Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Apr 27, 2013

White Poverty in Philadelphia Meets Black Activism


Below is a question from a reader:

The two quotes you feature on your front page are from a black homosexual activist and a black communist.  How would you describe yourself politically?  Why do you seem to dislike your own race so much?

I can’t think why you imagine I dislike my own race simply because I have written about the wide use of the “n” word among whites in northeast Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s or because I have written about social class prejudice there.  If this is not what I was meant to do, why send me to school as a child, then?  Why teach a poor white kid how to read and write?  What use are my eyes and ears?  Without conflict and struggle there is no story, but remember this ─ the ending can always be a happy one.

As the novelist Richard Wright wrote, “The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.”  I am simply writing about the people I knew in the place where I grew up and in that place was a mix of true life villains, heroes and ordinary folks.    

As to the other part of your question ─ you are referring to Franz Fannon and Richard Wright, whom I have quoted.  Fannon, author of The Wretched of the Earth, was a black psychiatrist, author and activist who described the middle-class as a “closed society.”  Wright was an African American writer whose controversial novels brought attention to the oppression of blacks in the United States during the 1930s and 40s.  Disillusioned with the American political system that oppressed blacks, Wright joined the communist party.  Wright left the party and became an anti-communist.  Fanon, who recorded the harassment and oppression of blacks by French troops during the French colonization of Algeria, was far more radical and a revolutionary. 

When I was a kid I frequented libraries and read books by Charles Dickens.  The characters in his novels were always in conflict over social class distinctions, which raised much controversy during the late 19th Century.  Because they became classics, in modern times his books were acceptable reading and were readily available in any bookstore or library.

Appalachian Children
It was only when I was grown and searched for other stories and books about poor whites that I ran into a dead end.  The few I came across were geography books with pictures of poor whites in rural Appalachia.  When gazing at the photos, I felt no connection to those people, except a faint sadness upon seeing the faces of the hungry white children.  They were illiterate, barefoot, lived in remote areas in Kentucky or Mississippi and were described as speaking some kind of strange dialect.  This was not the white poverty I knew in Philadelphia.

Of course, there were always social science texts that contained a page or two on white poverty filled with charts, graphs and measurable statistics.  Upon reading them I would think to myself,  I am not a statistic.  I am a person!  

I wanted to stand at the top of a canyon and shout, “Where are the books about poor white people in the city like me and others I have known?”  The silence reverberated like the echo in a canyon, for there was nothing, nothing, nothing.

In 1999, I moved to New York and got a job as a marketing assistant at Cambridge University Press in the Department of Science, Technology and Medicine.  I worked in Manhattan while living in an illegal housing conversion in Jamaica, Queens, which is the same neighborhood where Eddie Murphy’s character lived in the movie, Coming to America.  In this very poor black neighborhood was one of the best libraries I have ever been to.  

On my initial visit there I walked among the rows of shelves, browsing.  When I came to an open area, I noticed young people sitting and reading in a cozy corner of the library which turned out to be the African American literature section.  I decided to have a look and there on the shelf were the works of Richard Wright.  I picked up one of his books and the title was Black Boy.  I started to read it and almost immediately, he began describing what it was like to be poor.

I stayed for hours, thumbing through books written by black authors and intellectuals, trying to decide which books to take home with me first.  Some espoused tolerance among the races and some espoused black separatism.  Some cried out for revolution and some called for change within the system that was already in place.  They were of every political persuasion and that mattered to me least of all.  What did matter was that almost all of them had been born into a poor family and wrote at length about their experiences with poverty, many of them in northern cities, which is something that was hard to find in books by white authors of the modern era.

I believe in our American democracy, not because I was told to but because I educated myself by studying the history of other races and oppressed groups who through passive resistance tested our Constitution, which held certain rights to be self-evident.  Our Constitution withstood these challenges and because of this I have been a lifelong Democrat and a proud liberal.  Thank you for asking.  

RELATED STORIES:

A Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s NE Philadelphia

5 comments:

  1. Just as a point of clarification, James Baldwin, not Richard Wright, wrote "The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him." Baldwin is the homosexual activist to whom I was referring in my question.

    As to my perception that you don't like the white race very much, it is primarily due to your willingness, even eagerness, to blame black dysfunction and criminality on whites instead of holding blacks accountable for their own actions. Calling people a name thirty or forty years ago is a far cry from perpetrating repeated acts of targeted violence against a particular race in the present day. Philadelphia has a seious race problem right now, and it is entirely a problem of blacks attacking, robbing, maiming and killing whites. This is an undeniable fact. A previous commenter brought this up and you dismissed it merely as a reflection of black poverty, which is a very liberal and in my view, very lazy response. You also denied the existence of racial preferences that openly discriminate against whites, a less deadly but still relevant issue.

    All of this matters because your blog deals with societal treatment of poverty. In the modern American city, that poverty almost always has a black face. Whites don't want blacks moving near them because they see the long history of destruction that generations of previous blacks have wrought in Philadelphia and every other city in the United States. Who wants to live around that? So whites flee ever farther into the suburbs, and the federal government continues to force unwanted integration through programs like Section 8. This breeds further hatred and resentment and destroys white community after white community.

    My comment isn't racist. It's factual. And if you are serious about honestly exploring the very issue around which this blog is built, you have to address black dysfunction without assigning blame to white people who have nothing to do with it. The problem with liberals in general is that they refuse to do this. Just look at the firestorm that was generated by the article "Being white in Philly" recently published in Philadelphia magazine. Despite the milquetoast, walking-on-eggshells language used in the article, the black mayor of Philadelphia actually called for an official censure of the magazine! Eric Holder calls white people "cowards" for refusing to talk about race, but we know the consequences for speaking out truthfully.

    The status quo can be maintained only for as long as there are places for whites to escape to as each white enclave is destroyed by forced integration. But as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, "To a surrounded enemy, you must always leave a way of escape." When that escape route is taken away, the enemy will fight to the death. Section 8 is destructive and breeds hatred. If it continues, it will bring racial violence on an unprecedented scale.

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  2. I stand corrected. It was James Baldwin, who was gay. In any case, I'm not sure where to start since you seem to have issues with homosexuals, blacks and liberals, all of which is hard to address in one tidy comment reply. Are you aware that is about half the US population? As for censorship, there are plenty of whites who have tried to censor me when I say anything in defense of other races. One transparent tactic is to tell me I dislike my own race. Section 8 and public housing are controlled by the government and public policy makers. Criminals in public housing are a symptom of what is wrong in a neighborhood's downhill slide, not the cause. They are a symptom of bad decisions that are being made in public policy. We have been treating the symptom instead of the disease.

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    1. Uh, you do know the comment above said "censure" and not "censor," right?

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  3. If by "having an issue" with homosexuals, blacks and liberals you mean I significantly disagree with their world view, I offer no argument there. Not that it makes a difference, but the groups you mentioned comprise nowhere near half the population. Self-identified liberals are about 22% of the population, while blacks are 13% and homosexuals are about 2%. Even that is an overstatement of the cumulative size of these groups because most blacks and homosexuals are also liberals. But really, what difference does it make anyway? The largest ideological group in the country is conservatives, but that doesn't seem to stop you from liberally applying the "jack-booted Nazi" cliche to them. It's an irrelevant point.

    I never mentioned or implied censorship. I said the political left doesn't want to even entertain a discussion of black criminality and its role in race relations and declining communities. It is a holy canon of the left that black criminality is simply due to white racism, period. No further discussion is permitted. Groups like the SPLC are founded upon this notion, and anyone who disagrees with their point of view is labelled a hate group. The media then routinely uses the SPLC as a source on the issue in order to push its own leftist point of view. It's an incestuous relationship and the left acts as though labelling someone a racist or a hater is the end of the discussion. And guess what? It usually is.

    I pretty clearly explained why I think you come across as disliking your own race. Labelling my explanation as a "transparent tactic" to censor you is just silly. Did anything I said suggest I was trying to stop you from presenting your point of view? Obviously not; however, I did provide strong reasoning as to why I believe the left tries to crush honest discussion of race and provided a concrete example of that. That's not censorship on my part, it's debate.

    But what this disagreement really comes down to is your assertion that "criminals in public housing are a symptom of what is wrong in a neighborhood's downhill slide, not the cause." That is the essence of the liberal/traditionalist divide. I say your point of view has been repeatedly disproven in every city in America. Why does the decline always seem to start when blacks reach critical mass? Why is this kind of criminal behavior not rampant in poor white areas (or poor Asian areas for that matter?) Why was Liddonfield not a drug-infested murder trap when it was white? Again, the decline started when blacks reached critical mass. The public policy is a failure exactly because that truth is not confronted or even considered. And really, why should the federal government have the power to decide who lives where in the first place? Why does it constantly trample on freedom of association? If I want to move to an all-white community, why should the feds use my tax dollars to purposely integrate that once-peaceful community in order to push their destructive social policy? No government should have that power.

    America is in decline. We all know it, we all feel it. I maintain that Johnson's "Great Society" and Kennedy's immigration policy is the root cause. We increasingly look like a Third World country because we continue to bring in Third World populations and allow them to gain control of the political structure. We refuse to confront the realities of race and the intractable social pathologies that exist in black communities everywhere. We still blame everything on white racism and expect that to somehow solve problems. It's insane.

    You can keep chasing your severely flawed view that tweaking the dominant liberal public policy of the last 50 years will reverse the course of the nation, or you can face reality. But you can't have both.

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  4. Very well handled. Very sad that brainwashed people give more weight to the "label" on the messenger than the contents of message.

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