When I think of home, I don’t think of a physical space. I think of family. I think of my husband, my children, siblings, and cousins who are like sisters to me. I think of my close friends and scribe sisters in F.L.O.W. [For Love of Writing], my writing group. I think of where I’m most comfortable. Physical space would be here, on South Hoyne, in Beverly, Shawn. [Laughter]
As Tina and I sat across from each other in her living room, she was teasing me, albeit good-naturedly, for getting lost on my drive to her house on the South Side of Chicago from my home in La Grange, a southwest suburb. She has a big, warm presence, so I am always surprised when we meet in person to rediscover that she is on the short side. At times she is refreshingly blunt in conversation, and at other times skillfully measured. A few years earlier, Tina had been a graduate student in one of my creative writing classes at Columbia College Chicago, and though our original mentor/student relationship ended long ago, we’ve stayed in touch. (Shawn Shiflett)
Tina Jenkins Bell
Evan, my son, turned twenty-seven on September 18. We moved into this home in August right before he was born, so we’ve been here twenty-seven years. My husband and I had two other children at the time. [She has four total now.] We’d outgrown our former home and moved to Beverly where we felt we could provide our children with the nurturing village that we both benefited from as kids. We were able to give them that in Beverly, but we also had it in Chatham, which is one of the oldest primarily African American communities in Chicago. I grew up in Gary, Indiana.
My dad and mom moved from Chicago to Gary before I was born in 1958. Matter of fact, I think they had the house built. At that time, Gary was like an extended suburb of Chicago. That’s where middle-class Blacks were going to live. My father passed away when I was three months old. A truck collided with the car that he was in, but my mother continued to make a home for us there.
My mom was an entrepreneur. She had a high school education and did things to buoy our income. She catered and offered in-home daycare for working moms. The block that I grew up on was very family-oriented. In most cases, families would have three to four kids, one or two cars, usually a station wagon—that sort of thing. Everybody knew everyone. Your lawyer, doctor, plumber and handyman were neighbors back then. We were a mixed-income, mixed-collar neighborhood very much like today’s suburbs, except instead of being primarily white, Gary was primarily Black. Gary was the village in the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” That was home because we knew everyone.
My mom sold her house, and she followed her children back to Chicago again in the eighties. I think once my mom left Gary, it ceased being a physical home, though I often find home in friends and families who knew me when I lived there.
You wrote very eloquently about the racial and economic changes that happened in Gary, which would be around the time that Richard Hatcher was elected mayor in 1967. Is that neighborhood gone, or is that village feeling still there?
The town we knew is gone, but I have friends who are still there fighting the good fight. A couple of things started to happen before and after Hatcher was elected. Gary lost steel as its industry. Hatcher was a good mayor. He went around the country trying to find economic avenues to replace steel, but Gary was redlined for having a Black mayor and being home to primarily Black citizens. All of a sudden, that sync-like relationship between a vocational student who usually would follow his father into the mill or to something else was gone. We lost retail stores, and small businesses started to fail. People’s ability to support themselves went out the window. We were the epicenter of a drug war when I left to attend school in the late seventies. All of a sudden, the Emerald City, a former nickname for Gary, lost its shine. Young people, like me, left because the city seemed to have little to offer, and it hurt to leave because we knew what we were, and what we had, and that we were losing it.
* * *
I had self-confidence and a strong perception of myself because when I was growing up in Gary, everybody who was somebody was Black. I saw who I could be and more. The sky was the limit. And I think having grown up with a strong idea of who I was, race never came into play. My mother never really talked about it. She was into hierarchy. That means that if she had a disagreement with someone, she’d try to work it out. Like with us kids at school, if we were supposed to receive certain services and the principal was not cooperating, my mother would say, “OK, I’m on my way to St. Joe’s to talk to your boss because you’re not listening to me.” St. Joseph, Indiana. I believe that’s where the Board of Education would have its administrative offices. It wasn’t like my mother was saying “Oh, I’m somebody,” blah-blah-blah. It was, “This kid needs the help that I’ve identified or that I’ve discussed with you, and you’re saying that you’re not going to do it? Let me go and sit down and talk with your boss, and we’ll have a conversation.” But it wasn’t a huge thing about race. My mom did not care if you were white or Black. If you were a deterrent, she moved you.
So, you became aware of race when you moved here to Chicago, and you were already sixteen, seventeen?
I was eighteen. At DePaul University. I remember that they had an event for all the African American students. I was sort of Pollyanna-ish, sheltered, so I was thinking that all the freshman students were Black. And it never occurred to me that it was some kind of retention initiative to keep African American students involved. Later on, the entire freshman class went to a picnic that was open to everyone, and I could see the diversity. It just took me a minute to understand what was going on because the whole politics of retention without inclusion was totally beyond my radar.
A lot of colleges have certain fairs, initiatives, programs to keep African American students involved, doing well and so forth. But the way these initiatives are created, they’re little islands of themselves in that beyond that there’s nothing done to really boost or increase inclusion. I was a first-generation college student, so I didn’t really know what was going on. I just showed up where they told me to show up because I wasn’t thinking about race when I moved here; I wasn’t thinking that I had any less chance than anybody else of graduating. In fact, with my mom, I knew I had better graduate, and I had better do it in four years. And so, I think I was taught about race here, moving to Chicago.
When I left Gary, I felt empowered. I didn’t feel like there were things I couldn’t handle. I just took for granted my education and the opportunities that I earned would get me to where I needed to be. I would learn differently.
As an undergrad, I did not have to take a lot of basic English classes. Several of my friends who were African American did. I tested out. And so one day, when I was a junior, my friends teased, “You better go talk to your advisor because everybody has to take those classes in order to graduate.”
I went to talk to the advisor, and she said, “I take it your friends are Black.” I just thought, some of them, but what does that have to do with anything? All you have to do is tell me nay or yea. This is about friends teasing me, and I don’t want to be sitting in a class full of freshies as a senior. It was just this weird conversation that I never forgot because guess what? I’m Black, too.
* * *
I laugh when you’re being interviewed for a faculty or staff position at a school, and they ask you about diversity, and almost always, the interviewers seated at the table are white.
I was interviewed for a full-time gig. I prefer not to say where. They made a big deal of asking me about my thoughts on diversity, and which would I prefer: Inclusion or acceptance? And I said, “Well, if you accept me, then I’m included, right? So, acceptance. But it really is a fallacy because that’s not what happens, you know what I mean? Sometimes as an African American you walk around campus and are just invisible. I’ve sat down at professional development workshops and conferences with people, only to see them later outside of that event and have them walk right past me when I know who they are. They should know me.
I wish people hired you based on your abilities, performance and qualifications, and that there weren’t discussions like the one that was shared with me by a friend. These were people discussing who to hire, and I actually wrote this in my journal. The conversation was, “Oh, we don’t necessarily have to hire a Black. Blacks aren’t the only people who define diversity. We can hire a gay,” or “Hey, we can hire a lesbian, and then she would be gay and a female,” or, “We can hire an Asian lesbian because then we’re knocking three diversity notches off.” My thing is, if you want African Americans, Latinos and other cultures and races to make it, then you really need to diversify faculty and staff, and that doesn’t happen because the people hiring are not comfortable with the diversity that they say is required. More is required than simply knocking off notches. In this instance, my friend, who is the only African American faculty member in her department, felt as if her white colleagues would rather hire any other minority than someone who is Black. Why is that?
* * *
Have you ever seen someone step out of their own “racial box,” comfort zone, to help somebody or to help you?
[Long pause] I’ll tell you two incidents, and one is pretty funny. I was walking my dog Bella a couple of winters ago. It was late, and I fell on some black ice. I could have gotten up, but when I fell, I flipped to my back. And so, a neighbor—I don’t know who she is, a younger, white woman just driving by—pulls up in her SUV and gets out to try and help me. Bella being Bella would not let her [laughter]. I had to say, “Thank you so much, but I’ll figure this out.” Part of the reason that I was still laying down there was because Bella was pulling on the chain, trying to prevent the lady from coming near me. I was getting up and the lady was getting back into her car, but I thought that it was really nice for her to stop. She could have kept going. This happened in Chicago at night. I don’t know if I would have done the same thing for someone else considering the threat of violence and the risk you can incur just by getting out of your car at night.
I have a long-term relationship with the white editor of the community newspaper here, and we’ve always had this great relationship. When I finally accepted that Elijah, my youngest son, was going into the Navy, I went over to her house, and I must have cried for a couple of hours. She’s a good friend. We do quite a bit together. We can discuss race. She may not understand, but she listens. Sometimes that’s all we can do.
Is there a time where you just went, “That’s so over-the-line racist,” or is the racism more subtle most of the time?
Over-the-line racist… We were trying to move my oldest son Evan up from preschool and into the same school’s all-day kindergarten program, but his birthday was just shy of the cut-off requirement. Evan probably came out of the womb articulate—preaching, teaching, talking, just Evan. His preschool teacher didn’t want to move him up because she said that he wasn’t ready. And I knew that wasn’t true. I knew he was ready for the program. They were moving other children into the kindergarten program, and we were paying for private school. What bothered me was that his teacher, who he had had for two years, told him that the reason that he couldn’t go into the kindergarten program was because he couldn’t think. That’s what she told him. He came home from school and told me that Mrs. so-and-so said that I’m not ready for kindergarten because I can’t think.
So I called the owner of the school, and she said,
“Well, you know, Evan’s a very articulate young man. He probably made that up.”
I said, “Hmmm. He’s articulate, right?”
She said, “Yes.”
I said, “Smart, right?”
She said, ‘Yes.”
I said, “But not ready for kindergarten?”
“Well, you know, I really have to go on the assessment of the instructor,” she said, adding she thought Evan made it up because he’s articulate and had a huge imagination.
I said, “Really. Hmmm. He would come to me, and tell me that his teacher said he can’t think?”
I took Evan out of the school.
* * *
People would like to think that race is not an issue anymore, and the thing is that it’s so easy for it not to be if people would just not go on preconceived ideas or not saddle people with attributes or thoughts or plans that they’ve never even considered. If we’d just give each other a chance. And when I see that chance, I embrace it, and this is great. I go back to being that happy girl from Gary. What race? And that’s a beautiful thing. But if there is the threat of someone being racist or something unfair happening based on race, then that’s a whole other thing. And there’s a whole other me for that.
Do you worry about your sons on the street? Do you worry about their interaction with police officers, and have you had to have a talk with them?
I had not worried about police interactions with my sons until recently with the murders of unarmed Black people, but truthfully, I had and still have a lot of respect for police in my area. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from correcting and clarifying when a situation requires it.
Like I said earlier, we moved to Beverly for its “village” appeal, and it’s been a great place to raise a family. But it has a past. One of my neighbors returned from a vacation to see “nigger” spray-painted across their gate. So, you still have people who do things, like the neighbors who called the police on Evan and his friends for riding their bikes not far from where they lived. Evan wouldn’t even share these incidents with me until like a year after they happened. Then, I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and he said “Moooom! You’re gonna do something.” And I’m, “You’re damn right I’m going to do something.” Apparently, the police came driving down the street, stopped, and told them to move on and leave. Imagine that. Your kid is not allowed to play on his own block. In that case, I blamed the small-minded people who made the call, not the police.
Another incident happened several years later. We had a basketball hoop out front of our house. The United Nations would be out there playing; I mean everybody—Black, white, Hispanic, you name it. All the kids from the block and the area would come and play. I think Evan was maybe seventeen, eighteen. Elijah was around thirteen or fourteen. Earl [Tina’s husband] was at work.
(As if on cue, Earl walked in the front door, and Tina said, “Hey babe, come and meet Shawn. You remember Shawn, right?” He’d brought home a large, plastic bag full of popcorn. Later, he and Tina would make sure I left their house with a big portion of it as a snack on my car ride home.)
I was at a writer’s retreat at Goldberry Woods in Union Pier, Michigan, and I get a call from Evan, saying, “You know this guy, he’s the ward committeeman. He stopped by the house to tell me that we need to take down our hoop. Otherwise, the city would come and take it down.” Now, all across the community, kids have their hoops out—Black kids, white, Hispanic, you name it. People in the neighborhood park their cars in the driveway, not just in the garage. Lots of times the driveways are taken up, so neighbors may have their hoops at the edge of their parkways. That way kids can dribble the ball and shoot from the street. We had our hoop right in front of the house for my boys. Again, neighborhood kids would gather to play. These were not kids coming from various neighborhoods; these were kids who lived in our immediate area. And that’s what you want, some place where you can see them. The ward committeeman told Evan, “You gotta take it down or we’ll take it down,” in a threatening way. He didn’t say it was violating a code. Just, “Take it down.” Evan called me, and I said, “Well, who was he?” Evan gave me the information, and I called the guy. First, I couldn’t get him, so I called Mayor Emanuel directly. I was on hold, in line to speak [to him], when the ward committeeman called me back. At first, he tried to put a little muscle into it, and I cut him off.
“Are you going to take down every hoop in the entire community, in north and south Beverly,” I asked.
He said, “What?”
I repeated, “Are you prepared to take down every hoop in the neighborhood that’s positioned like my hoop is? Because if not, you’re not taking down my hoop.”
So the guy was like, “You know, I mean, we’ve been getting complaints.”
I said, “From whom?”
“I can’t tell you from whom.”
I said, “Well, until you can tell me from whom, and even if you can’t, until you enforce a code or create a code that says that we can’t do this, where everybody has to take down their hoops, I’m not taking that hoop down. And by the way, why would you come to my door and threaten my son?”
And he said, “He looked like a man to me.”
I said, “Really?”
“He had hair on his face.”
I said, “Ummm-hummm. Did you ask him if he was the owner of the house?”
“Well, I thought he looked grown to me.”
I said, “Ummm-hmmm, I bet you did.”
And we went back and forth until the guy was like “You know what? This is not based on race. I’m married to a Black woman.”
I said, “Yeah, I’m happy for you.”
They did not touch the hoop. In fact, the guy came by to apologize to Evan. I appreciated that.
Do you think he was telling the truth about his marriage?
It didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me was that he came by to apologize and that my son felt respected and safe. That mattered to me.
* * *
Not long after that, Elijah was in high school, also going through the hair-on-the-face phase [laughter], and he was playing basketball at his friend Alex’s house, kitty-corner to where we live, and two houses down 92nd Street. Elijah and Alex had been best friends since elementary school. The police stopped while they were playing basketball to say that somebody was seen doing something illegal. I can’t remember exactly what they said the perpetrator had done, but they were looking for a Black man. “Have you seen him?” the cops asked. They’re teenagers, and they’re like, “No.”
Later, Elijah was walking back to our house. I guess it was about eleven o’clock at night. I get a call from Debbie, who is Alex’s mom, saying, “The cops are following Elijah.” I say, “Why are they following Elijah?” And she says, “Well, they had stopped to ask about some Black guy who did something, and now they’re following him to see where he’s going.”
Nothing really happened, but I called the district police station.
They just followed him right up to your house?
Yes, I know this because Debbie stayed out to watch Elijah walk the short distance home. I asked to speak to the desk sergeant.
I said, “Who are they?” I wanted to know their squad car number.
He said, “What did they do?”
I said, ”They followed my son home.”
And he said, “Did they flip him over the hood and” … I’m trying to remember exactly what he said … “frisk him?”
And I said, “No, but still, they followed him, and I want to know why.”
And he said, “Oh, ma’am, everything’s OK”—blah blah blah.
I said, “I get the feeling that you know who those officers were. When they come into the station, tell them that Tina Jenkins Bell called, and she didn’t appreciate you guys following her son home for no reason, especially considering everything that’s going on.”
I would call any authority if I felt my child’s safety was in question. My husband and I talked to our kids about what’s happening. They are good men who respect authorities, but who also know how to advocate for themselves. Still, they must be vigilant and aware.
Aware of what?
Of police shooting unarmed Black men. I write about that a lot in fiction, poetry, essays. But yeah, I talk to my sons about being aware, about the way that they should interact with the police. I had a Kia SUV, and the police would stop Evan when he was driving it, just pull him over.
How many times has that happened, do you think?
Probably more times than he’s shared with me. I can ask him.
Later, Tina did ask Evan, and he told her that he had gotten stopped twice by the police while he was driving his family’s Kia.
* * *
I don’t want to be like this angry person, who thinks that everything is based on race because I don’t think that it always is. Sometimes people are just assholes, but I appreciate that if you’re an asshole to me, you’re an asshole to everyone. Then I know who you are. It’s the subtle racism that suppresses your opportunities. I try to put it in this space, where I’m aware of it, but that it doesn’t control me or it’s not anger that drives me. That way I can see Shawn as Shawn or try to accept people at face value, which I prefer to do.
* * *
I’ll say one more thing before you stop that recorder. I think what bothers me most are the negative attributes or actions that are assigned to you that you’ve never done. For example, once while advocating for Elijah at his school, it was rumored that I was cursing people out.
Who was saying that?
Some of the moms. African Americans understand that when you’re talking to authorities who are white, you don’t curse them out. One: They’re expecting that, and Two: They stop listening. You understand? So usually what I do… It’s not that I get super-humble. I’m going to be assertive, but I’m never going to be aggressive because I know that the minute you even think that I am, that is a license to render me invisible, and I won’t have that.
Tina Jenkins Bell is a published fiction writer, playwright, freelance journalist and literary activist living on Chicago’s South Side with her husband Earl and two dogs Jackson and Bella. She is the mother of four, and though all are grown, she will always be Evan, Elijah, Eric and Lakeshia’s mom. She writes about being Black in America and the various ways race bends common aspects of life.