Wings and other forms of flight…
The other day I had the opportunity to try the new wing spot, not too far from the Valpo Law School. I walked in with another colleague of mine from the university. After being in a group chat all day talking about this new wing location, I was excited to try it.
The earlier messages that we traded back and forth said such things as, “I think the owners of the restaurant are black” and “about time we had somebody in Valpo that can make some good wings, and catfish too.” As we entered the restaurant, there were very few tables, but the aroma was so pleasant and fragrant and happily reminiscent; it was a savor I loved. No, it was not what you were stereotypically thinking about; even though the smell of chicken filled the air, it was something else. It was real. It was free. It was ours. It was black.
The smiles that came across the countertop were real and genuine; the owner and his staff were excited to see us, and we were excited to see them. There was something familiar about this space. It was reminiscent of something that I knew, but something I had been yearning for and missed. As we were greeted by the owner and his fiance e, it was clear that they were still new in this building. As we began to order, my colleague and I debated about what we would get. He wanted the wings, and I had a taste for catfish. The only question now was what size to get. There was something about this place that screamed to me that I would still want more no matter how much I got.
We placed our orders and sat down at one of the three tables in the restaurant. The owner, Trent, and his business partner, Brandon, came over to the table, greeted us, and offered us a free drink. This form of hospitality seemed absent in the context of Valpo, yet so familiar in my existence. Our food came up relatively quickly and as we begin to eat we engaged in dialogue that reminded me of so many family reunions I have attended in my lifetime. We were able to banter back and forth like cousins, and as their phone rang off the hook with to go orders and pick up calls, we begin to postulate so many natural questions: “Will this restaurant make it here?” and “I hope we can help push business this way,” and finally, “I wonder if the people of color who are coming in and out live here in Valpo?”
This final question ignited my curiosity more than others. This last question was one that I had asked many people, especially people of color that I met randomly in Walmart, Town and Country, or at one of the local coffee shops. This was a question that I wanted to know because it would potentially act as a starting point for the rest of the questions that I have for the city of Valpo. Where are the black churches? How does the black community get together? Do we vote as a unit here to push a common agenda? Interestingly enough, these questions only lead to more questions, such as, “Could I raise my family here? Would my wife be fulfilled here? Can I grow socially, spiritually and culturally in this space?”
Trent & Brandon, owners Louie Wingz and Catfish
As we continued to joke laugh and banter back and forth, we saw many people coming into the restaurant, both people of color and white people. We saw one lady enter the store and exclaim proudly, “Finally I can get some wings and not have to go to the south side of Chicago.” As the lady was waiting for her wings, I had to ask where she lives and works and spends time. Mainly I asked this question because there’s no way this new restaurant could attract someone from the south side of Chicago to come to Valpo. Her response to me was one that I had heard before in Valpo: “I’m from (insert more culturally relevant city name here), but I just live in Valpo now.”
“The earlier messages that we traded back and forth said such things as, “I think the owners of the restaurant are black…”
The concept of just living here is one that I have become so accustomed to as I interact with other people of color in Valpo. It is a concept that says this city is not my home; I am just staying here for the time being. Typically, it has some connection to an amenity that the city might have to offer. Whether it is the quiet, slow pace that Valpo has, the cheaper tax rate than Chicago, or the prettier façade that it emits over some of the other towns in Northwest Indiana, there is something that attracts people to Valpo. But is that it for people of color? Only those small things attract them to this city; it must be because time after time, there is a dismissal of ownership in Valpo. People of color find their livelihood, the things that give them life, their loved ones, and many times their connections outside of the city of Valparaiso. And so they just live here, but they don’t find life here.
Who I Am Matters…
As we finished our food and joked back and forth, the good vibes of sitting in this new space with this old feeling continuously rushed into our experience. Even though it was just for 45 minutes, in that short time, Valpo finally resembled our home. To be completely honest, I am not sure if this was the first time I have had this feeling in Valpo or not. But it is the first time I can viscerally remember it. I am not from Valpo. I’m actually from Texas–yes, I am a transplant from that other state down south that sometimes thinks it’s a country. But all jokes aside, my experience is probably entirely different than most. I grew up with two parents in the home living in a suburb of Dallas, where my family was struggling to be fully middle-class. My dad worked, and in my younger years, my mom stayed at home. When my brother and I became school-aged she began working in the school we attended. That in and of itself is another story, but to say the least, the schools that I attended, all public by the way, always had some level of black representation.
Teachers, custodians, security officers, student resource officers, coaches and even PTA presidents were people of color. Numerically they were the minority, but they were present and visible. There were black churches with black leadership, and even in the major city of Dallas, there was a black mayor. I never had to struggle to see a black-owned business, and in many cases, I remember running down the street to a barbecue business that reminded me a lot of the new wing place in Valpo. While black individuals existed at different levels, they were still present, and it was normal to see them.
Maybe that’s what makes Valpo so strange to me. The city of Valpo is still experiencing many “firsts.” It is still experiencing the first time it has seen black fill-in-the-blank. It just elected its first black city council person, for example. And so it raises the question: what was representing the black experience before these “firsts?” In some cases, you can see remnants of some strong attempts, but there is very little social or institutional memory of a black presence in Valparaiso. And without presence, how can you say the black experience matters?
The way in which we say something is important is by giving it “space” and “place.” When something really matters to us, we give it space. Space can be defined as a physical and social-emotional location where something or someone can truly exist. This space has to be created and protected in such a way that it does not harm the individual it is meant for, it gives life for the entity to grow, and it provides the opportunity to grow culturally, spiritually and socially. When you provide space to someone or something, you allow it to inhabit that space in a way that is relevant to its needs, not your own. It is in this vein that we give people and things that are important to us “place.”
The best way I can describe “place” is the same way in which I explain it to my students. I recently got married, and we had a tremendous reception, 350 to 400 to be exact, yet that is another story. At our reception, just like any other formal event, there was a seating chart and with that seating chart came a specific seat for a particular person that had specific needs. We placed somebody at an appropriate table to accommodate who they were and how they needed to connect with others. At their place setting, we took the time to consider their needs based on the information they gave us. If somebody needed a specific type of meal, it was connected to the place that they were sitting. The “place” also denotes the level of esteem and importance we have for an individual or thing. This is why we do not put the baby in the doghouse and the dog in the crib.
To live in Valpo as a person of color is wondering continually whether there is a space and place for us in this city. If people really matter, then how they are regarded and given a platform in Valpo has to matter as well.
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