My grandmother believed that with all of her heart, even as she and her husband were chased out of Mississippi after my Grandpa Joe refused a public whipping. For Grandma Alice, the Declaration was nothing more than a bad check. She held onto the check for decades, clutching it in her chocolate brown, leathery hands, hoping one day the country she loved would make good. If not for herself, then for the four generations that gathered around her every Fourth of July.
With visions of all-you-can eat hot dogs dancing in our heads, it didn’t occur to any of us that we might not get married, raise our kids and grow old together. We could not have imagined that of the eight of us skittering across a weeded lot that day, that only two of us would be alive today.
East St. Louis suffered under the strains of “white flight” and the local economy quickly cratered. By the time Ross purchased our house on 10th Street in 1969, all of our white neighbors were leaving or gone. That is except the Sanders family: a judge, a lawyer and their sister. They lived directly across the street. I used to sit on their pristine porch, marvel at the flawless bed of grass that stretched across their front yard, and listen as Miss Sanders cautioned me to lead a good and orderly life. Like almost everything else in East St. Louis, the Sanders have passed on.
In the 1980s, crack cocaine came to town and tore the city apart, block by block. Many of my school friends either went to jail or died on or near the very street on which we ran nightly footraces. Thinking back on our block, most of the homes have been abandoned and leveled, leaving empty fields in their wake. The old Boys Club, Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church and Rock Junior High, where I went to school, are all gone. Haynes Miracle Temple is still there, but I guess I always knew it would be.
Today, East St. Louis is nearly 98 percent black, largely impoverished and mostly forgotten. It is no longer useful to measure how many students don’t graduate from high school. Many do not reach the 9th grade. The cycle of poverty begins and is perpetuated in the halls of a junior high school.
Playing stickball in the lot that day, we could not predict that Shawn Clark—a Haynes grandson– would be beaten, shot and left to rot in a dumpster. Or that Kenny McCaskill would be murdered in a drug deal gone bad. Our house was not immune. My brother Christopher was shot, execution style. Multiple cousins have done and continue to do prison time. We are, it seems, a family of women.
Every Independence Day I think of the other young black boys, who never had a real chance to become men. For them, there was no American Dream—at least not that they could see from their vantage point.
I cannot help thinking that Grandma Alice and Grandpa Joe might have turned back, skipping that boxcar ride north, if they had known what future might unfold. Who can say for sure where they might have fared better? Was there any place in America, the country they loved, that would love them in return? Where could they cash that equality check, pursue their happiness without bounds?
That Fourth of July night in 1976, Grandma Alice and I sat at the windowsill in her upper room, listening to the Cardinal game on a transistor radio, then watching the fireworks over Busch Stadium. “What kind of free is this?” she said, stroking my head. “What kind of free is this, child?”