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  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

The Terrible Beauty of the Slum

From Brick 99

Brick 99 Cover

You can find her in the group of beautiful thugs and too-fast girls congregating on the corner and humming the latest rag, or lingering in front of Wanamaker’s and gazing lustfully at a pair of fine shoes displayed like jewels behind the plate-glass window. Watch her in the alley passing a pitcher of beer back and forth with her friends, brash and lovely in a cut-rate dress and silk ribbons; look in awe as she hangs halfway out of a tenement window, taking in the drama of the block and defying gravity’s downward pull. Step onto any of the paths that cross the sprawling city and you’ll encounter her as she roams. Outsiders call the streets and alleys that comprise her world the slum. For her, it is just the place where she stays. You’d never happen onto her block unless you lived there too, or had lost your way, or were out on an evening lark seeking the pleasures yielded by the other half. The voyeurs on their slumming expeditions feed on the lifeblood of the ghetto, long for it and loathe it. The social scientists and the reformers are no better with their cameras and their surveys, staring intently at all the strange specimens.

Her ward of the city is a labyrinth of foul alleys and gloomy courts. It is Africa town, the Negro quarter, the native zone. The Italians and Jews, engulfed by proximity, disappear behind the label. Hers is a world concealed behind the facade of the ordered metropolis. The not-yet-dilapidated buildings and decent homes that face the street hide the alley tenement where she lives. Entering the narrow passageway into the alley, one crosses the threshold into a raucous, disorderly world, a place defined by tumult, vulgar collectivism, and anarchy. It is a human sewer populated by the worst elements. It is a realm of excess and fabulousness. It is a wretched environment. It is the plantation extended into the city. It is a social laboratory. The ghetto is a space of encounter. The sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure. The reformers and the sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged, failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls.

The ward, the Bottom, the ghetto—is an urban commons where the poor assemble, improvise the forms of life, experiment with freedom, and refuse the menial existence scripted for them. It is a zone of extreme deprivation and scandalous waste. In the rows of tenements, the decent reside peacefully with the dissolute and the immoral. The Negro quarter is a place bereft of beauty and extravagant in its display of it. Moving in and moving on establish the rhythms of everyday life. Each wave of newcomers changes the place—how the slum looks and sounds and smells. No one ever settles here, only stays, waits for better, and passes through; at least that is the hope. It is not yet the dark ghetto, but soon only the black folks will remain.

In the slum, everything is in short supply except sensation. The experience is too much. The terrible beauty is more than one could ever hope to assimilate, order, and explain. The reformers snap their pictures of the buildings, the kitchenettes, the clotheslines, and the outhouses. She escapes notice as she watches them from the third-floor window of the alley house where she stays, laughing at their stupidity. They take a picture of Lombard Street when hardly no one is there. She wonders what fascinates them about clotheslines and outhouses. They always take pictures of the same stuff. Are the undergarments of the rich so much better? Is cotton so different than silk and not as pretty draped like a banner across the streets?

The outsiders and the uplifters fail to capture it, to get it right. All they see is a typical Negro alley, blind to the relay of looks and the pangs of desire that unsettle their captions and hint at the possibility of a life bigger than poverty, at the tumult and upheaval that can’t be arrested by the camera. They fail to discern the beauty and see only the disorder, missing all the ways black folks create life and make bare need into an arena of elaboration. A half-dressed woman, wearing a housecoat over a silk nightgown, leans against the doorway, hidden by the shadows of the foyer, as she gossips with her girlfriend standing at the threshold. Intimate life unfolds in the streets.

The journalists from the Harper’s Weekly gush in print: “Above the Jews, in the same [tenement] houses, amid scenes of indescribable squalor and tawdry finery, dwell the Negroes, leading their light-hearted lives of pleasure, confusion, music, noise and fierce fights that make them a terror to white neighbors and landlords alike.” Aroused at the sight of elegantly clad domestics, janitors, and stevedores; elevator boys in rakish hats preening on the corner; and aesthetical Negroes content to waste money on extravagance, ornament, and shine, the sociologist urges them to learn the value of a dollar from their Jewish and Italian neighbours. Negroes must abandon the lax moral habits, sensual indulgence, and wasteful excess that are the custom of slavery. The present past of involuntary servitude unfolds in the street, and the home, which was “broken completely by the slave ship and the promiscuous herding of the . . . plantation,” is now broken again, broken open in its embrace of strangers.


The senses are solicited and overwhelmed. Look over here. Let your eyes take it all in: the handsome thugs lining the courtyard like sentinels; the immoderate display of three lovely flowerpots arranged on the sill of a tenement window; the bedsheets, monogrammed handkerchiefs, embroidered silk hose, and whore’s undergarments suspended on a line across the alley, broadcasting clandestine arrangements, wayward lives, carnal matters. Women, with packages tied in paper and string, flit by like shadows. The harsh light at their backs transforms them into silhouettes; abstracted dark forms take the place of who they really are.

The rag seller’s daughters idle on the steps that descend to their cellar flat. The eldest is resplendent, sitting amid the debris in her Sunday hat and soiled frock. The youngest remains mystery and blur. The sun pours down the stairwell, pressing against the girls and illuminating the entrance to the small dank room, which is filled with the father’s wares: rags, papers, cast-offs, piecework, and discarded objects salvaged for future use. He turns his back to the camera and eludes capture.

What you can hear if you listen: The guttural tones of Yiddish making English into a foreign tongue. The round, open-mouthed sounds of North Carolina and Virginia bleeding into the hard-edged language of the city and transformed by the rhythm and cadence of northern streets. The eruption of laughter, the volley of curses, the shouts that make walls vibrate and jar the floor. Yes, oooh, baby that’s so good!—the sweet music of an extended moan that hushes the ones listening, eavesdroppers wanting more, despite knowing they shouldn’t. The rush of impressions: the musky scent of tightly pressed bodies dancing in a basement saloon; the inadvertent brush of a stranger’s hand against yours as she moves across the courtyard; a glimpse of young lovers huddled in the deep shadows of a tenement hallway; the violent embrace of two men brawling; the acrid odour of bacon and hoecake frying on an open fire; the honeysuckle of a domestic’s toilet water; the maple smoke rising from an old man’s corncob pipe. A whole world is jammed into one short block crowded with black folks shut out from almost every opportunity the city affords but still intoxicated with freedom. The air is alive with the possibilities of assembling, gathering, congregating. At any moment, the promise of insurrection, the miracle of upheaval; small groups, people by theyselves, and strangers threaten to become an ensemble, to incite treason en masse.

There are no visible signs on shop doors barring her entrance, just the brutal rebuff of We don’t serve niggers. If she feels brave, she will shout an insult or curse as she retreats from the shop under the hateful gaze of clerk and customers. She can sit anywhere she wants on streetcars and in theatres, even if people inch away as if she were contagious when she chooses the seat next to them, and she can go to the vaudeville show or the nickelodeon on the same day as white folks, although it is more fun and she breathes easier when it is just coloured and she knows she will not be insulted. Despite the liberties of the city, there is no better life here than in Virginia, no brighter future to grow into, no opportunities for coloured girls besides the broom and the mop, or spread eagle in really hard times. Everything essential—where she goes to school, the kind of job she can get, where she can live—is dictated by the colour line, which places her on the bottom and everybody else on top. Being young, she tries to dream another life into existence, one in which her horizon isn’t limited to the maid’s uniform and a white woman’s dirty house. In this other life, she would not be required to take all the shit that no one else would accept and pretend to be grateful.

In this city of brotherly love, she has been confined to a squalid zone that no one else but the Jews would suffer. It isn’t the cradle of liberty or the free territory or even a temporary refuge, but a place where an Irish mob nearly beat her uncle to death for some other Negro’s alleged crime; where the police dragged her to jail for being riotous and disorderly when she told them go to hell after they had grabbed her from the steps of her building and told her to move on. At Second and Bainbridge, she heard a white man shout, “Lynch him! Lynch him!” after a coloured man accused of stealing a loaf of bread from the corner grocer ran past.

When she arrives in the Tenderloin, the riot erupts. At Forty-First Street and Eighth Avenue, the policeman says, “Black bitch, come out now!” then drags a woman from the hallway, pummels her with his club, and arrests her for being riotous and disorderly.

When Paul Laurence Dunbar caught sight of her on Seventh Avenue, he feared for American civilization. Looking at the girl amid the crowd of idle, shiftless Negroes who thronged the streets, he wondered, “What is to be done with them, what is to be done for them, if they are to be prevented from inoculating our civilization with the poison of their lives?” They are not anarchists, and yet in these seemingly careless, guffawing crowds resides a terrible menace to our institutions. Though she had not read God and the State or What is Property? or The Conquest of Bread, the dangers she and others like her posed was as great as those damned Jews Goldman and Berkman. Everything in her environment tended to the blotting of the moral sense, every act engendered crime and encouraged open rebellion. Dunbar lamented: If only they could be prevented from flocking to the city, “if the metropolis could vomit them back again,” the whole matter would adjust. Better for them and for us the restrictions of the South than a “seeming liberty which blossoms noxiously into license.” Better the fields and the shotgun houses and the dusty towns and the interminable cycle of credit and debt, better this than black anarchy.

Most days, the assault of the city eclipses its promise: when the water in the building has stopped running, when even in her best dress she cannot help but wonder if she smells like the toilet or if it is obvious that her bloomers are tattered, when she is so hungry that the aroma of bean soup wafting from the settlement kitchen makes her mouth water, she takes to the streets, as if in search of the real city and not this poor imitation. The old black ladies perched in their windows shout, “Girl, where you headed?” Each new deprivation raises doubts about when freedom is going to come, if the question pounding inside her head—Can I live?—is one to which she could ever give a certain answer, or only repeat in anticipation of something better than this, bear the pain of it and the hope of it, the beauty and the promise.

Quotations in this essay come from Edwin Emerson’s January 9, 1897, article in Harper’s Weekly, “The New Ghetto”; W. E. B. Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro; “The Philadelphia Riot of 1918” by Vincent Franklin in the Philadelphia Journal; and Story of the Riot, published by the Citizens’ Protective League in 1900. Photographs come from the Philadelphia Housing Association and the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley collection in Temple University Libraries’ Urban Archives. Both alley photographs were taken by Helen Jenks. The photographer of the rag seller and his daughters in unknown.

Saidiya Hartman is the author of Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Her new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, is forthcoming from Norton.

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