Back in 1927, racism was right out in the open. Black Harlem's Cotton Club was a whites-only nightclub with a plantation theme, where blacks could serve and entertain, but never relax. Irving Berlin's original lyrics to "Puttin' on the Ritz" mocks the black community members who were "aping their betters" by dressing up and strolling down Lenox Avenue in the evenings.
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns from down the levee, all misfits, puttin' on the Ritz! That's where each and every Lulubelle goes, every Thursday evening with her swell beaux, rubbin' elbows. Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee and see them spend their last two bits, puttin' on the Ritz!
Today in 2015 racism is being expressed in many overt and covert ways, none of which I'm really qualified to speak about, since I am in the privileged position of being white and female; all I am doing is reading about the perspectives and the problems, and doing my best to not add to the latter. But I just don't understand why we have not yet moved beyond blackface and Stepin Fetchit and are still circling back to Lee Atwater's messaging strategies mixed with Reagan's outright labeling of black Americans as nothing more than "strapping young bucks" and "welfare queens" who are living large and lazy while honest white folks work their fingers to the bone. In my random internet searching it seems that in general white Americans receive at least as much public assistance as black Americans, but the rates of incarceration and unemployment are both much higher for blacks in a trend and pattern that many people have correctly linked to racism. More and more of these incidents are being broadcast and discussed openly, but it's still so easy to ignore in much of our sprawling country, a land where physical space makes mental and emotional separation easy. As I make my way back to oh-so-white Portland, Oregon, I feel as if I'm going back to a widely tolerant community where that tolerance is assumed because it's so rarely challenged. Or maybe I just don't see the struggle, since I'm not personally involved in it. And maybe I should get involved, and work towards becoming an active ally instead of a passive one.
In New York City, diversity is one of the many things that is, as they say, in your face. Skin tones and facial features, clothing and hairstyles, the fragrances of spices from a hundred countries and the colors of imported fruits and vegetables that paint the sidewalks. People cluster together, there's no doubt about that, but also mix more freely. The more differences you're surrounded by, the harder it is to see those differences after a while. I keep hoping that the old ways and the people who promote them will die off soon, but as recent events have shown, the sickness is still present and the contamination easy to spread. Maybe we'll find some way to immunize newborn children so that they can't catch the racism virus from the adults around them.
Anyway, New York City, and another walk that I took from the Upper East Side down to Grand Central Station, just to walk and see what is there to see. Tall buildings, mostly, and lots of cars, all the way down Park Avenue from 87th to 42nd Street.
|Have you seen the well-to-do|
Up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air?
High hats and Arrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time.
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? |
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek —
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
If you're blue and you don't know where to go to
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
The mountains and the endless plain —