I groaned inwardly. Clearly I am not doing a good job of teaching my children what it means to be black. Maybe it is because I don’t understand it very well, myself. “A ghetto,” I explained, “is just a place. Usually the housing is inexpensive and the crime rates are high. Saying that someone or something is ‘ghetto’ can be taken as an insult to poor people.”
Okay, so that was the cop-out, politically correct answer, and probably the kind of explanation that suburban white families give to their kids. But those of us with ties to the ghetto know better. Being ‘ghetto’ is so much more than just living in low-income housing. Being ‘ghetto’ is:
- Painting your house a bright, happy color to cheer you up after a long, hard day of backbreaking work (if you’re lucky enough to have a job).
- Avoiding the death-trap elevator at the Geneva Towers in San Francisco and walking up twelve flights of stairs instead to visit relatives.
- Little girls on the sidewalk playing hand-clapping games about boys and sex before their baby teeth have even fallen out.
- Druggies and drunks at the bus stop, at the Bart Station, at school (and everywhere else), because sometimes people give up on their dreams and escape their lives in the wrong way.
- Spending eight straight hours sitting on the living room floor while your cousin braids your hair into one hundred tiny braids.
- Hanging out with your friends listening to the rhythms of loud music blaring from the car stereo.
- Bringing a plate of dinner to that old lady across the street who lives all alone.
- Head coverings – ball caps, babushkas, patkas, hijab, do-rags, head scarves, etc.
- Young men at the park talking trash and playing basketball.
- Blue cream sodas, Now & Laters, and sunflower seeds from the corner liquor store.
- Paying that stranger $5 to wash your windshield, because you’re lucky enough to have a car, and he hasn’t got two nickels to rub together.
- Black American kids who learn how to say bad words in Spanish and enjoy enchiladas and arroz con pollo from their Mexican friends, who in turn learn to say bad words in English and eat soul food.
- Chained-up Pit Bulls and scary little Chihuahuas chasing the kids playing outside.
- Neighborhood mamas chasing off the bad guys with their brooms so their kids can play outside.
- Shopping cart races up and down the street because there isn’t enough money to replace your bike that got stolen.
- Saying hello to the homeless people, and offering them a bologna sandwich, because you know they’re just people like you, down on their luck.
- Dressing up for church and not saying bad words on Sunday. Singing and dancing in the pews with neighbors.
- Young lovers kissing out in the open, because even when life is ugly and hard, love is a beautiful thing.
- Neighbors sharing food, and tools, and whatever else they have, because no one has enough on their own, but together everyone has what they need.
Being ‘ghetto’ is more than just being poor or urban. It is a million tiny things, a million ways of thinking and living that tie together a group of people. It is something that those of us with personal ties to the ghetto use somewhat endearingly. When we see one another doing something familiar that was born from the culture of poverty and urban life, we smile and say teasingly, “That’s so ghetto.”