I have taught AP English Language and Composition for three years now. I always run a comparison between Malcolm X’s “Ballot and the Bullet” and MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are both remarkable pieces and highlight the assimilationist v. separatist approaches to America’s cultural and racial problems.
Malcolm X’s piece is a treat to read. It is full of invective (those damn “crackers!”) and defiance. The anger is palpable. Rhetorically he pulls no punches. The black man has gotten a raw deal for too long. The whites have given him window dressing rights. Fuck the police. The relationship is irreconcilable—probably. The choice (bullets or the ballot?) haunts the speech. There is much that resonates with the current atmosphere especially in light of events in Dallas.
Looking South from 125th and 7th
6:55am 136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Five minutes till my carpool picks me up. Bordello isn’t open yet but the bulletproof, rotating window is being serviced. I order a cheap cup of coffee. “Son, how old are you?” an old, wizened reed of a woman sitting on a bucket asks me. “How old do you think I am?” I ask. Bearded, people usually guess 30. “24” she says. I had turned 25 a couple days earlier, but I shrug, “Yeah, you got me.” “Alright now, son,” she says, “for guessing correctly how about you buy me a bottle of water.” You’re not panhandling if you can do a good trick. I buy her a bottle of water.
Some night, dark, at Papaya King on 3rd and 86th. Order my hotdog. An ill smelling man in a grungy green army coat and knotted beard appears with his hand outstretched to me holding a quarter: “Fifty cents for a quarter?” You’re not panhandling if you can make me laugh. I give him fifty cents and accept the quarter.
I live in Harlem, but I’m an outsider. Race is the obvious reason for this: I can walk a half mile in Harlem and only see a couple white faces. But race is not the only reason. Many of families in Harlem have lived here for generations. In this way, my status of outsider would be similar in backwoods West Virginia.
A fellow white resident told me he felt like an occupier living in Harlem. This struck me as an overwrought and guilt-ridden way of looking at the situation, but he accurately identified a level of unease. But the unease is diminishing to an extent: young white professionals who want to live in NYC have begun moving into Harlem because the rent is cheaper. Over the past year, I’ve noticed an uptick in white faces. This white migration in turn has begun to contribute to the gentrification of the area and the slow but steady rise of rent costs that will ultimately drive out multi-generational black families. This in turn has led to guilt-ridden condemnation of gentrification—numerous white neighbors argue this line. It’s quite nauseating especially when coupled (as it always is) with cliché anti-cop rhetoric. It’s straight up hypocrisy: if they really cared about preserving black Harlem, they wouldn’t move there. So why do they? Continue reading
Good times in Harlem
The other night I was drinking a beer. I hadn’t enough sense to finish what was left in my tall boy. So I poured it out my window. An impolite act, but I’m four stories up and there was barely a finger of liquid left in the can. Plus it was raining.
Five minutes later I climbed out my window for a smoke while I spoke with a friend on the phone. I got yelled at. “White boy, pouring beer on us! Quit it! Fucking cracker!” I was confused. The beer I poured out wasn’t enough to even reach street level. But apparently it had. So I got hollered at. No matter, I sat there silent till the howling crowd below settled down. Moments later missiles began to explode around my head. It took me a second or two to understand what was going on. But as egg dripped off my hand I knew. Glancing down I saw fellows winding up and letting fly. The white specks growing larger as they approached my head. I quietly slipped back inside my window. Nothing came of it after that night, although I must admit worrying a bit about a confrontation the next couple of days (my plan: buy them a case of beer and apologize). Street justice. Don’t pour beer out your window in Harlem. It’s a reasonable rule. Eggs are a good enforcement mechanism. Continue reading
Walker Percy with dogs
Walker Percy in one of his essays discusses how modern man, unmoored from faith, has become an alienated being that can only think of life in terms of sex and death. All we have left are moments of pleasure and the fear of death. It’s a generalization, sure. But in the aftermath of my personal marital catastrophe, I’ve been struck by how many secular friends have suggested I need to just get a girlfriend and get laid. It’s the default response and a crude one at that. Percy got it right.
So here I find myself sitting on the roof in the dark, and from the stairwell bursts a man and a woman. Drunk. Talkative. I’ve had drinks myself but I’m lucid and the man engages me in conversation. Within a word or two I realize he’s gay (Check that, I discover later he’s bicurious. Either way I find the gay inflection as annoying as the macho bro’s style of discourse. Stop putting on an act and talk to me like a goddamn human being. In this way I’m an equal opportunity bigot.).