In my short story “Snowfall”, the narrator Arletha explains: Black women shouldn’t shovel snow. This is one of the most autobiographical lines from my 2020 book, a collection of stories entitled The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. As a native of Floridian, I don’t like snow and cold weather and the work they require, even after nearly 25 winters in Pittsburgh. And while the city that Snowfall is set in is never named, it is definitely Pittsburgh. I raised my daughters here, developed myself as a writer over a period of 20 years and am now reaping the fruits of my labor. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was nominated for four major literary awards this year, three of which have been won, and is now being adapted for television by HBO Max. But the winter in Pittsburgh is over.
I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1997, four years out of college and married to a native of the suburbs of Pittsburgh for three years. I’ve built a valued circle of friends and fellow artists, and I will always love my community here because they made Pittsburgh their home. But it’s time for me to leave Pittsburgh. And that’s not because of the weather. I stayed so long because I helped raise two daughters, the youngest of whom will graduate from high school next year. As soon as she flies the nest, nothing will keep me here.
My professional success gives me the privilege of picking up and leaving Pittsburgh. But it bothers me that I was an anomaly here even before the book and television stores. It bothers me that the prospects are bleak for other black women here who have little hope of economic progress, opportunity, or mobility. When I am trying to figure out where to go to really feel comfortable in life, the answer could literally be anywhere other than here.
According to a 2019 study commissioned by the Pittsburgh Mayor’s Office, and under the direction of urban sociologist Junia Howell, Out of a list of hundreds of comparable size cities built with Pittsburgh, poverty and unemployment rates for black women were higher than almost any other city on the list. The study concluded that unemployment for Black Pittsburghers in general was not due to problems with the economy, but rather to “the failure of employers to hire black workers who are looking for work.” Using data from this study, Bloomberg CityLab’s Brentin Mock worked with Howell to identify the best and worst cities for black women. Out of dozen cities surveyed, Pittsburgh ranked at or near the bottom of every category: Economy, Education, and Health Results.
These findings were made by a collective “duh” of blacks here. The research confirmed not only what we already know, but also what we feel: Pittsburgh is not for us. Our lives, our achievements, our wellbeing don’t matter here, despite the fact that Pittsburgh The city council declared racism a public health crisis in 2019.
I don’t owe my success in writing to city programs or guidelines that target my success because there aren’t any. I don’t owe my success to the local philanthropic community that favors white-run organizations and rewards individuals Artist with crumbs. Instead, it took decades of freelance editing and writing almost anything but fiction – and a short time in a corporate job – to keep myself afloat. Essay by essay, story by story, I built a national reputation as a writer before building a local one. It’s fair to say I achieved what I did despite Pittsburgh. not because of that.
In all fairness, marriage played a vital role in helping me hold my course as an artist. I was married twice while living in Pittsburgh, both times to black men who earned well above the median black income of $ 30,000. (The median income of the white Pittsburghers is almost twice that.) And yet it took me 20 years to be financially and professionally secure. So imagine the barriers other black women in Pittsburgh must overcome in order to achieve financial mobility or even stability. If it were Pittsburgh Actually worth living for black women, my success would have been the rule, not the exception. And more successful black women would be Pittsburgh natives, not transplants like me.
From 2009 to 2018 in Pittsburgh lost 7,000 black residentsAlmost 10% of the total black population, while the loss of the white population was negligible. Some neighborhoods lost up to a third of their black population, and residents moved to the suburbs or the surrounding county, or left the state altogether. My success as a writer feels bittersweet in the face of this.
Last month I posted this tweet:
I’m moving to a Blacker location in 2022 with a thriving arts community (including the literary community). Please sell me in your town.
– Deesha Philyaw (eDeeshaPhilyaw) March 23, 2021
This tweet received nearly 700 replies from a number of friends, strangers, Fellow writers and elected officials serving as ambassadors for their cities – including Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta, Oakland, Cincinnati, Birmingham and Detroit. “We’d love to have you,” was a common refrain. The award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay even answered, I’m offering to take me on a tour of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with a Rihanna “Are you ready?” Gif (How did she know that Rihanna gifs were my favorite?). One person asked if I was open to cities outside of the US (I am).
Is this a City Anywhere or City America campaign? Because I say f ** k America, come to Africa! Accra, Nairobi, Lagos, Cape Town … we have Jollof and Plantain. You will become a millionaire instantly. And you can be super black every day.
– HJ Golakai (@GolakaiHJ) March 23, 2021
Some people on Twitter have stopped me from considering certain instead of selling myself in a city, citing racism and the security issues that come with it (“I have to say that in about a week you will see how racist St. Louis is “). or intervention or firmly established gentrification as reasons to stay away. But even with such almost universal problems, pretty much any other big city would be better for me as a black woman. No city is a panacea, but those 280-character welcome mats on my Twitter thread were sure to be inviting.
Recently, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who is currently running for re-election, posted a campaign video recognizing “two Pittsburghs,” one white and one black, as a problem he wants to solve. But you can’t solve the problem of one thing “American Apartheid City” by crowing for years about how liveable the city is and then making the subject look like it’s the election time between jets and sharks. The rhetoric of the “two Pittsburghs” is toothless because the mayor has not specifically blamed anyone for the uncontrolled institutional racism and the historical and systematic decimation of black communities. He failed to possess his part in it. As James Baldwin once said, “I can’t believe what you’re saying because I see what you’re doing.”
The more I learned about my adopted home during my time here, the more eager I became to leave it. Of the Lower Hill District demolished in the 1950s that displaced 8,000 residents and 400 businesses in order to Flow shifts and gentrification In the neighborhoods, what is considered progress and viability in Pittsburgh is at odds with the prosperity of blacks. Pittsburgh’s beloved son, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, lived in the Hill District. He played nine of his ten pieces there, but Wilson had a so-called “love-hate relationship” with the city because of his deep-seated racism. After moving to St. Paul and later Seattle, he made his move as a playwright. Likewise, I look forward to thriving in new ways as an artist as I leave.
Even as someone who has enjoyed socio-economic privileges here, I still feel the weight of living and raising children in a city with a long history of discrimination, segregation and white flight. where blacks were and are marginalized and betrayed; and where black suffering is intended. I still feel the weight of it because if you care about the quality of life and prospects for blacks, regardless of your own status, the ingrained white supremacy and disregard for black life will work here as follows Air pollution: you can not escape it. I think of the black women here who would like to go to better opportunities but have no way out. They deserve better.
But what exactly makes a city good for blacks? Because people and cities are complicated, there is no simple, singular answer. When I tweeted that I was looking for a blacker city, I thought more about power: where in this country do black people have significant economic, political and social power? Where are we thriving or are we ready to thrive? Is it like in cities Evanston and Asheville Where are historical errors corrected through reparations? The response to discrimination and displacement with cash compensation and significant investments in black neighborhoods sounds promising to me.
Ultimately, I will make my decision from “Which city is good for blacks?” to “Which city is good for me?” – – and even the answer to that is changing. Most likely, over the course of about five years, I’ll give a few different cities a whirl before settling down. Or maybe I’ll fall in love with one – or fall in love with one – and settle down earlier. Whatever happens, I know for sure that I’m overdue for a change and ready for a place that will make me feel at home. I’m ready for a place where black naturally thrives.
To paraphrase Arletha in Snowfall, black women are not supposed to shovel other people’s shit to bear the burden of inequality. This dirty work belongs to the people who perpetuate and benefit from systems of inequality. Black women – all of us, not a few – should flourish.
Deesha Philyaw’s first collection of short stories, The secret life of the church ladies, won the PEN / Faulkner Prize for Fiction 2021 and the Story Prize 2020/2021, the LA Times Book Prize 2020: the Art Seidenbaum Prize for First Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award 2020 for Fiction.
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