Last week, when I read headline after headline about “Jill from Philly” going to have tea with the Queen of England, my first thought was: “Queen Elizabeth gets to meet Jill Scott?! That’s one lucky monarch.”
Then I realized: Oh. Not that Jill — rather, the one who lives in the White House.
She’s nice, too.
Not that I have anything against the first lady. It’s just that we already have a “Jilly from Philly,” and since her debut album Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 came out in 2000, she’s taken a long walk as our own queen.
Jill Scott is one of the brightest lights to emerge from Philly’s late-’90s/early ’00s neo-soul landscape. She wrote for the Roots, won three Grammys, splashed across stage and screen, and started a foundation to provide mentoring and scholarships for kids in North Philly and Camden. In other words: Philadelphia royalty.
Jill Biden, on the other hand, is from Willow Grove — a suburb. If you’re from outside of the city limits, Philadelphia — a city where parochialism is baked into the hoagie rolls — will never quite claim you as its own. Even if you’re known as FLOTUS, you still won’t have the Philly cred of someone who performed with Floetry.
And let’s be honest: That’s kind of absurd.
Just nine miles — almost all of them on the same street (Route 611, aka Broad Street) — separate Girls High and Upper Moreland High School, where Scott and Biden graduated, respectively. SEPTA’s 22 bus will take you almost door to door.
One could look at tiny Willow Grove’s 81% white population and call it homogenous, but in Philadelphia — a city that FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found was the fourth most segregated big city in America — the same is true of many individual neighborhoods. Fishtown, Roxborough, and Girard Estates all have a higher percentage of white residents than Willow Grove. Most Philadelphians tend to live around people who look like them.
And it’s not like Jill Biden is some Stepford suburbanite. This is a woman who made some of the biggest news of Super Tuesday 2020 by performing a Heisman-worthy block tackle of a couple of stage-storming vegans in Los Angeles who were trying to get to our future president. Jill threw herself between the protesters and her husband, and then shook it off while assuring both Joe and the crowd, “We’re OK, we’re OK.”
Any city would be proud to claim that defensive move.
So why do we feel such defensiveness when people who aren’t from here bestow upon someone a nickname that we think has already been claimed? Because we still see ourselves differently than others see us, and we are naturally irked when the world’s stage slights us — or one of our own.
Just like we get annoyed that I-95 road signs south of Wilmington direct drivers toward New York and not Philly, and then we get doubly annoyed when those same drivers stop here. We’re inconsistent.
Yet, the truth is that those from outside the city limits help complete the picture of who we are. They travel up and down 95 and, no thanks to the road signs, come here anyway to contribute to our tax coffers, sell out our events, and flip our cars when the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Even if we’re not always proud of what that picture looks like, can’t we say the same about our own residents?
Maybe we should try embracing that full picture for a change. It’s OK to have one private face that you show only to those you grew up with, and a different public one when company comes over for tea.
I imagine the queen could teach us something about that.
Jeffrey Barg lives in South Philadelphia and writes The Inquirer’s biweekly Angry Grammarian column.