In 2008, I worked as a canvasser for the Obama campaign in Detroit, Michigan. One day my team was assigned to canvass in a suburb that more or less typified what I was taught to be a safe neighborhood--red brick houses, tree-lined streets, orderly yards. When it started to get dark we headed for the car, but we couldn’t find one of our team members, who was a Black man in his sixties. After about 15 minutes we found him, but he was visibly shaken. I asked him what was wrong, and he said when he was a kid that neighborhood had been a sundown town.
I had never heard that term before. That was how I learned that up until just a few decades ago many towns in the US had policies asserting that Black people weren’t welcome there after dark. In some places there were signs marking the boundary, and it was enforced either by the police or by violent vigilantes. At first I would have thought this would just be rural towns in the South, but I was surprised to learn that it was throughout the whole country, neighborhoods within major northern cities as well as their wealthiest suburbs. Many of the neighborhoods here in Baltimore that I’ve been taught to think of as “safe places” as a White person had racist policies on the books. Rodgers Forge for instance, where most of my friends in elementary school lived, still has racially exclusionary language in the legal paperwork of many of its homes (as of Sept 2017). Or Hampden - as recently as 1988, Hampden was 99 percent white, and when a Black family moved in the KKK smashed in their windows.
This has made me question where my sense of safety as a White person has come from. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to keep yourself and your family safe, but that impulse has been used to justify a lot of violence and injustice against communities of color. One part of what is needed is for White people like me to learn about our history and reflect deeply about our role in that injustice living on today.
I think our unexamined fear is one of the factors that keeps society focused on stopping crime by locking people up in the short term, rather than investing in solutions that could build a safer world for everyone over the long term. During the uprising after Freddie Gray’s death, to me the big message being sent was that if we want peace, we have to work for justice. No one will be truly safe until everyone is safe.
One group that's been doing this is Baltimore Ceasefire, who has been responding to the underlying needs of communities that are most affected by violence in Baltimore. All of the proceeds I get for this song “Sundown Town” will go towards community-based efforts like theirs. I encourage everyone to check out what they’re doing and consider making a contribution as well.
Governor Hogan recently introduced a package of legislation to get "tough on crime" through harsher sentencing. This is exactly the opposite of what we need. If you live in Maryland, please call your legislators this week and ask them to oppose SB 197, 198, & 199, as well as HB 100, 101, and 102.
I had mixed feelings about whether to include this song, because any conversation about racial inequity should center the voices of people of color. That being said, that’s no excuse for White people to avoid talking about a difficult subject. The burden of raising the issue shouldn’t entirely be left to people of color, because a big part of what needs to change is the White community. I encourage everyone to check out Baltimore artists who are people of color who have created a multitude of works on the subject. Here are a few; just the tip of the iceberg:
Theme song for the Baltimore Ceasefire - Featuring Von Vargas, Greenspan, Josh Lay, Smallz, TT the Artist, Blaqstarr, III Conscious, Femi the Drifish, Preme, Martina Lynch, The Boy Blesst
It’s Like That - Son of Nun
Nothing’s New - Femi the Drifish
Point of Entry - Ashley Minner
For the Love of the Game - Tariq Toure (accent over the e)
Unapologetically Black - Eze Jackson
REWIND - Paul Rucker
Despues de la Frontera - A Story of Separation - Tanya Garcia
(This does not imply these artists' support or lack thereof for anything I've said here).
SUNDOWN TOWN lyrics - Listen to the song here
Some people say this city is block by block
Some places you should go and some you should not
Let your nightmares guide your footsteps
Let your fear draw the map
Better safe than sorry with a gun against your back
Roll up your windows and lock your doors
Perhaps it is a fiction but it’s one you can’t ignore
Go back home and sleep soundly
On the right side of the tracks
They don’t want your dreams to linger
With the cold hard facts
It’s a sundown town
People like you they shouldn’t hang around
Won’t take long to figure out
People like you they shouldn’t hang around
Well if you try to find me
I’ll be safe here at home
I want maximum security
I detest the unknown
There are thousands out there like me
All nestled in our shells
We’ll watch others fight for freedom
From the safety of our cells