In and around the 10021 ZIP code, Martin Luther King Jr. Day gets about as much attention as Kwanzaa, but, hey, how much more does it get in Bed-Stuy? In the not-too-distant future the holiday will, we may assume, get its name changed to Diversity Day, and Dr. King will share billing with the forgotten Benito Juarez and with Simon Bolivar, who, at least, rates a statue on Central Park South, which ain’t too shabby. But then he liberated white people. It remains an open question as to François Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture making the list, inasmuch as his name is associated with slave rebellions and other such sanguinary, insubordinate behavior.
New York City has had its own servile uprisings, real or just suspected. The bloodiest was “the Great Negro Plot of 1741,” which is said to have had its roots in the fervid revival conducted the previous year by George Whitefield, the famous Baptist preacher from England who called for the humane treatment of slaves and their instruction in the Christian religion. These counsels did not sit well with New York’s slave masters, who had no desire to find their property sharing an Episcopalian or Dutch Reform heaven with them.
One of the city’s worthies of that period, Cadwallader Colden, shipped a slave woman of his off to a buyer in Barbados, remarking, “I could have sold her here to good advantage, but I have several other of her children which I value and I know if she should stay in this country she would spoil them.” If that doesn’t explicate the state of racial relations in 18th-century Manhattan, then this ad, written as though composed by a recent public high school graduate, in the New York Weekly Journal for April 15, 1734, may: “To be Sold, a Young Negro Woman, about 20 Year old, she dos all sorts of House work; she can Brew, Bake, boyle soaft Soap, Wash, Iron & Starch; and is a good darey Woman she can Card and Spin at the great Wheel, Cotten, Lennen and Wollen, she has another good Property she neither drinks Rum nor smoaks Tobacco, and she is a strong hale healthy Wench, she can Cook pretty well for Rost and Boyld; she can speak no other language but English; she had the small Pox in Barbados when a Child. Enquire of the Printer here of and know the Purchase. N. B. She is well clothed.”
I have met more than one black person whose mothers toiled in those humongous 10021 co-op apartments who told them that the treatment accorded domestic staff in our lifetimes was not much better than that meted out to “a Young Negro Woman.” Although the work is now often quite well paid, just like waiting on tables in the good restaurants is, there is a reason you seldom see African-Americans doing it, and the reason is the collective memory of the past.
In the 1740’s, more than 20 percent of the city’s population was African-American, the majority of whom were slaves. Over on the other side of the East River, the percentage of slaves in towns like Flatbush, New Utrecht and Bushwick was higher still. The economy of New York, even without counting the profits derived from its slave market and the coming and going of slave ships, was heavily dependent on slave labor, much of which was highly skilled.
That New York State did nothing by way of outlawing slavery when the New England states and Pennsylvania were moving quickly toward abolition was owing to the value of slave labor and worry lest the costs of maintaining old slaves, past their productive years, be shifted from their previous owners to the welfare rolls.
With so many slaves in and around the city, the ground had been laid for the suspicion that a servile conspiracy was behind a series of fires that broke out in 1741. Evidence was gathered, mostly, it would seem, by means of torture, and punishment was meted out. A slave named Quack, the property of John Roosevelt, a butcher, was burnt to death at the stake, as were 16 other slaves. In addition four whites (it was thought blacks weren’t smart enough to have a conspiracy of their own) and 17 blacks were hanged. Nearly a hundred more slaves were sent off to labor in the tropics.
Two and a half centuries later, Abner Louima and more than a few other present-day African-Americans may feel a kinship with Quack and other early black New Yorkers which transcends the abstract idea of coming from the same gene pool and goes to the shared experience of being beaten, shot and tortured.
In Quack’s day and even before, free blacks were working their way into the skilled trades, inching their way toward a place in the mercantile world of colonial New York. In our own time, perhaps half of the African Americans in the metropolitan area are middle-class people with more or less the same tastes, standards and ways of living as the white middle class or the Hispanic middle class or the whoever middle class.
Middle-class blacks are still dogged, however, by profiling, as the cops call it. Profiling is when people of color in certain places, dressed certain ways and doing certain things which white people do without let, hindrance or attention, are in jeopardy of being questioned, turned away, embarrassed and even detained and arrested. Profiling goes on in the personnel office, at the mortgage application office, at the doctor’s, at the restaurant, behind the wheel of an expensive car or, just possibly, on the sidewalks of ritzy neighborhoods like 10021.
The black people know it and the white people know it, but the blacks can’t do much about it and the white people aren’t doing enough. Whites talk about how angry and unfriendly they find blacks, unaware of their own behavior and their resentments. How many times have you been with a white person in a public place who hesitates, makes his eyes dart around and then, lowering his voice, makes a remark about the shvartzers ?
Some white people have the idea that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a payoff to a racial pressure group. It’s cheaper to give ‘em a paid day off than listen to the pissing and moaning and the demanding. Ask and you’ll be told the holiday is to make them feel good, and it’s Martin Luther King, thank God, not Louis Farrakhan. Give it to them. Cheap at twice the price if it shuts them up.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day doubtless is a leaf in the calendar that occasions pride in some African-Americans, but it’s white people who can stand some time to get our heads on straight. Enough of self-congratulations. Enough of jumping on every chance to extol Nelson Mandela. African Africans aren’t African-Americans and, of late, what we’ve been doing about the latter is knocking out quotas, affirmative action and racial preferences, all of which I, personally, oppose. But then we are left to answer the question of what we do in place of such practices.
Nothing? What do we do about profiling? What do we do about the ghettos of the mind? About the mental inner cities we consign the less-than-white people to? What do we do about the slights, the behind-the-back disdain, the white-only and white-mostly cliques, the favoritisms and discriminations nobody’s going to pin on us?
Do we assume race is no longer a sharp metal fragment in American flesh? That’s over now, don’t you know? Do you have any idea what they pay basketball players? They’re natural-born athletes and they’ve taken over one sport after another. Would you mind asking them to leave us Wall Street? Golf is going. What’s left for the white people? Hockey? Hockey players may be blue-eyed blondes, but they’ve got no teeth. You can’t tell me there’s room for complaint in a country that’s produced Michael Jordan.
Since the days the “healthy Wench” lived here, New York has been a laggard. During the Civil War, the city was a stinkpot of copperhead sympathy. David Dinkins notwithstanding, this city has a 350-year record of race relations that is past apologizing for. Anyhow, what’s done is done, but we might consider using one of these Martin Luther King days to think about how to do better.