Archive for the ‘Uptown’ Category

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was an American professor and historian, best known for his book “A People’s History of the United States” (1980). It is not a story of presidents and generals but instead “a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He was to the left of Mao and proud of it.

He did not just teach history, he took part in it, like marching at Selma and hiding the Pentagon Papers. He was brave, doing what was right even though it meant that Spelman fired him and the Boston police beat him.

He grew up in the poor parts of Brooklyn. When the Second World War came he joined the Air Force to fight the good war against Hitler and fascism. He bombed towns in France and Germany. From his plane, six miles up in the sky, he could not hear the screams or see the blood.

TheThere is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.He came home and went to university on the G.I. Bill. There he read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946) and began to think about the people he killed, many of them children. He began to see that America was an empire no different from all the other empires in history.

In 1956 he became a history professor at Spelman College. He found himself teaching American history to black women from books that said little about blacks. He began to question the way American history was taught.

Then came the civil rights movement, the fight for equal rights for blacks. He joined SNCC and the sit-ins. He urged his students to protest too. Spelman fired him. Writer Alice Walker, one of his students, puts it this way:

Well, he was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation.

In 1964 he went to Boston University where he taught till he retired in 1988. There he took part in the protests against the Vietnam War and became friends with Noam Chomsky.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg gave him one of his copies of the Pentagon Papers, which held the government’s secrets about the Vietnam War. The big secret was that it knew the war was hopeless but lied to the people about it. Zinn found out that the war was not about freedom and democracy but about tin, rubber and oil. America in the 1960s, it turned out, was no different than Japan in the 1940s.

In 1980 he came out with “A People’s History of the United States”. The first printing was only 4,000 copies, but in 2003 the millionth copy was sold! The latest, and now last, revision comes out in July 2010.

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AliciaKeysAlicia Cook (c. 1979- ), better known by her stage name of Alicia Keys, was one of the top American R&B singers of the 2000s. She is best known for “Fallin'” (2001) , which made her name and is still her most unforgettable song to date. Smokey Robinson says she is one of the best new singers.

So far six of her songs have hit number one on the American R&B chart:

  • 2001: Fallin’
  • 2003; You Don’t Know My Name
  • 2004: If I Ain’t Got You
  • 2004: My Boo (with Usher)
  • 2007: No One
  • 2008: Like You’ll Never See Me Again

“Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair” never hit number one.

Half these songs also hit number one on the American pop chart:  “Fallin'”, “My Boo” and “No One”.

For comparison, during this same period Beyonce had five number one hits on both the R&B and pop charts in America and Mariah Carey had three each.

Mariah and Beyonce have sold way more records than Alicia Keys: they have been at it longer and their music crosses over to white audiences better.

Alicia Keys is not only talented and successful but beautiful – one of the most beautiful black women according to white people. She is half Italian by blood and looks nearly white.

Her father is black (Jamaican); her mother is white (Italian-American). She considers herself to be black, not biracial or mixed race. Unlike with Mariah Carey, it has never been a question. Also, unlike Carey, her early music was more clearly black too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents split when she was two. She saw little of her father, a flight attendant, though he did remain in her life. Her mother was often poor but somehow she always found money for Alicia’s piano lessons. Alicia:

I’ve had a deep love for music since I was four… . Music came before everything, everything, everything. I would risk everything for it.

By seven she could play classical piano. By 11 she was writing songs. One of the songs on her first album she wrote at 14. She continued to learn and practise her singing and piano.

In 1997 she got a record deal with Columbia Records – and dropped out of Columbia University. But then Columbia Records did what they did to Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen before her: tried to make her into someone else:

I felt that they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah or Whitney, and I couldn’t do that. I’m not the sequined dress type, or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I’m not coming like that for no one.

They parted ways.

Clive Davis, the very man who brought us Whitney Houston, stepped in. He was struck by her talent and beauty. She was struck by how he took her seriously.

After many delays – Davis was kicked out of Arista and formed J Records, bringing Keys with him – she completed her first album in 2001. “Nothing before its time,” she says. Davis got her on Oprah’s television show and the rest is history.

– Abagond, 2009.

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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Edmund Perry

EdmundPerryEdmund Perry (c. 1968-1985), a 17-year-old black boy, was shot dead on June 12th 1985 by Lee Van Houten, a white plainclothes policeman,  a few blocks from where Perry lived on West 114th Street in Harlem. The New York Times does not ordinarily report murder north of 96th Street, but this time they did: Perry, it turned out, had just graduated from Exeter, one of the top private schools in America, and was set to go to Stanford University.

At first it seemed like yet another case of an out-of-control policeman who held black life too cheaply. But it turned out not to be so simple: Perry, according to witnesses, was trying to rob Van Houten! With his brother Jonah, no less, who was an engineering student at Cornell at the time! Jonah was later tried and found not guilty. Van Houten’s shooting was ruled justifiable.

Robert Sam Anson, a white writer for Life magazine, had a son at Exeter who knew Perry. Anson wondered what on earth would possess Perry, with such a bright future, to throw it all away by robbing someone.

After ruling out a police cover-up, Anson asked Perry’s friends and neighbours about him. They always had such nice things to say. At Exeter it was the same. But all the nice things they said did not add up. In time he found that Perry had been selling drugs at Exeter. But that only deepened the mystery.

Exeter was not a great place for blacks. One black student said they were a kind of minstrel show put on to give white students a sense of diversity: “By God, their kids are going to be well-rounded. They’re going to have Rossignol skis and Lange boots and a black roommate for ‘an experience.'”

It seems the racism at Exeter affected Perry far more profoundly than the other black students. It consumed him with anger and made him a radical, one who saw Martin Luther King as a sell-out.

His white teachers and classmates did not understand him: every time he tried to open up and be honest with them he wound up hurting their feelings. He could not talk to them. The only people who understood him were black students and the one white teacher who had grown up in Harlem. But they could not help him.

Perry did not fit in at Exeter, and yet Exeter changed him so much that he had a hard time fitting in with Harlem.  He was torn between two worlds with no place to call home.

Anson made all this into a book, “Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry” (1987), but in the end he had no answers. Michael Eric Dyson, who could have wound up becoming another Perry himself, said it was because Anson did not try to understand the black world that Perry came from, so he could not understand Perry or his anger.

The book was turned into a made-for-television film, “Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story” (1992).

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Kelis_7Kelis Rogers (1979- ), better known as just Kelis, is an American R&B singer. She is best known for “Milkshake” (2003): “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like, it’s better than yours. Damn right, it’s better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge.”

Her two other top ten hits on the American R&B charts are: “Caught Out There” (1999), the one where she says “I hate you so much right now!” over and over, and “Bossy” (2006).

No one knows why, but her music does way better in Britain than in America. Maybe it is her hair. I first heard her on Virgin Radio from London (the same is true for Macy Gray). Not only did “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There”  make the top ten in Britain, so did “Trick Me” (2004),  “Millionaire” (2004) with Andre 3000 and “Lil Star” (2007) with Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley, songs  largely unknown in the States.

Kelis Trick meKelis ft. Andre 3000 - MillionaireKelis - Lil Star

Her next album comes out later this year (2009).

She has been married to rapper Nas since 2005, but separated from him in May 2009 and filed for divorce. This came just two months before she is expected to give birth to their son! She suspects him of seeing other women. They met in 2002 at a party after the MTV Video Music Awards. Before that she was just a fan of his.

She grew up in Harlem in New York. Her father was a jazz musician and her mother a fashion designer. Her father is black, her mother is Puerto Rican and Chinese. Her name comes from putting their two names together: Kenneth + Eveliss = Kelis. It rhymes with “police”.

She went to a private school in Manhattan where most people were white and did not understand her. At 13 she cut off her hair and when it grew back she started colouring it blue, green, platinum and pink, something she is known for even now. Her natural hair is Type 3 (pictured above).

Growing up she sang at church and learned to play the piano, violin and saxophone. At 16 she got in to the La Guardia High School for the Arts, a magnet high school in New York. But just then she was kicked out of the house for reasons unclear and had to support herself.

At high school she formed a singing trio, BLU (Black Ladies United). It did not go anywhere but one thing led to another and it brought her to the attention of the Neptunes – Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. With them she was able to land a recording contract with Virgin in 1998. They wrote and produced her first two hits, “Caught Out There” and “Milkshake” and much of her early music.

Kelis about her music:

Am I R&B because I’m Black? Am I pop because I have a song called “Milkshake”? Or can I just be who the hell I am? Good Lord, people make it seem like we’re doing heart transplants here, but we’re just making music!


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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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malcolmx04Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of two main black leaders in America in the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. They were both ministers, King a Christian, X a Muslim, and they both wanted equal rights for blacks, but they disagreed about how it could be achieved: King said it could be done through peaceful protest, Malcolm X said, “Give me a .45 calibre, then I’ll sing ‘We Shall Overcome'”.

Some words and catchphrases that either started with Malcolm X or came to mainstream American society through him:

  • the ballot or the bullet: the two ways to achieve power.
  • white devils: whites as having an inborn evil nature unlike blacks.
  • black power: the only way blacks can control their own destiny.
  • by any means necessary: blacks must defend themselves with violence if necessary.
  • chickens coming home to roost: why John Kennedy got shot.

For most of his life Malcolm X thought that blacks would never get a fair deal from white society, certainly not so long as they remained poor and powerless. They needed their own businesses, their own way of thinking, their own men with guns and, in the end, their own nation.

Blacks should separate from whites: whites cannot be trusted, whites will not give up power willingly. The way whites think suits them, not blacks. Trying to be white or act white or become a part of white society was not the answer – that was a game where only whites could win.

Much of this thinking he got from his father, a poor country preacher who spread the message of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to build a black society in America independent of white society and then return to Africa.

Malcolm’s father was killed by white men who did not like what he was telling black people. Later his mother had a breakdown and was sent away.

He turned to a life of crime and wound up in prison. There he discovered the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims. It gave his life purpose and direction. It made him proud to be black. He stopped straightening his hair, something black men did back in those days (think James Brown or Al Sharpton). He started reading seriously.

Later, after he got out of prison, he became one of the top ministers of the Nation of Islam. It grew from 500 followers to 30,000. His mosque was at 116th and Lenox in Harlem. It stands there still with its green dome.

Despite his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam, they had a falling out. He left and started his own mosques.

Then he went to Mecca.

And there for the first time in his life he saw black men and brown men and white men living together as brothers, as one. It blew his mind. He now knew that all the racism he had lived under in America all his life did not have to be.

But not long after he was shot dead. At age 39.

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Eartha Kitt (1927-2008), American singer and actress from the 1950s and 1960s. She is best remembered for singing “Santa Baby” and playing Catwoman. She was one of the most famous black women in the world in her day. In 1952 the New York Times said, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.” Her sort of music fell out of fashion in the late 1950s with the rise of R&B and rock and roll.

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Here is something I wrote to a friend in August 1987 about the difference between West 111th and 109th Streets in Manhattan. In those days 111th had been mostly gentrified but 109th not:

… I walked back up Broadway and for a change of scene I turned right at 109th Street, left onto Amsterdam Avenue and then left again on 111th Street to get back to Broadway.

The difference between 109th and 111th was amazing.

It was early Friday evening, the sun had gone down but light was still in the sky, and 109th was full of people: men sitting at card tables on the sidewalk playing dominoes, boys on bicycles, girls standing together talking, parents sitting on steps, a boy sticking his hand into the low spray of a fire hydrant, people talking, music playing, black kids and white kids playing together. It was a neighbourhood in the true sense as opposed to a street of buildings where people live next to each other.

I went up two blocks and turned down 111th Street. It was like another world. It was quiet and almost dead: one boy on his bicycle, a couple walking their dog, two girls leaning out the window watching their father taking out the trash. Both Hispanics and Anglos live on this street, but the minute I turned the corner onto 111th Street I could tell it was mainly Anglo: it was so dead. Dogs and cats take the place of children. People sitting apart in their air-conditioned rooms takes the place of a true neighbourhood.

I have seen this difference before: a black neighbourhood in the city is full of life while white suburbs are not just quiet but almost dead: you can walk down a street and hardly see anyone. The only way you can tell people live there is that the grass is cut and cars are parked. But you almost think they had all died an hour ago of some strange disease – like in some science fiction story about the end of the world.

People get down on the city and lately I have been getting sick of it myself, but things like 109th Street restore my faith. And yet in five or ten years 109th will be gone, a memory: it will be gentrified and become a street of air-conditioned yuppies instead of a street of laughing children.

This difference between white gentrifiers and others was not just something I imagined. Here is how many white gentrifiers see Harlem in 2008 according to a New York Times article:

And many new residents are uncomfortable with Harlem’s noisy street life, including sidewalk barbecues that can draw large crowds. Some believe there are too many churches on the one hand – Harlem has more than 100 houses of worship – and a casual flouting of the law on the other, with people littering, double-parking and drinking alcohol on the street.

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Brittany “Bre” Scullark (1985- ) is an American fashion model for the Ford modelling agency. In 2005 she came in third place on season five of Tyra Banks’s television show “America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM). In 2008 you sometimes see her on the “Tyra Banks Show”, as beautiful as ever. What eyes! And what amazing cheeks!

“Bre” (sounds like “Bree”) is what her friends have long called her.

After the show she landed a print modelling contract for Dark and Lovely hair colouring, appearing on their boxes. She has modelled for Prada, Valentino and Nicole Miller. She has been in television ads for Target, Old Navy and Pantene and is a spokesmodel for Ambi Skincare.

Magazines she has appeared in, among others: Vibe (June 2006), Essence, ElleGirl, CosmoGirl (June/July 2008), Hype Hair, Mahogany, Cover and Six Degrees.

You can see her in the music video “Change Me” by Ruben Studdard.

She has also been a television presenter on the show “Certified” for Music Choice. She is good on camera – or maybe it just seems that way to me because I am so taken by her beauty.

She is from New York, growing up in Harlem, which she has seen go from crack to Starbucks. She goes to the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

She had always wanted to be a model, but she never thought it would come to pass. But then one day she went down to Macy’s to try out for “America’s Next Top Model”. She and 2400 other women! That night she slept on cardboard on the pavement to keep her place in line. The next day she tried out. They kept calling her back and calling her back and then they sent her to Los Angeles: she had beat out 36,000 women all across the country for a place on the show!

Although she came a long way on the show, the judges felt that Nicole Linkletter and even Nik Place were better (but where are they now?). She was CoverGirl of the Week twice. Twiggy was one of the judges.

On the show she is probably best remembered for the Stolen Granola Bar Incident. She accused Nicole of taking her Granola bar. To get back at Nicole she emptied her Red Bull drinks and refused to pay for them. Looking back she now thinks the television producers took her Granola bar to set her off.

She says the show was a very humbling experience. Tyra Banks taught her how to handle herself as a young woman. The show changed her life, almost overnight, making her name as a model.

Her two heroes are Jesus and her mother.

She likes gopel music and hip hop, particularly Lil Wayne and T-Pain.

She has a butterfly tattoo above her left breast.

Some on the show said she was too short. She is 5 foot 8 or 172.5 cm, which is at the low end for models.

She says that if you want to model, do not let your skin colour or shade or your size stop you.

She says:

Succeed in stepping stones, never expect longevity in this career overnight, or it wouldn’t be well deserved.

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Audre Lorde, in her essay “Eye to Eye” (1983), says that all the hate that has been poured into her by white people since she was a little black girl in Harlem in the 1930s is what makes her so angry. But that anger is not directed so much at white people, but at other black women. Because it will hit the mark. Because they remind her of herself, the self she cannot love and accept. Yet they are the only ones who could ever help to make her whole again.

The essay was shortened and printed in Essence magazine in October 1983, but you can read it in all its 30-page glory in her book “Sister Outsider”.

One winter when she was five she sat next to a rich white woman on the subway train. The woman pulled herself away from her and looked at her with such hate in her eyes. Lorde looked at her new snowsuit thinking there was something wrong with it. But it was not her snowsuit – it was her! Her Snowsuit Moment, as I call it.

One time she was at the library. The white lady there was reading “Little Black Sambo” and laughing. All the white children were laughing too. But she was not.


In a thousand and one ways she was told she was worthless, that she did not matter.

She has seen “my wished-for death, seen in the eyes of so many white people from the time I could see”.

All this hate that she could not understand got laid up in her heart over the years and in time became anger, “a molten pond at the core of me”, an everyday part of her – “I know the anger that lies inside of me like I know the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit.” Her daughter kept asking, “Are you angry about something, Mommy?”

But, “in order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone, and now we bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest.”

Not just by little acts of meanness, but also by the constant judgement by other black women: if you are not perfect you are no good – “the road to anger is paved with our unexpressed fear of each other’s judgement.”

The answer is for black women to mother and accept themselves and each other, “making a distinction between what is possible and what the outside world drives me to do in order to prove I am human”.

… I can look into the mirror and learn to love the stormy Black girl who once longed to be white or anything other than who she was, since all she was ever allowed to be was the sum of the color of her skin, and the textures of her hair, the shade of her knees and elbows, and those things were clearly not acceptable as human.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Stuff I Might Like

As we found out in an earlier post, most American writers I like lived in Uptown Manhattan in New York at some point early in their lives. Just like me. But if I like those writers, then I might like others who have also lived there. And maybe singers, musicians and film directors too.

The following lists are hardly complete but they are a start:


  • Harlem: Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Nella Larsen, Gloria Naylor, Audre Lorde.
  • Barnard: Judith Miller, Anna Quindlen, Jami Bernard, Mona Charen, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, June Jordan, Erica Jong, Ntozake Shange, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Fatima Bhutto, Galaxy Craze.
  • Columbia: Mitch Albom, Isaac Asimov, Kiran Desai, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Heller, Paul Auster, Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, Walker Percy, James Blish, Anthony Hecht, J.D. Salinger, Mark Van Doren, Eric Van Lustbader, Eudora Welty, Herman Wouk, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Joseph Lelyveld, R.W. Apple, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, Howard Zinn, Jack Kerouac, Edward Said, Adam Mansbach, Maxine Leeds Craig.
  • City College: Marv Goldberg, Bernard Malamud, Paul Levinson, Mario Puzo, Robert Rosen, Walter Mosley, Madeleine Cosman, Oscar Hijuelos, Irving Kristol, Lewis Mumford.

Film directors:

  • Harlem:
  • Barnard:
  • Columbia: Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days”), Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), Brian De Palma (“Scarface”), Joseph L Mankiewicz (“Julius Caesar”, “Cleopatra”, “The Barefoot Contessa”), Jim Jarmusch (“Permanent Vacation”).
  • City College: Stanley Kubrick (“2001”, “Eyes Wide Shut”), Joshua Brand (“I’ll Fly Away”).

Singers and musicians:

  • Harlem: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Ben E King, Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, Tupac Shakur, Cam’ron, Doug E Fresh, Juelz Santana, Mase, Kelis, Kurtis Blow, Alicia Keys.
  • Barnard: Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Veruca Salt.
  • Columbia: Pat Boone, Vanessa Carlton, Simon & Garfunkel, Utada Hikaru, Charles Wuorinen, Lauryn Hill.
  • City College: The Velvet Underground.

Many of these I already like, such as Billie Holiday, Alicia Keys, Malcolm X, Isaac Asimov, Langston Hughes, Howard Zinn, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lauryn Hill and Stanley Kubrick.

When I saw Joshua Brand’s name appear I knew I was on to something: he created the television show “I’ll Fly Away”. Even though it is about the American South in the early 1960s, it is a perfect example of the Uptown sense of the world. But not till I made this list did I know Brand is from City College!

Pat Boone seems like the complete opposite of Uptown Manhattan. But maybe that is like how Madonna is the opposite of Catholic.

These also seem Uptown to me, though as far as I know none are:

  • People: Shakespeare, Michelle Obama, John Singleton, Marvin Gaye, Common, Chuck D, Sinclair Lewis, Senator Howard Metzenbaum, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Kolko, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Noam Chomksy, Jay Bookman, Frank Norris, Ed Zwick, Jamaica Kincaid, Ishmael Reed, Marvin Gaye.
  • Films: Training Day, Boyz n the Hood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • Television shows: My So-Called Life.

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Adam Mansbach (c. 1977- ) is an American writer best known for “Angry Black White Boy” (2005) and “The End of the Jews” (2008). He seems to be one of the few white American writers these days who writes about race and whiteness. Tim Wise also comes to mind.

Mansbach is Jewish, but his family was not all that religious and did not practise the old Jewish ways. Instead he grew up on jazz and especially hip hop in a white, well-to-do town just outside of Boston. He loved hip hop when it was still largely a black thing. That put him into a strange position with both blacks and whites. He became an outsider in both worlds.

The day that changed his life was April 29th 1992. He was 15 and heard that the policemen who beat Rodney King were found not guilty. How could that be? He saw the video over and over again on television of the white policemen beating an unarmed black man senseless. Who could doubt their guilt?

He was shocked that the policemen walked free, but what shocked him even more was that no one in his white town cared. No one was angry or anything. While Los Angeles burned it was just another day where he lived.

He and a teacher at school led a walkout and went to city hall to show their anger and make people maybe think a bit.

All this made him think about race, white people and his own whiteness. So years later he wrote a book about it, “Angry Black White Boy”.

It is about Macon Detornay, a young New York taxi driver. He robs his rich, white customers because of their race. Everyone thinks he is black, but he turns out to be white! He becomes famous and calls for a National Day of Apology where whites tell blacks how sorry they are for all the injustice they have done. Things get out of control from there…

Mansbach wrote the book in what he calls a hip hop style – just like Kerouac wrote some of his stuff in a sort of jazz style of prose.

Mansbach says whiteness is hard to understand because it is everywhere. That makes it hard to see. It does not stick out like blackness does. But he does understand that the way society works – from the police to the courts to the banks and so on – that it is all set up to suit whites and winds up screwing blacks.

Some things he has said:

… the legacy of black folks in America is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity.

I think that for every community there are outskirts, margins… To me, those margins are where art comes from.

Like if you don’t know Diana Ross, you might think Puffy is a genius.

The genius of graffiti is that five million people see your art.

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Three songs follow this posting:

  • Billie Holiday: My Man
  • Suzanne Vega: Luka
  • Kelis: Milkshake

They were done at three different times in three different styles of music. Two of the singers are black, one is white, But all three lived in Uptown Manhattan in New York, Manhattan north of 110th Street, and it shows.

They sing about the world as it is, as they see it with their own two eyes. Even when it is ugly and unfair – in fact, especially when it is ugly and unfair. And they sing about what they see even when it does not make any sense. They do not try to pretty it up by throwing out facts because they are unpleasant or make no sense.

In “My Man” Billie Holiday sings “He isn’t true; he beats me too” but then sings “My man, I love him so” and “when he takes me in his arms the world is bright, all right”. She has thought of leaving him but then says, “What’s the difference if I say I’ll go away when I know I’ll come back on my knees someday.”

It is like living in Uptown itself: living in a world with a big crack going right down the middle that makes no sense but you live with it somehow. The world is profoundly imperfect but you must carry on all the same.

You see the same thing in “Luka” some 40 years later. It is about a boy who is being beaten. He tries to lie about it to his neighbour but the song does not play along with him. He too is trying to live with a big crack in his life and somehow make sense of it. “You just don’t argue anymore”.

In “Milkshake”, instead of beating women and children, men are driven by lust. The women with the best bodies get their man. Again, it looks at the world as it is in all its unfairness. It has no patience for politically correct ideas of beauty that many want to believe in.

Why this love of the ugly truth? Why songs about the unfairness of life? Because in Uptown the truth is ugly and life is profoundly unfair. Yet you have to make sense of it somehow.

All this is very different from how mainstream America sees life and the world.

In mainstream America people think they can get through life clean, that if they have enough money, enough police protection, that if they build their gates high enough and strong enough, they will get through life with as little suffering as possible.

But that is the life of escape, that is the life of an overgrown child. And, in America, it is a life built on lies. It is not the life for anyone with a true heart.

Sooner or later you will suffer, then what? And when the bad times come where will you run? And when all your lies have been knocked flat, where will you hide?

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