I look forward to today’s conversation with graduate students in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” course. We will take up excerpts from W.E.B. DuBois’ 1899 study on African American life in Philadelphia, excerpts from St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s 1945 study on Chicago and Gilbert Osofsky’s 1968 essay on the “tragic sameness” about black urban life. The goal is to push their thinking about how different scholars address the ways in which black bodies became associated with cities and the rise of what we now call “ghettoes.” Even amid ongoing gentrification in most American cities that push the black and white working class outside urban areas, the discussion will be an important one.
While preparing for today’s class, I was drawn as I had been during my graduate studies to maps of the black community as it existed in Philadelphia when DuBois went from door to door, asking questions with the hopes of parting the curtain on black life. He was a member of the black elite and a New Englander so this act was difficult for both him and the people he interviewed.
After looking at those Philly maps, I wanted to also see again how turn of the century Harlem looked as African Americans began to settle in that area, many of them new arrivals from the South. Osofky mentioned Harlem in his essay.
I wanted to see, too, what interwar Chicago’s “Black Belt” as described by Drake and Cayton looked like.
Maps hardly tell the entire story so I, of course, sorted through several videos, wanting to offer the students something more vivid and immediate. I stumbled upon a late 1960s NBC clip of the 1967 riots in Detroit as narrated by the late Harvard scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan whose study on black American life received mixed reviews in the scholarly community.
I was struck by this NBC clip of the Detroit riots because I had been editing a documentary on the late jazz guitarist Grant Green. Green, my former father in law, is a native of St. Louis, but settled on Detroit’s west side in the early 1970s, shortly after those difficult summers that found many urban areas on fire. From Watts, Newark to Detroit and beyond, angry African Americans seemed to be expressing their discontent with ongoing inequities via urban rebellions.
While watching the clip, it became clearer why Motown bolted for the West Coast five years after the riots. Some of those fires were not far from where Berry Gordy had been creating music for “young America.” Even though he went west to make movies, it may have been hard for this “young America” message to resonate with so much anger in the rear view in black Detroit.
The NBC maps of the fire damage in Detroit were customary of the time. They were little more than graphics on poster board. But they persuasively told a particular story that makes many people upset as recent comments about Beyonce’s nod to black militants in the Super Bowl suggest.
As I looked at those NBC maps and listened to the controversy, I thought of the documentary on which I am working. In it, my former husband states that his father was drawn in the early 1970s to Detroit for many reasons including the growing presence of African Americans in important political positions. No matter the ongoing trials and disappointments that occurred alongside some triumphs in the years to come, Detroit looked like a good place for a jazz musician who’d lived in congested New York to buy a house next to the home of Stevie Wonder’s parents. He hoped for a better future for himself, his family, jazz music and without question African Americans, Americans and the world, if his recordings, among them the 1965 Selma March and the 1970 Cease the Bombing, reveal.
Grant was a Muslim although even his closest friends said his adherence to the faith was inconsistent. He literally broke bread with white and black Americans. For sure, in the documentary, called “The Grant Green Story,” his friendship with the late Ollie Matheus, the white owner of the short-lived beatnik St. Louis club Holy Barbarian, seems genuine as expressed by Matheus, who himself was a bit of a radical.
Before his death, Matheus shared his own tales of heading to Nicaragua and Haiti to fight for “the people.” Long before he did that, he put black and white musicians onstage in St. Louis in 1959, angering many locals. His club was not opened very long.
There will be much through which to sort today in class. While having my morning tea today, I heard the Writer’s Almanac tribute to Nelson Mandela and would like to close by sharing it today. Although I helped covered as a Miami Herald reporter his visit to Miami during his tour of the United States following his February 11, 1990 release from a South African prison, I had not fully known at the time his commitment to addressing both white and black domination. His mission, Grant’s life, the NBC video and today’s look at the arrival of black ghettoes (indeed, black and white urban Americans, generally speaking, lived beside one another in the antebellum period), create opportunities for what I hope will be a rich discussion.
Certainly the talk will push my own commitment to be attentive to white and African Americans’ complex shared past, which shows up in so many things including an unexpected conversation I had yesterday with a former student. She hopes to earn a Master’s degree in Social Work to address the needs of different populations including the aging. I was touched as my recent visit to see my grandmother is always at the back of my mind. I saw how active the mind can be even as the physical body fails as this video on Alice Barker, a former Harlem Renaissance dancer, reveals. My grandmother looked at a sheet of paper, wondering why it had no words. This former Mississippi sharecropper got earned her GED when I was in elementary school. My brother and I studied with her. She loved to read the newspaper. So did my late grandfather who had a sixth grade education. I shared this with my student who is white. She nodded and mentioned her grandparents.
There is so much that keeps us apart as this NBC video shows. Kumbayah moments are tempting, but not always the solution. Random meetings, I am increasingly seeing, seem to have a bigger impact. I think. Again, there is much through which to sort.