Audrey Petty: The Architecture of Race

petty2a“I had to get away from Chicago to be able to really understand its hold on me,” says Audrey Petty, who spent her undergraduate years at Knox College in the largely white, far-western Illinois town of Galesburg.   Her stories have appeared in Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing, StoryQuarterly, African-American Review, and Painted Bride.  Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Sister Voices, and Cimarron Review, and her essays in Saveur, ColorLinesThe Southern ReviewOxford American, Cornbread Nation 4Gravy, and the Best Food Writing anthology.   She has won the Tennessee Williams Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers Conference, and won fellowships and grants from the Ford and Mellon Foundations and the Illinois Arts Council.  In a special issue of Callaloo devoted to emerging black writers Trudier Harris wrote that Petty “makes language accessible,” but keeps “meaning complex and at times elusive.”  She has taught in the creative writing programs at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), Knox College, and was named the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction at Northwestern.  Petty has also been an instructor for the Education Justice Project, Project FYSH (Foster Youth Seen and Heard), the Illinois Humanities’ Odyssey Project, the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project and continuing studies programs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Northwestern. She lives with her family in Chicago.

I included her story “Gettysburg,” at the time unpublished, in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  It is the story of a black-white couple, Sharon and Liam, which follows an all-too-familiar pattern, an all too-familiar “architecture”: private joy, attraction, and dreams colliding with the structures of a racist society.  You almost wish they could just stay in the Boston hotel room where Liam, a budding architect, has gone for a job interview.   But there’s the inevitable apartment hunt, where Sharon admits,

“She was ready for scrutiny, but she was never prepared.   One long, pink landlady gawked the whole time they roamed across her hardwood floors.  It wasn’t until they’d walked down to her own roomy kitchen that she mentioned how someone had actually come late the night before.  A credit report was being checked.  She couldn’t say for sure, but the place might actually be taken.  Her thick accent was serrated: all cartoon.”

Still, Liam dutifully fills out an application, and, Petty writes, “Sometimes Sharon admired him for not seeing the reactions.”  There had been many before Boston.  “Back in Chicago, there were often white glances on the El, downtown, in his Northside neighborhood, but it was the brothers who gave disapproval with flair….”  Liam proposes they take a side trip when they return from Boston to Chicago.  He wants to visit Gettysburg.  They stop at a restaurant.

“Sharon could tell right away.  This one really cared: this one was going to be a bitch.  No greeting.  No words at all.  Just one-sided menus and iceless water in short, scratched glasses plunked in front of them.”

pettyThey never do make it to Gettysburg.  Liam gets violently, throw-up ill.  Perhaps non-accidental food poisoning from the restaurant?  But Sharon asks the bigger question: what if they had gone to Gettysburg?  The battle there decisively turned the tide of the Civil War, but it seems the U.S. has never yet fully faced the racial issues at the heart of that war.  Earlier in the story, Sharon had switched on CNN.  “The President was nominating a new black man for the Court.  The chosen one stood dark and alone before the cameras.  He wore the insecure smile of a definite Tom.”  A black Supreme Court Justice, a black President, and we eagerly tell ourselves we’ve become post-racial. We keep the architecture of race in tact by taking every opportunity to deny it exists and demeaning conversations about it—as, for example, in the way we’ve taken to making fun of, or co-opting #blacklivesmatter.  As a Filipino, I was dismayed to hear this recently: “#filipinolivesmatter—because who’s going to make the lumpia?”  Mildly funny, I guess, especially to Filipinos.  But it’s yet another another expression saying, really, that we don’t need to talk seriously about race.  I have written many times that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but  race.

Liam is an architect, of course, and, staying with that theme, Petty is also the editor of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, which includes the stories of twelve persons displaced when the Chicago, like many other cities across the U.S., finally realized what a disaster high density, high-rise housing has been.  The book begins:

“When the high rise buildings came down, footage of the demolition was posted on YouTube. There you can find—in montage, time-lapse, or real time—various stages of destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbott Homes, Cabrini-Green, Lakefront Properties…The vast majority of those directly impacted by wide-scale demolitions have been required to seek out housing in the private sector. For thousands, the outcomes have included displacement, multiple moves, and homelessness. In the current economy, the poverty rate is higher than ever in Chicago, as is the need for affordable housing.”

That has been another result of the architecture of race in America.


 Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to Black Writing from Chicago.
 Go to the Teaching Diversity page.

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