The sound of gravel, the feeling of drowning, the chilling effects of racist acts

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jan 26, 2018 in Rat News | Subscribe

Let’s talk about RACE

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Editor’s note: This story contains strong language.

There have been moments of solitude and silence when I have literally taken my right hand, placed it over my left shoulder, and patted myself on the back for surviving small-town Ohio. And if you are a black person from small-town Ohio, you deserve it, too. Go ahead. Do it now. Pat yourself on the back and be proud that you are still standing upright. Because, I may be biased, but I am fully confident that the entire state of Ohio is nothing but a racist cesspool.

I could see this fact much more clearly when I put the Buckeye State deep into my rearview mirror as I headed for Pittsburgh. The “You are Now Leaving Ohio” sign became smaller and smaller as the “Entering Pennsylvania” sign became larger and larger.

But, just to make sure I made the right decision, I consulted the murky depths of the Magic 8-Ball I’ve had since sixth grade.

I asked it if it was a good idea to leave Ohio for Pittsburgh.

It answered, “Yes. Definitely.”

Get involved

“Let’s Talk About Race” face to face at Repair the World in East Liberty on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, from 6-8 p.m.

There will be a guided discussion with a panel featuring Pittsburghers who have been leading the conversation. Join us; it’s free and light refreshments will be served. Register here.

Of course, I didn’t know that I was living on the lip of a racist hellmouth when I was growing up in Ohio. As a kid, my immediate surroundings were my whole world until I learned that I could change them and escape to a better place. Pittsburgh was that place.

On Route 76, Pittsburgh gleamed on the horizon like a birthday present, like the Emerald City with the sun glinting off of it. Its beauty from that distance made me silently vow to never go back to Ohio again for any reason. In Pittsburgh there was potential. Ohio was the long-lost child of Jim Crow just aching to get back into her father’s arms.

Ohio wears on the black psyche until you either leave it forever or get damn good at football.

Hello, Pittsburgh. I am here for you to save me.

I moved to Pittsburgh a long time ago in 1990. I like it here. Every winter, I complain, but there are many reasons I stay, most of which walk on two feet and call me by my first name. I like the different neighborhoods. I like the Strip District. I moved to Pittsburgh to escape Ohio and, although I know that that’s not very far, it felt like a world away. Every television show I’d ever seen back in Ohio assured me that cities were sanctuary for black people. I moved so that I would no more have to deal with small-minded, racist white attitudes. When I moved here, I reveled in my newfound freedom from racism. I made friends of all races and backgrounds.

But, Pittsburgh is not another country and thus, it slowly revealed itself to me.

When I was 14, I disobeyed my mother once and left the house while she was at work. We lived just outside the small, basically rural city of Newton Falls, Ohio, and I needed to go into “town.” I set off on foot forgetting the fact that, even when I was in Newton Falls with my mother, she never let me out of her sight. There were rural roads leading into the city limits and no sidewalks. I took off on foot the way you do when you think you’re a grown-up, certain that nothing in this world can harm you. I don’t remember what I was going to Newton Falls for. That knowledge has been deleted from my memory. But I do know that it was the most important thing that had ever been up to that point and I remember my mother just didn’t “get it.”

Brian Broome in his teen years when he lived near Newton Falls, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Brian Broome)

It was a road that my mother had driven me down several times on our way to the Sparkle Market to buy our groceries. My feet had never touched it before. It seemed vastly different on foot: unrecognizable, spooky, dark green and ominous. While walking, cars whipped by me so fast that I hugged the side of the road and took shelter in the grass. Whenever I would hear a car approaching from behind, every muscle in my body would tense. As the road laid itself out before me, I was helplessly exposed.

And then, I heard the slow crunching of rocks beneath tires behind me.

Not the scattering of them under the wheels of a car that was driving 60 miles an hour. But the slow crunch of gravel signaling that the vehicle behind me was slowing down. I hoped that it was someone I knew. Maybe one of my mother’s friends who would scold me and then force me into the car with the promise to tell my mother on me immediately. I prayed for this. I prayed for my mother’s punishment.

My prayer went unanswered.

My first friends in Pittsburgh were Tom, a white, red-headed and muscular fireplug of a dude, Melinda, a white brunette with cat-eye glasses and a feminist’s anger, and Annette, a tiny, black lesbian with a shaved head and a progressive attitude toward sex. We were liberals in the city, and everything was lit up. We loved to go out like you do in your twenties and had managed to become part of the scene. I met people with pet rats and learned how to do drugs off nightclub toilets and order martinis. We wore leather pants and danced until dawn. Nothing like my sleepy life back home. This was the kind of urban existence that I had dreamed of; the whole city lit up like a jukebox and there was endless freedom to do what I wanted. There was no mother here to tell me that I’d better not leave the house. We were the very definition of cosmopolitan. There were clubs, hip coffee shops and cabs as far as the eye could see. I loved it.

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