I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.
Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.
Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.
Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.
Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.
It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)
I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:
I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”
“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.
The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.
I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)
Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.
He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.
I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)
I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.
Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.
So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.
Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:
“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”
“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”
I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.
Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.
Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:
True enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.
Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?
There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:
There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…
Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.
You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…
C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.
I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:
“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client
There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.
Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).
See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.
This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…
Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.
Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:
Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.
You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.
On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:
and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.
But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:
Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…
I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska
Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.
My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.
I love it.
Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.
Oh, Iron Fist.
I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.
I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely, though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.
Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.
In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
Bike share? Very cool. Safety in numbers of pedestrians and streets that require constant attention and vigilance from those driving them? All good.
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]
Last night at Bristol’s Watershed we went to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers:
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York, presents a unique compilation tribute to the greatest dancers of the 20th century the Nicholas Brothers, featuring a collage of rarely seen home movies, photographs and film clips.
It was — the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers were — amazing. I perhaps use that adjective too much, my enthusiasms lace my writing with ‘I loved’ and ‘brilliant’ and other such encomiums so that perhaps they lose some meaning. But little I have ever experienced compares to the feeling of pure joy that dance can grant, particularly as embodied by Fayard and Harold Lloyd Nicholas. Before Bruce Goldstein began, they started with this clip, ‘Lucky Number’ (1936):
Throughout their career, in addition to the jaw-dropping virtuosity of their movements, there is a joy in dance and in dancing with each other that is a gift to watch. It fills you up as you watch it, together with awe that such things might be done.
I will also note that this format, of talk interspersed with clips, from someone as knowledgeable and personable as Bruce Goldstein who knew the brothers personally, was awesome. He had loads of footage from the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ own home videos including some of their unique film of the Cotton Club performances, which rendered it incredible. You are sorry you missed it.
Anyway. You take all of this, the very best and the most beautiful of talent, and you set it in Jim Crow America. This ensures the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers are billed most of their lives as a ‘specialty act’ (though usually at the top of the bill). I think for all I have read, watched, wrestled with, this exposed an entirely new view of how damaging Jim Crow was. How crazy it was.
Absolutely batshit crazy.
There’s Pie Pie Blackbird. Crazy. Immense talent to be found singing and dancing about the master’s ‘blackbird pie’.
As a reference to master sleeping with his slaves, it hardly seems veiled at all. And so it is that here, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 debut get called little pickinninies.
Wonderful without reservations is their appearance in the 1935 All Coloured Vaudeville Movie — and look at that city background, this is really an urban art after all, not one tied to the plantation south, but to Harlem, to Chicago, to the places that beckoned towards freedom and equality (though still have yet to grant it). Fayard is performing in his characteristic three piece suit — he wore it at almost all times (there’s home footage of him wearing it at the tennis courts, on the beach), a fashion statement against the indignities and disrespect of Jim Crow, and I love him for it:
Yet so many of these clips make me feel Jim Crow viscerally. After a rather saccharine display of white doo-wop and the (rather good don’t you know) Glen Miller band, there is the joy and virtuosity of the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers and the equally fabulous Dorothy Dandridge (who married Harold, how did I not know?). Carefully orchestrated so the whole section is separate from the white musicians, able to be cut entirely for Southern audiences — a prime reason the Nicholas Brothers would always perform self-contained ‘numbers’ rather than roles.
I found this separateness physically painful to watch, which sat strangely beside the absolute joy of the performance itself. But more bewildering were these two clips, the first the 1934 ‘Minstrel Man’ from Kid Millions
Apart from it being cool that Lucille Ball is in this, I sat wondering in what insane ideological space the whole of America was in to make such a musical number possible, such plunging necklines and singing about loving a minstrel man when Black men were being lynched in the South for even looking the wrong way at a white woman.
Their number from Tin Pan Alley (1940) is even crazier:
I couldn’t stop thinking about Emmet Till through the whole of this damn number. What the actual fuck. Never in a million years could I have imagined such a thing in 1940. In struggling to make sense of it, I think a partial answer is that the category of youth allowed Harold Nicholas to be non-threatening enough for ‘Minstrel Man’, and the category of ‘performing slave’ to be non-threatening enough for Tin Pan Alley (and the absence of sexual innuendo or physical contact). And yet. It doesn’t really explain it to my satisfaction.
Nothing does. Think of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939: Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. The two performances together somehow make white power and violence even more terrifying in ways I am unable to understand. Perhaps it is the impossibility of reconciling these two things that is the most terrifying, how do you fight what is impossible to understand?
World War II would start to move change along again, Fayard would be drafted into the Jim Crow Army’s laundry brigade.
The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelley, was the first film where Black and white dancers interacted together, as something like equals (where Gene Kelley, who is a superb dancer, is struggling to keep up in fact).
Still the brothers’ speaking roles were cut from the final film, they remained listed as a specialty act.
Bruce Goldstein writes of all those they influenced:
The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Gene Kelly, who teamed up with them in The Pirate; Bob Fosse and Gregory Hines, whose first acts were modelled on them; ballet legends George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; Michael Jackson, who once had Fayard as a dance coach; and Fred Astaire, who named their Stormy Weather ‘staircase’ number the greatest of all musical sequences.
Yet watching this talk I was struck by how much better all of those dancers and all of their performances could have been in a world without racism, where the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers could have found a rightful respect and a rightful place in musicals and movies. The leading roles they deserved. The space to further develop their art. Instead they moved to Paris. After four years Fayard moved home, because home is home, you know? No one should have to leave home to feel like a human being. No one should have to choose between performing with his brother or being treated like a human being. Harold had to, chose the second for a time. Remained in Paris. Ended up coming home to be with his brother.
Here they are reunited at the Hollywood Palace in 1965. Fayard is 51.
How wonderful they are. How angry I remain at this larger context and history.
Finally to end, and to end on the wonderful just as the talk did, the most wonderful routine of all (of all!) from Stormy Weather, which we are lucky enough to have tickets to see on the big screen on Sunday!
I am going to learn to tap dance. I will not be good, but perhaps I might come to express some of my joy with my feet in such a way…
Time for more poems I think, poems of courage and beauty, poems about the fight for a better world. More from June Jordan.
— excerpts from Some Changes (1971)
a note beneath the title tells us this was written for a law passed to allow some light and air into the Lower East Side Slums…landlords complied by blasting false windows into brick.
4. Unskilled millions crammed old mansions
broke apart large rooms and took a corner
held a place a spot a bed a chair a box
a looking glass
and kept that space (except for death)
a safety now for fugitives
from infamy and famine
working hard to live.
5. In place of land that street the outhouse
to a horrifying speculation that would quarter
debase and shadow and efface
the pivacies of human being.
6. Real estate rose as profit spread
to mutilate the multitudes and kill them
living just to live
What can a man survive?
They say: The poor persist. (61)
10. The Tenement Act of 1869
was merciful, well-meant, and fine
in its enforcement
tore 47,000 windows out of hellhole
shelter of no light.
It must be hard to make a window. (62)
Poem about the Sweetwaters of the City
— from Poems of Return
the subway comes up
a quick one
two stops rattle rusted short
where the letters tell me
PLEASE KEEP HANDS OFF DOORS
(Or near there)
you assume the buildings and
the smallprint roadways and
the cornered accidents
of roof and oozing tar and ordinary concrete
It is not beautiful.
It never was.
These are the shaven
the city show
of what somebody means
when he don’t even bother
just to say
“I don’t give a goddamn”
“I hate you” (133)
This next one about the ways our lives are constrained by our intersecting identities…I have felt this, I have felt all of this.
Excerpt from Poem About My Rights
(From Passion – 1980)
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
who in the hell set things up
like this (309)
Maybe this next one doesn’t quite fit here, not being a city, but displacement…oh, displacement feels the same, just as struggle does.
from Lebanon Lebanon
(Kissing God Goodbye – 1997)
behold the refugees
aroused by soap
behold a people
lost inside a landscape
that belongs to them
behold a landscape
taken by the fiend
of force (515)
And this one? This last one for hope and all the things we do because we must, the struggle that makes us who we are…
Excerpt from War and Memory
(Naming our Destiny – 1989)
I fell in love
I fell in love with Black Men White
women White women
dared myself to say The Palestinians
worried about unilateral words like Lesbian or Nationalist
tried to speak Spanish when I traveled to Managua
dreamed about The Fourteenth Amendment
defied the hatred of the hateful everywhere
as best I could
I took long nightly walks to emulate the Chinese Revolutionaries
always wore one sweater less than absolutely necessary to keep warm
and I wrote everything I knew how to write against apartheid
thought I was a warrior growing up
buried my father with all of the ceremony all of the music I could piece together
lust for justice
make that quest arthritic/pigeon-toed/however
invent the mother of the courage I require not to quit (470)
Hilton Als… damn, White Girls was splendid and queer and pummeled me with pain and experience I can never know because of who I am. Though I am hell of well read, our daily-lived references of poets and words moved past each other almost never touching. Just like our preoccupations. Our ways of being in the world, especially the ways we are with others in the world…I have never ever been a we in the way he describes. I hated Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, and he loved her. I finally understood a little better how I feel about Michael Jackson. Things like that…well, they cracked me open a little more, the kind of gift you don’t even know to ask for, could never demand if you did know because you can feel the cost to its author. The kind of gift you are always grateful for. Even though it hurt just a little to read. At the same time, somehow, I can see why these words, many of them at least, would appeal to the readers of The New Yorker. They were the ones that pushed me further outside maybe, made me feel a bit of voyeur staring in at that cocktail party I never had the credentials to enter. Though maybe too they give me a little more appreciation for that literary streamlining of all that is ‘worthy’, swimming against the tide of my south west/west-coast poor white girl bias against anything held up to me as the place to find Culture with a capital C.
Maybe. It’s just another world, isn’t it, one among so many all scrambled up within us and outside of us. We tend to give ones like this a little more power though, I think. I resent that. But it’s nice to find something like this there though.
Just a few quotes — though the power of this book lies in nothing that can be quoted, just to warn you. That goes way beyond some insights into writers or society…
O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that Hod judges by actions, but virtually all her white woman characters judge by appearances. O’Conner greatly adired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers’ relationship to the Master…What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are the women who wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created? (121)
Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stones. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes–fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.
And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be here talking to you right now at all: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and, with it, my mind. (135)
I loved too the piece on Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little.
The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the coloured immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. (156)
But is it?
More on difference in thinking about Eminem, and his mother…
That Mathers should be open to a musical culture not his own is interesting. For some artists–white as well as black–there is the sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily. (173)
The other within the other within the other…so much difference we shall never come to the bottom of it, never control it. Should not want to. Yet seems like this desire to contain and control, and the violence that arises from it, is one of the dynamics that is best at breaking us. Too often it kills us dead.
One last note, a smile and a surprise that Baudelaire should have succeeded in liberating someone…André Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue.
Talley’s immersion in French gave him a model to identity with: Baudelaire, on who work he wrote his master’s thesis, at Brown University in the early seventies. And it was while he was at Brown, liberated by the Baudelairean image of the flâneur, that Talley began to exercise fully his penchant for extravagant personal dress. (197)
I really don’t like Baudelaire, and kind of hate this canon of white men flâneuring about the city because they can, but I am trying to be less judgmental because all of us need different things, and this is helping.
It ends with a sprawling, heartbreaking exploration of the world of Richard Pryor that kept me from sleeping. I have another small note, to find and read Henry Duman’s ‘Ark of Bones’, poet murdered in Harlem’s train station.
This of course, does not even touch what this book meant to me as I read it, but I don’t really know how to do that. Except that it highlights to me again that some cannot choose whether or not people stare with hate and fear at their difference. But us straight white girls? We can often choose. How important, then, that we join our own differences with those of others and face down the hatred together, come what may.
[Als, Hilton (2013) White Girls. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.]
Street Kids is a thought-provoking ethnography of youth on the streets and those who try to reach out to them – and one that faces squarely all of the ethical issues involved in an academic studying such a population. I appreciated that so much, as I did the fact that she became an outreach volunteer for two years to complete the study. Thus
What I learned is that when young people tell adults anything about their lives, it is a gift (18).
Ain’t that the truth.
I also appreciated that this got beyond some of the more liberal heartbleeding to look at structural factors – the way that neoliberal privatisation of services and cutbacks in social spending has decimated service provision as the state makes way for private and often faith-based charities, the way that zero-tolerance policing and controls over public space by BIDs and others have forced non-white, non-hetero, non-middle-class populations out of the spaces they have long inhabited and into greater mobility, invisibility, and danger. One consequence of gentrification is even more deaths as youth find themselves under more stress from police, far from services and the familiar networks they rely on for survival, and in neighborhoods that are less safe. The majority of New York’s youth on or of the streets are not the highly visible white population of kids panhandling and scruffy and from around the country, but rather local kids of colour who do everything possible to hide the fact they are homeless, a high percentage of them queer, a high percentage of them escaping abuse. White middle-class residents of newly gentrified areas demanding that they just go home? Just not getting the dynamics are they. Not wanting to get them either.
Scholars argue that public-space laws that drive any perceived source of disorder from gentrifying or commercialized public spaces are ‘revanchist’ that they punitively deny people a right to space. In effect, these laws dismiss homeless people as legitimate social subjects with the right to exist in public… Public-space ordinances are being used to spatially exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously constructing some groups as deviant, disorderly subjects with no right to an orderly, commercialized city (13-14).
Thus society is ‘disciplining street youth into invisibility’ (19). Out of sight, out of mind. Out of funding.
There is a lovely discussion of ‘emplacement’, building on work by geographer Tim Cresswell – how have I not read him before?
Human geographers contend that social subjects are also spatial subjects, that as social beings, people understand the world through grounded and contextual categories. Moreover, places help naturalize social structures and hierarchies by their seemingly stable existence. In the popular lexicon, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Places are always both physical and social locations organized through powerful social ideologies. This sociospatial construction is a process of “emplacement.” Besides occupying spaces, these spaces makes us who we are; that is, we shape and are shaped by complex geographies, as both agents and subjects of places (25)
This not only offers insight into our characters and development, our own relationships to places, but also helps define what is at stake in the formation of place. Thus:
The presence of street youth marks a social fissure disrupting modern Western society’s imaginary of itself as orderly and just. Because street you present a type of social dissonance—a ripple in the social stream—social forces over the years have attempted to dislodge, explain away, reposition, reimagine, and erase them.
In an interesting addition to the whole debate about the use of the word ‘underclass’, she clarifies what I kind of knew but hadn’t vocalized – that it is grounded in ideas of youth, as well as race and class and gender. Unemployed youth, criminal youth, teenage mothers. Young people. Even more reasons to hate it, apart from how it’s been used to undercut welfare and demonize those in poverty. ‘They’ are different, outsiders when the term ‘community’ is mobilized as an ideal form in service of cleaning up and cleaning out, in service of attracting the middle and upper classes back to the city and creating spaces for capital.
I also liked her critique of the ‘end of public space’ argument mobilized by Mitchell, Davis, Sorkin and others, presuming that there was an earlier ideal. Instead:
Public spaces have never been open and accessible to everyone in society; rather, policing and shifting norms have functioned together to shift geographies of access and rights to particular spaces and subjectivities. Over time, women, children, and minorities have all struggled to gain the right to access, use, and be visible in public…public spaces become arenas for members of society to claim their rights. According to this view, public space is a process, a nexus of power relations, not a fixed state. Public space may not “end,” but it can shift in regard to power relations.
I really love this idea of the public and public space as process and power relations, I need to think about it more.
I have a few critiques of course. Street Kids moved from description and storytelling to theory, and what I’ve written above I found really useful, but other sections not so much and it made it a bit disjointed at times. I’m not the biggest fan of Foucault, for example, so to draw on him in discussing the rise of child labour laws and compulsory schooling as disciplining and the imposition of middle-class values on working-class children earning a living in the street I find a little maddening. Not that it isn’t true, but that is not the whole story – working classes fought hard for child labour laws and schools, these have always been contested areas and created new spaces of contestation in which struggle could play out. I always feel that Foucault condescends, that he loses that aspect of regulation, health and education services fought for and won (though not everyone would agree with me on that I suppose). The discussion of outreach as performance I also found interesting and disturbing truth be told. There is an element of performance in anyone’s activities in public, on the street. But in something like outreach, as I found in organizing, what you are striving for is connection. To get through performance to something deeper. Buber’s I-Thou, or Fromm’s work or anything in addition to performance.
Finally, there was only one mention of FIERCE!, who I love. Who organize and work politically for the preservation of their right to public spaces (being primarily LBGTQ youth of colour and as fierce as their name). Who question the whole social service framework and what is possible working within that framework. The ways it can save, empower, but more often I think, disempower. The ways this connects up to capitalism and gentrification. This book doesn’t really engage with the critiques they make. Interesting, because otherwise I so appreciate the focus on engagement, commitment, concreteness in turning academic work towards improving a situation and changing policy.
The introduction to this first novel in Ed McBain’s series on New York’s 87th Precinct Cop Hater is pretty awesome if you like noir and you like cities. First, a primer on the world of hack writing, the regular churning out of quick novels that were then issued and re-issued.
Over lunch, Herb told me that the mainstay of Pocket Books was Eric Stanley Gardner, whose books they reissued on a regular rotating schedule, with new covers on them each time out. He told me Gardner was getting old…and that they were looking for a mystery writer who would eventually replace him.
Luck and skill and prolixity brought Ed McBain to write this series, with an idea then unique — to make the precinct itself the focus, with a cast of characters rather than a principal. I don’t know why it also surprised me to read this:
It is next to impossible to overlay a map of my city on a map of New York. It’s not simply a matter of north being east and south being west or Isola representing Manhattan and Calm’s Point representing Brooklyn. The geography won’t jibe exactly, the city remains a mystery.
The city, then, became a character.
So did the weather, which figures prominently in Cop Hater.…
It’s fascinating, then, to find described all of these things I study, redlining, segregation, the shifting racial faultlines of the city and the poverty, misery and changed policing (and increase of police brutality, but you won’t find that here) that it brings with it:
Across the street from the theater was an empty lot. The lot had once owned an apartment house, and the house had been a good one with high rents. It had not been unusual, in the old days, to see an occasional mink coat drifting from the marbled doorway of that apartment house. But the crawling tendrils of the slum had reached out for the brick, clutching it with tenacious fingers, pulling it into the ever-widening circle it called its own. The old building had succumbed, becoming a part of the slum, so that people rarely remembered it had once been a proud and elegant dwelling.
This is the classic white narrative: a grasping and greedy slum, a force of nature reaching out to wrest from them the neighbourhoods they love. It takes over their apartments and their bars, and is often driven by the rising tide of colour:
The flare-ups within the gaily decorated walls of the bar were now few and far between, or–to be poetic–less frequent than they had been in the good old days when the neighborhood had first succumbed to the Puerto Rican assault wave.
It doesn’t much matter that he’s nice enough about the Puerto Ricans later in the paragraph, they’re still an assault wave at the white community. This is a world where police are the good guys and the papers are bleeding-heart liberal — “first three pages of cheesecake and chest-thumping liberalism…”
This is a world where poverty exists and will always exist, same with crime and same with prostitution — anchored into a geography and unchanging. And of course, one that firmly believes whites built the cities on ground after Native Americans peacefully moved along:
La Via de Putas was a street which ran north and south, for a total of three blocks. The Indians probably had their name for it, and the tepees that lined the path in those rich days of beaver pelts and painted beads most likely did a thriving business even then. As the Indians retreated to their happy hunting grounds and the well-worn paths turned to paved roads, the tepees gave way to apartment buildings, and the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession claimed the plush-lined cubbyholes as their own.
Ah, the happy hunting grounds in the sky. It’s both extraordinary, and fucked up, this view that attempts to be that of the common man.
That passage also shows that it’s not just racism prominent of course, it’s also misogyny:
The femaleness reached out to envelop him in a cloying, clinging embrace.
The ladies are bound to betray you, but that is a common and well-known failing of theirs.
Kenneth B. Clark ( 1974) Wesleyan University Press
A powerful book that establishes the bar, the place where anyone writing about the ghetto needs to start as they move from the mid-60s when this was written through the ever-deepening horror of the 70s onwards through the crack epidemic and into the present. But most I have read never even come anywhere close to his reach—much less build on his work. I’ve always had doubts about the usefulness of someone coming into a society and spending a little time there and writing about it as an expert…I try to keep something of an open mind on this, but Clark is originally from the Harlem he describes, and that really is where the depth and powerful insight come from in addition to the study and the scholarship, that and the love he has for his home and the people who still live there.
He starts with what it means to grow up in a place like Harlem, to get out, and then to come back. The studies that form the basis of the book were carried out to establish a youth program, a fully federally funded attempt to break the ghetto. Clark is open about his worries about being an ‘involved observer’. His lack of distance. He confesses to the gnawing self-doubts, the pain and rage and desire to escape once again that being back in Harlem raises in him. I love him for this, and so much admiration for his strength in sticking it through, in writing such an incredible book as this, and in being honest about himself as part of this process in a way that helps everyone else who might be going through some of the same things. It does not surprise me that this is the book that I have read best able to see those living in these neighbourhoods as full human beings with all of their bad and their good, their addictions and their violence and their love and their hope. They are never one dimensional, either as victims or victimizers. Agency and structure always and everywhere work together.
The first chapter is simply a collection of quotes and stories from those interviewed about what they feel the ghetto is, what home means to them, what has destroyed their lives, what they look forward to, what they dream…anything and everything that they wished to tell the world. Respect.
The second chapter: The Invisible Wall.
The dark ghetto’s invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The dark ghettoes are social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters (11).
He handily disposes of white liberal rhetoric you still hear today, fifty years after the time of writing:
At times of overt social unrest, many white persons who claim to be in favour of civil rights and assert that they are ‘friends’ of the Negro will admonish the Negro not to engage in disruptive and lawless demonstrations lest he incite racism and reverse the progress made in his behalf. These often well-meaning requests may reflect the unconscious condescension of benign prejudice (16) …Even well-meaning whites continue to see and talk of Negroes as ‘they,’ clearly differentiated from ‘we,’ the ‘outgroup’ from the ‘ingroup.’ As long as this alienation remains, the masses of whites will be irritated and inconvenienced by any meaningful activity by Negroes to change their status. No real revolt can be convenient for the privileged; no real (17) revolt can be contained within comfortable bounds or be made respectable….The Negro cannot be asked to prove that he ‘deserves’ the rights and responsibilities of democracy, nor can he be told that others must be persuaded ‘in heart and mind’ to accept him. Such tests and trials by fire are not applied to others. To impose them on the Negro is racist condescension. It is to assume that the Negro is a special type of human being who must pass a special test before admission to a tenuous status worthy of governmental protection. It is to place upon the Negro a peculiar burden reflecting and exploiting his powerlessness, and it is, paradoxically, to deny him the essential human rights of frailty and imperfection (18).
The Social Dynamics of the Ghetto: ‘The poor are always alienated from normal society, and when the poor are Negro, as they increasingly are in American cities, a double trauma exists’ (21). The meanings of white racism: ‘It is not the sitting next to a Negro at a table or washing at the next basin that is repulsive to a white, but the fact that this implies equal status’ (22) . These he finds true both North and South, just as the truths of Harlem are seen as truths for ghettoes in all American cities. The Blacks interviewed by Clark and his team widely saw a universality of black experience involving discrimination, racism, and severe limitation of opportunity. The exploitation of the black ghetto by whites is a key part of this, where most businesses – from Harlem’s one department store to all but one bank and Savings and Loan right down to the numbers rackets were owned by whites living outside the community. Landlords also, primarily live outside the community even as housing decays and 100 people per acre crowd into dilapidated rooms with high rents. Clark is hardly the first to indicate the severe health as well as social and psychological problems generated by this. But he well understands that ‘If his home is clean and decent and even in some way beautiful, his sense of self is stronger. A house is a concrete symbol of what the person is worth’ (33).
He notes the lack of jobs and high levels of unemployment. The racism within unions and what that means for workers’ movement ‘The white worker has felt much less a proletariat psychologically than his counterpart in Europe because of the existence of a black proletariat in subjugated status beneath him’ (41). That ‘Unions are seen as escalators to management, not just as the protector of the workingclass. The presence of Negroes on the American scene has given some objective support to this belief…’ (42). He outlines the various unions in the area and their racial divisions. He looks at the cycle of familial instability. And intervention? Nails it: ‘patronage is not enough. They must have imagination and daring, and the must assume the risk of demanding real social change’ (54). And this: ‘There is harnessable power to effect profound social change in the generally repressed rage in the alienated’ (54). He looks at Black social mobility, and attempts to escape the ghetto into the middle class.
But though many middle-class residents of the ghetto do have a constant wish for physical and psychological escape, the ghetto has a devouring quality and to leave provokes a curious struggle. Those who do not try feel that those who do try should have some feeling of guilt and a sense of betrayal. They demand allegiance to the pathology of the ghetto, to demand conformity to its norms…That Negroes continue to seek to imitate the patterns of middle-class whites is a compliment, not the threat it may seem, but a compliment in large part undeserved, and the scars inflicted upon Negroes who are constantly confronted by the flight of those they encounter are deep and permanent. The wounded appear to eschew bitterness and hatred, but not far below the often genial, courteous surface lies a contempt that cannot easily be disguised. (62)
He moves from social dynamics – the more structural aspects – to the psychology to the pathology. My principal critique – as always I feel of books of this period – is a feminist one. I am always troubled by sub-headings like ‘The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine Image’ and such, but Angela Davis, June Jordan, Patricia Collins and others have written extensively and brilliantly about this. But the examination of violence, delinquency and addiction are very good, and consist in great part of extensive quotations from those interviewed and their own views of their situation. More respect.
The section on school was to me one of the most eye-opening – even though I felt well-versed in this stuff. His study was able to show that kids’ IQ scores actually went down, far down, over the course of their time in school – no more damning indictment of a school system is possible, even with every reservation in the world about IQ testing in general. And few would write this now days:
’The clash of culture in the classroom’ is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our school, with middle-class and middle-class aspiring tecahers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices, and rationalizatipons, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed workingclass youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.
And finally a look at power structure in the ghetto, the rise of charismatic leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, the power of the Black press and church, the social services systems. An insight into the reach of the non-violent civil rights movements into the ghetto – which is too say, the non-reach. While all respected M.L. King and groups like CORE, there was not much support for loving the enemy, turning the other cheek. Clark also identifies a key difference between struggle against de jure segregation like Jim Crow and de facto segregation. He writes ‘In the North, the object is the entrenched bastions of political and economic power, and therefore the most effective instrument of change is direct contact with leadership, not sit-ins and other forms of mass protest’ (184). I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion, but it is certainly a point that always required more thought and discussion.
But this I agree with wholeheartedly:
Stagnant ghettoes are a monument to the dominance of forces which tend to perpetuate the status quo and to resist constructive social change. If the ghettoes are to be transformed, then forces superior to those which resist change must be mobilized to counteract them. The problem of change in the ghetto is essentially, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation and conflict between the power required for change and the power resistant to change. The problem of power is crucial and nuclear to any nonsentimental approach to understanding, planning, and predicting. (199)
He notes about the 1963 March on Washington that arguably resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that:
Of utmost significance is the fact that the term ‘white backlash,’ a popular phrase for intensified white resistance to integration, became a part of the colloquial language within the year immediately following the march (202)
And these words which provide food for much thought:
The problem posed for Negroes and those whites who are committed to actual social change as a reality and not a mere social posture is that of identifying, mobilizing, and using that power necessary to translate laws into meaningful changes in the day-to-day lives of those whom the laws are intended to protect. This problem of power is one of the more difficult ones to resolve positively because masses of white believe that they stand to gain by maintaining the Negro in his present predicament, because some whites and a few Negroes actually do gain economically and politically by maintaining the racial status quo, and because energy must always be mobilized to counteract social inertia (203)
I also thought his attempt to categorize the kinds of strategy most in dealing with racial injustice very interesting – and of course the caveat that groups use multiple strategies, not simply one:
– The strategy of prayer;
– The strategy of isolation (aristocratic and wealthy Blacks isolating themselves from the rest of their community);
– The strategy of accommodation;
– The strategy of despair (‘Despair does not seem properly identified as a strategy and yet, in a real sense, it is; for to abandon hope – to withdraw—in the presence of oppression is to adjust to and accept the condition’ (220));
– The strategy of alienation (advocated by the Communists in the 1930s, with the establishment of a separate black republic, also Black Muslims);
– The strategy of law and maneuver (NAACP and National Urban League)
– The strategy of direct encounter (sit-ins, picket lines)
– The strategy of truth (method of the intellectual)
I’m still thinking through these things, as I am this: ‘Negroes alone cannot abolish the ghetto. It will never be ended as long as the white society believes that it needs it’ (225).
Almost fifty years ago, Kenneth Clark wrote ‘The truth is that every Negro has a racial problem, repressed or otherwise, and that no American social institution is color-blind—to be color-blind in a society where race is relevant is not to be free but insensitive’ (226). How long have we been fighting that?
It is also a key insight since developed by multiple academic volumes that ‘The difference between these crusades [ie struggle to abolish child labor] and race is that in race one’s own status needs [as a white liberal] are at stake. No significant minority of white liberals can work in a totally committeed manner for racial justice for long without coming in conflict with conscious or unconscious anxieties’ (229). And this is still true:
The liberal position, when applied to race, has been, for a multitude of reasons, somewhat tainted. In those areas of life where liberals are powerful—labor unions, schools, and politics—one is forced to say that the plight of the Negroes is not significantly better than it is in areas where liberals are not dominant. Labor unions are not ‘better’ than management (230). … Loren Miller…points out that because the liberal’s historic concern has been with individual rights, he sees progress in the admission of a few Negro children to a hitherto white school; while the Negro, who also wants individual rights, nevertheless regards the raising of status of the group ‘to which he has been consigned’ as his own immediate problem and spurns the evidence of individual progress as mere tokenism (231).
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.