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Living in NYC spoiled me. I became use to the melodies of many voices singing in the Big City streets, the portrait of rainbow faces blended into a beautiful kaleidoscopic blur, and the witness of sundry hands clinched despite their difference. The range of diversities and inclusivities that NYC offered seemed not only innumerable, but natural. It seemed right that many faces would fit together, as if the scape of color, the magnificent prisms of difference were all by design, all resolutely divine and remarkable, all sublimely and indisputably the essence of who we are and are meant to be—many colorful flowers fitted to one magnificent flower pot.
Fast forward a few years: I am back in MI where colors don’t always dance together in the spectrum of space, where flowers sit alone in their own pots, segregated by color. We recognize them as separate, divided by boundaries that organize blacks from whites, greens from yellows, winters from springs—all sorts of divisions that make uniform but unnatural our common world.
Of course, NYC and MI are different places with vastly different histories. One is a city (which is as big as most American states); the other is a state, which suffers its own internal fractures, like the one that separates blues from reds. Don’t get me wrong. I love MI. It is my home, but I do miss NYC because it frees me from the limits of space to which MI relegates me, and quite unnecessarily to a particular color.
I had a book signing the other day, and the room filled with a sea of Black faces and hungry ears invested in what I might say. In the sea of Black faces sat four lonely islands of White—White faces easy to recognize because in MI such sprinkles of difference are easy to spot because they violate some unwritten color code. To this occurrence, I do admit to being a bit disappointed because I deeply believe in integration and understand that we, the human race, dance better together than we do apart, that the gardens of God are particolored and as fresh and as colorful as the Magnolia blossoms of spring.
Now integration implies a two-way transit of bodies borne of open invitations to explore freely the in-between spaces of our existence. It is an eventuality of willingness, where people choose to exist together for mutual and collective purposes, not through force but by will. In integrated spaces, different people exist together because they want to exist together.
In spite of dissimilarities (or because of them), people in integrated spaces ever feel the lived inspiration that the common space creates. The products of their sharing are uniquely scripted for them and by them. In such spaces, individuals and groups, in spite of their surface differences, see themselves as playing on the same team. They develop solidarity and, from this solidarity, a means to communicate and commune. They share values and temporalities, blend customs and cares in ways where individual qualities do not disappear, but appear amplified as an integral part of the integrated collectivity (or collective activity). Integration, as we would have it, is not the policy that we have long pursued in the States; it is not desegregation.
Desegregation is a policy-driven attempt to force people (who may or may not want to be together) together. In its most disturbing of forms, it is about deficit models where “the poor” are given false “charity” by being forced to live among a population of “better resourced” people who loathes them, where Blacks are doomed to the captivity of White “salvation,” such as being bused to White schools that do not want them. The calculus of desegregation is exhausting because no matter how you apply the equation to real life the fiction of real solution remains a real farce.
This brings me back to my book signing. While I entered the room hoping for a more integrated audience, I left it wondering how this integrated audience might have materialized. In pondering this question, I wondered as well why my audience, whom I was very grateful for, was chiefly Black. After some deliberation, I later reasoned that it may have had something to do with my book, which is a deep meditation on the ontology of Black males and literacy. It may have had something to with my own race: I am Black. It may have had something to do with the history of race in the MI, particularly at a historically White institution such as Michigan State University. It may have had something to do with all or none or a combination of these plus other things. Who knows? I don’t. What I do know is that the room that day taught me an important lesson.
The theory of integration is a good idea, one worth pursuing and fighting for. However, we cannot force it, but we can encourage it by creating conditions where people feel safe and invited to live beyond the homogeneity of convenience. We can also challenge ourselves to extend our footsteps long enough that we flirt with unknown distances and walk in places that seem unlike us but in a sincere search for common elements that might connect us. The truth is, we are greater together than we are apart, that the world looks more beautiful when we are planted together in one pot big enough to embrace our many leaves.
Living together is its own reward, but we must labor for it because rewards that are truly meaningful, that are worthy of us, require that we work for them.
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