I grew up in a small town less than an hour from Ferguson, Missouri and since the shooting of Michael Brown, extreme police reaction to protesters, and now the wait for Grand Jury results, I've been recalling a Midwestern childhood where fear of the Otherness surrounding St. Louis was pervasive. You were told to be careful because They shot tires out on cars driving into the city, looted the car and killed the passengers. They.
After driving through an hour of cornfields, you passed the suburbs with fancy department stores, followed by the extreme poverty of East St. Louis, and then the city itself. A gauntlet of polar opposites before you even arrived. My favorite thing to do in St. Louis was to stand under the Arch looking up, and spin around until falling down. It was like being in a giant eggbeater. Eventually I recognized the rumor of St. Louis snipers as an urban legend to instill fear and separation between black and white, like the doctor who worked for my dad telling us about the time Mars got too close to the earth, scorched a wide swath of it and that's where black people came from. My parents were furious, but I don't think that's why they took us to Africa.
We went to South Africa to visit my uncle who was a missionary, and my optometrist dad was donating vintage eyeglasses that weren't vintage yet. It was toward the end of Apartheid, and I remember sitting atop a tower overlooking mining city Soweto with its heartbreakingly tiny homes, while being served tea and biscuits. After camping in a wildlife sanctuary, Johannesburg was the opposite. Gunshots rang out in the street and unrest was a constant. Bathrooms had signs indicating a color code, and I remember thinking: "Well that's some bullshit."
That fall, I was riding to school with a neighbor kid and just as I fired up descriptions of my summer in Africa, seeing herds of every animal imaginable running wild, he asked: "Why would you go visit a bunch of ......" And that was the first time I heard the word. There was such a sense of separation and otherness in this boy, he had been taught to dismiss an entire continent with one racial epithet. To this day he may still believe They shoot at you from under the bridge if you try to get into St. Louis. Or that They've scraped off onto the planet from Mars. Or that They have no equal protections under the law.
I have hesitated to write about something I've been so far away from for so many years, because let's face it, the world is not waiting for another think piece on Ferguson. But the ripping apart of a city, a heartland and a country must stop.
South Africa changed. I won't recognize it when I go back. North America can change too once we realize that in every conceivable way, They are Us. We are Them. And no one here scraped off from Mars.