THE CHAGALL POSITION — A blog by Boston writer, literary squatter, & saboteur Edmond Caldwell originally published at http://thechagallposition.blogspot.com
Here’s a scene from Amiri Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. He’s dropped out of Howard University and joined the Air Force (the “Error Farce,” he calls it) and they’ve stationed him in Puerto Rico. For the US it’s the mid-1950s and for Jones it’s early days in his writing vocation; he’s just feeling his way and trying to assimilate everything that seems to fall under the rubric of literary culture, which so far appears to be white, Anglo-European culture.
One afternoon I had gone to San Juan by myself. I had found some places in Old San Juan I could walk around. They had a tourist section, fairly arty . . . I was in civilian clothes and I remember I was reading The New Yorker. I’d stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section, where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I was an Americano and not a native. I had been reading one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying, quietly, softly but like it was the end of the world. I had been moved by the writer’s words, but in another, very personal way. A way that should have taught me even more than it did. Perhaps it would have saved me many more painful scenes and conflicts. But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.
The verse spoke of lawns and trees and dew and birds and some subtlety of feeling amidst the jingling rhymes that spoke of a world almost completely alien to me. Except in magazines or walking across some campus or in some house and neighborhood I hadn’t been in. What was so terrifying to me was that when I looked through the magazine, I liked the clothes, the objects, the general ambience of the place — of the life being lived by the supposed readers and creators of the New Yorker world. But that verse threw me off, it had no feeling I could really use. I might carry the magazine as a tool of my own desired upward social mobility, such as I understood it. I might like some of the jokes, and absolutely dig the soft-curving button-down collars and well-tailored suits I saw. The restaurants and theater advertisements. The rich elegance and savoir faire of all I could see and touch. But the poem, the inside, of that life chilled me, repelled me, was impenetrable. And I hated myself because of it, yet at the same time knew somehow that it was correct that I be myself, whatever that meant. And myself could not deal with the real meanings of the life spelled out by those tidy words.
Baraka nails the essential quality of the New Yorker poem in a compact formulation: a carefully put-together exercise published as high poetic art. And when it comes to literary standards nothing has changed in the half century plus since the poet shed tears over that alienating poem — New Yorker still puts a premium on carefully put-together exercises that it publishes as high poetic art. This is just as true of the magazine’s fiction, which represents the “quality” apogee of the MFA cookie-cutter “epiphany story.” Wrapped up in tidy packages of psychological realism, these stories reflect the spurious “humanism” of the liberal professional-managerial class that is really a form of fatuous, self-congratulatory narcissism and an apologetics for a racist, imperialist, and exploitative status quo. Such work is “well-crafted,” meticulous, careful, “clean,” and absolutely risk free — the literary equivalent of a gentrified neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood (Baraka even calls it, perceptively, a “place”) where people like the aspiring Black writer are not welcome, where they are the excluded Other.
In the yearning for social mobility that painfully inflects his response, the young poet of the autobiography implicitly realizes how this “high poetic art” functions as a marker of status, what Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction.”New Yorker verse and fiction are indeed high-end consumer commodities, of a piece with the tailored clothes, pricey jewelry, and haute cuisine dining spots that share its pages. It’s a cultural “address”, but — as commentators such as Sharon Zukin and David Harvey have shown — one that is eminently available to be cross-mapped onto real space, in urban neighborhoods across the US and around the globe.
One way that this type of “cultural address” manifests itself in the contemporary urban arena is the phenomenon of “cultural districts,” specially designated clusters of arts and humanities venues which then become the focus of public-private investment partnerships. There are many such districts in Massachusetts already, including two here in Boston, the Fenway Cultural District and the new Boston Literary District. According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state body that awards such designations, the ultimate goal of cultural districts is “enhancing property values and making communities more attractive” — i.e., gentrification.
In their critique of the “creative cities” model of urban development, researchers Sacha Kagan and Julia Hahn speak of the results of such cultural zoning — an exclusionary “club effect”:
In the creative city model, culture is used to increase value, be it symbolically through images or materialized. In this context, Zukin (1990) refers to “real cultural capital,” meaning spatially linked cultural capital, which becomes a reason for real investments (p. 38). As Bernt & Holm (2005) state, the cultural capital (of artists) becomes objectified and transfers onto certain places; this, in turn, makes access to it easier, as it can be consumed by anyone who enters this space. Ley (2003) examines gentrification processes and how the high level of cultural capital of artists increases the symbolic value of an area and leads to “followers” (other professionals with high levels of cultural, but also economic, capital) coming into a neighbourhood. He uses Bourdieu‟s notions of cultural and economic capital and finds that both of these concepts help to explain gentrification. [ . . . ]
Bourdieu (1999) also describes the “club effect”as a process that excludes according to economic, cultural, and also social capital. Select spaces acquire social and symbolic capital based upon “people and things which are different from the vast majority and have in common … the fact that they exclude everyone who does not present all the desired attributes …” (p. 129). This “club effect” shows that consequences like segregation and symbolic violence can result from a policy that “favors the construction of homogeneous groups on a spatial basis” (p. 129) This can be connected to the creative city concept, in which arts and culture function as enablers for a creative urban milieu, in turn enhancing the city economically and often resulting in gentrification. Artists or “creatives” play an important role here and can be seen as pioneers of gentrification, as they give their cultural capital to a certain district or space. As Bernt & Holm (2005) describe, gentrified spaces become more and more general, losing the specific characteristics that enabled their cultural distinctiveness.
The organizers of the Boston Literary District — led by Eve Bridburg and the Grub Street writing center — like to pretend, at least in public statements, that their cultural zone is innocent and inclusive. In fact in their application to the Massachusetts Cultural Council they went so far as to produce the following howler:
“Also, unique to this district, situated in a gentrified area, is that it will allow literary groups and writers in more economically marginalized areas of Boston to strut their literary stuff, if you will, by participating in district programming.”
Accomplished here is the feat of making a single sentence out of a stew of euphemism, wishful thinking, and flat-out lie. The truth is that the borders of this very large chunk of Boston real estate encompass or abut areas such as Chinatown and Downtown Crossing that are alive with ongoing struggles against gentrification. Public and affordable housing units as well as soup kitchens and homeless and domestic abuse shelters are all in the crosshairs now. In the “mixed-use” (both commercial and residential) areas south and east of Boston Common, household incomes are among the most savagely polarized in the region, with luxury condos grudgingly rubbing shoulders with tenements and SRO hotels. In their statements and actions the Boston Literary District’s sponsors have disappeared those places, and those people.
But it’s also true that parts of the district, such as Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, are already quite gentrified. Will the minority youth of Boston — because that’s who we’re talking about here — really be welcome to “strut their stuff” on that stage?
To answer this question let’s put a couple of things together. The first is a quote from the Globe article that heralded the Literary District’s advent back in the fall of 2013.
It’s been 18 months since the Massachusetts Cultural Council began designating cultural districts around the state. So far, 17 areas have been named, giving them the right to create signage, and also a boost in attracting artists, creative enterprises — and cultural tourists, who spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts.
Cultural tourists spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts. We’ll let slide for the moment the irony that nothing marks the true philistine more than putting a dollar value on culture and instead focus on something else: What kind of demographic are we really talking about here? Well, what else could it be but well-heeled and mostly white upper-middle class professionals out on the hunt for further marks of cultural “distinction”? In other words — New Yorker readers.
Now let’s add to that another little fact of Boston life that’s come to light recently. Or rather, come to light for those who don’t experience it daily: the racist “stop and frisk” policing of Black and Latino youth that is endemic to this city, as reported by the ACLU after an exhaustive study.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that these two items add up to Black and brown youth not being particularly welcome to “strut their stuff” anywhere, let alone in the Boston Literary District. In fact, as a comprehensive report by Dan Shewan in DigBoston revealed last September, the real purpose of the district is further gentrification of the region. This is where the “club effect” cited above by Kagan and Hahn comes into play: it “favors the construction of homogeneous groups on a spatial basis,” (in this case the affluent “cultural tourists” flocking to the Literary District), and it results in “segregation and symbolic violence” for those left out of the club.
Social exclusion and symbolic violence inflict real damage and pain, the pain of marginality, invisibility, and muteness — cultural apartheid. It is precisely the type of pain that Amiri Baraka’s younger self experienced while reading that New Yorker poem. The passage from Baraka’s autobiography struck me because I encountered it at the very time I was writing about the Boston Book Festival’s failure, for the fifth year in a row, to select a local African American or Latina/o author for their flagship “One City One Story” program. One of the “Executive Partners” in organizing the Boston Literary District, the BBF states that this citywide “Big Read” event is supposed to promote literacy and “create a community around a shared reading experience.” Yet what kind of community are they creating? Boston is at least 42% Black and Latina/o, but in the 5 years of One City One Story’s existence they’ve chosen 4 white authors and 1 Asian-American author. The stories themselves, moreover, are very much of the same “carefully constructed exercises” (white and uptight) that continue to be published “as high poetic art” in the New Yorker.
I wonder how many minority youth in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan were assigned the book festival’s 2014 offering, Jennifer Haigh’s “Sublimation,” in their high school English classes. No doubt they were exhorted that they were participating in civic life, and that the story’s values and outlook were somehow “universal” and relevant to their own experience. And no doubt that many of them felt the same confusion and shame and anger that LeRoi Jones felt reading that New Yorker poem in San Juan over a half century ago.
I hope none of them shed tears over it, though — the story wasn’t worth it.
Rest in power, comrade Amiri Baraka!
Originally published at thechagallposition.blogspot.com.