Researching Safety by the Numbers

My late husband didn’t like cars so even though we traveled extensively, we never drove anywhere. I learned how to drive and probably could have made more of an effort to, but I had at least two good reasons for not doing it. One, I live in New York City where you honest to goodness don’t need a car. I mean like, at all. Two, if I had a car, I might just disappear.

That sounds a little mysterious doesn’t it? I’m serious though. I have never heard a word that describes one of the primary elements of my personality better than wanderlust. Going somewhere with no other game plan but the desire to go appeals to me on every level. If I were a criminal I’m definitely the type who would fake her own death and wind up in shades on the white sandy beach of an exotic isle drinking some icy fuchsia concoction.

My husband liked having a wife and consequently didn’t mind at all that I didn’t have a getaway vehicle.

That’s the biggest problem with disappearing I’ve found. Attachments. Whether it’s people, pets, children, homes, responsibilities there’s always something that can tether you to a particular place or state of being. Staying home now in these strange times has collectively made us feel those attachments all the more strongly.

Lately though for the first time in a long time I’m feeling decidedly unattached and thinking about buying a car I’ll need a license for. All I need is a place to go that I’ll feel safe and harmonious with my surroundings. Not so easy in America 2020.

My first real perceptions about the United States of America were built on the Civil Rights Movement. I learned early that racism and economic disparities were global but being from New York I also was taught about Emmitt Till and that I should fear going south in this country. Racism and poverty in New York was marginally safer.

With age and education my perceptions changed of course. The pervasiveness of reality TV in part taught me that living in New York is like living in a bubble of diversity and overt liberalism. That’s not as much fun or freeing as it sounds. When you live in a bubble the downside is there’s always a chance that someone outside the bubble might stick a metaphorical pin in it.

Also I rarely say this out loud or in writing, but New York isn’t perfect. There are a lot of people, there’s probably not enough spaciousness for those who crave it, and it’s expensive. Still, as a Black woman who mostly lives alone, in NYC I feel both creative stimulation and safe.

I was reminded of this when a friend recently posted in my favorite FB group a request for vacation recommendations in a particular area of the country that would feel safe for a Black woman traveling alone with children. That led to someone making another duplicate post with a similar request but in a different area of the country. I wish I could say I was surprised by these requests. If anything I felt a little sorrow about the thoroughly understandable cautiousness. Particularly because it once again reminded me of something I myself have been doing for the last three years.

Ever since it became clear Ms. Z would be graduating from college I’ve been considering selling out, packing up and moving out of my city. Sometimes I think I want to be somewhere cheaper or sometimes I think it needs to be somewhere with less people. Sometimes I just want to be even closer to a large body of water or a pristine forest than I already am. But there came a day where my priorities in finding a new place to live changed.

I was talking to Ms. Z and I made a joke about buying a house and moving out to Wyoming. Wyoming for me being the equivalent of the middle of fucking nowhere. Also Wyoming only sounded appealing to my introvert’s heart because I remembered someone explaining that it was the one state that literally had the most square footage between human bodies. Don’t believe me? Think back over the last few months. Exactly how many times have you heard on the news about an overrun of Covid cases or a problem social distancing in Wyoming?

My daughter being the deliciously sour dill pickle that she is had an immediate response to my declaration. “Are there any Black people in Wyoming?” Hmm… My musing about that question might have ended there except then we went to dinner at my mother-in-law’s a week later and Ms. Z outed my absurd fantasy about living in Wyoming to her Irish grandmother, who also had an immediate response. “Are there any Black people in Wyoming?”

Never one to put off an opportunity for procrastination I started doing my research. Where are all the Black people in America? Turns out the place that I actually fantasized about moving to for real, Montana, (What can I say? I’m not a cowgirl but I do like horses and wide open spaces.) has a lot in common with the potential fantasy home I joked about, Wyoming. Both states according to the 2010 census has a 1% Black population. For the record that measures somewhere between four and five thousand Black Americans in each state. Now I’ve been the only Black person at a party, that wasn’t serving something, several times but imagine feeling that way in a whole state. What the heck must that be like?

Thinking about it put off my new home hunting for a year because that same census told me that while New York’s Black population may only be 15% of it’s overall population there are still over 3 million Black Americans in my state. That means there are literally more people who look like me in this state than any other state in the country. No wonder I feel safe. And no wonder, so often people who don’t live here have a knee-jerk snarky remark at the ready when talking about New York.

There are other states that have a similar dichotomy in the numbers e.g. Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California are all states where Black people number in the millions but the overall percentages belie the strength of those communities. My favorite reversal of this trend is when looking at real estate in the US Virgin Islands where the sky meets the sea and everything in between is still radiant. Why? Because even though the USVI only has a Black American population of eighty thousand souls they make up nearly 80% of the overall population. Hmm…Africa lite? And I don’t need a passport or to change my medical insurance?

I for one can’t wait to see how the 2020 American census numbers come out. What’s shifted in the decade that has seen such disparate leadership at the helm? What’s changed now that we’ve experienced both the unmasking of white supremacy as well as the largest and most inclusive protests on racial inequality this country has ever seen?

Yeah, there are other benefits to this kind of research. For one thing in such an important election year the numbers do help you to understand the stakes better in each state. Heck, maybe it could even shed some light on the electoral college. Nah—scratch that. That shit show will always be mystifying and make no damn sense.

As a fiction writer I will never feel that researching potential settings for my characters is a waste of my time however needlessly distracting it might appear to be. In fact, another side benefit to doing research for places you might like to live in is that it’s some of the loveliest and relaxing kind of daydreaming in a pandemic. Besides it’s always good to know where you might be accepted and feel at home.

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