Living Black in Bloomington-Normal: Brandon Bell
Brandon Bell grew up in Normal and now resides in St. Louis.
Bell spoke with Ariele Jones for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
What do you want to talk about?
Well, I felt like the first two individuals that were introduced in this series are my brother and my cousin. You know, there was a lot of feedback from our peer group regarding how proud people were to lend their voice to kind of talk about the Black experience in Bloomington, which is something that is very unique. My brother being a teacher is at the forefront of some of the protesting going on in Bloomington in, and I would consider him a leader in the community because he is a teacher and because so many students that pass through Normal Community High School really enjoy having him as a teacher.
So, I kind of wanted to kind of tell my story because while we grew up in the same household, I think our experiences were very different. A lot of it to do with our personalities, but also just it's an evolution in time. I'm four years older than my brother and in that four years, my experiences in Bloomington are very different than his, some of them personal choices by me, but a lot of things in the community just kind of changed. And so …
Tell me about your personality. What are a couple of things that make you a little bit different from your brother?
Well, I am very demonstrative. I'm very outspoken. I was never the one to keep quiet. I was labeled disruptive in school and that was something that kind of bothered me … and a lot of my peers can speak to that … to the way I was treated a little bit because I am very outspoken.
I'm an avid reader. We read a lot in my family … spent a lot of times actually reading encyclopedias. I read the news daily all across the world and lo and behold, when I was in college, I actually worked for an NPR affiliate station in Illinois … Edwardsville. So, I've always been a talker and very outspoken about the things that I see. And so I just wanted to contribute so people can kind of hear the differences between two Black people in the same household in the same community, but have a very different experience. And again, obviously those things happen because we're two different people but then there's the change. Like I mentioned, the change in the community and how my peer group is very different than what my brother's peer group is.
I was just listening to one of his really good friends, Calvin Jones, who also talked about some of his experiences, and I'm listening to his experiences and I remember talking to him, "Man, I can't believe they're treating you that way, because you're not like that at all." Just the label that he had and he's a big strong kid, but he's always been the nicest kid and just like listening to him talk about some of his experiences in junior high. That was really bothersome thinking back on it … like being older hearing him talking about it, hearing my brother come like, "Man, I don't know why they keep treating Calvin like this. He is the nicest dude ever."
I just wanted to kind of speak my truth a little bit. One of the things that is also unique in your series is that I have come across most of these people that have been presented for this, and I think that speaks to the size of our community and our want and our desire to always kind of stay close and interact with each other that are similar to us. That's something that's very prevalent in our community; something that I've always enjoyed, even though from the outside it would it seem like that. If you're looking, I don't think people would realize that we all come across each other and we all engage each other and we all we've all kind of had this story we wanted to tell about growing up Black in Bloomington.
Because I live in St. Louis now and the conversation that I have with the people here, they just wouldn't believe that I came from a place like Bloomington and I always say, “You wouldn't believe where I came from.”
What does that mean to come from Bloomington, to grow up in Bloomington and then to add on being Black in Bloomington? What is that experience?
So, we're an upper middle-class community. There's just no way around that because of State Farm being headquartered in the community as well as having Country Companies. We had Mitsubishi Motors; Eureka used to be there. We have the Nestle plant on the outskirts of town. So we have what essentially is an affluent community and because of that there is … the dangers that impact larger communities just don't really exist in Bloomington until recently, I would say. But growing up here is very safe. There's a lot of … I was very naive growing up, just not realizing how different it was once you step outside the bubble that is Bloomington.
Growing up here, there was just things that you didn't have to worry about like when I would visit Chicago. My parents are from Chicago, and when we would go back to Chicago, I didn't even know white people existed in Chicago. And it wasn't until one time we went to the lakefront and I was blown away by the fact that there were actually white people in Chicago. When I would go visit my cousins up there, they would say, "You talk white," and the thing is, in listening to other Black men speak on this, we all have a very similar dialect. And a lot of that just has to do with us growing up there and it's not a thing of speaking “proper” or anything, we just speak how we learned, and to some people that sounds white. To us, it just sounds normal.
When you go somewhere else, how did that affect you coming back to the home base, when Bloomington-Normal was your home base?
I grew up 710 in West Orlando, which is on the northside of Normal. It's low income housing. One of the things for me early on … is in the community outside of school and outside of shopping … what I came home to every day was a group of hard-working Black people trying to find their way in a predominantly white community.
My experiences growing up were no different than anybody growing up in Chicago. I mean, it was us, it was uniquely us. We carved out this space and I would say that growing up that way gave me a very traditional Black experience. Barbecues every Sunday, double-dutch, freeze tag, all those games. I was going to say “hood games” and what not, but they're games that kids of every race play. Growing up in Bloomington, people wouldn't think that you have that. Now people would always say “oh Sunnyside” or “Wood Hill” that's where that was it, and now Orlando. But Orlando was different even then than it is now growing up. And it's a very, very interesting because growing up in Orlando, the goal was to leave those circumstances, and it was weird because when you would cross Main Street to go to Fairview Elementary, where I went to elementary school with my peers, "Oh, you guys come from Orlando," but for us it was like, we just go to school with you guys, that's home. We go to school with you, but this is home.
And matter of fact, there were two white families there with kids my age and they were great guys. Those dudes … we're still friends and we can still reach out and speak with them and just laugh about growing up, and they had the opposite for them when they came home, and there was that dynamic here.
Now I want I want to know the difference between you and your brother.
So being the oldest, and then being the first one out there … first off, me and my brother have different last names and that was something that was definitely an issue. And I remembered when I would be in class, one incident in fifth grade, actually I'll never forget it. A teacher literally argued with me about my last name being Bell.
Like, “well, that's not your brother's last name.”
I'm like, "I know, that's my last name."
“Well, I don't believe you.”
And that really bothered me. That was something that once he got to the age where he was in school, and then identified as being siblings, that stigma of having different last names was something that actually always kind of bothered me a little bit, very much so. And my peers, when they get opportunities to listen to this, they'll know … they'll understand because again, I'm very outspoken and I've always spoken out about these things since I was in second grade. Very vivid memories of being treated a little different in school. Again, because I'm outspoken …. because I don't want to say I was a bad kid. I was mischievous though, make no mistake about it. I did mischievous things all the time, but they were juvenile. But I think the response from the teachers was always, “Oh there’s this Black kid acting out in class.”
I was going ask you about getting that label of disruptive and whatever else. Do you think it had to do with it being your personality, or did they lump race into that too?
A little bit of both. It's funny because a couple years ago, we found an old report card of mine from first grade. The first semester report was, “I have concerns for Brandon, he's rough and aggressive. He puts his hands on the other students all the time. He is consistently disruptive.” But then turn around the next semester, they had a meeting with my Dad and my Mom, and the second semester report was “Brandon is a wonderful young man, was a pleasure to have in class all year, and has just the zeal for life.”
And I think back to that — my kids laugh, and they say, “well, not much has changed.” But the thing is that the contrasting reports was once my parents met, and they kind of talked with the teacher, I think the teacher actually took the time to understand me a little bit and then realized, “He has all this energy, he's eager to learn.”
I love to learn. I have this insatiable thirst for knowledge. I think it comes from not wanting to be wrong about anything. Accumulation of knowledge, well, the more I know, the less people can tell me that I'm wrong. But that sort of mindset is something that again, going to school here in Bloomington, unless you actually took the time to really understand me, you would just always think that I was disruptive. But again, I just wanted to know things. I wanted to ask questions. I blurted out questions, I didn't always raise my hand and things like that and a lot of it was just being eager.
But then, after that report I had in first grade, second grade was actually pretty bad for me. I got separated from the kids. I had to sit in the corner with a cardboard box around me. I could listen, but I could not look at my fellow classmates, and I will tell you that's definitely a little scarring, it is definitely something that I'll never forget in my life. It is unfortunate that that happened.
I was made to feel different. Already being one of one or one of three Black kids in the class, my entire elementary and secondary education, that was something that really impacted me. I can't say in a positive way either.
Looking back on it now as an adult, do you think race played a bigger role?
Yeah, I will. I will tell you in hindsight race definitely played a bigger issue than what I realized. Because being Black means to be treated unfairly at some point in your life, that has never sat well with me. And again, those seeds were planted in elementary school, being treated differently because no one understands it. Not getting the benefit of the doubt, you're not hearing me, you're not understanding. You're teaching me all these things and when it comes to being applied to me, you're not giving me the benefit of the doubt or you're not following the things that you're teaching. That was really hard.
Your life experiences as you continue to get older allow you to look back at things that happened in the past and go, “Oh yeah, that was probably a little racist.” And it's one of those things where, because I had my own peers that were white, that would do the same things and the punishments wouldn't be quite the same.
I got angrier and angrier as my education went along in Bloomington-Normal and I know I was being treated differently, especially at a school like Fairview. And I know that Calvin spoke about this and I think there might have been a couple of other individuals that went to that same school as well, but because the school pulled from the school pool from the low income part of Normal, having pulled from there and then us going to those schools, it was it's very different.
We would interact with people at the school, but definitely got called the n-word. Or even growing up in Orlando, there was a one kid who I was actually kind of afraid of, and he would pick up sticks and throw sticks at us and shoot a slingshot with rocks at us and call us the n-word all the time.
I remember being in second grade and that was the first time that I really remembered, again second grade was rough for me, and I think a lot of it hinged on the fact that was the first time I really realized that I was different because I was Black.
We learned about Martin Luther King and I just could not stop crying. I just couldn't believe that someone be … that was the first real time you start to learn the history, the little bit of Black American that was taught in school, and it just impacted me in a very profound way.
Obviously at home, those conversations were had, but when you're with your peers and you just can't help but cry thinking that we had to march in our street for these things … for equality, and you look at everything going now, and we're still having those conversations, and they were having those conversations 40 years before and we always been having those conversations.
I think that when I first learned about it and then started really realizing how different I was, I just think, like I said that being treated unfairly just never sat well with me, it just, it's something that I have always bumped against. You're just not going to treat me unfairly because I’m African American.
Those sort of things, you don't think about them and the impact that they have on you as you get older. But as I progressed, I just got angrier and angrier and once I hit junior high it was tough sledding for me.
I constantly felt misunderstood. I had my core group of friends growing up on Orlando and then how it was predominantly Black. It was low income, but the one thing that I was like super proud of and I'm super proud of even today is that core group of people that I grew up with, we all moved out and aspired for bigger and better. All of us.
Now I know you live in St. Louis…
…but you do visit Bloomington…
I come back all the time, my kids live there.
What do you think of the Black experience in Bloomington-Normal is now compared to what it was back then?
Well, one of the things is, I think that people don't take advantage of what Bloomington is.
So, when we first talked about this I love being from Bloomington and frankly Normal is where I lived, and there is a difference mainly in the water between Bloomington and Normal.
No, and I've kind of taken on the role as my Dad. I watched my Dad talk to these young brothers, 15, 16, 17, like, "they're gonna watch you, they're gonna pull you over," they're going give you a hard time, but you need to realize that in Bloomington you have an opportunity that you don't have in Chicago or Peoria ... forget Chicago — Peoria, Decatur, Springfield, Champaign.
Bloomington is very different than all of those places and there's a lot that you can take advantage of. There's a path to success in Bloomington for almost everyone, regardless of race. That is one of the things that I think just always stands out about growing up in Bloomington, you kind of realize that. And I've squandered some of those opportunities as well, but in hindsight, you're telling me that someone can go to the schools here and find affordable secondary education? Maybe they choose to go to a four-year university, maybe they stopped at that two years, have an opportunity to work at a major corporation in the community and then you can go you can work your way through school. There's jobs available to you.
Yes, so having a couple of conversations with some kids, running the streets, selling drugs, doing all this, that's not something you have to do in Bloomington. You don't have to do that to survive in Bloomington. It is definitely more of a choice, because of all the resources that are available here.
Living in St. Louis, I see what it's like when people don't have resources available and don't have the choices, and the contrast between a place like St. Louis and a place like Bloomington is immeasurable. And again, not even having to come here to St. Louis; Peoria, Decatur. I mean, there is a path for success for everyone, by and large, in Bloomington-Normal, and that's something I've always been proud of when I look back on it. Even when I've squandered opportunities, you could really find your way in Bloomington-Normal and that's pretty cool.
Yes, sure there are challenges that are added to being Black, but again, for example, I've had, unfortunately many encounters with the police in Bloomington-Normal, and I will tell you, I've never been afraid for my life. I've never felt threatened by the police and I think that's a testament to the police here. Sure I've been profiled, I've been pulled over in Bloomington more times than I care to even imagine. There'd be periods of time where I just knew they would pull me over as soon as they got behind me, "Yep, I'm going to get pulled over."
Unfortunately, it's like that for a lot of African American men and women in Bloomington-Normal, but again, my experiences with the police in Bloomington, I don't want to say they've been good, I'm getting pulled over and there's something going on, but I'm not a person that bashes the police of our community. I struggle with the things that I see just like everyone else, and I know that there's racist cops in Central Illinois, in Bloomington and Normal. But my own personal interactions would lead me to believe that not all cops are bad. They have a very difficult job and it's one of those things.
But there are things that I struggle with. I read The Pantograph every day, and I read the crime in news, and all you ever see, by and large, is Black people. But yet we're only like 10% of the community. How is that possible? I've never really liked that. I've always wondered, what is the criteria? I read it recently, that they had this criteria for what they post but I don't believe that, I don't buy that, because it is disproportionately skewed to always show Black people as being criminals.
Even if you go down to the Law and Justice Center, again, unfortunately, I've been down there more times than I care to to admit, but even then, you would just seriously think that we're in Peoria or even St. Louis by the number of Black people that you would see just in the courthouse … and that stuff just always bothered me … it just always bothered me. It's one of those things that while my interactions with police haven't been bad, per se, but the disproportionate number of Black people that you see down at the Law and Justice Center … it just always kind of bugged me, especially in a community of this size.
As a dad, what are you trying to instill in your kids?
My kids are biracial.
They are probably going to have the Black experience slash person of color experience, which is different from the white experience.
Yes, which is very different. It hurts a little bit to know that my beautiful young ladies will be going through some of these same racist experiences, discriminatory experiences, not only because they're just women, but because they're Black women as well. And I want to … I want to do all I can to lessen that sting, because when it happens, it hurts.
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