These divisions are the consequence of a common but unequal history that persists, even for those who are lucky enough to “climb” from one world to another. This theme underlies “Shelter: A Black Tale of Homeland, Baltimore,” the penetrating new book by Johns Hopkins University professor Lawrence Jackson.
“Shelter” is a memoir of Jackson and his hometown. The story is told in far-reaching essays that touch on topics such as the joys and challenges of black fatherhood, the neglected history of his new, mostly white Homeland neighborhood, his connection to the church of his childhood. , the dangers of black upward mobility, the pain of divorce, and the daily challenges of home ownership. The book is by turns searing, informative, and funny, as Jackson explores both the serious issues and the absurdities of his life and his town.
Jackson is a historian, biographer, and fourth-generation Baltimorean who grew up in much of Black Park Heights, a working-class section of the city that has fallen on hard times in recent decades. After going to college and college and launching his academic career, he returned to Baltimore in 2016 for a distinguished professorship at Hopkins, a university widely considered one of the best in the country, even though she has a distant and difficult relationship with Black Baltimore.
When Jackson returned, he chose to buy in Homeland, a beautiful community with stone houses, winding streets, tall trees, and a series of ponds and fountains known as the Lakes. It is also a community that was built with a backbreaking black workforce and initially kept white by racial alliance. Now its exclusivity is not maintained by the racial code but mainly by economic inequality, even if the racial impact is not so different.
Certainly, Homeland was “the other Baltimore” when Jackson was coming of age. It was not one of the ring-fenced, crime-ridden, wealth-depleting townhouse communities that he and generations of his family knew, but a leafy, thriving redoubt of money managers, doctors, lawyers and academics apparently hidden a few kilometers across town. .
But living in Homeland has come with complications, and Jackson is struggling to come to terms with what many people would call his success. When someone from the old neighborhood remarks that “we can’t all live here,” Jackson knows it’s a stray comment. “He means I’m an Uncle Tom, the kind of black person willing to erase any vestige of his ethnicity to win white people’s approval,” he wrote.
Later, in an essay that examines some of the contradictions of the famous Marylander Frederick Douglass, Jackson writes with anguish: “I wondered if the fatherland house and my pressing desire to raise my children in the unchallenged middle class were linked to an unseemly fondness for former white power.
Certainly, Jackson is doing his part to connect his worlds. He describes his visits to his childhood church in the heart of West Baltimore, as well as his work to make Hopkins’ resources and scholarship more accessible to Baltimore’s black majority.
Well over a century ago, WEB Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the phenomenon that many black people experience when looking at themselves through the eyes of others – mostly white people. And the anecdotes Jackson deploys — having a white man call him “buddy” as he clumsily boarded a rental boat on Maryland’s east coast; witnessing the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in downtown Baltimore and being distressed when a small pile of poop from a police horse marries a section of the road – makes it clear that the phenomenon is still real.
Jackson renders all of this, along with a nuanced and well-researched history of Baltimore and Maryland, with literary flair. The essays sometimes have an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to them. There are places where Jackson jumps from past to present, and from describing events to sharing thoughts that cross his mind.
In a passage where he describes a visit with his son to a neighborhood church, a campaign poster he encounters has him marveling at the “surgically drawn” gerrymandering engineered by Democratic state lawmakers. Lawmakers left Homeland out of Baltimore’s largely black 7th congressional district and placed it in another Democratic district that stretches 30 miles south to Annapolis.
In other parts of the book, Jackson wanders the side streets discussing his carpentry and gardening projects which produce good, but unprofessional results. At first I found it a bit distracting and had a hard time understanding where Jackson was going. But once I settled into the book, I found his style to be effective. And much of the book’s humor is found in the side streets he chooses to walk through.
Describing a project to build permanent shelves in his home, he says he used a router to make a groove in one of his boards and heard the tool make a deep groan. It turns out that his blade got loose and he cut a “deep, jagged hollow, half an inch lower than the design.” Unfortunately, he concludes, “the shelf will be imperfect, just like all my other furniture. Gut shot, I’m slow to pull myself together.
Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer for ESPN.
A Dark Tale of Homeland, Baltimore