Atlanta to the Bone

Last month, during a weekend visit to Brooklyn, I found myself in a kitschy dance bar, listening to early 2000s Atlanta music that I hadn’t heard since middle school. Preceded by aggressively undanceable hits from the 50s and 60s – that people danced to anyway because sometimes a good time is a mission, not an experience – the Atlanta songs were jarring. Though I quickly realized that I rarely had any knowledge of these songs beyond their first verses or choruses – the attention spans of 12 year-olds are pretty short – it was genuinely exciting to hear them, especially when I was so far from Atlanta.

But the excitement didn’t last long. As my veil of nostalgia and surprise slowly lifted, I started to notice how other people were receiving the songs. Most of them were executing the same generic dance moves that they had been employing throughout the night. I didn’t think much of this until the DJ played D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” the song that introduced the world, and me, to leanin’ and rockin’. Accordingly, I leaned, I rocked, I snapped, I did my step, and what do you know, I was doing it all by myself.

I was the outlier. Sure, no one said anything. But I could read their body language and the collective corporeal consensus was clear: my nativist, slightly judgmental dance moves were undermining the mission. I was making things weird. So I stopped, caught my breath for a few minutes, then quietly returned to the dance floor, adopting the rest of the bar’s generic dance moves in a fit of quiet rage.

As the mid-2000’s Atlanta hits continued to play and the crowd continued to carry out its mission, I pondered my rage. I have never felt particularly possessive of popular music, especially Atlanta music, especially mid 2000’s Atlanta music, which is often cheesy with parmesan sprinkled on top, but I was feeling it. I genuinely felt violated, like something had been taken from me.

Eventually the DJ moved to some other unduly appropriated era of music and my rage subsided. In retrospect, the rage was indefensibly obnoxious. In the future I’ll definitely try to curtail it rather than eagerly giving in.

Yet, I’m ultimately struck by how primal it was, how instinctively this rage materialized. On some level this worries me because who knows what other affective allegiances are lurking under my skin, but on the other hand, it’s refreshing to know that I’m connected to Atlanta and presumably other forms of music and identity, on this weird, inaccessible, visceral level.

That said, I’ll continue to decline those discounted Braves, Hawks and Falcons tickets. Geography is powerful, but I’m not its slave. (I hope)

 

 

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“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“A subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.

Black And: Reopening Jay Z’s Open Letter

A little more than a year ago, Jay Z announced that he was relinquishing his minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Delivered through his scathing song, “Open Letter” and then later confirmed via press release, the announcement was a strange conclusion to an epic saga that had been unfolding since 2003. Up until that point, the saga had been chronicled extensively by The Atlantic Yards Report and moderately by The New York Times. Yet, when it came to chronicling the feeling of the saga, rather than the details, it was Jay Z himself who told the story, animating it with tales of rising from the ashes and giving back to his community. Given Jay Z’s emphasis on history and pride when narrating the “return” of sports back to Brooklyn, his latest announcement was shocking. The Nets hadn’t even played in the Barclays Center for an entire season; how could Jay leave when things were just getting started? Didn’t he care about Brooklyn? To say it differently: Was he really just “a business, man” above all?

From Jackie to Jay Z”

On March 11, 2010, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center, Reverend Al Sharpton stood before a racially mixed crowd and gave a brief speech in which he praised the sports arena’s construction and the jobs and money he believed its construction would eventually produce. Citing his Brooklyn origins (Brownsville), Sharpton declared that “This project will bring long-term change to the borough that I came from.” Moments later, he mentioned the Brooklyn Dodgers, revealing that when he was a boy, his mother often spoke of how she felt when she saw Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field. Robinson, Sharpton explained to the crowd, “played his first games right here in Brooklyn and broke the color line in terms of Major League Baseball Players.” He then went on to assert that he is glad to have lived to see rapper Jay Z break “the color line in ownership in Brooklyn.” “We’ve gone from Jackie to Jay Z!” he exclaimed. As told by Sharpton, the comparison of Jackie Robinson, Ebbet Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jay Z, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively, is a triumph.

Jay Z invokes a similar comparison on his song “Brooklyn Go Hard”: “I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them/I jack, I rob, I sin/Aww man, I’m Jackie Robinson/’Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen/Lucky me, luckily, they didn’t get me/Now when I bring the Nets, I’m the black Branch Rickey” A la Branch Rickey, the legendary Major League Baseball executive who negotiated Robinson’s entrance into the league, Jay Z becomes a hero, the redeemer of a lost Brooklyn legacy that was exported to Los Angeles in 1958. While Sharpton is a little more tactful (presumably because he is speaking before a mixed audience), both his narrative of Jay Z and Jay Z’s narrative of himself suggest that the triumph they both celebrate is racial — a black victory.

There is nothing wrong with this celebration, but race and history don’t quite tell the full story. Yes, the Nets’ relocation to Brooklyn and Jay Z’s role in their organization are somewhat admirable, but the groundbreaking of the Barclays Center is more than a proud moment in race relations. It is also a moment that is only possible because of certain financial and political relations.

These relations are on full display in the image provided below. At the same groundbreaking ceremony discussed above, Jay Z stands with  Bruce Ratner, the CEO of the real estate company that built the Barclays Center; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former New York State Governor David Paterson; former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; and former president of financial firm Barclays plc, Robert R. Diamond.

Barclays Center Groundbreaking Jay Z

Groundbreaking, March 11, 2010. Via NY Daily News

While Jay Z’s presence in this flank of power is certainly evocative, especially when compared with Jackie Robinson’s equally evocative presence in photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, this easy slippage between Jackie and Jay Z is suspect. When Jackie Robinson was reluctantly accepted into Major League Baseball, he was not a multi-millionaire investing money into a sports organization that might generate him private capital; he did not have multi-million dollar record contracts; he was not an internationally recognizable brand with stakes in multiple industries. Simply put, he was not Jay Z. When blackness alone is used as the criteria for comparing experiences, these crucial distinctions get overlooked.

Debates over the importance of these distinctions within black people’s lives raged long before Jay Z picked up a shovel or a microphone. Black Southerners who migrated North during the 20’s, black Caribbeans who migrated to the the United States during the 80’s and black women, especially feminists, are just a few of the black groups who have spoken of the myriad ways of experiencing blackness. Strangely, despite the persistence of these debates blackness is still spoken of in the singular. How do all of these contingencies get overlooked?

“Black And”

During the last night of the inaugural concert series that christened the Barclays Center, Jay Z responded to a perceived slight by the New York Times with the following words: “I’m a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets.” In this one brief statement he connects his blackness to his simultaneous experiences of growing up poor, growing up as a black male and growing up in a single-parent household. His clothing, a customized Brooklyn Nets jersey, further connected his blackness to his hometown, Brooklyn.

These connections are found throughout Jay Z’s extensive discography and in many instances, they are precisely what make his story so interesting (in addition to the skill with which he tells it). “99 Problems,” for example, features some dialog where a white cop disrespectfully refers to Jay Z as “son” and implies that Jay is uppity for not immediately ceding to the cop’s authority. There’s a deep history embedded in that exchange and Jay Z does an excellent job of invoking that history by subtly emphasizing that he’s being stopped as a black male, not just a black person. There’s no need to exhaust these kinds of moments (there are many), but considering how often they come up in Jay Z’s music and hip-hop in general, we should consider why these other markers of identity – birthplace, gender, class – are always subordinated to race despite being just as present in black people’s experiences.

On one hand, race’s primacy when it comes to understanding black life is simply a function of history. Black people have always been “black and,” but these internal variances were neglected when black people “became” black through slavery and colonialism. This can’t be overemphasized. Blackness was born from a literal gathering up of people and their differences and rendering them all the same. Of course, these differences were not eliminated entirely – music, manners of speaking, personal belongings and memories, among other things, miraculously survived – but being black under colonialism and slavery entailed a degradation of your humanity, no matter where or who you were. And even if you somehow did manage to feel human, as Solomon Northrup’s reminds us, this humanity was always tenuous. Whether freed or enslaved, if you were black, you were always one border, one document, one transaction, one bloodhound away from being torn from humanity.

Black and Rich and Invested

These are the conditions that shaped blackness and continue to shape it. Consequently, blackness has typically been framed homogeneously. There was little time for internal variances because to be in the category itself was to be on the edge of existence.

Yet as Jay Z’s case reminds us, this homogenous frame has limits and always has. At a 2011 press conference for the Barclays Center, which was currently under construction, Jay-Z briefly spoke about what the Barclays Center meant for him and for Brooklyn. Before he gave this speech, he brought up some students from his native Marcy Projects to stand behind him on the podium. It was a heartfelt moment and Jay Z’s pride and happiness are undeniable, but what is left out of the frame or maybe even pushed out of the frame is just as important.

In that particular instance, what is omitted are Jay Z’s incentives for supporting the Barclays Center: the money, the exposure, the bragging rights. Even more obscured are the people footing the bill for these benefits: taxpayers, dislocated residents, business owners, landholders. With these differences and their effects in mind, can we really say that Jay Z and the kids of the Marcy Projects are one in the same? Do we really know what we’re doing when we group such disparate people all together?

Jay Z and kids of Marcy Projects

Via The Ybf.com (Exact date unknown)

 

We Shall Overcome [Selectively]

If we take the naive view of history, the answer is yes, we know exactly what we are doing. One of the more popular understandings of the Civil Rights Movement is that it was successful precisely because it overcame more hostile and militant approaches to ending black plight. This is certainly true, but this “overcoming” wasn’t quite the spiritual perseverance detailed in “We Shall Overcome.” Labeled  “un-Christian,” “radical,” and “communist,” black people who didn’t quite align with the doctrine of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were actively pushed to the margins. They weren’t invited to meetings, marches and cookouts, and they weren’t allowed to participate in demonstrations. Overcoming was a very active verb.

The benefits of that particular overcoming are clear: I probably wouldn’t be typing this if the SCLC had failed and various splinter organizations (and their particular goals) had been the faces of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, I wonder how necessary it is to continue the homogenizing tradition of the SCLC when it [over]came at the expense of the goals and methods of organizations like SNCC, CORE and later the Combahee River Collective.

To go further, I wonder what we miss when we see Jay Z just as a successful black man, a guy who “made it,” when he is both a guy who made it and a guy who makes it by selling, music, concert tickets, clothing and sports teams to kids like the ones on that podium. This doesn’t mean that Jay Z is some kind of evil businessman; he really seems to have been acting with the best intentions. But when blackness is understood singularly, like a cloak that veils all other differences, the business that Jay Z was involved in vanishes. This vanishing makes us unable to think critically about Jay Z’s involvement in the Barclays Center without claiming that he has “betrayed” black people, which is a gross oversimplification. The guy clearly loves Brooklyn.

In the end, if the world is indeed “under new management” as Jay Z says on “Open Letter,” I think we need to adjust how we work. If we continue to use the same familiar techniques and routines when the world is changing around us, our ability to solve problems is diminished. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch – race still shapes the world in undeniable ways – but it does mean looking at the complexity of the world and confronting that complexity head-on, not lamely reducing it to just race or just gender or just class or just evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reduction or even having priorities, but there are consequences. If life is hard knock, why pretend that it’s easy?

More Than Money: On the Atlanta Braves’ Plan to Leave Turner Field

Braves Ticket Sales 2012

Braves Tickets Sales 2012 (Source)

A friend of mine recently wrote an article about the Atlanta Braves’ plans to leave their current home of Turner Field and relocate to a suburban area north of Atlanta. The Braves’ management have strangely claimed that the move is necessary because of chronic transit issues. As Eric notes, these issues aren’t likely to be mitigated or fixed by this planned relocation. In addition to the pure truth that virtually nowhere in Atlanta is immune to transit issues, the site of relocation is not only near an especially traffic-ridden intersection, it is beyond the reach of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit authority.

Rightfully so, I think, Eric calls our attention to the demographic affinities between the Braves’ fan base and the people living in the area around the site’s new location. The Braves management itself also calls our attention to this affinity, noting that, “The new stadium will be located near the geographic center of the Braves’ fan base.” After pointing to this affinity, Eric then highlights the implicit and historical antagonism between that fan base and the people living around Turner Field’s current location. The former is largely white and middle class while the latter are largely black and lower income. Thus, he concludes that the Braves’ move is fairly racist. Of course, things don’t actually line up so clearly along a racial divide. Cobb County is not some lily-white Pleasantville and Southeast Atlanta is not Harlem (Plus, even Harlem isn’t Harlem). But race definitely looms large in the Braves decision, which was Eric’s point.

The Braves and their defenders have downplayed race by claiming that the Braves’ decision is simply “all about money.” The Braves simply couldn’t afford to remain at Turner Field, so they had to move, claimed the team president. This logic of it being “simply about money” always bothers me because it’s not only naive and dismissive, but it often overestimates how “purely” businesses think. By “purely” I’m referring to the most rudimentary tenet of  any “good” business model: make more money than you spend, at whatever cost. The latter half of the statement is rarely upheld in an autonomous, independent sense, especially by sports teams, who are often heavily subsidized by the cities that house them, despite no real material benefits for the city. In other words, sports teams largely defer costs, risks, to others rather than taking them on for themselves. Stated bluntly, most good businesses put their risks in other people’s hands. In the case of Turner Field, those hands were the taxpayers of the city of Atlanta and the homes of the largely black communities flanking the stadium. How can this be simply about money when the stadium exists solely because money wasn’t enough? Before the ground was even broken, the money that paid for the hardhats and the shovels had to be explicitly bolstered to a very particular community and its members: Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves logo

Sports teams are actually notorious for getting subsidies, freeing their hands, through very sophisticated and questionable promises of development, jobs and prestige (note how the press release for the new location claims that the new stadium will be “world-class”) and then abandoning the cities once the cities either a) decline to continue to bear the load (i.e. pay for a new stadium, upgrade the stadium, allow more tax breaks,) and/or 2) get one-upped by a city with a more accommodating offer. In fact, I recently wrote about how this historical process played out in Brooklyn through a rather peculiar series of “hand transactions” that involved Jay Z.

Given this history of how sports teams routinely treat cities, I’m inclined to agree with Eric regarding the significance of race, but in a fairly different way. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to read this as the Braves caving into its fans’ subconscious racism. That logic can only lead to us pleading for them to stay at Turner Field. I think it’s more useful, perhaps even more accurate, to think of this as the Braves telling us that their allegiance to Atlanta was always contingent upon “who” Atlanta was. As indicated by their somewhat laughable desire to remain the “Atlanta Braves” despite planning to move beyond the mass transit system, the Atlanta Braves view “Atlanta” as a free-floating signifier, a removable sticker to be easily removed at will; even though this sticker adheres to literally concrete buildings and people, nothing stops them from peeling it and shunting it onto some new, more profitable surface.

Image

Eric draws our attention to the black people who currently live around Turner Field and their lack of affinity with the Braves’ beloved base, but I can’t help but think of the black people who had to standby when Turner Field was first built. I’m sure that they weren’t exactly happy when the ’96 Olympic committee forced all this development in their backyards. Even if they were, as they learned to accept the endless nights and days of increased traffic, increased noise pollution and crowded streets, for better or worse they could at least be assured the stadium would be around for awhile; at least the Braves had committed themselves to the city, to them, in some form.

Now that this form is scheduled to disintegrate and rematerialize eerily close to home, I think we should note how all sports teams generally treat cities and think deeply about what it means for them to bear the names of our cities without any rooted, accountable form of responsibility toward them (and us). If this is how teams want to treat us, perhaps they should pay for their “world-class” stadiums with their own money. I doubt Cobb County will learn from this lesson. Mother Jones reports that they’ve already laid down $300 million. But if somehow things don’t solidify in Cobb and Turner Field remains, maybe this time around we can turn off the Southern hospitality and turn on the Southern stubbornness. The Atlanta Braves have won one title in 17 years, they don’t care about their local community or the city and they promote that racist tomahawk chop. Sounds like a bad neighbor to me.

On Jay-Z, Brooklyn and The Barclays Center

Last semester (Spring 2013) I wrote a paper on the role of race and class in the relationship between Jay-Z, Brooklyn and the Barclays Center. I stumbled across it earlier today while looking for a writing sample for an internship thing and I thought I should share it.

The title of the paper is “Producing Brooklyn: Race, Place, Capital and Jay-Z” and it is essentially about how sports are sold to cities through strange campaigns involving identity, history and other things. Read it here.

There is also a version of the paper that I tailored specifically for a web that is more concerned with how blackness can be reductive if not used strategically or in conjunction with other facets of social identity. Read it here.