Thursday, November 17, 2005

ask and receive sho as hell right somebody owes me
a why,
a how,
some type of explanation
of why my hood is so burnt out...

i passionately yelled these lines from a poem of mine, "used to be," at an open mic a few weeks ago. the words vibrated along with the similar experiences of many of my listeners, who told me after i got off the mic that they completely understood what i was talking about. fast forward to now. i spent yesterday evening getting through the first few chapters of, "Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City," by Rutgers history professor Howard Gillette, Jr. apparently, while i was away getting an education, professor gillette was running around my hometown compiling information in order to give me and anyone else who cares "some type of explanation."

it's really something interesting to grow up in a city that carries stigma like indelible freckles. from the time magazine article that asked, "who could live here?" that came out when i was in elementary school to last year's crime ratings that declare camden the most dangerous city in america, the place just can't shake its shadow. i won't front like camden's reputation is wholly unfounded. but having lived there, and having it woven into the story of my life and my social consciousness, i am tied through emotion and nostalgia and genuine concern to the life and times of this city and its inhabitants. shoot, i'm even trying to figure out how to get back in. so yeah, i went to rutgers-camden's bookstore and paid full price for the hardback, hot-off-the-presses copy of professor gillette's book.

thumbing through the pages looking for familiar images and names, i see memories from my life. reading my city's post-wwii story fuels my imagination - i imagine my mom's family and weave what i know about their lives into the story that gillette tells with the intelligence and perspective of a good historian.
i am tied... to the life and times of this city
i am learning so much (and exercising the noodle - thank God for too many sociology courses and a decent vocabulary). in the book, the pictures (i wish there were more) show so much - i can actually see the shopping district that my grandmother told me about that no longer exists. i see pictures of white folks living and working in the streets that i've grown up associating with darker hues. i even see a picture of my high school classmate, whose dad, once the mayor, still plays a pivotal role in my city's destiny.

but what's more interesting is that camden's story is about so much more than camden. any inner city could relate to the social and economic phenomena that gillette discusses in his book. i've seen camden lurking in north philly's streets, walked in camden while in the "wrong" neighborhoods of baltimore and richmond and d.c., and heard camden's stories in the verses of countless rappers from brooklyn, compton, chicago, and the south bronx. my hope is that people who didn't have the privilege of learning firsthand about the futility and misguidedness of judging inner city dwellers will actually read this book or something else like it - especially people in the immediate surrounding areas. it highlights an important truth: today's bad inner city conditions cannot be solely blamed on some supposed inferiority of its inhabitants, who are of course, overwhelmingly, people of color. urban decay is bigger than that - more pervasive than that. and i just got this from the first couple chapters (even though i already knew this from experience). i can't wait until i get through to the back cover...

anyway, i really like that two-week turnaround thing. maybe my next poem on the mic will demand a monetary fortune... i figure it's worth a shot.