“That was one of the things that attracted me to programming—you have the freedom to work remotely.” He’d lived in Hyde Park on and off since he was 15—had the same apartment for 14 years before moving to Bronzeville. “Originally, I was looking for another place in Hyde Park. This is not a neighborhood that I ultimately see myself living long-term. If I could have gotten the same thing in Hyde Park I definitely would have.”
My mother was involved in fighting personal oppression. She went to a mixed school, a predominantly white school, and she’s a fighter. Things would arise and she would address them. When I was three my parents divorced. After their divorce, my mother became more of who she was. Very . . . Afrocentric. So what happened at age 7 is, my mother remarried and we moved to Africa.
If it’s possible for black people to be racist that would describe my mother, but depending on your definition of racist … The Webster’s definition is that you have to be in a position to impact others, you have to be in a position of power, to be racist. When you just think about the word, prejudice comes to mind, and I would say “racism” has a certain kind of venom associated with it that I think is applicable. [Laughs].
My mother remarried an artist and he taught at a women’s college in Ghana. Also he was a jeweler and a painter, and they would come back to the States to sell his work. That’s how he made a living. The move to Ghana was supposed to be a permanent move. It was more about just being in an environment of black people than, you know, identifying the cultures and learning all the various aspects of it. It was about finding a place to live and thrive where you’re surrounded by your own.
African-Americans in Africa stick out very, very readily. There’s a certain amount of resentment and a lot of curiosity. I had had one experience—I was actually homeschooled for that whole period of time because of this experience. There was a mountain right outside of Accra. The further you go up that mountain, the more rural it gets. We were midway up the mountain and living there. The school was this open building with maybe four sections and with about 200 kids total. After my second or third day of school, everybody was so curious about me that the whole school followed me home. I was walking in the middle of the road. I would walk and they were maybe 15 or 20 feet behind me. Every time I’d stop, they’d stop, and I would turn around and look. I was learning the language, but not well enough to really understand what was going on. It scared me. We were maybe a mile away from home and I have an older brother that’s eight years older who was home. We were living in a botanical garden at the time, which is another story. The garden went up this hill and from the house where he was, he could see all of this happen. He ran down and scattered the kids and came to my aid. Then he told my mother. She was like, OK. You don’t have to go back.
It was a relief at the time, but a punishment the next day, and for the next three years. I think they were just following me out of pure curiosity.
We moved thereafter. There was a coup that looked like it was going to be a bloody coup so we left prior to tanks rolling down the street and that kind of thing. We left to let that blow over, but once we got back, one thing led to the other and we just ended up staying in the US. It was probably’79 or something like that. We were in Chicago for a short time but then we settled in Atlanta. I was there from around 10 to 15, and then I came back to Chicago.
I value that experience a great deal. I think it’s really shaped how I look at the world, how I live my life, how I look at other people. I think the biggest change is just in understanding that no culture is right about the way they live. You’re born into a situation and there sets of rules and sets of behaviors. If that’s the only thing that you’ve seen, then you grow up thinking that that’s the way it should be. But being immersed in a completely other kind of culture that, you know, works just fine for those folks but is very different from my own, makes me look at all cultures with their own validity. How I live my life is very open to whatever kind of experience. I try not to live by a format of any kind.
When I was 15, I came to live with my father who, for all of his adult life, lived in Hyde Park. At the time —1983, ‘84—it was a little less commercial than it is today. Very residential, very multiracial and somewhat multicultural, but from a socioeconomic standpoint relatively similar: middle to upper-middle class folks from all walks of life, many of whom chose to be there because of its multicultural, multiracial makeup. Coming out of very militant, pro-black, anti-white, anti-anything else upbringing, it was actively instilled in me to have the experiences that I had in Africa. Then to come to Hyde Park where I could see other people . . . Kids learn racism. You’re not born with it. To see different groups of friends walking without any—different races, without any kind of consciousness of that—it was really a first-time experience for me. It was one that I gravitated to and appreciated. I think that neighborhood is relatively rare in the country. I think it’s the only neighborhood in Chicago proper that fits that description.
I’d consider Chicago a segregated town, but Hyde Park is an oasis in the middle of the desert. The neighborhood is becoming more commercial. There are more things that would draw people from outside of the neighborhood, more stores that are gonna pull folks. It becomes more of a destination. People are starting to move because of its proximity to downtown, as opposed to moving here because they really have an interest in having a multicultural experience.
I wanted to, and actually plan eventually to, move with my wife to Hyde Park and raise kids. Hopefully they have a similar kind of experience, although Hyde Park is changing so I’m not sure how that will work out.