A Riff of Love | Greg Jarrell

A Riff of Love

The following is an excerpt from A Riff of Love by Greg Jarrell. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Prologue: Track 01
Right now I am doing exactly what good white people teach good white boys like me not to do.

I am walking alone in what my peers would classify as one of the worst neighborhoods in Charlotte. It is late, nearing midnight. I do not exactly know when I will return, nor did I leave information on my whereabouts with anyone else. I am not particularly worried or especially alert. I have no way of defending myself. The first stop on my journey is to knock on the door of a house that my neighbors tell me is the local trap house. That is a residence managed by an entrepreneur in the business of pharmaceutical sales, which is to say, you can buy drugs at the trap house. They generally keep a good house party going most of the time, and I am about to crash it. My mother would not approve of this scenario.

I am not looking for a fix. I am trying to find Monique. She does not keep the most savory company. I am looking for her because I want to find her son Anthony, who is supposed to start summer camp tomorrow. He is a first-grader experiencing homelessness, and right now the likelihood is that he and his mom are temporarily staying in this trap house. The summer camp is a great offer for him, given by a local church who puts on a high- quality program for Anthony’s peers every summer.

I knock on the door, a little annoyed that our planned meeting earlier did not take place. As I am knocking, the recognition that I am transgress- ing several boundaries is starting to work up through my body. A little sweat on the back. A tremble in the hands. Stomach clenching into knots. I am afraid. Standing still for a moment helps me to feel it. I do not want to feel this way, but fears grip tightly. They bury themselves deep in bones, arising in unexpected ways and inconvenient times. Late night at the door of the trap house is as good a place as any to contemplate these things.

There’s not long to reflect. The door opens, and the guy on the other side looks back from under his flat-brimmed hat, pulled down to his eye- brows. His eyes are barely visible, but they register some fear also. I am not what he expected to see.

A gentle thickening of the Southern accent can help soften tense moments, something Southerners learn just by drinking the water here. It hap- pens automatically, without planning or thought. “Hey man. I’m sorry to be interruptin’ you this late. I’m lookin’ for Monique, and I heard she might be ‘round here at the moment.” I have no idea how the doorman receives my stretched-out drawl. It comforts me, though.

To my surprise, he invites me in. I did not expect a welcome. I thought I may be perceived as a nuisance, or suspected as a cop ready to break up the business. “I don’t know who that is,” in reference to Monique, seemed to be a likely response, something to protect everyone. The best case scenario I imagined just a moment ago is that I would be left on the porch, and she would come outside. But now I am inside.

I guess every trap house proprietor has a unique style of decoration. Perhaps a sparse minimalism. Maybe shabby chic, or cool modernism. This particular one chose to go for the frat house look. The featured piece is a couch that looks to have made several laps through the secondhand store. Michael Jordan sails mid-flight above the couch. He glides over two young men staring at the flat screen across the room, choreographing its millions of pixels into a virtual football game. There is a recycle bin full of beer cans. Eco-friendly drug dealers—who knew? The lights are dim, the curtains drawn, and the noise of a rowdy card game spills in from the next room.

It all looks surprisingly fun. And it seems so normal—young adults up late playing video games and drinking cheap beer. This scene inspires fear? The house has a reputation for trouble, but there is none of that at the moment. My stomach has not unknotted itself all the way yet, but I am settling in and have decided that if someone offers me one of those beers, I’ll take it. My host walks to the back of the house, grasping the back of his jeans with his right hand as he goes to hold his pants onto his slim frame. He knocks on the back bedroom door while I lean against the front wall taking it all in. He waits, knocks again, and then finally stops being patient and just opens the door to interrupt. The folks in the room are loud, so he shouts over them, “Monique!”

Into the silence that follows, he says, “There’s a white man at the door to see you.”

There’s that knot in my stomach again. Tighter this time. The back of my t-shirt is getting wet.

In the world I’m from, we don’t say things like “white man.” White is normative. It can safely be assumed. Whiteness need not be spoken. No—it ought not be spoken. Calling me a white man is not only unnecessary, it is plain old impolite. To my ears, modifiers about race are only needed when a non-white person is involved. There are Black-owned businesses, Black churches, Latino credit unions, Asian restaurants, the “ethnic” foods aisle at the grocery store, and so on, but nothing gets labelled “white.” It is assumed that white is regular, normal even. The code is clear, although the specifics of it are unwritten. Whiteness should not be named. Unless, of course, one is looking to create a scene. Which is what I have here now.

Hearing “white” sends all my discomfort rushing back. I am transgressing boundaries to be in this space. All of my racial assumptions come with me, though I do not yet know about many of them. I assume a reason- able measure of safety, a safety partly assured by my whiteness. The well- known barrier that stands guard around this space is insufficient to keep me on the outside. To knock on the door is an opportunity I am entitled to, despite the fact that many of my neighbors would not dare attempt it. I bring my whole self when I knock on that door, even though there is a lot of myself I do not know about. I’m learning now.

“White.” It sounds so aggressive when he says it. I wonder if this was a good idea after all, to come here and have my fragility shattered. I’m just trying to do good. But this young man, so that everybody can hear it, has named for me the obvious thing that I am hoping no one will notice. Some- how I wanted my whiteness to be the miracle salve for all racial discomfort—everybody be calm, there’s a white guy here! I hold a near-religious belief that it is powerful enough both not to be noticed, and at the same time to be the reassurance of the benevolence of the universe.

I have crossed barriers to get here. My host is doing the same in return. He has stepped across one of my boundaries—one I have never been confronted with in this manner, one I scarcely knew I had. We are encountering one another in an unusual and vulnerable way. The trap house seems like a fortress from the outside. It is a place of danger. There are drugs. Word on the street is that there are guns as well. One does not just carelessly knock on the door. The house inspires fear around the neighborhood. No one knows what may be happening inside.

Now I am seeing the chinks in the armor. This place is vulnerable, and my presence is heightening the feeling of vulnerability. These people are outcasts of society. Some are homeless and are being taken in. Many have gone through the humiliation of arrest and prosecution, their bodies being taken from them and warehoused in undesirable places. They have been controlled, treated as menaces. With records and rap sheets, only illicit work and under-the-table odd jobs remain as reasonable options. Why not go into sales? There is at least the illusion of safety in this house, and if not safety then a chance to forget for a little while. I am disturbing a refuge of the heavy-laden.

I am scared and wondering whether this was the right idea. He is scared and wondering whether I will be bringing this gathering to a halt. We are acting out a drama that has been happening on this land since my ancestors first brought his ancestors here by kidnapping and rape and murder. Our bodies know this even if our minds cannot speak it. We have our parts memorized without anyone ever passing out the script. For my part, the fear of Blackness comes silently—not by nature, but by wordless teach- ing. No one ever told me to perceive danger in dark skin, but all my people learn the lesson and pass the test. The idea that a house party is dangerous never crossed my mind in my lily-white college. In a Black neighborhood, I suppose it to be one step from a riot.

My host has learned the script as well, though likely for him by personal experience and not surreptitious rumor. He is afraid that I may be a cop, or that I might call the cops, or that my invasion of this space is an initial step towards his eventual displacement from it by the mysterious forces of The Market. His fears are well-founded, learned through generations of experience. We are performing a drama that we did not choose, that we cannot escape. And so here we stand, afraid. We can do no other.

Trap house. Midnight. There’s a white man here to see you. And then Victor, a neighbor and friend who I have known for a year or so, steps away from the card game and into the front room to see who the strange white man is. He finishes swallowing his most recent sip of beer, and shouts to the back of the house, “That’s not a white man. That’s Brother Greg.”

Praise for A Riff of Love

“This book reads like a series of profound prayer walks, with Greg taking us into homes and parks and street corners we might not otherwise have access to. Through vivid, evocative language, and a propensity for connecting history to the present day, Greg made me fall in love with his neighborhood. There is no need quite so pressing as the challenge to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves in an unequal and unjust country such as the US, and Greg approaches this task with wisdom, humility, and humor.”
—D.L. Mayfield, author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

“Greg Jarrell provides readers unique insight on issues related to racism, housing segregation, gentrification, and community building from his firsthand experiences as a community organizer on the ground in Charlotte, North Carolina … He moves it from the theoretical to the concrete by focusing on the humanity of those impacted by racial inequality, and includes an examination of his own personal learning process.”
—Bree Newsome, American filmmaker, musician, speaker, and activist from Charlotte, North Carolina

“Greg’s book reads like jazz: the rhythm and flow pull you into a whole different part of your heart and mind. And that’s a good thing, because it helps us be present to things we might rather avoid but need to confront for the sake of our babies, the sake of our communities, and the sake of our humanity. What a gift to take this journey.”
—Sandhya Jha, author of Transforming Communities: How People Like You are Healing Their Neighborhoods

“Participate in an inspiring spiritual drama in search of the ‘blue note,’ with scales and scores which soar beyond boundaries of injustice and the underground economy. Join in this session of transformation, hopefulness, and a conversation about a strange land in a familiar neighborhood. Enderly Park is continuously fresh and engaging, turn around once more, ‘one more once’ and gaze through broken windows seeing we are all one.”
—Clifford A. Jones, Senior Minister, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church

“Greg … weaves together experiences from life in a radical Christian community with unexpected insights from his work as a saxophonist to tell a love story about the people of Enderly Park. This is one of the most human books I’ve read in a long while, and I heartily recommend it.”
—Mark Van Steenwyk, founder, Center for Prophetic Imagination

“Greg Jarrell walks the walk through his high-poverty Charlotte neighborhood, learning the names behind the statistics, finding jazz and Jesus in their stories. If you want to hold onto prejudices about what poor people are like, this book is not for you. It’s for the open-minded, and open-hearted, and for all of us who want to understand our fellow human beings a little better.”
—Tommy Tomlinson, author of the forthcoming Elephant in the Room

“Once every few years, a book appears that makes Christians and Churches notice that, Yes, we’ve been doing some nice and good things—but why haven’t we been doing this? With simplicity, compassion, and courage, Greg shows us how to be the people of God in obvious ways we’ve missed. We might say this book is ‘well-written,’ but great writing is nothing more than great living and taking the time to tell about it. I think Jesus would say, Yeah, this is what I was talking about.”
—James Howell, Senior Minister, Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina

About the Author

Greg Jarrell

Greg Jarrell is co-founder and Chief Door Answerer at QC Family Tree, a community of rooted discipleship in the west Charlotte neighborhood of Enderly Park. Greg shares life there with a host of neighbors who have become family, as well as his wife Helms and sons John Tyson and Zeb.

Greg’s work with neighbors in Enderly Park focuses on building from their gifts, creating economic opportunity, and combating serial displacement and land loss in a rapidly changing neighborhood. Greg can also be found around Charlotte playing saxophone. He regularly performs in concert and club venues across North and South Carolina in jazz, classical, and commercial settings. His recent release “How Bright the Path,” in collaboration with Richmond-based pianist Jim Bennett, features spirituals, blues, and popular standards.

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