One evening last month, my dad called. Footage of him in elementary school, he said, was featured on W. Kamau Bell’s television show, “The United Shades of America
.” He wanted my boyfriend and me to watch it as soon as we could.
“Of course we’ll watch it,” I said. “But why were you on that show?”
My father grew up on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, until his family moved to the fancy suburb of Shaker Heights, which abuts the east side. Incorporated in 1912, Shaker Heights Village was one of the country’s first planned communities: a highly designed, garden suburb. As Isabel Wilkerson said in a 1991 New York Times article
, “Shaker Heights was a natural landing place for [B]lack Cleveland residents looking for their dream homes.” It was accessible only to the Black professional class, and they wanted their kids to benefit from the excellent school system.
In 1961, six years after the first Black family arrived in the Ludlow neighborhood of Shaker Heights, my dad and his parents made the same move. They shifted two blocks north, jumping from the edge of Cleveland to the edge of Shaker Heights, onto Ludlow Street. My eight-year-old dad enrolled in second grade and became part of a much-hailed plan to integrate the suburb and its school district.
This school-integration plan was distinctive because the white people who lived in Shaker Heights were somewhat willing participants in integrating their neighborhoods and schools, rather than being forced to do so by federal mandate. Black families had begun moving into the Ludlow neighborhood — immediately adjacent to Cleveland and the most affordable section of Shaker Heights — in the mid-1950s, after the Supreme Court struck down racial covenants and made its Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Many white people moved out, joining the surge of “white flight,” strongly encouraged by racist government policies and which ultimately resegregated the country.
So, the Ludlow neighbors got together and formed an association. They encouraged both white and Black families to move into the area and stay, to maintain a racially mixed neighborhood. It was an unusual and uncomfortable plan, a superficial fix to deeply entrenched problems.
Despite the quasi-voluntary nature of this plan, and white Shaker Heights residents’ beliefs about themselves, more white families left Shaker Heights during its implementation. They pushed farther east, deeper into the suburbs, lured by property values and status that neighborhoods farther from Cleveland—and from Black people—could offer. My dad remembers neighbors’ kids being prohibited from playing with him, families ignoring his friendly waves and greetings. When one of those families moved out of Shaker Heights, another Black family moved in right across the street—and my dad met his best friend of sixty years.
Like anyone would, my dad got a kick out of seeing himself and his best friend on United Shades of America, a popular TV show. He has generally good feelings about Shaker Heights and its schools. But the segment also reminded him of the ways Black students were marginalized in the 1960s: academic tracking that became a self-fulfilling prophecy; informally discouraging Black students from being ambitious; too many white teachers. He was struck by the fact that these exact inequities are still true today, 60 years later, in spite of the efforts of many teachers, parents, students, and staff.
My childhood was different from my dad’s. I grew up in Alameda, in an interracial and interreligious family and in a diverse but mostly white neighborhood. I went to private school until ninth grade when I went to Alameda High School. Being mixed-race was common; almost all of my close friends were, too. Times had changed, as they say, and we were in the Bay Area. Yet, structural racism, inequality, and anti-Blackness were obvious, inscribed onto my body, even as I experienced them in a strangely muted way, where I was simultaneously vulnerable and shielded.
I’m still working to figure out my role in the movement and the world, work that will be a lifelong process. Being mixed-race, for all the privileges it has given me, is dislocating; we exist in a society built on discrete racial categories and a corresponding racial hierarchy. What I do know is that my work to resolve my internal contradictions is a much bigger fight, one with Black liberation and joy and beauty as its center.