The annoying buzzer of my cheap flip alarm clock goes off and it’s time to get up. It is 5:30 am and I am 12 years old. This has been my routine everyday for the past two years as I rise to get to work. There are 75-80 copies of the Detroit Free Press waiting for me two blocks away. The winter months are the months I dread. I pull on my long-johns, jeans, hand-me-down snow mobile boots, and my hand-me-down parka with the fake fur that frames my face. I exit the back door and go out to the detached garage to retrieve my Town and Country red wagon with the high wooden sides. The sound of the hard plastic wheels hitting the cold concrete stirs me awake. I walk down our drive way and at the end of the drive way is the street light that lights up the dark morning; the same street light that my siblings and I will hit several times as we learn how to drive over the years. A right turn at the intersection of the driveway and sidewalk takes me towards my paper drop. Two blocks away in the vestibule of a small diner on 6 mile road sits my stacks of papers that I must deliver to my customers. The street is quiet and I am paranoid as I make the walk always scanning the street and looking behind me to make sure no one is following me. Growing up in Detroit has heightened by senses and don’t realize until many many years later that my vigilant stance that I take on on a daily basis isn’t normal. My ears tune into every sound and I’m very aware of my surroundings. I am not scared because the peace that comes in the early morning hours calms me. On a typical day I don’t see anyone walking the streets but in the back of my mind I understand the possibility is there that someone could be there. Now as a father I couldn’t imagine letting my children walk the streets at 5:30 in the morning, but in the 70’s & 80’s it was commonplace.
As I walk the lonely walk I whisper a short prayer; praying that the papers are there. There are mornings when the delivery truck is late and it pushes my morning back cutting down on the sleep I can squeeze in before having to get up for school. Today the papers are there and the race begins. Everyday the goal is the same. Get the papers delivered and get back to bed as quickly as possible. I dump the papers in the wagon and run to the first house, slip the paper in between the screen and storm door and move on. Experience has taught me a naked paper on a customer’s porch when met with the wind will cut into my tips. I deliver the first block of papers on my street and then move over to Outer Drive, the next street over, where I park the wagon and grab enough papers to do a large loop of deliveries on Outer Drive. On this loop I will make up the most time without the wagon. I cut across lawns, jump off porches, and at times sprint all while balancing a stack of papers on my right hip.
I end my route by doing one last circle on my own block and run up the driveway dragging the empty wagon behind me. It is about 6:30 am now and my warm bed is screaming for me to return. I shed my parka and boots on the back porch and slide in to the kitchen to get a quick bowl of Wheaties. I vacuum up the cereal flakes and I’m back in bed by 6:35.
On Friday nights and Saturdays I go to my customers and collect money for the papers I delivered durig the week. At 12 I am very shy and quiet and uncomfortable around people I don’t know. In this all White environment I am especially reserved because I am very conscious of being the only Black child on my street. I feel an obligation to present to my White neighbors a Black they don’t expect. In a sense I feel as if I am an ambassador for those like me. Being one of first Black people in this neighborhood I understand if I can show them a shade of Black they can be comfortable with it may mean the neighborhood may be more willing to accept others like me. I desperately want more like me to come in to the neighborhood. The weight of being “the only one” can be unbearable at times.
From age ten to eighteen I was the only paperboy on this route and over those ten years I saw people change. Some who were obviously very uncomfortable with a person of color in their neighborhood changed. I become more comfortable in the neighborhood and more like me began to move in. By the time I left for college, the landscape of the neighborhood changed. About 30% of the homes were occupied by Black families and I was able to see a very White neighborhood become more diverse.
I often hear TRA families defend living in a non-diverse neighborhood in hopes that their neighborhood will go through a similar change and that their children of color will be the ambassador for change like I was growing up.
A big difference between most White neighborhoods and the neighborhood I grew up in was that my neighborhood was in the middle of Detroit during the 70-80’s. Detroit was going through a major change as many of the White people that lived in the city moved out of the city to Whiter suburbs. A lot of the homes vacated by White families were purchased by Black families because Detroit had a large base of Black families in the area to move in. There are not a lot of cities that have that this type of situation and even with that big shift our neighborhood went from 0-30% in 10 years; it was a slow change. Most neighborhoods won’t go through such a significant racial change as we did
The burden of being the ambassador was felt. Children shouldn’t be diversity ambassadors because while the change is or isn’t happening the burden of that responsibility on top of the pain you go through while everyone else is or isn’t changing is a weight no child should have to carry. Yes, I saw people change but I also was exposed to many who didn’t want to change and those interactions were difficult. There were interactions were there was an unjust hostility towards me that I couldn’t explain or justify. I now know there were some who were upset with what I represented. I represented to some the first of many to come. To them I was a scout not an ambassador and their facial expressions, their speech, and their mannerisms were very unwelcoming. These were the people who accused me of stealing, or accused me of vandalizing their property or who treated me as if I was invisible. Those inconsistent assaults to my self esteem left open wounds and scars that took years to heal. There were times when my immature mind couldn’t interpret, define or verbalize what was going on around me but the feeling of inadequacy was ever-present.
5 things I’ve learned as a newspaper carrying ambassador.
- I had one job and didn’t need another. Being the pied piper of diversity is not a job for a child.
- Developing a keen sense of awareness about what is going on around me was a great skill that has helped me in my life. The development of this skill could only come with the knowledge that there are people in the world who may try to hurt me. The lesson was worth the innocence sacrificed.
- As a child I didn’t understand the power of race. When people treated me badly simply because I was Black I internalized it. I deduced their treatment of me was warranted because there was something broken in me that caused that unjust treatment.
- I didn’t label it racism. There were things that were done and said that looking back on them were obviously racist but I didn’t see it…then. If my parents had asked me if I had encountered racism or racist people I would have said “no,” and felt that way up in to my 30’s. Parents have to have enough awareness to see what children can’t.
- The clothes styles changed but a lot of what I struggled with is still very present today. Don’t write these lessons off as lessons of yesterday.