Unpacking Marvel’s Luke Cage: Harlem and Spectacular Historicity

What can a contemporary superhero drama set in the mecca of black America teach us about the persistence of historical memory in film and television?

By Paul Beasley

Unpacking Marvel’s Luke Cage: Harlem and Spectacular Historicity

Unpacking Marvel’s Luke Cage: Harlem and Spectacular Historicity

Introduction

When Marvel’s Luke Cage, a 2016 television adaptation of the 1972 comic book emerged on the scene, popular media considered it to be a narrative apropos for the contemporary cultural climate. In the narrative of the show centers on Cage as the bulletproof bulwark of the “black mecca” of America, Harlem. The neighborhood functiis as much a character of the show as Luke Cage, its protagonist. In the show, there exists no world outside of Harlem; pitted against a nightclub-owning, arms-dealing gangster boss, a familiar trope of the Blaxploitation age, Harlem is the battleground upon which the struggle for ownership, property, and power are fought.

Time reported that its creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, envisioned Luke Cage as doing for Harlem what The Wire accomplished for Baltimore: pull back the historical layers of the black city, examine its challenges, and create an area for both the characters of the story to work out their ideological tensions and conflicts as well as those of the viewer (Dockterman). Such an activity is already occurring in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred by the interracial and intraracial conflicts over justice for the exorbitant deaths of unarmed black men by police and the uptick in poverty, racial violence, and social unrest in America’s black cities.

The show does much more than weave a visual tapestry of salient black urban memes in the service of presenting a salve for the inevitable pain of constant exposure to death; the specificity of place given to Harlem in the show prompts us to interrogate how the history presented in the fictional narrative of place in the show corresponds to the very real ways that narratives of place have influenced the historical imagination of Harlem, even in this present moment. When Earl Lewis wrote in his 1995 article for the Journal of Urban History that “for those of us concerned with African American urban history, the need to problematize identity construction is clear and important” (357), his charge 21 years later continues to be critical to the development and analysis of the ways that black urban sites and the meanings imbued within them have been pulled through time, emerging through each epoch as a dialectic synthesis of those preceding it.

Luke Cage is a mélange of urban history perspectives, one being the prevailing “ghetto synthesis” model that attempts to historicize the black city through the effects of racism, discrimination, and disinvestment, and the other being the “agency model” which attempts to depict African Americans as conscious actors in their urban environment with agency (Goings & Mohl 283). The Harlem of today is not the Harlem of the 1920s or 1970s and so the show never fully conveys an image of a desolate, decaying ghetto but it also avoids casting it as a utopia of blackness even if the idea of a “New Harlem Renaissance” is used as a plot mover. But any studied scholar of history understands that public memory is not tied to objectivity; history is the product of interpretations that are as much wedded to notions of truth as they are to fiction and the mythological (White 83). While mediations of Harlem post-1920s reported histories through the dominant lens of gradual decline, maladaptation, and struggle, Luke Cage employs a ‘spectacular historicity’, in a Debordian sense, that relies on familiar memes of Harlem, previously mediated as well, to craft a narrative that comments on the complexity, creativity, and struggle that has made up the black city.

No understanding of the prominent northern black cities of the historical imagination, including Harlem, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston would be complete without first understanding how such a population coalesced into significant agglomerations. In an attempt to escape the racial violence and pernicious segregation of the South as well as capitalize on the industrialization of northern and northeastern cities, black Americans only one to two generations from slavery moved upward during the period of what is known as the first Great Migration lasting from 1910 to roughly 1940.

In Harlem specifically, which blacks had already inhabited since the 18th century, the period of the 1920s-1930s were the beginnings of the literary and photographic imagination of Harlem as the “black Mecca”; borrowing Elijah Anderson’s construction of the ‘cosmopolitan canopy’, Harlem was unique in that it offered the largest, most diverse mix of African Americans of varying classes, locations, and cultures. A November 15, 1917 article from The New York World reported the migration of 118,000 “Negroes to New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, New York and Illinois to accept work” (Schoener 28). A caption under a 1935 image of Eighth Avenue in Harlem placed the population figure of that time at an astounding 300,000. Harlem represented to African Americans what New York represented to the world: a thriving locale where one could “make it” and attain success on a global stage. During this time, much of the historical perspective on Harlem centered on its status as a haven for the elites, an urban locale where blacks with status could become the paragons of living for the proletariat classes that would aspire to their ranks (Goings & Mohl 285–286).

Architecturally, Harlem boasted facilities that few other black cities possessed. A 1920s photograph of black boys playing in front of the Harlem YMCA, at the time one of the largest YMCA facilities in the city. Marcus Garvey, one of the most important figures of the time, started the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League or the U.N.I.A.-A.C.L., a center for educational and economic empowerment for blacks as well as a business conglomerate of three grocery stores, two restaurants, laundromat, and a tailoring shop that employed hundreds of local Harlemites (Schoener, 88). Up until Marcus Garvey’s exile from the United States, the center was a hub of urban life in Harlem, connecting the newly arrived Southern and Caribbean migrants to an infrastructural portal necessary for integration into the new society. The idea of Harlem as a hub of black empowerment forms a central part of the plot in Luke Cage. While real-life institutions such as the Harlem YMCA and new organizations such as the Harlem Economic Development Corporation continue to exist and support black business in Harlem, the show presents a series of thinly veiled attempts to invoke the memory of a time where economic development was stronger through the character of Mariah Dillard, a shrewd yet corrupt Councilwoman whose vision is to create the Crispus Attucks Complex, a rehabilitated building-turned-community center that would provide services such as housing, recreation, and civic engagement. The Crispus Attucks Complex in the show is actually located a former correctional facility located in the Bronx. Interestingly, the real-world origin of the building juxtaposed with the imagined in the show is a much more implicit vision for Harlem; the mass incarceration complex of the United States disproportionately affects Americans and Latinos but Luke Cage offers up a site that exchanges that institution for one of enfranchisement.

Harlem also developed a thriving small business culture and it operated in the pre-Depression years as a sophisticated economy for black business. Black barbershops and beauty shops formed the largest bulk of black businesses while banks and department stores were often run by whites. Amsterdam News reported on the opening of the Dunbar Bank in September of 1928 which to the dismay of the residents had a white-only board. A year later, the bank added three blacks to its board (Schoener 75, 79). In Luke Cage, the protagonist works as sweeper in a barbershop owned by “Pops” a patriarchal figure that serves as a moral compass along Luke Cage’s journey to heroism. The portrayal of one of the oldest forms of black business in not only Harlem but many black cities nationwide evokes a sense of nostalgia but also a sense of pride. For the barbershop was not only a place of service it was also a salon in the intellectual sense, where topics of the day were and still are debated and discusses albeit colloquially. In the midst of a contemporary economy where the barriers to entry for even small businesses continues to climb, in the Harlem of Luke Cage we find classical forms of black small business thriving with even other minority groups establishing commercial strongholds such as “Genghis Connie’s” an Asian-owned restaurant.

Not only were black businesses points of entry and praise for Harlem but a large amount of the nightlife of Harlem served to establish the neighborhood as a site of upward mobility unparalleled for blacks in the southern cities they migrated from. Gunter H. Lenz described the zeitgeist of Harlem as an “alternative world of the imagination”, a romanticized depiction of a city rife with class conflicts and conflicting identities between newcomers from the north and the south. Lenz mentions Alain Locke, the author of The New Negro and Locke’s depiction of Harlem as the “laboratory of a great race-welding” (312–313). Throughout the Jazz Age, the cabarets, speakeasies, and lounges of Harlem became the places where blacks engaged in a bourgeois visuality oftentimes with many whites also accompanying them in the same after-hours sites. In October of 1929, The Daily News celebrating “nine principal clubs in Harlem — three operated by whites, five by colored men, and one by a Chinese” (Schoener 81). Some of the clubs mentioned include The Lenox Avenue Club, Blount’s, and Smalls Paradise complete with “a scattering of the more sophisticated downtown night lifers” (81). While the black jazz musicians of the age found these nightlife spots an important venue for the proliferation of the genre as well as opportunities to earn money, very rarely could they visit many of them as patrons. Many of the nightclubs in Harlem were whites-only, the most prominent of them being The Cotton Club. One of the few nightclubs in Harlem that was actually integrated was Smalls Paradise located in the upper part of Harlem and it was also black-owned hosting socialites both black and white (Jet 30).

Nightclubs also acquired an image of illict behavior, lasciviousness, and subversion. Prohibition during the 1920s turned its nightclubs into haves where not only people could engage in illegal drinking but also where they could mix and mingle with other bourgeois patrons while taking off the restrictive mask of manners and restraint. Shane Vogel reflects on poet Langston Hughes’ literary fascination with the nightclubs, alluding to the possibility that Hughes’ homosexual tendencies inspired him to write on speakeasies spots (398). In Luke Cage, the antagonist Cottonmouth runs a nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise as a racket for his arms and drug deals. The motif of the nightclub as a place of transgression has also found its place in the film Harlem Nights, the 1989 film starring Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in the form of Club Sugar Ray.

As suburbanization, starting in the post-World War II period inspired whites to leave the dense and crowded cities for the first-ring suburbs of the country, a massive hollowing out of Harlem began to occur. Even while whites moved to those suburbs, racial covenants and practices such as redlining and mortgage restrictions prevented blacks from being able to purchase and rent housing in other areas of the neighborhood which over time increased overcrowding, advanced the deterioration of housing stock in the neighborhood, and prompted disinvestment in the neighborhood by whites (Kusmer 464). During the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s and the Black Power Movement of the 1970s, the urban history and examination of Harlem largely focused on the neighborhood’s descent into a cesspool of poverty, organized crime, urban decay, and failure to thrive.

One of the most notable photographic portraits of the neighborhood came in the form of Gordon Parks’ documentary story A Harlem Family, 1967 for Life. The March 1968 issue, titled “The Negro and the Cities: The Cry That Will Be Heard” focused on the vicissitudes of a young black single mother of four children living in a dilapidated Harlem tenement. One photograph depicts the woman appearing before the poverty board to receive welfare (Schoener 172).

Another photographs one of the mother’s sons reading a book on a flattened bed next to a wall with gaping holes and exposed wood. A 1967 article in Ebony expounds on the virtues of “street academies”, tutoring programs funded by the Ford Foundation to educate the rising numbers of high school dropouts in the neighborhood (Pierce 158–162). Throughout the 1960s through the 70s, the dominant image of Harlem was the ghetto, defined by Jaffe as “a condition of immobility that is both cause and consequence of social difference” (675). Many news stories of Harlem zoomed in on images of strung-out city dwellers who spent their days and nights frequenting the over 100 bars in the neighborhood. The numbers game, a form of an illegal lottery along with prostitution and gambling formed the basis for numerous racket operations. In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Congressman representing Harlem stated, “I am stating one unchallengeable fact, the Mafia and the syndicate are in complete control of Harlem” (Schatzburg & Kelly 34). Harlem however, withstood less destruction from the looting that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than its sister black cities such as Louisville, Baltimore, Memphis, and Washington D.C. (Risen).

In the 1970s during the era of the Black Power Movement, Harlem emerged as a nexus of political power and black consciousness. While the city as a whole was suffering under the massive deficit of the times, organize crime created a shadow economy for the neighborhood. Prominent crime figures such as Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, also known as Mr. Untouchable for his success in evading multiple charges (Jacobson). It was particularly the men living outside the law that formed the imaginary of the black men “sticking it to the man”. Films such as Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Coffy, and Superfly of the “Blaxploitation” era depicted Harlem not as a place of hopelessness and decay but rather as a site of subversive innovation and still an opportunity to gain respect and power (Howell). It was also during this era that Luke Cage would appear in the Marvel Comics continuity in 1972 at “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire”. Alternatively dubbed “Power Man”, the 20-issue series featured Luke Cage busting up drug rings and organized crime, replete with the same cool-pose colloquialisms of the film genre (Sanderson).

The character of Cottonmouth, played by actor Mahershala Ali attempts to revive the trope of the crime boss although it requires significantly more suspension of disbelief due to the fact that the lawlessness and corruption pervading both Harlem and the New York City police department have largely diminished due to increased legal controls since the 1970s.

But now, the world that the original Luke Cage comic books no longer exists. Since as early as the 1980s, concerns about the gentrification of Harlem have shaped much of the discourse around whether Harlem can still be considered a “black neighborhood”, especially when its black population has declined. A 1986 journal article written by Richard Shaffer and Neil Smith titled “The Gentrification of Harlem” represents one of the earlier pieces of evidence that points to a demographic and architectural shift that would begin in the 1990s and still continues today. Studying census and mortgage data from 1980–1984, the authors found that while gentrification in Harlem was not occurring en masse, the long history of the neighborhood as a slum, the extremely low cost of the buildings, and the nostalgia of the Harlem Renaissance did increase the likelihood of gentrification. Even more interestingly, the authors noted that the neighborhood’s 90% black population actually served to stymie efforts at gentrification. The report even noted that some of the residential buildings in Harlem were actually being rehabilitated by blacks in the neighborhood though the writers acknowledged that the lack of high-wealth blacks in the neighborhood would mean that substantial rehabilitation of the neighborhood would require whites who had higher incomes (350–351, 359–360).

The Harlem of the twenty-first century has for over a decade already been mourned as slipping out of the ownership of black populations. Lance Freeman’s book There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up looks at what happens to black neighborhoods as the inevitable displacement that accompanies gentrification infiltrates the neighborhoods affected by it. Also, the contemporary black consciousness moment of the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn increased attention not only to demographic issues within black urban and suburban areas but also issues of governance, the effects of infrastructure underinvestment and disinvestment, and the overall ways that imaginations of race are embedded in the architectural, social, and semantic networks of cities and spaces. While in a biblical sense, “there is nothing new under the sun”, there has however among scholars of architectural and urban history been a renewed interest in plumbing the depths of the field’s theoretical and historical frameworks to understand how particular ways of seeing both race and the city have contributed to the urban imaginaries of black cities and neighborhoods.

While Guy Debord argues in Society of the Spectacle that the world of the spectacular has the ability to conceal and distract the masses from the very real conditions of our existence — and by extension, our oppression — it is the spectacular, especially for African Americans that histories and sites of signification are brought from one particular moment of consciousness to another. While imaginaries of the city are often crafted and disseminated through mediations, Wunenberger asserts that the city is itself a medium because it is through the city that the visions of architects, planners, and city managers are inspired and carried out (1). For some, a television show might not appear prima facie to be a valid starting point for examining urban history or simply history for that matter. However, television is one of the most popular forms of mediation for the symbols, values, and meanings that shape and sustain a culture. Chicago School sociologist Herbert Blumer and founder of symbolic interactionism asserts that the creation and exchange of meaning within a society occurs in the context of interaction. Cities constitute an environment for a number of interactions especially humans and the built environment. Luke Cage, like other television shows such as Good Times and The Wire fascinate both black and white audiences because they offer up intriguing fictions assembled from past mythologies, symbols, and familiar spaces. The picture of the slums as a space where black people have been confined to is a familiar trope that extends to black people outside of the urban. It is the subject of numerous songs, paintings, photographic exhibitions, poetry, and other expressive forms. Darryl W. Fields and Héctor Tarrido-Picart entertain the idea of new kind of urban practice, centered around the black aesthetic tradition and that transcends the ingrained racial inequalities of the current urban regime in the articles “Toward a Black Formalism” and “Valuing Black Lives Means Changing Curricula” respectively. This Althusserian process of interpellation holds an imperative for unraveling the history of black cities and as well as providing a starting point for a new kind of urbanism and architecture for black spaces.

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