One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet. Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.
When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turns black and Moses watch it and curse the fog. (1)
Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) is grand. The writing, the characters, the thoughtfulness. The invitation into experiencing a London so particular to the Windrush generation’s time and place. The humour, the tall-tale aspect as though you were listening to these stories spoken aloud. The home truths. How when you come you stay in a hostel at first:
When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn’t have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he could meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away — for this city powerfully lonely when you on your own. (29)
How you find your way around London, into the places and the neighbourhoods you can live in and be accepted to a certain extent. The reflection on class and race and how these fit together.
The place where Tolroy and the family living was off the Harrow Road, and the people in that area call the Working Class. Wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades. This is the real world, where men know what it is to hustle a pound to pay the rent when Friday come. The houses around here old and grey and weatherbeaten, the walls cracking like the last days of Pompeii, it ain’t have no hot water, and in the whole street that Tolroy and them living in, none of the houses have bath. You had was to buy one of them big galvanise bath and boil the water and full it up, or else go to the public bath. Some of the houses still had gas light, which is to tell you how old they was. All the houses in a row in the street, on both sides, they build like one long house with walls separating them in parts, so your house jam up between two neighbours: is so most of the houses is in London The street does be always dirty except if rain fall. Sometimes a truck does come with a kind of revolving broom and some pipes letting out water, and the driver drive near the pavement, and water come out the pipes and the broom revolve, and so they sweep the road. It always have little children playing in the road, because they ain’t have no other place to play. They does draw hopscotch blocks on the pavement, and other things, and some of the walls of the buildings have signs painted like Vote Labour and Down with the Tories. The bottom of the street, it had a sweet-shop, a bakery, a grocery, a butcher and a fish and chips…
It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers. Them rich people who does live in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and up in Hampstead and them other plush places, they would never believe what it like in a grim place like Harrow Road or Notting Hill…People don’t talk about things like that again, they come to kind of accept that is so the world is, that it bound to have rich and poor, it bound to have some live by the Grace and other who have plenty. That is all about it, nobody does go into detail. A poor man, a rich man…
It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades, because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down. A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n. (59-61)
There are tales of stealing pigeons, catching seagulls. Eating well. Spur of the moment marriages. Mistakes. Unexpected aunts transforming a street and suddenly the corner store works on credit. The courage needed to find your way on the tube. The good times of London, the thrill you get sometimes thinking to yourself I’m here, I’m really here, and is fine:
So, cool as a lord, the old Galahad walking out to the road, with plastic raincoat hanging on the arm, and the eyes not missing one sharp craft that pass, bowing his head in a polite ‘Good evening’ and not giving a blast if they answer or not.This is London, this life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. (75)
Galahad is who Moses met on the train. This is as much his story. His musings on race — what better way to think about how it is constructed, how meaningless it is and yet still shape our lives?
And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know, why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, is you, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world.
So Galahad talking to the colour Black, as if is a person, telling it that is not he who causing botheration in the place, but Black, who is a worthless thing for making trouble all about. (77)
A new happiness for me every time I go to Piccadilly Circus, a fictional memory overlaid on my own but such a good one:
Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gar laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. Oh Lord. (79)
This is what I do love about London, even if Bayswater Road is now far out of reach for people like me:
The changing of the seasons, the cold sl9icing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ Picadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’
What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else? What is it that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything — sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. (133-134)
And then there is Pressure (1975), the story of Tony just graduated from school and looking for work and Notting Hill in the 1970s and the life of a kid born in London to Trinidadian parents who believe this will open doors for him despite the colour of his skin. It is the first feature length British film by a Black director, Horace Ové, and cowritten by him and Selvon. It is a slow, but powerful engagement with racism, with the friendships built across race amongst the working class kids growing up together, with Black Power and Black realities in London of the time, of the tensions between generations and family born in one world and family born into another. It is rice and peas versus fish and chips. It is conformity to white masters and a white world and consolations in Jesus versus taking one’s place by right as a British citizen. It is how to take that right through collective action, but the limited numbers still engaged in that action. It is more serious than Lonely Londoners, a little more angry, less of good times even in poverty and more of struggle and frustration. More racist cops. More beatings. More complexity. It stays in one neighbourhood, perhaps you sense the tightening down of community, there is none of this sprawling across London that the life of hustling brings many of the characters in The Lonely Londoners. These characters, too, are absent in depth, there is no Big City, no Cap here though an echo of their younger selves perhaps, but instead a kid trying to make his own way, discovering racism for himself, working through his own identity slowly but surely.
I quite loved Americanah — this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.
I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other — I like them as things I don’t have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don’t like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.
Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.
There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can’t help but quote these:
In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often….Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station…and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (227)
This too rings so true, breaks my heart:
The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)
I also loved Ifemelu’s blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:
Job Vacancy in America — National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”
Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)
This quote is just because I know someone like this:
There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).
My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.
Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written.
The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.
‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)
No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:
I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).
The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).
Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes
‘I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)
I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).
Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)
On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:
In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)
Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:
The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)
He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:
The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).
The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.
If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)
He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:
The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)
And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:
The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)
He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.
He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.
For me the key insight is that this spatial arrangement we know as the ghetto is not static or unchanging or some historical holdover that we can’t quite seem to get rid of. Instead, ‘the contemporary ghetto appeared a dynamic institution that was continually being renewed, reinforced, and reshaped’ (xii). It’s forces now as well as the past we need to be analyzing.
He writes up front:
primary attention is devoted to whites. That is where the power was. This is not to say that blacks have simply ‘reacted’ to the actions of others and do not ‘act’ in their own behalf. But what we are looking at here is the construction of the ball park within which the urban game is played. And there is no question that the architects, in this instance, were whites’ (xii)
Of all the books I’ve read, this is the most explicit about class differences and the different costs of policy and geography to whites in Chicago, also the most sympathetic to working class rioters. He certainly does show that ‘white hostility was of paramount importance in shaping the pattern of black settlement’ (9).
It was the sheer presence of the first ghetto and the white reaction to it, though, that did the most to produce the second. In creating it, white Chicago conceived a “Frankenstein’s monster,” which threatened to “run amok” after World War II. The establishment of racial borders, their traditional acceptance, and the conditions spawned by unyielding segregation created an entity that whites feared and loathed. Those who made it were soon threatened by it, and, desperately, they both employed old techniques and devised new ones in the attempt to control it. Others elected to flee to the suburbs, thus compounding the difficulties of those left behind. In any event, the very process of racial succession, dormant for nearly a generation, inspired both the dread and the action that called forth the second ghetto (15-16)
Oh, white people and their imaginations sparked by their racist ways. There is so much to be unpacked in this paragraph, but I’m saving that for later.
Another key idea:
The forces promoting a durable and unchanging racial border–the dual housing market, the cost of black housing, restrictive covenants–were, at first, buttressed by teh hosing shortage. Once new construction began, however, those same forces became an overwhelmingly powerful engine for change(29).
Of these forces, restrictive covenants were possibly the least effective, he notes they are only ‘a fairly coarse sieve, unable to stop the population when put to the test.’ (30)
He notes the ‘imagined “status” differences that were impervious to the bleaching power of money’ (35), the fears of losing the ‘life and death’ struggle for housing. He also notes the shift from open racism in the struggle to protect neighbourhoods to the use of planning jargon and the language and tools of redevelopment. Another key insight is into the nature of Chicago’s ‘hidden violence’, kept quiet by media and ‘conscious city policy’ (42) to try and dampen the possibilities of even more extended racial violence like that erupting in 1919 and 1943 when many lives were lost at the hands of white mobs. In fact white mobs were able to form at will to ‘protect’ their turf, and these collections of ‘Friends, neighbors, and rioters’ were horrific. They are fairly well documented as well, a large proportion of working-class immigrants coming together (German, Irish, Slavs, Poles), a large proportion of Catholics, almost all from the neighborhood under threat (no outsiders here stirring things up…).
They are in contrast with the equally racist but more liberal sounding community near the University of Chicago, and the startling role of the University itself in consciously protecting neighboring areas for whites. Actually, what I find startling is not that they had that policy, but how much is solidly documented in how their expansion from 7 to 110 acres was to stop African-Americans from ‘encroaching’. But they were certainly masters of manupulating city agencies and urban renewal to protect their interests, often at the cost of tearing down good housing and displacing working class white communities (which they viewed as liabilities given their vulnerability to ‘inflitration’) as well as black communities. Chancellor Hutchins of the University wrote the following poem:
The Chancellor and the President gazed out across the park,
They laughed like anything to see that things were looking dark.
“Our neighborhood,” the Chancellor said, “once blossomed like the lily.”
“Just seven coons with seven kids could knock our program silly.”
“Forget it,” said the President, “and thank the Lord for Willie.”
Just as telling:
Nothing would have shocked Hype Parkers more than the assertion that they were part of a generalized “white” effort to control the process of racial succession in Chicago. The imputation of brotherhood with the ethnic, working-class rock throwers would have been more than they could bear. Yet, there was just such a consensus (171)….
Chicago’s whites found themselves engaged in a desperately competitive struggle with each other. The successful “defense” of one neighborhood increased the problems of the others (172).
What troubled me most about the framing was some of the evaluation of strategy. Hirsch writes:
The ethnics’ defensive yet militant espousal of their “whiteness,” however, and the demand for privilege on that basis, was a flawed defense in the context of post-World War II race relations’ (197)
The use of the word ‘ethnics’ causes me a twinge (as natives does later on in reference to whites), but something about the idea that submerging themselves into the white identity caused immigrants to lose out on gaining from minority status is worse. Hirsch does note that this also downplays the differences between national and racial differences in US history and forms of oppression. But then he continues:
Second, the immigrants and their children displayed the poor judgment of becoming militantly white at the precise moment prerogatives of color were coming into question. If they were successful in finally lining their identity to that of the natives, they were left not simply with the natives’ privileges of rank but also with the bill for past wrongs that the “whites” were now expected to pay’ (198).
This simply feeds into a neoconservative line that these ‘bills’ have been paid when they have never ever been properly faced in this country, much less paid. Sure working class whites have benefitted less and been screwed over plenty of times, but they have still benefitted, and inequalities in wealth between them and all peoples of color continues to grow.
Back finally to the formation of the ‘Second Ghetto’. The one that emerged after downtown interests and other powerful institutions like the University of Chicago anchored in the center city under threat ‘realized that the power of the state — not as it then existed but in greatly augmented form — would have to be enlited in their aid’ (213). The working class whites defending their neighborhoods never managed to wield this kind of power, but violence did prove ‘effective’ in many neighborhoods (far more than those who simply relied on covenants), did influence public policy, and certainly impacted the Chicago Housing Authority so that it institutionalized segregation as policy — particularly in projects where whites were willing to fight violently against integration. These new pressures — planning, redevelopment and public housing policy — combined to make segregation more a result of government policy than private activity. It was so entrenched, when the federal court ordered further public housing to be fully integrated in 1969, Chicago just stopped building new housing.
Chicago’s redevelopment policies — developed primarily to benefit the University of Chicago and other downtown interests, then became models for the nation. But this story is a familiar one to anyone who knows Detroit, St Louis, L.A., probably any city in the whole damn country.