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excerpts from 1960…

May 1, 2015

Harlem Riots 1958


“There is a housing project standing now where the house in which we grew up once stood…this is the rehabilitated side of the avenue…when we reach the end of this long block, we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue [New York], facing that project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and the cowardice, of good intentions. All along the block 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, or, simply, unnatural exhaustion – are dead. I am talking about those who are left, and I am talking principally about the young…

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 movies or to the nearest bar. “How’re you making it?” one may ask, running into them on the block, or in the bar. “Oh, I’m TV-ing it”; with the saddest, sweetest, most shame-faced of smiles, and from a great distance.

Harlem protests – 1920’s

This distance one is compelled to respect; anyone who has traveled so far will not easily be dragged again into the world. There are further retreats, of course…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…

And the others, who have avoided all of these deaths, get up in the morning and go downtown 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…

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…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 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-fi 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…

Harlem – late ’50’s

The projects of Harlem are hated. They are hated almost as much as policemen, and this is saying a great deal. And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil-rights commissions are set up…I am appalled by liberal innocence – or cynicism, which comes out in practice as much the same thing.

Other people were delighted to point to proof positive that nothing could be done to better the lot of colored people. They were, and are, right in one respect: that nothing can be done as long as they are treated like colored people. The people in Harlem know they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else. No amount of “improvement” can sweeten this fact. Whatever money now earmarked to improve this, or any other ghetto, might as well be burnt. A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.  

Ferguson, Missouri

The projects are hideous, of course, there being a law, apparently respected throughout the world, that popular housing shall be as cheerless as a prison. They are lumped all over Harlem, colorless, bleak, high, and revolting…the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of the police, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two or threes controlling. 

Their very presence is an insult…they represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.

The white policeman standing on a Harlem street corner finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it – naturally, nobody is – and, what is possibly more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him…He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population grows more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. 

One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened.

What happened is that Negroes wanted to be treated like men…a perfectly straightforward statement…people who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable…

It seems to be indispensable to the national self-esteem that the Negro be considered either as a kind of ward…or as a victim…In the meantime, generations are being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride, folly, and the world shrinks around us.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself. Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, has become.”

James Baldwin, excerpts from A Letter from Harlem, 1960 (Nobody Knows My Name)

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