The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan was in office. The country was facing a recession. MTV was bursting onto the scene with a hot new visual music medium and a group called the Sugar Hill Gang was introducing the world to hip hop with their smash hit, “Rapper’s Delight.”
For my family, it was the year my parents made one of the biggest sacrifices and best decisions of their lives. My mom, an insurance auditor and my dad, an entrepreneur — both immigrants from Jamaica, changed the trajectory of our family’s life with a five-mile move within New Jersey to South Orange.
It was quite the culture shock. Columbia High School was like the set of a John Hughes film, with every character from the Breakfast Club in each scene: I discovered a whole new world of jocks and nerds, stoners and preps, artsy-alternative kids and designer-clad fashion plates. But what blew my 14 year old mind the most was the small but influential Black student body who rocked their feathered bobs, Members Only jackets and stone-washed Calvins with swagger — and Polo cologne.
The Black South Orange teen scene in the 80s was a unique cultural hybrid that I’d never seen before. It was a mashup of SAT prep classes, track meets, cheerleading and band practice mixed with MLK club, dance performances that rivaled Fame and basement house parties thrown by cleverly-named cliques like “The Mugs” and the “Kahlua Krew” (of which yours truly was a founding member!).
We were a generation raised to follow in our parents’ footsteps and carry on traditions of high achievement and upward mobility. As a small minority of Black Gen Xers, we were suburban but with just enough urban-adjacency to be “woke” (before woke was a thing). We grew up watching “Roots.” We knew about Malcolm and Martin and apartheid South Africa. We were raised in homes with Black art on the walls and jazz, reggae, or rhythm and blues spinning on vinyl in our living rooms. Many of our families belonged to established Black churches, sororities, fraternities, and social and civic organizations like Jack & Jill, The Links, NAACP and The Urban League.
Some of us lived in Montrose Victorians, Newstead Colonials and Tuxedo Park Tudors during the school year and vacationed in Sag Harbor and Martha’s Vineyard cottages over the summer.
Yet, even in a community as socioeconomically progressive as South Orange, where African Americans historically earned more per capita than their white counterparts, our parents weren’t naïve about the realities of race and its potential impact on their families.
South Orange wasn’t always a shining example of easy integration. In the mid-80s, The New York Times' piece “Racial Incidents Beset Two Towns” documented a rash of racial vandalism in South Orange and Maplewood. It took diligence on the part of our community’s earliest Black families, who worked tirelessly toward it, to create a legacy of race and class equity.
It is because of this strong spirit of cultural pride and empowered self-determination that I have such deep appreciation for my South Orange upbringing. It’s no surprise to me that we have so many local Hall of Famers of color (from Grammy award winner Lauryn Hill to Olympians Joetta Clark and Ibtihaj Muhammad). Many of us who once strolled through Columbia High’s D-Wing (known affectionately as “Harlem”) have gone on to become accomplished doctors, executives, principals, attorneys, artists and entrepreneurs.
That’s why, when considering where to relocate after years living in the Midwest and the Southeast, I opted to return home to South Orange. There’s no crystal ball to predict how a community will evolve over time. Sometimes, neighborhoods thrive or go through revitalization. Other times, property values plummet.
The impressive thing about South Orange is that it has maintained a relative degree of consistency. It’s kept its tree-lined, gas-lamped charm and adapted with the times. I can’t say enough about our current Village President, Sheena Collum! Her dynamic social and political vision and her passion for progressive action have made it a pleasure to call The Village home again.
After considering other diverse communities like Montclair, where I’d had an apartment in the late 90s, I decided that South Orange really had everything I wanted. As executive vice president of the multicultural beauty brand IMAN Cosmetics, it was a breeze hopping the Midtown Direct train to and from work when our offices were in Manhattan. Then, when I transitioned to working from home, I was thrilled to discover Work & Play, a women-owned childcare/shared workspace just blocks from my home in (the newly branded) Seton Village. I was, and continue to be, very encouraged to see the creative entrepreneurial spirit of women and POC alive and well in our area. Half of my friends in town have their own businesses.
I’ve also felt very encouraged and supported by our local cultural and civic action organizations. SOMA Justice, SOMA Action Racial Justice Committee and South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race have all provided valuable resources to help our community through difficult years of social and political upheaval. While so many communities felt deeply polarized by partisan and ideological rifts, it has been a godsend having thoughtful gathering places and outspoken acts of social consciousness in this community. Coming together with neighbors of all backgrounds to light candles, listen to each other’s stories, share our cultures, our struggles and our celebrations has helped me maintain my faith in humanity.
Last, but not least, the thing I’ve enjoyed most about life in South Orange is its dynamic creative and artistic vibe. As a beauty and lifestyle marketer and writer, being in a creative environment is extremely important to me. Culture, nature and the arts are my biggest inspirations. So, it’s been wonderful having access to the Valley Arts District, SOPAC, The South Mountain Blues Festival, and the SOMA Arts Tour without having to go into NYC. I also appreciate having yoga and dance studios, bookstores, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, farmers markets, wellness centers and the entire expanse of South Mountain Reservation practically in my backyard.
It’s been great seeing diverse young families move into South Orange and I’ve made wonderful new friends. I don’t have children of my own, but if I did, I’d be thrilled to raise them in this community. It has warmed my heart to see antiracism signs displayed on my neighbors’ lawns and LGBTQ flags waving in our Village square. It’s even more meaningful knowing that these aren’t just trendy gestures that came along with our most recent residents.
Before the internet even existed, sentiments of social justice were a part of this community. Of course, there is always work to be done – each time a White supremacy group tries to post a flyer in our train station, or a swastika gets painted on an overpass or a teacher discriminates against a student of color – it’s time to up the ante on our commitment to a safe and equitable community. When I say “Hate Has No Home Here!” I mean it; and for the most part, so do most of us who are proud to call South Orange home.
Karen Chambers is a senior business and branding strategist who serves as executive vice president of the multicultural beauty brand, IMAN Cosmetics. She is a coauthor of the book Beauty Stories from Around the World, an anthology that decolonizes western concepts of beauty and style. She is a writer, speaker and advocate for cultural diversity and inclusion who lectures at universities and conferences and serves as an international advisor to corporate and nonprofit organizations. Born in Jamaica and raised in NJ, she is a graduate of Rutgers University’s Douglass College and proud to call South Orange home.
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