Wednesday, July 29, 2009

To Abate or Not to Abate...

...that is the question.

Laurence Olivier as the eponymous hero in my favorite film version of Hamlet (dir. by Olivier in 1948).

For me, there is no question about this proposed residential tax abatement ordinance. As far as I can tell, it’s not necessary. The dozens of citizens who have weighed in on it are against it and, as other bloggers have noted, the administration has offered no reason to grant it, except that the developer wants it. My email was burning up with angry comments about this residential abatement business until the “Corruption Thursday” political scandal broke. Since no Union County politicians have been indicted as yet, the email discussion has turned back to the abatement ordinance proposed by Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Several of my contacts feel that this administration is acting far too quickly, even “stupidly” (to borrow a word from our president) to appease this developer in the absence of any REAL data or facts about whether this abatement is necessary or desirable. There is evidence, though, as other local bloggers have noted, that the housing market is slowly improving nationwide. Even in New Jersey, home sales are turning around a bit. There are already plenty of tax incentives in place from the federal government—a good real estate attorney and/or accountant would make sure that all buyers are aware of them.

Given that the condos have only been on the market for a short time, it simply doesn’t make sense to offer a tax abatement as the first incentive to a prospective homeowner. The incentive that works BEST in virtually any selling situation is to lower the price of the units. That’s pretty attractive. Next, offer to assist with closing costs—that is something that many first-time homebuyers need help with. Since the developer of "The Monarch at Plainfield" received the land from the city of Plainfield for a single dollar, he stands to make a great deal of money off the sale of the units—several million dollars, as a matter of fact. What is his profit margin? I would venture to say that it is probably pretty high, although it’s unlikely that he would share that information with me. This developer also has a project in Rahway. What’s to stop him from using a Plainfield abatement ordinance to use in negotiating with Rahway for one there? I am of the notion that developers, as capitalists, are in business to make as much money as they can—and many will do whatever they can (including creating a sense of hysteria over units possibly becoming yet more rentals--something many Plainfielders feel concern about) to get what they want.

As far as I can see, the sky is not falling. This developer knows the risks of the real estate market (even in boom times), yet he went ahead with the project because he got the land for $1, and he stands to make several million dollars in profit without an abatement. Now, if the market rises, what’s to stop the developer from raising the price of the condos as the housing market improves? Is the proposed abatement only for units that stay below a certain ceiling? I do not think that abatements are “the devil”—tax abatements for commercial properties may be needed to help with commercial development, but residential tax abatements to a developer who got the land for free are unfair to the rest of us.

All best, Rebecca

Friday, July 24, 2009

Black Like Me (Part 2 of 2)

Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock. --James Baldwin

Black Like Me is a well-intentioned, well-meaning book (and film) about a white Southern journalist who goes “undercover” as a black man in an attempt to discover for himself the true conditions of black life in the segregated south in 1959. John Howard Griffin changes his phenotype to become “black”—but it is all surface.

If you visit his page on Wikipedia or decide to read the book for yourself (as well as Griffin's other "passing" narratives), you can read more for yourself about the details of his transformation—in shorthand, he did it with drugs, tanning lamps, and skin cream. The photograph at right is of Griffin with Black Star Photo Agency photographer Don Rutledge during his transformation.

Griffin maintains a detailed awareness of how “clean” everything is in his Negro life travels. He describes with amazement (at times almost insultingly, in my opinion!) the cleanliness of the rooms he rents, the cleanliness of the bathroom in the rooming house, and the clean restaurants. One might think that he is phobic about it. He also seems hyper-focused on the cleanliness of the black body.

I haven’t done a thorough subtextual reading as yet, but an early scene in the book (not in the film, though) has him in a bathroom with two other black men: “One man was in the shower. Another, a large, black-skinned man, sat naked on the floor awaiting his turn at the shower. He leaned back against the wall with his legs stretched out in front of him.”

Griffin engages in conversation with these black men, alluding casually to the fact that they are naked—he remains fully clothed, which makes for a strange power relation—there is a rejection of the vulnerability (and equality) that nakedness offers. The scene reads pretty bizarrely—intimate and oddly titillating in its extreme corporeality: “In the shower’s obscurity, all I could see was a black shadow and gleaming white teeth. I stepped over the other’s outstretched legs and washed quickly, using the soap the man in the shower thrust into my hands. When I had finished I thanked him.”

The suggestiveness of this scene continues, as the naked man on the floor offers Griffin his towel, and then the two men share a post (non) coital cigarette while still in the bathroom. He begins to feel the injustice thrust upon him because of the color of his skin, but Griffin ultimately remains a voyeur, sharing the details of his experience with his readership. That readership is important to Griffin’s project.

Although he is writing for Sepia Magazine, his assumed readership is white—he wants whites, especially Southerners, to see how it feels to be black and to have to put up with the indignities of inequality. He remains an outsider, though, and I think that part of the key to his problem is that he is unable to understand the nature of black joy. For instance, when he is in his room, he hears talk, laughter, and “juke-box jazz.” This depresses him—why would hearing laughter and music make him sad? His view of black life denies any possibility that there could be joy in blackness. He cannot view it in any way as separate from white oppressiveness. He sees himself (and thus other blacks) only as “victim.” Black joy is fleeting and pathetic.

The other aspect of this expose is how deeply Naturalism has influenced Griffin’s views. In Griffin's view, blacks, as oppressed people, are sensual, sexual beings—truly la bête humaine, in the Naturalist tradition of Emile Zola (or Stephen Crane, or Richard Wright). He ascribes a heightened pathology among poor blacks to high rates of poverty and a legacy of discrimination, rather than to innate differences between them (us?) and whites: “Here sensuality was escape.” Griffin's blacks are “depraved on account of they’re deprived,” so to speak (cf "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story). However, he also writes of the pornographic fascination that many of the white men he met had about blacks, and of his own fruitless attempts to refute racist stereotypes. He is traumatized by his experiences--in Mississippi, he is so troubled by the trope of a black man looking at a white woman that his thoughts about his own wife (while seeing himself as a black man) reflect his own fear of miscegenation.

The text is so rooted in the sociology of the 1950s and 60s that it’s almost nostalgic. Another aspect of the text is how heavily Griffin’s Catholicism plays in his writing. He invokes the saints often, also finding respite in reading classic texts by Catholic theologians, and writes euphemistically on interracial prostitution—references to “pay [ing] for various types of sensuality with various ages of Negro girls,” “perversion dates,” and the like. He proudly notes the Church’s more or less progressive (for the era) stance on racial discrimination, and finds refuge and peace in his faith.

Now, the film version of Black Like Me was also well-meaning and well-intentioned—made by individuals committed to racial equality and justice, with good Lefty, radical credentials. However well-meaning, though, the awkwardness and complete unreality of the project remains inescapable. The dialogue is stilted, and the scenes where John is confronted and threatened by white racists are incredibly contrived with some unintentional humor. The portraits of the whites sit at opposite extremes—rednecks with broad accents versus kindly, progressive (for the era) whites.

In one flashback, we see John being chased down by actors whose “redneck” accents and behavior are so clichéd that the scene loses its power. He prays to St. Jude—is this his way of saying that racial equality is a "lost cause?" When the flashback ends, he is staring at his reflection in a mirror—he hears the racist voices yell out “Nigger!” and breaks the mirror in fury and self-recognition. His skin dye (part of the coloring process) spills onto the photograph of his white wife and son and he laughs hysterically at the irony.

When John just can’t take “the blackness” anymore, he seeks refuge at the home of the white liberal publisher of his dispatches, who is the only one he feels can truly understand his predicament as a white-black-white man (gets confusing, doesn’t it?). He apparently has not made the inroads into understanding “the black experience” that he thought he would.

As I said earlier, it’s the absence of joy that I believe he is missing. He does not grasp the capacity for joy in the midst of the circumstances of the Negroes with whom he comes in contact. He wants to go back to the white world—he weeps about being black: “I don’t know how they [blacks] have stood it all their lives!” to which his editor replies, “Well, that’s simple, they have no choice.” John continues with his experiment--since I want you to read the book, I have deliberately left out the integrationists, Communists (and their sympathizers), Uncle Toms, education, housing, and all the other topics Griffin discusses. The aftermath--the media blitz, the death threats--read the book for yourself! I don’t want to say too much more, as I think the book, which is still in print, is well worth reading. It is available at the great and wonderful Plainfield Public Library.

All best, Rebecca

P.S. You must read about how Griffin turns himself back into a “white” man and “passes” back into white society—it is a completely unnerving experience.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Black Like Me (Part 1 of 2)

This week, I am taking a look at journalist John Howard Griffin's 1960 best-selling expose Black Like Me, which was also made into a (somewhat lurid) film in 1964 starring James Whitmore, who died just this past February. He was an ardent advocate for equal rights and also appeared in one of my favorite films, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle.

The title Black Like Me comes from a line in Langston Hughes's 1932 poem, "Dream Variations":

Rest at pale evening...
A tall slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

I will post a few observations on the book and the film later this week. The entire movie is posted in roughly 10-minute segments on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. Below is the first.

All best, Rebecca

Confession #1: The Real Truth About Bathrobe Blogging

Well, I found out that wearing a bathrobe doesn't make the blog writing easier. I actually have to write!

So, I got up this morning (wearing the green plaid bathrobe that I have worn since 1995--a birthday gift), sat in front of my laptop, turned it on, and waited for the blogging to begin. It didn't--for a while. Was I waiting for "inspiration" to come and knock me in the head so that I could begin writing? That's just not how it's done--at least, not if you really want to write. I did do the first thing that I was supposed to do: as Julia Cameron and others have famously said, I did "show up at the page." And there I sat, immobilized.

Blogging is quite different from the writing I usually do--it's got an immediacy and power that is truly awesome. So, fear of writing without doing a lot of editing (as I am used to doing in my academic life) is one of the reasons I just sat in front of the laptop for a while without beginning to pound the keys.

The very notion that my thoughts would be available for the world to see (forgive my hubris!)once I hit "publish post" was paralyzing. How, though, could I get around it? What is the point of blogging if not to share one's thoughts with a wider audience? I'm not writing a news blog, as there already are many bloggers in our town who do that, and I'm not necessarily focused on community life, although I will touch on subjects that are close to my heart (like our fabulous public library).

What am I seeking to accomplish? What kinds of comments (if any) will I engender with this blog? What is its ultimate purpose? That is still to be determined, but I will probably focus more on American culture, very broadly defined.

My blog ruminations will be about what interests me: education, the arts, (high, low, and pop) culture, politics, and every day life in the 21st century. I will probably write about my students on occasion, and also about my peers and my professors. I also lead a writing workshop, so some of my posts will be directed to those who are a part of the workshop.

Those who know me know that I teach literature and composition and that I am an active scholar and writer. Although I am a 19th Century Americanist whose work centers on the antebellum era, I also occasionally direct my focus toward 20th American literature.

Each week, I will direct readers' interest to writers (and filmmakers, poets, journalists, visual artists, musicians, photographers, and cultural critics) whose works I think are particularly deserving of our attention, along with a bit of critical commentary of my own.

All best, Rebecca