as they all live there. I don’t like it. They don’t like living there, but it’s the reality we’re all trapped in.
At least we’re all in this together.