Tag Archives: Harlem

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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Harlem, Sugar Hill and the unmarked homes of legends

There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.

I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person  themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.

We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into  the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).

The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:

On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”

There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”

There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.

But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.

363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.

365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges

375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton

377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins

381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis

409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.

I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:

No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”

As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)

What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:

New York

New York

A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):

New York

An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:

New York

And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.

New York

555 Edgecombe

A 2010 New York Times piece lists Paul Robeson Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lena Horne.

It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.

New York

New York

One of the few old pictures I was able to find:

Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)

The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.

The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.

I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.

Mission
While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.

What we didn’t see?

749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison

773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts

But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:

New York

Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

New York - Harlem

Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)

New York - Harlem

Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.

Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.

New York - Harlem

We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:

New York - Harlem

A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:

There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.

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The Origins of the Black Panther

13528786More Comics! The Black Panther to be precise, it is such an exciting time right now, with Ta Nehisi Coates revamping the Black Panther for Marvel (I love this revamping) — even as Netflix’s Luke Cage series is filling my facebook feed. I have to wait until Christmas to see it. Too long to wait, sure — but it is also a good sort of present. It will also let me finish reading those early Marvel beginnings. These two Black superheroes of the Marvel universe couldn’t be more different, but I have enjoyed them both immensely.

Black Panther is the first, appearing in July 1966, Fantastic Four issue #52, and then sporadically — guess I’ll have to hunt down those issues. I didn’t so much care for the Fantastic Four, mostly as white and wealthy and respectful of 1950s conventions and American as apple pie. There was none of the fumbling towards their powers either, or deep interior conflict which made me love the Hulk so much. The Black Panther has none of the same kind of interior conflict either, but his debut is fascinating in terms of both the white gaze on race, and the white gaze on Africa. he is T’challa, prince of Wakanda, a small African kingdom made rich by the presence of an extraterrestrial metal (vibranium), and thus torn between the heights of technology but also tradition. The Essential Collection contains the collected stories from Jungle Action (1973-1976) #6-22, and then the new Black Panther (1977) #1-10. The first few covers:

img_4709 img_4711There is some crazy jungle action going on here. This is Jack Kirby’s initial vision for…the coal tiger! Ha, I’m glad they didn’t stick with that. I do like those shoes though! And the collar. This also reminds me that all of these were originally published in most garish colour — you forget that reading these collections in black and white, and it changes the experience of them.

jack-kirby-black-panther-early-design001

There’s some geography in here too, because that’s how they used to roll in those days. From the end of the first ish:

Black PantherPiranha cove! Serpent Valley! Panther Island! I would have fucking loved this map when I was 13. This parallels in its way the diagrams of the Fantastic Four’s secret but not-really-secret headquarters in the big city. It allows the writer to play more as well.

So back to the jungles…look at me taking some these pictures in the October sunshine.

img_4669A lot of these enemies are from the U.S. — where T’challa has just returned from (bringing with him the lovely black power figure of Monica Lynne, who causes all kinds of uproar and jealousy amongst the ladies — he rescued her in NY, but we don’t get to see that). Below we have Venom, ‘he had been known as Horatio Walters, and when he was young, he thought the name quite poetic — until scorn and derision killed the poetry in him.’ It’s surprising (or is it) how many of the villains have been twisted by bullying and discrimination in the U.S., and some, like Venom, are white even.

img_4675There are many references to pulp in here (I love it), and an interesting narrative of hero returned (from the U.S. to Africa — a familiar longing expressed in these times), an interesting shift in culture — ‘Damn! He thinks, must all of his reference points be so foreign to his native land?’ There is also so much poetry in Don McGregor’s prose. Like ‘The mist is carnivore pink…’

img_4677I love Rich Buckler’s drawings as well. It gets real poetic as a matter of fact — is that because this is Africa? An indigenous, tribal tradition welded uncomfortably with technology?

img_4680Such a different feel from Marvel’s other comics — at least the ones I’ve read. There’s a lot more detail as well, cool use of silhouettes, good monsters. And the Black Panther ‘consumed by a sense of his own mortality.’ Wrestling with what all this fighting is turning him into.

img_4682Being Africa, there is, of course, the obligatory dinosaur issue. But still, DINOSAUR ISSUE. ‘The valley is aptly named. It is evolution denied, time standing as stagnant as the air and water.’ This is evocative of so much adventure fiction and views of the African continent as a whole. But with a twist,

img_4685Dinosaurs being used to fight a technologically advanced African kingdom. They are being transported in a pleasantly maniacal plan by Eric Killmonger — one-time native of Wakanda, exiled and ended up in Harlem. Which broke him more or less.

This is a liberal comic you see, there’re some thoughts on revolution — and how it never works out. Bad guys? They’re for it, but it’s all an illusion. Makes you feel for the bad guys.

img_4689Still, it’s got dinosaurs. They are pretty awesome. Dinosaurs and radio sonar.

img_4691So it’s really interesting when T’Challa and Monica Lynne leave Wakanda (after another adventure or three). Lynne feels so liberated-sister-from-New-York-or-Oakland, but really she’s from Georgia, and returns there when her sister dies. And thus begins the most interesting series of all, as the Black Panther goes up against the Klan. But look at this cover.

img_4694I found this amazing actually. ‘In the heart of civilization, T’challa battles the primitive power of the clan!’ I’m liking this contrast of civilized and primitive. I can see why this might have been controversial.

img_4695Her sister had been doing some investigating, and died in suspicious circumstances… there’s a mix of historical stuff in here too, as Monica imagines a different fate of her great grandfather if the panther had been there to save him from lynching at the hands of the soul strangler:

img_4696There is a plucky investigative reporter, a crochety father who eventually overcomes years of practical silence and decides to stand up for himself. There are racist white cops supported by a generally racist white populace, a lot of daily harassment and threats — it’s enjoyable watching the Black Panther give them their dues, I have to say. Because it’s the clan, you’re just waiting for when T’challa gets tied to a burning cross… and escapes. Monica’s sister worked in a real estate office and was killed there, there’s more than a hint that the night riders that are caught up in development schemes and corrupt politics and it’s hard to see just where all of this will end up. But it’s good to see that we are being reminded of how much our present is shaped by this past…

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And then suddenly it is all over. Cut off in the middle. Poof. I was very sad.

And we are on to the Jack Kirby revamp in the Back Panther issue 1, and it’s 1977.

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A crazy, very campy superhero run-in with the collectors. Oo-ooh. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. There are some special characters, like Colonel Pigman, and Mr Little. The Black Panther mostly runs around without his mask on as well, it makes it feel very different — but everything about this version is different, from the blocky vitality and force of Kirby’s drawings to the treasure maps and silly villains. No klan here.

img_4698Still, enjoyable. Slapstick as well.

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And I don’t know what I think about this vision of a ruling African family, apart from not liking it much.

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But they do all join together to defeat a powerful foe, each of them finding their own power inside. That was nice.

I look forward to more…

 

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Barbara Ransby — Ella Baker, the YNCL and NAACP

200217Ella Baker didn’t write her memoirs, and there is as yet no collection of her writings — I am hoping that there will be one at some point. I always prefer to start with people’s own words, though I love biographies like this one too. My only possible critique is perhaps that there weren’t enough of Baker’s own words in here since they are so hard to find elsewhere.

This is a good quote though.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to you needs and devising means by which you change that system.
— Ella Baker, 1969 (1)

I like her use of the word radical. I like too her vision of how change to that system happened:

Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to “change that system.” Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single “end” but rather an ongoing “means,” that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle.  (1)

Not everyone agreed with her on this, and just like Septima Clark she faced down a lot of sexism in the movement, as well as having to overcome some of her own class prejudices. This post is a bit listy because Ella Baker did so much. Still, it’s a start for thinking about the meaning of her practice and all she achieved.

Ransby tells a story about Ella Baker, that she would ask those she met, ‘Who were your people?’ What I like most about Ell Baker is that she ended up choosing her people, but it’s still a good question.

A little younger than Clark, she was also raised on stories of slavery but from her grandmother — stories of struggle and triumphs, not degradation. Her maternal grandparents had bought land, and Ransby highlights the meaning of land in the close  community Baker was raised in, with its collective parenting and values of ‘Cooperation, the sharing of resources, and a strong community spirit…’ (37):

[They] never regarded the land they purchased in 1888 as private property in the strict sense of the term. They viewed it not only as a resource for the economic well-being of their immediate family but also as a source of stability for the entire community. Land could serve as a weapon in the struggle against the white planters’ attempts to dominate and control the African American population. (37)

They donated some of this land for a school.

A few facts on Norfolk, VA where she was raised, this kind of thing still never fails to shock me, this creep of Jim Crow (C. Vann Woodward describes all this, and yet I still sometimes forget how recent all this ‘old-time’ Jim Crow was):

1901 — 1,826 African Americans voted
1903 — Ella Baker was born
1904 — only 44 African Americans paid the tax required for them to vote
1910 — race riot in which whites randomly attacked blacks after Jack Johnson beat white boxer

Despite all of this, she was raised in one of the few districts left with a majority black electorate where almost all of the others had been gerrymandered out of power after reconstruction. Thus Blacks in her area wielded more political power and were safer than those in many counties. She was protected from most virulent racism. As Baker remembers, this was a close knit community:

We did not come in contact with whites too much….I was shielded from having contact with them at an early age …. This was a complete black community to a large extent. Even the store on the corner, it was Mr. Foreman’s store, he was black. Even the ice cream store was owned by Mr Evans….So, this is the kind of insulation that was provided by the black people themselves…you didn’t have to run afoul of a lot of insults. (39-40)

Seems like a lot of people were striving to achieve just that, and it resonates with lots of things were still talking about it terms of keeping money in the community and supporting local business. Ransby writes:

Most black children in the early twentieth century had to work for wages as field hands or domestics…. Ella Baker’s grandfather had insisted that that his children and grandchildren not work for white people. (40)

A lot of these threads go way back.

From Norfolk, Ransby describes the educational efforts that went into the forging of middle class-ness through Shaw College:

Shaw students were forbidden from socializing with the black community in Raleigh, except in the formal capacity of charity workers under the supervision of school authorities. (53)

This is all wrapped up in the philosophies of  the Southern Baptist and coloured Women’s clubs “lift as we climb” approach to community service.

‘As some members of the race excelled and progressed, it was their duty to help others along and to contribute to the welfare of those less able and fortunate than themselves. This responsibility to serve the community was derived as much from a sense of class distinction as from a sense of moral duty. Yet for African American women the relationship between class status and moral obligation was a reciprocal one; indeed, staunch  religious faith and selfless service to others was one way in which a woman and her family could attain a respectable, even elevated position within the community. (18)

Lucky all that Baker moved far away from much of that, in struggle as much as geography. Moved as far as Harlem, in fact, in 1927.

Damn, Harlem. What a time that was. Baker says

“I cam up out of the subway at 135th and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance. I headed for the Harlem YMCA down the block, where so many new, young dark…arrivals in Harlem have spent their early days. The next place I headed to that afternoon was the Harlem Branch Library just up the street.” (69)

She must have said more…but Baker would be active in Harlem for the rest of her life, always connected through her apartment even when she was based down in the South. I like that the YMCA and the library were ‘the dual pillars of Harlem’s intellectual and political life for over two decades.’ (69) Reflecting on her arrival there, Baker says:

I, perhaps at that stage, had the kind of ambition that others may have . . . the world was out there waiting for you to provide a certain kind of leadership and give you the opportunity. But with the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control. It wasn’t an easy lesson. It was out of that context that I began to explore more in the areas of ideology and theory regarding social change. (104)

Love.

Going back to the idea of movement halfway houses, Baker spent a semester at Brookwood Labour College, ‘to learn about theories and models of social change, as well as the history of working people.’

Founded by socialists in 1921, Brookwood’s 1st chairman of the faculty was A.J. Muste — leader in the labour movement, then member (later head) of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which shows up again and again (and then again) in radical histories of the century. There Baker met Pauli Murray, a longtime friend and comrade, someone else to read more about.

She became friends with the (famous/ later somewhat infamous) George Schuyler and his wife Josephine, became part of his circle. They helped found the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, with Schuyler as president and Baker as national director. Some of its principles — and principles that Baker would carry with her through the whole of her life:

  • full inclusion and equal participation of women
  • full participation of its rank and file in decision making and leadership
  • young people should be in the forefront of the struggle for social change (83)

In 1930  they came up with a 5 year plan (inspired by Lenin), their goals were to train 5,000 co-op leaders by 1932, establish a wholesale cooperative outlet by 1993, finance an independent college by 1937. (86)

As a former organiser I confess, I like hearing other people’s goals– and these are damn impressive. They didn’t reach them, but it was still something: The YNCL grew from 30 members (they made these goals with 30 members?) in December to 400  in two years, local councils in 22 cities stretching between both coasts. 22 cities? I wish there was more on this. Again like Septima Clark’s work, and the cooperative grocery they formed in the front room of the first citizenship school, these stories and efforts to build more cooperative ways of working intertwine with so much of the struggle. Shit, we’re still trying to build cooperatives. Ransby writes:

Buying cooperatives would, they hoped, demonstrate on a small scale the efficiency of collective economic planning and simultaneously promote the values of interdependency, group decision making, and the sharing of resources. (86)

In 1936 she began working as a consumer education teacher for the Workers Education project (WEP) of the WPA — who didn’t work for the WPA? I would give almost anything to have been hanging around there…she did what she did and looked for jobs that would support her in that.

Then 1940, WWII, the double V movement for victory abroad and victory at home, and Baker joined staff of NAACP as assistant field secretary. Ransby notes that Baker was:

convinced that how one fought was as important as what one was fighting for; the key to change lay in the process of movement building. (106)

This meant the NAACP was somewhat frustrating, particularly as women were ‘indispensable but underappreciated’ in the NAACP. No woman had been elected as executive secretary and they were usually excluded from inner decision making circles despite being the backbone of many active branches and national staff. The NAACP provided an opportunity, though a flawed one. (106)

Already Ella Baker was fighting the class biases of black professionals, who:

had attitudes that were not particularly helpful in terms of change. For instance,…they would  be against the idea of going to battle for the town drunk who happened to have been brutalized when being arrested, because who was he? (120)

I love that Baker would fight for the town drunk. Through 1942 and 43 she increasingly became involved in the labour movement and CIO organizing efforts as part of her NAACP work, though not quite in the ways she hoped — she wrote to Lucille Baker after going to support CIO organizing shipyard workers in Newport News, VA:

The CIO is moving in, organizing everything . . . . I wish I could stay here several months. It is just the time to do a real piece of organizing for the NAACP, but as usual, I can only linger long enough to stir up sufficient interest to increase the membership by a few hundred and collect a few dollars. . . .  (133)

I love this quote too. Love how Baker wants to stay put, spend more time developing relationships, really organise rather than just get some members and raise some money. NAACP didn’t have much idea what was possible through that. Still, in 1943, her friends unexpectedly catapulted her into the position of the NAACP’s director of branches — White didn’t even ask her before putting out press release. She was pretty pissed, but she ended up saying yes. How could you say no? She traveled the country, still getting members, still raising money.

In the early 1950s (now over 20 years since she first started this kind of work mind, some long hard years and she’s still going) she became part of the struggle to improve public education. After Brown v Board she worked with Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark to fight for ‘community-based’ models of learning. They founded Parents in Action, trying to bring together African American and Puerto Rican parents in the same struggle for education. The group was able to act with autonomy from the more constricting NAACP  — feels like Baker had a very conflicted relationship with the NAACP.  She had an ambiguous relationship to the NAACP’s communist purging as well, part of the committee, but she worked with socialists before and after all of this. You’re doing good work in the community, she would work with you.

In 1955 she also joined Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to form In Friendship to funnel resources to Montgomery Bus Boycott … this would later be essentially taken over by E. Phillip Randolph, to be run by a committee handpicked by George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO.

The conflict between In Friendship and the union leaders also illustrates the reluctance of established leaders to relinquish any of their power to, or even make room for, upstart organizations. Baker encountered this problem repeatedly over the years. (166)

Still, it is through In Friendship that Ella Baker would be on hand to help form the SCLC. Then there’s SNCC, and the heart of her most exciting popular education and organising work, as well as lessons learned. To be saved for part 2, but first? A side note — I absolutely love that one of Ella Baker’s few indulgences were her fabulous hats.

ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.
ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.

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Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power

330458Kenneth B. Clark ([1967] 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).

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