“Blue Rug Still Life” (2014), by Jonas Wood. Photography: Brian Forrest. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
The Meaning of Knots
By Renee Simms
Each summer in the mid-to-late 1970s, I flew south to visit Mama Rubie, my father’s mother. The bronze wings the flight attendants pinned to my shirt confirmed that I was a big deal. I didn’t need chaperones. I was a girl flying solo to Atlanta. One summer my dog made the trip with me and on the return flight to Detroit was placed on the wrong plane. My mother cussed the airplane folk silly that day, but that’s a different story. My trips were usually uneventful. When I arrived in Georgia, my aunt Miriam would be in the airport, waiting. She would drive me to my grandmother’s house on Vanderbilt Court N.W.
Rubie’s house seemed like a castle and she, its sole occupant, a queen. The house had three floors and a stately carport, though my grandmother didn’t own a car or drive. Instead, she used the space to tend to all manner of plants. Some sat in pots placed on tables, and others hung from the roof. If you walked from her driveway through the carport-turned-nursery and into her backyard, you’d see even more plants and a flower and vegetable garden. The backyard bordered a wooded ravine. Since nothing separated the yard from wilderness, I’d stand at the edge of the grass where the ground sloped sharply into the trees and imagine that all of it—the house, its backyard, and the woods—was ours, a territory my family could roam and claim. I did not know then that my father maneuvered through poverty and housing discrimination to purchase this house in 1963.
My youthful ignorance about discrimination is damning evidence of the way racism was excised from the history I learned in school and at home. It wasn’t until much later, after I kept asking, that my father shared with me his experiences with race. When I was growing up, he didn’t say anything about his life as a black boy born in Georgia in 1934. He never described his childhood home. He never said his father spent time in jail, never mentioned his father—who died in 1962—at all. And he seldom returned to Georgia, the state second to Mississippi in the number of lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Instead, I flew to Atlanta each summer, spending blissful days in a house filled with plants, sunlight, and extra bedrooms for out-of-town guests.
Each evening my grandmother and I took walks up and down the steep hills of her neighborhood. Rubie was spry, and I struggled to keep up with her quick step, her right arm swinging with the large stick that she carried in case we met a mean dog. If we saw a neighbor, we’d stop to chat. This is Ralph’s daughter from Southfield, Michigan, Mama Rubie would say, and I’d be obliged to make small talk with an adult. My grandmother liked to bake, and we’d carry pound cakes and Japanese seven-layer cakes to church or to a friend’s house. One summer during an electrical storm, Mama Rubie turned off the power in her house and we huddled on the stairs until the weather calmed. One day this will be yours, she said, as we sat on the staircase. I imagine your father will give this house to you when I’m gone. I nodded although I didn’t understand.
Part of me knew that there was more to my family’s history and seeming comfort than I was being shown or told. Strange facts occasionally floated into conversations. Like the time I screamed when a spider crawled onto my father’s shoulder. Irritated by my childish drama, Daddy grasped the spider in his fist, saying, I had worse things crawling across me when I slept on the floor as a boy.
Thirty-seven years after my last summer trip down south, I sat in front of a computer on a university campus in the Northwest. Instead of grading papers, I read an article from the Harvard Gazette. It announced that an anthropology student, with guidance from his professor, had “decipher[ed] the meaning of knots giving South American people a chance to speak.” According to the article, Manny Medrano decoded an Incan khipu (a colored knotted rope long thought to be a type of census), revealing not only numeric information about an ancient community, but narratives about class status and ways of life. “It’s giving the Incas their own voice,” Medrano’s professor is quoted as saying. Because I teach, I like the idea that a student has rendered legible stories that have long been illegible.
I thought of my family’s stories that were unreadable to me.
It wasn’t until Rubie turned one hundred, for example, that I confirmed that my father’s name was on the deed to her house. Miriam told me this as we spoke about the centennial birthday bash she was planning. That year, she and my father sold Rubie’s house and moved my grandmother to an assisted living facility, her first move in fifty years. My father never mentioned the sale to me. What he did mention one evening after wine was that he bought his mother a house when he was nineteen years old using proceeds from his newspaper route. What? I asked. You bought Mama Rubie’s house on Vanderbilt Court when you were nineteen?
No, he answered. That was the second house I bought. The house I’m talking about was on Booker Washington Drive.
The elders in my family—the social workers and accountants who raised my brothers, cousins, and me—shielded my generation from their painful stories about race. Their silence continues even though we’re now adults who will ask them hard questions. Last Christmas I flew to Arizona, where my father, eighty-four, now resides. I looked forward to leaving rainy Washington, where I live, for the blue skies of the Southwest. I wanted to talk with my father about his experiences, wanted to record them before it was too late. “Did you ever encounter racism when buying property?” I asked one morning. We sat at his kitchen table. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind the back of his head. “There were areas that you knew whites wouldn’t sell to you,” he said before shutting up. Each answer to my questions about discrimination was given this way. I had to ask follow-up questions over several days and months, which frustrated me to no end. Frustration with generational silence is a repeated theme in my work. I didn’t understand this reluctance until recently, when I spoke to an author and friend, Tamiko Nimura, who’s done research on Japanese internment. Tamiko had dramatized a difficult camp story she planned to publish, but when she shared her plans with one of the survivors, he said the story was sacred, not to be shared. That response was revealing to me. My father’s refusal to share his encounters with racial violence and discrimination might be understood as reluctance to trust these stories to just anyone, including me. These are stories so fragile but potent. To this day, he holds fast to them as if they might disintegrate or maim.
Here is what I know. My father’s first home as a boy was a shack located near Atlanta’s railroad tracks. There was no inside water, no electricity. There were outdoor toilets. He lived there with five brothers and sisters and both parents. For this shelter, the family paid a landlord $8 per month. My father recalls that they shared one zinc tub in which they washed up. They grew their own food, including collards, okra, squash, and sweet potatoes.
Nineteen years after he was born, my father bought his family a house under a ten-year contract-for-deed. It was 1953.
This purchase was not some grand vision he had for his future. In fact, he’d been saving the money he used toward the contract for when he went to college. He’d earned this money as a teenager working two paper routes. He delivered the Atlanta Constitution in the morning before his classes started at Booker T. Washington High School, and he delivered the Atlanta Journal after school. He’d saved about $500 by his senior year, and then his father, a truck driver, was jailed for drunken driving. It cost $200 to get him out of jail, and after his release he was never gainfully employed. At the time, Mama Rubie was a maid and with the loss of her husband’s income, they fell behind in rent and were evicted from the railroad house. This is when my father noticed a FOR SALE sign at a house on Booker Washington Drive. He contacted a white attorney, who drafted the contract-for-deed. When I asked how the attorney treated and regarded my father, he gave me a predictable he-was-okay type of response. When I pressed him for more details, he shared that one day the attorney’s son called my father from the waiting area into the office ahead of a white client. Incredulous, the client asked whether they intended to take the nigger ahead of him. The attorney served the white client first and explained to my father that this wasn’t just, in his mind, but that segregation was the law of the land and this was how some people saw things.
The house on Booker Washington had been lived in by a black family, and there were liens against it. Somehow, my family made regular payments on the house and didn’t default during the contract period. At the end of ten years, my father became the owner and quickly sold the house.
After high school, he attended Clark University in Atlanta and later Wayne State University in Detroit. While in college, he worked for an insurance company and upon graduation, he started his accounting practice. He became interested in these professions in high school, when students from Booker T. Washington were taken on a tour of an insurance company and a bank. He says this trip convinced him that he wanted to own a business of some sort.
You could say he did alright when it came to buying and selling real estate. He ended up owning ten properties over a fifty-year period. He bought the house on Booker Washington Drive in 1953 and the one on Vanderbilt Court in 1963. He bought a house for my great-grandparents on Webb in Detroit in 1966. He bought our family a house on Appoline in northwest Detroit in 1963 and then in Southfield, Michigan, in 1970. He purchased two commercial buildings that housed his accounting practice in Detroit—one on Dexter Avenue in 1959 and one on 6 Mile Road in 1970. He also purchased a quarter interest in a preschool, Storybook Nursery, in 1970, with three other black businessmen in Detroit. He bought my first house, near Phoenix, in 2002, and his retirement home in the same area in 1997.
But there’s another way to read this history that’s more critical of black wealth. With the exception of Arizona, where the black population is 4.9 percent, the only neighborhoods where my father qualified for loans and extended mortgages in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were communities that were predominantly black or becoming black. Because of this, they were neighborhoods that were shaded yellow or red on Home Owners Loan Corporation maps. This meant these communities were considered high-risk for lenders. This characterization made it difficult to buy or refinance there, and property values eventually declined. Although the federal government banned so-called redlining in 1968, the characterization of certain neighborhoods as risky didn’t magically disappear. For example, the terms of my father’s purchase of the building on 6 Mile Road were influenced by its location in a black neighborhood. “It was a changing neighborhood,” my father said of that opportunity. It was also three years after Detroit’s historic riots. For years, the white pediatrician who owned the building had difficulty finding a buyer. When my father showed interest, the doctor insisted they do a fifteen-year land contract. He received payments from my father until 1985, and by that time, when my father was granted title, Detroit’s economic depression had become profound, widespread, complete, and the property had depreciated in kind.
I imagine your father will give this house to you when I’m gone, Mama Rubie had said when I was a girl. But the housing discrimination our family encountered meant that properties we purchased weren’t always worth passing on, because their values sank during our ownership.
In 2014, Mama Rubie died peacefully at the age of one hundred and three. When I do a Google search of her old address, I’m saddened by what I see. The house could use some attention. It has the same storm door and windows from decades ago as well as an aging roof. In the photo posted on Zillow, the grass in the front yard is brown and overgrown. And the estimate depresses me. How can a house on .27 acres with four bedrooms and two baths be listed for less than $100,000? I find a similar story of depreciation of our family home in Southfield. In 2013, I was in Michigan to bury my brother and drove past the house where we grew up. The house didn’t look that different, but the neighborhood had changed. The cars parked in the driveways looked older than the new cars I remembered when I was growing up. Our family purchased the house, built in 1960, for $37,000 in 1970. We sold the house twenty-seven years later for $192,500. Today’s estimate, twenty-one years after the 1997 sale, is $184,172.
While in Arizona, I asked my father more about how he navigated this morass known as housing discrimination. He said he would evaluate risk and make sure that he could afford the payments. I paused, waiting for him to offer more, but he said nothing else. But what about the way you were limited to buying and selling in distressed areas? I wanted to ask. I thought of other questions, but they seemed rude and confrontational. We stared at each other, silent and respectful. His house was stifling in the middle of the day, although he seemed unaffected. He was nineteen years younger than Mama Rubie was when she passed away. Like Mama Rubie, he survived his spouse. He lives alone in a house filled with sunlight and plants he’s grown to impressive proportions. When he said nothing else, I diverted my eyes from his and onto my handwritten notes. I placed a star by notes that required more questioning. I’d ask again, once the sun went down.
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