By Chris Arnade
A week after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I walked into my old hometown bar in central Florida to hear, “Well if a nigger can be president, then I can have another drink. Give me a whiskey straight up.”
Only one day in the town and I thought, “Damn the south.”
I had returned home to bury my father, who had spent much of the 1950s and ’60s fighting for civil rights in the south. Consequently, my childhood was defined by race. It was why our car was shot at, why threats were made to burn our house down, why some neighbors forbid me to play on their lawn, why I was taunted at school as a “nigger lover”.
It was nothing compared to what the blacks in town had to endure. I was just residing in the seam of something much uglier.
It is also why I left as soon as I could, exercising an option few others had. I eventually moved to New York City to work on Wall Street.
In the next 15 years I thought less about race. It is possible to live in the northeast as a white liberal and think little about it, to convince yourself that most of the crude past is behind. Outward signs suggest things are different now: I live in an integrated neighborhood, my kids have friends of all colors, and my old office is diverse compared to what I grew up with. As many point out, America even has a black man (technically bi-racial) as president.
Soon after my father passed away, I started to venture beyond my Wall Street life, to explore parts of New York that I had only previously passed through on the way to airports. I did this with my camera, initially as a hobby. I ended up spending three years documenting addiction in the New York’s Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point. There I was slapped in the face by the past.