I worked at a coffee shop situated just off I-264, Louisville’s “inner loop,” for a few months. Life outside New York, DC or LA doesn’t have to be small, but I made the conscious choice when moving here to let life get smaller in the hope of creating bigger things in that space. Working at the coffee shop was small: small job, small shop, small circle of co-workers and regulars to see each day. I liked it, but sometimes I felt lost in it. Every night at dusk I would take a small coffee and sit outside on the patio and watch the cars and trucks drive by and remind myself that road would take me anywhere I wanted to go, eventually, if I just hopped on it. If I just turned right and headed west instead of east, I wouldn’t even go by my exit; I could keep driving until I hit Boston. I could drive to Manhattan and take a flight to China and no one would figure it out for days. I had the option, but I didn’t take it. I just finished my coffee and nodded to the road not traveled by and went back inside, grateful for the choices available.
If you took 264 to 64 W, you could be on 70 W in five to ten minutes, depending on traffic. From there it’s a straight shot to Ferguson, MO, about 280 miles and four hours away.
Louisville, like every major city, small town, and square inch of this country, has it’s own blighted history of riots, “racial tensions,” and the killing of unarmed black men by police officers. While the worst and most violently institutionalized racism I have yet encountered was certainly in New York City, the South as a whole, its history as written, its shared trauma and memory, its structure and systems, are fundamentally different from the east coast where I grew up, and many of those fundamental differences come back, at the root, to the slavery and racism that are at our country’s foundation. Where I grew up, we talk about the Revolutionary War. It was fought on our shores and in our cities, and some of the major battlegrounds are in and around Boston. But here, when I pass an old cannon or a fort, the story of its making is the story of the Civil War. Even the consuming college basketball rivalries, which take up every moment of fall and spring here and which were meaningless to me growing up, have something – sometimes quite a bit – to do with the city and its institutions histories of racism.
I’ve heard it said that racism in Boston is worse than racism in various southern cities, name-dropped by visitors, but my friends in Boston, of African-American and Jamaican and Haitian descent, usually disagreed, saying that they had encountered worse below the Mason-Dixon line. I’m convinced now that there’s just the devil you know and the devil you’re getting uncomfortably familiar with. Cops shot unarmed black men in New York City and cops shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson. Louisville had riots in 1968 over the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Boston had them some years later over school busing practices. Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the world for housing. Louisville residents know exactly when colleges integrated their basketball programs, and they have a lot of feelings about the naming of Rupp Arena. It carries over. This is where I live now and it’s different, but where we need to get to is the same.