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Suszynski: Weathering the tundra

The movie, “The Last Black Man of San Francisco” begins like this: A little girl with a big gap in her teeth, face naked to the sun, stares at a man in a hazmat suit picking up trash. As she begins skipping, then running, a voice calls out, “This water has been dirtier than the devil’s mouth for 50 years and now they want to clean it?”

The camera sticks on the man who’s talking. He’s in a suit standing atop a small crate with the bay behind him, a big ship in the water.

“I urge you. Fight for your home. Fight for your land,” he says.

Two friends, Mont and Jimmie, sit across the street from him, waiting for a bus that isn’t coming. They’re late for something and they decide to skate there, together on one board through the streets of their city, San Francisco.

“Look at them look at you. Look down at you,” the voice says as the camera pans over well-kept Victorian houses. “We built them, we are these homes.”

Mont and Jimmie are facing Jimmie’s old house. Jimmie doesn’t live there anymore but he returns to touch up the trimmings while the hip couple that now occupies it throws croissants at his back, telling him to leave.

This movie reminds me of a book I read a few months ago: “The Yellow House” by Sarah Broom.

Broom begins her book with a section titled “Map.” Just like in the movie, Broom takes you through her home, past the city of New Orleans, following Chef Menteur highway to New Orleans East. She gives you a map of her home; the roads, the highways, they are the sound of her voice.

She ends this section with, “The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives.”

Jimmie is a place-maker, much like how Broom describes herself in her book. To make place, is to feel connected to it.

There is one big difference between Broom’s memoir about New Orleans East and “The Last Black Man.” Broom gives corporality to a home that is like a ghost. In “Last Black Man,” Jimmie yells at a bunch of Segway tourists stopped in front of his old home about the history of the house he says his grandfather built. The house is there, he just can’t live in it legally.

Hurricanes Katrina and Betsy were not the real incidents that wiped out Broom’s childhood home, it was the ineptitude, the refusal in helping raise up. And these natural disasters are just stand-ins. You could replace it with the deaths of black men at the hands of police, with Breonna Taylor, with any name, with any disaster. With gentrification even. In every case, the system has failed the black community. And fails continuously.

As a mountain community, what does displacement mean to us? I have always been bothered by the fact that it is difficult to grow where planted in the mountains. The jobs are scarce, the rent is high, to live in the tundra is to weather it, to work through the possibility of being stunted. Yet, my place here, with a face to the hard sun, is not helpless. The system was built to support people like me.

Jimmie wants so badly to return to the only place that ever felt like home, but he’s excluded from that. He’s helpless to change it. And that specific address, just like Broom’s childhood home, is an American address. It’s an address in every city. Colorado too.

At the end of Broom’s book, she gives living in the New Orleans’ French Quarter another try: “I have a deep connection to this city’s soil. It grew me.”

What does it feel like to grow roots in a place that is hostile to you?

“This is the place to which I belong, but much of what is great and praised about the city comes at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness,” says Broom.

Running parallel at a similar urgent speed is Jimmie. He’s on a city bus. We overhear two white, female transplants talking to each other: “this city blows … I’m not above living in a crack den but…” Jimmie turns in their direction and in his arrestingly level yet probing voice he says, “Excuse me, you don’t get to hate San Francisco.” The two girls are confused. “Do you love it?” he asks. The one putting on her makeup is oblivious to the issue of her own space-taking, of her ignorance. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Jimmie says. The one next to her, her red hair stuck in place like cotton candy, seems to shrink. For there is the realization in the quick blip of a frown that forces her brows together; she is the shovel.

The seed, the soil, the sun, the stream, the stalk, the shovel all exist in a system of growth. And this system is capable of cycle, of change. What we choose to be in this cycle is crucial.


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