Some Historical Ideas on Race, Class and Neighborhoods in DC


Map detailing borders of the Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood in DC.

I am a board certified nerd. Meaning, I have library cards from three states, and I would get one more if they would let me.

Given my card carrying nerd credentials I am one of those people who takes pamphlets from museums and libraries. One recent pamphlet that I picked up is titled “Village in the City” Mt. Pleasant Heritage Trail, not from a museum, but from a library.

When I look at neighborhoods and their racial and class make up, I am not only concerned with the movement of raced bodies, but the movement of capital/money/investments as well.  Who is moving in, who is moving out, how much does it cost and who is paying for it. The development of cities and the development of the suburbs is  a narrative of certain raced bodies being allowed to move into certain neighborhoods, and other raced bodies being kept out.

Well, what does this mean?

I learned in looking at the historical development of Oakland pre-post crack that as Whites left cities before the onset of the crack epidemic, the local and federal governments funded the movements of working class and middle class Whites to the surburbs of Oakland such as San Leandro, Hayward, Alameda etc. This funding is in the form of home housing finance and loans. This often followed a pattern of divesting in “inner city neighborhood’s. There is a relationship here. Imagine my surprise when I heard Black activists in Oakland in the 1970’s describe Oakland as a daggumit colony.

Given my understanding of Oakland, it was really interesting to learn about the history of Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

Which brings me to the Mt. Pleasant pamphlet, published by the DC Cultural Tourism Board, which describes Mt. Pleasant in the 1890’s saying,

The new residential developers restricted commercial activities to the streetcar routes. Soon, the 14th Street corridor became an important, large scale business district…The arrival in the mid 1920’s of the grand new Riggs Bank building and the 2,500-seat Tivoli Theater sealed the deal.

These imposing buildings reflected the status of Columbia Heights residents, who were mostly Whites and upper-middle- class. Among them were senators, supreme court justices and an enclave of successful Jewish  business owners. Some builders wrote race-restrictive covenants  into deeds to keep areas west of 13th street white. In the 1920’s upper-crust African American families, many of them associated with Howard University, began moving to blocks just east of the divide.

Columbia Heights Central High school , at 13th  and Euclid streets, were considered the gem of DC Public Schools’ complexion had changed and Central’s student population had dwindled. At the same time many “colored” schools were practically bursting at the seams. After intense lobbying by African American parents, and despite strong resistance from white citizens and Central alumni, the school board transferred Central’s students elsewhere, and moved the African American  Cardozo’s Business high school  intro Central’s building.

A few years later legal school segregation ended. Soon most of the neighborhoods remaining  white residents, and much of the white business capital, had left for the Virginia and Maryland suburbs….

I chose this quote to illustrate the historical racial and class changes that occur in US cities.

I also chose this quote to demonstrate the connection between the overdelopment of suburbs and the underdevelopment of cities, especially in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. This also leaves me wonder that given the rise of low income folks living the suburbs, how will this affect the racial make-up and raced influenced Bank finance in both suburbs and cities.

Did you know about the history of the connection between “restrictive covenants” and “illegal” racial segregation?

Are neighborhoods that “started off as White” in the early 1900’s in DC, that are now becoming more white, returning to the past? (Let me be clear here, I understand that this land had a history prior to White settlers and I acknowledge the ways in which Native Americans were systemically removed from Native land).


Is Marriage Really for White People Gina?

For my paper, I read Ralph Bank’s “Is Marriage for White People?” Banks is a legal scholar and professor at Stanford University.

This text is crucial in terms of the “Middle class Black women can’t find a man” discourse because it is both a scholarly book and because it has been reviewed widely in the popular press. In the book he provides research on Black women and marriage and he also cites his his own findings from interviewing middle class heterosexual Black women from across the US.

He essentially states that middle class heterosexual (MH) Black women are the most unmarried population in the US, that middle class Black women will marry someone who earns lower wages than they do, but they are reluctant to marry outside of their race. He states that across race Americans are less likely to be married now than they have been historically. In looking at Black women, he says that we can see how “Black people  are at the center of a social transformation  whose reverberations encompass us all”.

He concludes that MH Black women may want to consider marrying outside of their race because Black women’s dating market is highly segregated and when MH Black women marry outside of their race “the Black gender balance becomes a little less severe”.

Historically, marriage has been an economic, legal, familial and property arrangement. This is not to say that Black women are wrong for desiring it, as it is not my place to say. I will, however saw that I am very skeptical at this particular moment of any narrative that delves into the lives of Black women, that is not told by Black women.  I am not saying that Black women offer a “truth” as Black women, as I believe in the heterogeneity of Black women. We are not the same. I am also skeptical of narratives that do not explicitly acknowledge the context in which they exist.

While the book does acknowledge how labor an employment opportunities may shape marital statistic a more indepth conversation about labor and gender roles would have been useful. Our economy both in the US and globally is undergoing a major restructuring and I posit that this is having a major impact on the choices that heterosexual middle class Black women make. Changes in educational attainment for women across race, changes in technology and how technology shapes employment and the global movement of capital impacts all of our lives on a day to day basis. These social forces are impacting the lives of all adults, so they impact Black women as well.

There are some interesting tidbits in the book.

First he states that while popular media discourse paints MH Black women as “too picky” he has found that MH Black men are the ones who are in fact picky. He makes this statement for two reasons. First, the variety of women that the MH Black men have access to makes it less likely that they will desire marriage as they may want a woman who represents a combination of all the best attributes of the women that they currently date. This is a profound point.

His second tidbit is that MH Black men are less likely to think that their sexual life will improve with marriage. Sexual politics within monogamous and non-monogamous relationships are dynamic, negotiated and vital.

The third tidbit is that both many Black men and Black women assume that Black men are the only option for MH Black women. According to his interviews, Black women want to marry a Black man, so that they can have Black children. They see partnering with Black men as “fighting racism” because “we should never give up on our Black men”. However statistically, MH Black men have not been committed to marry MH Black women. And there is the rub gina.

The fourth tidbit is that Black women who date white men report more acceptance of their natural hair from their White male partners. I thought this was really interesting. I would like to see a conversation online about this!

The fifth tidbit is that he cites research which states that lighter skinned Black women tend to marry higher earning Black men, in comparison to their darker skinned counter-parts. In terms of erotic capital, I find this finding fascinating.

There are three things that could have been done in this book that were outside of the scope of the project as it stands today, but it would have made a more richer discussion.

It would have been interesting if he devoted a section of the book to looking at MH Black women who have been both married and divorced. Hearing them speak about the current discourse around Black women and marriage, having been married gives them a vantage point that could make for a much more nuanced and richer conversation.

The second thing that I would have liked to have seen explored more is the decline of the middle class in the US and the low marital rates of MH Black women. Place their marital options, choices and patterns within this context would make for a more nuanced conversation.

Many of the women he interviewed are either middle class, or high income earners. Statistically these African-American women are likely to be  “the only one” within their companies. As Black women they deal with both racism and sexism, and depending on their class background classism as well. It would have been interesting if he opened up a conversation about how middle a middle class or high income earning Black woman shaped her willingness to get married. Or to put it another way, how does navigating racism and sexism at work, the loneliness of this space impact Black women’s desires to marry. Giving the health statistics of around Black (and Latina’s) health in the academe, I wonder to what extent does navigating work issues of race and gender shape Black women’s desires to marry.

By and large the book is an interesting read, even if the title is in many ways sensational.

So, having written all of this I am left with a few questions.

When will he have a conversation about how dealing racism and sexism at work may or may not influence MH Black women’s desires to get married?

What does it mean that so many institutions are examining the marital desires of Black women?

Is this another way to call Black women deviant?

Pariah and Red Tails: Film Finance, Sexuality and Race.

I will be writing a series of posts about Pariah. This is the first of three or four.

Dedicated to @Very54. I missed you too.

The conversation around Red Tails and Pariah is interesting in it brings the politics of black stories and professional Black storytellers to the forefront. (Peace to James McBride for the language of professional Black storytellers.)

This post isn’t about the content of the films, but about how audiences perceive movies, the history of White hollywood and the politics of getting stories made and distributed that feature Black subjects.

George Lucas personally financed Red Tails, after the Hollywood establishment decided that a film with all Black leads isn’t viable.  Forrest Wickman in Slate writes,

George Lucas, who produced the movie, has said that he was forced to finance it on his own—to the tune of $58 million—when studios balked at the marketability of a film with all black leads.

Last week, after the release of Red Tails,  on John Stewart’s show, Lucas went on record saying that the Hollywood establishment did not know how to market Red Tails with an all Black lead casts.  Sofia Hernandez writes,

He continued, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ”

Unlike the Matthew BroderickDenzel Washington Civil War drama Glory or other films depicting black soldiers in battle, the World War II pic Red Tails does not feature a white protagonist, said Lucas, “It’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first, all-black action pictures ever made. It’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.”

As a scholar, I do the political economy of culture, which is a fancy way of saying that I examine the way race, gender and institutional power impacts how art (music and films and books) is made.

The fact that the overseas market plays such a huge role in determining whether or not the Hollywood film establishment would support Red Tails is significant.

Filmmaking is capital intensive and historically the domain of White men. For me, it would have been interesting if Lucas mentioned that movies featuring Black subjects have a hard time within the Hollywood establishment and went on to mention the fact that it is a miracle that Pariah has been made. This would have opened the space to talk about films made featuring Black people by a seasoned White male filmmaker and a new comer Black woman filmmaker. It would have opened the space to ask how does money, and race, and sexuality impact their films similarly and differently?

I’ve seen Pariah twice. The first time was at a screening with the producer, Kim Wayans, Dee Rees the director, Nekisa Cooper the producer and Adepero Oduye the star. The second time was with a nearly all Black sold out crowd at an art house theater.  I’ll see Red Tails next weekend.

Based on my notes from the Q&A on Pariah, the film cost approximately five hundred thousand dollars to make, and it took them 18 days to complete it. As of January 22nd, 2012 it made $497,579. This is a second career for the director/producer duo as Cooper and Rees met while they were both in corporate America, working a Proctor and Gamble. Cooper and Rees also fundraised and used credit to get the film made. Lastly, many of the crew members were willing to work without pay (temporarily) because they believed in the project.

Given the fact that the birth of film in the United States is largely thought to be “Birth of a Nation” it is in fact a miracle that Pariah was made in the first place.

What is interesting to me is that Reese and crew’s narrative has been one of we did it, come out and support, I have been working on this story for a while, no it is not autobiographical, but there are parts of me in here and I am glad we were able to make it.

So my questions are.

Why were Black folks in social media spaces and in comment sections of the mainstream press seemingly more willing to rally around Lucas’s film but not Reese’s?

Yes, the films are two different audiences, but they both feature Black casts, they both have awesome and interesting back histories in terms of film finance and they both feature stories that need to be told.

Is Black homophobia working here?

If we take the statement “We need to support Red Tails because if we don’t the Hollywood establishment may not make anymore movies featuring us” then don’t we assume that we have more control over film finance than we actually do?

Why would a Black person in 2012 assume that they can control which films come out of Hollywood, when it is clear that “overseas marketing possibilities” have far more control, at least with Red Tails?

I love writing about movies the way I use to Love writing about rap music. I hope it shows.