Last Halloween, I went to a party at the apartment of a couple of my friends. The soundtrack was soul music—my favorite. No one was dancing, but I figured if I started, others would soon join me. I started to do my thing and was getting pretty into the music, though every time I snapped out of my reverie and I looked around, I saw a bunch of people standing still, just staring at me, the only black woman in the room.
“You’re a really great dancer,” one of them, a guy I know, said. I didn’t believe him.
“I mean, it’s not that hard?” I said.
“But at least you’re, like, actually dancing,” he said. “Not like…” He looked around the room.
“Everyone’s staring at me,” I said.
“Is that weird?”
I stopped dancing. I didn’t explain why. What began as a moment of pleasure and escape on the dance floor turned into involuntary exhibitionism. I went to high school with a lot of white kids, so I’m used to being the only black person in a room, and I’ve learned how to blend in, to disappear, as much as possible in such settings. Here, suddenly, I was on display. And that uncomfortable feeling of being gawked at while trying to dance and relax reminded me of a loss I still hadn’t gotten over: the loss of my soul nights.
In Chicago, where I live, there was a mini-explosion of soul dance nights at local nightclubs in the mid-naughts. There was Windy City Soul Club, which changed venues three times before settling at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village, where it still goes on once a month. There was Soul Summit, every third Saturday of the month at Double Door in Wicker Park; and Sheer Magic, first Wednesdays at Danny’s in Bucktown. I love soul music and I love dancing, and the combination used to make me so, so happy. I attended all of these parties religiously just to get my fix.
I was raised listening to soul music. It was what was always on in the car on the way to and from school; Saturday mornings were devoted to Herb Kent’s show on V103. He played “dusties,” classic R&B and soul tunes. When a particularly good song—by the Supremes, say, or Baby Washington—came on, my mother would pull the car over to a side street or parking lot so we could all dance together in our seats. If Herb was really on a roll, these dance parties would go on for song after song after song, with no end in sight. My parents’ love for this music was implanted deeply in my sister and me. It was the music of our childhoods. It was also the music of our parents’ childhoods, which made it feel ancient, and essential to who we were.
I’ve carried that love of soul music with me for my whole life, even as I’ve continued to add more-modern stuff to my playlist. In high school I listened to a lot of hip-hop; in college I got into indie rock, a genre I never thought I’d be able to appreciate. I quickly learned that fans of the genre had similar doubts: I remember going to an indie-pop show (it was a duo called the Bird and the Bee) with my friend Barrett as a college junior, and a drunk guy came up to me and said, “What’s a black girl doing at a show like this?”
I was listening to a podcast recently and the hosts were talking about the moment they first realized they were black. Because no matter what, you learn this lesson at some point. I was lucky—I knew I was black as a child, but I didn’t have reason to think much about it until I was in high school. I spent my childhood in Austin, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, so there wasn’t really anything for me to compare myself with. Everyone I knew, practically, was black. While Chicago has a diverse population on the whole, each race is dramatically segregated from the others. It reminds me of my high school cafeteria, where the black, white, Latino, and Asian students each sat at different tables. When I found myself automatically looking for the “black table,” it dawned on me that my blackness was no longer just a description; it was, to the outside world, a marker of meaningful difference.
I remember coming home from high school one day and mentioning to my mother that “all the black kids” ate lunch at 11 AM, and she just said, “Sounds familiar.”
It was around this time that I discovered Windy City Soul Club. That party became a haven for me, a rare space in a hypersegregated city where the races mixed happily and unselfconsciously. It was a tiny room packed with bodies of all shades and all ages, shaking their hips, laughing, united in a feeling of pure joy that I don’t think I’ve experienced since. It felt special. Now, four years later, I wonder if it was all a dream. Because it wasn’t long after that that things started to change, and it felt like a joke was being played on me.
As Windy City Soul Club got more popular, it attracted more press, which in turn brought more curious newcomers. Probably because this press was in papers and magazines with predominantly white readerships, most of the new people were white. The party no longer felt like an even mix of everyone—the balance started to tip toward the young and the white. The dance floor was beginning to feel a lot like my high school cafeteria, with just a handful of black people out there, sticking together, feeling stared at by everyone else.
The same thing was happening at my other favorite spots. Venues were happy to have the extra clientele, who were willing to spend money on cover and drinks. Events that were originally free started charging $10, then $15, then $20, just to get in. “Nightlife photographers” started showing up, and then another wave of newcomers arrived to be photographed by them for blogs.
I started to feel territorial about soul nights. The music, which had been a source of unity, suddenly felt like something that was being stolen from me by outsiders. These people didn’t grow up with it like we did—did they? (I’m sure some of them did.) It was ours. Didn’t they feel strange edging us out of these clubs so they could dance to music made by us? I no longer felt comfortable in these spaces. And I feel uncomfortable admitting all these feelings now.
At my first job out of college, in 2010, I was talking to a co-worker about weekend plans. Another co-worker overheard our conversation and butted in.
“You go to Windy City Soul Club?” he asked me, incredulous.
“Yes. Why?” I replied.
He gave me a once-over. I didn’t like that look. It was the same one I’d gotten from the drunk guy at the Bird and the Bee show a year earlier.
“I just…can’t imagine you there,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked him.
“Oh…you know…” He trailed off. I thought I was going to cry, but I held it in.
As much as we like to pretend otherwise, it is rare for people of different races, especially black and white, to socialize together in Chicago. I get a little misty now when I remember those nights at Windy City Soul Club, when it felt like music was the heartbeat that connected us all. Losing that feels like losing hope in the future. I’m not sure how to get it back. ♦