“No other part of their humanity could be seen beyond the color of their skin.”
Transcript for Watching Fires
I grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It’s right in the City of Boston. My family was the second African American—Afro-Caribbean family to move on our street. And it was formerly a Jewish neighborhood and it was one of those neighborhoods in Boston where white flight was quite prevalent as a practice. Many homes and, like, whole streets of homes were burned down by the former residents rather than to sell the property to black people.
But you know, Boston (maybe you don’t know) is very famous for these fires and there were lots of people who liked to go and just, like, enjoy watching houses burn down, and they were called Firestarters, it was, like, their happy name. Arthur Fiedler, the famed conductor of the Boston Pops, was a famed person that liked to do that. Even had a little fire hat that he would wear to those events.
I saw homes burned down. We didn’t talk about it, but it was very scary and to this day I’m sort of haunted by nightmares of house fires.
I actually have a play, a solo performance, that chronicles watching fires. I wanted to do it as an invitation for the public to have a personal experience with my private life. Because those are things that a lot of people don’t know. I think, particularly—I don’t know anything about how other people see other people, but I do know I recently had a reading of a play, and after the reading of the play, I asked the people what the play was about and they said it was about poor black people living in the ghetto. And I said to the people, “Where in the text does it say that? It says it’s holiday time, people are putting up Christmas lights. It says people are playing records. People are dancing. People are eating. They’re inside the house. Where does it say they’re poor? They never mention mortgages not being paid or lights being cut off, right?” Yes, they’re black. But no other part of their humanity could be seen beyond the color of their skin. And it really made me—made me sad. It’s really sad. But I wanted somebody to see the humanity and the grace that I grew up in. And what my parents gave to me.
The year that my family moved into the house, they bought it mainly because I was being born. My father started a homeowners’ association. And interestingly, a part of that homeowners’ association was an annual gathering. It’s really—it’s a block party but it is an annual gathering, and this is the first year of the COVID that it hasn’t taken place.
Belonging is a lot related to—I guess—home because I’ve never—I never move. We’ve always lived in that same house. I do associate it, I think, more strongly with ancestral home and culture because my neighborhood is very strongly an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood. Actually, there’s a lot of African American foods I have never tasted and don’t know how to cook. And people always, “You don’t know how to cook that?” I’m like, “No, I don’t.” So, um, the one thing that kind of spilled over from African American communities into our community was social dance.
We would have parties practically every weekend where we would play records and my mother and father took dance lessons so they knew ballroom and all these different styles of dancing. I took dance classes when I was a child. When I was in kindergarten, the first thing that my friends and I would do would do some dances. Like “Show me some moves!” And then we, like, all moved together. Like, ok! We got a little dance on for fifteen minutes and ok, now we can—we can get the school day started. I remember my best friend in junior high would call me up. “Come on over. I’ll teach you this new dance.” Everything was really related to this idea of moving together. I actually do feel like I mourn for that. Basketball is a kind of dance and, you know, hearing the rhythm of the ball bouncing on the ground and hearing the guys running around making sounds. It’s been silenced by this disease. And you can have these games in empty stadiums, but the game actually starts in the community and the children aren’t playing.
Hold a Conversation
Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.