Aminah showed up just in time for the founder's presentation.
She ran in, slinking down in the darkness of the room, like we couldn't see her huge curly fro and six foot frame via the illumination of the PowerPoint slide. Aminah was always late, but you have to meet your friends where they are--especially your best friends.
She plopped down in the empty chair, next to me, and adjusted one of precious Louis Vutton bags in her lap, "What did I miss?"
I smiled, "Hello to you too, Dolly."
Dolly was my nickname for Aminah. It was something I made up for her during our freshman year at Hampton University. We were roommates and I knew she was a New Yorker the moment I saw how many white Air Force Ones and Yankee fitted hats left her suitcase. She wore the same thing everyday and I used to joke that she got all “dolled up” to see me. She was Brownsville bred, about her books, and captain of the university basketball team. She had a phase where she would buy the same exact outfits as me, when she was trying to find her style, but that all changed our junior year. The nickname was also ironic because she eventually became flyer than our whole crew.
She giggled, interrupting the founder, "Answer my question. What did I miss, girl?!"
I hushed her and urged her to listen to the speaker.
The speaker continued, "Welcome to Brown Entrepreneurs' Annual Pitch Competition. Today, we have six startup founders, both non-profit and for-profit, competing for $10,000 to fund their endeavor. They'll come up and do their one-minute pitch, in front of our esteemed judges and at the end we'll announce 3 winners. Only one winner will receive our $10,000 cash prize but the other 2 winners will receive an office space and a 3-month incubator membership, from one of our judges. How does that sound?"
The audience applauded. The judges were already seated, front row center. As they were introduced, I picked up that one owned a consulting firm, another created a tech app I'd never heard of, and the last one was a philanthropist. He wore such a proud smile when they called his name and I surmised that he funded the competition. They were all successful in their own right, but they were also all men.
0.2% of venture capitalist funds go to women of color. 13% of venture capitalist funds go to people of color. After hearing a barrage of "nos" in male dominated spaces, I still pushed on. This didn't stop the numbers from replaying in my mind, like a broken record. It didn't negate the imposter syndrome that I felt when standing in a room that applauded me for being a black woman that was smart enough to figure out how to start a business. Revolutionary.
Aminah and I both gave each other a look, she whispered, "You got this girl."
I touched her shoulder to let her know I appreciated her sentiment. I could not speak, all of my words were jumbled in my mind--rehearsing what I was going to say...
....to the children we serve
...our neighborhoods are
FORT GREENE, 1985
"Our neighborhoods are not your commodity. We are more than a pitstop to BAM for their monthly specials, a foray into brown town for dive bars and block parties. There are people that have lived and loved here for decades. You don't just get to come in here and make decisions for us."
Lucea was pissed. She was standing in the middle of a town hall that was clearly a takeover instead of a forum. The community convened in the lunchroom of Brooklyn Technical High School. The large cathedral style windows brought in the blazing summer sun. The heat was unbearable but almost one hundred people sat still, sweating in folding chairs, waiting to hear the fate of their neighborhood. The panel, filled with councilmen and government contractors, advertised the town hall as a safe space to discuss the "cultural revolution" that was taking place. Instead, they read a long list of structures, changes, and zone shifts that were already scheduled or underway.
A councilman on the panel yelled across the room, "Attorney Brown, please have a seat! There will be a section for comments and questions at the end of this meeting."
Lucea couldn't take it anymore. She didn't give two damns about her Juris Doctor, the respectability politics emanating from the sell out brothas that grew up here, or being embarrassed, "You're just going to let the wealthy and the white come up in here and..."
"This is an integrated community, Attorney Brown. You live here and so do some of your white colleagues," he interrupted.
Lucea knew that no matter what she said it wouldn't change a thing. “Integration” felt like invisible barbed wire, watching from the outside while generations were being pushed away from the concrete they sprouted from. She knew what it was like to want to buy homes and stores in the neighborhood, help her neighbors pay their rising rents, and designate gardens and parks for children to play. She knew possibility.
The reality was different.
The rest of the meeting felt like a lecture. The panel continued to list all of the “prospective” construction and businesses that were on the way. She knew nothing about this was “in the works.” It was already decided. When they opened the floor for questions, Lucea watched the community line up on front of the microphone to ask things that she knew would go unanswered.
Dutchess, a stylist that owned a natural hair salon on Fulton, spoke first. She was a longstanding resident that held all sorts of events in her shop, the mat that she swept hair from every evening served as a runway and red carpet for many.
“My landlord keeps dodging the question about what is going to happen to our building. First we were told that the rent would slightly increase, now they’ve started construction on some of the empty apartments above us. Those enhancements don’t look like a slight increase! I don’t even see him anymore. Are we becoming a co-op?”
Mr. James, the alderman answered, “What building are you in Dutchess?”
Dutchess sucked her teeth, “You know damn well what building I’m in Tiny! Stop playing these games!”
Alderman James grew up in Fort Greene. Before he left for Penn State and secured his journey to politics, he was known for his 4’9 frame that he didn’t grow out of until after college. Now, he stood at 5’2 and despite his new title, the neighborhood refused to let his childhood nickname go.
Mr. James pulled up to his full height and in a booming voice continued, “Dutchess, we can have a private conversation after this meeting.”
Dutchess stormed back to her seat before he could finish.
Lucea was tired of begging the gatekeepers of their community to see them as people, instead of obstacles. She knew that as an attorney, she didn’t have real power unless she became one of them.
She walked out of the sweltering school building and down the block towards the park in search of shade. She took in the houses and pondered their origins. Almost a decade before this, the neighborhood was declared a historic district after an architect bought deserted buildings and started to restore them.
Lucea sighed and ran her hands along the sankofa hearts of the brownstone gates. Fort Greene was historic, long before the proclamation that it was. Skilled Black workers, mostly shipbuilders, in the 1840s established most of the land. The Great Depression carved its homes into boardinghouses and a threat that the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway would be built right in the middle of it scared homeowners away. All of the instances seemed coincidental, but anyone who followed the narrative closely would start to see intention and erasure. Lucea’s family had been in Brooklyn for generations and it seemed like the same narrative furthered every decade.
She was tired.
The community garden on the end of the block was closed but had benches around it. She decided to take a seat as she plotted her next move. One, figure out what she was going to eat for lunch. Two, take Brooklyn back.
As she settled into the space, flowers crowning the garden gate above her head, she watched a family pack their things for the beach. The father carried a cooler, while his children pushed their plastic buckets and tools into the car. Mom was already in the car, fanning at herself with a newspaper. They were toting bags from the basement of a house that had a “for sale” sign. Lucea thought of the joy that comes with leaving the reality of their circumstance, even if only for a day, and she smiled.
With this thought, she felt someone sit on the opposite side of the bench. She rolled her eyes and continued looking at the family preparing for departure, annoyed that there were three open benches nearby.
The person next to her spoke, “I didn’t know Brooklyn was this beautiful.”
“How could anyone not know that?”
Lucea finally looked over and took in the chocolate man wearing all white linen, daring to take a seat where he might soil his debonair. His arm was near a flowerpot and his elbow seemed to blend with the soil. He smiled something serious and extended his hand, “I’m not from around here. I’m in town for the Block party.”
“One of Spike’s?”
“Yeah. I’m from the DMV.”
“Like the Department of Motor Vehicles?”
He laughed, “Nah. It means D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.”
Lucea was embarrassed, “Oh.”
The stranger continued, “It’s cool. Mostly locals know this. I’m going to guess that Brooklyn belongs to you?”
“In more ways than one.”
“Nice. I’m here for a week. I have a feature at The Moon later this week, but before and after I’m free.”
Lucea was intrigued, “Free for what?”
“Anything you’re up for.”
His voice was like silk, smoother than his attire. It sent non-existent chills in the dead of the summer blaze. Lucea knew he was all game but needed a refuge from her anxiety. She finally noticed a large rectangular instrument case next to his loafer covered feet and she convinced herself that she wanted to know all of its contents.
She stood up, “Well, I’m up for a walk.”
My mother was just sitting on my sofa when I got home. She had this habit of using her emergency-only key for everything but. I was slightly startled by her presence, not because she was there unexpectedly but because of the way she had her hands folded across her knees. She had something to say.
“So, did you win?”
“How do you even…”
“It came across my desk a few weeks ago. They wanted me to judge but I had to recuse myself once I saw that you were one of the finalists.”
“Of course. No, I didn’t win. I received an honorable mention.”
“I got a free office and…”
“Is that free office going to pay for the rent you owe your uncle?”
“Ma, come on. I’m trying to get Cultured Dreams off of…”
“It’s been on the ground for three years, Sadie. Perhaps it’s time for you to get a real job. I’ve arranged for you to talk to Melvin Canters, over at…”
“What? Why are you calling him that?”
“Ma, this man literally looks at every woman’s chest he speaks to at all of your campaign events.”
“I have never seen that man do that.”
My mother was now standing and pacing my living room. I watched her as she twiddled her fingers. She was gearing up to give me an order and I was preparing myself to tell her no.
“Melvin has twenty-seven years of experience in the non-profit world! He can assist you with this thing you’re trying to do, while you help him with the degree I paid so much for. You were so adamant about Hampton, but if you’d gone to Harvard you would’ve been…”
“Culturally suppressed and isolated…”
“Oh, like me?" Contrary to popular belief, I know who I am. I was named after…”
I finished her sentence for her, “Lucea, the parish of your people.”
She stopped pacing and stared at me, “Don’t mock me girl.”
This was the problem. My mother still saw me as a child. At thirty years of age, she was still trying to control every aspect of my life. She didn’t want me to have to struggle through the things she did. I knew that part was coming too.
She sat back down, beside me, “Your father caught me when I was at the height of my career. It was right around the time where the fight got harder and the nights got lonely. I want more than that for you.”
“Mom, your life is great. You’re a successful senator and I turned out just fine. Without that blip, I wouldn’t be here…”
She stared at me blankly and it terrified me. I didn’t know if her look meant that I didn’t turn out fine or if she regretted me being here. I didn’t want to know.
I continued, “Cultured Dreams has a place to start the work! Let’s celebrate no more wifi-hustle!”
My mother grabbed her bag and said, “Sounds like dinner to me. I’m hungry. Let’s go.”
Only food could motivate my mother to exit a debate. I was thankful for this fact.
Fact: Dru Savoy worked for a school with a liberal arts mission that campaigned for teaching for to whole child.
Lie: Dru Savoy was content with being a mental health provider in an institution that thrived on compliance despite the detriment of its scholars.
Fact: 12 pm is Dru’s scheduled lunch time.
Lie: Dru takes lunch at 12 pm.
Stan, Dru’s favorite student despite knowing he shouldn’t say/think that, was livid with his math teacher.
“All I said was okay! He kicked me out of the classroom for saying okay!”
Dru leaned in, “Is that ALL you said, Stan?”
“Well, it was before he got smart with me! He said that okay wasn’t a word.”
”And then what did you do?”
”I left the room to go oand get the English dictionary in Ms. Baldwin’s room. I needed to show him that ‘okay’ is in fact—a word.”
Dru was laughing on the inside but kept his composure, “Were you allowed to leave the room, Stan?”
”Is he alllowed to spread falsehoods?”
”Are we not even?”
Just as Dru began to respond, he saw the woman from his carpool walk past his office. His colleague sat in the room and he motioned to her, “Can you sit with Stan for a second? I need to check something.”
She nodded. Dru rushed out of the room and made his way in the woman’s direction. He found her at the end of the hall, preparing to descend the steps, “Sadie, right?”
Sadie turned around suddenly to see her newfound friend from a shared ride, “Yeah. Dru, right? What are you doing here?”
”I work here. I should be asking you that.”
”I met with the afterschool director about a program I’m working on. Wow, small world. Good to see you.”
Dru knew he had to make a move before it was too late. Sadie had a vibe that peaked his interest.
”I could walk you…”
A voice interrupted him, “Before or after we finish our meeting, Mr. S?”
It was Stan. He’d found his way down the hall.
Dru smiled nervously at Sadie and then spoke to Stan, “Right after! Okay?”
Stan smirked, “See? It IS a word.”