Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

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Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

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Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

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As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

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Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

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Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old. ❖


Black Metropolis: A Special Section

THE JOURNALESE OF THE media con­tains a place known as “the black communi­ty.” This invention of the riot years usually reads as a ready-made repository of depress­ing statistics and demanding social critics, and rarely as a genuine social realm capable of sustaining as complex an equivalent of human relations as its white counterpart. You’ll seldom find this fictive black cultural monolith described as a place where the hub and bub of life goes on.

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What makes many black New Yorkers wince whenever the term appears in print is the knowledge that our New York is a me­tropolis of diversity created in part by New York-style apartheid, and in part by the dif­ferences in language, education, style, reli­gion, and class among black New Yorkers. The black metropolis can safely be described as a place where disparate groups of people of African descent share the experience of living in a city and a nation ruled by white suprema­cists. After that, any attempt to lump all of us under the rubric of “the black community” becomes absurd.

The five stories contained in this issue, the arrogance of its heading notwithstanding, do not presume to represent the New York black experience in total. What they do presume to capture are the encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York’s black communities.

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Common to them all are the portrayals of what work, sacrifice, and struggle, both in the spiritual and material sense, mean to the vari­ous people and communities depicted. In the charged space between the writer’s voices, some passionately polemic, some coolly modernist, and their subjects’ perceptions of themselves and the world, a host of black survival strategies emerges coded as repor­torial fact. In rendering the resistance of these black New Yorkers to sociological ste­reotyping, by means of everything from anomalous personal history to strident cultur­al affirmation, these black writers show once again the power of dialogue among blacks to disrupt and challenge the racial mythography of the powers that be.

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* Black Metropolis was edited by Robort Christgau, Kit Rachlis, and Thulani Davis

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


Married to The Mob

The Wise Guy Wannabes

Editor’s Note: Before last week’s racial killing in Bensonhurst, reporters Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum spent sev­eral months in the neighborhood. Here is their report. Some of the names and iden­tifying characteristics in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the participants. 

NICO AND FRANK sit on a bench, waiting for some of the ass­holes from 86th Street to drive by. This is 81st Street, an important neighborhood bound­ary in Italian Bensonhurst, and guarding it is the righteous thing to do. The pavement is already littered with freshly broken bottles from a nearby garbage can recently dumped over an offending Tans Am that dared to cruise the border without an invita­tion. “For some reason I’m up all the time,” says Frank, a lanky 20-year-old with black hair and brown eyes who seems immensely likable when he doesn’t have a bat in his hand. “I just like to abuse people. That’s all.”

“That’s it,” intones Nico, satisfied that Frank has provided the best explanation for their nightly presence in the lot on the corner of 81st Street and 18th Ave­nue in Brooklyn. What looks like a bar­ren inner city park — a patch of asphalt dotted with a few trees and benches — is really a prized piece of real estate, an outpost on the edge of the largest Italian neighborhood in New York City. While Frank and Nico share their nightly com­munion of Bud tallboys in the park, their girlfriends play bingo at nearby St. Agnes.

Most of the guys on the comer spend their time pining after city jobs. But a few diehards like Frank strive for a posi­tion in “La Cosa Nostra,” one of New York’s oldest and most respected firms.

They are Bensonhurst’s hard-core. Some of them will eventually grow up to be wiseguys. Most of them won’t. None of them, however, will grow up untouched by the antiquated style and casual vio­lence foisted on them by almost a century of Mafia tradition. Seldom discussed ex­cept in oblique references, the Mafia presence still pervades Bensonhurst, cloaking the neighborhood in ostenta­tious secrecy, like the tinted windows of the stretch limousines that line 18th Avenue.

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To ingratiate himself with the local wiseguys, Frank has worked protection in Chinatown. He has also twice broken into a local video store directly across the street from the park where he and his friends hang out; both times, he was caught in the act. Frank has a local wise­guy sponsor who looks out for his inter­ests if Frank is arrested — or, worse, in­curs the wrath of another wiseguy. (Frank divorced his previous sponsor, who had recruited him to hit up the video store but didn’t follow through for Frank when he was arrested.)

Tall, athletic, and aggressive, with dark eyes and a lean sculpted face, Frank is the undisputed leader of the corner pack. Whereas Nico has grown weary of “feel­ing like a punching bag,” Frank still en­joys piling into a car with friends and, as he puts it, “going over to the the Village to beat up some yuppies.” Oddly, Frank’s toughness comes across not as mean or hardened, but as unbridled animal ener­gy. He is often sweetly charming and eager to make friends. He is also one of the first to fling a bag of garbage when a Hispanic passes by.

Thanks to an uncle in the union, Frank has worked part-time setting up props for soap operas. But he doesn’t like the idea of marking time nine to five. “A couple of years from now I’ll be in the Mafia,” he predicts, adding, “You know what I seri­ously figure: If I get shot in the head, I ain’t gonna’ feel it. That’s it. You’re dead.”

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IN SPITE OF THE VIOLENCE that lurks just beneath the surface, Bensonhurst ex­emplifies, in some ways, the stereotype of an urban Italian neighborhood popularized in such films as Saturday Night Fe­ver. Up and down 18th Avenue, girls in tight skirts and pants strut along in small groups, their long, lush hair sprayed to baroque heights. They pass bakeries full of sweet Italian pastries and block after block of stores specializing in wedding regalia. Happy brides and grooms, re­splendent in middle-class finery, beam from large gilt frames in photographers’ windows. Silver-haired men, speaking in the rhythmic cadences of their Southern Italian dialect, gather on the corners. Up and down the main drag, the kids cruise in big American-made cars, their win­dows tinted like real Mafiosi. In the dis­tance, a car horn sounds; in short, flat tones, it plays out the first 12 notes from “The Godfather” theme. On the side streets, immaculate, miniature front yards boast plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.

The same pacific image of the Virgin also adorns the burly right forearm of one neighborhood tough known as “Hard Jaw.” Tatooed on his other arm is an ornate red and green cross. It reads simply IN MEMORY OF AUGIE, a friend who was killed in a police chase several years ago.

Sudden death from less than natural causes is not unusual in Bensonhurst. Early last fall, Robert Napolitano, 19, of 1659 West 10th Street, went for a drive with his girlfriend, Lisa Ciullo. While they were parked, an unidentified man fired five shots through their windshield. Napolitano died instantly. His girlfriend survived with a wound in her left leg. A few weeks earlier, one of Napolitano’s best friends, Marco De Fina, 19, was also killed in an execution-style shooting. His body was dumped on a dirt road in an isolated industrial park in Coney Island. Neither case has been solved. The two fallen teens, however, left behind a cadre of Bensonhurst toughs ready to take their places on the street.

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Most of the guys who hang out at 81st Street and 18th Avenue are young and unemployed. Although few of them know more than a curse or two in Italian, they can all name the old towns in southern Italy from which their families came and for which most of the social clubs in the neighborhood are named. A few blocks from their corner is the old bakery where the “Pizza Connection” heroin busts were made. At 74th Street and 18th Avenue is the Caffe Giardino, allegedly owned by Giuseppe Gambino, nephew of Carlo, who served as ”boss of bosses” in New York until his death in 1976. In Decem­ber, Giuseppe and nine others were ar­rested at the cafe on suspicion of heroin and cocaine trafficking. Law enforcement agents appeared at the cafe, took the mi­crophone from a newly imported Italian singer, and reportedly announced that some of the guests had danced their last dance.

The Mafia gave up its aversion to deal­ing in drugs decades ago, but drug use in Bensonhurst is still largely forbidden. Nico describes how he saw Sal, a young enforcer for the mob, put a sleeper hold — ­a tight lock around the neck that cuts off blood and oxygen to the brain — on a crackhead. “Sal grabbed him and just put him to sleep, dropped him on the ground. The kid was out,” Nico says. “They’re up to no good, these crackheads. We’re cleaning the neighborhood up.” The youth of Bensonhurst pride themselves on keeping out disorganized crime such as muggers and burglars. “This neighbor­hood is Top 10,” brags Joey, a corner regular. “I rate it nine out of 10 on safety. My mother could walk through here with a hundred dollars in her pocket.”

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Street crime is not the only thing locals fight to keep out. New immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean are now making their way into Bensonhurst. Their recep­tion often includes having garbage bags and eggs thrown at them. As the young men who hang out on the corner see it, Little Italy has been almost wiped out by Chinatown and the surging waves of Asian arrivals. And the few remaining Italian neighborhoods in the Bronx get smaller every day.

“You have a siege mentality [in Ben­sonhurst] now,” says Bob Massi, a Brooklyn legal aid attorney who grew up in the neighborhood, hanging out on street corners and polishing his knuckles on other people’s faces. “The Italians who are there now have moved there from other parts of the city. It’s white flight — the last Italian neighborhood.”

In their own view, the armed legions of Bensonhurst are playing out their neigh­borhood’s final stand. Fortified by their faith in the Godfather myth and armed with baseball bats, beer bottles, and pam­phlets calling for a boycott of local Chi­nese businesses, the youth of Benson­hurst have taken their battle to the streets. “This neighborhood has been Italian for 100 years and it’s not going to change,” vows Salis Reyna, a neighbor­hood loyalist.

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ALTHOUGH ONLY LOWER-LEVEL Mafiosi still live here, the big players do business in the small but exclusive cafes that line 18th Avenue. “These guys are heroes to [the neighborhood] kids,” says one detec­tive familiar with Bensonhurst. Benson­burst is still a place where rules of long standing must be followed, and where stepping on the wrong toes can get you “clipped.” “We pretty much answer to certain people around here, wiseguy peo­ple,” explains Nico. ” ‘Cause they’ll shoot you in the head and not think about it the next day.”

Nico, 23, is a plumber who works off the books for people in the neighborhood. He has a wife, a girlfriend, a $600-a-­month apartment, two cars, and a Pom­eranian to support. He hasn’t worked for two and a half months, but that’s no problem. There’s always money to be made on his own scams or doing favors for local wiseguys.

As the oldest corner regular, Nico is treated with deference. He is trim and good-looking, with small regular features (the kind of face girls would call “cute”) and brown hair cut short on top and long in the back, like a neat rocker. Nico dresses in casual chic — jeans and a waist­-length black leather jacket — and usually sports heavy gold jewelry. In a neighbor­hood where men have perfected the art of boisterous camaraderie, his manner is subdued. Nico gives the impression of being in control, although his brown eyes shine with wry humor.

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“They always said I was gifted,” Nico says. “And I was supposed to be admitted to a gifted school. But I didn’t really want to go. Fourth grade they pushed me ahead to fifth grade. Fifth grade they pushed me to junior high. Junior high pushed me to high school. And high school I dropped out” — dropped out and got married.

Almost before the conjugal sheets were dry, Nico’s teenage wife began an affair. Nico had a serious talk with his wife’s father and promised not to hurt the in­terloper if he agreed never, under any circumstances, to drive or walk down 18th Avenue or 81st Street. To help even the score, Nico took a girlfriend. Neither he nor his wife has sued for divorce. These days, Nico continues to see both his wife and his girlfriend. Tonight, he will go bowling with his wife.

As Nico relates his story, a middle-aged man with stooped shoulders slouches by. “Hey Pete,” he calls jovially. “How’s the wife and kids?” The man drops his head and limps on. “His wife left him two months ago and took the kids,” explains Nico with a wry grin. “It’s a big mental scar for him.”

It is Sal — who also happens to be Ni­co’s girlfriend’s brother — to whom Nico and Frank look to as their sponsor. Sal­ — who is also a low-level arms dealer — ­doesn’t have time to hang out. “He’s got connections,” says Nico. “He’s on the payroll. He takes care of things when they need to be taken care of — some­body’s got to be hurt, somebody’s got to be finished. You know, whatever.” In spite of the fact that Sal’s father works for a rival firm — the New York Police Department — Sal’s career and reputation are legendary.

Not long ago, Sal’s van was broken into, and suspicion fell on a trio of locals who used to hang out on the corner but got a bad reputation when they began using crack and stealing. “One crackhead robbed a van,” Nico begins the story, which he and Frank toss back and forth like a football. “They thought he robbed a van,” Frank corrects. “Sal found one of them. He got Miles.”

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“Sal hit him over the head with a bot­tle,” Frank says. “Then he grabbed him by the back of the head and stuck the end of the bottle in his face, right in the nose. Thirty-six stitches.”

“Still, he just wanted to get a word out of him,” amends Nico. “He just wanted to get names.”

“So the guy he stabbed in the eye gave up everyone else,” continues Frank.

“He said he had nothing to do with it,” prompts Nico.

Sal soon caught up with the next kid. “He stabbed him in the throat — slit him — 17 stitches,” Frank says. “The kid was layin’ on a bench, and he lifted his leg up. Sal was goin’ for his heart but he stabbed him in the leg, ripped and went through his leg. And he wanted to kill him. But the kid ran out on the highway. So he just watched. He figured it would be like the nigger that got killed on the highway” — a reference to the Howard Beach incident.

“But there was no cars comin’,” says Frank, throwing up his hands in a gesture of mock helplessness. “There’s no cars comin’,” echoes Nico, laughing.

“So he got away. Then he found out it wasn’t even those kids,” Frank says, con­cluding, with a laugh, “it was someone else! So they’re friends again. So you know what Sal says. He says, ‘I’m sorry!’ ”

“I’m sorry!” exclaims Nico, also laugh­ing. “And the kid’s so petrified of Sal, he says, ‘Okay. Everything’s all right.’ And he’s got a scar from here to here.” Nico runs his finger from his ear to his Adam’s apple.

Nico later admits that one of the crack­heads was Sal’s brother. “Sal was lookin’ to kill him. He was lookin’ for him for a long time. He finally got to him and put the gun to his head, but he couldn’t do it. Because he knows his mother would nev­er forgive him. And he’d never forget it himself.”

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THE VIOLENCE THAT UNDERLIES the neighborhood’s calm surface is revealed in small as well as dramatic ways. Even when the guys on the corner are not doing anything that might attract police attention, they play at being wiseguys. Most of them own BB guns. And on a really slow night they meander down to Gravesend Bay and shoot at rats — “tar­get practice” for more serious games.

Nico gestures at “Little Ralphie,” an­other corner regular, and says, “That cocksucker shot me in the ass,” a con­gratulatory tone in his voice. “That was a real professional hit.” Nico relates how Little Ralphie pulled up in his car and squeezed off several shots. “I said, ‘Okay. That’s all right. I’ll get him later.’ Meanwhile, it left a welt this big on my ass. So when I was ready to leave, I was sittin’ in the car. I loaded it up. I said, ‘Okay, Sal, I’ll see you later.’ I rolled down the win­dow. Boom, boom, boom.”

In Bensonhurst, such games still have a counterpart in real life. Nico recalls how Sal warned a neighborhood local who had gone into debt to the wrong people. “He shot the kid six times. I mean point blank from here to the tree. The kid didn’t die. But Sal was using target practice bullets in a .32 and they were just bouncin’ off his leather jacket. Like gettin’ hit with a bat. They chipped his ribs. But they didn’t hurt him. Then his uncle came down and gave Sal $20,000 [not to kill him].”

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In addition to acting as muscle for the mob, Sal has a lucrative little side busi­ness, with which Nico occasionally helps him out. “The hand grenades are going like water,” says Nico. “Sold two dozen already.” At $100 a piece, Nico is think­ing about buying one himself. He already owns a handgun that he purchased from Sal. It is part of a small, traveling arsenal in Nico’s trunk that includes two baseball bats, a lead sap, brass knuckles, a ma­chete, and a tangle of wires Nico says is a phone tap.

Although Nico and the older guys on the corner always have plenty of cash for cocaine and custom windshields, most say that what they really want is a city or union job. Nico gestures toward a muscu­lar young man with a round face who is holding court on the corner: Everyone wants to know what he thinks of the big name next week. His manner is low-key, like the strangely suburban Accord hatchback he drives, a practical purchase made with proceeds from his mob-sanc­tioned bookie job. “That’s Pino,” says Nico. “He’s afraid of guns. He’s the gam­bling part. They have nothing to do with violence. Nothing at all. But he knows the street laws. He’s a smart kid that way. He don’t make trouble. We’re both looking to get into Conrail. He wants the benefits, just like I do.”

Due to competition from Asian and Caribbean gangs, the Mafia has not ex­panded much over the last few years, but its potential labor pool has. Few opportu­nities remain in New York’s “last Italian neighborhood.” “A generation ago we were working in construction and the skilled trades,” says Bob Massi. “We were printers, bricklayers, longshoremen. Those jobs are not so well-paid now. Those industries are gone. The kids are up against an economic brick wall. The world is a computer that has no unions and all they have left is the neighborhood.”

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IT IS FRIDAY NIGHT. Frank and the rest of the guys are out in full force. A restless spirit has added a festive air to the evening’s activities. Eggs are being pur­chased in bulk. Before the night is over, several dozen will be thrown. As a likely looking car drives by, Frank winds up a long and powerful pitch that unleashes with athletic speed, slamming his fragile missile against the moving target.

But throwing eggs isn’t really satisfy­ing. It’s much better to pick a fight. Fighting is, after all, a legitimate, even redeeming, pastime in a world marked by tribal divisions. According to Frank, Brooklyn Italians hate Long Island Ital­ians, Long Island Italians hate Jersey Italians, and they all hate Staten Island Italians. Furthermore, Brooklyn Italians from different turfs are also obliged to knock heads. “If different Avenues are at a club, they always have to fight each other,” he explains.

If no more likely target is available, the guys may stoop to beating up a bum in another neighborhood. But most of the time they would rather fight. In fact, it is part of Frank’s purported frustration with some of the passing victims that they aren’t eager to take on the 81st Street crew. The few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians who wander into the neighbor­hood are rarely anxious to tackle 10 to 12 young men clustered on the corner. But the lopsided numbers don’t perturb Frank — the rule is, outnumber and catch the outsider. Frank would expect the same treatment if be ventured alone out­side his boundaries.

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This group harassment is now being directed not only at passing pedestrians, but also at minorities who have recently moved to the neighborhood. These people cannot avoid Bensonhurst after dark. They live here.

“You know, you’re not white, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the neighborhood,” says Gi, a Trinidadian immigrant to Bensonhurst who says he has twice been beaten and robbed by the local kids. After returning from a recent trip to the Caribbean, Gi says, his land­lord tried to evict him in favor of a white tenant.

Two young Hispanic men walk by the corner, both of them rather small. Frank cheers when Tim, an Irish-Italian corner regular, trots up behind them, an egg in one hand, and slams his fist into his victim’s face with a sickening crack. Yolk and shattered egg shell drip slowly down the young man’s chin onto the sidewalk. Frank applauds Tim’s efforts, but dispar­ages the victim: “The Mexicans are no fun. They don’t fight back.” Across the street, two Asian youths round the corner and Frank charges them, flinging a gar­bage bag at their retreating backs. “They walk through here like they got America by the balls,” says Tim, crying, in a mocking tone: ” ‘I got the green card. I got the green card.’ ”

Nico recalls an evening a few weeks earlier when he chased a young black couple down the street for “making out at the bus stop.” He casually admits to feel­ing bad when he found out they were retarded.

Across the street, a skinny 16-year-old named Angelo Berkowitz watches the egg-throwing but doesn’t join in. Angelo, who pleads guilty to being Jewish some­where back in his Italian lineage, stares out at the action from under a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. “You know,” he says, taking in the scene, “they think they’re right, but they’re really wrong.” On the other hand, he argues with himself, “It isn’t such a bad thing, really. What if this neighborhood was Mexican and black and Chinese?” Would that be such a bad thing? “Yeah …” he replies, his voice trailing off.

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The evening winds down when a police car stops and two angry officers slam the doors, kicking half empty egg cartons out of their way. “You’d better knock this shit off,” snaps the tall, fair-haired one with glasses. “Haven’t you guys got any­thing better to do at your age?” The police pull away and Frank waves good­bye by grabbing his crotch. “I hate cops,” he says. “My dad hates cops too. He told me if I ever became a cop not to bother to come home.”

Breaking the neighborhood rules is not tolerated, but breaking the law is, espe­cially if it involves crime in a minority neighborhood. Nico freely admits to mak­ing money by working protection for a drug dealer in a nearby Puerto Rican neighborhood. A few weeks ago, he and a friend went to check out the drug dealer. “We figure we let him [the dealer] sit in the car for an hour and give him a little protection, a little whatever. Keep him warm. And he threw us some coke. The next thing we went back again and he gave us [some] again. He’s got this black guy who breaks heads for him. They’re all punks over there. It ain’t nothin’. I mean if we wanted to go over there and start takin’ over, it would be no problem.”

Like the real wiseguys, Nico also knows how to earn money the old-fashioned way: He extorts it. He says a woman friend of his is skimming money at a neighborhood grocery store. In return for not spilling the beans, Nico boasts, he pulls down several hundred dollars a week. In Bensonhurst, it’s called making a living.

From an early age, Bensonhurst kids are taught to look the other way when questionable business in progress in­volves their own. Dishonesty isn’t a crime, but giving up the wrong people is. Bob Massi recalls a childhood incident: “A guy my father knew walked out of his house. My father said, ‘Where’s Tony?’ I didn’t understand, so I said, ‘Right over there.’ He smacked me. ‘You don’t see nothin ‘,’ he said. ‘You never see Tony.’ ” ■

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins

1989 Village Voice article, by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum, about the influence of the Mafia in Bensonhurst - part of a Voice package about the murder of Yusef Hawkins


Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

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Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING

From The Archives Neighborhoods NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

The Boys of Bensonhurst

A Neighborhood’s Rage — and an Eyewitness Account

I didn’t see nothing, and even if I did see something I didn’t see nothing.
— A Bensonhurst teenager

ON THURSDAY, when I arrived in Bensonhurst, neighborhood people, cops, and reporters were milling on the cor­ner where, the previous evening, Yusef Hawkins had been shot and killed by a crowd of neighborhood boys. In the apartments above the candy store and beauty salon, men, women and children hung out of the win­dows, watching. Gina Feliciano — the 18-year-old girl who had enraged the neigh­borhood boys by, presumably, dating a black guy — lives in one of those apartments and I wondered which one was hers, but I knew the window would be darkened, the blinds drawn. Around the corner, a wavering line of chalk marked the place where Hawkins, who was 16, had died — because he was black and be­cause he had tripped the wire of some­one’s “manhood.” Gina was in hiding — as if she had pulled the trigger — and a neighborhood was defensive and angry.

“My old man told me don’t say any­thing to reporters if I want to see my children. He’s 40 and he could still break my legs.” The speaker, a young man, works at a bakery; he’s wearing a white apron, white pants and a white tank top.

“I don’t trust nobody anymore,” a kid tells a reporter. “Why should I tell you anything? You just say what you want to say anyway.”

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“Well, then why do you come out here every day?” the reporter asks.

“‘Cause you’re here,” says one kid.

“Because we have to defend ourselves,” say another.

Neighborhood residents insist the Hawkins incident wasn’t racial. They blame the girl. “She provoked them,” they tell reporters, because, apparently, Gina had said her boyfriend and his friends were coming into the neighbor­hood and they were going to show the white boys something. “If she said I’m gonna bring my Irish boyfriend in to fight you, the same thing would’ve happened,” one man says.

Many of the kids don’t even think Keith Mondello — one of the five who had been arrested for the attack — was seeing Gina. “She’s a skag,” they say. “Let’s put it this way,” a recent high school gradu­ate told me. “A lot of boys have memories of her.” It seems she has been an outsider for some time. “She went bad,” says a mother who has known Gina since she was a little girl.

When Gina dropped out of high school and began to attend secretarial school, she made a lot of black and Hispanic friends. People on her block — including adults — had been telling her for awhile not bring those kind of people into the neighborhood anymore. Wednesday — the night of the killing — was Gina’s birthday.

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BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Michael’s an anomaly. He stays out of trouble, does well in school and plans on going to college. He loves his neighborhood, and when I talk with him two nights after the murder, he’s struggling with that love. “I used to hang out there with these guys three or four years ago. I didn’t think they were capable of doing this. I really didn’t.” He’s sitting in the kitchen with his sister, Sheila and his mother, Rose.

Michael and Rose don’t believe the incident was racial, but they don’t defend the kids either. When a 24-year-old suspect was arrested, Rose said, “A twenty-four-year-old hanging out in the schoolyard!”

“Their set of morals are different,” Rose says. “They don’t think of death as a terrible thing.” Michael cuts in, “It’s another notch on their belts.” Rose says there are lots of young men who believe in a “distorted” picture of the mob and play at being gangsters. Rose asks if I’m Italian. No, I say. “How can I explain?” she sighs. Her parents came from “the other side.” They met in night school studying English, educated themselves, wanted to get ahead. “The ones coming over today don’t bother to learn the language, they don’t care about education.” She says they don’t know what their kids are doing in school because they can’t talk to the teachers. They lose track of their kids in the world.

“Different things are important to me,” says Rose. “School is important to me. Respect is important to me.”

“That’s what the kids wanted,” Mi­chael says to her. “Respect from the street.”

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“That’s not respect,” she retorts.

“Ma, open your mind!” Michael counters. “For them, that’s respect.”

Rose taps her cigarette impatiently. “You shoot somebody point blank with a gun and you didn’t think you were gonna end up in jail?”

“They didn’t think anybody would talk,” Michael says.

“They have to sleep with themselves anyway.”

The guy the cops are looking for — Joey Fama, the alleged murderer — is, Michael says, “a typical Guido.”

“A coward Guido,” Rose says.

“A brown-noser,” Michael says.

“Now who would he be brown-nosing?” Rose asks.

“I don’t know, Ma,” Michael says.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718817″ /]

BOBBY IS PUERTO RICAN and moved into the neighborhood when he was 16. About a month later, he was sitting with his little sister outside the house when four guys cruised by, calling him Puerto Rican this and Puerto Rican that. Bobby just turned and went inside. But the next day he got four carloads of his friends from the old neighborhood. They had weapons, but they didn’t fight. They just predicted the future — not too promis­ing — of the white kids if they touched a hair on Bobby’s head. Bobby was left alone after that. “My stepfather’s Sicil­ian,” he says. “And he always told me, ‘Stick with your own people. You can trust them a little more than others.’ ”

Bobby’s 28 now, married, with a kid, and works as a maintenance man for the local church, St. Dominic’s. He doesn’t have to fight anymore — not with his fists, at any rate. Bobby’s looking for a larger apartment because he and his wife want another child. “I went to all the realtors on 18th Avenue. Every place they sent me to was out of the neighborhood. They keep trying to move me to Coney Island. And they do it with a straight face!”

We’re sitting outside the church. The sun’s slanting low and the women are arriving for Bingo. Bobby calls the old ones baby, and they love it. He says the neighborhood kids hang out in front of the church at night. He imitates them, slouched, arms folded, their faces immo­bile — “like old men.” Bobby doesn’t get it. When he was their age he was seeing girls, going out dancing, playing pool.

Bobby say Father Arthur of St. Domi­nic’s, organized a basketball league and opened the gym at night for the neigh­borhood kids but they kept pulling shit like shutting out all the lights in the mid­dle of the game. So Father Arthur said, “Everything to you guys is a joke. Well I’ll how you what a joke is …” And he barred hem from the gym for the rest of the season. “He only lets the really young ones in now,” Bobby says.

Later that night, I meet a kid who says he can’t talk to me because one time, his friends thought he “ratted” on them and three of them jumped him. He’s husky, built strong, but he didn’t fight back just, ducked and blocked the punches as best he could because he thought they might run to their car and get their bats or maybe even a gun. He tells me about an 18-year-old neighborhood kid who was found handcuffed, both legs and arms broken, six shots in the back of his head. “The kids around here don’t do anything their fathers wouldn’t do,” he says.

ON SATURDAY, up until almost the mo­ment Reverend Al Sharpton and the pro­testers arrive, the crowds on 20th Avenue are calm. Nothing is going to happen, I’m told, “not with all the cops here.” I sit with a group of boys who joke about Gina. But when we get around to discuss­ing racism, the talk turns angry. One guy pulls down his shirt, revealing some heavy gold, and asks angrily, “Do you think I could walk through Bed-Stuy like this without getting shot?” “What about all the times a white person gets killed by a black person — why isn’t that racial?” “What about Central Park?” Then they discuss affirmative action — the white man’s on the bottom of the totem pole, they complain. “If I go to get a job at the Transit Authority, do you think I’ll get one?” An older man walks with me away from the crowd, sadly shaking his head. “They don’t think before they open their mouths,” he says. “They mix things up. They don’t understand that they could get a job at the TA. They could get out of here if they tried.”

Then the cops’ walkie-talkies are buzz­ing with news of the marchers’ location. Some neighborhood people have brought signs and hold them up for the TV cam­eras — WE ARE NOT RACISTS, and NO MORE TAWANA BRAWLEYS — and the crowd cheers. Then the sound of sirens, the sight of cars and a bus being whisked to the back entrance of the schoolyard. Everyone rushes over there, and as the protesters start pouring into the school­yard, the white kids push up against the chain link fence, girls getting hoisted onto their boyfriends’ shoulders. “Sharp­ton’s using you!” a blond girl starts yell­ing. A teenage boy says to his friend, “You know they got fear in their hearts.” And then, “Smell that stench in there.”

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One man is holding up a huge card­ board sign: WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN — DEATH HURTS US ALL. “Put that sign away,” a kid yells. “Yusef, Yusef,” the protesters begin to chant. “Fuck you, fuck you,” one white kid howls back. “Watch your mouth dude. We don’t want no trouble,” says another. “Jon Lester for  president!” from another part of the crowd. There’s a frantic “shush” from some quarters, laughter from others. The crowd twists against itself. “Don’t let them show us up,” one of the whites yells. “This is our neighborhood. What the fuck is this! Once again they’re kicking us out of our neighborhood.” A boy yells, “Fucking niggers!” and applause and cheers sweep the crowd, making it one.

Then the cops are standing in two rows at the schoolyard gate, channeling the protesters through. The marchers move out onto 20th Avenue, 10 to 12 people to a row, and the whites, mostly kids, teen­agers, and men in their early twenties, run along the sidewalk next to them. “We want the killer!” the protesters chant. “Go home monkey face!” the crowd re­sponds. “Break out the coconuts!” A black woman occasionally flips the finger at the howling boys, but does not look at them. A few blocks away from the school­yard and the calls of “nigger” propel one black man out of the lines. Whites and blacks rush in and cops push and hop into the middle of the scuffle, nightclubs raised. When the groups are separated again, a photographer says, “That was the best yet. No blows, but …” “Did you see that?” a white man says breathlessly. “They attacked us. Police brutality!”

“Our streets!” goes the new chant of the marchers. The white kids go crazy. “You’re losers!” “Go home to your crack-­infested projects!” A block later a white kid charges through the line of cops, straight to Sharpton, whose guards sur­round him immediately. The attacker is chased by cops. “They showed their true colors today,” Sharpton says. A young black woman, her face wet and eyes dazed, heads out of the ranks as if she’s sleepwalking, but before she enters the white sea, two protesters pull her back. “They want that house for free!” yells a neighborhood man. “They think freedom is a free house!” One marcher remarks to another, “They fought three wars with that shit in their blood.”

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After another scuffle, a neighborhood man calls, “Look, look!” He points to the ground. I look down and there’s his card­board sign — WE ARE NOT RACISTS — cov­ered with scuff marks, two cops planted firmly on top of it. “They won’t give me my property.” He’s frantic, weeping. “Re­verse racism!”

The return march from the police sta­tion seems calmer somehow. The march­ers begin to chant, “Poor white trash!” and black and white boys grab at their cocks, challenging each other to step over the line. “It takes two of yours to make one of mine,” croons a black man. “I got balls, I got balls, come on over here,” a white kid yells. “White pussy boy,” calls a marcher.

Once, there’s almost a conversation. “Malcolm X is a racist!” a white boy screams and the black protesters groan.

“Who’s more racist than you?” a black man answers.

“Sharpton’s using you!” the white man yells back.

“It’s not about Sharpton. He’s not im­portant. It’s about Yusef.”

“I didn’t kill Yusef. None of these peo­ple here killed Yusef.”

But then both crowds are shouting and the two men are drowned out and swept by their respective groups down the street.

When we finally return to the school­yard, the Bensonhurst kids are fenced out, and they start spitting through the fence at the protesters. One guy is sud­denly darting for something on the ground in front of me. Just then, the cops push everyone across the street. A black reporter reaches down for the same ob­ject the white kid was trying to get — a soda bottle — and with anger and disgust etched deeply into his face, he throws it hard to the sidewalk and it splinters into a thousand useless pieces.

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On the other side of the street we’re kept behind cars, crowded close together. When the kids see me writing, they start yelling things for me to jot down. A boy shoves a watermelon in front of me. “I went to Africa and brought a tropical watermelon,” he announces. “We’re not racist!” another boy says gleefully. “Write that down.” They’re tired of being good and sorry. They’re having fun. Then the kids start singing, “We Are the World.”

There will be a memorial service for Yusef Hawkins at the site of the killing the next day, and when the protesters have driven away, a tall man holding a baby announces a “baseball game” sched­uled for tomorrow morning. “Bring your bats,” he says. “This is our neighborhood, not theirs.” On the corner, another man is yelling at a police officer that he has his name and badge number. He’s furious because during the march the officer hadn’t let him go into a store to buy a soda. He screams, “You weren’t a cop today, you were black!” The kids are de­ciding what to do with the watermelon. You can tell they’d like to eat it but they can’t now. “Throw it on the ground,” one kid advises.

Roy Innis holds court outside a bakery, and neighborhood people are talking to him eagerly and more articulately than they do to the reporters. “Why does the media only talk to the kids?” an older man asks. “They’ll say anything, do any­thing because of the TV cameras — why do you think they had a watermelon? Looking like fools!” Innis tells them not to let the media back them into a corner. “Where are the reporters now?” someone says. “They start this whole thing up and then they leave.”

Three women talk on the corner. “I didn’t even know there was going to be a march today,” one says. “This is a shame,” says another. “Now my kid is using the word ‘nigger.’ ” Another says, “The problem is, we have no leaders.”

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AFTER THE MARCH, Tony is hanging around like someone with no place to go. He’s slight, brown-eyed, with a soft, expressionless face. That morning his mother had warned him to stay in the neighborhood today, to “stay where peo­ple know your face.” “I didn’t even know they were going to march,” Tony says. “Then I saw my friend and he said there’s gonna be a fight.” So he came right over.

Tony and I walk a few blocks away and sit on a stoop. “Do you know what a ‘baseball game’ is?” he asks me. “I figured it out,” I say, and ask if he’s going to be there. He says, “I’ll be there. I’ll park my car in the schoolyard.” Says it without any passion, like an obedient child.

Our conversation happens upon the murder by mistake. “They didn’t shoot the right one,” Tony says. “I was there. I saw him fall.” He stares out at the street. He doesn’t pour out the story, just an­swers my questions as if he would’ve an­swered anybody that had bothered to ask him. He calls Joey Fama “my friend” throughout the conversation. Says they had gone drinking at the Bay Lounge the night of the shooting. Drank vodka and rum. When they came to the corner, they bought some beer. “Then my friend was really zooted.” There were about five of them hanging out. He remembers Joey saying, “Wait. I’m going to the house and get my gun.” He says there were still only five guys hanging together on the corner when they spotted the four black kids heading down the avenue, but other neighborhood kids started following them. Kids started going to their cars — maybe there were baseball bats, Tony says, but no one got a chance to use them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”4736″ /]

Tony says Joey pointed the gun at one of the kids. “The black kid started getting really scared. He says, ‘Wait, wait, please wait.’ My friend says, ‘No, you fucker, you was fucking with my girl­friend.’ Then he pulled the trigger. Pop, pop. I didn’t know it was going to hap­pen, it just happened. When I got home I told my mother, and she said, ‘These are the kind of friends you want to pick? You’re gonna end up in jail.’ ” He waits for me to finish writing, patient as a dog.

“The black kid said, ‘I’m not the one. I don’t even know who your girlfriend is. I just came here to buy a car.’ My friend said ‘That’s bullshit.’ ” He started cursing at him. The black kid kept backing up. My friend said ‘Don’t back up anymore.’ He said ‘Okay, Okay. I’ll beg on my knees. Please, please …’ and he just shot him. That was it. He just fell. The way he shot him — blood came out in four differ­ent directions. I never saw nothing like this before. My heart dropped, my feet started running.”

Speaking of Yusef, Tony looks at me. “His parents were freaking out probably, huh? I saw his father on the news.” When a man who lives in the house comes out, Tony scoots quickly to the side of the step. “Hi. How you doin’?” he says polite­ly. The man looks at him once without any friendliness and nods his head. I of­fer Tony a cigarette. “I saw a kid get beat up by two men for letting out some infor­mation,” he says. It happened on the same candy store corner. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.” He’ll never forget the black kid being shot either, he adds. “Were you surprised Joey did it?” “I knew he had it in him. I knew he had the heart to do it,” Tony says. “But I thought he was just going to point the gun and scare the guy. But everything turned out different.” ■

Next: “Do the White Thing” by Lisa Kennedy

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst


New York’s Whitest

Keeping the Melting Pot on the Back Burner 

Last month New York City agreed to add 126 blacks, 167 Hispanics, and one Asian, along with 306 whites, to its ap­proximately 30,000-member police force. For the first time, minority police appoint­ments reflected New York’s ethnic re­alities — and the principle that all are equal in as well as under the law.

There is a general impression that we have Mayor Koch to thank for that: for his graceful yieldling, despite his high if con­tradictory principles, to a federal court­-ordered hiring quota for cops; yielding, that is, for the year or more it will take him to appeal it. As the reason for his good losership, Koch cited our urgent need for more cops to prevent imminent bloodshed, Miami-style.

But this was the very same reason he gave federal Judge Robert L. Carter back in December when Koch insisted the city couldn’t change its hiring policy for cops. No matter that Judge Carter had found (not for the first time) that this policy was discriminatory and therefore illegal.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721023″ /]

It was this attitude on the part of the city that led to the quota in the first place — and to Judge Carter’s charge that the city not only discriminated against its racial minorities, but did so deliberately.

Carter based his conclusion on court records stretching back over nearly a dec­ade of litigation, in an uphill and contin­uing struggle by the city’s black and His­panic cops to reconcile the letter and the spirit of anti-discrimination law.

The record shows:

  • The city’s Police Department and its Personnel Department knew as far back as 1969 that exams discriminated by race;
  • They knew by 1971 that such dis­crimination had nothing to do with the requirements of the job or ability to perform it;
  • Individual officials unable to act on that knowledge invited and encouraged the ongoing lawsuit by the minority cops,­ back in 1972;
  • Nonetheless the city chose to fight the case, and even now claims it has never discriminated against minority cops;
  • Throughout the course of subsequent litigation, the city continued to test and hire and fire without making any substantial changes in the system.

A decade later, minorities, now nearly half the city’s population, were still only 10 per cent of a police force whose most pressing task is to combat a rise in crime that is polarizing communities along ra­cial lines. Yet Koch in 1980 continues to fight an affirmative-action quota for blacks and Hispanics — a quota he en­dorsed two years ago for policewomen and, more recently, for city construction contractors from poverty neighborhoods. As if affirmative action was not a right but an act of charity.

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Carter’s view that the city dis­criminated with intent — not intent to do wrong, but intent not to do right — pre­vailed (along with his one-in-three quota) for seven months, from January of this year until last July. At that time, federal appellate Judge Jon Newman decided the city hadn’t erred on purpose, though it had erred, and the quota (reduced to one-­in-four) would stay in force.

Newman’s revision was hailed by the Koch administration as a “vindication,” and by the media as a breath of sanity and common sense (as though the perception of injustice were de facto a neurosis). Such a view of events and of Koch, who as mayor must take the rap not only for his own actions but for that of the city as a continuous entity, says a great deal about this moment in the recent history of Amer­ican civil rights.

Forget the editorial rejoicing over the arrival of our long-awaited troops; forget the staged spectacle of mayoral blessing upon the union of black and white in uniform; forget our (false) sense of satis­faction at a problem finally solved.

Look at the record and remember that this is supposedly an enlightened era, and we are supposedly an enlightened city. And then remember what is supposed to happen to people who forget history.

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In 1967, following a wave of racial violence, the federal Kerner Commission began looking at the low numbers of blacks and Hispanics in police departments across the country. Cities began to respond to the problem. In 1968, minority appointments to the New York City Police Department almost doubled: by 1970, when a job freeze halted all hirings, some 1400 minority officers had been hired, or 18.4 per cent of all appointments to the force between 1968 and 1970. And still the 29,500 member police department was, as the department itself observed, 90.8 per cent “lily white.”

This problem did not go unnoticed by the Lindsay administration. In August 1969, the city Department of Personnel released its two-year study of a previous civil service exam for the entry level posi­tion of patrolman.Comparing test-takers of similar employment, education, and family background, Personnel found that only “the ethnic factor” — race — affected exam scores. That finding prompted the department to investigate its most recent exams. The results would not be ready for four years, but eventually they and other studies supported the 1969 speculation of the personnel department: that greater numbers of blacks and Hispanics could have made perfectly fine cops but never got past the front door “because of below passing test grades which may have been unrelated to actual job performance.” (My emphasis.)

With this speculation, the anonymous drafters of the personnel study unwittingly hit upon the crux of a matter that still confuses many people — who ask, some­times pointedly, exactly how something “neutral” like a civil service test does discriminate racially.

The answer is not simply that we don’t know, but — as the personnel investigators foresaw — that it doesn’t matter just how racial bias is “built in” to an exam if the exam itself is irrelevant to the job.

This is the conclusion the U. S. Supreme Court reached in a landmark 1971 decision. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the court ruled that if minorities can prove a seemingly “neutral” job requirement or test has a racial bias, then that job re­quirement or test is illegal unless the em­ployer, in turn, can prove it is “job-related.”

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Proof that a test is biased is a straight-forward matter of statistics. Evidence that it is “job-related” (or that the employer genuinely tried to make it so) is more complex. But at minimum the employer is expected to be able to describe in simple English exactly what the job is (the writ­ten job analysis). And obviously, a positive relationship between an employ­ee’s test score and his or her on-the-job­performance would be helpful to the de­fendant-employer.

No such relationship was discovered when, in the fall of 1971, the personnel bureau within the police department re­leased its own study. Minority patrolmen, it noted, were promoted to detective slots a — promotion based on job performance­ — at a higher rate than their white col­leagues. Yet when it came to promotions of equal rank that required civil service ex­ams, minority patrolmen did poorly. In short, there clearly was no connection be­tween a minority cop’s on-the-job performance and the civil service test for promotion. Here was a strong suggestion that this would hold true for the hiring tests as well, which ought to have alerted top brass to the need for a written job analysis.

But as of March 3, 1972, Peter Smith Ring, special assistant to the commanding officer of the personnel bureau, was forced to warn the police commissioner:

There appears to be general agreement that existing testing, and our own past recruitment efforts, are the major roadblocks to adequate minority rep­resentation … I have deep reserva­tions about both efforts as they presently stand … it is impossible to develop a new test until we undertake a job analysis for the rank of pa­trolmen … To the best of my knowledge this is not being done … we have little time to lose.

In fact, the department had no time at, all. On that same day, black and Hispanic officers represented by the Guardian As­sociation and the Hispanic Society sued the city.

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The Guardians’ case did not catch its defendants, the city’s police and personnel departments, unawares. Behind the scenes, high-level city officials had not only acknowledged (if only to each other) that the department’s practices were dis­criminatory; they had already tried, and failed, to correct the problem.

The day the Guardians brought suit, the police department’s legal division delivered the fruits of its research on “the possibility that a significant legal trend may be developing” of anti-discrimination challenges to police departments.

The report, circulated in draft form before its official release, contrasted cur­rent laws with all the department knew of its recruitment and promotion practices and concluded they “are vulnerable to litigation charging discrimination. This Department and the Department of Personnel will be hard pressed to show job-relatedness … Such a suit … will have a good chance of success.”

The department did more than antici­pate the suit — it invited it. In 1971, an informal committee began meeting, com­posed of Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy, Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, representatives of Mayor John Lindsay, and Personnel Director Harry Bonstein. Ward later testified to “an agreement pretty much all around the table, that something was wrong with our testing process … All parties agreed to that except Harry Bronstein. He was clear­ly opposed to changing the system.”

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Director Bronstein had been kicked up­stairs to his desk from a key spot in Lindsay’s budget burea, where he was know in that inflationary era as “The Abominable No-Man”. Says a former Lindsay administrator: “Bronstein was bright, he could have done anything, but he was a Depression baby. He wound up in civil service because that’s all there was.” In his official capacity, Bronstein appeared to his colleagues to be acting out of personal spite.

Whatever the reasons for it, Bronstein’s resistance was not overruled by the mayor.

Ward, Murphy, and representatives of the mayor met again, Ward said under oath, “and it was pretty much the con­clusion of the people then in that room that the problem was with the Depart­ment of Personnel … A strategy was then designed and devised to deal with the problem …” That strategy, as Ward testified, was to approach the NAACP. He said police and personnel were aware “that I had spoken to the NAACP Legal Defe1;1se Fund and asked them to bring an action both against the Department of Personnel and the Police …”

Today Ward is Koch’s commissioner of corrections. Through a spokesman, he says he may not comment, “but he stands on his testimony.” The staff attorney from the NAACP with whom Ward spoke, Eliz­abeth DuBois Bartholet, now of Harvard Law School, confirms it. The NAACP worked with the pro bond law firm that handled the suit; the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund was later brought in as well.

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But instead of using the suit to force the desired change in its policy, the ad­ministration chose to fight it. The enormous contrast between the city’s private actions and its public posture may be explained in part by Lindsay’s presidential ambitions, and by the rules of the game of politics: a public admission of racial guilt by city leaders, at a time when race relations were especially volatile and when moreover the police department was already under fire following the Knapp Commissions’s exposure of another kind of police corruption, would have predictably unpleasant consequences for the Lindsay administration. If any consideration other than this obvious political one entered into the city’s turnabout, today — eight years later — the matter is still under wraps. Jay Kriegel, who in 1972 was Lindsay’s liaison to the police department, claims total memory loss on this issue and is unwilling to have his memory jogged.

The Guardians challenged the use of seven exams given between 1968 and 1970 (the date of the last exam before the hiring freeze took effect), including the ones the city knew were discriminatory. Yet the first step of the city’s defense was to ask for still another study. Since the hiring lid was on, the Guardians agreed to postpone trial while this study, by the Rand In­stitute, was undertaken.

But before the results were in (they would, again, confirm the Guardians’ posi­tion) the lid was lifted, and the city­ — using familiar threats of civil unrest­ — proceeded swiftly to hire according to eligibility lists based on scores from the challenged exams.

The Guardians tried to halt the hirings, but the court waited so long before re­sponding that the issue became moot; then, for that reason, it denied their injunction request.

The lawsuit, however, had forced the city to hire all those applicants who’d passed the challenged exams, including the low-scoring minorities who would oth­erwise have been bypassed by the holding of a new exam. Thus both the Guardians and the lame duck Lindsay adminis­tration were content for the moment to leave matters in legal limbo.

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But then the Beame administration began and with it, the fiscal crisis: Despite expressions of concerns from city Human Rights Commissioner Eleanor Holmes Norton and from Mayor Abe Beame himself about the effect of civil service “separation policies” upon the last-hired minority workers, in 1975 22 per cent of all Hispanic cops and 18 per cent of all back ones were let go, compared to only 9.8 per cent of the white force.

Uncertainty in the press about whether more cops would be fired or rehired made it urgent for the Guardians to halt further job actions and seek adjusted seniority for those minorities hired later than they would have been but for poor scores on the biased exams. The Guardians renewed their case in 1976.

At the trial that year, the city insisted the exams were valid, job-related ones, although it was still unable to produce a written job analysis. It also tried to poke holes in the by now overwhelming mass of statistical evidence (much of it collected by the city itself) of discrimination — in short, to deny the facts.

Finally, in its ugliest move, the city argued that it had never discriminated because Title VII, the part of the Civil Rights Act that bans job discrimination, didn’t apply to cities until March 1972 (just three weeks after the Guardians’ suit was first filed). Since all the recent hirings and layoffs were based on exams given before 1972, the city claimed they weren’t discriminatory.

This reasoning, set side by side with the evidence above that the city knew long before 1972 that it was discriminating due to race, was rejected by Judge Carter — ­first in March 1977 and again in February 1979 (Carter was required by the appellate court to reconsider in light of a then-recent Supreme Court decision that appeared to lend weight to the city’s argument).

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At this point, enter Mayor Koch.

Faced with Carter’s reaffirmation that the 1968-70 exams were biased and that the city was wrong to use them, Koch could have decided to drop the line he’d inherited from Beame and move to settle with the Guardians in good faith. He was not dealing, after all, with the kind of “radical,” “revolutionary” black politi­cians he claims to abhor, but with a group of hard-working, dues-paying family men who wished for nothing more than the means to be among those middle-class, law-abiding citizens Koch considers his constituency.

Koch chose instead to apeal. He lost that appeal before Appellate Judge Thom­as Meskill, in a decision that was totally ignored by the press, last July 25. The city is appealing and this time so are the Guardians, because Judge Meskill has re­duced by about 700 the number of minor­ity officers who could receive retroactive seniority in, compensation for the city’s actions.

Koch had had another opportunity to turn over a new leaf in the fall of 1978 when, true to his campaign pledge to hire more cops, his administration made plans for a new patrolman’s eligibility exam, from which 4000 officers were to be hired over the course of his administration. Yet Koch failed to ensure that the lessons of the past were respected. Though changes were made in the test-preparation process, they seem to have been executed in a spirit of indifference to its impact on the lives of real people — and with a carelessness that could only be from stupidity or arrogance.

The facts support at minimum the Guardians’ claim that the new exam was biased. Of those who passed the exam, held in June 1979, 15.4 per cent were minorities, though they formed at least 30.9 per cent of all test-takers; in contrast 66.6 per cent were white, though whites were only 53.8 per cent of the total. (A number of applicants declined to identify themselves by race.) The statistical dis­parity, the courts agree, is too great to be by chance.

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The Guardians filed their complaint last October. But in November, the month of the trial, the city went ahead and hired using the contested exam. Of the 415 ap­pointees, all but 45 were white. And even as Judge Carter mulled over his decision, the city announced a second group to be hired in January 1980: of a total of 380, only 38 would be minority officers.

The city’s expressed determination to use the challenged exam even after Carter personally informed its lawyers in Decem­ber that in his forthcoming opinion he would declare it illegal, forced Carter to issue his written opinion just hours after the last hearing on the case. Very likely the city’s uncooperative attitude, right down to the wire, helped settle any linger­ing doubts Judge Carter may have had about its good intentions.

Intentions were not legally at issue. The city hadn’t been charged with deliberate discrimination, because that — like rape before the corroboration law was repealed — is almost impossible to prove. But the question of good faith creeps in the back door when one must assess the credibility of a witness on matters of great complexi­ty; and Carter, unlike the Appellate court, has been dealing with the city on this issue for years.

His ruling, on January 11, found “that Examination No. 8155 was designed either with a deliberate intention to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics or with reck­less disregard of whether the test would have that effect.” And he ordered the hiring quota.

Of course, as we know, the city ap­pealed. Judge Newman of the federal ap­peals court was inclined to give the city the benefit of the doubt in matters of faith, but when it came to matters of fact he could only conclude the exam was illegal. He modified, but nonetheless upheld, the hiring quota.

Without that so-called “drastic” reme­dy, the number of black and Hispanic cops in New York City — after a decade of of­ficial affirmative action and litigation — ­would still be only 10 per cent.

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At each stage of these events, the mayor — Lindsay, Beame, and finally Koch — had two options: to make peace; or to accept the legalisms that propped up the city’s resistance, along with the prac­tical obstacles that he would otherwise have to struggle to overcome.

Like Lindsay, like Beame, Koch chose the latter course. Since he has bought it, Koch now must defend — along with the present — the past.

Why didn’t the city buck the civil ser­vice system? “Put yourself in the position of the police commissioner,” says one of Koch’s attorneys who is handling the case. “In the back of his mind are 29,500 white police officers, breathing down his neck.”

Why didn’t — why doesn’t — the city of­fer a settlement? “Where were we going to get the money for that? Do you have any idea how much that retroactive seniority would cost? There’s backpay, there’s pen­sion contributions … We can’t even total it up; we’ve tried.”

Yes, money is tight. Yes, the PBA, to which, in bitter irony, the minority officers must pay dues, has filed briefs against the Guardians in this case. (The PBA has also successfully fought efforts to bring quali­fied minority youths into the department under an internship program.)

But these aren’t reasons for the city’s stand, they’re excuses. The city lays the blame for the status quo on the status quo, a tautology that becomes more suspect when we look at what other cities have accomplished. Detroit, for one, has a vol­untary affirmative action quota for its police, one it was willing to go to bat for when white cops attacked it in court.

So have Tampa, Seattle, and Sacra­mento County. Closer to home, Syracuse, when its voluntary plan came under at­tack, worked out a settlement with the state Civil Service Commission; there is no reason why New York City could not do likewise. The long list of local govern­ments that have reached settlements in the past year rather than fight suits brought by the U. S. Justice Department (a “friend of the court” on behalf of the Guardians in this case) includes Cincin­nati, Fort Lauderdale, and the Ohio State Police.

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And New York, of course, is willing to promise hiring quotas to its policewomen. The consent agreement between the de­partment and the Policewomen’s Endow­ment Association in April 1978 pledges the department “will in good faith use its best efforts to have women comprise 10 per cent of the entry level police officer positions within five years of the date of this agree­ment. To achieve this goal the Police De­partment will use its best efforts to have women comprise a minimum of 30 per cent of the officers hired to the Police Department during the aforesaid five-year peri­od.”

Finally, only one explanation for the city’s intransigence remains. When I pressed Koch’s attorneys to explain why the city didn’t just bow to the inevitability of justice, they said — as Koch has said, in different words, before them — “But we haven’t done anything wrong.”

“You know, I used to be glad whenever I saw a black cop,” a friend of mine said not long ago, “and I used to think it was because I was so unbiased, because it confirmed my political beliefs.

“Then I realized that wasn’t it at all. I was happy to see a black man in uniform because that meant he was one less I had to worry about.”

I heard these words with a jolt of self­-recognition. My friend and I are white, we think of ourselves as decent and progressive. But there is more than one variety of racism.

So it is, speculates one of his adminis­trators, with Ed Koch. The mayor seems to see himself as he likes to see himself: he knows he means well. Trust him. And meanwhile, like the rest of us, he is trav­eling the path of least resistance, and we know where that leads — not despite, but because of “good intentions.” ❖

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Beyond Assimilation

These days, if you read The New York Times, you may have already formed the correct impression that Afrocentricity is largely a question of history and pedagogy. What contributions, if any, have African cultures and civilizations made to the West? (See Manin Bernal’s Black Athena and Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilization or Barbarism.) What contributions, if any, have Afro-Americans made to U.S. culture? (See any book by Henry Louis Gates Jr.) How will such contributions be recognized and acknowledged by curricular reform? How will such matters be predigested and served up as a list of tasty facts for public school instruction and SAT exams? Nathan Glazer, a member of the Sobol Committee to review the social studies syl­labi in New York’s elementary and high schools, tells us in The New Republic that driving such reforms are the performance problems black children are experiencing in school. Afrocentric and multicultural edu­cational reforms are designed to redress the high dropout rate and the low SAT scores and reading levels of black children.

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On the other hand, Glazer says, Afrocen­trism and multiculturalism, by emphasizing “difference” and minority perspectives on national history, don’t acknowledge that the immigrant experience has largely been one of assimilation. Most Americans couldn’t care less where their ancestors came from. Moreover, he says, there is little evidence that recent Asian and Mexican immigrants want to do things any different­ly. That Afro-Americans and some Latinos want to emphasize “difference” reflects the fact that their attempts to assimilate have been frustrated.

I am not so sure about this word assimi­lation. I suspect that the tendency for eth­nic and postethnic populations around the U.S. to formulate endlessly minute hybrids and variations on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit should be called something else that better reflects the fluidity and an­archy of the process. (Just think of the difference between folks in Buffalo, New York, and Amarillo, Texas, or Chimayo and Miami.) But I am sure of this: the resistance blacks and nonwhite Latinos have experienced to their upward mobility is called racism and thus far Afrocentrism and multiculturalism seem an inadequate response to it.

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I am opposed to viewing “facts” as the major building blocks of education. Seven­ty-five per cent of the time what goes on in school, when it is going well, is socializa­tion. The integrated Lutheran elementary school I attended had more marks for man­ners and courtesy than it had for math or science. And with good reason. I was learn­ing how to fit in. School was reinforcing the message I got from my family: bathe, wear clean clothes, speak when you’re spoken to. and everything will be okay. This all-impor­tant process continues right through col­lege. Consider, for example, those loath­some fraternities and sororities on every campus.

But the rest of the time, what makes pedagogy worthwhile is now the experience of education is structured, how the student learns to interrogate “fact,” to challenge facticity. What we saw recently in the streets of Moscow and two years ago in Tiananmen Square — a population standing together to resist official “lies” and to fight for “democracy” and “freedom” — this, too, is taught in school. So the very notion of an Afrocentric educational formula in which a list of appropriate “facts” would be disseminated strikes me as almost completely beside the point.

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The problem that Afrocentrists and mul­ticulturalists are facing is a breakdown in the socialization process, what Glazer calls “assimilation.” My older Jewish colleagues at City College are fond of describing how they were successfully “assimilated” or so­cialized by arrogant, perhaps even anti-Se­mitic WASP teachers at Columbia Univer­sity and elsewhere who knew nothing of their heritage or their struggles in Russia or Poland. But what they forget, again and again, is that they were white, or at least — ­as James Baldwin might say — about to be­come “white.” Being white meant they didn’t have to combat racism as they swal­lowed the Eurocentric brew at the tea party of American education.

By “racism” I mean the idea that other races, especially black descendants of Afri­ca, are inferior to the “white” race. The idea of black inferiority has a particular history in U.S. and European development, and often an interesting relationship to oth­er kinds of bias, such as misogyny and anti­-Semitism. This history, unfortunately, is rarely taught by either Afrocentrists or Eurocentrists and this has always been and continues to be my problem with both programs.

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Since the category of “race,” itself, is both racist and mythological, and a symp­tom of what Frederic Jameson calls “the political unconscious” in that “we,” as a culture and a civilization, find it almost impossible to describe it ethically or em­pirically, the mistake that both Eurocen­trists and Afrocentrists make is to almost completely discount it. In fact, I think “race” is an embarrassment to everybody. But by ignoring it, we all, unconsciously, conspire to make it tick.

My “white” colleagues had the option to be good little boys and girls, politely imbibe Eurocentrism and unite with their WASP teachers under the banner of whiteness. People who are not only not white but are black are rarely faced with that option. This doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of excep­tions, like Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. What it means is that there are only exceptions, or “tokens.” (In agony, I include myself in this group.) And the bulk of people of color, by which I mean those who are too black to become “white,” will remain the unsocialized, unassimilated horde who don’t do well in school because before you can do well in school you have to be accepted, and who don’t do well in American society because before you can do well in American society, you have to be accepted. (See the Crown Heights riots.)

Of course, money helps. But there isn’t much of that around, is there? As for the conspiracy theories and “fact” formulas of the Leonard Jeffrieses, need I tell you what grade he gets in courtesy?

Next: “Arguing with the Homeboys” by bell hooks

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES


Let me start off by saying I’ve had some problems with this. That the (read white) media’s unwarranted attack on Leonard Jeffries, their fascination with the fact that, with Clarence Thomas, Bush’s appointee to the Supreme Court could be a black, radical conservative (as if skin color necessarily determined political alliances), or the hulla­baloo over Spike’s and Amiri’s apparent inability to see eye to eye on a figure as controversial as Malcolm X would prompt the Voice to do a segment exploring defini­tions of blackness among black writers is sadly typical of the racial dynamic in this country. This Western dissection of one’s cultural, spiritual, let alone racial identity is usually prompted by white America’s in­ability to figure out precisely who we are at any given moment in time. It makes them feel better. Furthermore, I have yet to see an article exploring the concept of “white­ness” provoked by the antics of the “al­leged” St. John’s rapists, Jermaine Ewell’s attackers, or Yusef Hawkins’s assailants. In addition to this initial resistance, I also realized my life as a “barely-making-ends-­meet black woman living in Harlem” rarely affords me the luxury of such bohemian introspection. “Blackness” stopped being the subject of emotionally wracked poetry at the completion of prep school and Wes­leyan. At 26, it is simply who I am.

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Violence often is the tie that binds in our community. My roommate has a message from the new friend. “He just saw Boyz N the Hood and sounded very upset. He kept saying, ‘It all came back and I knew Joan would understand.’ ” South Bronx, Comp­ton, Williamsburg: all around the ghetto, same song. Even peripheral knowledge of each other’s project pasts was enough to let the brother know; watching Ray’s chest get blown open let loose a floodgate of illy fucking memories: Me and a posse of 13-year-olds searching 20 flights of projects for the three 16-year-olds (two male, one fe­male) that ran a train on my homegirl Pye. Nina being raped and thrown off the roof of her building days before her departure for college. Not quite understanding what was going on, but knowing that the reason the candy store was closed on a weekday was related to the wine-colored mural on its gate and something called point-blank range. Like the new friend, I sobbed uncon­trollably, not only for what once was, but for my inability to live comfortably with these ghosts and give them the homage of memory. I cried because their repression had become a necessary part of my survival.

Summer Madness: Snatch 1
“Something is terribly awry,” a speaker would say later on, at her funeral. “One of our tribesmen has shot the messenger sis­ter.” News of Tamu’s leaving this earth reached us by pay phone on Broadway, around the corner from Sticky Mike’s. Ipe’s legs gave way and mine soon followed. Tamu was shot and killed in a robbery attempt in Baldwin Hills, and yes, I do know about the statistics, but aren’t those who are black and young and beautiful and vibrant and loud and sassy and talented and above all else doing extremely impor­tant work in the political, religious, and art arenas of the black community somehow exempt? I wonder if any other race of wom­en in this country sleeps with such an ugly dichotomy: if I am to leave here unexpect­edly it will probably be at the hands of one of my brothers. If I am to survive this at all, it will probably be because of them too. Insanity and rage are seductive, beckoning fingers on a dimly lit corner. The new friend becomes the good friend and nears unexpectedly: obviously sent at that mo­ment to pull us back from the line.

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Snatch 2
The women gather for a laying on of hands. We come from different paths and genera­tions to give our support to Dee Barnes and mourn and curse a system that produces, then supports, women-bashers like N.W.A’s Dr. Dre; one that gives rise to questions like the one Sister Souljah posed in her speech at the New Music Seminar. “The white male power structure has made our men insane: how can we hold them responsible?” Insanity must breed insanity be­cause hardly a day passes when I don’t find myself hoping Dre’s punk ass will catch a bad one. So, I’ve got to hold them responsible or I’ll spend the rest of my life reduced to loving brothers in the abstract and fear­ing them on streetcorners.

Snatch 3
The sounds of girlfriend laughter and the eager energy of road trips will not turn Leslie’s respectably corporate car into a thumpin’, bumpin’, finger-poppin’ Negro­mobile this summer. She imagines it to be a hearse instead. “The car is possessed,” she whispers, “and very evil.” Nairobi and I rush to Wall Street, hoping that Leslie’s fly corporate gear and sensible shoes will serve as Emperor’s Clothing and keep her office­mates from noticing the tearful phone calls and talk of strange animals lurking under the desk. Later, from the hospital, her mother confirms that the breakdown is similar to the one Leslie experienced post­graduation, “a chemical disorder, that is triggered by sustained drug use.” Her moth­er senses our confusion; Leslie hasn’t done blow in years. “It seems as if she’s been smoking small quantities of marijuana.” One jay a day and our sister lies strapped on some bed fighting for her faculties. I go, once again, to the place the tears are sup­posed to be and come up quite empty.

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Snatch 4
Hours before Tamu’s funeral my thoughts run to Carol, another sister lost and buried in June. Those who loved her described her as a happy (upper-middle-class) African American princess. Those who knew her and loved her watched Carol’s never acknowledged addiction to prescription drugs claim her long before the alleged asthma attack. Those who loved her wrote a scanty obit, summing up the last eight years of her life with, “She had taken up housekeeping in the Midwest and had lots of new friends.” Those who knew her and loved her wondered why it took two weeks for someone to find her. She died the day be­fore her 27th birthday. Those who loved her shook their heads and spoke softly of Jesus. Those who knew her and loved her were few in number and too angry to cry.

The pallbearers and ushers wore real kente armbands and very few folks wore black. I suppose we were all trying to look bright and full of the love that Tamu had that way of generating. The place where the tears are supposed to be is dangerously, unfamiliarly full. I grab my eleke and pray to Yemeya for enough strength to hold back the flood. The last piece of kente I see before they carry in the casket is on the arm of a recent ghost sister, one I have not quite yet repressed. I touch her to see if it is really Niambi, returned from the world of crack vials and pipe dreams. “It’s me Joan,” she whispers between barely audible sobs. “I’m back.” Yemeya sends a wave; the tears haven’t stopped falling yet. So maybe this is what blackness is partially about, learning how to make space for ghosts and love to the blues.

Next: “Niggers, Negroes, Blacks, Niggaz, and Africans” by Joe Wood

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized


American culture seems to lack two ele­ments basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Ameri­cans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of de­fending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeni­able opportunities and freedom-loving peo­ple to acknowledge its legacy of unspeak­able crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.

Unfortunately, this fact has become trivi­alized — partly by black middle-class oppor­tunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lil­lian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civili­zation. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.

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Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to at­tacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and au­thorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark con­trast, most American elites, owing to nar­row, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the ex­pression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been direct­ed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and les­bians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These tar­geted expressions of black rage, though of­ten downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative power­lessness of a people toward whom Ameri­can elites have been and are indifferent.

The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major Ameri­can-elite response to this threat was to re­duce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle­-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonex­istent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.

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The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been dev­astating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the funda­mental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power fil­tered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communi­ties, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desper­ate situation, has failed to make the requi­site symbolic gestures to the black commu­nity in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokes­people, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilan­tism is a shon one for an abused and en­raged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.

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Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direc­tion. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country de­pend, in large part, on whether we acknowl­edge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.

Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan

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BLACK LIKE WHO? The Body In Question

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is a punch, a kick is just a kick.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee, the Chapter on °Tools”

The masters tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.

— Audre Lorde

The collective body — that phantasm with which I share blood, history, and hips — ­goes for a stroll. Ambling, lumbering, hob­bling in a monstrous mass, more male than female, urban than rural, angry than forgiv­ing, the CB is reminiscent of some creature from a ’50s sci-fi flick, bigger than a house. Familiar and endearing to some, scary to others, the body in question shall remain surnameless, has to, which is no doubt one reason Malcolm took on the X. But let’s give it a handle anyway, call it the “black community” this time around, knowing full well, though forgetting all the time, that there is more than one collective body roaming the American landscape at any given moment.

Anyway, it’s a humid day in Brooklyn, so the collective body decides to take in a movie. Terminator 2 has just opened on the Fulton Street Mall. The collective body (working the affirmative-action tip by bringing along Julian and Jeff, who are white) digs deep into its pocket for $7, the price of the ticket for a flick with a decided­ly nonblack lead — though his name does seem to say “black,” two times.

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Without a doubt, the Metropolitan Cine­mas is one of the best places to see an action pic. The excellent “Awwh shit … Kill him!” call and response of the audi­ence makes it moviegoing like it oughta be. But still, who couldn’t be thrown by the sight of an African American scientist, played by Joe Morton, being chastised (“It’s you people who have destroyed the world!”) and not scream “Whoa!” (“Who, black men?!!”), and then wonder why the collective body continues to root and re­spond after that moment. Is there some more compelling (though perhaps uncon­scious) logic than the simple “that’s entertainment”?

Something in Leonard Jeffries’s deploy­ment of history suggests there is. And then somersaults to throw light on Jeffries’s own debacle. (And by debacle, I mean not only his delusions-of-personal-grandeur, pseudo­science, quasireligious filibuster, but the anxiety-driven, censorious paranoia with which its been met. Forget the Post and go directly to the more subtle Time piece by Lance Morrow and Thomas McCarroll, who use Jeffries to slip in a cursory critique of the “intellectually troubling” aspects of Afrocentrism, that new religion, which they intimate has no greater goal than to declare ancient Egypt as black and the rightful cra­dle of civilization.) Where Jeffries and T2 rebel John Connor meet is in their advoca­cy of history as something that “can be processed in a way to make it work for you.” And that is time travel, pure and simple.

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Well, not so simple. Terminator 2‘s back and forth between the past and the post­apocalyptic present is sexy but convoluted. Even so, the conceit of an adult hero repro­gramming a cybertool to save his boy-self (making him more his father than his own father could be) is easily the most groovy metaphor for the work of postmodern his­tory available. This is what history is like for the collective body, it is a tool to reengi­neer the past, get in there, fix it up, guaran­tee a future. (That some, like Jeffries, I venture, believe that the iterations have a natural stopping point, a “truth,” “our truth,” is a problem of a different stripe.)

With history conveniently declared de­ceased — an untimely death to say the least — even the less conspiracy-minded of us can’t help feeling that it’s been murdered in order to prevent us, the collective body, from resuscitating it, exhuming it, perform­ing an autopsy, doing whatever it takes to get it to bear witness to the atrocities and triumphs to which it’s been privy. This is, of course, one of the aims not only of Afro­centrism, but of multiculturalism and feminism.

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The collective body wants to know.

But what? Nothing less than its past, present, and future. The time when uttering a historical gem meant announcing a “fact” has slipped by. Not because events them­selves are malleable, but because their “meaning” is, from here on out, painfully contestable. This is embedded in Jeffries’s rail as well (though his history is more divisive than a device). But there is some­thing truer than all the bogus “frameworks” about sun and ice evoked to show people of color (and whites) that we’ve had our hand in this world from the get-go, which is that there is certainty no more.

We need look no further than Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka’s brawl over Malcolm’s legacy or Jeffries’s spiel on the dastardly deeds of a Jewish Hollywood, or even the uproar about Clarence Thomas and African American Republicans, to see that the col­lective body, the black community, hasn’t a cohesive identity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to know how difficult and painful questions of identity can be. If one lone subject spends a lifetime of language trying to represent herself in total, all the while slip-sliding over a world of communi­cation, it’s not difficult to imagine the hell (and high points) a nation of millions wades through to express itself in one voice.

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Was there ever a time when the collective body moved and spoke as one? Not likely. And is that one-hand, one-heart feeling de­sirable, or even possible? Racism and in­equality make it feel thus — make it seem necessary, but would it be so in a world of undifferentiated difference? A world where race is neither the “Master’s house,” nor a tool to dismantle it. There is a tremendous push (ours) and an opportunity (let’s not forget the pangs of a hungry marketplace) for more representation, more film, more images, more, more, more. With this lurch forward comes a flood of anxiety as well. Competition for one: If individual blacks can only speak for the collective body, then exactly how much of it is there to be carved up and sold off? But also a more visceral fear: Will we become slaves to the collec­tive body? Forced always to speak for it and to its needs? And scared to death that if we don’t, we won’t be allowed to say anything; or if we misrepresent it for the sake of ourselves we will be expelled, we will not exist? We will be “Toms,” or “house negroes,” or “not black,” when clearly we remain in our skins.

It’s not a surprise to find film in the midst of this growing discussion of the col­lective’s identity. Film because it feels extraordinarily powerful — all that money, and narrative, and pleasure — and because historically it is how America looks at itself. While Leonard Jeffries was not wrong to assail “Sambo images” of black folk in ear­ly Hollywood films (though black film his­torian Donald Bogle has done better work of it in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, locating the subversive in the submissive, finding the residue of the black actors’ resistance to demeaning roles), he couldn’t have chosen an odder time to do it, this being the year of black film and all. In the recent past Spike Lee’s films have been treated as something of a hand-held mirror by the collective body — many of us drawn to his images less like Narcissus than like people who have seldom seen them­selves — the cinema has now become a house of mirrors.

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New Jack City, Chameleon Street, Jungle Fever, Boyz N the Hood, True Identity all speak of, to, and/or for the collective body. With every viewing, the black community gets an inkling of its shape, its texture, even its age and gender (mostly young, mostly male these days). Indeed many of the Afri­can American films of the past year have done the work of retooling, demonstrating how that activity creates new, compelling difficulties for the collective body. In short: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN??!! From House Par­ty to To Sleep With Anger to Mo’ Better Blues to Boyz N the Hood, the sons are working overtime to secure the place of the father, and in doing so, themselves. If ever there were a symbolic effort to counteract a sociological assertion — that of paternal abandonment — it has been these films, which depict a world of fathers and sons. Need I add, this does not take care of all of us who partake of and make the collective body’s life 24-7. (Word to the brother: I will not have some 23-year-old man-child in LALA land telling me I must forego a ca­reer to be a good mother, that it’s my re­sponsibility to the embattled black family, just because he made a moving film.) If one were to seize the entrepreneurial moment, the T-shirt would read: IT’S AN OEDIPAL THING. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND. This is less a complaint, more an observation about the failure inherent in casting the collective over the individual or mistaking the individual vision as the collective reali­ty. If we Americans weren’t going through such a xenophobic moment in relation to French thought, I would suggest that when discussing black film, we put a slash through the “black” just to make a distinc­tion between a tool with a handle and … us.

That an essay about the identity of the black community can teeter just this side of being a film piece is a testament to our living in a uniquely American moment, when political activism, liberation activity, is more often than not bound up with ques­tions of representation. When the real lives of people are substantiated by their reel lives. The U.S. is at once a semiotic semiot­ic semiotic semiotic world and a material one; a place where we become the actors, the acted upon, and no one in particular.

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No doubt, our bodies are shot through with meaning, riddled with definitions and qualities not of our own choosing. Some­times the most positive thing to do in that instance is to choose wholeheartedly the meanings, embrace them dramatically, turn the joint upside down. Hip-hop does this aggressively. Film bobs and weaves. Identi­ty politics … well, at its best, it’s like social work at its best, a strategy employed on the way to a different place.

The collective body is at a weird stage. The question is, Will it become the cyborg that we construct, tend, love and hate, breathe life into, and can’t bear to part with (though its existence may doom us ulti­mately)? Or will we let it pass when the time comes? The fights over who will speak, what will be said and recounted, the “real” blackness suggest that the moment of relinquishing will not be an easy one. But in avoiding it we confound ourselves, throt­tle our artists, repress our meaning as peo­ple who, unlike the collective body, have proper names and rich personal histories. What exactly is the purpose of a politics based on racial identity, any identity? To prove the other guy wrong? Make him yell uncle? Or to deliver the subject from the jaws of a limited/limiting discourse into a meaty narrative, however painful, joyous, and lousy, of her own?

Next: “Black Rage” by Cornel West