When the Ghetto Is Not Enough, or in Some Cases, Too Much: New African American Urban Identities for the Great Migration and Beyond

AHA Session 25
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Washington Room 4 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michele Mitchell, New York University
Craig Steven Wilder, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

Through examining black migrant agency and structural forces that created urban poverty, crime, unemployment, and housing crises, scholarship in the past two decades has complicated and undercut the ghetto formation and underclass narrative that had defined black urban history since the 1960s. This panel will carry forward this debate on the ghetto synthesis model by offering complex urban relationships and black identities through an examination of cross-racial collaboration in neighborhood building; articulated subjectivities of the working class and women; black spaces with multiple classed and gendered meanings; and battles for control over political and economic space in urban districts. By focusing on complexities within African-American urban spaces in New York, Washington DC, and New Orleans over the course of the 20th century, the panel will show that the urban ghetto formation narrative is hardly sufficient to capture the lives of black people and the city.

Kevin McGruder’s paper opens the panel and challenges the dominant narrative of “black invasion/white resistance” in Harlem, New York during the Progressive era by profiling a small but important group of white residents who supported in a number of ways black real estate purchase. Like McGruder, LaKisha Simmons uncovers new spatial relationships on New Orleans’ Rampart Street, known almost exclusively as a black commercial and entertainment district. But it was also the location of the city’s only colored high school and black middle class girls navigated their way to school through threats of harassment and sometimes with the protection of men working, living, or playing on the street, bringing new class and gendered meaning to this urban enclave. Paula Austin argues for an intellectual history of poor and working class African American women and young people in Washington, D.C. in the interwar period. In interviews with concerned social reformers, these Black Washingtonians identified notions of self, political ideologies, and conceptualizations of citizenship. Finally, Brian Purnell brings us forward and refocuses us on African American efforts to address the urban challenges they faced. Purnell introduces us to the work of a variegated mix of political actors, including black women welfare recipients, neighborhood-based Black Nationalists, and corporate managers, all of whom, through their engagement with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation attempted to combat the political and economic processes that made the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Chair: Michele Mitchell, New York University

Commentator: Craig Steven Wilder, MIT

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