The City is Like Chitlins: Notes on Gentrification in Washington, DC.

Peace to Janel for staying on me to write about class. Peace to Latoya Peterson for reminding me to think about how cities are similar, different and the reasons why DC, with it’s 25 miles,  is special to me.

I once said that the city was like chitlin’s. Moving from the deep South to DC, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Ohio, New York, and Philadelphia during the great migration Black folks had to figure out how to make something horrible into something livable, or in the case of Chitlins- edible.

For many, chitlin’s, like the city is a delicacy now for some.

After WWII, there was huge resistance to African Americans living in decent housing in the city.

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. went to Chicago to protest the housing conditions of African Americans. The Eyes on the Prize Documentary speaks captures some of this time period.

Shoot, African Americans were not allowed to live in East Oakland before the 1950’s.

My homie, Janel, has consistently stated that conversations about gentrification fail to take into consideration that brown bodies, regardless of the employment status reduce the property value. (*noted: Janel please correct me if my reading is off.)

At first, I disagreed with her hard. However, I am now coming to believe that there is some merit to her argument.

For example, if I am a professor, and Goldy is an lobbyist and we move into a condo on a mixed race but largely white street with owner occupied houses in Columbia Heights, with combined wages of approximately- lets say, $150k, the fact that we are high income earners does not mitigate the fact that we are both brown bodies.

At $150K this would put us in the upper middle class or the rich, depending on whose theory you use.

I had always thought that our social class power and education would make our race moot, when living in middle class and affluent neighborhoods.

Our brown bodies are read as reducing the neighborhood property values of our White affluent neighbors.

According to Janel, our neighbors property values would be reduced because we are “brown bodies.” I hope that she writes more about this in the future. #nudge.

Which brings me to the somewhat unique situation of Washington, DC.

Having lived in Oakland, Brooklyn and DC, I have seen patterns of similarities and differences in terms of how the city is changing demographically.

Because of the government and higher educational institutions, DC is a transient space. As people come here and leave for work for short periods, year around. A friend of mind, Mr. Miami, would routinely rent out an his extra room in his row house, for a handsome sum, for short two or three month periods twice a year in order boost his vacation savings.

Also, the district and the federal government employs a substantial number of African Americans. In fact, Prince Georges county is the seat of African American high income earners in the country.

There is a reason why Black folks, young and old joke about a “good gubmet job.”

I never really knew how Black DC government was until I went to get finger printed for a teaching job last summer. Nearly all of the employees were Black. In fact the woman, an African American woman, with a big old gun- was telling me about how much overtime she worked last week so she could take time off to be with her daughter for a summer camp performance.

The purpose of this post isn’t to go to be a five volume series on the differences of gentrification and global capitalism in three US cities, but what I am interested in is “Who Has A Right to the City?”

I am invested in asking questions about the  economic power of the people who make a city work- teachers, bus drivers, subway drivers, trash collectors, maids, nannies, police officers, fire fighters and cab drivers.

What’s interesting to me about DC is the juxtaposition of Black owner occupied houses and condo’s especially near Georgia Petworth and the lack of political will to ensure that Black home owners can remain in the city.

Wouldn’t it logically follow that Black politicians in the district have a vested interest in insuring that these residents, their base, remain here, if they want to be re-elected? I am not saying that Black people automatically vote for other Black folks, some do some don’t. I am asking where is the conversation? What explains the lack of political will?

What I am saying is that the lack of a vision and a willingness to address the strong possibility that African Americans will be taxed out of their homes needs to be interrogated.

Lot’s of conversations about gentrification are ahistorical. That is because most journalist are not historians.

Think about it this way. When I was in undergrad at the New School, right up on 14th and 1st  was Stuyvesant Town.

Stuyvesant Town has 8,757 apartments in 35 residential buildings stretching from 1st to Avenue C between 14th and 23rd street. African Americans were barred from Stuyvesant Town, for the record.

As a student I was unaware of what kind of housing it was. They looked like nice projects to me.

As I got older, I learned that Stuyvesant Town was built by New York City and Metropolitan life to house WWII veterans and their families after the war.

The apartments were rented at below market rates.

This is a massive complex.

I remember reading in the paper while living in NYC in 2005, at the height of the real estate bubble that Stuyvestant town was for sale. In 2006, MetLife agreed to sell Stuyvesant Town—Peter Cooper Village to Tishman Speyer Properties and the real estate arm of BlackRock for $5.4 billion.

Because of financing issues and lawsuits Stuyvesant town ended up with creditors.

Today, Stuyvesant town is luxury apartments.

I have questions. Many questions.

Why did New York City have the political will to build Stuyvesant Town?

Given that fact that enslaved African American’s have been property historically, what does it mean that they may be taxed out of there homes in DC? Who will move in?

Should there be political will in DC to ensure that African American home owners can remain in their homes? Why? Why not?

Should people be able to afford to live in the neighborhoods where they grew up? Where they spent their 20’s?

Have African Americans earned a right to the city? If not, who does?

Are the only people who have a right to the city the ones who can afford to pay the financial price?

The Politics of Making a “Black Film” in Obama’s America

Image of director Kasi Lemmons courtesy of Professor Sussoro’s Blog

Last fall I tweeted that a barometer of Black women’s freedom would be their ability to control, tell, and distribute their own stories.

Having seen Push, and now For Colored Girls, two movies based on texts written by Black women about Black women, but directed by Black men, I am incredibly mindful of who gets to tell which story and why. Story telling is powerful because it is through stories that we come to see who we are in the world. Our stories define us. Stories tell us what is possible.

Consequently I was really excited when I learned that Pariah, directed by Dee Rees had been acquired by Focus Features last week.

A story, by a Black woman, about a Black girl. #Awesome.

In thinking about Pariah I was reminded of a Professor Michelle Wallace’s commentary on Spike Lee nearly fifteen years ago and what it means to make “Black Films.” In the article “Doin’ the Right Thing” she writes,

” …implicit in this formulation of Blacks having their own films was the nagging question as to whether such representations would somehow make black
peoples lives better overall. Regardless whether representation weather a film has value as any value as art, it can , if it chooses closely mirror or reflect the problems
and inequities of society. People make the mistake of thinking that a film can therefor correct inequities. This because we as a culture, are still trying to figure out what representation fully means in still new and exponentially expanding forms: what such forms can and can’t do, what we should and should not ask from them.”

She also say’s something in the article that has stuck with me which speaks to the idea that,

“we can now see that the notion of blacks making their “own” films presupposed the existence of a monolithic black community, unified enough to
posses a common ideology, ethics, morality, and culture, sufficient to override such competing and divisive interests as class, gender, sexuality, age and

This morning @tkoed Sent me a link from Ta-Nehisi’s blog where Neil Drumming, a screen writer and journalist, talks about about whether he would make “Black films.”

The article talks about how films by several NYU alums made it to Sundance this year. Full disclosure, as a little bear I worked for several years at NYU’s film school as an office manager. NYU’s Black film making culture is a part of me. It is in seeing grad and undergrad student filmmakers grind to make their dreams work that, that in some ways I developed the courage to openly pursue being an artist. Filmmakers taught me the power of story and how to analyze a film.

My homie Jase has just came back from Sundance after working on a doc on Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song, #wingsup.

My homie’s Marquette Jones and Qwesi Davis both have films in the San Diego Black Film Festival this month.

I also found this article to be interesting, in that it speaks to how hyper segregated both Hollywood AND the art world is. Furthermore, it is related to a conversation that I was having last week with a Black woman journalist friend about how segregated Washington’s journalism corps are, and what this means for the careers of Black people in general and women of color in particular. It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black? o.O

Work mirrors life?

Was it this rigid in New York? I don’t recall.

What is material to me is that Neil never disclosed his race. I read the article again, looking then I asked @tkoed if Neil was White. @Tkoed says that this is because regular readers know who he is, and that may be true. But I am not a regular reader, so I finished the article wondering is this a White, mixed race or Black person analyzing what it means to have negro characters in their movies.

Perhaps given how marginalized Black films are, to choose to make Black movies is a choice to have your work live on the margins. This can be tough to reconcile for some.

The homie Dame also sent me a link to an article titled “Can Revolutionary Films Hinder Social Action.” Read it here. This article looks at how the top 1% can use the medium of film
to transmit messages to the masses that then absolve the masses from taking action. For example, if you know that “The Matrix” exists, are you obligated to do something about it?

Oh and Rob has a piece up at The Liberator about the Black Creative Class. He makes some interesting points about who makes up this class and although his timeline throws me a bit, I like
the idea of inter-generational Black struggle that’s not linear and impacted by art. In some ways I think our posts are in conversation with each other.

Excited about Pariah?

Why did we assume that having more Black Films would change the lives of Black people?

Can we have a conversation about the forces that create a “Black Film” genre in the first place?

Race and racism are draining.

White Husbands and Black Maids: from Drylongso

Gimmie a Break on You Tube, for a refresher on Black maids

I read Drylongso by John Gwaltney while working on The Crack Project. Drylongso is an ethnography of? Black people in North Eastern cities in the late seventies. Ironically, The Graduate (the man for whom I played number two a few years back//that was fun, and he is now my friend) recommended that I read it.

I am glad that I called him and asked for his help (he is a historian) as reading Drylongso helped me to conceptualize why oral histories are really a powerful and important tool for documenting the lives of Black people.

But for introductions to the individual chapters, and a fourteen page introduction,? the book is? mainly testimony straight from the people that Gwaltney interviewed.

Gwaltney sums up his intentions with writing Drylongso when he says,

…I share the opinion commonly held by natives of my community that we have been traditionally mispresented by standard social science.

…This is not therefore another collection of street-corner exotica but an explication of black culture as it is perceived by the vast majority of Afro-Americans who are working members of stable families in pursuit of much of the same kinds of happiness that preoccupy? the rest of American society.

…far often than not, the primary status of a black person is accorded by the people he or she lives among. It is based upon assessments of that persons fidelity to the core black standards. the categories “real right” and “jackleg” cover the spectra of statuses…

Rereading this book over the last week, I was moved by how Black women theorized racial relations between them, white men and white women.

Now, quiet as it’s kept, these white men try to rule their wives like that too. And if they can’t beat them, then they toles them with nice things. If my husband had encouraged my children to go out here and treat some woman the way white boys have tried to treat me, I would leave or he would have to leave. But that’s because I do not need a man to feed myself. White women don’t, either, but they think that they do, so they just put up with all this stuff that they should not stand for. Now just like I have to get out here ad hit it, they could too…

I have worked for many white women and most of them did not have the sayso any more than I did. Not as much as I did sometimes. If I had been the kind of woman that they might find in bed with their husbands, there wouldn’t have been anything that mot of them could do about that commonness but maybe? get their husbands to fire me. Now, that won’t work with black women because Black men don’t have anymore than we do. How I’m gone boss you if you got just as much as I got? ~Nancy White

Three white women that I have worked for have had the nerve to ask me to go to bed with their sons, and one, bless God, even had the nerve to ask me to take off my clothes for her husband. These were fully grown women with children of their own. Now can you imagine a black woman doing a thing like that? Hattie or Rennie or Nancy, anyone out here, will tell you something like that. To white people, your feelings just don’t count for nothing. Nothing counts to them except for what they want. ~Alberta Roberts

I thought her comments about race, and white women, work and power were incredible.

“How I’m gone boss you if you got just as much as I got?”

The assumption here is who ever got the dough, has the right to dominate. Which if you have been reading my blog for the last month, is Patriarchy 101.

We rarely talk about the the connection between Black and White people,? the power relationships that arise when it comes to work and labor.

In fact, prior to the 1960’s most Black women worked as, nurses, nanny’s and maids, as that is what society saw them as being naturally fit to do. With integration and the creation of affirmative action, Black women were able, and all women for that matter were able, to attend school in larger numbers and obtain fancy jobs, sit down jobs, city jobs, academic jobs.

Have you ever been a nanny or maid? for a family of another race?

Have you ever hired a nanny or maid of another race?

How did that work out?

What do you think of Ms. White’s comments?

Musing on a [Lack of a] US Negro Agenda

I dedicate this to Latoya and Matthew. LaToya, write that post girl. Im waiting. Matthew, thank you encouraging me to write honest, from the get go.

I think it was Chomsky who said that Democracies by their very nature are fragile.

But then again, isn’t any democracy stable? Isn’t it fragile, delicate, tenuous and exceptional?

Every time I think of a critique of the presidents lack of a “Black Agenda” I am reminded of both Baldwin and the founding fathers.

I am reminded of Baldwin for two reasons. The first is because during the sixties he was routinely called down to Washington, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, to discuss “the negro problem.” The second reason is because Baldwin was always really clear about how our fates and lives are interconnected in this country, across race, class and gender.

My Love of Baldwin is rooted in my fascination with Democracy.

A Democracy, with a huge portion of its citizens, prevented from participating because of prior non violent drug offense related convictions, a democracy that saddles its young with tens of thousands of dollars with the school loan debt at twenty-one, a democracy where people are quick to criticize folks on food stamps yet are mute on the newly authorized one year trillion dollar budget for two wars, a democracy that has never dealt with economic and psychological impact of three centuries of forced free labor isn’t stable, nor sustainable.

You may say, Renina is doing to much, these things are not connected
she is on that shit again.

But let me ask you this? How can these things not be connected?

Don’t we live and survive here together? This is preciously Baldwins point and why I was moved to (finally) write this piece this morning.

There are three essays where Baldwin makes it clear that our future’s are bound together. The first is, American Dream American Negro, where he argues that,

It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America,, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one o the people who built this country- until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. if the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens this is a very grave moment for the west.

I am struck by the notion of mixed ancestry, and thinking about President Obama and the potential that thinking about his background offers us. I am also struck Baldwins keen observation around the idea that “if people are denied participation in it, they will wreck it.” I don’t know how much this holds true. Not they they will wreck it overtly, but that it will implode.

At the time, Baldwin was talking about Black folks, but as I keep track of unemployment figures for working class and college educated white folks as well, it is getting crowded in the these un and underemployed margins.

Peace to the good people that run the unemployment union and their thirty one million members.

Furthermore, I have been interested not just in the need for a Negro agenda, but the ways in which white working class folks and young college educated white folks are suffering in this economy as well, and the profound silence around addressing it. The most ambitious article I have seen on the topic was How a New Jobless Era will Transform America.

The second Baldwin essay is the East River Downtown, where he states,

“Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their own words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had a an unhealthy effect on the total life of this country, and has eroded whatever respect Negros may have once felt for white people.”

I went back and forth with @fwmj a couple of weeks ago about the futility of a “Negro Agenda” and “Negro Leaders” and I reminded him that my concern isn’t just for Black folks, but with the viability of our Democracy in general. This Baldwin quote really captures, what I was trying to get at. He writes, in the essay, Fifth Avenue Uptown,

“People are continually pointing out to me that the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of American failure does not console me ant it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, no better than “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by the is fact is the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

And this is where the founding fathers come in. According to the book Founding Brother, by Joseph Ellis, the founding fathers were so troubled by and dependent on the institution of slavery that many of them refused to debate it publicly. It is in this moment that I reminded that our silences speak as much as our words. Ellis writes,

“Granted the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had engaged extensive debates about the slave trad and how to count slaves for the purposes of representation and taxation. But these debates had all occurred behind closed doors under the strictest codes of confidentiality. (Madison’s informal record of these debates the fullest accounts, were not published in his lifetime.) ….(No specific mention of “slavery” , “slaves” or Negros” had been permitted into the final draft of the document.) If the political leaders who had pushed through the constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 had been permitted to speak, their somewhat awkward conclusion would have been that slavery was too important or controversial of a subject to talk about publicly.”

Lastly, Baldwin speaks to how our futures are bound, connected, and many ways have been every since James Madison thought slavery was so important that it shouldn’t be debated in public. Baldwin writes in American Dream, American Negro,

Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble. This is what concerns me most.

I write with hope, Love and my word this morning.

In some ways our fear of critiquing and pushing the president reminds me of how when we are dating someone, whom we really want to liked by, we remain silent, and let them do shit, that we wouldn’t otherwise
let someone else get away with. Then we complain about the outcomes.

I am not an object, and neither are you. Word to Sartre.

To critique something, is to take it seriously, invest in it, learn about
it, play with it, in some ways it means growing, possibly in uncomfortable ways.

In sum, Baldwin was on to something in ’65 in thinking about
what it means to live in a democracy where huge swaths of people are prevented, structurally, from participating in it, and the danger this poses.

Why does a negro agenda make folks so uncomfortable, when agenda’s are inherent in Democracies especially in this county?

Corn, Israel, the Wars, No Child Left Behind, Banking Reform, Iraq etc, all have agenda’s, why the avoidance of a Negro agenda?

Is it because of the threat that it represents, to speak about what James Madison would have rather remained silent about?