Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.
The turbulence of the 1960s was as much a response to the domestic situation in the urban United States as it was to Vietnam. One of the effects of the Great Migration was to turn northern cities into unofficially segregated spaces — segregated in fact, if not by law — with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.
The great African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), above, writes about what it was like to hone her poetic voice in a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. “Kitchenettes” were apartments chopped up out of older houses. They usually had a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the hall shared by multiple families.
A family’s striving to leave a kitchenette apartment is also the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. You can read the play here, and watch it here.
With overcrowding came an increase in the poor conditions. And because Federal Housing Authority policies actually encouraged discriminatory lending policies, very few African American families were able to secure the loans necessary to move out of the neighborhood, even if they were prepared for the uphill battle against racism they might receive in another area . . .
This is what the Younger family in [Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play] A Raisin in the Sun is fighting so hard to get out of – overcrowded spaces both inside and outside of their apartment walls, which are crumbling around them. What happens when a family – or a whole city full of families – is pushed to the brink like this, where even getting up in the morning involves a fight with those around you?
This article, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in 2014, is long but absolutely indispensable for an understanding of the racist policies that helped create black urban ghettos and restrict black homeownership, which has led to the present great disparity between white and black generational wealth.
A powerful poem that speaks to Miss Brooks’s legacy, by Parneshia Jones:
What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do
Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).
For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.
How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?
When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.
She won a Pulitzer in the dark.
She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.
They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.
We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.
Hold On, she says, two million light years away.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.
And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.
We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
Closer to home, the city of Syracuse is debating what to do about the crumbling I-81 bridge that essentially cut off its black neighborhoods from the rest of the city, creating a ghetto. As one resident notes: “Have you ever noticed how cities always have a south side?”
For a wonderful article about the photographer who captured the glory days of funk, go here.