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I was sixteen and mesmerized by the graffiti – framed by tunnels, bridges, and walls of industrial buildings. It seemed the only view on an Amtrak train from Springfield, Mass to Philly, PA. Like running through the halls of Art Basel – surrounded by creative expression – just long enough to glimpse the eyes and earnest urges of people craving to be seen.
The dichotomy of artist inequality, and sociological biases that place worth and value on art was not lost on me. My father took me to see Beat Street when I was thirteen. It introduced me to a culture that was distant, yet only a five-hour train ride away.
In the small town where I was raised, thirty minutes north of Springfield, the only graffiti I’d seen was spray-painted on the back of a wall. It read in big black block letters visible from the Friendly’s diner, “Niger.”
My father was the tip of the family spear that had to penetrate the town’s racism and ignorance – couldn’t even spell a racist slur correctly. A hate crime was not in our lexicon or laws back then, but we endured more than our share as speckled black dots in circles of white dominance. Mom and dad were both shield and spear as much they were able.
Hence, the summer escapes to my father’s hometown and city of birth, Chester, PA – six miles north of Philly. My grandfather and grandmother mother were the first to settle there after migrating, or more like fleeing, Southern Georgia after a shotgun wedding. My grandfather became the first Black foreman at a local steel plant, and he soon started bringing up more family members and helping them get jobs. We’d make family excursions there some holidays, after stops in the well-to-do enclaves of Montclair, NJ and Bryn Mawr, PA where my mother and cousins were raised.
But this trip to Chester was my first solo journey, on a train, toward the one place I felt accepted. Near the end of the ride, the window looking west offered a movie trailer of sorts. The tracks passed right by my aunt Josephine and uncle Henry’s row house on West 6th Street on its way to Penn Station in Philadelphia, where I would take a SEPTA train back up to Chester.
I was to stay at their house and sleep on a cot in a narrow room between their second-floor bedrooms. Their doors were always closed to keep the A/C inside their rooms. Don’t close the door behind you fast enough, expect a scolding. Inside, the entire house shook when a train went by. If you were outside on the steps or porch, you could feel the blasting breeze, trembling vibrations, and the loud clank of metal friction rise and fall like volume control.
When I arrived, there was no big celebration, just a silent understanding that I belonged, even if for a summer. It was a Sunday, and my uncle Henry was out on the patio with the three papers he read daily on his lap, cover-to-cover, including the cross words: The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was wearing his signature baby blue Kangol hat and had a pack of Kools on the table beside him.
He had a brilliant mind, but it took me a while to understand his mumbled words, especially if he didn’t have his ‘teeth’ in. He was kind and could tell stories for hours.
About how he was a chef, and cooked for governors, or childhood stories about my father, uncles, and aunt Josephine. He had a gruff laugh that could easily spill tears as if his reminisces were as vivid and funny as a Richard Pryor special watched a hundred times on a VHS tape.
They called my dad Val, for unknown reasons, but his real name is John Walker Chambers. A first name passed down for three generations, and then a fourth when I came along. We all have different middle names, so I guess there was no concern about the regal Roman numerals to signify our lineage.
My dad was the youngest of the Chambers kids, and they were all very protective of him, and his offspring. He was the first to go to college and go on to earn graduate degrees. He was the pride of the family.
That probably factored into his family’s acceptance of his White girlfriend who fast became his wife. She had just graduated from Antioch College, and took her activism to Chester, PA, where the Civil Right Movement of the 60s first landed in the North.
My father and uncles were all leaders in the movement and helped found the Committee for Freedom Now. Chester had an early jump on notoriety – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary in the late 40s.
The committee would meet in church basements to plot their next protest or civil disobedience action. My father was tasked with walking my mother home at night. She was staying with a family who supported the movement – in the SNCC tradition that gave shelter to organizers in the South.
That’s how they fell in love. And where my origin story began.
But there would be no protests action during my summer days in Chester. They usually started with a drop off at my cousin Tina or Gail’s house on the west side of the city. The safer part of town. Chester was the per-capita murder capital of the country at the time. My cousins all had kids slightly younger than me.
We’d spend most afternoons on the basketball courts or listening to Power 99, the Urban Contemporary radio station, where I fell in love with Mariah Carry and “Vision of Love,” that they played in constant rotation.
I gorged myself on hoagies and cheese steaks, two of the region’s staples (before I became a vegan). I upgraded my small-town wear to the urban gear of the late 80s. Silk polka dot shirts, MC hammer pants, and Black Bart Simpson tee shirts.
My Western-Mass non-accent slowly slipped away until the code switching was automatic and authentic in both worlds. A survival technique in the White world, a language of brotherhood around my Black friends, done with unconscious ease.
Acceptance was a given, but it was the exceptionalism that made me uncomfortable. My cousins all thought I had it easy. My light skin and curly brown hair was the subject of praise and compliments; “He’s got that good hair,” they would say. It was my first exposure to colourism and the feeling that I had unearned privilege just because of my blood, skin colour, hair texture, and proximity to White culture and opportunity.
The jump from the lowest status in the White community I grew up in, to the high status of a light-skinned Black kid in mostly Black Chester pushed me to lean in harder to my Black identity. I watched Video Music Box in the early days of BET. I learned all the lyrics and practiced the dances. BET was not among our cable options back home, so I soaked up as much as I could.
I roamed the city and didn’t feel like an “other.” I didn’t feel the fear of a neighbour making a false accusation anytime something went missing in their garages. I later learned that my older cousin Conrad had put word out that I was to be looked after. Not to be messed with. Protected. He was a baller in Chester and had the respect of the streets. I was safe.
My cousin Dante was four years younger than me, but that didn’t stop him from being a ladies’ man. I was in awe of his confidence around girls and profoundly confused how he’d have girlfriends my age and he’d barely started puberty. I wasn’t shy, but there were no girls in my hometown who would give this Black kid a second look. Chester was a new paradigm. To be sought without seeking. To feel affection without wondering if I was an exception, or consolation prize. My whole self, something to celebrate, not signify tolerance.
When my mother picked me up at the end of the summer, I directed my rage at her for bringing me back to White dominant homogeneity. As “Vision of Love,” came on the radio one last time before hopping on 95 and headed north, I screamed, “I can’t even listen to Black radio where we’re going!” She sat in silence. She knew I filled some missing holes that summer. That Christmas she got me subscriptions to Hip-Hop magazines Right On and The Source to add to our family subscriptions to Ebony and Jet. Bless her, my mother did her best to bring Black culture to her children.
An identity that would continue to be imbued the following summer, and my final year of high school when I transferred to a diverse boarding school in New Hope, PA; and when I went on to the Black Mecca, Howard University.
As I became humbled in adulthood, I finally found balance and nuance within the communities I inhibit and try to build. My activism and ability to bridge worlds filled out a purpose that measured on par with multitude of identities that shape my worldview. Even if the world still sees me as a Black man living in America.
But unlike the artists and the graffiti, there was no urge to be seen. Only the compass to act on what I see – inequity, injustice, isolation, exclusion, and poverty.
When I go back to Chester now, it’s usually for a funeral at the same funeral home, followed by a burial at the same cemetery. Followed by family meet-up at a restaurant. I find it hard to believe the chemical plants a few miles away, that blow fumes through the city, and family members who died from rare cancers, are not related.
The house on West 6th is now an empty lot. A knot in my stomach forms every time I pass it, by car or by train. Sometimes I drive around to see what else is still there and what has changed. The city seems empty. Faded “For Sale” signs dot lawns and fences.
There’s a boardwalk by the river now, attached to a big casino. To enter, you have to pass through an archway that connects a large prison. No irony there. Forces greater than the movement’s stamina were too strong and systemically in place.
After the tour down memory lane, I jump back on Interstate 95 and head south toward home, Washington, DC. I think about my old friends and family members who past. I try to push my thoughts to what was gained and not lost.
I remember joy, empathy, imagination, love – and the wisdom to choose where I belong. Even if I don’t change the world, I can change a small corner. I wish it could be Chester, where I found acceptance one summer.
(Writer’s Note: Two days before this essay was set for publication, my dear cousin Tina, who welcomed me into her home in Chester, suddenly passed away. This essay is dedicated to her memory, as well as her surviving children, Dante and Jemera, and all of her grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. Rest in peace.)
John R. Chambers is the founder of the award-winning arts and culture non-profit BloomBars, an artist incubator and performance venue in Washington, DC. Previously, he was a senior vice president for the global communications & advocacy firm, GMMB. He writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about his personal experiences with race, activism, mental health, trauma, the environment, the arts, and fatherhood. He's been featured in The Washington Post, Works & Conversations, COALESCE COMMUNITY, and Interactive One platforms. He has only recently sought to publish his writings. John identifies as Black.