The last time I visited the place where I grew up was 1996. My grandmother was ill, and they didn’t expect her to last much longer. She wanted to see me. I went back, briefly. It was awkward and awful and reminded me of all the reasons why I had left. By that point I had already changed my name to distance myself from the family. I wish there was a way to change where you were raised, so that I wouldn’t have to have any association with my hometown.
It is, of course, disputed whether or not the place was actually founded by white supremacists. No one today wants to cop to it, and at the time they weren’t totally blatant about it. That’s what we grew up hearing, though. Not in school, of course. It was just popular lore, recited with pride by adults that I knew. In the early 1900s the city was becoming more racially integrated. An increasing number of African-Americans were migrating up from the south. The founding fathers of our little suburb got together and took legal action to secede and form their own government. That’s how our little borough was born.
My Hometown was Founded by White Supremacists
Growing up, the place was 99% white. Most of the adults I knew were openly racist. Of the few that weren’t, I’d say about half were more discretely racist, only making comments privately and under their breathe. When I was in middle school a handful of Indian families moved into the borough, which caused no small amount of controversy. They were all nice people, and their kids were honor students, which I mention not to stereotype but to provide counterpoint to the things the adults were saying. Did that stop people from being awful toward them? No, no it did not. I had a difficult time understanding why the adults in my life were saying awful, untrue things about my friends t school and their parents.
The only other children of color in school as I was growing up came from the “children’s home”. It was a facility for “troubled youth”, which can mean a lot of things, but most of the community chose to interpret it to mean “juvenile delinquents”. Most of the kids were white, but there were some black and Puerto Rican kids from the city. The home was located within the boundaries of our little borough, and had been there since the 19th century, well before the founding. It was in a remote corner of the area, and you never really saw the kids outside of school, so it was tolerated. Some residents actually pointed to it as proof that the borough couldn’t possibly be racist, because we had that charitable facility that helped “minority” kids. As if they, personally, were doing things to help troubled youth.
Equal Opportunity Bigotry
It was not a comfortable place to grow up. Even the nominally white, European people seemed to have it in for each other. People of German ancestry made mafia jokes about the Italians. The Italians made Nazi jokes about the Germans. Everyone mocked the Poles, and even the Poles seemed to have beef with the Greeks. They were all glad that the Puerto Ricans stayed in the city during the immigration surge in the 1950s. Don’t get any of them started about the Jews or the black. I had heard every racial slur you can imagine by the time I hit kindergarten. Again, this equal opportunity bigotry was cited as evidence that there were not racists, because they “poked fun” at everyone. Because that’s logic for you.
By the time I graduated from high school I ran, as far and as fast as I could, and I’ve never gone back.