Now when I walk down 40th Street in the morning hours of the day I imagine what the community looked like when John Africa and Black Panthers held down this section of West Philly with the physical presence of Black solidarity. Living down the bottom again has forced the resurfacing of many thoughts and emotions about the community, my family, and the dichotomy of genocide-Black on Black violence. Race relations between law enforcement officials and Black Americans have remained tenuous, especially due to the recent unwarranted killings of Black Americans by police officers in 2014 and 2015. Throughout the past 15 years I have consistently delved into the “race problem” for my own understanding –to become more aware of how to constructively interact with the people of various cultures that I encompass. In 2015 Baltimore was ushered through turmoil following the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers. Internationally, the Black diaspora has reached its tipping point and occurrences resembling the Baltimore “uprising” will be common place. After the protests in Baltimore several major cities were homes to demonstrations and protests by individuals, groups, and organizations representing the mantra, “Black Lives Matter.”
In Philadelphia I walked through the “Freddie Gray Protest” after I got off work from doing community outreach. Broad and Spring Garden is where I began to lazily trek my way south to get a bus heading to Camden. Approaching Callowhill Street I noticed the traffic was congested, people were doing u- turns, and the expressway was blocked off by protesters on Broad and Vine Streets. As protesters continued to block of the Interstate 676 east entrance the situation escalated and there appeared to be more “white shirts” out than petty officers. Later that evening I heard about 143 people were arrested for disorderly conduct and related offenses. Amazingly “the streets” murmured that Jay-Z and Beyoncé bailed out protesters to support the protest efforts against police violence towards Blacks. Practically the action Jay-Z and Beyoncé made denotes an effective way to use capital to attain cultural progress. The NAACP dispensed funding to support the financial costs of some historically progressive legislature- namely Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Without financial backing it is difficult to launch a campaign against oppression, but will capital secure basic human rights for the un-propertied?
Proceeding southwards on 40th Street, I approached Lancaster Avenue and the three-story house with a MLK mural; a stance he took when he visited the Ave in the 1960s. Thinking rhetorically, “John Africa and Mummia-Abu Jamal should have a mural standing side by side on this space,” hovering over the James L. Morse Funeral Home’s parking lot. The funeral service for an in-law was held at the funeral home back in the 1990s. There are so many funeral homes in Philadelphia, for just two blocks up the street-at another funeral home- Lucien Blackwell is colorfully depicted in a Mural that rests on the side of the building on 42nd Street and Haverford Avenue.
My recollection of the bottom is very near or more rather my memory of the bottom guides my instincts, motivation, and the energy I emit into the community. Some of the experiences I endured living around “39 Black-” the black side of 39th Street definitely created a desire in me to see the community exist in a better light. In June 2015 there were pictures on social media (Facebook) that showed my high school Uni being demolished. In silence I sat on the Route 10 trolley feeling enraged; passing the building in its demolition phase, I peered left and thought about the $160 my family had to pay for class dues. After all, part of the money was supposed to be used to purchase a gift for the school. What happened to all the gifts, trophies, banners, year books and memorabilia? Maybe it’ll be housed in the archives of the Philadelphia Free Library. In recognizing that art needs to be appreciated in a bottom-to-top fashion as Harold Cruse concedes in Crisis of the Negro intellectual, I also believe the artist represents the voice of the people and Nas poignantly finessed in conveying a perspective in the lyric, “schools where I learned they should be burned cause it’s poison.” Where will the school to replace it go? What will the name of the new school be?
Choosing to live in West Philadelphia again was what moving to California was for George Jackson, a place to live, but also a place to spend the remainder of one’s years. Given that my maternal family is from Ogden Street and my paternal family is from Brooklyn Street, existentially I see myself as starting from the ground up-to help build and preserve Black culture. I had some of the best experiences of my childhood in the streets I walk through daily as I head to ventures around town. Where are they now; all of Tyiene’s friends, the kids I went to high school with, the previous owners of “8 Brothers” the owners of the store that sold liquidated clothes that were faded? Every walking trip I take toward Market Street and back I glance at the old house on Powelton Avenue, thinking, wow-“settler colonialism.”
The Getty gas station can’t seem to keep a tenant it its auto repair space, so I guess they raised their rents too! Since 1993 the Red Cross building replaced the vacant lot we used to play baseball with rocks on. First there was a huge mural that had a black boy looking like he was shooting a basketball, but there was no basketball-his hands were just extended above his head and shoulders. The writing said, “I am large, I contain multitudes!” A replica of that same mural is on the Red Cross building on its side. I know where some of us are; “Pop-Pop;” Uncle Cliff; Aunt Sylvia; Aunt Janet; Aunt Debbie; Mom; Uncle Fish; Uncle Alex; Uncle Carey; Aunt Retha and Tyiene have all left the village in the physical. These are just some of my relatives from down-the-way. An interesting conversation I could have- about how the neighborhood has transformed- would be one with my Uncle Lem, who has witnessed how the culture has changed over time in West Philly.
Where are they now; Prophets of the Ghetto; “SPIKE;” “MAD;” ANS Crew; TEF; PDF; the Blackwells, and Uncle Mike’s friend from 40th and Baring Streets that used to sit in the chair all day-whose house was “settler-colonized” as well. Finally getting to talk to my Uncle Lem, I realized that it was several years since I last spoke with him. When one misses a family reunion in my family they miss out on a lot. The last time I spoke with him was in 2012 when he was running for office-right before I moved to 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. I asked uncle Lem about where the Black Panthers and John Africa’s of my generation were. He replied, “The drugs created a lot of conflict within the culture which led to violence in our communities and neighborhoods.” I agree! The focus of my generation and the generation thereafter has shifted to a senseless whirlwind of confusion. To create change in the Black community stellar folk have to consistently be that change. Even as the act of being a catalyst for change is an intra-cultural revolutionary act in and of itself, a balance of action must be obtained to work out a compromise of some sort on the community level between factions for the sake of cultural solidarity. Will the next John Africa please stand up, so the public can take notice of healthy diets, environmentalism, and awareness of police brutality against the Black community?
Running out of the house to get into a waiting car I noticed a European gentleman conversing with my neighbor about some election literature they were discussing. In a hurry, I introduced myself to the gentleman, extended my contact information to him, and told him, “I’ll get in contact with you. The candidate was familiar with the organization I work for, so he may have an idea about the conversation I plan to have with him. This August there will be a special election to fill a state representative slot in Pennsylvania’s 195th district. The candidates are Donna Bullock and Adam Lang. Thus far I have never seen Donna Bullock , and I find it ironic that Lang can be found canvassing the streets of the bottom, but his opponent is nowhere in my sight. Black communities should have Black politicians that represent the community, by way of disseminating information, and providing hands-on community building opportunities such representatives should help communities become self-sustaining. West Philadelphia is a community that has remained on the waiting list to get restructured, for investments and improvements have been made, however, how have these changes affected the overall well-being of the community? Through the promotion of and encouraging the creation of community member owned businesses, business will be in a position to hire community members that otherwise travel to suburbia, across town, or even out of state to find gainful employment.
Political districts that are historically Black are facing displacement as “hood-hoppers” and “settler-colonists” wrestle for prime property lots and opportunities to control the restructuring of West Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. The election of a non-black candidate will disrupt the natural order of how politics (war without bloodshed) were handled in Black communities. In the absence of non-critical thought what remains obvious is that Black communities in West Philadelphia have remained in their status quo. Essentially some lack-luster politicians have performed a mediocre job of propelling the culture forward in West Philadelphia. It would be impossible locally to have peace and all community members adequately getting their needs met at the same time. This brings me to farce of the Philadelphia tax that in estimate is roughly a bill that competes with the same costs of public transportation to work or even a monthly cell phone bill-bi-weekly. The bureaucratic methods used to captivate Philadelphia’s residents must be challenged. Does Bullock or Lang have the fortitude to address issues, get issues resolved, or organize and mobilize community members’ effort, perspectives and capital to gain foreground in an emerging totalitarian atmosphere. Moreover, the election of a non-black politician constitutes a revolutionary act; such action would further mark an era of retrograde and reactionary politics in an area of Black human activity.
West Philadelphia needs to see cultural progress, but can progress exist beyond dialectical materialism, especially while countering the factors that necessitates the public’s insatiable desire for the commoditization of goods. Hope is what Obama brought to the bottom, but what has the hope materialized into. As I have returned to the neighborhood at the concluding years of Obama’s tenure in the White House I search vigorously for the change that was to take place. I voted for Obama at the church on 41st and Brown Sts in 2008. The era of Obama’s name repeated on the “A-Milli” beat, Hope posters of Obama by Obey, and the hiatus of imperial Casanova persuaders has produced an effect in West Philadelphia. For starters the physical landscape has remained the same with the exception of Imperial Casanova Persuaders resurfacing. Hope that some community members possessed turned into despair as opportunities for economic advancement are not existent. What I hope for is the creation of Black owned businesses in my neighborhood that supports and employs the community. Now there are Black owned businesses if one classifies the infamous Chinese sand Dominican stores, yet these venues are not in the practice of equal opportunity employment. Further, given the tax breaks that immigrant merchants receive, there is no tax base in the inner city. This translates to an inquiry of whether or not owning and operating a business is tangible for Blacks.
As a community member I believe cultural progress highlights the strength of a culture to sustain itself by growing and selling food; making and selling clothes; building and selling homes; and making medical innovations for self-care. If successful cultural and ethnic minorities exist in America’s inner cities their blueprint to success should be shared. When Black kids attend public schools they are often encouraged (socialized) to leave the neighborhood or more proverbially “get out of the hood” when they become successful-to seek the materializing of their dreams and goals, yet where will they go? Ironically, one may have the skills and wherewithal to affect change the world over, but what is there to be said of such individuals that can impact and influence the world but appear asinine in their immediate community. The age of Ben Carson’s rhetoric and notions of rugged individualism are dead and as community members of West Philadelphia we must erect a rigid set of standards for community living, community building, and living peacefully in solidarity. Several reputable blueprints have been provided for us to create a cultural platform with, but who will rise to the challenge; who are these community members; and where are the Stakeholders of Black culture now?