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Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Black Metropolis: A Single Mother Bucks the System

Self Making Woman

“I haven’t been anywhere farther than Massachusetts. I went to Nantucket once on a hostel trip but I was too young to even ap­preciate it. I want to go to Califor­nia, Africa, the Caribbean. I’d like to travel deep, and far, and wide.” Shaune Edwards laughs. “But definitely next year I want to take my son to Disney World.”

Shaune Edwards can remember when she was leery of going to Crown Heights because it was a new neighborhood, and she recalls when she was frightened of quitting her job as a dental assistant and trying to get a college degree. “The first time I came to Troy Avenue I thought it was scary, a new place, so alien, but now I live there. I was even afraid to come here to school. You think you have security in your little piece of a job,” says Edwards. “But leav­ing was the best thing I ever did. You’re afraid, but you get used to it, and you keep going.”

Edwards is 30 years old and has a five­-year-old son, Howard, to support. The $200 a week she was bringing home after working in dentist offices for 10 years just wasn’t cutting it. So she sat down and made a plan to do something about it. Edwards, a satin-skinned walnut brown woman with dreadlocks swooped up to the crown of her head, is a picture of self-confidence and savvy. She looks the part of self-made woman, dresses in a self-made style.

Since she was 15, Shaune Edwards has been making various plans, and working her way through a maze of indifferent social-service bureaucracies, from anti­-poverty programs and EOC to Manpow­er, public assistance, and scholarship competitions. She is a tough-minded member of the black working class who’s figured out how to use the system. “Well, I’m good at searching out information. I’ll start from one point and just keep on till I get what I need.”

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She is one of those black women you see on the bus or train early in the morn­ing, and late in the evening, almost al­ways with a bag of groceries, a satchel for the other pair of shoes, and usually a child. “If you go to the train station at Franklin Avenue in the morning,” she tells me, “there’s gobs and gobs of people going to work — black people. It seems to me that sometimes they pick out the worst problems we have and publicize that. They pick out the most unfortunate people among us and show them, but the trains are full of people who get up and go to work.” Women like Shaune don’t appreciate having to counteract every­thing their kids see on TV, particularly about black people.

They are women who don’t go to stores to “shop,” but to get what they need. On Saturday afternoon in downtown Brook­lyn there are legions of such women in the fabric stores, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, buying yard goods and patterns for something new. In black Brooklyn the women sport sculptured dos, dreadlocks, and an amazing array of braided and coiled hair styles crossbred from African and Caribbean inspiration. They are not Essence women, exactly­ — they’re more earthy, a few pounds more substantial around the hips. Neat and stylish for work everyday, they don’t go out much because discos aren’t fun any­more and men are scarce — men with jobs and their same kind of “get up in the world” outlook. At least that’s how it seems when you talk with them.

Black working women who are lucky have a network of friends and family, and this network makes the logistics of job, motherhood, and low pay work out just enough. Women like Shaune Edwards bear witness to all the cliches about flexi­bility and survival, keeping a tough exte­rior and a tender heart.

Edwards and her son live in the Albany Houses, tidy older projects on Troy Ave­nue near Atlantic, that look modest com­pared to the warehouses in Fort Greene or on the Manhattan side of the East River. She shares a two-bedroom apart­ment with her best friend’s mother, a 70- year-old widow, who is retired now. “Mama,” as Edwards calls her, is good company and a good friend; she’ll wait watching at the window if Edwards and her son are late getting home. The older woman has lived in the building for 30 years, and now their home is crammed with the furnishings of two apartments. “Mama” has been selling Tupperware for a number of years and Edwards jokes that plastic rains down on them every time they open a closet door.

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I met Shaune one evening after I spoke at Medgar Evers College, where she is now a natural science major who hopes to go on to a state university to continue training to become a physical therapist. She introduced herself, we talked, and she began to tell me why she decided to get out of her last job. Her boss had demanded that she put in more overtime and Edwards had refused. “My son was in school darn near 50 hours a week as it was. It has nothing to do with the money or anything else, but I think I owe him better. I said to myself, I have to have more control over my life and my time. I had to tell him, ‘Look, you pay me for my time, it’s not your time.”

Nowadays Shaune goes to school and to a work-study job at Medgar Evers Col­lege in Crown Heights. She has won two scholarships for this year: one from the East Brooklyn Lioness Club, for being picked “single mother of the year” by the college’s Center for Women’s Develop­ment, and another renewable scholarship from New York Telephone.

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

On weekdays she and Howard Jr. — she split with Howard Sr. when their son was a few months old — are up about 6 a.m. While she is getting dressed she might catch the news on TV. Then she helps the boy get bathed and dressed. “If I wake up late and I’m rushing, I do everything,” she says. Some mornings she puts in a wash, which she hangs up when she gets back around seven. “We have a ritual to start the day on a good note,” she says. “We hug and kiss, and at night we do the same. I try to make sure neither of us starts the day wrong or goes to bed that way.”

She usually fixes him breakfast, but some days he eats at his school, the Nev­ins Day Care Center, run by Human Re­sources on Atlantic Avenue downtown, a half-hour bus ride from home. Howard has been at the center since he was two and a half and will go into the kindergar­ten there in September. Monday through Thursday she takes classes — everything from math to swimming — and reports to the office at 1:30 to do peer counseling.

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On a Thursday morning she has been trying to juggle getting Howard to day care at eight, making a field trip with one class, and returning to Brooklyn for an­other. At her desk at 1:30, she looks se­rene despite it all, dressed head to ankle in flowing white cotton, finished off with red shoes. She never wears matching earrings, so today she a large silver number on one side and a little African continent on the other, accompanied by a small beaded piece, a dash of Rasta colors.

A radio is playing in the small room with four desks, and women are coming and going as their “shifts” change. Does she listen to the radio much? Sometimes they have on WLIB, the black news-and-­talk station, but, she says, “I can’t get any work done when that’s on because I get so involved in listening to what they’re talking about.” Children from a play group across the hall dart in and take a look every now and then.

Here she helps people work their way through the cumbersome and unfriendly bureaucracies that she herself has manip­ulated so well — the world where they al­ways want your “papers,” as black folks used to say. Most of the time, according to Shaune’s way of knowledge, it’s a mat­ter of what mood they’re in behind the desk you’re standing at.

“One woman stopped in and said she needed an official transcipt to send to the Board of Education. The woman in the registrar’s office was telling her that she couldn’t send an official transcript. I said, ‘Yes, she can,’ and told her how she had to do it. A lot of times I tell people, you know, you have to know your own busi­ness, ’cause we have a tendency to sit around waiting for people to tell us. You can’t do that because these people aren’t responsible for you.”

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Shaune was born in New York City but raised on Philadelphia’s once bustling black North Side, most famous perhaps for doowop groups and a gym where Muhammad Ali trained. Like many other black neighbor­hoods it now looks wasted, bottomed out.

“The only new things that happen there are when somebody dies, gets killed, or a new baby is born. And crack is com­ing into the neighborhood, tearing a lot of people down. There’s no end to that but death — you die from it, or trying to get it, or you go to jail. The enterprising people want to sell drugs, and the people without hope want to buy.

“I guess I got out ’cause I was the one who went out of the neighborhood to the movies, or street fairs across town. I got to go on camping trips, hosteling trips. The antipoverty programs sponsored things, and these trips gave me insight that there were other things going on. I’ve been in New York 13 years and I’ve invited my friends, people I grew up with, to visit me and in all that space of time none of them have ever come.”

At 15 Shaune was headed for a 10th­-grade college-prep program when Phila­delphia had one of its famous teachers strikes. It lasted eight weeks and when school opened Shaune Edwards was not there. “I don’t know why,” she says now. “I don’t know — I just quit at that point.” She then went into the Neighborhood Youth Corps, where she took classes in the morning to prepare for the high school equivalency exam, and worked in the afternoons at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. She passed the test the second time around and at 16, headed for New York with her GED, and stayed.

“I came here and went to the South Bronx, a project on Cypress Avenue. It was horrible. All I did was come and go, ’cause I didn’t hang out in the neighbor­hood. But it all looks like a struggle to me. You live in these places, you see the young girls with the babies, people hang­ing on the corner. The one and only time I got robbed was up there. I had just come from the bank and I guess the guy must have seen me leaving there. He got in the elevator with me and pulled out a knife and asked me for my money. At the elevator I was just kind of daydreaming­ — I don’t do that anymore.

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“But you know the one thing I like about New York is you can find what you want to find. I used to go different places. Me and my friends would go to Central Park and go on the rowboats. And I was going to school again.”

School was an EOC program operating out of the Theresa Hotel building in Har­lem. For two semesters Edwards took col­lege prep classes, beefing up basic skills in reading, writing, and math. In 1975 she enrolled in Medgar Evers in business ad­ministration, but stayed only a semester and a half. When she left school she got a job at Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, doing assembly work.

“I was screwing in stuff, you know, mechanical work, making Detecto-Lite voltage testers. You had to make like 2000 and stuff. You had a quota. I didn’t stay there long. I went to the Manpower Of­fice and they sent me to school because there were no openings. They told me I could come in for a test any day at one o’clock. So I went the next day; I just decided to go. I did pretty well on the test, so they told me they had something. They sent me to the New York School for Medical and Dental Assistants in Forest Hills and I went. They paid for uniforms, books, and you got a stipend.

“I went there every day — that was a 300-hour course. And I did very well. That was the first time I realized my potential for school. From there I couldn’t get a job right away as a medical assistant — there weren’t many listings in the paper. I was supposed to be a phys­cian’s office assistant. You take pressures, weigh the patients, and stuff.”

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When she couldn’t find a job she had another one of her ideas, made another plan. “I went to the medical center around the corner from me on Eastern Parkway, the Park East Medical Center. I asked the pediatrician there, Dr. Ben­nett, could I work with him as a volun­teer, and would he write me a reference letter. And I worked for him for about a month and change. He was a good doctor, and he wrote the letter for me. Matter of fact, he gave me money too. I bought my mother and family Christmas presents. And I still couldn’t find a job.

“I went home for a while and Dr. Ben­nett called me and said the center needed a dental assistant. The dentists liked to train their assistants themselves, and so I got it. And that’s how I became a dental assistant for 10 years.”

Shaune worked at Park East for four and a half years, making $100 every two weeks, filling out insurance forms, taking care of office supplies, sterilizing instru­ments, and a little bit of everything. She left to have her baby and went a year without work, for a while living on public assistance. She has lived in a succession of apartments, mostly in Brooklyn, shar­ing quarters with an aunt, various girl­friends, a boyfriend’s family in Crown Heights.

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“I had my own apartment when I was 19, on South Oxford Street. Then I took my friend’s apartment on Cumberland, a studio, and I stayed there a good while. From there, me and another friend lived in Park Slope — a six-room walk-through. It was nice. We were paying $275 and it went up to $300 — now I think those apartments go for about $800 or $1000.”

She also shared a one-bedroom with a friend who had four children. Shaune and Howard slept on the couch. She still would never consider trying to pay $400 rent and dreads the day the idea of having to live somewhere other than with “Mama” — unless she could go upstate to school.

Recently she visited a friend who lives in a black neighborhood in Laurelton, Queens. It surprised her to get off the bus and see the lawns and neat, tree-lined streets with houses sitting back off the street. “I said boy, oh boy, would I like to have my son out here. If I ever get a real good job and get straight, I’d like to get a place out there. I would definitely move out to Queens. Granted every place has its pitfalls, but there’s more stability out there. The kids seem nice.

“You know, kids know what they see. I don’t say anybody’s better than the next person, but they know what they see. If they come out and they’re all hanging on the street, and everything is to be big, bad, and macho, then they’ll be big, bad, and macho, ’cause they have to survive.”

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When Shaune came back into the work force four or five years ago, she went to work for $190 a week at the Smile Center on West 72nd Street. When she quit her last job at the medical building on Hanson Place in downtown Brooklyn, she was bringing home between $200 and $225 a week. Living on that kind of in­come has sometimes meant taking two buses and a train every day to get her son to day care that cost $45, instead of $75. And working overtime frequently meant getting home at 10. She came home, ate, and went to bed. Most of all, she told me, she never had time to think about what she could do with her life. She didn’t have time. She was too tired.

At her last job she brought home $866 a month and paid $278 for rent on place she says was “a dump.” “It was still a dump when I left it and they raised the rent to $391.” Child care, now $27 a week, added up to $108 a month. She averaged $140 a month for carfare, and lunches, $200 for food. If you add only modest gas, electric, and phone bills, and something for laundry and dry cleaning, she would be left with about a $25 margin of error or mishap a month. A single illness, or trip to Philadelphia to see her mother, could put her in the soup.

Dental assistants generally don’t get medical coverage, or have pensions. The only time Edwards has had medical cov­erage was when she got Medicaid with welfare. Otherwise she and Howard went to the emergency room. In the summer she puts Howard’s winter clothes on lay­away, and in the winter she starts to lay away the summer things. She has no credit cards.

I wonder what she would do if she had enough money to do whatever she want­ed. “I’d set my mother up in a house and give her a lot of nice things she never had. I’d bribe my younger brothers and sisters to accomplish things. You know, like a car if my older brother got a GED, if my younger brother would finish high school, along with encouragement. But nowadays the kids are so material. I’d try to get them to help themselves.

“I’d finish school. And I would start some kind of community project for sin­gle parents, ’cause nobody understands that better than me. I come from a single parent family and I’m head of one. But even without all that, I want to help my son see where his strengths are. I want to let him try tennis, track. Sometimes he wants to be a pilot, sometimes a bus driver. That’s okay, but I’m just trying to put his hopes up high now.”

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Now, to make it through without work­ing, she is once again on public assis­tance. Edwards applied to the NY State WIN program, which can provide funds for carfare, and day care for people in a two-year school program, but her science major does not fit into their categories, which are geared to filling job slots like secretarial work.

She has been on both sides of the lines of welfare clients trying to get medical treatment. She remembers how they were treated at offices she has worked in and once again finds herself on the receiving end. “A lot of the people who were on Medicaid were black, except for a few whites from Bay Ridge or whatever. But I notice anywhere you go when you come in with your Medicaid card, it’s like a problem. You don’t get the service you should get, they barely want to explain anything to you. If you ask too many questions, they get indignant.”

On a Friday morning she has been called for a “face-to-face” at the welfare office on Flatbush Avenue because her work-study job has come up on the computer as employment at CUNY. She has been down to this office about five times since she started receiving checks in December. Last time she had to come be­cause the computer came up with a $30 check for interest from the IRS on an old tax refund. They wanted to know why she had gotten the $30.

The somber beige offices are surpris­ingly cool and uncrowded. Shaune suspects that the workers schedule fewer people on Friday so that they can get out earlier. People in several short lines wait for phones on the lined along the wall in the first waiting room. Women with guarded faces stare from the lines at each newcomer. Men who look like recent im­migrants to the country sitting with their hands crossed, watching the proceedings. My only frame of reference is the visiting room of a prison, but I try to see it as a more cheerful situation. After all, it only took 15 minutes for Edwards to clear up the work-study problem.

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“It was just regular. She wrote down everything that I brought and that was it.” What did she bring? “Birth certificate, a letter from my son’s school, a letter from the primary tenant of my apartment. There were no changes. It was quick. Actually we had a conversa­tion about other things.” I am still mysti­fied. “I just do what’s required of me, I bring the papers they want, and I don’t really have much trouble. I don’t think the system is designed to get you off. They’d rather pay for you for 50 years than pay for you 10 and have you get a college degree. If you get a piece of change, they investigate it.”

We go from Flatbush Avenue over to the Nevins Day Care Center and pick up Howard and his little friend James. Because there are no classes on Friday, that is the day for Shaune and Howard to spend time together. Usually they go to the movies, or to the zoo, or on some other adventure. “I just want to let him know there’s choices. You don’t have to just come stand outside. You come out, you go somewhere.” Shaune has a long list of places she’d like to take him, places like the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

Howard is all smiles, an amber-eyed boy with a thick brown Afro that Shaune is thinking of getting cut. James is skin­ny, wide-eyed, and talks very fast. Both boys are whooping with excitement and giving the stranger lots of information about school and their trip to the park. They’ve already seen Spaceballs so now they can’t think of a movie. Shaune jokes that she could take them to Adventures in Babysitting, but it might give them too many ideas for new ways to torture adults. She is only half kidding.

It’s decided that we’ll go to the barber­shop, and we head for Kinapps on Flat­bush. The home of the “sculpted” do and luxurious care for locks is packed on a Friday afternoon, so we head for the oth­er Kinapps on DeKalb. The Afrocentric decor — lots of Kente cloth, paintings by Nigerian artist Twin Seven-Seven, and hip cultural nationalist T-shirts — sug­gests something more than an $8 cut. It’s $12 (cuts can go up to $22), but Shaune says she only needs to bring him a couple of times a year. Howard admires himself in the chair and gets a cut that’s shaved on the sides and looks like a little bowl on top. He is right to admire himself because be looks impressively dap for a 5-year-­old. James wants a haircut too but his mother cuts his hair. He takes one look at Howard and says, “I don’t like it.”

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For so long, Edwards says, it has just been a matter of survival. Shaune still likes to come in from a long day and watch sitcoms like The Cosby Show, or those PBS nature shows (she also tunes in Channel 13 for Howard, whose favorite shows are Sesa­me Street, Mister Rogers, and Reading Rainbow). Occasionally she binges on comic books. But she has also found that the time to breathe has made her aware of how she fits into the larger world. She has begun to realize too, that if she takes some actions on public concerns that af­fect the way she survives, she can help.

Shaune Edwards is one of those lucky people who got something out of the so­cial programs now so widely disparaged. By her own will she forced public services to serve her needs. But the Black and African studies she found in college teach something that cannot be learned even as one masters the intricacies of bureaucracy. Courses at Medgar Evers, her involvement with the Center for Women’s Development there, and no doubt, the activist atmosphere of the school, have heightened her political awareness. Shaune has begun to look at the people in the welfare office, whom she calls “distressed,” and see people caught up in socioeconomic realities. This kind of insight, which comes from learning about your history, is one of Malcolm X’s many threatened legacies — ­it creates involved citizens out of folks who have been immobilized by the myth of getting over.

“Now I have more support,” she says, “I can think about things. Before it was just go to work, come home, go to bed.” Most of the people she admires are wom­en, people like the journalist Ida B. Wells, who organized against lynchings at the beginning of the century, and women at Medgar Evers like the Center for Wom­en’s Development’s executive director Safiya Bandele, and Alice Turner, Advo­cate Counselor. “I want to do something like they’ve done. I want an economically stable life, and to do something that makes a difference. I want to be active now. I’m grooming for that now. I want to vote and get involved in the PTA when my son goes to school.”

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Howard Beach also helped bring her feelings into focus. And for the rest of us, her experience can be very instructive. There is no small power in the effect of an incident like the death of Michael Griffith, and no small need to bring peo­ple into contact with political leadership. Shaune Edwards is the constituency of black Brooklyn leadership, a potential voter, block organizer, teacher, and con­sumer/boycotter. And yet she could not recall the name of her congressman. Gov­ernor Cuomo has made no impression on her whatsoever.

Shaune usually picks up the paper, ei­ther the Times or the Daily News, and makes a point to get the City Sun and the Amsterdam News. Has she ever voted before? “This is shameful. I have never voted. This year for the first time I used a voting machine at a school election. I’ve registered a few times, but never voted. I guess I didn’t have the faith. I am defi­nitely going to vote ’cause if there’s some­body I don’t want in there, I want to make my vote count.”

When I asked her if she’d ever seen anything positive for blacks coming out voting, she said, “Yes, when Rizzo tried to change the law so he could run for office again, they had a high turnout and stopped it. But even without that I can see it could work. And when you go downtown you see our economic power.” Who might she vote for? “Jesse Jackson and Lenora Fulani.”

The names Shaune Edwards knows in New York politics are names associated with recent racial tensions. She mentions Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, Brooklyn D.A. Liz Holtzman, Special Prosecutor Joe Hynes, adding, “and of course I know Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason, Reverend Herbert Daughtry, Fa­ther Lawrence Lucas, and Lisa William­son.” Those names come quickly because after Howard Beach, Shaune took herself to a number of the rallies concerned with racial violence — she either saw a flier or beard about them on WLIB and just went.

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Shaune went to the community meet­ing at Boys and Girls High after Howard Beach, and a Malcolm X celebration at City College. “When I went to the rally for Malcolm X I knew of Malcolm X and that was it. So I read his autobiography, and I started By Any Means Necessary.

“When I heard about Michael Griffith, I sat in front of my TV and cried. It could have been my son. I cried for Michael Griffith’s mother. I wrote the Daily News a letter because I was so mad. They ran an interview where somebody said that could happen if a white person came to a black neighborhood. I’ve never read of anything like that. Some of the things they were saying were scary, very scary.

“There comes a time when you have to be conscious, get involved, if you’re aware of what’s going on around you.” Shaune Edwards has stepped that way. ■

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

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Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

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Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

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Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.

***

Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.

***

Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

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But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

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Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

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Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

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McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

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***

A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

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What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

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MOTHERLODES

QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

We’ve Gotta Have It: Spike Lee and a New Black Cinema

In his production diary for Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee refers to the look he wanted for his film as “bright… Afrocentric bright.” Like all of Lee’s films to date, DTRT is afrocentric — not only in its look, but in its language, rhythms, humor, and most important, its worldview. The film chronicles the events on the hottest day of the year on a block in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy­ — events that jostle and collide with one another and finally erupt into a riot. It shows the close-knit life of the block, and it is very real. Lee gets things right, the cacophony of the street, the intimate wranglings that burst into public view, the small hurts and slights at the store counters and from the neighbors. And most of all, he captures the embattled attitude people carry with them at home or at work or in the street.

Early in the film a character named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) appears in front of a church, strug­gling mightily to express himself through an uncoopera­tive stuttering voice. He is selling postcard photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and trying to give voice to what those images mean to him, a black kid trying to survive. It is a stunning evocation of the inexpressibility of black lives these days, or any days. After he appears, all that is articulated throughout the film takes on additional layers of frustration.

Only one character in the film escapes the miseries of being downpressed over food, clothing, shelter, and respect — Mister Señor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), an omniscient, 24-hour, knows-no-sleep block radio jock, a Brooklyn love Baba, chanting hip sutras that usually end “and that’s the truth, Ruth!” The heat doesn’t get to him either. His very 24-ness there in a storefront win­dow is one of the touches of mojo, or Yoruba bush magic, that identify Lee’s vision as a step outside the melodrama of many naturalistic black films. Lee nods to those films, too, with the inclusion of two Mom and Pop characters, “Mother Sister” and “Da Mayor,” played by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, that will be familiar to everyone. Like the coach and the college president in School Daze, they are staples from movie iconography, in this case surrounded by a whole block of folk you almost never see.

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DTRT is also very funny. The film’s humor is Lee’s most effective tool, embracing the characters and cajol­ing the audience. It allows us to deal with the disagree­able in ourselves, as humor should; it does not sell people off while selling jokes. The film is perhaps most provocative, though, for breaching its narrative to show you the perverse but common kinds of prejudice har­bored by characters from all sides of the story. They literally face the camera as talking heads, just as the “dogs” gave their raps in She’s Gotta Have It, and recite the racial slurs lurking in their minds before those feelings come spilling out in the heat of conflict.

It is part of the etiquette of race relations in this country that film does not do this. Whites who are prejudiced are characterized in such a way that their views seem the products of illiteracy or poverty. Blacks who are shown as prejudiced usually have only one operative mode — extreme rage — or they are crazies. In fact, lots of people who see the film will probably get into discussions about whether different characters are racist.

In St. Clair Bourne’s documentary, Making “Do the Right Thing,” there is a preproduction meeting between Lee and Danny Aiello about whether Sal (Aiello), owner of a pizzeria on the Bed-Stuy block, is racist. Lee thinks he is, Aiello thinks not. The white actors in the film do not view the characters they have to play as racist. That is hardly surprising; it’s psychic survival on the job. But they do seem unaware that Lee shows everyone as racist, even Sal — and Lee’s obvious determination to undo a few stereotypes of American film, including the grumpy white guy behind the counter of the local store in a “changing” neighborhood, who really is okay, really. There are two “Sals” in West Side Story, for instance — a candy store owner and a well-meaning social worker. People will want to decide if it is justified for Sal to be ruined, based on whether he is a good guy or a bad guy — that’s the way we’ve been taught to think.

But DTRT, perhaps even in spite of Lee’s intentions, suggests another way to look at the emergence of violence in a community. While Lee clearly believes that race views result from acculturation rather than economic stress, and he shows us the commonly acquired varieties of racism that we all have, the film itself makes clear that the pressures that can create violence are often responses to generalized frustration or fear, unrelated to any clear analysis of individual culpability. This fact was learned or relearned when insurrections erupted in the ’60s. That the pressures still exist is the film’s raison d’etre. This is the link to Howard Beach. In the real-life incident, of course, lawyers and media people attempted to pin various kinds of guilt on the victims of the violence. Those sympathetic to the perpetrators tried to take the edge off the deed by suggesting it could somehow by justified. Look, those guys were bad guys, even if they hadn’t done anything.

Talking about Sal being a racist or not is irrelevant. If Lee’s Mookie, a black who is just trying to get by, as Lee says, “while doing as little work as possible,” harbors untapped rage against the society he lives in and is capable of starting a riot, that is one of the underpinnings of everything that goes on between people in our society. That is the point. Again, I don’t know that Lee meant to say that, but it does get said in the movie. If you leave the theater wondering about the troublesome, seemingly ambivalent ending and the apparently contra­dictory quotes cited from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, it is because you are looking for good guys and bad guys.

To show these layers of racism in the interaction between people in a place like New York, Lee had to show his own — our own — forms of race hatred. And he had to be honest. When asked why Mookie takes some money from the ruined Sal at the end of the film, providing its not-so-sweet ending, Lee answers, “Be­cause this is not a Disney movie. He’s not an idiot. He knows it’s gonna be a while before he gets another job. To do it the other way would have been the Hollywood movie.” (Also not from Disney is the Malcolm/Martin coda.) There are several reasons such honesty may make people uncomfortable.

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It will no doubt make some whites happy to know that a black filmmaker would implicitly criticize blacks for the arbitrary and foolish hostility towards them that sometimes occurs. He shows one of those pointless but utterly commonplace confrontations on a street, a white surrounded by blacks who want to know what he’s doing on their turf. He responds by saying he owns a building there, which any viewer will instantly recognize as a stupidly provocative remark, likely to inflame the al­ready touchy folk who have cornered him. It’s so stupid, you laugh. But it goes to the heart of white indignation — and silence — and black paranoia. Is honesty likely to be turned into a political weapon and used against us? Some will say yes, that kind of honesty; others will say that’s not really honest, because it doesn’t explain the causes of the behavior. It does not show our actions, actions which do not seem justified. His characters are not heroic in the way that we used to understand that word — more kin to Brecht’s folk than John Ford’s. Welcome to the ’90s.

The misanthropic Reagan era, a time of backlash and recrimination, has produced the new thinking that blacks must be more self-critical in looking at the prob­lems in our communities and that we must solve them ourselves. This is quite different from thinking in the ’60s. Blacks too have become susceptible to the neoconservative line that blacks are the creators of their own dilemmas. Even though Lee does not buy this line, his work still reflects the presence of these ideas. He may view his films as nationalistic, but they are hardly ’60s films; in fact they might have met with some serious opposition then and been viewed as loose canons in the politics of the time. But now Lee sits comfortably within a pantheon of African-American artists who came to prominence in the ’80s breaking the ranks of traditional protest art. Recent debates about the work of black writers like Alice Walker have certainly centered on the same question of the uses made of an artist’s unfettered personal honesty.

But have the times made white filmmakers more honest? With the exception of one or two filmmakers, like John Sayles, whose Matewan and The Brother From Another Planet reveal uncanny insight, this is a step white filmmakers have not been bold or interested enough to take.

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While the look and sound of black America often are imitated or appropriated, they usually pop up in a context that basically has nothing to do with how African Americans live and think. The same can be said of Latins and Asians, of course. Some producers may want to claim that they still believe films about blacks, or Latins, or Asians, won’t sell and therefore they must approach stories that may concern us through charac­ters the audience can identify with, but it’s much easier to imagine that white filmmakers are more interested in people like themselves.

In most cases white films use the National Geographic approach to the rest of us: showing nice pictures of beautiful people doing what they do in the broadest manner possible, and in a public forum. You see us break-dancing, cutting, strutting, or doing dope on the street. DTRT is one film I would have said could not be made by the industry in Hollywood.

In recent films blacks have taken on a new allure as background (Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Working Girl, and do you remember The Cotton Club?), and occasionally as objects of desire (Angel Heart, or the British Scandal). Even films like Bird, which purport to be about some particularly black aspect of the culture (popularly including jazz, army duty, or life in jail), not only perish from misguided perspective, but they are really about white people caught up in a fictional black world. Movies have so determined what that black world is like that Lee had to point out to reporters at Cannes that it just might be racist to ask only a black filmmaker why drugs do not appear in his movies.

While shooting Mississippi Burning, a film that uses black people almost exclusively as visuals, Alan Parker told me of his conscious, short-notice decision to shoot a scene of black people in their home. As he told it, the idea seemed to be a breakthrough for him — it usually isn’t done, he explained. The National Geographic cameras go in from the public forum to show you what they’re really like. The great flaw in this method is that it also undoes the logic of the film, because nothing is revealed by the people. When a riot unaccountably breaks out in Parker’s tiny Mississippi town, for instance, the black viewer, at least, is jarred into reality. If you are content to view blacks as inexplicable anyway, you move on; otherwise you come up with the racist notion that blacks just break out into riot every now and then. While Lee has made it a point in all of his work not to explain black people, but to let them be, it is very clear in DTRT what troubles each of the characters, black, white, Latin, or Asian. The assumption here is that that people matter, or as Lee puts it, that “Black life is as important as white life.” It is a tragedy that this must be one of the unique contributions of a black filmmaker to American culture.

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Black perspective is so precious a commodity in film that even a novel written by a black person (take Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place) and produced as a film for TV by a black person (say, Oprah Winfrey) can come up with images and stereotypes more tired than the normal fare with a director (say, Donna Deitch) who seemingly knows nothing more than clichés. Perhaps you also thought of another black woman’s novel (say, The Color Purple), and another director (Steven Spielberg). I doubt if even The Color Purple‘s most ardent supporters would say the film reflected an African-American way of looking at life. (Heaven help us. What will become of Beloved or Their Eyes Were Watching God, which are similarly situated to be made into films?) The process of filming any life is one of a thousand decisions about character, character understood from the inside out. The often filmmakers draw on how people of color have appeared in other films — films that denigrated even how we look.

But black filmmakers have begun to throw down the gauntlet where everybody can see it. Independent black filmmakers have made movies that deal with black life from the inside out for seven decades now, yet only a few have been widely viewed across America. And only DTRT has brought American critics back from Cannes — where it was snubbed by the awards jury — feeling chauvinistic about American film and ready to tough it out in the papers over a film that won’t make people happy. Even before it has opened, DTRT has put people on notice that African-American cinema is entering a new era.

While we will have to remind even Lee’s champions in the press that they are still comparing him to other black filmmakers (Van Peebles, even Sidney Poitier!), it will be possible to show how black cinema challenges the American film industry to do the right thing. No matter how small the coterie of black directors and stars with the clout to make movies happen, they put out the word that certain possibilities exist. DTRT is that rare dramatic film about black people that raises serious questions and has the potential to be big at the box office.

The model in the past among Hollywood execs has been the blaxploitation film, and the trend among self-­starting black filmmakers has been comic (Hollywood Shuffle, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). While these films may be good fun, I also think opting for comedy is a survival technique. Prayers go up, of course, for the full universe of black life — tragic, comic, and in-between — to make it to the movie houses.

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And I hope too that DTRT will open the doors wider among black film viewers as to what they can expect from black filmmakers. We tend to lay down the param­eters of what is acceptable in the way of black images, because, as Lee says, “We have been dogged out in the media.” We have spent many hours in panels and boy­cotts of films made by whites about us. It’s time we talked about what we can do: how black films can break down some of the taboos — like the exclusion of brown­-skinned women from lead roles, the omission of normal relationships, reasoned militancy, or intact family life from black appearances in film. I could go on.

The fact that filmmakers can show our sense of com­munity, without prettying up the picture or feeling obliged to insert unnecessary material to placate certain people, needs to be discussed. The politically-minded may want to talk about whether nationalism is enough, or if filmmakers have to have a particular political line. Lee plays to his audience, too, in this film nodding to what he views perhaps as popular black opinion on figures like Minister Louis Farrakhan and Tawana Brawley. But at least he is nodding to those who seldom get heard. He shows us in a number of instances that black communities commonly reject mass-media banal­ities about events that affect us. This is an important idea.

Next year promises to be a boom year for black cinema. Lee is already in preproduction on a jazz film, A Love Supreme, to star Denzel Washington as a contem­porary trumpet player. Robert Townsend’s doo-wop film Heartbeats will be completed, and Charles Lane’s Side­walk Stories is soon to appear. Also due are films by James Bond III, Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, Reggie Hudlin, and Julie Dash. For all of them, the next battle­ground will be distribution. Will these films be released to more than two theaters in Detroit and Washington? Lee’s School Daze opened in 220 theaters last year, while most summer films open in 1500. Keenen Ivory Wayans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was treated the same way. If you weren’t on the black grapevine, you wouldn’t know it was happening in time to get down to the theater. Earlier this month the Black Filmmaker Foundation honored a decade’s worth of films from these and other filmmakers. The film showings alone took several weeks. The release of Do the Right Thing is as worthy a landmark as any of the next wave in black cinema. There’s a whole gang of folk who know how to do the right thing, and that’s the truth, Ruth.

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Say the Right Thing
By Renne Tajima

Actor Danny Aiello has the no-bullshit affabil­ity of someone just off the street. And here, in a West Hollywood hotel called Ledufy, where Parisienne-sounding operators answer the phone “Oui, mademoiselle,” he seems a home­-boy who has wandered onto the wrong turf. Aiello is ensconced in Los Angeles to shoot Eddie Murphy’s $40 million picture Harlem Nights, a far cry in both budget and bankability from Spike Lee’s $5 million Do the Right Thing, which gave Aiello a coveted lead role as Sal, the entrenched and ultimately embattled owner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant pizzeria.

At 50, Aiello is tall and tattooed, with a solid build but enough of a gut and gold to suggest a paisan who has done well for himself. He remains a quintessential actor from New York — not as city, but as neighbor­hood. Directors have cast him accordingly: the aging mama’s boy in Moonstruck, the abusive Depression­-era husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the bad cop in Fort Apache, the Bronx, set in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx where Aiello grew up a self-de­scribed “skinny, tough kid with a lot of heart.”

Aiello was the sixth of seven kids born to a de facto single mother and an absentee father “who came home once a year to make a baby, and then he’d be gone.” At the age of 16, Aiello married a local Jewish girl from the neighborhood and began a three-year stint in the service. While still in his twenties, he parlayed a job as a starter for the Greyhound bus line into the presiden­cy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1202, making him the youngest union president at that time. Ousted after a 1967 wildcat strike, Aiello, then a father of four, went for five years working odd jobs, variously a bouncer and part-time master of ceremonies in after­-hours clubs around the city. He turned to acting at the age of 35.

Aiello’s working-class roots are crucial to his effec­tiveness in the role of Sal: Director Lee was certainly tapping elements of character far deeper than casting for type. The two couldn’t be stranger bedfellows: Lee, who directed commercials for Jesse Jackson, endows his films with motifs of black struggle; Aiello is the type of postwar working-class hero that put Ronald Reagan in office. Name an issue and the two are likely to be on opposite sides, from Jimmy the Greek’s gaffe about black athletes (Aiello: “It’s a dumb thing to say, but he should lose his job over that? Come on.”) to racial killings. (“You look at Howard Beach, Eleanor Bumpurs. Then you look at a white woman running in Central Park, and I understand that one black kid said, ‘Let’s get the white bitch.’ I mean, is that racial? We heard a racial remark made; should we judge them on race? I don’t know. Now someone in Howard Beach said, ‘Let’s get the black bastard.’ Does that make it racial? I don’t know.”)

Aiello himself embodies the perplexity of racial atti­tudes on a street level: the street being the place that erupted into the Howard Beach incident, and, in the movie, the place that erupts into the racially charged blow-out between Sal and Radio Raheem, where pizza and ghetto blasters say more about the day-to-day schism between black and white than any sociopolitical analysis could. For Aiello, words are a part of street culture he readily admits to participating in — “playing the dozens” as kids in the Bronx, cursing each other with whatever will hurt, whether it’s your mother or your race. He explains, “If a black man called me a guinea, that was the biggest insult you could give me­ — or a dago. I wanted to fight. And if I called a black man a nigger or something like that, he would want to fight. It wasn’t because you hated every person or you were racist. It was the thing that provoked people to fight. It’s like, put this chip on my shoulder and you throw it off… Now you’ve got people running around, some sort of psychologist or psychiatrist saying that if you say a word like that, you’re prejudiced. Well, I know I’m not prejudiced. If I was, I wouldn’t sit down with Spike Lee.”

Lee understands Aiello’s culture. Do the Right Thing explores, in a profoundly honest way, the range of individual and collective experience and emotion that lies behind a racial slur. Lee knows the difference between racism and prejudice: No nationality is inno­cent of bigotry, but in America today, white prejudice combined with economic and political power equals racism. He also knows that to a working guy like Sal, who has busted his behind for years just to scrape by, that distinction is an elusive one.

Aiello interprets the movie not as a movie about racism, but one that shows how meaningless a racial slur, and the attendant hoopla over it, can be. To him, like Sal, racial slurs are only words — deeds make the man. So, despite Louis Farrakhan’s views on politics and race, Aiello feels deep respect for the Fruit of Islam, which provided security on the movie’s set in Bed-Stuy: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen, individually or collectively, a group of people who are so polite, so clear-eyed, so full of knowledge as to what they were there for, and they were there to make sure that the movie would be made with no problems.”

Aiello’s views are enough to make most Hollywood liberals shudder, but he may well be one of the last honest men in the public eye. In conceptualizing his role of Sal, he explains: “I kept saying I don’t want my character to be lily-white every minute. I don’t want to be right every minute. I want them to have frailties. I want him to make mistakes. I want him to say ‘nigger.’ I want him to do that, and then at the end when they interview me and they say to me, ‘Are you prejudiced?’ I’m going to say, ‘I use those words in life.’ Spike knows that, and I said, ‘Look, if I told you I didn’t use that word before, Spike, I’d be a liar. But I’m not prejudiced, Spike, and I use the word.’ And I use words worse than those pertaining to race. But I’m not, I live and let live… If people are prejudiced, fuck ’em.”

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Standing Still
By Donald Suggs

Playing the roles of the neighborhood wino and the stoop-front matriarch in Spike Lee’s new film, Do the Right Thing, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee look like they wandered into the South Bronx from some all-black musical. As Da Mayor, Davis weaves down the block in his straw hat and soiled dress clothes like the Ghost of Christmas Past, dispensing good cheer and old folk wisdom to the rare homeboy who’ll listen. Dee’s Mother Sister, the eyes and ears of a neighborhood preoccupied with mobility, rarely ventures further than her front stoop. As the only parental figures in the film, and the most experienced actors, Davis and Dee couldn’t seem more disconnected from the rap-filled world the surrounds them And that seems seems to be precisely the point.

“It’s hard to accept that your way of life is gone,” concedes Davis. “We’re products of institutions that were destroyed by their own success, for example the black theater where we both were trained. When Broadway and Hollywood opened their doors, we both went. But we try to put back that seed, show by our example that it’s a tradition worth saving.”

It’s not just the role they’ve played in the black performing community that makes this married couple’s presence in the film so significant; it’s also their commitment to activism within the film industry. “We’ve always been active in trying to help Hollywood see the light as far as black people are concerned,” Davis points out. “We’ve picketed, demonstrated, appeared as witnesses before Congress, talked about the dearth of roles for blacks both in front of and behind the camera. And also the kinds of roles available to us.”

“What’s glorious is seeing young people working together,” adds Dee, her eyes wide as she makes a sweeping gesture with her arms. “Blacks, Asians, the handicapped — they’re all working together, and working beautifully. What excites me about Spike is the movement, the energy, the sheer bodaciousness of his filmmaking.:

In one particularly painful scene from the film, a group of young kids confront Da Mayor with his derelict ways, demanding to know why he deserves even minimal deference. It made me wonder how Dee and Davis feel about some of the attitudes depicted in the film — the ignorance of the past, the last of respect for tradition.

“The life available to young people today doesn’t always appeal to me,” Davis admits, “but it does intrigue me. What’s interesting in this scene is that it makes us think about what’s brought us to this point as black people, about what’s changed about our values. The institutions that gave us our continuity — home, family, church — no longer exist in the same way. And it’s not just black people, but American culture in general.”

Though the film criticizes the older, stereotypical characters that Davis and Dee evoke for their small-mindedness and passivity, Lee clearly regards them as integral to the black community. In the movie, the morning after the climactic racial confrontation, Da Mayor asks Mother Sister if the block is still standing, and she simply replies, “We’re still standing,” as if the two were synonymous.

“We help define what is valuable and worth saving,” Davis tells me, “because there are certain things that the community still needs. Is the neighborhood still standing? Yes, because we are.”

Dee seems less comfortable with this idea, squirming as David responds. “Don’t put Ossie and me on any pedestal,” she says, laughing, “because then you’re left there for the birds to shit on.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”417087″ /]

Do the Stuy Thing
By James Earl Hardy

I’m in the part of my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing, talking to the residents about Spike and the movie. One mention of his name and everybody grins like crazy, the girls going, “Ooh, ahh,” the fellas giving each other high fives.

“Yeah, I was there when he was making it,” says Jamal Webber, 16, who lives on Lexington. “He’s no joke.”

“Did you see me?” asks Cassandra Ellis, a 16-year-old sophomore at Boys and Girls High School. “I was what I think you call a walk-on.”

“Yo, cool, are you related to him?” questions a fella who gives his name as Ice, commenting on the slight resemblance in height and looks between Spike and me.

Mildred Reeves, a nurse at Wudhull Hospital and mother of two, dismisses the teenagers’ excitement over having the movie filmed here.

“You know, I’ve lived here all my life, and never did I think somebody would make movie here. I mean, why would they; this is a bad neighborhood, right? But like the old saying goes, there’s more to something than meets the eye. And one shouldn’t always believe all they are told about things. Check it out for yourself. This is a beautiful community, you know. We have areas that make parts of the suburbs look like real ghettos.”

Spike shot DTRT on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue — three blocks from where I live, a block from where I grew up. I almost went into cardiac arrest after seeing on screen the streets where I learned to ride a bike, went to school, and, like the characters in the film (or should I say neighbors?), ran after the ice cream man, slurped on ices, played in the streets, opened up a fire hydrant so we kids could go “swimming,” and purchased slices of pizza from a person who didn’t live in the neighborhood. The film had so many familiar faces, like “The Cornermen” (you know, those old gents that sit or stand on the corner all day, gabbing about everything and everybody) and “Miss Busybody” (the eyes, ears, nose, and throat of the whole block, who makes everybody’s business her own).

I’m not used to sitting in a movie theater and seeing ordinary black folks doing ordinary things — we’re either walking stereotypes or invisible. And this is the first time I’ve even seen my community shown as a community. Bed-Stuy, just like every other African-American community in this land, gets a bad rap for being a haven for crime, poverty, drugs, and despair. The media infiltrates these communities’ streets to cover the negative issues but not the communities themselves. Yup, they go for the hype, and you, the uninformed outsider, believe it.

With bad PR like this, you’d think the people living in these communities are just here, sitting and waiting for the inevitable. The folks in Do the Right Thing, though, are shown just doin’ their thang — living. Dealing with relationships, friendships, entanglements, commitments, conflicts, crises. As a result, the characters come off as being almost real, not one-dimensional stick figures. Spike didn’t make this movie to please me or any other black living in Bed-Stuy, but I’m sure one of his goals was to create characters and a setting that people could look at and say, “Hey, that’s me up there,” or “Yo, looks like my neighborhood.”

This film reinforces my feeling that there’s no reason for me to deal with the many ridiculous, ignorant, often racist comments people throw at me when I tell them where I live (“Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” “You don’t look like the type [read, type of Negro] who would live there!”) And, no, white folks ain’t the only ones guilty. Just ask a homey from Queens to visit my spot, and I’ll get “No, man, I’ll get snuffed out there.” Contrary to what the media says, dilapidated buildings, crack houses, and Uzi submachine guns do not a community make, nor do they represent it. People do.

Mildred Reeves surveys the area. We’re standing on the corner of Lexington and Stuyvesant between two painted murals that are featured in DTRT. One says, “Brooklyn’s Own Mike Tyson,” with an image of the champ in a fighting stance. The other is a pictorial of the many things that go on in Bed-Stuy with an overhead caption that reads, “Bed-Stuy… Do or Die.”

Reeves laughs as her hazel eyes set upon that mural. “Yeah, do or die. A lot of us are doin’, you know. But you wouldn’t know that; the media doesn’t like to say anything positive.” When I mention that Spike doesn’t do an exposé of the problems that do plague the community, her dark chocolate complexion gets a shade brighter. She smiles, saying, “That’s great. People think that Bed-Stuy is nothing but a problem place, but if it was, how could we live here? Sure the drugs and crime and all that are here, but they’re not the only things.” She stops, catches her breath, and says with a sigh, “Thank God for Spike Lee.”

 

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Blanket Amnesty

Culled from the lives of five actors from South Africa’s “lost generation,” Amajuba is a heartfelt show stuffed with spirituals and dance about youth under apartheid. Given past theater works from that country seen here, one might expect disturbing glimpses of brutal oppression, moments of outsized courage, and a clear tally of the human costs under an inhuman system. So it is remarkable that viewers might not be able to make out the presence of apartheid at all, except in one vignette. The five tales, melodramas really, narrated in the first person, are stories of loss and hardship meted out by black Africans toward their own people.

Director and writer Yael Farber has created an energetic show about surviving sadly commonplace realities seemingly—but not really—detached from apartheid: child abandonment, abusive teachers, gang violence, and crimes of poverty. The cast comprises wonderfully talented performers, but their stories would benefit from some editing and real poetry. Disappointing direction sometimes sidesteps a dramatic event or telegraphs an unsurprising conclusion. The ending depicts not victory over apartheid but young rebels executing one of their own, a curious choice for a generation that will forever be known as the founders of the new South Africa.

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Baad Boys

Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! re-creates the 19-day shoot of his father Melvin’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. While times have changed since the Black Panther Party helped Sweetback gain an audience, Hollywood is much the same for black directors as it was for Van Peebles père.

Mario: I had a dinner a couple of years ago at my house. I called up John Singleton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, F. Gary Gray, Reginald Hudlin, all the directors du jour who could make it. And we talked till four in the morning. At a certain point, I said, Look around. Most of us knew our fathers, went to college, very few of us were in a gang—maybe one or two of us might want to front a little bit—but we don’t get to make movies about folks like us. We’re being told that the audience is in sneakers and baggy pants. We were sort of being told that we had to direct films about the dominant culture—which is great—or if we wanted to make films with folks of color, they had to pretty much be hip-hop comedies or shoot-’em-ups.

As I sent the script out, the kind of notes I got back were: “Can you depoliticize it a little bit?” “Can you make it more for a white or black audience?” “Can you make it more hip-hop-comedy-esque, put some rappers in there?” “Can you make Melvin more likable?” And I felt that with this film, those weren’t notes that I could contain. So I got turned down by every studio, and I had to sort of self-finance with the help of Jerry Offsay and Michael Mann.

Melvin: I saw it finished for the first time in Toronto, and I was like, “Oh man, I’m there.” That was us, that was the time. He used the journal I kept, and I saw how well he depicted the artistic process—that was exactly what it was like—but it was never in the book.

Mario: I had all the pictures. I had the clothes. I had grown up with my subject and I had his permission. The one thing he said was, “Don’t make me too damn nice.”

Melvin: And as I saw it, I found the guy brilliant, intelligent, a very nice person. Some other people may not, but I found him very nice [wicked Melvin smile].

Mario: What Melvin did was what the Panthers were talking about after the deaths of Malcolm, King, Medgar Evers, and JFK—empowering the people, not just the leaders.

Melvin: Why I did Sweetback had nothing to do with the movement. It had to do with a profound disenchantment [with movies]. I started in 1957. It took me that long to get into position to do the movies I really wanted to do. However, there was a coincidence that the movement happened then.

Mario: What the Panthers liked about Sweetback was that [it] made being a revolutionary hip. And they said later that some of the other films made being a cop or working for the man hip, and sometimes even made being a drug dealer hip, which they felt was more counter-revolutionary. The Panthers were imperfect, but they were folks who went from a “me” mentality to a “we” mentality and Sweetback has that arc.

Melvin: The status quo is not in the habit of changing itself.

Mario: Baadasssss! is a real interesting case of the chicken and the egg. I was in his movie playing Sweetback [played by Melvin] as a kid; now I’m playing him as an adult, someone else is playing me as a kid, and Melvin’s grandson is the angel.

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Split Decision

With All Deliberate Speed, a documentary by Peter Gilbert (who produced Hoop Dreams), aims to tell a story that has been lost in the many events and articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision ending legal school segregation. But in this film’s sprawling yet dutifully chronological structure, the magnificent stories of the unknown citizens who fought and paid dire prices for decent public education remain somewhat obscured—not separate, but still unequal.

Some of this history has been well covered by other films, particularly the court journeys of the five Brown v. Board of Education cases, and the role of NAACP lawyers like Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall. What Gilbert has in ample supply, though, is footage of many of the African Americans who as children put themselves and their families at risk. While the filmmaker avoids a conventional episodic format driven by central characters in conflict, he hasn’t created one that could keep a complex story clear. Viewers may need more specifics, more titling of speakers and places, and other connective tissue. The film is also bogged down by the insertion of fairly bland dramatic readings, unfocused visits with contemporary high school students, and intrusive, unoriginal music.

Near the end, one gets what this fight truly meant: Most of the 80 black tenant cotton farmers who signed on for the case in Clarendon County, South Carolina, were forced out of their homes—never to return—in the 1954 aftermath. Their minister’s church was burned to the ground and his home shot up by a mob. Barbara Johns and the other 13- to 18-year-olds who went on strike in Prince Edward County, Virginia, were told by the school superintendent that their parents would lose their jobs, and he didn’t care “if you never go to school.” All schools were closed for five years. These kids, the children of black farmers, were sent by their families to live in other cities, even put into foster care, so they could attend school. They speak of incredible parents who backed them through cross burnings, threats, and years of payback. This should be their film. Here’s hoping there’s another edit.

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Broadcast News

“People ask me what does Haiti have to show for 200 years of independence,” says Michèle Montas. “I say, ‘Survival.'” Montas should know. She and her husband, Jean Dominique, ran Radio Haiti Inter for 30 years until he was assassinated in April 2000. Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist tells their story, along with Haiti’s history since the days of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Few American journalists ever have the privilege of knowing that we contribute to change for our fellow citizens. Dominique helped create a major shift in Haitian political consciousness with two decisions: to air news and to broadcast it in Creole. In a country where illiteracy is the rule and all but a small elite speaks Creole, airing what was going on in the world was revolutionary.

Demme (who’s currently working on a remake of The Manchurian Candidate) met Dominique on a 1986 trip to Haiti. “I became obsessed with the country, the people, the architecture, the art, everything,” he says. “It was within the year that Baby Doc had split, and almost exactly a year before elections were supposed to happen. It was this place where democracy is coming and the people were so excited. It was palpable.” Demme returned a few months later to shoot Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, and found “many roads led to Radio Haiti.”

Demme became fascinated with the charismatic journalist who started out as an agronomist. “When he was pushing [in his last years] to have the farmers participate in the government,” says Demme, “he made a simple point, ‘The big obstacle is that those in power have to achieve a perception of the farmers as human beings.’ ”

Footage was shot over 15 years of this man who, Demme says, was “smart enough to avoid assassination for a long, long time.” Dominique survived both Duvaliers and befriended Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the now exiled president of Haiti. “Aristide would call Jean in the middle of the night to say, ‘I can’t sleep, I’m haunted by this question, what do you think?’ He called him Papa,” says Demme. But the 1991 U.S.-backed coup forced Dominique to flee.

“This film was supposed to have been a portrait of a journalist telling you the history of the country, telling you his life story, updating the progress of the [’91] coup, and the final scene would be him back at his microphone, and the coup was over,” says Demme, “a documentary with a happy ending.” Demme smiles at his wishful thinking. After Aristide’s U.S.-assisted return, things got worse. “We did leave too soon, we didn’t disarm the opposition,” Demme says. “We did give [the coup leaders] safe haven, and we didn’t do any nation-building—that’s not a dirty word as far as I’m concerned.”

At the end of Aristide’s rocky first term, Dominique invited him on the radio, hoping Aristide would “come clean about the deals he had to make in Washington, the deals he had to make with the oligarchy to be embraced as a leader, and the business deals he had to make,” says Demme. “Aristide came back with all these homilies and Dominique realized he had changed irrevocably.”

After Dominique’s death, Montas continued to broadcast until 2003, when her bodyguard was murdered during an attempt on her life. But she plans to return. “When we do reopen, we will be on the justice agenda,” says Montas. “Right now, the first priority is security. But in Haiti, security is linked to impunity: The former Duvalierists are there, the people who were in the coups in 1991 and 1994 are there, others are killing and maiming people. Plus, the prisons have been emptied. There are people of good will who want to at least bring a level of peace to the country. Can elections take place in 2005? It’s gonna take a lot of work.”

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The Height of Disrespect

While statistics tell us that across the country teen pregnancy is declining and sex education is increasingly effective, most of the adolescents who are getting pregnant are the very poor. A recent study of sexuality among African American youth in households earning less than $25,000 per year was prompted in part by figures showing that black adolescents are becoming sexually active at younger ages than other youth, and are suffering from HIV/AIDS in the highest numbers.

For some, listening to the young people videotaped (but not named) during focus groups for the recent study might be more disturbing than reading the stats.

Although the study gives short shrift to its second mission—to explore the connections between the teens’ attitudes and media consumption—their comments overwhelmingly display the “hard” and cavalier posturing of some segments of rap and hip-hop culture. The tones are generally dismissive, the bravado is amped, and the vocabulary is objectifying. “Everything is flipped. We used to bag chicks—now they’re baggin’ us,” said one New York male. And even those who expressed these attitudes cited certain hip-hop artists as more “positive” and called for more “message” in the music.

The study, conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE), a Philadelphia communications firm that researches and markets to urban and low-income groups, refers to these teens as “the hip-hop generation.” In reality, the teens interviewed—between 16 and 20 years old—are probably children of the first hip-hop generation (usually considered people born between 1965 and 1980). The subjects of this study, then, have been raised during the rise of this influential culture and may reflect the long-term effects of the devastation of black communities following the civil rights and black-power movements.

The most telling attitudinal change from the “movement” years is the absence of any influence of feminism and the open disdain for black women. As the authors put it, “Black females are valued by no one.” The study’s glossary includes six nouns used to describe males: Dog, homeboy, playa, lame, sugar daddy, and payload, another word for sugar daddy.

For women, there are at least 15, none good: Block bender, woo-wop, flip-flop, skeezer, ‘hood rat, ‘ho, and trick all mean promiscuous female. In addition, there are freak, bitch, gold digger, hoochie mama, runner, flipper, shorty, and the more ambiguous wifey. Young women in the interviews also use some of these terms.

In the survey of 2,000 teens, who were contacted through 80 community-based groups in nine urban areas, the “play or get played” ethos is equally influential among males and females, along with this disrespect for black women. The survey found that urban youth continue to engage in risky sexual behavior in relationships the teens themselves describe as lacking emotional intimacy and trust.

MEE’s study, funded by the California Endowment and the Ford Foundation, was conducted with the help of a multicultural group of 10 scholars—social scientists, clinical psychologists, and media experts. The group’s goal is to get community-based service organizations and creators of entertainment programming to make more effective interventions with this generation of adolescents.

Professor Beth Richie of the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the study’s scholars, said, “Young people today in lower-income black communities are facing a . . . whole set of stereotypical images of themselves—hypersexual, sexually irresponsible, not concerned with ongoing intimate relationships. [They] can’t help but be influenced by those images.” When several young women were talking about their reluctance to use condoms, one said that no one on TV or in films is ever shown using them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, African American adults and adolescents in 2001 had an AIDS case rate 10 times higher than whites. African American youth account for 60 percent of new AIDS cases, and black females ages 13 to 19 represent 66 percent of AIDS cases reported among young women, according to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. Teens repeatedly reported that “everybody” is having sex and complained that most sex-ed classes begin in eighth grade, by which time, they thought, most kids have already had sexual intercourse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that black teens are more likely than whites to have had sex, more likely to have begun at an earlier age (13), and to have had more than four partners by that stage of life. Blacks are also much more likely to have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant.

The MEE survey reveals some of the attitudes behind the behavior. On several occasions in the MEE focus-group videos, males casually mentioned group rape—doing “bust-outs,” or handing off partners for others to “try out.” Even if bravado or “lying on [one’s] dick” may account for some of the tales and blasé attitudes toward this sexual violence, the fact that young women reported it too, along with some admitting to having had sex with more than one partner at a time, suggests a disturbing acceptance of the abuse of women.

One Atlanta teen explained his promiscuity by saying, “I ain’t cheatin’ ’cause I ain’t shit; I’m cheatin’ ’cause she ain’t shit.” And sadly, both males and females frequently displayed their distrust of females as a group. A young New York woman said, “If I have a problem, I prefer to take it to a man rather than a girl. A girl might try to take your man.” Women are “girls” but boys are “men”? An Oakland male said girls “don’t trust each other, that’s why I can’t trust them.”

A number of women said having multiple partners was the way to combat this devaluation. As for the chance to have lives of their own, these girls, the study’s authors said, do not expect or “feel empowered” to achieve them. Since many do not expect exclusive relationships with partners, and sex is spoken of as a transactional relationship rather than an emotional one, keeping a partner by way of sex or pregnancy seems a viable strategy, at least temporarily.

A partner whom a male turns to purely for sex, dubbed a “shorty,” is not a person he wants to take out—and if so, only “to McDonald’s,” and there is no escape: “Once a shorty, always a shorty.” Marriage is not a priority, and committed relationships are often disdained by both sexes, though some males have steadies they call “wifey.” One man described his preference: “That’s the chick you want to be with; she’s always got a condom, she don’t want to have no kids, she doesn’t want to catch nothing.”

The prevalent disrespect for women has also, some teens suggested, resulted in more open homosexual relationships among females. According to the study, “overwhelmingly, across all nine cities, youth of both genders spoke openly about the increased occurrence of female-on-female sexual relationships.” While some teens attributed the phenomenon to mutual understanding among women, others, including one of the scholars, cited mistreatment by men. Only lesbians cited same-sex attraction.

Dr. Maisha Hamilton-Bennett, a clinical psychologist, said, “Young women have told me they are choosing homosexuality in response to this whole ‘ ‘hood rat/skeezer’ definition that some of the heavier, darker, and less attractive women are getting.” A study of factors such as color and size in the disparagement of black women in pop culture would be welcome information. Among black women, there are volumes of anecdotal material affirming our sense of marginalization from the beauty norms, and magazines and music videos imply that Beyoncé is the ideal of the moment.

The scholars who worked on the study suggest broad reforms along with further outreach on health issues. “What we’re finding out from our HIV prevention research is that if you’re able to re-create social fabric within a very poor black community, you have a greater level of social control over youth,” said Carl Bell of the University of Illinois, “and they tend to delay their sexuality expression and their risk-taking behaviors. So [for] intervention strategies, the whole issue is rebuilding the village and trying to re-create social fabric if it’s not already there.”

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Blackness as Folly

A book white folks will like. That’s how some describe The End of Blackness, Debra Dickerson’s polemic on race in America. “A book white folks will like” is shorthand for a book by an African American dealing with the subject of race that demands no reform on the part of white America.

“I hear that all the time: ‘a book that white folks will like,’ ‘you’re doing the white man’s job,’ etc.,” Dickerson told the Voice in a phone interview last week. That’s no surprise considering that she says at least four times in her introduction that African Americans need to “surrender,” starting with “The first step in freeing one another is for black people, collectively, to surrender. Blacks must consciously give up on achieving racial justice. . . . ” That is followed by a real zinger: “Blacks must surrender themselves to America. Why not? Their enslaved ancestors did.”

“I just wanted to shock people out of the rut, so we can have a real conversation,” she said. Two weeks ago, though, she told Lorraine Kee of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I’m not trying to be a provocateur.” Maybe now she’s decided to get out in front of the criticism of her book, but she is throwing down a gauntlet. “If blacks had nothing societally to answer for before the [civil rights] movement, they certainly do now,” she writes. “Scholastic achievement, crime, family breakdown, welfare reliance—all are now as bad as or worse than they were during Jim Crow. Why?” Never mind that personal responsibility among blacks did not begin in the 1960s; this kind of loose rhetoric, like saying “overt police brutality” is “no more,” is just a pitch for airtime. She reduces years of protest, litigation, and legislation to ego-massage with comments like “A focus on ending racism is unlikely to produce results that are more than masturbatorily symbolic.”

What is interesting is that the book has as yet failed to take off, as might have been expected with a work that so rebukes black activism. The problem may be bad word of mouth. The book fails to mount any rigorous arguments for its call for surrender. Its essays ramble through history and pop culture without building proof for their conclusions.

Still, what seems saddest and most ironic is that white reviewers did favor the book’s content, while reserving little space for its historical inaccuracies, saying briefly that it’s “baffling” to read, or “leaps too quickly to generalizations.” African American reviewers, on the other hand, attacked the shoddy exposition, calling it muddled, contradictory, and old hat. Black booksellers have been lukewarm at best. An informal survey of black-owned bookstores and their websites showed that The End of Blackness is nearly invisible among the titles shown for Black History Month. Booksellers report some book sales but are not raving.

“I got a lot of e-mails from black bookstore people with barely veiled contempt,” said Dickerson. “They were just barely able to respond with civility. I think they expected something abrasive from me.” But that was before a glowing New York Times review in the daily pages by Janet Maslin. Now, Dickerson said, “I’m getting, ‘I disagree with 80 percent of what you said, but why don’t you come to my bookstore?’ ” Reaction was similar among readers, she said: “The response started out overwhelmingly hostile.

“Things they think I got wrong, they think I got hideously wrong, and things they think I got right, they think I got extremely right,” she said. “People are shocked, but I’m now meeting with people with opening minds. The book just went into a second printing. I appear to be voicing things that people have been thinking but have not wanted to say. The book is—I think ‘liberating’ is the right word.

Her beef with black folks? We’re “trying to get white people to admit there is racism—this notion underlies the reparations strategy—as if something is going to reconcile us to our history. That’s not going to happen.”

Whites account for half of her e-mail, she said. “I hadn’t thought about whether whites were trying to move beyond where they are. I thought they think the race issue is for black people. At first, I was sort of dismayed by all the e-mails, and said, ‘Maybe it is just what white people want to hear.’ ”

The End of Blackness is divided into three main sections: a 24-page prologue, a 72-page Part One that is a catalog of white tactics for denying the powerful role of racism in society, and a 134-page Part Two, a litany of black self-hatred, self-defeating behavior—including 20 pages of Internet “ghetto” jokes—and a diatribe against Afrocentrism and the black left. All three sections are primarily general observations about black and white group behavior, and describe both groups as in psychological denial. The white case she deems irreversible, and thus she recommends that the rest of us give up our frustration by letting go of our desire for racial justice. I guess that’s like when your shrink advises you against waiting for your family to apologize for making a mess of you.

White reviewers, like her e-mailers, did respond well. Maslin’s review was by far the most enthusiastic. Calling the book “a dazzling diatribe that reveals Dickerson as a Molotov-cocktail polemicist,” Maslin said even enraged readers would not be able to “ignore the range and ferocity of her attack.” Finally, she declared, “Whatever else this book accomplishes, it makes her a star.”

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, writing in The Washington Post, praised Dickerson’s “welcome declaration that ‘blackness is collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, just as overt racism did.’ ” But after listing many of the generalized critiques of all black people, Lasch-Quinn charged that whites were stereotyped.

“Dickerson’s entire argument—that blacks need to let go of old notions of black identity and the forms of identity politics and racial grievance at their core—is subverted early in the book by a surprising [my italics] chapter on ‘white intransigence’ in which she presents a litany of complaints against whites,” wrote Lasch-Quinn. “Here she lumps all whites together—just the thing she opposes in the case of blacks—and casts them as still in denial about the nation’s racial crimes. . . . After urging blacks to forsake old patterns of complaint and redress for a newly courageous civic participation . . . she invokes the usual culprit—white supremacy—as if it were an unmitigated and eternal force.”

This is downright amusing because Dickerson repeatedly states in that same chapter that whites no longer want to hear about racism and white supremacy, and identifies one white strategy for maintaining privilege as claiming to be victimized by blacks.

Black reviewers, on the other hand, were an unhappy crew, led by Gerald Early, who wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The problem is that the author does not know enough, has not researched enough, to write an incisive book on African-American life or American racism.” Darryl Lorenzo Wellington in The Christian Science Monitor found the book “a patchwork” that “suffers from the very confusions it seeks to critique.” Brian Palmer in Newsday said the author lost her way “in a thicket of recrimination and frustration.” Sylvester Brown Jr. of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded, “A huge dose of credibility could have been added to the book had the author used polling data, statistics or surveys—anything validating that blacks actually feel and think the way Dickerson says they do. . . . [The] book is a rant marketed as a scholarly thesis on racial advancement.”

Is Dickerson just another neo-conservative? “I have a lot of friends who are black Republicans,” she said. “We argue a lot. We end up at the same places, but we get there by different routes. I’m like a working-class, work-ethic conservative. In a more just world, I would be a libertarian.”

Asked if she really thinks we black folk are, all of us, waiting for white folks to say they’re sorry and “send a giant Hallmark card,” she replied: “Yes, I do. Not consciously, but yes. I think this book can help with that.” I didn’t know we were waiting for that card, but since Dickerson won’t need it, forward it to me.