On a recent spring morning, I drove north on U.S. 59 away from Houston’s teeming traffic and crossed the quiet west fork of the San Jacinto River. Mile by mile, the city slowly gave way to the country. I passed barbecue shacks, prayer tabernacles, and a dirt-bike track where a Confederate flag waved boldly in the breeze. My destination was Cleveland, a poor Piney Woods timber town of about eight thousand people that, besides being the most disgraced community in America right now, happens to be my hometown.
My father used to say that when he crossed the San Jacinto he felt at peace because he was almost home. But despite the clear radiance of light streaming through the double wall of soaring pines, I felt nothing but unease. These days, little binds me to Cleveland—my mother, father, and brother are all dead—but my memories of the place are strong. The Cleveland of my childhood was a small hidden spot where people were shut off from the outside world and hemmed in by a cordon of trees, a community where racism permeated every aspect of our lives. I can recall sitting in church and listening to the white people around me argue about whether black people had souls. That was a long time ago. But some of that old ugliness still hangs like smoke in the heavy boughs of the trees.
You have to take home where it is, but the stigma of shame associated with Cleveland is particularly awful these days. This month, the first of nineteen black boys and young men from Cleveland, ranging in age from 14 to 27, will go on trial on charges in connection with the rape of an 11-year-old Hispanic girl, also from Cleveland. According to the police, the girl was raped on at least six separate occasions last year, between September 15 and December 3. Not since 1998, when James Byrd Jr. was savagely beaten by three white men in nearby Jasper and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, has a crime branded a single town so thoroughly—or terribly. As with the Byrd case, the reactions to the crime have mutated into something larger, something that is no longer just about the victim and her unimaginable suffering.
The crime was of such monstrous proportions that it initially proved challenging even to discuss. The New York Times caused an uproar when, in a March 9 story on the incident, it quoted various locals who noted that the victim looked “older than her age” and dressed in a style “more appropriate to a woman in her twenties.” A national petition demanding an apology from the Times quickly collected 47,000 signatures. Eventually the paper sent its reporter back to Cleveland for a follow-up, this time focusing on the victim, who was described as “an outgoing honor roll student, brimming with enthusiasm, who went on hikes and planted trees with a youth group here.” Meanwhile, Vanesa Brashier, the editor of the Cleveland Advocate, had received scores of angry letters condemning the town (one said that Cleveland deserved to be hit by a nuclear bomb). Tensions flared. Two white men in a pickup truck were seen driving through the center of town shouting, “Niggers, go home!” Quanell X, the controversial Houston community activist, descended on Cleveland to hold a meeting, over the protests of the local police, who urged him to cancel because of “racial unrest between black and Hispanic groups.”
The idea of racial unrest in Cleveland was all too familiar, but the fact that it was between black and Hispanic groups was a new twist. When I was growing up, there were approximately zero Hispanics in Cleveland. Today, Anglo students make up 49 percent of the city’s schools, black students 14 percent, and Hispanic students 36 percent. Jobs in the local industry, timber, are increasingly held by young Hispanic men—although it might be more accurate to say, “what jobs there are.” The one thing a majority of Cleveland’s students, regardless of race, have in common is financial insecurity: Seventy-three percent live at or below the poverty line.
As I drove into the city limits, I saw the first glimpse of Cleveland’s effort to respond to the bad press. A recently erected sign declared “Welcome to Cleveland, Texas. One City Under God! Be blessed going in and going out.” The second of those sentiments was easy to doubt. I had arrived on the weekend before a municipal election that, like every aspect of life in Cleveland, had become racially charged. In fact, it was fair to say that it had become a flash point for all the anger and frustration that had boiled over following the news of the rape. On the ballot was an initiative to recall three black members—Barbara McIntyre, Durlene Davis, and Cedric McDuffie—of the five-member city council. Though the recall effort began in October 2010, before the crime was reported, McIntyre, a 51-year-old realtor who has served six years on the city council, claimed the recall was motivated by racism. “They want to recall us because of our race, not our ability,” she said. “There is white backlash from the rape case. The leaders of this effort are using negative fallout from this tragedy to unseat the first majority-black council in Cleveland’s history.” Stan Jones, a longtime dentist and former mayor who led the recall effort, said financial mismanagement—not race—was the issue. The council members were “spending money like inebriated sailors,” he told the Houston Chronicle. (The city’s coffers are currently low, with only about fifty days of operational budget on reserve, as opposed to the one hundred days state officials would prefer to see.)
Either way, the painful fact that the leadership of Cleveland’s first majority-black city council was being called into question at the very moment that nineteen young black men were being put on trial for a horrendous crime had dredged up all sorts of ancient prejudices. Miranda Clay-Brown, the press secretary for McIntyre, cautioned me against driving through Cleveland’s black neighborhood, Precinct