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My Boston History

I was born on the South Side of Chicago. Boston is where I came of age

Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola finds home is not simply growing in a place, but the grit of growing with a place.

Boston, MA. 08/26/09 Scenes from the No. 1 bus taking passengers from Dudley Station in Roxbury down Massachusetts Avenue to to Harvard University in Cambridge on Wednesday, August 26, 2009. A mural in Roxbury.
A mural in Roxbury seen through a bus window in 2009, shortly before Olayiwola arrived from Chicago.Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe/file
Porsha Olayiwola
Porsha Olayiwola.From the City of Boston

The year 2020 marked my decade anniversary as a Black Bostonian. When I first arrived from Chicago, people would ask me two questions: Why’d I move to the city? — and, more importantly — Was I planning to stay? I responded the same way each time, partly joking while 100 percent serious: I came here for history. I will stay if I fall in love.

The logistics were simple: I relocated to volunteer at Pine Street Inn, the homeless shelter in the South End. I rented a manager’s apartment right off Shawmut Street and thought myself extremely lucky: a 21-year-old college grad, earning a $600-a-month stipend from AmeriCorps, living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in one of Boston’s most expensive neighborhoods, by way of gentrification and dispossession.

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Boston, to most transplants and especially to those of us of color, appears to be a socially cold city with closed pockets of community. Figuring out where you belong can sometimes feel like transferring to a new school in the middle of the year. Finding Black folks in Chicago was never a quest. Chicago’s South Side alone houses 800,000 residents, 93 percent of them identifying as Black. Compare that with Boston, a city of 700,000 residents, 22.4 percent of whom are Black. Moving from the South Side to the South End was a cultural reawakening that occurred in solitude. In my first week, the only Black folks I saw outside of work were students goofing off after school let out at Cathedral High.

Within three weeks I found myself, like any other person of color in a predominantly white space, in need. I was craving people who looked like my family and friends, food that tasted like Sundays after church, and, more urgently and specifically, a store that carried Black hair care products. Having heard I could find what I needed further south, I hopped on the SL5 bus and ended up in Nubian Square, then known as Dudley. In addition to finding several beauty supply stores, I sensed that I had also stumbled onto a place that felt closest to “home.”

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Maybe it was because the bus station reminded me of 95th and The Dan Ryan, where I transferred buses every morning on my way to school. Perhaps it was both the sweetened collard greens and lecture on Black barber shops I found myself scarfing down at the Haley House Bakery Café during artist nights led by Fulani Haynes. It might have been the history of Hibernian Hall reverberating through the room every Tuesday at the Verbalization open mic. I had just finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and knew his sister owned a house “on a hill in Roxbury.” I could, after all, recognize the station from the beginning of the Spike Lee film, after Malcolm gets his hair permed. Whatever it was, the first time I stepped off the bus and found myself in Nubian, there was a thump for the city sounding in my heart. Perhaps I had found what I needed for my rooting.

Last month, 10 years since that first bus ride, I was commissioned by a local corporation to write a poem exploring the history of Black Boston. Even as the city’s poet laureate armed with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies, the task felt daunting. The weight of the request piled on in additional ways: the pressure of a tight deadline, the dreaded occasional poem, the impossible task of squeezing 250 years of history into a poem that was supposed to be a 30-second read, and, of course, the transplant asked to represent a city she was not born in.

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The first mistake I made in writing the poem was probing the Internet for a neat summation of “Black Boston.” While researching and reading as much information as I could was foundational, it did not move me in the way I needed to be moved. The history did not yet feel like mine. What proved to be most helpful was talking to Bostonians via social media. I conducted a poll on Instagram asking for historical facts as they related to “Black Boston.” I received dozens of responses, detailing the lives and resilience of Black folk in the city. I was able to gather, in a time of social distance, from both strangers and friends, what was important to them about Boston’s Black diaspora and its history. These were the things that got me excited: stories people would never forget, events that made them proud to be who they were. I was able to learn things that did not live on the Internet but rather, within ancestral memory.

For example, did you know the first Black librarian in Boston worked at the West End branch for 32 years, and, as legend has it, never took a single sick day? Or that America’s first professionally trained Black nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, received her nursing degree in 1879 and practiced here, in Boston? I meditate on all the Black folk who have migrated to find a home in Boston: Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, and so forth and so on. I think on the Black folks whose ancestors were brought here unwillingly but who have been holding ground since. Resilience and excellence is at the crux of Black Boston. It is this legacy that lays the cobblestones of my own success.

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If you asked me today why I moved to this city, I’d still say it was because of the history. If you asked me if I was planning to settle here, I’d explain to you my politics of staying. Home is not simply growing in a place, but rather the grit of growing with a place. As I moved to craft the poem detailing the history of Black Boston, I began to ask much bigger questions of myself: Do I deserve a place in this milieu of legacy? Even more so, do I belong? Can I claim this history as my own? As I reflect on the past decade, I am constantly searching for my footing, for the communities, people, and history I belong to. I was born on the South Side of Chicago, but Boston is where I came of age. This city is where I toil, write, fret, love, and play. It is most certainly, each day, becoming mine. And, I hope, with each turn of the night sky, I am becoming its.

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Porsha Olayiwola is Boston’s poet laureate. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.