Harlem in the 1960's (Courtesy of Photoscream @ Flickr)
Last year, to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, I had posted the letter that Dr. King had written to several members of the clergy, in which he responded, critically and forcefully, to their claim that his then activities as a civil rights activist were “unwise and untimely.”
This year, as Dr. King’s birthday quickly approaches and regardless of whether you actually choose to work or not on this day — I imagine that Dr. King himself would have preferred the former as a means of commemorating his achievements — I am posting for your elucidation and action, an essay written by James Baldwin entitled “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” published in July 1960 issue of Esquire magazine. Because of its length and because I will be transcribing it in its entirety, I am going to split up the essay up into two posts. Here is Part One of that post:
Fifth Avenue, Uptown
by James Baldwin
There is a housing project standing now where the house in which we grew up once stood, and one of those stunted city trees is snarling where our doorway used to be. This is on the rehabilitated side of the avenue. The other side of the avenue — for progress takes time — has not been rehabilitated yet and it looks exactly as it looked in the days when we sat with our noses pressed against the windowpane, longing to be allowed to go “across the street.” The grocery store which gave us credit is still there, and there can be no doubt that it is still giving credit. The people in the project certainly need it — far more, indeed, than they ever needed the project. The last time I passed by, the Jewish proprietor was still standing among his shelves, looking sadder and heavier but scarcely any older. Further down the block stands the shoe-repair store in which our shoes were repaired until reparation became impossible and in which, then, we bought all our “new” ones. The Negro proprietor is still in the window, head down, working at the leather.
These two, I imagine, could tell a long tale if they would (perhaps they would be glad to if they could), having watched so many, for so long, struggling in the fishhooks, the barbed wire, of this avenue.
The avenue is elsewhere the renowned and elegant Fifth. The area I am describing, which, in today’s gang parlance, would be called “the turf,” is bounded by Lenox Avenue on the west, The Harlem River on the east, 135th Street on the north, and 130th Street on the south. We never lived beyond these boundaries; this is where we grew up. Walking along 145th Street — for example — familiar as it is, and similar, does not have the same impact because I do not know any of the people on the block. But when I turn east on 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, there is first a soda-pop joint, then a shoeshine “parlor,” then a grocery store, then a dry cleaners’, the the houses. All along the street there are people who watched me grow up, people who grew up with me, people I watched grow up along with my brothers and sisters; and sometimes in arms, sometimes underfoot, sometimes at my shoulder — or on it — their children, a riot, a forest of children, who include my nieces and nephews.
When we reach the end of this long block, we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue, facing that project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and the cowardice, of good intentions. All along the block, for anyone who knows it, are immense human gaps, like craters. These gaps are not created merely by those who have moved away, inevitably into some other ghetto; or by those who have risen, almost always into a greater capacity for self-loathing and self-delusion; or yet by those who, by whatever means — War II, the Korean war, a policeman’s gun or billy, a gang war, a brawl, madness, an overdose of heroin, or simply, unnatural exhaustion — are dead. I am talking about those who are left, and I am talking principally about the young. What are they doing? Well, some, a minority, are fanatical churchgoers, members of the most extreme of the Holy Roller sects. Many, many more are “Moslems,” by affiliation or sympathy, that is to say that they are united by nothing more — and nothing less — than a hatred of the white world and all its works. They are present, for example, at every Buy Black street-corner meetings — meetings in which the speaker urges his hearers to cease trading with white men and establish a separate economy. Neither the speaker or his hearers can possibly do this, of course, since Negroes do not own General Motors or RCA or the A&P, nor, indeed, do they own more than a wholly insufficient fraction of anything else in Harlem (those who do own anything are more interested in their profits than in their fellows). But these meetings nevertheless keep alive in the participators a certain pride of bitterness without which, however futile this bitterness may be, they could scarcely remain alive at all. Many have given up. They stay home and watch the TV screen, living on the earnings of their parents, cousins, brothers, or uncles, and only leave the house to go to the movies or to the nearest bar. “How’re you making it?” one may ask, running into them along the block, or in the bar. “Oh, I’m TV-ing it”; with the saddest, sweetest, most shamefaced of smiles, and from a great distance. This distance one is compelled to resepct; anyone who has traveled so far will not easily be dragged into the world. There are further retreats, of course, than the TV screen or the bar. There are those who are simply sitting on their stoops, “stoned,” animated for a moment only, and hideously, by the approach of someone who may lend them the money for a “fix.” Or by the approach of someone from whom they can purchase it, one of the shrewd ones, on the way to prison or just coming out.
And the others, who have avoided all of these deaths, get up in the morning and go downstairs to meet “the man.” They work in the white man’s world all day and come home in the evening to this fetid block. They struggle to instill in their children some private sense of honor or dignity which will help the child survive. This means, of course, that they must struggle, stolidly, incessantly, to keep this sense alive in themselves, in spite of the insults, the indifference, and the cruelty they are certain to encounter in their working day. They patiently browbeat the landlord into fixing the heat, the plaster, the plumbing; this demands prodigious patience; nor is patience usually enough. In trying to make their hovels habitable, they are perpetually throwing good money after bad. Such frustration, so long endured, is driving many strong, admirable men and women whose only crime is color to the very gates of paranoia.
One remembers them from another time — playing handball in the playground, going to church, wondering if they were going to be promoted at school. One remembers them going off to war — gladly, to escape this block. One remembers their return. Perhaps one remembers their wedding day. And one sees where the girl is now — vainly looking for salvation from some other embittered, trussed, and struggling boy — and see the all-but-abandoned children in the streets.
Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.
All other slum dwellers, when the bank account permits it,, can move out of the slum and vanish altogether from the eye of persecution. No Negro in this country has ever made that much money and it will be a long time before any Negro does. The Negroes in Harlem, who have no money, spend what they have on such gimcracks as they are sold. These include “wider” TV screens, more “faithful” hi-fe sets, more “powerful” cars, all of which, of course, are obsolete long before they are paid for. Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways — rent, for example, or car insurance. Go shopping one day in Harlem — for anything — and compare Harlem prices and quality with those downtown.
The people who have managed to get off this block have only got as far as a more respectable ghetto. This respectable ghetto does not even have the advantages of the disreputable one, friends, neighbors, a familiar church, and friendly tradesmen; and it is not, moreover, in the nature of any ghetto to remain respectable long. Every Sunday, people who have left the block take the lonely ride back, dragging their increasingly discontented children with them. They spend the day talking, not always with words, about the trouble they’ve seen and the trouble — one must watch their eyes as they watch their children — they are only too likely to see. For children do not like ghettos. It takes them nearly no time to discover exactly why they are there.
I will post the remainder of Baldwin’s essay tomorrow.