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).


Race, Class and Prostitution in the City: Washington DC’s Black Madam- Odessa Madre

For @AlaiaWilliams for continuing to remind me to write this. Readers are a precious commodity.

In the essay “Working for Nothing but a Living” Dr. Sharon Harley describes the life of  Odessa Madre, a dark skinned Black woman who became a Madam in the 1940’s because as a high school graduate, who as dark skinned and described as “not attractive, but smart” by her peers, being a madam was one of the major options available for her to make decent money in Washington, DC in the 1940’s.

Born in 1907 her mother was a seamstress and her dad and uncle operated a Madre Brothers barber shop and a pool hall.

During the 1940’s Madre was estimated to have had controlled six prostitution houses, employed twenty women and garnered a net annual income of $100,000.

What is fascinating about this essay is that Harley shows how even though Madre was born in a working middle class family, and that she went to Dunbar, and when she graduated from high school her parents gave her a car, Madre felt that the main job open for African American women- being a teacher was not an option for her. So she chose to become a madam instead. To be clear, Madre was not a member of the Washington, DC elite. However Harley theorizes that Madre’s skin color and looks would have prevented her from joining if she desired.

Color, race, class and the politics of the city are all at work here.

Harley describes Madre saying,

Odessa Madre was a prominent figure in mid twentieth century black Washington, D.C., underground economy. As a graduate of Washington’s elite Dunbar Senior High School, she could have found employment in the legal labor economy or lived comfortably due to her parents financial success….For good reason she recognized that the few professional and clerical jobs available to educated black women  were more likley to be filled by  light skinned, so called attractive women or to have a predominance of such women.

Skin color and earning power is central to my research. Recently I have been looking at the erotic capital of strippers. By erotic capital I mean the ways in which skin color and body size translates into higher earning power for women.  I am really interested in the erotic capital of video vixens and waitresses.

While erotic capital isn’t at work with the Madre’s own personal narrative. Harley does touch on it she writes about Ceclia Scott, a black businesswoman who operated a bar on U street next to the Howard theater. According to Scott,

 Attractive light skinned young women…were good for business because her patrons who spent freely on liquor and tipped handsomely, preferred such women. Indeed some of her friends approached her about hiring their daughters because as she stated she “paid a decent wage and because of the type of clientele we attracted- doctors and big time hustlers who paid large tips. Besides they knew we would take care of their daughters.

So parents sought out Scott, because their daughters, working as waitresses and barmaids would be compensated for their work. #Interested.

The line between legitimate and illegitimate business practices is being blurred here as well. Harley writes,

It is a story of how certain resourceful, ambitious, and courage Black women with limited legal economic opportunities resorted to criminal activities to earn a living for themselves and support kin and Black institutions- goals which they shared with their law-abiding neighborhoods and family members.

Another aspect of this narrative that I found interesting is how race relations between Madre and her young white male peers played a role in he ability work as a madam.

Madre was raised in neighborhood off  of Georgia Ave which was mixed with Irish folks on one side of the street and African Americans on the other.  The young Irish boys who were Madre’s playmates as a little girl went on to become members of the Metro Police Department, and they “proved invaluable to Madre’s eventual rise to the top of the underground hierarchy.”

Madre died penniless in 1983, having been in and out of jail for drug dealing and possession. African American’s in DC, remembering how Madre had historically shared with low income and impoverished families and children in DC- collected the money to bury her.

Did you know of Madre?

What do you think of the idea of a woman madam? Does it seem more insidious than a man who is a pimp?

Skin color limiting employment options? What do you think? Have your Aunts or Grandmother’s ever talked about how their skin tone shaped their job options?

She needs a documentary, doesn’t she?

Tip Your Servers, It is How We Survive.

#Dedicated to Jerm the Perm and to everyone else on that shift work for tips.

For the last two summers I have worked as a waitress at some point.


Depending on the state in which you live, a restaurant may pay a server between $2 and $4 dollars an hour.

This means that servers and bartenders pay their bills off of the tips they earn because the money the restaurant pays us is essentially taken by the federal government to cover the taxes on our tips.

I honestly try and tip between $18-25% because of this.

This means between $3.60 – $5 for every $20.

Our economy has shifted from one based on the production of goods to one made up of service workers.

I classify service workers as  waitresses, retail clerks, sales people etc.

Tips for bartenders and servers mean cell phone bills, rent, and other necessities get paid.

This past spring my Women in Society students learned about how the jobs that pay the lowest have highest concentrations of women. Cashiers, assistant level Nurses and Servers. They became enraged when they realized that women are concentrated in these jobs AND they are expected to pay for child care and other child rearing expenses without little to any help from local, federal governments or their employers.

So please, if you find yourself out and about this summer. Tip your server and bartender. It is how we survive.

You work as a waiter or waitress recently?

They cash you out?

Do you have positive bartender or server experience to share?

Proenza Schouler = #Assitchstatus

“We can act like wild animals?….”

“One day we got so drunk, I thought I heard God speaking to me…”

A peoples ability to control how and when they are represented is an indicator of the kind of power that they have in society.

In light of that, lets discuss this commercial.

First of all.

1. Philip Borgious pointed out in his book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, the irony of Black and Latino children who live in New York, what is known as urban/hip hop culture that is then sold back to them and others by US corporations. Yet these same children are incredibly poor in one of the richest cities in the world.

I ain’t playing.

The first example of this that comes to mind is the term, or notion of swag. What negro child came up with this, what does it mean that corporations are using the notion to sell…Shit..I don’t know…deodorant now.

I wrote Pharrell swag kinda heavy in I think 2007? So um, yeah.

Riddle me that.

This is what I thought of as I watch this Proenza Schouler commercial.

2. When will we get to tell our own fucking stories. And why is Black girls subjectivity/point of view being co-opted for clothing corporation? They don’t have shit else other ways to sell their clothing? (I know why, I’m being rhetorical).

3. Working class, low income Black girls point of view is VIRTUALLY invisiblelized, (except as victims of violence, for the most part) in mainstream media. Why is this where “their” narrative shows up?

When will this negro Harmony Korine (Director of Kids) tell his OWN story? #ummp.

Watch the videos and count the tropes.

Black girls guzzling 40’s?

Poverty Scene’s.

Country Black Girl voice narration.

Black girls saying “We animals.”

Acting a fool.

The men behind Proenza Schouler talk about the origins of the commercial here. I WANT TO HEAR FROM THE GIRLS. Not them.

***Drops the mic. Sashay’s off stage in leopard catsuit and yellow ballerina flats. Yes. I get down like that.


Why Proenza ‘nem trafficking in Black girl narratives to sell they shit?

Honestly, I want to know what THE Black girls in the commercial think about the commercial AND what do Black girls in general think. #ummhmm.

Black Women’s Complicity in Being Dominated

RHOA fight b/w Kim and Nene.

@tkoed and ‘Toya. See, I wrote it!

Fan on Facebook. #new

Last day to vote for my #SXSW presentation here.

After writing several posts in June about Black men, Love, and domination John challenged me to talk about the ways in which Black women are complicit in being dominated, to talk about the role that women play on the streets, in heterosexual relationships, in being dominated.

John said four profound things in the comment section.

The first was that:

I think that most black men have just built up walls that we don?t get hurt by women but especially black women. therefore, I think alot of black men refer to black women as bitches and hoes because that display of emotion has gotten them actually more action than being kind, vulnerable and understanding. As a man why trade that if the other as harmful as it maybe still gets me the award that I seek!

I had never thought of the fact that men may call us crazy assed names in the street because it has gotten them more play than being polite. This is why, in Black feminist theory that experience matters. The fact that he shared this forced me to take it into consideration.

The second was that:

Now before anyone says that I am condoning the way black women are treated in music, in the media, or in our own societies I am not. What I am saying is most men are not going to change the way they are emotionally to accommodate one woman. They are going to go by what they perceive the standard to be. They could have something to do with what demographic their in.

The third was that:

But for the most part when it comes to a white women regardless of what the environment is he will approach her with some respect in fear of punishment if he steps incorrect. But that?s not good either regardless of race women should be treated and approached with respect and dignity.

I appreciated the fact that John was honest about how the risks and consequences are different both currently and historically when it comes to how Black men step to white women and women of color.

The fourth was that:

To touch on something else I think you leave the woman out of fault on this. Like someone stated in one of the earlier post ?women let men get away with certain things because they were men?. That continues to happen not just in the HOOD but throughout society yet as a black woman you scream for change. While your counterparts around you stand silently by waiting for a man to take care of them. How do you expect to change this black male masculine trait if a majority of black women especially in the hood feed into in order to survive in some cases.

On leaving the women out of this.

This piece was hard to write in the same way in which my other pieces are hard for Black men to read. I told @tkoed that I needed to write this, that it was hard and I didn’t want to. He responded saying that I needed to write it and say that, because IT IS HARD for Black men to read many of the things that I say about them. Touche.

The first time that I personally came to terms with being complicit in being dominated and I wrote about it was in December of 2008. I was at a party, the first party in a long time. I had just finished my grad school applications so I came up from under my rock. I wrote,

So I am there, rapping along to Black Moon, or Ghost or CL
and this dude grabs my wrist and I unfurl his fingers from around it. A little bit later, and he does it again and I almost flipped out on him.

I remember that historically, I would take my thumb finger and stick it into a dudes hand if he ain’t get the picture. In many ways, it was a small act of resistance.

I go on to say,

I am thinking about how I am complicit in contributing to an environment that normalizes or is neutral on violence against women. My wrist was grabbed, yet thirty minutes later I still sang along with Snoop, “I got freaks in the living room getting it on and they ain’t leaving to till six in the mo’ning.” I am thinking about what it means to finally realize, after all these years
that I, and arguably we, have been trained to tolerate being touched, and how all hell breaks loose when we say stop.

So yes John, you are right. Black women DO play a role in the domination struggle, and three ways? immediately come to mind.

First, many of us don’t want to give up the little privilege that we have. In the book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins talks about Black women are reluctant to give up patriarchal privileges, the privileges that come with along with sexism. She writes, quoting Barbara Smith,

Heterosexual privileges is usually the only privilege that Black women have. None of us have racial or sexual privilege, almost none of us have class privilege, maintaining straightness is a last resort.

While this quote is in response to how man Black women are silent around what it means to be both Black and queer, for me, the quote also speaks to how many Black women are unwilling to examine what it means to tolerate or even respond favorably to being got at in the street.

Second, both men and women, boys and girls watch how women treat OTHER WOMEN and proceed accordingly.

As a teenager who was heavily invested in Rap music and Hip hop, I privileged my relationships with boys and routinely said out loud, “I don’t have any close girl friends, girls are childish and trifling.” I know. I was sixteen. I ain’t know no better.

Now that I am grown, I listen to Black women when they tell me things. Their relationships matter to me. I try to be a Love bear. But look what it took for me to get here.

What I am saying here is that how we treat each other, Love each other, talk to each other sets the tone for how OTHERS treat us. In the article “Black Women Behaving Badly” Kierna Mayo connects some of beef that we have with each other to the beef that takes place in pop culture at large. She writes,

One reason it’s hard to ignore or simply overlook the insecure and combative nature in some sister-to-sister relationships is because in pop culture they show up everywhere. Venomous exchanges among Black women are more than acceptable-they’re commodified and sold. The spectacle of 14 beautiful women piling into a house for weeks, verbally ripping one another apart for the affection of one man-? la VH1 shows like Flavor of Love and its successor, For the Love of Ray J-has become the guilty pleasure of millions of us. The Real Housewives of Atlanta, a gossip-filled hit Bravo reality series that follows the lives of five of that city’s wealthier women, even decided not to invite one Black cast member back for season two because, as she told, she failed to provoke negative controversy.

In short, how we treat each other matters.

Third, we have to think about the connection between our actions, the behavior that we accept and the treatment that we receive. I want to be real clear here.

I am not saying that blaming the victim of violence is EVER acceptable.

It isn’t. Full stop.

What I am saying is that when Black women do accept out of pocket street cat calls, when we do sing to Snoop and are reluctant to connect his singing “bitches ain’t shit” to the bitches ain’t shit we hear in our day to day lives, we are certainly playing some KIND of role in creating a climate of domination.

People have said to me, well Renina what about the women WHO do want to be dominated and got at on the street, the women who don’t mind.

To me that sounds like a token Black employee saying that they enjoy being the only negro Woman at a job, and there doesn’t need to be more diversity because everything is okey dokey. Negro please.

My response is that I am concerned about who we are collectively.? So if some women enjoy it, then so be it however there are many of us who don’t. There are many of us who stay in the house in the summer rather than be dominated and harassed in the streets.

Furthermore, we need to find another way to relate to each other in the streets that isn’t based on a predator-prey model. One that isn’t based on men getting at women. As JJ Bear says, “Why do you get to shape my desire?”

If men can get our attention calling some us ho’s in the street, how do we address such a cultural phenomena?

Have you thought about how they way that Black women treat each other impacts how others treat us?

What do you think of the idea of being complicit in being dominated?