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ESSAY: How California Taught Me the Truth About Racism in the South

Crystal Marie in a blue dress and her husband with rolled up pant legs standing in the tide break
The author, Crystal Marie, and her husband Eskias. (Photo by Von Jackson)

When I was 17 years old, my mother packed up a few belongings into my uncle’s Suburban and loaded me, my brother and sister into the car to drive the eight or so hours from upstate South Carolina to Washington, D.C. Having grown up a military brat, I’d spent my teenage years in my mother’s hometown, a neighborhood right on the North and South Carolina border called Little Africa, also known as “L.A.” 

L.A. is a community of Black families descended from a few previously enslaved families who bought huge tracts of land and created a community. Just about everyone there is a cousin of mine, either by blood or in practice. 

In L.A., there was no way to get away with sneaking boys in the house, because a neighbor would call your mom and say, “Kim, whose Altima is that pulling into your driveway? You expecting company?” I never had a babysitter because, if my mother wasn’t home, I was with my grandmother across the street or an auntie down the way. The trampoline in our backyard wasn’t really ours; it belonged to the neighborhood. 

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to leave. 

Having already lived abroad and around the country, it was all the more noticeable to me when I saw kids with rebel patches sewn into their backpacks. However, I didn’t get sad or distraught when I realized I was the only Black kid in my honors courses at my local suburban high school.

I wasn’t depressed when the drama teacher informed us that our community couldn’t handle a cast with an interracial couple, dooming the scant number of kids of color to a limited choice of roles. 

These microaggressions simply filled me with motivation to leave. This place was backwards, and I didn’t belong here. From the moment I arrived, I was dead set on escaping. 

Arriving in ‘The Mecca’ 

D.C. wasn’t technically outside of the “South,” and riding away in a comfortable SUV to attend college isn’t exactly the Underground Railroad or even the Great Migration, but I was doing what Black Americans had been doing since we arrived in the Southern part of the United States. I was running away. 

My initial plan had been to go somewhere completely foreign to South Carolina — an exotic land like Los Angeles, where palm trees were the entities proudly standing tall, bending with the ocean breeze rather than Confederate flags unfurling and snarling defiantly against the humid Southern air.

Or maybe I’d go to New York, where people talk and walk fast because they have important people to see and places to be — maybe a bell to ring in the stock market. 

Crystal Marie as a child. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

But in the end, a visit to Howard University’s campus captured my heart and I felt content that the “Chocolate City” was sufficient enough. Nicknamed “The Mecca” for its ability to attract people from all over the world, Howard was and still is the most diverse place I’d ever been. 

On the face of it, most of us were different shades of brown and black, but there were wealthy kids from Nigeria, poor kids from Brooklyn, polished kids from Berkeley, skateboarders from Poland who bonded with skateboarders from San Diego, Southern debutantes who took to their new climate with charm, and Ethiopian women who held their heads high. 

Within a month or so, students could tell a Trinidadian accent from a Jamaican one. Howard University showed me that Blackness was more than what we saw in glimpses on MTV and more than starving kids in an East African famine. 

Howard taught me that the close-knit collection of descendants of enslaved people I’d grown up around was evidence of resilience, not smallness. Howard taught me that to be Black was to be much more than a stereotype; it was to be anything you wanted.  

Howard, of course, was right in the center of our nation’s capital and D.C. made a point to remind me that there was a world outside of The Mecca’s iron-wrought gates, a world with a decidedly different view of Blackness. 

Despite popular belief, a condescending, sometimes paternalistic view of Black people is not exclusive to the regions dotted with plantations and centuries-old slave quarters. The first place I was called “nigger” was not in a sundown town by a man with a buzz cut and sneering drawl. It was in the posh, historic Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. 

Crystal Marie (second from right) with friends in Washington D.C. during her Howard days. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

It was my freshman year, a time when we freshmen traveled in large packs from party to party, often riding the G2 bus, which has a peculiar but convenient route from the (formerly) Black Shaw neighborhood, through the hip, LGBTQ-friendly Dupont Circle neighborhood, and into prestigious Georgetown off the Potomac River. 

Oftentimes, the Black Georgetown students would invite Howard students to attend their parties, sometimes with an air of eager desperation. The Howard students likely felt a bit like I did in high school, surrounded by many people who thought they didn’t belong — people who assumed they bullied their way into D.C.’s premier, historically white institution via affirmative action. 

Our Black Hoya friends welcomed our comparative confidence and swagger that comes from being the majority — a newfound freedom many HBCU students experience for the first time upon arrival on our respective campuses. 

After attending a Georgetown party, me and about seven or so of us hustled into a Johnny Rockets, getting in late just before they closed. The staff, some of whom were likely students, understandably wasn’t thrilled to see a herd of hungry kids bustling in as they prepared to end their shift. Other patrons, small throngs of students, many donning Hoya-branded sweats and hoodies, peered at us curiously as if we’d stumbled into the wrong locker room. 

We were too hungry to care, but not dumb enough to overstay our welcome. After we settled up and headed for the door, one of us accidentally knocked over one of the chairs we’d pulled up to our table in the ’50s-style chain diner. A busser cursed under his breath in disgust, and then it happened. One of the guys at a table nearby, surrounded by his friends in frat jackets, muttered loudly, “Niggers” — with the full “er” so as not to be confused with a drunk coed rapping along to a Jay-Z lyric. 

A lot of Black people imagine and even fantasize about what we’ll do when called the N word by a white person. It seems like one of the few instances where physical violence is warranted, almost required. Maybe we’ll throw them against the wall and say, “What’d you say to me, cracker?!?” while they pee on themselves, begging for mercy. Maybe before the offender even gets that last “er” out, they’ll be met with a throat chop. 

We often imagine it will happen in a deserted gas station in a state like Alabama or while accidentally driving through a MAGA rally in the recesses of Georgia. No one prepares for it to happen after a night of fun in a city populated by progressive liberals, from fellow teenagers in a Johnny Rockets. 

For a moment, we were stunned into silence, then a back-and-forth shouting match erupted. As it turns out, while there may be some Georgetown and Howard students ready to fight at a moment’s notice, none of us were those kids. I, for one, had a scholarship I needed to hold on to and a mother who certainly wouldn’t sympathize with vigilante behavior. 

Crystal Marie at Howard gradutation. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

After a few minutes of bellowing, feigned restraining of our respective friends, a belligerent demand for a manager, and maybe even another chair knocked over (this time intentionally), we left with adrenaline high and boarded the G2 with a story to tell.

I’d run away from cloyingly sweet Magnolia trees in the land of the good ol’ boys only to run smack into ornamental cherry blossoms and frat boys. 

All things considered, we were fine. No one was hurt, law enforcement didn’t get involved, and within a few weeks we laughed as we retold the story, embellishing a detail here and there. At that time there was no social media or pocket-sized devices to capture the events in 4K. But it was my first of many clues that racism is not a Southern exclusive; it’s an American specialty. 

From one L.A. to another

After graduating, I ping-ponged between Los Angeles and D.C. for a couple years, working in nonprofits and teaching for a year at a middle school in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood. I gritted my teeth as a white colleague from Philadelphia joked about “pimping her classroom” with sleek school supplies, even as Black and Hispanic girls were exploited by their “pimps” (read: abusers) within blocks of the building. 

I responded with mock confusion when an older white man on the board of my D.C.-based nonprofit employer told me he was so proud of my success despite all my “childhood obstacles,” which he had simply assumed because he had no clue about my background. 

After an especially snowy and miserable winter in D.C., I decided I would attend graduate school at the University of Southern California, making L.A. my permanent home — so far from the Little Africa where I grew up. 

Crystal Marie in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

A friend recommended one of those churches with one-word names, a la Hillsong. I’d attended Black churches my entire life, and had assumed I always would, but this church was different from anything I’d ever experienced. The congregation was nestled in a beautiful Koreatown cathedral, and all kinds of people, from the unhoused to Hollywood elite worshiped side by side. 

The music wasn’t exactly the soul-gripping gospel I’d grown up with, but some of the singers infused their own trills and Mariah-like runs if you listened closely. The pastor boasted one Sunday that a survey revealed the church was miraculously split into roughly four equal racial groups: Blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. 

I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that the church was a perfect heterogenous place without prejudice, but I figured I’d found something close enough. Then the cracks started to show. 

I mentioned to one of the lead singers that it might be nice to have some gospel music from time to time and she gushed, “Oh, I would love that. What do you think I listen to on the way over? But the leadership says we have to play music that’s palatable to everyone.” 

Crystal Marie with her siblings. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

I then learned that the church that allegedly welcomed everyone “no matter who they are” offered “recovery” sessions for people with “same-sex attraction.”

And then on July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a Black man, was killed by police in Louisiana. The next day, Philando Castile, also a Black man, was killed by police in Minnesota. And on Thursday, July 7, a Black veteran killed five police officers in Texas, apparently in retaliation for police brutality that was occurring across the country. 

By Sunday, I was desperate for an encouraging message from my brothers and sisters in faith. 

I’d always known Black churches across the nation to directly address current events, particularly tragic race-related incidents, the moment they happen. The Black church has always provided a spiritual balm as a gathering place for people who often are looking for a place to both grieve and organize. 

Southern Black churches specifically served as the backbone for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. It is no coincidence that many Black leaders are also religious leaders and pastors. When Trayvon Martin was killed, I was living in Washington, D.C. and I couldn’t get to my Black church fast enough that weekend to hear a message that might ease the pain in my chest. 

I didn’t expect a fiery MLK “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon when I arrived that Sunday, but I anticipated they would say something to help us process the hellscape that many of us were witnessing right before our eyes. 

When the lead pastor walked on stage that Sunday, his gait gave no indication that he was somber. In fact, he was buoyant. I furrowed my eyebrows and wondered if he would pivot at some point. He went through a few announcements, pitched us on an upcoming conference, and excitedly shared news of some attractions for kids after the service. And then the contemporary Christian music was back and the congregation was swaying to it peacefully. 

I was so lost — until it clicked; this church welcomed our Black membership, as long as we didn’t bring too much attention to our specific Blackness. As long as we pretended we were living in a post-racial utopia; as long as we didn’t bring our loud, raucous music with us, or worse, our problems and issues; as long as we were brochure perfect, our bodies were welcome, but our traditions and unique needs were not. 

I wish I could say that was the last Sunday I attended, but several months later, after Donald Trump had been inaugurated, I was still there — long enough to hear the pastor ask the church to pray for the president who was “trying to keep us safe,” a thinly veiled reference to the Muslim ban Trump had enacted a few days prior. 

These calls for prayer came even as many families were trapped a few miles away at LAX, unsure of whether they could enter the U.S. in a bizarre real-life remaking of The Terminal. My then-boyfriend (now spouse) and I decided that even though this was the church where we’d met and built community and friendships, it was beyond time to leave. 

In the summer of 2018, my spouse and I welcomed a child into the world in both the most Los Angeles and historically Southern way possible — at a birthing center with a midwife. By that point, my spouse, a California native with an Ethiopian mother and Black Kentucky-bred father, had grown accustomed to the microaggressions we experienced regularly in our west-side neighborhood. 

An Asian neighbor we’d met several times jumped every time she opened the elevator doors and saw him. When I complained of hip pain during my pregnancy, a white health care professional told me, “Black women are the strongest women in the world – you got this.” (Thankfully, my midwife was kind enough to offer an actual solution.) But we loved Los Angeles; it was my childhood dream to live there, and we’d made it work so far and planned to continue to do so. 

But having a kid has a sobering effect. It’s astounding how quickly a modern one-bedroom apartment with luxury amenities within walking distance of entertainment becomes a cramped box with little room for a crib and boxes of diapers and wipes. I didn’t need a Dave & Buster’s, I needed a Target! 

Suddenly, buying a home isn’t just something you’ll do one day, it’s something you should do pretty soon. Who will care for your child while you’re working and how will you continue to pay exorbitant rent, skyrocketing childcare costs, and, oh yeah, save for that house with a yard you so desperately need? 

What happens when you realize there’s no safe place to hide from prejudice in your own country? What happens when you whack a mole over here and find another over there, and then there? You accept the moles are everywhere and focus on what you can control.

Returning to the South

For my spouse, Eskias, it was a House Hunters binge that compelled him to suggest we consider moving to Charlotte, a city on the Carolina border, meaning it was near my mother, with a better cost of living. I was adamantly opposed. It felt like I was failing on my exotic West Coast dream. Why would I run away from a place only to return? 

Then I visited a childcare facility that was within our budget, and I knew the dream was over. It smelled of feces, the director smelled faintly of cigarettes, and the toddlers sat baking on a non-shaded playground. I clutched my 6-week-old who still smelled new, and I knew Eskias was right. 

My brain knew that confirmation bias was the reason I connected the South to tales like Emmitt Till’s murder, my own AP U.S. History teacher fawning over Strom Thurmond and South Carolina’s affinity for the Stars and Bars, all while conveniently overlooking the fact that Rodney King was viciously beaten in Southern California, Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD, and the president who had launched his campaign with racist tropes about Mexicans was a New York native. 

Crystal, Ekias and their child prepare to leave Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

But my heart was afraid for myself and my growing family. We agreed to try Charlotte as an experiment, committing to head back to L.A. — Los Angeles, not Little Africa — if it failed. 

We knew Charlotte was a relatively progressive city in a purplish state, and we were fortunate enough to quickly find new jobs, an apartment that made our Los Angeles apartment look like solitary confinement, and an in-home caregiver.  

For the first few months, we felt like we were being punked. An elderly white man in Whole Foods noticed we were new in town and drew a map on the back of a napkin with directions to a local park he thought Eskias would love to take our child to. Unlike the stares he got in Beverly Hills when calling on doctors as part of his job, Eskias was given warm smiles from everyone he met.

He excitedly came in from the gym late one evening and exclaimed that two middle-aged white women leaving a wine bar next door had glanced in his direction and then promptly ignored him as they continued talking. 

“They weren’t scared of me at all! It’s like I wasn’t even there!” 

I responded, “And that’s … good?” 

He replied “Yes! I’m not a monster!” 

This isn’t to say Charlotte is a perfect place. Two months into our cross-country move from Southern California to SouthPark in Charlotte, a white woman dubbed “SouthPark Susan” went viral for a drunken racist rant against two Black women she didn’t believe belonged in her complex. But there were no Klansmen hiding behind bushes — no higher proportion of dumb, bigoted people than any other region of the country. 

The author with her family and Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a campaign event in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Crystal marie)

As time passed and I settled into my identity as a prodigal Southerner, jokes about the South’s backwardness, ignorance and racism — jokes I myself had often engaged in — were no longer funny to me. When coastal liberals would wryly suggest we should “just slice Florida off the map,” or propose that we find out how Alabama or Mississippi would fare if we cut off their federal funding, I clapped back. Or in the wake of a racially driven massacre that ended in the death of 10 Black citizens in Buffalo, New York, when a protester yelled, “This isn’t Mississippi! We don’t tolerate that here,” I cringed. 

I could see clearly now that the implication that violent racism was an anomaly north of the Mason-Dixon line was in direct opposition to the truth. 

I read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law — a book that outlines how federal, state and local laws allowed and even sanctioned racist housing policies in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York as well as their Southern counterparts — and found myself retorting to Southern stereotypes with facts and figures. 

These attacks felt personal, because jokes about the South are an easy, sneaky way to be anti-Black. Many Black people in the South are living under laws they likely don’t agree with, but many are gerrymandered out of a voice. According to Pew Research Center, 56% of Black Americans live in the American South. Thirty-eight percent of Mississippians are Black, compared to 13% of the national population. 

In Florida, where the state Board of Education just developed standards that state, “enslaved populations developed skills that they benefited from”, almost 16% of the residents are Black. With more than 3.9 million Black residents as of 2019, Texas has the largest Black population of any state, so when progressives dismiss the home state of Beyoncé as a lost cause, they are also dismissing a population least likely to support conservative policies. 

What’s painful is that this ignorance isn’t exclusive to white or other non-Black people. Countless Black people, many of whom have recent ancestors who participated in the Great Migration, look at Southerners, including Black Southerners, as their slower, less worldly, distant cousins. 

Crystal Marie stands posing in front of a sign that reads "Welcome to Little Africa Community"
Crystal Marie upon her return to Little Africa in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Marie)

There’s a popular saying that I often see emblazoned on T-shirts or in memes, and I loathe it: “I am not my ancestors…” This is an expression usually invoked after a Black American aggressively addresses racism head-on. The suggestion is that their ancestors, who statistically were likely in the South, were meek people who politely shuffled, shucked and jived for whites and turned the other cheek to quietly but complicitly allow racism to happen with no resistance.

Not only is this perspective historically inaccurate, it also doesn’t consider the strength needed to survive in the midst of much more overt and deadly oppression than most of us experience today. 

Learn more: The Black History of Charlotte

Many of my friends outside of the South have regarded our move with curiosity and concern. “Do you think your kids are safe?” (Yes.) “Are the schools decent?” (So far, so good.) “Do they have Thai food there?” (Yes, although L.A. wins that category.) “The police giving you any trouble?” (Not yet! I did get handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car in Los Angeles because of a mistaken identity though.)

A couple years into my reclaimed Southern adventure, a good friend and native New Yorker with parents who immigrated from the Caribbean lamented the costs of private schools near her. When I shared the relatively more affordable cost of private schools in Charlotte, she said, “Oh, sure but I would never send my kids to a school in the South. They aren’t as good and the people I’ve met from the South aren’t as sharp.” 

I wondered if she remembered where I was from, or where the grandparents of most Black Americans once resided — and often still do. 

To be sure, there are many opportunities for improvement within many Southern communities, and I believe much of the stagnation comes from conservative legislation that restricts reproductive rights, funding for health care and education, and other areas that are foundational to a thriving democracy. However, there is a much more nuanced story to be told when we talk about the people of the South. 

We are more than flavorful gumbo, twinkling fireflies, and famously warm hospitality. We are a place that, like the rest of the country, once hosted the unspeakable horrors of our country’s original sin and every day grapples with that, making the sweetest lemonade you ever tasted with the descendants of those victims continuing to invest in the place their forefathers built. 

More than any other part of the country, the South is a second ancestral home for much of Black America, and when you hate or dismiss her, you hate and dismiss us too.

For me, the South represents perseverance, ingenuity, kindness, and a diversity of people who both challenge and inspire me every day. It is my hope that others can see that South, too.


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