Freed But Not Free

September 17, 2014

As part of Creative Time’s exhibition “Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,” a collaboration with Weeksville Heritage Center, Creative Time Reports is featuring essays related to the history of African-American struggles for self-determination in Brooklyn. Here, the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts meditates on the limits to freedom imposed by a legacy of institutionalized racism.

Weeksville

Hunterfly Road Houses 1923, 5th of July Resource Center for Self Determination & Freedom, Weeksville Heritage Center

Recently in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, two women aged 30 and 23 knocked on an apartment door to gain entry and then demanded at gunpoint that its current occupants vacate the premises. As reported in the New York Daily News, by way of motive one of the women later declared to police that she “was tired of white people moving into the area.” The New York Post added that one of the women was angry that the apartment had been rented to three white residents instead of to her. The three victims—two men and one woman—fled the apartment upon baroque threats of death. (“If you call the police or management company, I’ll pick five people off each of your phones and kill them and if you’re not out of here in 24 hours, five guys will come back and kill you all.”) The two women, identified in reports as Precious Parker and Sabrina James, remained in the apartment for two days before being apprehended by the police. Headlines detailing the incident declared the women to have “squatted” in the apartment after the armed encounter. This pointed description, along with the women’s alleged racial motivation, transforms the incident from just another bizarre made-for-tabloid Gotham crime to a flashpoint in the protracted struggle black and poor people endure to settle in this city.

The women were arrested for robbery, burglary, unlawful imprisonment, criminal possession of a weapon and menacing. No mention of hate crime charges has been made so far (except from the army of commenters asking sarcastically why weren’t Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Eric Holder jumping on the case). Something about the headline gave off a dark humor, as if it belonged to the satirical news so beloved by our age. A crime resulting more from weariness than malice, one that openly declared something many people think and say without resorting to similar acts of violence (cf. “The Rent is Too Damn High”). Furnished with only the bare details of newspaper accounts, I hesitate to make the women’s actions say more than the women themselves are alleged to have said. Their act cannot be understood in any clear or credible way as political—the race of the victims and the race of the perpetrators do not automatically make the event coherent. It does not conform to any post-Civil Rights-era tales we tell about how we are going to bring about a just world.

But can the actions of these two women be understood as a form of resistance? An inherently futile form of resistance, to be sure, for they had literally backed themselves into a corner with no means of escape. Inevitably they would draw the attention of the state. Perhaps like many of their peers, they were already under the surveillance of the state. Which is to say, perhaps they were already living in a room with no exit. The attempted theft—apartment-jacking?—sought as its loot the physical space, the lease, the occupancy. But once they had the space, what were they going to do with it? They could not flee. They could not exchange it for money. They were stuck in a worse version of the same situation.

If this act of “apartment-jacking” has any legitimacy, it is borrowed from the very founding of this nation.

Perhaps what they were stealing was time. I am sending myself into the news reports. Into those two days of squatting. I am sitting with Precious Parker and Sabrina James and their gun and their tiredness—no, I’ll say it—my tiredness, because I, too, would not be able to afford to move into the neighborhood where I now live, only I don’t have a gun or the will to use it. There is nothing to do in this room but wait, so we tell each other stories. I tell them about Fannie Lou Hamer, famously sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hamer endured beatings, and was a part of the larger nonviolent movement, but in response to the constant threat of white supremacist terrorism in Mississippi said, “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.” I am telling them about the occupation of a tent city in Lowndes County, AL, erected when black sharecroppers were forced off their farms for attempting to vote, in the same place where the Black Panther Party was founded.

Precious Parker and Sabrina James used the threat of violence to procure—however temporarily—space to live, to be. I am working to understand their actions in light of other happenings in the city that we have agreed are legal and nonviolent. It is supposedly nonviolent when real estate developers secure special privileges for including “affordable” housing in new luxury buildings and then create a second, separate entrance—a “poor door”—for the underclass of residents to use. It is supposedly nonviolent when landlords and brokers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn systematically dispossess renters by means of paltry lease buyouts and unjustified evictions.

If this act of “apartment-jacking” has any legitimacy, it is borrowed from the very founding of this nation. Here was petty crime as a form of historical reenactment. Without the benefit of Pilgrim-period costumes, Parker and James rehearsed the method by which property was violently transferred from the indigenous people of this land to colonial settlers.

In my book Harlem Is Nowhere, I summarized the problem of Harlem’s future as a black place thusly: this is our land that we don’t own. Here is a territory to which black people have a spiritual, psychic claim, by dint of having suffered there, having loved there, having stewarded generations in the face of destruction there. The attachment to place across generations is a topic I have spoken about publicly, repeatedly, seeking to assert the value of rootedness in a time when its lived reality is eroding. But I did not in the writing or the speaking realize that I was doing so while sitting in a room with no exit. The violent transfer of land to European settlers created the fiction of property just as it enshrined the legend of the lifeless, worthless, soulless black body that could be turned into a slave. Truly, our land that is not ours.

Weeksville was a bastion of the idea of freedom in a land fundamentally unfree. It was a room without an exit—but we could huddle there and protect each other and comfort each other and tell stories.

Consider James Weeks, a Virginia longshoreman who was most probably a former bondsman. Perhaps before he purchased the land that became Weeksville, he had purchased his own freedom. That the purchase of one’s own liberty was a pragmatic response to the madness of enslavement is easily understood. But existence within the terms of such freedom requires submission to the idea that you can be bought. Emancipation does not undo this; freedom does not make you wholly free. The freedman who finds himself a piece of property inevitably joins the system that perpetrated his bondage and violently usurped indigenous life. (Note the adjective “freed,” which makes its subject into the object of another man’s actions: a freed man is not the same as a free man.) This does not discredit the significance of Weeksville, but helps us properly examine the conditions under which it was built. It was a bastion of the idea of freedom in a land fundamentally unfree. It was a room without an exit—but we could huddle there and protect each other and comfort each other and tell stories.

Weeksville is remembered as a refuge for blacks fleeing Manhattan after the Draft Riots of 1863, but the settlement was built just four years after the anti-abolitionist riots of 1834 when thousand of whites destroyed black churches, homes, businesses and other locations associated with the abolitionist movement. What kind of house might you build in a time of riots? The preservation experts who worked on the 1983 restoration of the houses and who were accustomed to working with “high-style architectural details” noted, with a touch of disdain, that “we’re really dealing with low-level vernacular structures.” It was “what the average guy would build…what the guy who looks at Popular Mechanics would build if he was going to build an airplane. It would look something like a 747, but would have a Volkswagen engine in it.” The New York Times described the houses as having “no distinct architectural style.” But perhaps the effort to preserve and restore the structures—that is, to make them conform to what we understand as a building—erases their most intriguing elements. Perhaps the houses were built in a style beyond vernacular, as yet unrecognized by architectural study. Call it Afro-brutalism, proto-fugitivism or pre-destructionism. This is the house you would build with meager resources on the unsteady ground of American unfreedom, with the smell of burning black buildings not long on the wind.

Insofar as we yearn to commemorate such efforts, the attempt at sovereignty within the bounds of Fulton Street and Ralph, East New York and Troy Avenues was a monument already upon its “rediscovery” in 1968 by preservationists hovering in a prop plane. The people who lived near the Hunterfly buildings in the housing projects erected as triumphs of urban renewal did not require their discovery, interpretation or commemoration. Was not the view of the crumbling shacks as seen from a project apartment window interpretation enough?

The works of “Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn” call us to consider how we have lived on these shifting sands, how fugitive practices and institutions have provided a way of expanding the possibilities of our unfreedom—and how they might continue to do so. These four constituent elements—funk, jazz, God and medicine—are corner posts framing off a room. They are ways of being and living and thinking, all connected by a consideration of time: the twisting, bending and defying of linear time that marks black music; the life-extending, transcendent elements of spirituality and healing. When building on unsteady ground and stolen territory, perhaps the most important material is time, and the ability to inhabit an expanded idea of history like the one that Columbia professor Saidiya Hartman offers us when she asserts, “I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.”

For a few weekends this fall in Brooklyn, we have a space to imagine the future of that time, and to begin building it, inhabiting it and finding a way through.

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