“It Would Help if You Changed It”
Canopy Atlanta Fellow Ann Pellegrine writes about coming of age alongside Forest Park’s growing pains—and the truths left untold.
Story by Ann Pellegrine
November 17, 2021
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
It would help if you changed it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
It would help if you changed it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped, and strange,
what would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?
— Adrienne Rich
In 1983, Forest Park High School graduates gathered at Tara Stadium, our beloved football field named to commemorate the home of Scarlett O’Hara—the fictional heroine of a fictional South in a fictional book. Gone With The Wind was, after all, our de facto textbook for state history. I was among the rows of students in my white gown, full face of makeup from a Merle Norman makeover, and Legg pantyhose in suntan shade. I was not an astute scholar, wore no cords, played no sport, received no special recognition. Not unless you count being crowned Miss Boom Boom. It was a tradition established by the longtime and well-loved choir director. At the beginning of each school year, senior females were nominated based on their cup size. Miss Boom Boom was to shimmy her shakers during the cymbal crashes of our school’s fight song. It was a humiliating year-long experience.
Before this “endowment,” I had quit the band after being in the program since fifth grade because I wanted to protest against our band director who had lined up the entire band to look inside our uniform tops to “verify” we were wearing white underwear. I had made a similar protest at age 11 when my drunk grandfather showed the same inappropriate interest in this part of my anatomy. I knew in my gut it was wrong, and said so, but no one did anything. We were taught not to talk about such things just as we were taught to attend church every Sunday. High school had prepared me to understand conformity. We were the “Pride” of Forest Park.
By the ’90s, I had been married, divorced, remarried, and stumbled through a few secretarial courses at Junior College as well as through a lot of drugs and alcohol. My social life took priority in the streets of Atlanta. Church was attending concerts at the Tabernacle. The Braves went to the World Series. The nightclubs of the day were havens of excess. Time spent with “north side” friends meant limousine rides, afterparty hotel rooms, and access to the best your connections had to offer. The bathrooms had girls lined in front of mirrors like porcelain doll-faced beauties powdering their noses and freshening their lipstick with dilated eyes. It looked like a Robert Palmer video. I never worried about a thing. I’d go to work the next day and lazily sip coffee in front of my 50th anniversary commemorative poster of GWTW until I felt the obligation to begin the workday. At five o’clock, I would leave the office and repeat the entire process again.
One night, it caught up to me. I was arrested and faced felony drug charges. My family rescued me after a few hours but I was in the jail long enough to see I was the only one like me there. I turned my nose up to a very unappetizing dried-out bologna sandwich and warm orange soda. My temporary roommates were kinder than I deserved. A well known local attorney disappeared into the courtroom on trial day and returned with a plea deal that freed me with a small fine and a clean record under the state First Offender Act. I went back to work as if nothing happened. No one spoke of it. The local paper was never delivered to work that week. It later occurred to me that many of the Black women I saw in jail had done far less and would be in jail far longer. I thought about it a lot during my probation which I followed carefully although no officer would ever come to check on me. This is white privilege. I thought I was lucky.
In the new millennium I worked on myself. Fueled by guilt and appreciation, I took my job and the work I did more seriously which put me in direct contact with families and children in my hometown. I learned to be a better, more empathetic listener. As I was changing, so was Forest Park. White flight took economic stability and left in its place a garbage-transfer station. Prosperity was replaced with poverty. By 2009, after the school system temporarily lost accreditation and the housing crisis hit, it was a complete shock to anyone white that I would remain living here. During a wedding reception attended by sport loving rich “northside” friends, a white businessman erupted in laughter upon hearing my discussion of our city’s future train station. He said it would never happen—and he was right. I rode home with my new teacher husband in a Hyundai with no AC and a check engine light pondering my past. As state-level educators studied disproportionate placement of Black students into special education, socioeconomic challenges scared Forest Park. A demolished Main Street was the reminder of what had not changed.
In 2021 Forest Park, we still play football games at Tara and Twelve Oaks Stadiums. We still drive on the Old Dixie Highway. Although we never got a train or rapid transit or new business on the ruins of Main Street, here is where Black and Brown joy lives. Long disenfranchised residents are establishing trust in a system only recently represented by someone who looks like them or talks like them and recognizes the needs of those who live here. It’s a kind of joy that words fail to describe. It’s a vibe. This is the best of Forest Park. The authentic present-day Forest Park is engaged more than critics are aware. This is the root. This is the community that didn’t leave and has continued to grow more diverse and interesting despite decades of neglect and lurking gentrification. This joy exists despite white efforts to destroy it. This is the root of the root and the worst of Forest Park. Holding oneself accountable for the way we show up in the world matters. Speaking truth upsets systems of white supremacy. Being silent changes nothing. You may not change the opinion of any other white folks but you’ll change yourself and that’s a start. ♦