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The politics of home

Homeownership has always been fraught for black Americans. My teen son reminded me decor choices can be, too

When it came to flexing my muscle as a “picker,” a term used lovingly by design dealers to describe an expert in the art of acquiring vintage pieces, one of my big wins was a tangerine-velvet sofa. The piece was meant to be resold, but instead ended up in my living room, along with a precious Peshawar rug.

My teenage son’s reaction to the couch was a wry “Black people don’t have orange couches.” That the sofa isn’t actually orange didn’t keep his statement from sending me reeling. How could a young man who has grown up with all of the trappings of American comfort box himself in aesthetically and spatially? And what, exactly, did his sentiment mean?

Though his remark was offhand, it made it clear that my son had already absorbed the idea that certain spaces, expressions, and ways of living were off limits to him. It was beyond simply not liking the sofa. He placed a limitation on himself based on an external narrative dictating how he was supposed to live.

Those limitations didn’t come from me or my husband. I was raised by a Caribbean family with a serious traditionalist streak. He was born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, by a power-feminist artist mother from Georgia. My grandfather was a real estate developer and owned a real estate auction house in Jamaica. My grandparents kept a beautiful and immaculate home; homeownership was a core value for them. My father and his brothers arrived in the States in the ’60s and were able to secure lucrative union jobs that allowed them to purchase property at a time when federal laws and segregationist real estate practices denied African-Americans mortgages.

An obsession with home, land, architecture, and the right to dictate the quality of one’s personal space was subconsciously hard-wired in me through decades of family conversations, acquisitions, disputes, and even losses of land. My family history also gave me an awareness of the stark and systemic disenfranchisement that’s deeply rooted in the African-American experience of homeownership.

What did it mean to be released from slavery and then ushered into sharecropping, where your living quarters were dictated by someone else? How did one muster the courage—and the means—during that time to purchase land? What did it mean for the government to bar an entire group of people from access to federal programs that facilitated and promoted home ownership (a.k.a. the American dream)? How does all of this shape one’s relationship to interior spaces and architecture?

I don’t have the answers, but these questions haunt me daily.

Early on, my husband’s and my disparate aesthetic ideals got me thinking about the politics of home life. After all, how we live is informed by both our personal history and our cultural context. And this relationship can be especially fraught for black Americans, even ones like me, for whom homeownership is central to family history.

For me and my husband, these differences cropped up in ways big and small. There was, for instance, my obsession with weekend-morning cleaning: In my youth, Saturdays were for scouring tubs, cleaning sinks, dusting tabletops, and vacuuming straight lines into plush carpets. For him, my Saturday habit was mind-numbing. He was raised in a domestic environment that favored freedom and fluidity over the kind of rigor to which I was accustomed.

Fast-forward through 18 years of happy marriage, two houses, and a few couches, and we’d reconciled many of those differences, even as I immersed myself in the art and design industries and my tastes changed. I began to labor over every purchase as my passion for design became an expression of radical ideas and personal manifestos. “Why can’t you go to Crate & Barrel and buy a room of furniture like a normal person?” my husband would chide when spaces in our home were left unfinished (if I am honest, many remained unfinished) as I hunted for the perfect pieces of vintage furniture or sought out contemporary design objects, pursuits that require time, patience, and investment. As I aged, individual furniture purchases continued to feel like bold statements of self.

The security of homeownership—and the enjoyment of beautiful spaces—still feels like an act of defiance in the face of rights once denied. With black homeownership at a 50-year low, the effects of multigenerational disenfranchisement still plague our country, our hearts, and our minds—right down to the furniture we feel allowed to have in our homes. The details of how this came to be might not be taught in school history lessons, but our lived experiences point to the idea that African-American control of three-dimensional spaces is still political, and revolutionary. This tension has galvanized me in my effort to create a personal sanctuary that reflects my experience—tangerine-velvet sofa and all.

Tiana Webb Evans is an art, design, and culture writer. She is the founder of communications and brand strategy agency ESP Group and new digital journal Yard Concept.