Saturday, August 13, 2011

Harlem to Hayti: In Which I Discover That I Have Stumbled Into Another Great Black American City

My reading list is a trail of breadcrumbs set out for me by an unknown and apparently all-knowing hand. The choices in books I make are driven sometimes by nostalgia and comfort, sometimes by curiosity, and lately (though indirectly) by The BlogLily Summer Reading Program (this week's category is Men's Genre). At the best of times my library is a collection of bottled messages that hint about the journey I am on in this life. This week, Lewis Shiner's historical novel Black & White was just such a message in a bottle.

Here in Piedmont the rain is falling this weekend, soft and gentle. The summer rain here changes plans, but it's not unwelcome. I have been comparing temperatures during our last month here, and so far there's been not one day that's been significantly hotter than it was on the same day in Tiny Town, eight hours to the north. Indeed, because of the foothills we're in and the old mountains two hours to the west, it goes cooler at night and the humidity is never as oppressive as it was along the banks of the mighty Delaware. And it's never, ever as overwhelming as it was inside the concrete canyons of New York City.

But the sun. Well, this Dixie sun is something else. Piedmont sun is brash and unforgiving. It will take you down for the count in fifteen minutes or less if you let it. The Piedmont sun irradiates this red clay earth and bakes it until it cracks and screams for mercy. It makes the stones sing, stills the trees and hushes the birds and cicadas. You watch your flower beds wilt so fast it's as if your eyes had become stop-motion cameras, and only those ancient, great grandaddies, the Carolina long needle pines, appear unperturbed. You can imagine how that sun brought people to a boil in the summer of 1968 (the summer after Martin Luther King was assassinated) in Harlem and down here in our new home which, for literary purposes, I call Piedmont.

Reading Lewis Shiner's novel Black & White this week, I found out that our house is a short drive from one of the most promising black metropolises America ever had: It was called Hayti, named after the country of nearly the same spelling, but here in the South it is pronounced HATE-eye as Shiner significantly points out in the first chapter. If you try the sound of Hayti on your tongue a few times, you will also get it that this book is not only about the rough and tumble racial and economic history of Durham NC, apex of the Research Triangle, but that it's also an exploration of the self-hate and shame that are fundamental components of the psychologies of both racists and and their victims.

As in Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer (see last post), everyone in Black & White ends up related to everyone else, though in this book the biological links happen through incest, rape and infidelity rather than more cheerful biological urge. That sort of neatness, tied up in a nice bow by the end of the novel, might annoy you if you're feeling critical because after all life almost never happens just that way. But fiction don't aim at being life: It's designed to tell a story that goes beyond the often boring facts of regular life, and to reach toward a bigger thought. In this book, one of the bigger thoughts is that Urban Renewal was the inheritor of the spirit of Jim Crow: By leveling the old black neighborhood of Hayti to make way for highways and the broken promised of modern housing, the emerging Black American middle class in Durham, its self-sustaining economy and its vibrant culture was cynically and purposefully dealt a terrible blow.

The other big message of the book is that truth is not neat or well-ordered, and that black and white are just cartoon lines we draw in our minds to make reality easier to think about. The adjectives by which we group and segregate people like white and black, poor and rich, bastard or legitimate do not offer us any useful understanding when it comes to having relationships with real people.

In our story, (white) cartoon artist Michael discovers that his (white) dying engineer father Robert reluctantly participated in the flattening of the vibrant Hayti neighborhood of Durham NC to make way for the highway system being built in the 60s to connect the points of the newly-emerging Research Triangle. Reluctantly, Robert became part of the broken promise to build newer, better housing for the black residents of Hayti while he simultaneously fell in love with it and its (black) people, particularly a beautiful (black) voodoo priestess ironically named Mercy. It doesn't ruin the story if I tell you that Michael finds out in the course of investigating his dying father's past that he is color challenged, and that he falls in love with a charming (black) woman who runs the Hayti Heritage Center where, in modern times, the archives of the long-gone black metropolis are kept.

Parts of this fictional history are truly black and white and indisputable. The hand of organized racism continues to meddle in the affairs of the South and, indeed, the nation. Hayti existed in Durham, and now where it was there are restaurants, highways, and a baseball stadium. The summer of 1968 was a boiler all over America as black revolutionary groups decided it was time to take up arms. And yes, there probably are black revolutionaries like the book's Howard Barrett mummified in the cement pilings of bridges along with others like Jimmy Hoffa. Hell, the NJ Turnpike is probably one big mausoleum, if you think about it! And the careful narrative of Piedmont places and things in the book made for the best topographic introduction to our new home that I could have asked for.

That said, there are parts of the book that seem too cartoony, as when Michael naively wonders why you are considered black if you have even one drop of black blood in you. And why can't someone declare himself white for the same reason? Well, Michael, that would be because of slavery and the peculiar "one drop rule" invented by slave owners to assure that their own progeny born of their female slaves stayed their property. That rather obvious fact aside, the one drop reference is echoed later on when Michael can't seem to get the open-armed welcome he'd hoped for from the black people he befriends who aren't that ready to accept him as black, either. They make the same error, though for more understandable reasons of self-preservation, of suggesting that racial categories are actually useful for determining who should be your friend. Shiner implies a discussion going forward about how America should proceed as racial categorization becomes ever more impossible to usefully or truthfully declare on Ye Olde Census Forme. Could it be that it's time to just love one another, right now?

Regrettably, though, hate so often seems to have more force and staying power than love, no matter how earth-shattering that love may be. That is a proposition that I certainly fight against in my heart, as does Ruth, Michael's (white) mother. Ruth, daughter of the local klan-type wizard, ends up being the best-drawn character in the book and goes from being the most unsympathetic person ever to someone with tremendous depth of suffering and endurance. Ruth is ultimately shown to be the biggest warrior for the power and endurance of love in the book.

It is an interesting, and pretty convincing, argument that Urban Renewal was a tool of racists to mow down the burgeoning black economies in the South and in New York City (I am thinking also now of the Cross Bronx Expressway). Harlem, where I lived for over a decade somehow avoided the wrecking ball for the most part, and I hereby make a promise to myself to read up on why. If an aggressive desire to wipe out increasingly independent and prosperous black communities was part of the inspiration for Urban Renewal as Shiner proposes, then there must also have been an element of simply not valuing black culture, too. The (white) folks in charge of the building of highways, bridges and skyscrapers put them up where it made the most economic and geographical sense. Or was the destruction of these places indeed a more cynical and deliberate war against Black America? Or does it even really matter?

Out of our destruction comes rebirth, Shiner seems to say. Time, love and hate mold our environment and alter our gene pools, yes, but eventually we will have to die to our desire to see life in cartoon black and white if we are ever going to enter the Promised Land.

When the rain comes to Piedmont on one of these soft gray days, every living thing relaxes. The magnolias open their glossy plate-sized leaves to catch the water, and the long stalks of the Rose of Sharon bob up and down in the mist saying "yes, yes, yes". The silver gray daylight is punctuated by brief spots of sun that show that the grass has gone emerald and has grown half an inch overnight. Only the Carolina long needle pines are unmoved, unchanging, slow growing in rain or shine. The pines wait patiently for the destroying fire that they need to burn them down to the ground and make the soil just right for the germination of their hard, indestructible, primordial seeds, in their slow-motion, eternal dance of love.

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