There’s no place like home, especially when home is Brunswick, Georgia. I often find myself wanting to click my heels to get there, the city of delectable restaurants where one stakes claim to the world’s best pork chop sandwich. I was raised in College Park, a neighborhood nestled right off Altama Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the city. Growing up, College Park had one way in and one way out, a microcosm of the cultural mores of Brunswick. It’s a story familiar to anyone raised in a “three stoplight” town. One way in. One way out.
A Terrible Thing To Waste
For me, the way out was education. Every Sunday in church an older deacon would stand up during service and highlight the importance of education. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, he would say, borrowing the mantra of the United Negro College Fund. Waste is a constant reminder in Brunswick, a city brimming with the constant smell of a pulp and paper mill plant. The mill is just miles from the largest cemetery in the city, a place sprinkled with reminders of a few wasted minds (and lives). One young man was shot and killed over a petty argument. Another young man lost his life trying to prove himself to his “friends”, friends who now give passing references to him as “the realest” on social media.
When it comes to race, Brunswick is an enigma. My neighborhood was multicultural before I discovered what the word meant. A neighborhood of middle class families, it was as if Ellis Island plopped itself down right in the middle of my city. Take, for example, the Halberts. Our next door neighbors, the Halberts were a white family of five. We shared a property line, but more than that we share experiences. The father was an unapologetic Florida Gators fan in Georgia Bulldog country. I played baseball and tossed the football with his son in their front yard. Black and white distinctions took a back seat to human commonalities. Then there was Mr. Salvino, the Italian man who lived mid-block. He had a sleek sports car that he kept in his garage until warm summer days, wowing neighborhood kids with its customized orange color. He had the General Lee before The Dukes of Hazzard. Deeper in the block was what I call “Athletes’ Row”, streets that boasted a “Who’s Who” of high school stars who set school records in football and track. All of these families, a melting pot of cultures, lived in perfect harmony.
Once we left that multicultural island things changed. The city had rules. Though unspoken, there were lines drawn. The same commonality I experienced with my neighbors was ripped away from me by the city’s deep-seated racial division. Overwhelmingly, whites kids played for the County and black kids played for the City and for the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. In an effort to prevent me from “getting injured”, my mom placed me in the county sports program. To this day, I think this was providential. It helped me learn to navigate cultures. I attended year-end football banquets at posh homes in cul-de-sacs and played pick up basketball in my neighborhood park with two-sport star athletes. I was breaking unspoken rules, but would soon discover that I was made to break them.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
I lied earlier. There was more than one way in and out of my neighborhood. In the far corner of College Park there was a makeshift bridge. It spanned over frog and tadpole infested standing water, but it was a bridge nonetheless. It was an alternative route out. Today, that bridge is an afterthought, destroyed by years of use. But it showed me the potential for finding another way out of the racial tension in my city. I close my eyes and see social engineers in the city who can build that bridge. Sports always serve as a fantastic framework. The way every race mobilized around our state championship basketball team is what my great city is capable of. In our current climate, we can’t overlook the fact that mostly white cops proudly escorted a team of mostly black young men to Macon to bring home a state championship—the anti-Ferguson.
I know some bridge builders already doing work in the city. I salute them. But we need more. As much as I want to click my heels and get back there, there are capable men and women already there who can build bridges of reconciliation. This note is for those people. May God stir your heart to break the rules and find another way out of the cycle of racial animosity. It might be a Hail Mary, but at least you can say you were in the game.