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Homeboy and I went to a little place on John R. for our ribs. While we waited, we listened to some numbers on the jukebox, the last one a blues by Dinah Washington. Homeboy smiled, "Train, that was in memory of when I first ran across you. Train, there's one thing I want you to keep in mind, that's what I said to you tonight, for you will surely see it down the road. If you forget it, you will fail. If you can continue to hold on, and not lose sight of the ghetto, you will be a real part of the greatest battle of our times: the all out struggle for justice, dignity, and equality."
As we parted, dawn was breaking on John R. Street.
"Homeboy Talks to Train in Detroit," 1970
The place story that I know best is my father's story. I know it so well because, at the age of nineteen, I undertook the task of helping him write his autobiography, Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People's Power. That was shortly before his death, after he had been disabled by a series of strokes. My father was not a patient man, and I was not an experienced amanuensis. The small back bedroom of our house on Olcott Street was the setting for wildly melodramatic scenes we enacted with each other: my dad as annoyed with his infirmities as with me but yelling at me, me sobbing in my despair that I would ever figure out how to tell his story his way. Layered upon our theatrics were those scenes from other times and places that he wanted so much for me to see as he saw them, the scenes he wanted to record in his book.
The scene that was most difficult for me to describe was one from his youth. The facts of the story were simple. One summer, my dad planted some sweet potatoes that soon sent up green, leafy shoots. A farmer's pig broke into the field and destroyed the young crop. My dad and his father caught the pig and locked it up until the owner could come get it. The farmer, a white man, came in his wagon, accompanied by a black farmhand. The farmer told his man to load the pig into the wagon. He didn't offer to pay for the damage, as would have been the custom in those times. My dad, incensed by this maltreatment, ran into the house and emerged with his father's shotgun. He pointed the gun at the white farmer and demanded payment. The farmer shouted to my grandfather, "Josh, take the gun!" My grandfather Joshua talked to my dad and took the gun from him. The farmer drove away without paying.
Those are the facts.
But how did it feel? I thought that my dad must have been outraged with his father for taking the gun from him. He said no, that wasn't the way in those days. He didn't question his dad. But he did enjoy the moment of power he experienced holding the gun on the frightened farmer, and he swore he would have power again. But I didn't get it: why wouldn't he be angry at his dad for not insisting on getting paid? It didn't make sense to me. Living in a different world, I had no idea what it would have meant for a poor, black farmer and his teenage son to extract money from a white landowner. I kept bugging him. He got annoyed because it was--to him--so obvious. Equally elusive for me was his vision of power. Not power from guns, though he experienced the surge of strength because of a gun. Rather power from asserting oneself, forcing one's opponent to back down from one's might. My dad knew instinctively that many things might yield that sort of power, and he wanted to find them.
Dad began his search in Hudson County, New Jersey, a heavily industrialized area just across the river from New York City. He was tall for his generation, a lanky, loose-jointed fellow, with an awesome intellect. He figured he could learn anything, and so he set out to learn the ways of the big city. Early on he nearly lost his life, as he liked to tell it, taking on a three-card monte operator. He studied the man's moves for hours. When he was sure he knew the man's patterns, he bet all the money he had. With a swift move, the monte operator shifted the hidden ball. My dad saw the cheat, snatched back his money, and ran away. The monte operator nearly caught him, but Dad was a fast, athletic country boy who outran his pursuers. Later, Dad met a professional gambler who took pity on him. The gambler told him, "Boy, you got to learn to survive in the big city. You ain't never gonna be slick, and you too country to learn to cheat. So if you gonna play with cheaters you got to be able to take care of yourself. I can't teach you how to cheat, but I can teach you how to keep the cheat off you."
Dad took his lesson to heart, and it became a core part of his image of himself: the country boy wise to the cheat. He liked to play up his homeboy image, because it lulled the suspicions of the cheaters. Whether he was negotiating with three-card monte operators, or the executives of General Electric, his down-at-the-heels country look belied his capacity to see the cheat and defeat it. He paid no attention to his clothes, other than to make sure that his cap was on his head before he went outside. Always more or less disheveled, with odd pieces of paper and York Peppermint Patties failing out of his pockets, he looked like every other homeboy in the ghetto. Half dozing in a meeting, he did not look to his opponents like someone who should be taken seriously. Their error, obviously. He was a powerful and canny politician, capable of leading and winning massive campaigns for black power and human rights, usually against the odds.
He started organizing from his own interest in bettering the situations in which he found himself. He had more heart than skill at the beginning, and his first few efforts were defeated. But he gained expertise quickly and soon emerged as a leader in the explosion in unionization that swept the country in the 1930s. In 1943 he became the first black paid organizer for his union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America UE. Convinced that the strength of the union depended on eliminating discriminatory practices, Dad was part of an aggressive campaign for fair employment practices for minorities and women. In 1950, he became the national director of the UE's Fair Employment Practices program.
At the same, in conjunction with black labor leaders in the UE and other unions, Dad worked to build a new organization, the National Negro Labor Council NNLC, or NLC for short. The NNLC led important campaigns to desegregate Sears and Roebuck, the airlines, and General Electric's Gateway plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Dad often commented that the Gateway campaign, designed to prevent a runaway plant from taking advantage of racism and low wages in the South, was one of the most exciting and successful campaigns he had experienced.
Aside from the good work he was doing, Dad was living a pretty remarkable life. He had a travel card from the union that allowed him to go all around the country on his Fair Employment Practices work; he was hobnobbing with the most brilliant men and women in the trade union movement; and he was winning fight after fight all around the country. He was called Big Train or simply Train by his peers because he could deliver the goods. If money was needed to start a campaign, he had the union behind him. If people were needed, he knew where to get them. More than that, he was a formidable strategist with two decades of experience in labor and political struggles to contribute to any discussion.
But it was not to last. The UE was brutally attacked as part of the McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunt in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1956, the union split into two parts and Dad lost his job.
The NNLC was dissolved to prevent a costly and fruitless legal battle with the Subversive Activities Control Board. When the NNLC leaders met on April 29, 1956, for the last time on John R. Street, many wept. They vowed to be true to the principles of the NNLC, with one important difference. Instead of looking to the labor movement for their base of support, they would base themselves on the ghetto. "Retreat to the ghetto and come back strong!" was the motto they adopted that night.
"Retreat to the ghetto and come back strong" represented a radical reorientation. Dad often scribbled stories about his mythical hero, Homeboy, who educated him about the ghetto. "Homeboy," Dad wrote, "told me, `Man, never forget that your hope and your source of strength lie with your people here in the Black ghetto.'" In a story Dad wrote, "Homeboy Talks to Train in Detroit," Homeboy "schooled" Dad to build his base in the ghetto, not in the union movement.
The story opens in Detroit. Dad had arrived there to plan for the opening convention of the Negro Labor Council. He was too excited to stay in his hotel room, so he set out down John R. Street. Suddenly, in front of the famous nightclub, the Flame, he heard the familiar voice of Homeboy. After spending some time in the glamorous setting of the nightclub--Joe Louis was at the bar and Willie Bryant was playing--they stepped out into the night.
Standing amidst the crowds on John R. Street, Homeboy said, "Train, you seem convinced it's time to pool the experience and militance of Negro workers in the cause of equality. I think you're right. I hate to tell you this, man, if you don't base your efforts on the ghetto, you'll lose."
"Why you say that, Homeboy?"
"Train, is it true that you base your hopes of winning this struggle of black labor on the union leaders and the full support of the left?"
"Yes, what's wrong with that? This is the new ingredient the cause needs, because as you can see, nothing's happening."
"That `new ingredient,' as you call it, sure would be great, if you were gonna get it. Just think of it, black labor hitting hard, backed by organized labor with all-out support from the left--ol' Homeboy would be happier than you for better days for the ghetto would not be far off. But your ingredient will not be put together."
Dad argued with Homeboy, but Homeboy kept pressing him on every front. Homeboy's most telling point was that Dad and other black union leaders had glamorized their new opportunities in the unions. Bill Hood, Homeboy pointed out, might have a great job at the United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, but "not one black man, woman, or child lived in Dearborn."
"Dig yourself, Train, how often did you say to yourself, `How great can I get?' Train, after twenty years in the foundry, you ought to know better."
Dad wrote: "I could only say, `Homeboy, you scored.'"
In the story, Homeboy's promise that Dad would make his greatest contributions to Negro freedom from a ghetto base was framed by the dawn breaking on John R. Street.
But Dad didn't feel much hope when he actually found himself trapped in the ghetto of Orange, New Jersey, with no influence and no power. His fall from power was sudden, and he sat for some months licking his wounds in shock and dismay. My mother saved him from despair when she pointed out that the schools were segregated by districting lines that played havoc with the geography of streets, cutting out and enclosing enclaves so that whites would be with whites and blacks with blacks. I was then a second grader at Oakwood Avenue School, an all-black school formed by a crazy districting system. Dad had never forgotten either the pig that had destroyed his garden or the big white farmer's blatant abuse of power. Enraged by a new encounter with that same old disrespect, Dad reentered the fight.
There is a sameness to black ghettoes, however large or small. There are bars and churches--sin and salvation--shoulder to shoulder on nearly every block. There are a few stores, an occasional soul food restaurant, a funeral home, maybe a doctor. There are lots of kids, playing, yelling, dancing--black people are a people of the drum, and rhythm is foreground in the lives of children raised on patterned chants, clapping games, and dance steps. There are buildings clinging to life by a wish. If there is a little land, someone has pushed some tomato plants and some seed corn into the soil, just as my dad did behind our house. Down the side streets and back alleys the needle-users and the transvestites reign. The wall dividing ghetto from not-ghetto is as distinct as if it were made of brick and mortar.
For my dad, the tangibleness of the wall around the ghetto was the defining experience of his life. To see on a map the manner in which the white-powers-that-be had decreed the limits of his freedom was intolerable. Dad came to Orange because he was defeated on the national scene. Its provincial narrowness deepened his despair--he felt keenly the loss of the broader arena, even just the bigger ghettoes of Hudson County and New York City--but its sameness drew him back into the struggle that was his life's work: defeating the cheaters.
Three places might be said to define the contrasts in Dad's life: the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he discovered injustice; Hudson County, where he learned how to get power and achieved some of his greatest successes; and Orange, where he acquired wisdom. The process and the learning were inseparable from the places in which they occurred. It is this sense of place that is so important in understanding my dad's life. The shape, the form, the essence of the ghetto were woven through his life and his work. The ghetto was the stuff of his metaphors and his dreams. It is impossible to understand the logic of his life without naming him a man of the ghetto. In fact, "Homeboy in the Ghetto" was the working title of his book, Homeboy Came to Orange, for many years.
Ghettoes are among the most emotionally charged places on earth. They are the physical manifestation of the power to enact hatred, to confine the despised other to a walled-off place. The ghetto enfolds its inhabitants, whether they are Jews, gays, blacks, or Chinese. But if the walls are created on the outside by hatred, they are decorated on the inside by love. As long as any capacity for resistance exists, those walled into the ghetto make it their home. In the Lidice ghetto in the former Czechoslovakia, in New York's Chinatown, in San Francisco's Castro District, people have made of their small portion a nourishing home. Think, if you doubt this, of Anne Frank pinning pictures of movie stars to the walls of her room in her family's hiding place.
Yet, as we are reminded by Anne's story, the resistance struggle is not always successful. The ghetto, created by the hate and power of those on the outside, can be destroyed by them at will. When the Nazis destroyed the ghetto at Lidice, they razed the town and plowed under every remnant of its existence. It vanished from the earth just as ruthlessly as it was created. For all the homeboys in all the ghettoes, place is made of the endless tension between the oppressed's will to live and the oppressor's wish to murder.
The ghetto is a place in which we live and dream. But it is not simply the scenery for the events of our lives. It is a major actor in our lives, shaping our day-to-day experiences and molding our internal reality. Through this lens of the ghetto, I have learned about the power of place to shape the ways we think and feel.
You can, for example, trace the politics of identity in black communities in the United States by watching the evolution of the character Homeboy. Long before I learned to read, I was taught the importance of "Homeboy" by being forbidden to draw on Dad's work and by being allowed to help my mother arrange and put away the pages of Dad's manuscript. Dad's Homeboy was a variation of the character of Simple, the everyman proposed by Langston Hughes, a laughable buffoon, raunchy, raucous, and endearing in his bumbling efforts to adjust to city life. Much as Dad laughed at Simple, he could not identify with that character. His own hero was a visionary who used simple country stories to teach people enduring truths. His Homeboy was the embodiment of wisdom, not buffoonery. Dad wrote of his hero, "Homeboy is more than a natural man. He's a symbol of the bond between men and women in the black ghettoes everywhere." Homeboy was to my dad what Athena was to Odysseus: an occasional visitor empowered to keep him safe, lead him home. Homeboy was kind, patient, and farseeing, a mixture of qualities that contained none of my dad's shortcomings but all of his strengths. When I began to help him with the book, it was clear that I couldn't write the tales of Homeboy. Slowly, the book ceased to be the story of his mythical friend and became the tale of Homeboy Ernie Thompson.
With the closing of the great migrations from the rural South to the cities of the North, South, and West, I thought that the concept of Homeboy would be lost. Instead, as it has gained currency among the youth of the ghettoes, it has taken on a new incarnation. "Homeboys" are still defined by that critical characteristic of coming from the same place--"He knows where I'm coming from." But this generation's Homeboy is neither the simple man Langston Hughes invented decades ago nor the mythical freedom fighter my dad envisioned. This generation's Homeboy is a survivor. He has been thrown out onto the hard streets of the inner city, and he has mastered its brutal realities. He is deeply connected to others like him--his homeboys--but he is just as profoundly disconnected from the outside society.
Stephanie, my brother Joshua's wife, told a story of sitting next to some homeboys in a fancy restaurant. One young man became enraged when the waiter gave him a cloth napkin. "Man, this ain't no napkin. I want a napkin. Bring me a napkin." In this allegiance to a world in which napkins are made of paper, he asserts loyalty at all costs to his roots; he allows no room for assimilation. Dad's Homeboy was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Today's Homeboy is rude, crass, and limited. Today's Homeboy has turned his back on a world that does not want him: he looks inward at the ghetto and takes it for his own. When Dad and his homeboys were defeated by McCarthyism in the 1950s, they vowed to retreat to the ghetto and come back strong. To the extent that their comeback faltered, these modern homeboys are the inheritors of a world created not by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s but rather by anticommunism and its assault on the union movement in the 1950s, a terrible blow to equal employment opportunity from which ghetto communities have never recovered.
Once I heard the voice of Homeboy, my dad's old friend. I heard him say, "Brag is good dog, but Hold Fast is a better." I wrote down his words. Shortly after I finished, my mother knocked on my door to say that Dad had died. That country saying was not one of my dad's favorites; it was rather a minor theme. But through the years of holding fast that lay ahead I was often comforted by Homeboy's advice. If the homeboys of Dad's time valued Hold Fast, these modern homeboys favor Brag, their flashy gold chains and big cars a new way to claim and hold the territory of the ghetto. It is, for our communities, a new chapter in the struggle to endure.
Each of us needs a place on the Earth, and, when we can, we want to improve our place. Some are greedy and steal the land of others. Some are weak or weaponless and cannot fight for what we have. The strivings for place take on a dimension that is far larger than the wishes or will of the individual. Groups--tribes, clans, castes, cities, nations--battle for land and the resources that it holds. In these conflicts, groups win or lose, and the individuals are carried heedlessly along. Place may be defined as a setting, as a set of social interactions, or as a node of the life biography. Whatever the definition, place is always a matter of politics. Each place has porous boundaries that interact constantly with other places that fill the world. In order to understand the politics of place, we must always understand one place in relationship to other places. The identity connected to a place is comprised of the "here" that is attached to the place, but also the "there" that adheres to the rest of the world. These identities are in a constant state of tension and interaction. Further, they make and remake each other as people within each place ponder and adjust their relationships, or even alter the places themselves.
It is worth emphasizing that this poetics of place is not simply the layering of social and poetical groups onto a passive landscape. Geographic structure is itself a force that pushes events along. This force of geography lies in its capacity to demonstrate the order of the world as well as its chaos. For example, we can map the neat array of post offices, or gas stations, or distribution networks, and they will demonstrate logical relationships to population centers or other characteristics. At the same time, those lines of order lie one next to another, creating a whole that need not be logical at all. The rationale for placing a post office may locate it next to a pornography shop, not because letters and X-rated movies have anything in common, but because each, in relation to some other structure, fell there on a local map. The simultaneous creation of order and chaos is the power of geography, the very shape of the world of politics.
The politics that govern place have two salient characteristics. First, all places are assigned to people and all people are assigned to places. The true meaning of being "out of place" is that one has stepped out of an assigned spot. The homeboys in the restaurant were "out of place" by their own as well as by society's definition of turf. Their misposition was marked by their demand for a paper napkin in a cloth napkin establishment. In making place assignments, those in power take as much space--as well as the best-quality space--as they can get. Those who are productive workers, creating needed goods and services, are given second-best places. Those who are not productive--the disabled, the frail elderly, and the criminals, all groups that have greatly expanded in our postindustrial society--are given places only marginally suited to support life.
Second, places are assigned by power relations, and the "quality" of a place is derived from the "quality" of people assigned to be there. The places of the poor are regarded as "bad" places, the places of the rich as "good" places, without regard for the actual constituent elements of the place itself. Thus, urban renewal can dismantle tracts of housing, simply by establishing that they are places where poor people live. The odd planning strategy of displacing the poor--without regard for where they will go--makes sense only in a model of the politics of place that assumes the poor are not entitled to a place, that they are, by appellation, placeless, and hence do not require dedicated territory. The growth of homelessness in the United States and the parallel growth in displaced peoples around the world support the sense that the politics of place has been transformed into a politics of no place. This is, essentially, a strategy of genocide, however cleverly it may be disguised.
People need a place in order to live. To deny a place is to deny life.
That place is political does not mean that the individual is political in any conscious sense of the word. It only means that decisions about place are made by groups in conflict with each other. Tribes and institutions and societies control space, not individuals. Even the powerful individuals who seem to own the land do so only with the support of their social group, and only as long as their group retains power. The individual is always at the mercy of the political decisions, some made nearby, others made far away, that create the social geography that structures the potential life pathways of each person.
That place is political does mean that the individual--constrained to a narrow spectrum of the world's places--has internalized a sense of place that carries with it all the baggage of winners and losers. The winners get to feel good, and the losers are made to feel lousy. Julia Eilenberg, a psychiatrist in upstate New York, makes the point that you know you're in a country town when you're not on the Weather Channel anymore. Rural America, no longer the center of national life, has settled into a state of invisibility that is lifted only by tragedy or disaster. Because people identify with the places in which they live, the loss of standing has led to a profound collapse of self-pride. It is not just the weather map: it is all the undercurrents of conversation, the jokes, and the silences, that create boundaries, letting people in or keeping them out. A small town in South Carolina, site of a famous murder, was made uncomfortable by all the attention it received. People worried that it was creating an unfavorable image of a close-knit village. They banded together to fund the trial of the accused woman. "We're going to do this right," said one townsperson. "We don't want them thinking we're a bunch of turnips fell off a truck."
While visiting in Roanoke, Virginia, in May 1995, I met Arleen Ollie, whose family lost its home when urban renewal destroyed black communities in Roanoke. She shared with me her sense that the adults in her community were left with a pervasive sense of shame. The loss of community could not be discussed because it was too painful. It was too painful not only because these people had lost tangible things--homes, businesses, churches--but also because they had lost their land, their children's inheritance, and they could no longer be proud. Ollie was convinced that the weight of shame that lay on the community was a central feature in its current dysfunction.
Shame and rage can be seen as two sides of one coin, in which the degradation of one's place becomes an essential element in the hopes, dreams, and feelings of the individual, in fact, in the very image of the self that exists in the mind of the individual. Garrett O'Connor, an Irish expatriate psychiatrist who works in Los Angeles, links this malignant shame to drinking and domestic violence among his countrypeople. The same is probably true of other displaced peoples around the world.
It is an important proviso that those most thoroughly injured are people who accept the judgment placed upon them by others. Those who question, who seek to define themselves, may succeed in creating something different. The insider's attachment to the land can act in opposition to the devaluation of "poor" people and their land imposed by outsiders. The internal love fights with the external label in an ongoing psychic battle. It is the attachment to the land that makes the battle so fierce: if it didn't matter, no one would get upset. But it does matter. In fact, it matters greatly. Returning to the homeboys in the restaurant, their alienation from the mainstream culture is deep. They experience the cloth napkins not just as "different" but as "insult." In demanding "my" kind of napkin, they defend their land and their people.
COME BACK STRONG
Dad's struggle to keep his promise and come back strong after the demise of the NNLC and losing his job with the union began with his 1957 effort to undo school segregation. From that beginning, he worked with friends to build political power in the ghetto. He used that power to build coalitions to address displacement due to a freeway, jobs campaigns, and the establishment and protection of representative government. In his last years, his efforts went increasingly into claiming land. One of his most dramatic struggles was to build a new high school. Our town had a mediocre school system run by people who didn't care. As far back as 1935, accrediting bodies had criticized the high school for overcrowding and failure to serve the needs of the majority of students. Yet for all those years the local board of education had ignored warnings that those deficiencies might lead to a loss of accreditation. Further, the problem was a carefully guarded secret that came to light only after Dr. John Alexander, a pediatrician representing the black community, was appointed to the board. The city residents, then, had their first chance to find out what was going on. In 1964, the County Department of Education had said
We have very serious reservations about the adequacy of the high school plant. In our opinion it is not possible to operate an effective broad program such as is needed in Orange today in the present building. The following conditions are cited:
... there are too few classrooms to permit the reduction in the size of large classes because the school is already being used beyond its functional capacity;
... there are no remedial classes;
... the library is about half the size it should be;
... the art room is totally inadequate;
... the same may be said of the clothing room;
... the metal shop and the wood shop are both incapable of handling more than a small minority of the students who could benefit from such experience.
Alexander immediately asked for an evaluation from the state Department of Education, which found the building absolutely inadequate to house the number of students and the activities to which they were entitled under state law. What was needed? Dad was impressed by the fact that 20 percent of students--those with me in the college track--were headed for higher education. But the majority--80 percent--would be seeking work immediately after graduation, and there was no trade for which they were prepared. The "training" offered in woodworking and sewing in that school was wildly outdated. Further, it was clear that the world of work in the future would be changing rapidly as technology advanced. My dad was the first person I knew who talked about the need for constant learning, retraining for new jobs every few years, and basic education as the foundation for a lifelong process of adaptation. I have lived to see every bit of his prophesy come true. At the time, however, few could believe that the world they saw around them wouldn't last. There were still factory jobs in the area, and in those days an unskilled worker could always depend on a job pumping gas. It required a massive campaign to convince the city leaders and the voters that building a new high school was essential for our town.
Envisioning the new high school was a long and exciting process. It involved developing a shared sense of mission, a sense of the purpose of education. The board of education adopted a philosophy of "comprehensive." education and developed a mission statement that opened with the words "We believe in the worth and dignity of every individual" How do you enact dignity in the concrete of a school building? For Orange, the crucial change was that the 80 percent of the students entering directly into the work force were to have facilities as rich and supportive as those available to college track students. Vocational shops were to be up-to-date, they were to feel real, they were to be connected to the world of work as it existed in the immediate community. This ultimately meant big work areas, new kinds of labs and shops, lively classrooms, all supported by state-of-the-art libraries and media centers.
Dreaming of a new kind of education, one that prepared all children for the future workplace, was one thing. Funding the school was another. As the plans for the school evolved, the problem of getting a bond issue passed by the school board budget committee and then by the city council loomed large. By then Dad was very ill and was hospitalized during periods of the campaign. Yet it was his finest hour, the moment his Homeboy had promised him so many years before. Every skill Dad had ever developed, every instinct honed, every bit of wisdom he had bought with age, went into that fight. Dad had a remarkable ability to read situations and to develop campaigns that reworked the existing elements into a more democratic vision of the future. The campaign slogan, "Let's not economize with our children's future," became the core message that was to be carried to the voters of Orange.
What the campaign depended on, and the story that is the focus of Homeboy Came to Orange, was the development of an effective coalition. The school fight would affect the ghetto, but it could never be won by the ghetto alone. Dad's core team, representing the black community, was impressive. It included Board of Education President John Alexander and City Councilman Ben Jones. But allies of every sort were needed. Years of making political alliances had built all sorts of connections throughout the town, and those relationships now came to the fore. From a core set of political relationships, many dating back to the original school fight at Oakwood Avenue School in 1957, the struggle for the high school became a mass movement of townspeople concerned about providing the best education for their children. It came down to confrontation between the elite, who didn't care, and the majority of people, who did.
This confrontation took place in the era of the long, hot summers, when race riots swept through American cities. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, precipitating mayhem in cities across the nation. The threat of riot also hung in the air of Orange. On a hot August night in 1968, the city council met for the crucial vote. Fifteen hundred people were in the auditorium at Central School where the meeting was held. On one side of the stage were white racists, led by Anthony Imperiale. On the other side of the stage were the United Brothers, a group of young black militants. Throughout the hall were police with billy clubs, riot helmets, and mace cans. Television lights blazed, increasing the heat. In the high school stadium, a mile away, half-tracks stood on alert in case the vote went the wrong way and the pent-up emotions exploded in a conflagration.
Speaker after speaker went to the microphone to urge that the city council pass the bond issue.
Alexander, as president of the board of education, spoke first. "We have fooled around long enough. Give our children the high school they need!"
Michael O'Neil, a white executive who as a leader of the Labor-Business-Industry Committee supported the school, said, "Stop playing with education and let's get that new high school!"
Reverend Russell White warned the council, "You're playing Russian roulette, and the bullet is in the chamber tonight."
Harvey Glover, a high school student, pleaded, "Why don't you just do right?"
There was a brief pause at the high point of the drama, as the city council recessed for ten minutes. Ben Jones, the only black person among the city councilmen, exhorted his fellow council members. "We have to vote now. We have no more choice. We're under compulsion from the state, we've had in-depth studies, and this is what we have to do. We have to build that school. We have to come to that agreement, except that some of us say it's too expensive. I submit that if we fail to pass the resolution tonight, it will be more expensive than any of us ever dreamed."
In the following minutes, the council, recognizing the power of the people arrayed for the new high school, voted yes. The auditorium broke into bedlam. The people had won! Ben Jones, when I interviewed him for my father's book, told me that later that evening, after the hugs and the cheers subsided, he suddenly realized that quiet had descended and he was alone. He walked with some trepidation into the night, but the peace of Orange filled the streets. It was safe. Dad and his team had won.
In December 1970, we organized a reunion of veterans of the National Negro Labor Council. My dad's words to his old partners-in-arms were captured on an audio recording of the meeting:
I went a couple of years ago to help the Packing House Workers in a runoff election in Maryland. My sister, brother-in-law, and so on were in the union and about a hundred cousins. When I got to my sister's house--my grandfather's house --my sister sat and cried, said, "My own brother gone make me lose my job."
Down there in the countryside the Packinghouse Workers and the trade union movement did not see [that] in the county there was a black majority and in the county seat an overwhelming majority. And yet the black people had no power and fear reigned the countryside. Fear has not left the countryside. I hope that our projection in Orange--we started with 20 percent of the population--will be a guide to people on the countryside....
NLC did not have political power. When we retreated to the ghetto, you couldn't leave the ghetto if you had no political power. I hit the ghetto cold in Orange with zero and came back strong. So I come to testify and say we have written a book to this testimony, dedicated to the Negro Labor Council's ideas.
Coalition politics to build safe places was the ultimate message of my dad's life and of his book. Ernie Thompson, a refugee from rural poverty and family violence, had thought a great deal about place, and in particular about creating places where black people could prosper. Over the years he became convinced this could happen only by learning to make common cause with people of other groups, that is, through coalition politics. Coalitions are built on shared concerns. They are important because they meld the power of otherwise distinct groups. Minorities, he knew, cannot win in isolation, but they can break their isolation through coalition. Though my dad was from the ghetto, the logic of his life was to overcome its restrictions. He believed that he had the right to marry a white woman because she was the one he loved. He was convinced he could be friends with people of all races, religions, and creeds. The ghetto was the source of his power, but the point was not to stay in the ghetto. The point was to have an effect on the broader poetics where the fate of the ghetto was really decided.
It was somewhat unexpected that the politics of coalition led to a poetics of friendship. Over the years he found that there were many people who wanted more than superficial political connections: they were searching for friendships with people different from themselves. These days, the United States is neither a melting pot nor a tossed salad but rather the crossroads of the world. Everybody from everywhere is here. There are classrooms in New York City in which each of thirty pupils speaks a different language. Though the variety can be bewildering, it also has a breathtaking charm. Simple formulas about white and black are irrelevant when one is faced with a hundred different cultures, or a thousand different cultures, or maybe more. The diversity is hard to imagine, but one touches it constantly. It tears at the old assumptions of difference. It makes us wonder.
And we must embrace with enthusiasm that wonder. It needs direction and encouragement, but it is a new and unimagined hope for a different, more tolerant future. This is not to say I think bigotry has been defeated. But I think that bigotry, and the fear it represents, is inherently less interesting than the kaleidoscope of cultures arriving in our ports. Coalition politics have, at a minimum, the capacity to support the search for common cause. Beyond that, there is always the potential for genuine human respect to cross artificial boundaries of race, color, or creed.
The psychology of place teaches us that the individual cannot be separated from the politics of the world at large. Coalition offers the dispossessed the best hope of staking a claim for a place on the Earth.
My father left me his message of coalition as a parting gift. "Go everywhere and tell them about coalition," he said to me. At his memorial service his close friend John Alexander gave the main eulogy. He told me before the service, "I'm gonna rock the house" And he did.
Dear God, Ernie Thompson just arrived in Heaven a couple of days ago. You may not know he's there yet because it's been a long rough road and he is tired after battling back from a major stroke, removal of a kidney, a day-long operation on his blood vessels, a serious heart attack, peritonitis, kidney failure, and months on the kidney machine.... Lord, if you didn't hear that Ernie had arrived, check with St. Peter. Ernie's the one that asked on his arrival, "Where is the ghetto so I can get a taste?" He needed a taste bad. He's been a long time without one. Oh yes, he bummed a cigarette too. I never did get him to quit smoking.
I'm sure St. Peter will remember him because he asked some unheavenly questions about segregation and the school system and your hiring policies. Now all of us down here know that the Promised Land wouldn't have no mess like that up there. But Home--that's what his friends call him--he always checks things out for himself. He don't take nobody's word for nothin'....
I'm saying all this to kind of warn you. They say that a word to the wise is sufficient and I know you know all. Well, Home spent his life straightening out this place and making it better for us and our children. Now he is in Heaven to rest and sit at your right hand. But if the place ain't straight, Lord, Home will be stewing in his own juice again like when he first came to Orange, and before long he'll be getting registered and checking on the date of the next election.
I guess it verged on sacrilege, this idea that heaven could have bars and segregation that would become the new frame for my dad's life. But imagine ... : and that was the beauty of it. If heaven happened to be racist or sexist or exploitative, my dad would surely take it on. I cannot think of Dad scolding God without feeling sorry for the Almighty.
Dad's death crushed me. I was like a deflated balloon. The long years of illness and the push to write the book before he died seemed to have taken all I had. The intense communication we had during his final illness was, in essence, our making up for a lifetime in four short months. Afterward, I didn't know how to go on without his overpowering presence. It had been too much when he was alive, but that didn't mean I knew how to get along without it. And this message of coalition, what was I to do with that? Who would listen to me? Who would care?
I am no longer twenty and heartbroken. I walk through the macerated streets of Harlem, and I know who will listen to me. I walk through the neglected parks, and I know who cares. I listen to the dispossessed, and I understand what I am to say. "The Negro must embrace the ghetto like a mother her child," my father used to say. Like a mother her child. It is that image that is so enduring, that is so strong, that is so correct. We are all homeboys trying to make it. We are all Hold Fast and Brag. We must, therefore, recognize the sacredness of our home place and restore its lost dignity.
We can make meaning of almost anything, but there must be something from which to start. Each of us needs a place. Each of the billions of human beings needs a place. We can, by sharing, by joining, by creating coalitions, create a politics of place that respects the dignity and worth of every human being. There are those who will say this costs too much. After all, that's what people said about something as simple as a new high school. But, as Ben Jones pointed out so many years ago, "I submit that if we fail to pass the resolution tonight, it will be more expensive than any of us ever dreamed."
|List of illustrations||ix|
|As Time Goes By: A Chronology||xiii|