I like to wear a T-shirt that reads “St. Louis Built” because this place built me as hard as it has the fired bricks that make up the walls of the homes seen throughout the community. Fired bricks can withstand heat and overwhelming force. I liken them to the hardest, grittiest parts of my own person. For me, the majestic structures that make up my hometown symbolize beauty in the midst of the storms that life brings.
The asphalt reminds me of the pain and trauma I’ve lived through. I can vividly remember every time my face was pressed up against it, burning hot from the summer sun—my childhood playground falls, when my domestic assaults spilled out onto the sidewalk, when the police tyrannized us when we protested. So much of what I’ve seen and experienced here helped shape me. St. Louis is my soul and my heartbeat.
Ask most people in the United States what they know about St. Louis, and they will mention the iconic arch that stands regally over the wide and winding Mississippi River. The St. Louis that I know is alive and humming with a diversity of peoples, cultures, and culinary traditions.
Soul food from places like Sweetie Pie’s, Mom’s Soul Food Kitchen, Kingz Turkee Shack, and Mother’s Fish makes me feel connected to my family’s roots. The meat served at Red’s BBQ in Ferguson takes me back to the family cookouts my parents used to host. I head to Cherokee Street for Mexican restaurants like La Vallesana and Black-owned places like Burger 809 for the salmon melt, greens, and mac and cheese. At Yaquis, you can find me grabbing slices from a warm pizza with friends. In the Tower Grove neighborhood, I sometimes walk blocks before I decide what I’m in the mood for. There’s a bounty offering Thai, Mediterranean, Mexican, vegetarian, Vietnamese, Persian, sushi, breakfast, Indian, or shakes and protest signs at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse.
I love to be reminded of all the people who make up the melting pot that is my hometown. St. Louis has been home to artists like Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Josephine Baker, Donny Hathaway, Angela Winbush, Huey, Nelly, and the St. Lunatics. Today, we are home to rising femme rap artists like Bates. These folks make up the vibrant character of this area. Whenever I’m home, I feel this vibrancy and flavor in the wind. We are a sports town with the best fans. We are home to the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues, St. Louis Surge Pro Women’s Basketball, plus a host of great college and high school teams. Next up, major league soccer.
But despite this richness of culture, the truth is that we live in a lethal environment in St. Louis, and we’re dying. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department kills more people per capita than any other metropolitan police force in the country. We consistently have some of the nation’s highest homicides for our population size. A child is more likely to die of gun violence in St. Louis than anywhere else in America. It’s as I said. We’re dying.
Some people think that St. Louis is in the South. It’s not, it’s in the Midwest, but Missouri was a slave state. The legacies of slavery and de jure segregation affect every aspect of society here. Delmar Boulevard, nine miles long, divides Black St. Louis to the north from wealthy and white neighborhoods to the south. The redlining and restrictive covenants that were put in place in the early twentieth century determine where we live to this day. Oppression, division, and separation are threads in our culture.
Many people arrived in St. Louis during the Great Migration, when around six million Black Americans moved north in the early to mid-twentieth century, fleeing persecution, segregation, and discrimination in the South. Some of them intended to only pause in St. Louis before continuing farther north, and stayed. If you ask Black people in St. Louis where our roots are, many of us will say Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, or Louisiana, a history that you can find in our soul food and in the patterns of our speech.
My paternal great-grandparents came to St. Louis from Starkville, Mississippi, as part of the Great Migration. My maternal grandfather arrived from Pageland, South Carolina, where a cemetery, shopping center, and several streets still bear his family name: Blakeny. As is the case with many who moved north in that period from 1915 to 1970, racial terror, or at least the threat of it, preceded my maternal grandfather’s move to St. Louis.
My grandfather was a dark-brown-skinned child of a biracial mother, and his family lived on the Pageland plantation where they’d been enslaved. I was told that when he returned home after serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps on the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, he was accused of having looked at a white woman. He got wind that a mob was amassing to come for him, and he hopped on the first bus he could catch headed to St. Louis, where his best buddy from the war lived. There he met, and fell in love with, his friend’s sister, a quiet and jolly spirit. He married her, and she would become my grandmother. Her family had moved to St. Louis from Greenwood, Mississippi, when she was eighteen years old, motivated by a similar situation. I don’t know the particulars of that story, but I do know that the Klan and a white woman were involved. Whatever happened, my grandmother’s brother was never seen or heard from again, and the surviving family packed up for Detroit, where other family lived. They made it only as far as St. Louis.
When I was growing up, my immediate family consisted of my parents, a brother, Perry, who’s two years older than me, and a sister, Kelli, who was born a few months shy of my sixth birthday. My father, Errol Bush, worked as a union meatcutter. I loved seeing him at the local grocery store when my mom sent my brother and me on an errand. He wore a long red coat and smock, white hat, and white cloth gloves that would often be tinged pink from the hours he spent handling meat. My dad was popular. Everyone seemed to know him. And he wasn’t only popular at the grocery store where he worked.
Over the years, I watched my dad lead in every group or institution he was a part of. He was president of our family reunion planning committee, and as such he gathered more than a hundred of our family members from all over the country in St. Louis when I was a child. He was president of the PTA at the Catholic elementary school I attended. I watched him be elected alderman in the City of Northwoods, in St. Louis County, when I was ten. Later, he would be elected mayor. I watched him put his mind to something, work hard, and accomplish it. In my eyes, my dad was a giant.
I watched my mother, Barbara, hard at work every day, juggling home and career. But my mom was also the nurturer who enveloped me in love, with all the hugs and kisses I could want. She called me “tweetie bird,” because I was always hanging around her neck. Once I was old enough to attend school, she became a computer analyst. She worked 8:00 to 5:00 every weekday and some weekends, then came home to take care of us three kids. Each evening, making it all seem effortless, she cooked us a full meal. She made sure we did our chores: we would iron our clothes, clean the kitchen, and otherwise help out around the house. She was never too tired to help with homework. And, oh, how I remember the long sessions poring over my math assignments!
To me, my mother was the smartest person in the world. She always knew how to find the right answer. And not only was she smart, but she was also pretty and stylish. She would answer my questions about clothing and style and then care for me when I complained of a tummy ache. She could bake, cook, clean, and take care of us all while being a professional and excelling at her career.
When I was born in 1976, my family lived in a duplex on the west side on a street named Ashland Avenue, or “The Horseshoe,” before we moved to the northside, to Richard Place. My dad likes to say that he learned in those days that if you have small kids, you should never live upstairs from your landlord. My brother and I were small children then, and our landlord would knock on his ceiling when the patter of us playing bothered him. An older neighbor, Mr. Sites, was retired and spent much of his time wiping down his car in front of his house. One day, he asked my dad if he’d ever considered buying his own home. Didn’t he want to give my brother and me more living space and our own yard to play in? My father, who was twenty-two at the time, asked innocently, “How much does a house cost?” The answer was $30,000.
Mr. Sites introduced my parents to a real estate agent with an office in the suburbs, just north of the St. Louis city limits in North County, who took them under his wing and showed them properties around the city. At first, my parents had their eyes on a big house in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood populated by Victorian town houses that today sell for upwards of half a million dollars. Back then, many of the homes were gutted, and my parents wanted to buy such a place, take out a loan, and rehab it. But at the bank, my dad was told that loans weren’t being given in that neighborhood. What the banker really meant was that they weren’t giving loans to Black people in that neighborhood. My parents, young and inexperienced, didn’t recognize the signs of housing discrimination and went on about their business, happy to look at the next house their real estate agent had lined up for a viewing. That’s how we ended up in Northwoods.
The City of Northwoods is a suburban community less than five minutes from St. Louis city, but it was still a different community in my father’s eyes. The homes weren’t as tall or as close together as they were on the northside, where we had moved from. Trees lined the streets, and green grass blanketed the front lawns. Many of my earliest memories of childhood were in that home, a three-bedroom ranch style that we didn’t have to share with another family, as we had the duplex. In Northwoods, only one family per home. Our driveway was ours alone. The brick that covered the outer walls of the house was an orange color, lighter than the deep red brick of the duplex where we used to live.
In 1980, Northwoods was a majority white community, and I watched the racial makeup change over the years as white families took flight. Today, the neighborhood is nearly all Black. At the southwestern edge of the small city was Normandy Shopping Center. It was a ten-minute walk from my childhood home, and it was our neighborhood hangout when I was growing up there. There was the National grocery store where my dad worked, Normandy Bank, a hair salon, shoe repair, Chinese restaurant, Walgreens, Laundromat, beauty supply store, a popular bowling alley, Ben Franklin five-and-dime stores, and a Velvet Freeze ice cream shop, where you would find me most. They sold penny candy galore, Big League Chew gum, Pop Rocks, cigarette candy, bubble gum ice cream, and the whole deli pickles where I would put my Now and Laters or Jolly Ranchers inside. When I had scrounged enough money for food when out with friends, I would go for a true St. Louis favorite: chicken fried rice. I would treat myself to a chicken St. Paul sandwich, egg rolls, or crab rangoon with a grape or fruit punch Vess soda.
Trips to the store for penny candy or ice cream or to turn in the glass Coca-Cola bottles for a deposit were sprinkled throughout the many hours my brother and I spent playing together outside, him on his Batman Big Wheel and me pedaling alongside him on my Robin Big Wheel. We would ride for hours on end. I would beg him for a chance to ride his Big Wheel. On my fifth birthday, I finally graduated to a pink-and-white bike that came adorned with a basket and training wheels.
We had a nice-sized yard and over the next few years played hide-and-seek, tag, and touch football with the other kids in our neighborhood. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” by LL Cool J and “La-Di-Da-Di” by Slick Rick made up our soundtrack. As long afternoons turned to dusk, we knew to be home when the streetlights came on if we hadn’t already been called in for dinner. All of the parents on the street knew us kids, and it was easy to be in trouble with any one of them. Northwoods was a village.
Everyone came out for the neighborhood’s much anticipated annual picnic, an event that punctuated my childhood in Northwoods. For years, my dad helped organize the event and made my brother and me work. We set up tables, handed out hot dogs, and served sodas. We didn’t get to partake in the fun until later in the day, once our tasks were completed. Often, at that time, I felt enveloped by a sense of loneliness, because my neighborhood and school friends didn’t typically attend. But all day, activity buzzed around us: The Bosman Twins played their saxophones onstage. Young kids took pony rides, squealed with delight at the petting zoo, or ran around as part of the Police Athletic League T-ball game. Barbecue was plentiful. And the teenagers and young men, many of them with Jheri curls and bare torsos, huffed and puffed on the basketball court.
That’s how I remember the community that surrounded our Northwoods home. Inside, we created our own world. Until kindergarten, my family and neighbors were my everything. My mom didn’t work at that time and took care of me at home. I was never the little girl who played house. While I performed my chores diligently, I never pretended to iron, cook food, grocery shop, or anything like that. I liked to play teacher, or “school” as I called it. I would line up all of my dolls and stuffed animals around the perimeter of my room and give them pencil and paper or chalk and a chalkboard. For hours, I would sit with them on the floor and pretend to teach.
To me, these baby dolls and stuffed animals were alive. Each one had a name and personality, and I was there to pass on what my mom had taught me, which consisted mostly of the alphabet, numbers 1–10, and how to spell my own name. I pulled from what I’d seen on television on Sesame Street, The Letter People, and The Electric Company. I taught them to write the letter A, and I fussed and scolded them, directing my students to look at the chalkboard, stop talking, and sit up straight. I took breaks to change a stuffed animal’s clothes or talk to a student’s parent. I often had to readjust my fluffy white snail that played “You Are My Sunshine” when wound up. It was top heavy and often fell over, causing me to stop class and set it right side up. When I was lost in the world of school, nobody bothered me. My brother didn’t interrupt, and my parents let me stay focused on my play. That was my time.
Other times, I played with Tonka trucks and World Wrestling Federation figurines with my brother, Perry. This was my way of spending time with him because I knew Perry was not going to help me with my dolls’ hair or play school with me. I did not like playing in dirt, but I liked to watch my brother feed dirt into his concrete-mixer truck and act out Ric Flair, Randy Savage, and the Road Warriors wrestling matches. But what I really craved for my own toy collection was Strawberry Shortcake, Jem, Barbie, and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. My dad forbade it. I needed to have toys that looked like me, he said. At Christmas, he’d search high and low to find dolls whose complexions matched mine. My skin color was perfect, he told me, and Black is beautiful.
I never got the Strawberry Shortcake poster that I so desperately wanted for my bedroom. Instead, our house was adorned with a photograph of Dr. King and large posters, including one of “The Great Kings and Queens of Africa.” I think my daddy bought every Black history book he could find. When we were growing up, he wanted us to know about people like Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. He believed he couldn’t leave it to anyone else to teach us these things. And if we didn’t know our own history, we would lose ground, he told us. We would fall back into the oppressive conditions that our ancestors had worked hard to change but many of which remain with us today. When we watched television with my dad, it was Eyes on the Prize, Roots, Shaka Zulu, or A Raisin in the Sun. These were difficult to watch oftentimes. I couldn’t make sense of why the white people on the TV were angry and violent toward Black people. But I did know, even as a child, that I was going to fight back. My brother and I wanted to watch cartoons, something fun, while my dad was diligently fortifying us, steeping us in culture that would help us recognize the Black excellence inside us.
My father also made sure we felt connected to our own family’s legacy and traditions. We had a huge heirloom Bible that had belonged to my paternal great-grandfather, and my dad would give us big silver dollars—he called them “bo dollars”—that his own grandfather had given him. He insisted we give them right back so he could store them alongside the pocket watch and cuff links that had been passed down from his uncle. It was important for my father to feel that he had something to pass on to us.
As a child, my father had loved miniature trains, and he held on to this appreciation as an adult. He had an old, heavy set that ran on a rail around the base of our Christmas tree. Choosing the tree together as a family kicked off the holiday traditions every year. We would drive thirty or forty miles to a farm outside the city to find the perfect tree, then cut it down ourselves. We’d visit the little Santa’s village and buy homemade gifts and ornaments while snacking on cocoa and popcorn. Once home, my mom cooked a big lunch that we ate before decorating the tree. On Christmas morning, my parents made a big breakfast, and later in the day my dad would take us to the movies. The next day, Kwanzaa began.
In the early 1980s, most people weren’t yet familiar with the holiday, but that was when my dad started taking us to Kwanzaa celebrations, an opportunity to celebrate the Afrocentric holiday created by Black American activist and author Maulana Karenga in 1966. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has an educational center in East St. Louis, and my dad would drag us there in December to watch performers of African dance. I preferred Christmas and our trips to see Black Santa, but my father also instilled a connection to the culture and ideas of the African Diaspora. As I got older, I came to appreciate the display he put up in our home, the woven mkeka mat and kinara, or candelabra, that held red, black, and green candles. We learned about the importance of unity, self-determination, cooperative economics, and the other principles that Kwanzaa recognizes, and gave zawadi, or gifts, that we’d made or nurtured ourselves.
My father was pro-Black, and if there was a boycott in the community or any effort to defend Black interests, he was going to be a part of it. A portrait of Jesse Jackson hung in our hallway. At the time, Jackson was running for president on the Democratic ticket for the second time, and his campaigns inspired my father. In the days leading up to the Democratic National Convention in 1988, my dad reached out to Missouri congressman Bill Clay’s right hand, the activist and strategist Pearlie Evans, and was able to secure a place on the floor of the convention as an usher. He tells the story about how he got into a heated exchange with the Atlanta mayor and former UN ambassador, Andrew Young, who couldn’t find his credentials and so couldn’t make his way past my dad. Our whole family made the trip to Atlanta for the convention, sleeping on my cousin Margie’s floor. We toured Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had co-pastored, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the institution dedicated to keeping King’s legacy alive.
I grew up around politics and public service. While other kids went to daddy-daughter dances, I tagged along for campaign functions and Board of Aldermen meetings. Because of my dad’s position, state representatives, state senators, and mayors were always around. When he was running for office, I came along to coffee klatches. He would take me with him to canvass and send me up to people’s doors, with a flyer promoting his candidacy in my hand. “When they come to the door, tell them you want to talk to them and you want them to vote for your daddy,” he’d say, coaching me. He’d be standing several feet behind me, and I’d be the cute kid who would greet someone when they opened the door. I was bait.
When my dad was an alderman, the mayor of our municipality at Northwoods decided to run for the county executive seat. He won. St. Louis County is composed of more than ninety municipalities: Northwoods is one; Ferguson is another. The county executive is essentially the head of our county government. His was a huge victory for many, because he was to be the first Black person to lead the county’s government. With the Northwoods mayoral seat open, my dad ran for it, and also won. Later, he worked on the campaign of Freeman Bosley Jr., who became St. Louis’s first Black mayor in 1993.
My father was a powerful force in our home as well as in the community. He was very serious about my appearance, and what he said went.
When I was young, I had big, long, Rudy Huxtable hair. Other kids in my elementary school used to call me “Big Bush.” I started getting relaxers when I was three, and my mom would press my hair on top of the perm. First, she would give me a hot oil treatment. Afterward, I spent hours seated next to the kitchen stove, near the blue Crisco can, waiting for the next tug of my hair followed by the crunch-and-sizzle sound the hot comb would make as it made its way through my hair. Back and forth, my mom would place the pressing comb on the orange and blue flames to maintain the right amount of heat. She would have the kitchen window open for the heat and smoke as the hot comb singed the oil she had previously massaged into my curls. I would be so hot I would sweat out the freshly pressed side of my head by the time my mom finished the other side.
I started going to the hair salon when I was five, and by the time I was seven, I was going every two weeks. Even into adulthood, I wouldn’t leave home without my hair looking just so. My dad’s words are ingrained in me. He stressed to me all the time, like a broken record, to always look presentable: a clean face with Vaseline, clean teeth, and neat and nicely combed hair. Never go outdoors with rollers in your hair, he’d tell me, and never use a hat to cover messy hair. To this day, my sister, Kelli, and I never let him see us without our hair together.
As a child, I loved dresses, jewelry, make-up and high heels. My mother’s closet was my portal into her world. She didn’t mind. I would put on her heels, her necklaces and bracelets, her clip-on earrings, and her belts and walk around the house feeling just as fabulous as I thought she always looked. I wanted to smell like her, too. At her dresser, I would dip the puff into her shimmery, perfumed Gloria Vanderbilt powder and then dab myself with the scent.
My mom was my model for timeless elegance and beauty, while my dad’s style reflected his Afrocentrism and marked him as a man of his time. During my childhood, he wore an Afro. If he wasn’t at work, a black pick with a Black Power fist for a handle stuck out from the top of his cloud of black hair. I often saw him in the clothes he wore behind the meat counter at National, but he also wore fitted shirts and blue jeans (short cutoffs in the summer months), tube socks pulled way up, and white Converse tennis shoes. His orange-colored boots were reserved for special occasions.
He worked the later shift, and when I could get away with it, I tried to stay up until he came home, usually just after ten o’clock. I would hear him coming and scamper onto the black-and-white-checkered recliner, his favorite seat in our living room. I knew that the first thing he’d do after coming into the house would be to take off his jacket and hat and sit in that chair to watch the news. And I wanted his attention. I loved to get there first and greet him by taking up the entire seat. Still, he would squeeze in next to me. That was our daddy-daughter thing, and I treasured those moments. If I couldn’t stay up late enough to scramble into that chair, I would try to fall asleep in my parents’ bed so that when he came home, he would have to pick me up and carry me to my bed. I craved any time with him I could get.
Since he didn’t have to be at work until the afternoon, my dad was home in the mornings and made us a big breakfast every day before we went to school. Sometimes, he would give us a Black history lesson while he squeezed oranges for juice. Looking back, I think this was his way to grab and hold our attention. We always had meat at home because he was a meatcutter, and sometimes breakfast would include leftovers from the night before. My mom made pork chops and rice and corn, or spaghetti and fried chicken and salad. Friday we’d have fried catfish or buffalo and jack, again with spaghetti. On Sundays, there was beef roast or meat loaf with greens, mac and cheese, and corn bread. If my daddy cooked Sunday dinner, one of my favorites of his meals was pork roast, cabbage, candied yams, and hot-water bread.
Meals were important in our home, and while the kitchen wasn’t big, we all found a way to sit at the table there and eat dinner together. Even on holidays when my grandmothers and my dad’s sisters would join us, we all gathered around that table. On the days we’d celebrate with a big meal, I’d wake to the sound of my parents up early, clanging pots. After some time, the smells of the delicious food bubbling on the stove and baking in the oven wafted to my room.
The only night my mother didn’t typically cook was Thursday. Thursday was pizza night. We’d order Domino’s Pizza and watch The Cosby Show and A Different World together. For years, every Thursday night, we crowded in our living room with its beige and blue couches. Nearby, my dad kept his stereo and the crates from Peaches Records and Tapes where he kept his albums, his prized possessions. He would put one on—the O’Jays, Commodores, Gladys Knight & the Pips, or Earth, Wind & Fire—and we would dance. These were such happy days, when my family was together in those early years.
When Perry first went to kindergarten, I thought he was abandoning me. School was shrouded in mystery. He left me for a world that I didn’t quite understand. Why did he want to go there so much? Why did he have to wear the same ugly outfit every day? Why couldn’t I get a book bag too? Why can’t I have dittos? I wanted homework dittos! My brother and I were close, and you didn’t usually see one of us without the other. I wanted to do what he did and be where he was, so I didn’t understand why he got to go to school when I couldn’t. He was making friends in a world that I was not a part of, although I did develop an early crush on a light-skinned classmate of his who lived down the block. That was a perk.
When I did finally go to kindergarten, wearing the green plaid top and skirt that was the uniform, I was so happy and proud to be joining Perry. My mom bought me a Strawberry Shortcake lunch box to mark the occasion; it was unclear to me if my dad knew initially about its existence. But once at school, I was overcome with separation anxiety. I’d never been away from my mother before. After she dropped me off, I cried in my classes that first week I was there. But I adjusted. And once I did, I reveled in school.
I remember the Christmas and spring programs. I remember singing and dancing onstage in front of my family for the first time, beaming. In class, each of us students made the first initial of our first name in pancake batter, and then we ate the results. I learned to count to a hundred. I was amazed that I had the opportunity to learn all that was presented before me. I felt as if I were receiving a winner’s prize, as if I were part of some special group honored enough to learn such secrets as the names of the secondary colors. A world of information opened up before me, and I wanted to soak every piece of it up.
I attended Ascension, a small Catholic school. Ascension was housed in a two-story brick building on a residential street near our home. A regal archway shielded the front entry from the elements. The school reflected our neighborhood’s demographic changes. When I started there in 1981, there were still a few white students in my class. By the time I was in eighth grade and preparing for high school, Ascension’s student body was 100 percent Black. Meanwhile, the parish connected to the school remained majority white. Most of the people who made up the school’s administration were white. On Wednesdays, when we attended Mass along with the parishioners, the adults in the sanctuary with us were almost all white. Our next-door neighbors, the Bells, were part of the small number of Black parishioners. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “These people sure don’t live around here.”
The teaching staff was homogeneous, too. I remember the first time I had a Black teacher. Ms. Whitfield was a substitute in the second grade. She was slim, dark-skinned, with a relaxer and roller set. She walked in wearing gold jewelry with makeup beat, hair laid, a cute dress, and heels. The first time she walked into my class, my classmates and I couldn’t believe she was there to teach us. We were already under the impression that only white people had knowledge and authority at school, because that’s all we had ever seen. White people were the ones who taught us and told us what to do.
Ms. Whitfield was different. She didn’t try to put on airs or fit into any mold. I so wanted to be like her. I wanted her to be our permanent teacher. The following year, we had a Black teacher by the name of Ms. Joiner. Being in class with Ms. Joiner was like being in class with my mom. She was nurturing and took the time to understand why we were struggling, or what else we needed from her as we diagrammed sentences or wrote out our math equations on the chalkboard. If someone was being disruptive, she would point her finger, put her hand on her hip, and roll that neck. With her, I felt understood. Our white teachers didn’t have much spunk or sass. But having a Black teacher in the front of the class showed me that it was okay for me to be who I was and to bring the full fire of my personality and mannerisms into the classroom.
We weren’t Catholic, but Catholic school was all I knew. My principal was a nun, and these were the years when nuns would spank you. One day, I happened to be in the principal’s office just as she was preparing to spank another student. I saw her pick up the paddle and tell the child to lean over the desk. I screamed and threw the books I was holding to the floor. “You can’t do that!” I shouted. I didn’t know that indeed they could. I was heartbroken. I lost all respect for my principal. I wouldn’t speak to her unless I had to. The practice ended while I was still at Ascension, and I was glad to see it go. A little bit later, that principal was replaced, and I was glad to see her go.
My family went to a Baptist church where the service was lively. There was hand clapping, foot stomping, tambourines, drums, soulful gospel singing, and sometimes Holy Ghost shouting. Mass at Ascension was not that way at all. It was quiet and ritualistic. The priest would speak in Latin. I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. In religion class, every picture in every book we read and on every wall in our classroom depicted white people. Every statue was of a white person. The angels were white, Jesus was white, Mary was white. I didn’t understand this, because at home we had no images of a white Jesus. My dad had told me that Jesus was a Black man. At my family’s church, I saw mostly Black sacred figures. But at school, it was impressed upon me that there was a religious hierarchy, and I wasn’t anywhere near the top of it. The supreme people, white people, were a part of the most amazing story in the history of the world. This version of religious teaching removed us from something that our ancestors actually were a part of. I wouldn’t understand until much later how much harm was inflicted on us by whitewashing the Bible and the story of Jesus in that way. At the time, it all created a strict separation in my mind: This is white people’s religion as opposed to the Black people’s religion that I saw at the Baptist church.
It wasn’t just religion class. Our social studies books at Ascension told a white-oriented version of history, one that was very different from what my dad taught me. In the 1980s and 1990s, school textbooks didn’t even make an attempt at nuance. They were blatantly racist. You could easily find a children’s book with a matching exercise that prompted kids to link the word “good” or “bad” with a picture of a little white boy playing with a toy or a picture of a little Black boy doing something sinister. Workbooks featuring racist overtones were sold widely at our local grocery store. I eagerly asked my mom to buy me these whenever I noticed a new one was available, because I wanted to access the knowledge that I believed was contained in these books. I thought I would learn something from them that I hadn’t yet learned in school. I was so accustomed to those racist images I didn’t notice anything wrong with them.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, every so often a community-based group visited our classroom for about twenty minutes per session to talk with us about Black culture and the Black family. Any discussion of race in school was confined to that short-lived program or Black History Month. But despite its shortcomings, Ascension was a place where Black children were nurtured and Black families supported each other. All the students celebrated on the honor roll were Black. The list of kids excelling in sports was all Black. The science fair winners were Black. At Ascension, Black excellence was all I knew.
I aspired to be excellent. I wanted to make my parents proud. Every morning before taking us to school, my dad would sit my brother and me down and talk to us about responsibility, clapping his hands to emphasize every syllable of the word. “Cori, you are a leader,” he would tell me. “But what makes a good leader is someone who knows how to follow. So be responsible, be accountable.” He taught us about Black historical figures so that we had models as we strove to leave our marks on the world. There was no room to be regular, because regular wasn’t going to change a status quo that desperately needed changing. My dad’s consistent message was that I had to be better than what I thought I could be. I had to push myself further.
I tried to live up to those expectations. I was the kid who wanted all As, even an A in conduct, which was how our behavior was evaluated. I didn’t want to see my name on the board or be kept in from recess. I wanted to have all the perks that came along with being in school. After my school day ended, I would come straight home, eat a snack, and go to my room to begin my homework. I loved doing my homework. I finally had those dittos that I had coveted when I watched my brother bring them home. As I got older and started using textbooks instead of worksheets, I loaded those books and my well-organized Trapper Keeper into my big off-brand Esprit-like bag and lugged home my work for all of our dozen or so subjects with eagerness.
My dad had dreams of where all that hard work would take me. Oftentimes, he would look across the table and say to me, “You’re going to graduate from high school, get scholarships. You’re going to go to Howard University. You are going to be attorney general of the United States one day.” Just as my father pushed me at home, my teachers pushed me at school, calling on me to do things and helping me believe that I was a natural leader. I knew that if I ever got in trouble there, my teachers would be on the phone to my dad. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to risk him thinking that I hadn’t understood the mission he’d set out for me—to learn and to become great. So I worked hard, and I stayed on the honor roll.
The teachers would have known to call my dad because he became a near-constant presence at the school. Ascension had an active parents club, and high participation in it earned families a percentage off tuition. It was through the turkey shoots and chili suppers that he helped put on that he got to meet other Northwoods families. He met the mayor of our neighborhood, as well as other elected officials. Those gatherings and connections turned him on to the idea of running for office himself. My dad credits Ascension for giving him his start in politics.
My brother and my little sister went to Ascension, too. When my sister was born, I wasn’t upset about being replaced as the youngest in our family. Instead, I was intrigued by the changes her arrival brought. I watched my mom’s belly grow big, and I could place my hand there and feel the movement. I understood that soon I would no longer be the baby in the family.
Our house changed to accommodate our growing family. My dad had the basement finished and remodeled, putting tile and carpet down over the concrete floor and carpeting the wooden stairs I’d tumbled down so many times. What had been a storage space became a family room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a laundry room. My brother and I moved down to the basement bedrooms to make room for Kelli. For hours, my mother would sit in the living room in a wicker and bamboo rocking chair, soothing our new baby sister. She was a silly baby who eventually figured out how to climb out of her crib and hide beneath it, giggling as we called for her. When she got old enough for solid foods, she ate up all the bacon and all the bread that had never before seemed in short supply.
My social life was beginning to blossom outside our tight-knit family unit. In second grade, I met my first best friend, Tonya. Our families were close, and among the things we had in common were a desire to excel in school and big hair. We had the usual sleepovers and spent as much time as possible with each other. Tonya’s parents were separated, and I thought she had it good. I figured when her mom was gone, she imagined that she could do whatever she wanted. Tonya and I loved doing hair and walking to the store for Jolly Ranchers and Now and Laters. We grew into preteens together and shared a love of jewelry, purses, clothes, and music. When we were in seventh or eighth grade, we joined forces with two of our friends, Carla and Juanita, for the school talent show. In coordinated outfits, we performed a dance we’d choreographed to “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe. We would spend hours on the phone going over homework together. As we got older, the topic of conversation often turned to boys and our crushes at school.
When I was twelve and in seventh grade, a cute brown-skinned boy who was a year ahead of me at Ascension asked me to be his girlfriend. I said yes. After school, we would walk together to the nearby shopping center. By then, our school uniforms had changed, and I knew I looked cute in the Eastland shoes my parents had stretched their budget to buy me. I paired my precious Eastlands with a pleated green plaid dress I wore over a white collared button-down shirt. My boyfriend was one of the star basketball players in his grade and I was a cheerleader. At games I would perform a special jump, cheering every time he made a basket. I was crushed when, after a few months, I found out he was also dating another girl in his own class. He hadn’t told me, and the news stung all the more when I learned that seemingly everyone else in our school knew. I was humiliated. It wouldn’t be the last time a boy made me question my self-worth.
During those middle school years, I also had a new interest that took up my time and attention: sports. I had started playing volleyball at our family reunions. My dad helped plan these events and took painstaking care to make sure we had the right net for our games. We kids loved to play on our block. We raced up and down the street to see who was fastest. Epic games of tag took us into each other’s yards, behind houses, and up in trees. As a preteen, I wanted to play organized sports with my friends at school too. But Ascension did not have enough resources for a big sports program.
I had a good relationship with the principal at the time, a white woman who was so skilled at her job that she oversaw a homeroom class and had full teaching duties while also serving as an administrator. She had a reputation for being stern and serious but was unquestionably dedicated to her roles as a white leader in a Black school, meticulously making sure we had opportunities available to us. She wanted to help us be well rounded and equipped for society. So when my friends and I approached her about starting various teams, she was game.
We formed a volleyball team and joined the local league with other Catholic schools. There was no budget for a coach, so one of our teachers volunteered to play the part the best she could. Ascension acquired a pom-pom squad much the same way. I loved cheerleading, and after some cajoling, the school let us start a team. Our parents, who paid out of pocket for our uniforms, and school staff were concerned about what our outfits would look like and worried they would be too revealing—a distraction to the boys playing basketball. But we settled on a cute but comfortable look: white sweatshirts we got airbrushed to read “Ascension Flames Pom Pom” on the front and our names on the back. We wore black leggings and “white girl” tennis shoes with green-and-white pom-poms on the shoelaces to match the green-and-white pom-poms we shook while we cheered.
I was fast and liked running, but an experience at a track meet when I was in seventh or eighth grade soured me on the sport. One spring afternoon, we dressed in our Ascension Flames track uniforms—a green V-neck shirt and matching shorts, both emblazoned with a yellow stripe—for a track meet at another Catholic school. We walked around admiring their field. It was huge, and I immediately noticed the equipment we were missing at Ascension: a high jump mat and bar, a long jump pit, hurdles stacked to the side of the track. As the competition was about to begin, I looked up into the stands and saw a sea of white faces. The few Black faces in the crowd I recognized as my and my friends’ family members. We were the only Black school at the meet.
That morning, our coaches informed us of which events we’d be running that day, and I was given 400-meter hurdles. It would be my first time with that event. We didn’t practice with actual hurdles, and I needed some guidance. How do I do it? I asked. I wasn’t confident as I approached the starting blocks, but I figured I’d give it my best shot. As I crossed the finish line, clearly ahead of the others and in first place, I beamed. I walked over to my coach, my smile wide with joy and surprise. “I won!” I cried, jumping up and down.
In earshot was the adult keeping time for the meet. “You didn’t win,” he shot back. He gestured to a white girl who had finished in second place well after me. “She won. You may have crossed first but she had better time.” I pressed him to explain. How could she win if I crossed first? “She had better time,” he repeated. White parents in the stands could hear me as I continued to press him and started to boo. The logic wasn’t clear, and I genuinely didn’t understand why I hadn’t won. But my coach shrank in response and urged me to back down. “Cori, just stop. Let it go. It’s not right what he’s doing, but let’s walk away.” I was deflated. I knew the accomplishment had been snatched away from me. I never ran competitively again.
Despite this and a few other crushing incidents, as a whole sports eased my transition from girlhood into adolescence. I’d never gotten the message at home that there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. I knew my parents had faith in my abilities, and I knew my teachers did, too. But volleyball, cheerleading, and even track built my self-confidence and gave me a sense of independence. I learned how to lean on and trust my teammates.
Ascension was a small parochial school, and we didn’t change classes. I had come up with the same group of kids since kindergarten. The teachers knew us intimately. But my time on the sports teams felt different. I got to articulate new elements of my personality and abilities. At the net or with my pom-poms, I got to see that there was more to me than even I had previously understood. Building physical strength and agility over time helped me see I had more than book smarts. Getting these new groups started for the school showed me that my leadership abilities were real and rooted in my own courage and actions, not just in people’s perceptions of who I was because I was my father’s daughter.
It was around this time that I started to have glimpses into who I might be in the future. I realized how much I loved working with children. At Ascension, sixth graders were paired with younger students and acted as big siblings for kindergartners who were still adjusting to the school. I took this role seriously and cherished it, especially since my own sister, Kelli, was in that cohort. I knew I wouldn’t be assigned to her, but I was excited that someone my age would help her transition to the school that I loved.
My classmates and I felt we knew everything there was to know about our school. We knew where all the bathrooms were, which teachers were fun and which were mean, and which ones would let you stay at recess a little longer. When I met the shy little sister I was assigned to near the beginning of that school year, I let her know I was there for her, that if she felt alone or overwhelmed, all she had to do was tell her teacher she needed her big sister. I wanted to protect her the same way I wanted Kelli to feel protected. As a welcome gift, I made her a teddy bear out of a yellow sponge I’d cut and colored myself. I just wanted to give her something that might bring a little joy in a strange new environment.
That same year, our administration transformed what had once been a convent into an early childhood development center. My dad had instilled in us that it was important to volunteer our time, and when I had the opportunity to help out at the new preschool, I took it. After my school day ended, I played with the toddlers and passed out snacks. I loved being there so much that I volunteered a few hours a few days a week over the summer as well.
I would go on to spend almost a decade of my adulthood working at a childcare center. Of course, I would also go on to serve my communities as a nurse. And I got my very first taste of nursing at the preschool in those pivotal middle school years too.
My parents sent my brother and me to YMCA summer camps in St. Louis, but the summer I turned twelve, I announced that I didn’t want to go anymore. I didn’t want to spend another summer in what seemed a lot like school, only with a pool and more field trips. My dad made it clear that I was not going to sit on the couch and watch TV all summer. He would set me up to volunteer at the Northwoods City Hall and the police department, mostly assisting with filing papers and answering phones, and this year I also signed up to become a candy striper at Normandy Osteopathic Hospital. At first, I found it boring. I wore a red-and-white-striped smock and went around filling patients’ pitchers with ice water. I might read a book to a patient and generally checked in on people to make sure they didn’t need anything. I did whatever the nurse or nurse’s aide on duty asked me to do: hand me that book, or let me know when you see Dr. So-and-So.
As was the case at Ascension and most institutions I encountered, almost everyone with any power was white. The doctors and nurses were white; the people who performed tasks that required less professionalized training were Black. But one day on the hospital floor, I saw a Black nurse. She was pushing around her own cart, and I could tell that she was running things. And she was fly. She was poised and carried herself with a mix of class, elegance, and sass. Her short, brown and auburn highlighted hair was laid. She had gold rings on almost every finger. She was in charge. She wasn’t taking orders from anyone else, it seemed. And the patients loved her. One day, while I was watching her chart, waiting for her to give me a task, I asked myself how I could become just like her. As had been the case with Ms. Whitfield, this Black nurse’s very presence in the space commanded my full attention. I knew, “I want to do that.” Nursing was my dream from that moment on.
While it was that encounter that made me aspire to become a nurse, both of my grandmothers worked in the field. Maybe they were not RNs, but they were nurses. I would see them in their white hats and dresses, the thick white stockings and sturdy white shoes. When I was a young child, I had often seen my grandmothers wearing their nurse’s uniforms, getting off the bus, after a long day at work, or at church. I never really thought much about their clothing. I just knew that they both kept their uniforms spotless, a pristine white.
It never occurred to me to wonder what they spent their days doing. But in fact, the profession had deeper roots in our family. My father’s aunt was a registered nurse who trained at Homer G. Phillips, a segregated public hospital that operated in St. Louis from the 1930s until the late 1970s. Black clinicians from all over the country traveled there for their clinicals and rotations. My mother also had an aunt who became one of the first Black RNs in St. Louis and received numerous awards and accolades. Their stories would have been fresh when I was thirteen, but it never dawned on me that I could walk in their shoes. I needed as many images of Black women in their power as I could find.
As I hit those ages of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I discovered that I had entered a new world, both complex and unsettling. One day it just happened. My mom had taken me along to the grocery store for a shopping trip when an adult man looked at me. Then he whistled and winked. My mom noticed and sternly reprimanded him: “Leave my daughter alone.” But I soon learned that she couldn’t protect me from this new kind of unwanted attention. This started to happen more and more.
It was one thing to have boys at school think I was cute or make remarks to that effect. I was used to that. But it frightened and confused me to receive this kind of attention from people who were outside my school, people I didn’t know and who were often way too old to be paying me any mind. I wondered, am I supposed to like being treated like this? I didn’t. My instinct was to punch the men in the mouth for the way they approached and spoke to me. But the behavior became so commonplace, the expectation, as far as I could tell, was that I was to accept it.
Sometime later, I was with my friend Renee, walking around the city on our way to get some fried rice. We came upon a group of much older men, likely in their thirties, leaning against the back of a car. They started catcalling, whistling, and grabbing their crotches. “Hey, baby,” they called after us. “Come over here!” We ignored them and kept walking, but they kept at it, their voices growing louder and louder. Finally, I called back, “I’m thirteen. You’re way too old for us.” One of the guys, still holding his crotch, responded, “You old enough to pee, you’re old enough for me.” A sudden fear rose up in me, and Renee and I took off running.
On another occasion around that time, I was walking home from North Oaks Plaza by myself. I’d had enough encounters with McGruff the Crime Dog, a bloodhound character that was often used in schools to teach crime awareness in the 1980s, and seen enough missing kids’ photos on the side of milk cartons to know that I needed to keep my wits about me. But I was in my neighborhood, close to home, and I felt safe. I couldn’t imagine that danger would be lurking here.
One of my strongest recollections from that time in my life is from that evening. It was my first experience of sexual harassment. A police car pulled up beside me and slowed down, but I didn’t think much of it. Because my dad was in local government, he made sure the officers knew who his kids were. I figured it was someone who recognized me, and he was pulling up to say hello or to make sure I was okay. When I turned my head, he started making small talk. Where was I going? What was I doing? I kept walking, confused and unsure of what he wanted from me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of his hands moving up and down in a repetitive motion. He kept talking and eventually asked me, “Don’t you want some of this?” I focused on him then, in an innocent effort to see what he was offering. That’s when I saw his erect penis in his hand as he massaged it back and forth. Other than changing a baby boy’s diaper, I had never seen a penis, and I struggled to make sense of what I was looking at. I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed. “How does this end?” I wondered to myself. “Don’t you want to get in?” he asked. I told him I didn’t and made up my mind to fight him if I needed to. If I ran, he might follow me. But I didn’t see any other way out. “I’m a kid,” I yelled at him, and then I bolted.
During my childhood, the Northwoods police came to our house once a week to drop off an envelope to my dad, documents related to his business as an elected official. They would watch our house periodically. When I was very young, I understood the police to be a source of protection. If I was walking to the store, they would drive beside me sometimes to make sure I got there okay. But this encounter subverted everything I believed. I became afraid that this officer would come to my door, show up at our home. What if I had to talk to him? Would I even recognize his face if I saw him again?
I considered telling my dad about this encounter, but I worried that he might be upset with me. Had I done something wrong? Maybe I’d provoked him in some way. Maybe my hairstyle was too grown. Maybe my earrings are too big. Is it the lip gloss? Is it the way I’m walking? People did say I walked with a switch, my hips swaying back and forth. My body was developing, and I wasn’t looking as much like a little girl anymore. I wondered if my dad might feel angry that I was changing physically, but I didn’t know how to stop those changes from happening, just as I didn’t know how to stop the degrading responses I was getting to those changes. I didn’t want to burden my dad. I didn’t want him to be afraid for me. I also didn’t want him to be upset with me. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything at all.
Another time, while I was volunteering at city hall for the summer, someone who worked there commented on my makeup in a lewd manner that turned my stomach. “Boy, your lips look good in that lipstick,” the grown man said. I had on mood lipstick, a fad at the time. It was more of a tinted lip gloss actually, but it was a huge deal to me that my parents allowed me to wear it because I was forbidden to wear makeup until I was sixteen. What could I say? Again, I just darted away, which I had started to learn to do when I was made to feel scared or uncomfortable.
I told my dad I didn’t want to go back to city hall. I didn’t tell him what happened, just that I didn’t want to be there anymore. By then, my friends and I were being initiated into the attacks that come to shape our teenage years and beyond. We were ogled, manhandled, and disrespected on the streets, at our workplaces, at sports events—ordinary places we should have been able to feel safe in. Instead, being sexualized, objectified, and propositioned became our new normal.
The love and encouragement that I received at home and at Ascension would influence me deeply in the years that followed. But so would the attention that I got from boys and men.
Copyright © 2022 by Cori Bush. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.