The color of urban: blacks owned the style of the city as whites went country.
Not that I saw it that way. I was a young teen living outside a Minnesota mining town where almost everyone was white ethnic--a hyphenated bunch of Scandinavians, Slavs, Italians. I didn't know from blaxploitation, though I'd recently had a glancing encounter with the world it portrayed. On a trip to the city Ford had told to expire, and which looked like it might still comply, my family and I drifted, after dark, into a neighborhood where we didn't belong. Since the whole metropolis was alien to me, I didn't realize our error until two black women following us on the sidewalk shot epithets our way that were as vivid as the skimpy clothes they wore: "Tight-ass white motherfuckers." "Honky bitches" They were joined by a black man leaning against a Cadillac only somewhat less fancy than the Duke of New York's. As my sister and I were being gathered to our mother's hem, it struck me as astounding--if thrilling--that we could provoke such indignation.
However memorable, the hostility was the least of that encounter. There was, after all, brutishness aplenty in the depressed mining towns up where I lived, but none of it had such style. Ours was a scene of rural blight: rusted cars, high unemployment, greasy flannels, and grim futures for anyone connected with the mines, which--directly or indirectly--was everyone. So I couldn't help but be dazzled by those presumable hookers and that guy with the luxury sedan. Their aesthetic, however disreputable, had that urban panache that I'd seen in movies, heard celebrated in pop music, and enjoyed foremost in my dad's Playboy magazines, but that until then I'd never seen in the flesh, as it were.
The differences, though, were notable not just for being urban as opposed to rural. They were "urban"--the national euphemism for "black"--as opposed to white. In between the crossover successes of peak-period Motown and disco, with their metropolitan sounds and their diverse roster of stars, there was a pronounced strain of pop-cultural white flight--from the city, from women, in some cases from civilization as a whole. (And since where I grew up people regarded disco the way the HUAC regarded communism, this strain prevailed throughout the '70s and beyond, until--in a Sinclair Lewis-meets-"Soul Train" kind of way--native-son Prince turned everyone into boosterish converts to funk.) One of the first non-animated movies I saw in the theater was 1974's "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams," in which Dan Haggerty's character, wrongfully accused of murder, heads for the hills and finds the love of a good bear. It's hokey family entertainment, to be sure, but it's not much different from 1972's "Jeremiah Johnson," directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, in which we learn that one of the mountain-man characters had spent a year cohabiting in a cave with a female panther, though "she never did get used to him"
This yen for depictions of the unpeopled high country and consequent union with hefty quadrupeds--if also sometimes accommodating Indian maidens, a bit of good fortune that Jeremiah Johnson seems mostly to resent--surely reflected some kind of cultural anxiety of the moment. The motives of Redford's embittered war vet character--never made clear--might have been a metaphorical comment on Vietnam, but they're as easily read as part of an insidious fatigue with the battle of the sexes, or with the war on poverty and the attendant collapse of American cities, or with contemporary life in general. Whatever the case, anti-urban, anti-modern sentiment was in the air. There was "A Man Called Horse" "A Horse With No Name" and a pony she named "Wildfire"; Pure Prairie League, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Neil Young's "Harvest"; "Rocky Mountain High" the Blue Ridge Rangers, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and Richard Proenneke's One Mans Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey. In an age of space exploration, interstates, and urban riots, it was all purposely escapist. Purposely or not, it was also exceedingly white.
Take "Woodstock" With its earnest, mostly white kids splashing around in the muck and begging approbation from the wider culture, the 1970 film is a rock opera of nostalgie de la boue. Among the few black acts there, Sly and the Family Stone seem to have arrived from a shiny, distant future. Almost everyone else, including Jimi Hendrix--whom writer and producer Nelson George has made clear was always more a white favorite--goes for that salt-of-the-earth vibe. In short, a bunch of nitty-gritty dirt bands.
Watching the 1973 "Wattstax" documentary, one is struck by an entirely different vibe. First, the event was held not in a dairy farmer's field but in a modern municipal stadium made for such large gatherings. Second, the audience wasn't composed overwhelmingly of self-conscious youths but instead of people of all ages, who are dressed up, not necessarily in their Sunday best but certainly not looking like they hail from Dogpatch, U.S.A. There was very much an out-on-the-town feel to the event, and those in attendance were admonished to celebrate, even assert, their rightful if complicated place within the culture at large--the concert marked the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots. Those in "Woodstock," whose status in the wider culture was uncomplicatedly privileged, nonetheless wanted to get back to the metaphorical garden and fashioned Max Yasgur's farm into a place of both pre-fallen innocence and libertinish abandon. The childlike incoherence of the one pales in comparison with the upbeat world-weariness of the other.
Of course, it's hard to feel nostalgia for farms, mud, dirt, a premodern past, when you have the kind of history that blacks in this country have. As one of the pimps interviewed in Christina and Richard Milner's 1972 sociological study Black Players puts it, when justifying his taste for modern luxuries: "let them White boys go hippy, grow their hair long, and go without shoes. I know what it's like to go barefoot. I was born without shoes, we was all kickin' mud, you dig? Now I want all the stuff those White boys had. If they want to be kickin' mud now, it's cool with me"
African-Americans are, of course, more American than almost anyone, their lineage, however tortured, going back much farther than most people's. And so it was--for the Milners' pimp and so many other blacks--that their material aspirations were often expressed with bitterness that such comforts had been too long denied, or were offered only in exchange for the profitable loss of one's soul. This bitterness runs through most blaxploitation films and is central to "Super Fly," not just the best of the genre but nearly the only one of the bunch that can still be watched simply as a very good movie, of whatever label.
Yes, it has all the typical blaxploitation touches: jive-turkey dialogue, gross negro caricature, sugarplum women, evil honky cats, shaky stunt coordination, choppy editing, uneven acting, and occasional slippage in the sound synching. But Gordon Parks Jr., like some of the directors working in B-movies of old, made a film that transcended its technical shortcomings, themselves proof of his having had no budget to reshoot and refine. For all its rough edges, the movie is tense, sad, and very well paced. And Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack is even better.
Like much blaxploitation-affiliated music, the work of Mayfield and others amounted to a beautiful, damning requiem for urban black America, whose confines were coming to resemble decades-old scenes from war-torn Europe, with crumbling, blown-out buildings; violent underground economies taking root; and vulnerable people making deals with devils to get by. But however frank the music was, however much it seemed to ac-cent-tchu-ate the negative, it certainly wasn't glib or nihilistic. Much of it expressed outrage over the collapse of families and communities, such outrage indicating that the social fabric had until recently held, and ought still be holding, which in its way is a very affirmative sentiment.
But in focusing too much on the aesthetics of despair, there's the danger, in the words of the late essayist and novelist Albert Murray, of seeming to "degrade U.S. Negro life to the level of the subhuman in the very process of pleading the Negro's humanity." At worst you risk seeming to be out for a slummy contact high--perhaps especially if you're a white outsider.
At the time, however, whites appeared to be out for anything but, preferring as little contact as possible. But while white mountain men were snuggling with animals in popular movies, and the Eagles' "Desperado" wouldn't let anybody love him, and the guy who at least seems to enjoy occasional quiet time with women in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" was setting out to fulfill his destiny as a white wanderer--while all that was going on, Billy Paul had a thing going on with Mrs. Jones, Marvin Gaye was getting it on, and the seductive Al Green was tired of being alone, though one suspects he rarely was. Yes, that thing with Mrs. Jones probably didn't end well. And Marvin Gaye's was in many ways a cheerless insatiability. And Al Green only wishes he were alone the night his girlfriend poured scalding grits on him before killing herself in his house. Still, it was an electric ladyland compared with all the buckskin and manly solitude so many whites seemed drawn to at the time.
Which brings us back to those insulting women and their standoffish man on the streets of New York decades ago and how perversely sophisticated they seemed to a country-come-to-town kid. "In the ghettos the brothers grew up with their own outlook, their own status system," Tom Wolfe writes in his 1971 classic "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," which first appeared--appropriately enough--in Cosmopolitan magazine.
Near the top of the heap was the pimp style. In all the commission reports and studies and syllabuses you won't see anything about the pimp style. And yet there it was. In areas like Hunters Point boys didn't grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job working for some company or for the city, because there weren't enough people who had such jobs. It seemed like nobody was going to make it by working, so the king was the man who made out best by not working, by not sitting all day under the Man's bitch box. And on the street the king was the pimp. Sixty years ago Thorstein Veblen wrote that at the very bottom of the class system, down below the 'working class' and the 'honest poor,' there was a 'spurious aristocracy,' a leisure class of bottom dogs devoted to luxury and aristocratic poses. And there you have him, the pimp.
Such ghetto toughs who brought an air of blue-bloodedness to raw social disadvantage haunted the literary and popular imagination of the day--including my own that night in New York City. Saul Bellow's Riverside-bus pickpocket in 1970's Mr. Sammlers Planet, for instance, embodies every louche trait whites long associated with black males: Predatory. Check. Dandified. Check. Smoove. Check. Cocky. Check, in more ways than one. Bellow, in keeping with the aristocratic theme, infamously described the character as "this African prince or great black beast" who exhibited "mystifying certitude. Lordliness."
When we first meet the Harlem kingpin in Wally Ferris's 1970 novel Across 110th--from which the blaxploitation film "Across 110th Street" was adapted--we find him thus: "Seated in a high-back leather chair as though on a throne, he dominated the room with all the elegance of a potentate surrounded by his retinue.... On a knotty-pine wall above a mahogany bar, his portrait looked down benignly, like an ash-black African king." And in Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker, from 1961, the title character negotiates over stolen junk with East Harlem's desperate poor, among them "the gaudy little Tangee in a wide-shouldered, checked suit" who "walked out with his retinue like one of those strange little chieftains who are so impressive because they do not see anything ridiculous in their air of power."
The implication, of course, is that there is something both ridiculous and unnervingly powerful about these fops. Or ridiculous and unnervingly impotent, if you turn things around and take the perspective of the Last Poets, who in 1970 positively mocked the devil-take-the-hindmost black player in "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution." Though it might have seemed a frightening goad to action to some, the bitter, hilarious resignation in the song's delivery suggests that the prevailing culture never really had anything to fear. Along those lines, I should admit that that night in New York decades ago, my family was with an FBI agent uncle of mine who, as always, was wearing a concealed weapon, a pistol in an ankle holster. So however vulnerable we seemed, it's arguable we still had the upper hand. Even as a rattled pubescent from the sticks I was the Man on the streets of Manhattan. We all have our assigned roles to play, however awkward or reluctant we are in playing them.
So the whole idea of black power was confusing to everyone, but that these particular people went in for wild, borderline ridiculous threads was commonly acknowledged. Wolfe again: "The pimp is the dude who wears the $150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora and the thin nylon socks with the vertical stripes and drives the customized sunroof Eldorado with the Jaguar radiator cap."
Even Albert Murray, while avoiding Wolfe's smirking tone, couldn't help ending with a hint of the ridiculous when celebrating Harlem's fashion enthusiasms in this passage from 1970's The Omni-Americans:
Harlem Negroes do not act like the culturally deprived people of the statistical surveys but like cosmopolites. Many may be indigent but few are square. They walk and even stand like people who are elegance-oriented. They talk like people who are eloquence-oriented. They dress like people who like high fashion and like to be surrounded by fine architecture. The average good barber shop and tailor shop in Harlem is geared to a level of sartorial sophistication that is required only from the best elsewhere.... Not even the worst dressers in Harlem are indifferent to high fashion. They are overcommitted to it!
So these self-styled and often untutored aesthetes, many of them of southern sharecropper stock and therefore new to city life, or born of parents who were new to city life, created a vogue all their own, nearly Victorian in its ornateness, a riot of styles that seemed a witting or unwitting parody of urban sophistication and cosmopolitan good taste. Even the black middle class went in for ostentation, as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier pointed out decades ago. Small in number, lower-middle-class in the main, their access to capital, union membership, and higher education limited, their ranks typically unwelcome in the more influential neighborhoods, fraternal lodges, professional associations, and churches--which often doubled as informal professional networks--members of the black bourgeoisie consequently spent a disproportionate amount of their earnings on the types of cars and clothes that would suggest a more commanding socioeconomic presence. Denied the subtler underpinnings of social standing, they hoped to consume their way to a different--if unfortunately counterfeit--status.
Is this more worthy of ridicule than the urban-cowboy phenomenon? Or the fact that while whites were plowing out of the city and into the suburbs, many were dreaming of upcountry ruggedness and often dressing the part? Robert Redford's time on location during the filming of "Jeremiah Johnson" even led eventually to his Sundance line of frontier-chic clothes, housewares, and accessories, plus associated movie theaters/ galleries/cafes, with stores and theaters found in such frontier locations as Marin County and Westchester, New York. Which makes perfect sense, if only because more than 80 percent of Americans now live in densely developed metro areas. Yet to watch any NFL broadcast these days, with its preponderance of beer, pickup-truck, and erectile-dysfunction ads, you'd think we were a nation of performance-enhanced field hands riding the range in muddy trucks after having a cold one out by the fence line, and--what's more--that we're actually desperate to be seen, and to see ourselves, as such. (The prime example of this being the Dodge Ram/Paul Harvey "So God Made a Farmer" ad from the 2013 Super Bowl broadcast.)
I grew up partly in Iowa, and even still I hardly know any farmers. One family friend did doctoral-level seed and soil research, and one family member had a manufacturing job at John Deere. But about the only farmers I've ever known--a couple of cow-punching brothers from eastern Montana--now work city jobs in public relations and hospital administration. Decades after blacks left sharecropping to cultivate their fanciful urban aesthetic, whites were sitting in man caves watching Dodge's Paul Harvey ad on TVs bigger than any patch of land they've ever worked and dreaming of being something out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A spurious proletariat.
Of course, black or white we're increasingly a nation of suburban fantasists these days. Whites' postwar relocation to the suburbs is well known. Perhaps less well known is that the Great Migration began to reverse itself around 1970, with many blacks moving back South, often to burgeoning suburbs in Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina. More recent census data show that blacks have continued to leave the city for the suburbs, for all the same reasons anyone does, whether to escape urban ills like crime and congestion, to buy a bigger house in a better school district, or because American cities, so far now from being on the verge of dropping dead, have in many cases become too precious and exclusive for most people to afford.
So while in one suburb's man caves they may have been watching the Super Bowl on their big-screen TVs and imagining they could relate to Paul Harvey's ode to earthy virtues, in another suburb's man caves they may also have been watching that year's Super Bowl on their big-screen TVs and imagining they were down with the urban chic and Busby Berkeley-esque sophistication of Beyonce's halftime show. Depressing as it may be to some, it's heartening how blandly common we've become. Another crossover success story.
Jon Zobenicas writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Book Review.
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|Publication:||The American Conservative|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2015|
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