Why is it that success is always marked by one’s “ascension” from the hood?
I came to ponder this question after thinking about a lesser known track from Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall.
“So Good” may have never been a top-charting, hit single, but it’s been my jam since I was six years old. I didn’t realize it then, but this song is the anthem for Black women and girls who unapologetically stunt on their haters.
Whenever I listen to the song now, the hook gets stuck in my head:
“Wasn’t it you that said
I thought I was all that and you said I didn’t have a clue
Wasn’t it you that said
That I wouldn’t make it through
And wasn’t it you that said
That I didn’t look too good, that I wouldn’t do too good
I’d never make it out the ‘hood
I want you to know that I’m doin’ so good”
Pause. Question: Why must we make it out of the hood before we’re considered worthy? Through this song, through this verse, I came to think about the problematic narratives surrounding valuation, worthiness, and the hood in American culture. And this brings me back to my opening question: Why is it that success is always marked by one’s “ascension” from the hood?
The hood is not an easy space to analyze. Some artists, however, have beautifully captured the joy and pain of Black life in these complex urban spaces. And there are writers who describe the coexistence of nurture and oppression in the hood far more gracefully than I ever could. What I would like to do here is simply reflect upon the very language we use to describe the hood and why it matters.
The hood is not a space to be glorified. Poverty, violence, and state surveillance are realities of hood life. But these facets of hood life are most salient for those who live there, the black and brown people the nation has criminalized, marginalized, and callously left behind. However, it’s strangely those who are most spatially and culturally distanced from the hood that are the most anxious about the potential dangers of that space.
I went to high school in the wealthy, white, exclusive Hancock Park, but I lived South Central L.A. Until I was thirteen years old, Lemeirt Park and its surrounding neighborhoods formed the boundaries of my world. Most of my classmates regularly made disturbing, heartbreaking comments about the place I called home. Once, while sharing lunch with a group of “friends,” I listened in as a conversation about college applications evolved into a discussion about the discomfort some of my classmates had about visiting USC. I recall one girl saying, “I never park on the street because I get scared that someone might break into my car. And I don’t like visiting the campus at night. I always worry about someone robbing me or some man hurting me, you know?”
I wondered then, as I often wonder now, why these young white women thought of themselves when they thought about the victims of hood violence. They were transient beings in the landscape of the hood, people who were merely passing through. They didn’t experience hood life day in and day out. The hood wasn’t theirs, and, despite what they may have believed, the reified dangers of hood life weren’t theirs either. A most unjust erasure is committed when we fail to acknowledge that the inhabitants of hoods are those most vulnerable to its violence. But then, in America, Black and brown lives have never been deemed worthy of our empathy and care…
But even if the hood is not a place to be glorified, it is a place to be cherished. And it is the absence of love for the people of the hood and the devaluation of their creative genius that infuriate me most. White America proclaims that hoods are completely devoid of beauty and substance. This proclamation is critical because it has harsh political, social, and cultural consequences. The sociopolitical implications can easily be seen in the lack of meaningful policy intervention that would ameliorate the lives of Black and brown hood residents. The socioculutral impact can be seen through the ways in which people of color from the hood internalize and reiterate narratives about the absence of beauty, creativity, and genius in the ghetto.
When I hear people from South Central talk about leaving the hood, not because of violence, but because “there ain’t nothing here,” my heart breaks. We are here. We ain’t nothing. We are everything. And we will always be enough.
Cultural artifacts from the hood become appropriated by the nation’s creative industries without any compensation to the brilliant innovators. The desire for Black music, Black language, Black fashion, and Black hair trends drive markets. Market trends say “The hood is hot, and the people who live there got mad talent” even as people argue that the hood ain’t nothing special. So when we talk about the hood, we have to think about the language we use to describe it and why. When do we care about the violence in the hood? Who do we think of as the most affected victims of this violence? Why are we always so resistant to admit that the hood and its people possess immeasurable worth even as we voraciously consume the products of hood genius?
More and more white people are moving into South Central. In a deeply segregated city like Los Angeles, that sort of migration is not meaningless. Slowly but surely, my hood is becoming something it wasn’t before. As property values increase, the neighborhood’s population whitens, and Black residents become increasingly dispersed. Suddenly, but not surprisingly, the language used to describe my hood is shifting and will continue to shift as its demographics change.
The valuation of Black lives and Black life is not–and should never be–predicated upon white validation. Conversations about the hood should always center the incredibly resilient Black and brown people who make their homes there. And conversations about the hood should never be one dimensional. Yes, hood residents face encounter enormous obstacles in this space, but they also live, love, laugh, and create.
So when I think about “making it out of the hood,” I don’t dream of leaving the hood. I imagine a world in which poverty, violence, and state surveillance leave the hood. If we’ve blossomed while living amongst those three horrors, imagine how much we would flourish in their absence.