Baltimore is a complicated city.
Lawrence Jackson knows how complicated Baltimore is better than most people. His family has lived in the city for five generations. Since colonial times, Baltimore has been noted for the elegance of its architecture and the refinement of its manufactured silver. One of its nicknames is Charm City. Another is Mob Town, given in the 1800s, when strife often erupted in riots.
Baltimore is especially complicated if you’re Black. It’s even more complicated if you want to build wealth for your descendants through owning your own home.
Jackson is the child and grandchild of Black people who owned their own homes. He grew up in West Baltimore, but moved away to follow his career as a biographer, critic and professor of history and English.
In 2016, Jackson came back to the city to join the faculty at Johns Hopkins, soon after the convulsive riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. “Shelter: A Black Tale of Homeland, Baltimore” is a memoir of his search for a home and for schools for his children, a task that is routine for most Americans who have just moved.
It is not routine for him.
West Baltimore is out of the question. His grandmother was a registered nurse; she and her husband bought a house in the Pimlico neighborhood in West Baltimore in 1965. He writes that she cemented her class standing with “her professional ambition, home ownership, skin color, and Episcopalian restraint. She always reminded me that when she went to work, she went in through the front door.”
But by the 1970s, when Jackson played there as a child, Pimlico was a neighborhood of broken bottles, bullies, and chain-link fences. When he lived in her house as an adult in the 1990s, “Heroin, crack cocaine, incurable disease, and two generations of handguns had scarred the neighborhood. ... Men were shot down in the gutters, and on the sidewalks. Women sold themselves in the alleys and on porches; they knocked on doors with their children begging food.”
His family’s history highlights another set of contradictions in Baltimore: before the Civil War, 90 percent of the city’s Black population was free. Black people have owned homes there for generations, yet they cannot seem to generate the wealth white homeowners do. His grandmother’s house on the West Side sold in the early 2000s for 15 percent less than she and her husband had paid for it in 1965.
And that was before the Freddie Gray riots.
The Homeland of the title is not some abstract concept, but the upscale neighborhood where Jackson bought his house. From 1695 until 1940, the land was a plantation, and for much of that period, it was named Homeland. Jackson tells the long story of the plantation: “Homeland belongs to the great tragedy of Baltimore, one plantation land where they just couldn’t make slavery pay.”
In another chapter, Jackson takes the reader on a canoe trip on Chesapeake Bay, where Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and where he escaped; where Harriet Tubman led hundreds to freedom. His observations are laid-back and erudite, amusing and shrewd. He covers a wide variety of topics, from the uniqueness of being a Black Episcopalian and the strangeness of the depiction of Jesus as white in his mostly Black Baltimore church to the ramshackle assortment of cars he’s driven on various Baltimore streets, Baltimore’s contribution to jazz, the joy of step shows among Black fraternities and the long-running tragedy of Baltimore’s gun violence.
Jackson writes with wit and grace, in a lively, discursive style suited to the professor he is. His observations are not organized by topic but in chapters named for major events in the Christian church year, such as Advent or Lent.
In the chapter of White Sunday — an older name for Pentecost — subtitled “An Invasion of African Negroes,” he writes of the longstanding ethical struggles faced by the institution where he teaches. Johns Hopkins, founded in 1873, is the oldest research university in the Western Hemisphere. Hopkins was a Quaker and used to be characterized as an abolitionist, until it was discovered only a few years ago that he held slaves. Jackson writes, “A well-heeled university in a city like Baltimore, where the average student doesn’t complete the public school system, is an odd beast. It aggressively preserves the past, its traditions and styles, and modernizes this antiquity, digitizing and updating it, bringing it online, keeping it in fresh paint and pointed mortar.” Its headquarters is in the old plantation house Homewood (not Homeland — that’s where Jackson lives).
Jackson describes Homewood as a “lovingly preserved slave plantation manor,” that it’s a symbol to any Black visitors that “instant repudiation and chastisement, if not banishment, are not far off.”
Jackson writes of his ambivalence about living in a neighborhood where only 6 percent of the inhabitants are people of color. When he invites family, neighbors and friends over to celebrate a favorable review of one of his books by The New York Times, one of his guests delivers a sardonic judgment: “‘Not all of us can live here.’ He means I am an Uncle Tom, the sort of Black person willing to erase any vestige of their ethnicity to win white approval.”
He argues that he is not, that he only wants to pass on some slight generational wealth to his children, something that has not yet happened to his family. He worries, though, that he is trying to have it both ways, “the material world of the white middle class and perfidy to its core value, aggressive, dispassionate accumulation.”
One way in which he is stereotypically middle class is his passion for keeping his yard well. He writes, “After I neatly trim my front yard, my homeboy from the West Side compliments me by saying, ‘That’s a white man’s lawn.’ My boys and I are living the dream.” He writes further that he wants his son to have the confidence of people who own land and be the kind of person who keeps up his own yard.
I found this poignant. It relates to a story in my own life. I am a white woman. Years ago I was a reporter in Washington, D.C., covering a story about an apartment building that was being condemned because the landlord wasn’t keeping it fit for human habitation. One Black girl, about 10 years old, said to me, “Why don’t you tell people the real reason it’s so bad?” And I asked her what she thought the real reason was. She said it was because Black people weren’t allowed to keep anything.
I thought at the time, and have thought many times since, what a tragedy it was that a young girl would have a thought like that so internalized, at such a young age. And Jackson, a man of very different circumstances, shows the readers that he has the same worry.
“A deep instinct wants my house to compare favorably to my Albion Road neighbors, the heart surgeons and public health leaders, the neuroscientists, venture capitalists … people whose talent and sought-after skill I admire.”
Lawrence Jackson’s book provides a deep and varied look at his hometown and its history, interesting to people who know little about Baltimore and its history, and to those who know a great deal. It’s not a fast read, but it is a thoughtful one. Its commentaries on the continuing absurdity of being Black in America will likely stay with you.
Read more of the Feb. 8-14, 2023 issue.