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of bodies, souls and the “city”

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An African City,” the Ghanaian version of “Sex in the City,” can be seen on Youtube. It is the subject of a graduate student’s final paper.

 

Departure. This is the theme for this week’s “Gender, Race and Urban Space” graduate course. It is fitting as this is our last week with assigned readings. Before us are several writings that invite discussion on what it means for human beings to move to, through and away from the United States, and cities, in the postwar period. With the last two weeks readings on Miami in mind, we will be discussing how such movement manifests in the experiences of African Americans and Hispanics, among the latter, Mexican migrants. Scholars Daniel T. Lichter and Kenneth M. Johnson suggest rather than moving only to established communities in metropolitan areas as many did for years, some Hispanics are in fact moving to the suburbs.

 

We will also explore the “return migration” of African Americans since the late 1960s. Journalists and scholars, among them William Falk, Larry L. Hunt and Matthew O. Hunt, have noticed the movement of such individuals from northern cities like New York to southern ones including Atlanta and Charlotte. Some blacks are moving to the South for the first time in search of a better quality of life. Others seeking the same are returning “home.” Home is often a rural space. We will ponder how such migration compares to the northerly and westerly migrations of black Americans during the first half of the twentieth century.

Also before us is Americanah, an imagined work by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.  In this book, which will also be movie starring Lupito Nyong’o, the students will be introduced to Ifemelu, a young woman of Nigerian descent. While having had a successful life in the States, she longs to also return “home.” Awaiting her is a former love.

When I read this book a couple of years ago, it was one of those page turners I kept putting down because I didn’t want to know how it ended. Strange. I usually do not want to put a book down  because I do not want it to end.

I have shared my copy of the book. It is that good and I look forward to hearing my students discuss it alongside of the other readings. I am already thinking of the tensions Ifemelu’s departure for home pose with African Americans migrating South in the last forty of so years.  Also, we are told Ifemelu is “altered” by America. In what way does this idea resonate with real-life migrants and immigrants, past and present?

I am big fan of Adiche, who “gets” that there is no monolithic story about people of African descent even as we can recover large narratives that bear witness, generally speaking, to real pain endured by black people. Hazel Carby is scholar whose work also  explores this theme with gender in view.

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Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah is being made into a movie that I look forward to seeing.

The graduate students will look for answers to questions concerning the complex migration streams of African Americans and Hispanics and the ways in which racial and ethnic “minorities” are more mobile even as residential segregation persists. Above all, they should continue to be curious about how all of the readings encounter “the city.” How does this space enable the people before us to dream certain dreams and enact certain dramas over and over again? What does the city represent? How does it pose tensions with iconic view of the frontier in American life. It is worth it to return to our initial readings for answers.

Indeed, “the city” should be on the graduate students’ radar – I repeat, “the city” must be on the graduate students’ radar – and reflected in their final papers due April 29. One student will look at the novels of “Iceberg Slim,” the nickname for Robert Beck, a Chicago pimp-turned-novelist whose work had a large African American readership in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later, influenced rappers Ice Cube and Ice T.  Beck’s work has been translated into many languages including German, French and Greek.

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The life of Robert Beck a.k.a. Iceberg Slim has been captured in a biography and a documentary, the latter produced by rapper Ice T.

Another student will examine the Youtube series “An African City,” the Ghanaian version of “Sex in the City.” And yet another will take up the issue of skin color politics among  African American woman. Think Madame Re-Res Beauty Salon in Spike Lee’s “School Daze” or  the “war council” of black women in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”

I am excited to see these students taking up my invitation to use cultural works to push their thinking about the many issues we have addressed this semester. I have wanted them to first and foremost, learn how to “historicize” the city. What we call “urban”  changes depending on time and place and yes, people. They have also been very aware of identity politics. They know ideas about race and gender are really agreements that can also be historicized. I tell even undergrads in my “American Civilization to 1865” course if we could do a ”Back to the Future”-like drive back in time and walk up to one of the Africans enslaved in Jamestown, raise our first and say, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” we are liable to get punched in face. What is “black?” at least one of them might have wondered.

Scholars debate whether race predates New World settlement. Without question, the creation of “blackness” was a critical tool of capitalism. Bodies were needed to plant and pick that tobacco and other crops, including cotton. It was determined that the best bodies to do it looked a certain way. This sort of thinking continued well into the antebellum and postbellum periods.

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Howard Pyle created this image depicting the arrival of Africans in Jamestown for a 1917 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The grad students have also been pushed to think deeply about how the “black” body became associated with the city. Before the Civil War, black urban dwellers lived alongside of whites in cities like Cincinnati. That changed considerably during the postbellum period. By the middle of the next century, a new generation of scholars began to take up the issue of African American urban life. Phrases like “tragic sameness” and words like “underclass” were heard by the 1970s.

We now know that working class people, black and white ones, are still in cities, but not like they were in years past. Gentrification is a big reason why this is so, something the students now know. Many city dwellers cannot afford rising rents.

In one of the articles before us this week, the students will learn that the decline in black New Yorkers brings comparisons to the evacuation of African Americans in 1863 after the draft riots. Human beings move to, through and from spaces to escape something and often to improve their lives. This is a recurring theme in many imagined narratives, including “Body and Soul,” a 1925 Oscar Micheaux film (Chicago composer Renee Baker‘s jazz score of the movie, which she presented this past weekend at Ebertfest, is beautiful).

When “Body and Soul” is positioned alongside of the 1964 “Nothing but a Man” –  my students saw this film a couple of weeks ago – what new insights are gained about the black body in southern cities like Atlanta and Birmingham in the twentieth century?

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Julia Theresa Russell plays Isabelle, the young woman who flees to Atlanta in the 1925 Oscar Micheaux film “Body and Soul.”

Structural and racial forces present hurdles to many people, among them African American hip hop performers who  rechannel their frustrations into music, something my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” undergraduates know, too. Their final papers are due at noon today. This will be a busy week.  But it won’t be long before we indeed depart for a few months and then it will begin again next Fall. Roll.

 

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