February 22, 2021
by Junior Tidal
The African American Studies (AFR) Department at CityTech presents a virtual exhibit to celebrate Black History Month, entitled Black Lives Lead: We, Too, Sing America! See the exhibit and accompanying transcript below.
Dr. Yelena Bailey, AFR Adjunct, is the author of the newly published How the Streets Were Made (UNC Press). Join Dr. Bailey as she uses historical and contemporary photographs to examine the creation of “the streets” not just as a physical, racialized space produced by segregationist policies, but also as a sociocultural entity that continues to shape our understanding of Blackness in America.
2021 Black History Month Virtual Exhibit, Black Lives Lead: We, Too, Sing America!
Transcribed by College Assistant Yu Lau
My name is Dr. Yelena Bailey and I am so grateful to have this opportunity to share a little bit with you about my book project How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America. I want to thank the Department of African American Studies for making this possible and extending the invitation. I also want to thank the City Tech library for cosponsoring this event. You’re going to hear me, um, do a voice over and show you some images of kind of Black urban space in my hometown of Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.
Many of you will be familiar, um, with the Twin Cities that were in the news this past year with the murder of George Floyd and I think that, um, those events are closely tied to my book and the main ideas there. So I am going to walk through some of that and then I am also going to share with you the ways in which one of the authors I talk about in the book, Ann Petry, shows us that these places can also be spaces of liberation and empowerment.
Soon after musician Nipsey Hussle was murdered on March 31, 2019, social media was flooded with the reactions of Black artists, authors, and activists mourning his death. In the wake of this loss, writer and creative strategist Duanecia Evans tweeted, “The hood is a construct. The deepest underbelly of survival and poverty. The science project of classism and elitism. If you get out you have survivors’ guilt forever, if you stay in… man. Ain’t no middle.” This description of the hood or the streets is something more than physical geography is the heart of this book.
How the Streets Were Made examines the streets as a sociocultural construct that stems from the U.S. geographic segregation and continues to define the contours of Blackness and belonging in the U.S. today. This notion of the streets resonates with me on a personal level. Although I did not grow up in the streets, I was raised by a mother whose parenting was in no small way shaped by her determination to keep me from them.
My mother spent most of her childhood in the projects of North Minneapolis. She is intimately familiar with the streets and the threats they pose to Black life. She’s equally familiar with the way such spaces foster community and belonging. Although my mother made it out of the hood, throughout my childhood she was painfully aware of just how little separated us from that life. This awareness created a ferocious determination in her.
Although we did not have much money, she was resolved to keep me from the fate of other poor Black folks. This often meant moving us from place to place, actively fighting against the social, economic, and cultural forces that attempted to corral us back into poor urban neighborhoods. Even we lived in the projects, my mother moved us across town just so we could get into one of the few available suburban public housing projects. We may have been poor; she would be damned if I didn’t get a middle-class education. When those housing and school opportunity ran out, my mother was willing to relocate to another suburb or another area of the city. I say this not to exalt her as an example of exceptional perseverance but rather to highlight the way the streets, even in their strict absence, radically shaped my childhood.
My mother accepted a life of transience just so her daughter could have a shot at a decent education and a childhood free from the violence of the streets. Reflecting on my own experience has helped me to recognize the streets as much more than a physical space.
How the Streets Were Made explains why racialized spaces like the streets exist and why it is that urban and ghetto most often signify Black. The streets have shaped perceptions of Black identity, community, violence, spending habits, and belonging. They produce myths about urban Black pathology, financial irresponsibility, and inherent violence. These myths have fielded the economic and social divestment of Black communities as well as a boarder divestment from Blackness as a part of U.S. identity. How the Streets Were Made explores these topics as well as how we might approach the topic of redress in a practical and robust way.
While How the Streets Were Made explores the history of geographic segregation and how that lead to narratives that negatively impact Black life, often reinforcing economic disparities, it is also a book about how Black people have fought against these forces and how racism takes place. George Lipsitz argues that people who do not control physical places often construct discursive space as sites of agency, affiliation, and imagination. In the case of Black urban inhabitance, literature became one of the primary means through which Black intellectuals constructed these discursive spaces. While government policies, economic rationales, and marketing campaign worked to create a derogatory narrative around urban Blackness, Black authors were simultaneously wrestling with the cultural and ideological impact of living in racialized urban spaces.
In chapter two of my book, I analyze Ann Petry’s The Street, a novel that exemplifies the way the streets have been depicted and theorized in African American literature. Ann Petry published The Street in 1946, just twelve years after the National Housing Act was established. Set in 1944 Harlem, the novel follows the journey of the protagonist, Lutie Johnson, as she attempts to build a life for herself and her son Bub. Lutie migrated to Harlem after her marriage fell apart.
Determined to work her way up the social ladder, Lutie pursues a number of careers all while her son Bub finds himself alone on the streets. The novel is a tragedy that highlights the specific impact the streets have on Black familial relationships and the pursuit of the American dream. More relevant, however, is the way Petry works to narrate the transformation of A street, 116th in Harlem, from the figurative representation of everyday life in Black spaces in a menacing sociocultural entity, The street. Despite the harsh realities of the streets, depicted in the novel, they are also depicted as a safe space where Black people build community and live free from the constricting gaze of White supremacy. There is a moment in the novel when the protagonist, Lutie, is returning to Harlem after working in another part of the city and she expresses the sentiment in a clear nuanced way.
Rather than summarize it, I’ll read a short excerpt because Petry’s skill as an author is highlighted here and is a primary example of what I mean when I say that Black authors were using their writing to claim space. The book narrates that Lutie got off the train, thinking that she never really felt human until she reached Harlem and thus, got away from the hostility in the eyes of the White women who stared at her on the downtown streets and in the subway, escaped from the openly appraising looks of the White men whose eyes seem to go through her clothing to her long brown legs. These other folks felt the same way, she thought, that once they are freed from the contempt in the eyes of the downtown world, they instantly become individuals. Up here, they are no longer creatures labeled simply colored and therefore, alike. She noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs towards the street, it expanded in size. The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large, they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together. She reached the street at the very end of the crowd and stood watching them as they scattered in all directions, laughing and talking to each other. This is a powerful moment, both within the text and outside of it. In the novel, this realization stands in stark contrast to Lutie’s fears for her son, the dark dank apartment she lives in, and the harassment she receives on a daily basis as a Black woman. Harlem becomes a safe space where she is free to be herself and to feel fully human.
Outside of the novel, Petry uses Lutie’s realization to reclaim Black space, even space that was initially created through anti-Black policies. She writes these spaces as fostering community and freedom. This passage in Petry’s novel reminds me of the chant “Whose street, Our street.’’ When Black protesters make this statement, it’s a bold reclaiming of power over the space we live in.
In her book Demonic Grounds, Catherine McKittrick says that Black matters are spatial matters in that we produce space, reproduce its meanings, and we work very hard to make geography what it is. When we look at Black organizers today and the protests that take place in the streets, this is a prime example of giving space meaning, of turning the streets into a space of liberation.