“The Layers of Baltimore” (Innocence)

This year, as part of the Hands and Feet Initiative, The Center is hosting two fellows. Stay tuned here as Melva and Liv share their experiences.

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If I could sketch

I would rough out a picture

that lingers with me.  

The sketch would depict two small black boys ---- walking

across the street

thru an open area

between two-story housing buildings.

A second sketch

would depict a quick embrace

of the older boy to the younger.

It would depict a conversation

that includes smiles and laughter.

Just like a rough sketch cannot tell the full story, there is no real way to tell in words without adding layers. Layers that are prescribed by living as a minority in America. Layers prescribed by watching the news and being observant as you enter and exit different spaces. These layers take away the innocence in the image I witnessed as a passenger heading home after another day in Baltimore. The image gave my roommate, partner in the Hands and Feet Initiative, and I a deep sense of joy and light-heartedness that we discussed briefly in the moment and days later.  It is an image that truly impacted us.

Olivia Thomas and I had about a week of living together and orientation into our work at The Center when we witnessed the above story. We were returning home to our neighborhood in its own process of gentrification. We were about three blocks below our residence. I believe we had started a tour that day to find special locations around the city. However, this small and very brief moment we shared watching the interactions of these young boys left a deeper impression. This moment has come define what I call “the layers” of Baltimore. As we enter a month of living, working, and moving about Baltimore I can sense that there are many many layers to this city and people. There are layers that have been added by the rich history. I have walked our neighborhood and have found old historical homes once belonging to free blacks who worked the docks in the 1700s. I have walked down cobble streets passed old warehouses and family bakeries. At times it feels like any new urban setting city. But, there are layers added by injustice and segregation. There is a northern feel, but people still speak when they pass reminding you that you are still part of the southern etiquette. This layer covers what I have seen portrayed on the news. It covers up some of the tension you see when you drive from East Baltimore to West Baltimore. When you drive through the neighborhoods that gentrification has yet to touch. It covers up the layers of violence, poverty, and disparities you hear when in conversation with a local partner or watching groups sit on stoops and stand on corners. The innocence of two small black boys happy to be with each other walking is where I want the layer and story to stop. As we started driving home again, I tried my hardest to not add anymore layers to their story. My mind began to add layers of who they are based on appearance. Layers that with some visible evidence might prove to be factual, but places them within the statistic that will have one of them dead in 10-15 years or part of a gang. A layer that has them witnessing struggle, violence, hunger, rage, and despair. What Olivia and I witnessed that day was just one of many layers. My prayer for them as they walked on oblivious of our gazing, was for God to protect them and keep them from the many layers of harm and injustice this world has set up and is ready to place on them. I prayed for their safety that night and for their success in life. I prayed for the work I was entering into and the many people I will meet along the way. That moment lasted only a few seconds, but it is the image that is branded into my mind as the backstory of life in Baltimore. Even in hearing the stories, we have witnessed the layer of innocence. We have been met with welcome, curiosity, and open-mindedness. We understand that this is but one layer and have begun finding different ways to immerse ourselves within various communities and settings throughout the city. My mind has stopped trying to add its prescribed social layers onto my memory of two little black boys, crossing the street walking through the two-story housing buildings with smiles on their faces.

-Melva Lowry, Hands and Feet Fellow