The Enduring Mythology of Public Space
As far as pop culture and literature go, we have everything from I Am Legend and World War Z to Handmaids Tale, and many things in between to tell us about how this coronavirus unzips. As a culture, we’ve told ourselves so many dystopian stories, we can’t discern between those and the reality that everyone is now living. However, for many — depending on your race, class and so many other areas of identity — these stories of horrific realities as they relate to navigating public space are nothing new.
Growing up on Harold Street in Hartford, Conn., I was always told that I was being watched. It wasn’t clear if “being watched” meant the bushes or people in the windows or neighbors. In the 1980’s, we saw kidnapping vans portrayed on television and had the fear that someone was going to possibly pull up in a car and kidnap us with the lure of candy. Whenever I left for school, I was told: don’t talk to strangers.
I was between 12 and 13 years old when my mother allowed me a little bit of freedom. I went to the corner store, a seven-minute walk from our apartment building. These trips were my life. I bought Cheez Doodles or any range of the Little Debbie snacks. During the warm months, Will Smith’s Summertime, blared out of car windows.
But the warm weather also saw spikes in violence in Hartford and those walks were short-lived. And as a teen, I would be warned to stay away from Sigourney Park, where the inebriated and homeless occupied benches all day. According to my mother, public swimming pools were cesspools for germs and were out of the question. We visited the beach only a few times because once the reports came in of needles washing up on beaches, my mother wasn’t having it. And throughout my childhood, I knew that Keney Park — all 693 acres of it — was off limits. I was at the start of my teen years when the body of Evelyn Perez, a teenager, was found rolled up in a carpet. It was also the place where illegal dog fighting took place.
Growing up, I was taught that the public places connected to where we lived were not to be trusted and should be navigated with extreme care. They included people, places or things that could cause harm. Unfortunately, for individuals and whole communities of color, this has been a truth historically and within our current realities. We cannot go jogging without being murdered like in the case of Ahmaud Arbery (pictured), in Brunswick, Ga., or be safe in our own homes without being killed by police like Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., or Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas.
If you are poor, you know that your home isn’t a sacred space and is, in fact, a space that belongs to the state if you receive assistance. A space where you are told that you can’t have a man living with you in order to receive assistance, just one of many ways that the poor are policed. If you are a person of color, then you know that everything from your body to your home and any space you inhabit is far from sacred. We can look at the injustice of Sarah Baartman, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and many of the brown bodies that litter the landscape due to everything from lynching to police brutality.
If you are a person of color, then you know the space that is far from sacred is your community. Many years before the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot massacre in Tulsa, Okla., there was the lynching of 150 Black men in the Colfax Massacre of 1873 in Louisiana, and the murder and destruction that took place at the hands of White supremacists in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. In 1906, thousands of White men in Atlanta took to the street — due to false reports of assault made by White women — to harm any individuals of color they encountered. In Elaine, Ark., in 1919, the creation of a union of sharecroppers seeking economic justice resulted in White upset that led to approximately 200 Blacks losing their lives in a riot. And like Tulsa, the successful Black neighborhood in Rosewood, Fla., was targeted in 1923 and destroyed.
All are incidents that have transformed our homes, sidewalks and streets into the poplar trees of Billie Holiday’s 1939 song Strange Fruit. If you are Black in America you face a high risk of losing your life from COVID-19 due to disproportionate health issues and access, or die from racism as public, private and intra-space has become more dangerous.
In other words, to walk in a brown body, or to embody a poor socioeconomic status always meant that you did not and do not have the privilege of false demarcation of space. In a time like now, some among us can’t afford to take time from work to self-quarantine due to missing out on a much-needed paycheck. Even in the time of crisis, America has managed to class a pandemic. If you are a brown person and/or indigenous person, or if you are from another country, you are already fluent in all the ways that the concept or idea of sacred space, did not and does not exist.
The coronavirus has inspired me to think about all the ways that the collective “we’s” have been comfortable with our false demarcation of place, privilege and country. How have we been allowed to be sheltered for so long with our false sense of security.
I am recalling my time in Cuba three years ago, when we had to wait in long lines if you needed something. Where I live in Brattleboro, Vt., our local co-op now has a system of everyone waiting in line, and then only a few of us at a time are allowed in the store for safety reasons. The co-op was also one of the first places to install plexiglass to separate customers and cashiers. Workers also wore gloves as a safety measure. However, these safety precautions were not initially put in place in some lower-income neighborhoods and essential workers were put in harm’s way.
In a time like now, it is impossible for me not to think about intersections of race, class and so many other things as I witness how this unzips for various individuals and communities. For some who haven’t thought of our landscape in terms of the ongoing history of space — who gets to label it as sacred, who has the privilege of enjoying it — the strict rules around space feel like a sick joke. After all, for those individuals, space has always been safe and stable. For those of us who have the long view of history, especially if you walk in a brown body, we’ve always known the truth about our spaces. We know that the veil of demarcation between safe and unsafe was never there.
— Shanta Lee Gander