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Black and Blue

An anthology of African-American writing on St. Louis paints a bleak portrait of the city


Turn the page past editor Gerald Early's introduction to "Ain't But a Place": An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis, and you will find trouble: A black man is getting cut, slashed and burned, things that usually happen to trees, but when trees appear in the narrative, the man is escaping into them, then climbing to the top of one as he hears the baying of bloodhounds. The runaway slave descends at gunpoint and is marched to jail; when he is released, it is back into the arms of slavery. All of this happens on the first page of text by William Wells Brown.

There is probably no other way to honestly begin an anthology of African-Americans writing about a river city in a former slave state, and if the slave experience was brutal, it bred in Brown an equally brutal honesty; he writes that "no part of our slaveholding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis." My, my, we must be in the hands of the Missouri Historical Society (the book's publisher) and not the chamber of commerce, though as the anthology moves from history to current events the portrait of the city hardly gets any cheerier. Barbaric slaveholders give way to white race-rioters, who give way to black Uncle Toms who, in the words of East St. Louis poet laureate Eugene B. Redmond, "perform abortions/On a ghetto pregnant with blackness." We meet rich black aristocrats, heart-stirring music blares from clubs, baseball stars shine in ballparks, civil-rights activists picket the wicked and lots of people go to work and love their mothers, but throughout the anthology, the image of the runaway never goes away. "I shall stay here awhile," says one man who came to East St. Louis only to be terrorized by a white mob, "then I shall go farther north." Ironically, the first writer in this volume who doesn't want to leave St. Louis -- Cardinal center fielder Curt Flood, who tried to oppose his trade to the Phillies in 1969 -- is forced to go.

Editor Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, first came here expecting not to stay. He arrived on Jan. 1, 1982, fresh from Cornell's graduate school, still struggling to finish his dissertation. He came to accept a job offer at Washington University, not motivated by the virtues of our city or even particularly those of the university; his wife, Ida, had just given birth to their second child, the family needed money, and the job in St. Louis started in January, not the fall. Born in Philadelphia and schooled in upstate New York, Early knew very little about St. Louis and expected the city to be "a wide-open sort of place," like New Orleans. "So," he adds with a chuckle, "you can imagine my disappointment." He came expecting the warm Southern birthplace of ragtime and found himself in a divided Midwestern city that, he noticed, "does retain some Southern qualitites, maybe not the best ones."

In his introduction to "Ain't But a Place," Early's prose spirals and sprawls when he writes about "three other locations" -- the South, Chicago and New York --- that "serve as the main geographies of African American letters and culture." He rightly addresses this trio's importance to help explain the relative invisibility of black St. Louis, but the reader can't help but notice how much more he has to say about them than about his subject. In fact, when writing about St. Louis, Early hits his stride analyzing what the city lacks, from a black perspective: It has "no major levers of popular culture," is "not the headquarters of any major civil rights organization, any major black service organization, or any major black church denomination," is anything but "a center of intellectual or political radicalism." When he moves to praise the city through black eyes, he does so in the damning tones of faint praise, using locutions such as "a great deal more than is usually acknowledged."

Early recognizes this problem. He says that when the Missouri Historical Society asked him to edit a section of black writing for an anthology about St. Louis, this city "was a kind of absence" for him. Even after he had unearthed so much material that his section mushroomed into its own volume, he admits, "I still wasn't sure how to bring it all together. I finally defined St. Louis as a negative capability; I defined it by what it isn't." In his eyes, this is appropriate: "I don't think it's unfair, because it does capture a lot of black people's view of the city. A lot of black people have seen St. Louis for what it isn't; they have thought that blacks with anything on the ball should get out of here. That's what the book substantiates: St. Louis as a kind of way station." The image of the way station has the direst historical roots in the autobiography of William Wells Brown, who worked for a slave trader on the Mississippi, because St. Louis was a market city in that grisly trade, a way station of the most hideous kind.

Early divides his selections into three categories: The first and longest, "Autobiographies and Memoirs," is so powerful that, coming first, it leaves the book with the feeling of trailing off. We want to read more by all these writers, and the book would be stronger if it was simply an anthology of black autobiography with some St. Louis connection. The second section, devoted to historical documents, has powerful pieces by W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey -- heavyweights, indeed -- about the East St. Louis race riot (or massacre, really) of 1917, as well as a fascinating account of wealthy blacks in St. Louis before the Civil War. Unfortunately, the literary section that concludes the book reads like an afterthought. These selections should have been strengthened; Eugene Redmond could have been better represented, for example, and K. Curtis Lyle included. Most puzzling in this regard, given the editor's deep sense of musical tradition, is that Early overlooks a rich source of literary material: blues lyrics -- most famously, "Frankie and Johnny" -- describing the city and events that happened here.

Some other editorial decisions might also be questioned. One piece is said to be "excerpted in its entirety," which seems nonsense to me. In the headnote bio of Lester Aglar Walton, Early muses that perhaps Walton concealed his race when writing for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, yet Walton relates an incident in which he phones the paper's city desk refusing to ride a hotel's freight elevator (as blacks were forced to do) to get an interview. Early includes Herman Dreer's introduction to American Literature by Negro Authors, which is in no way about St. Louis. The Katherine Dunham interview is a weak representation of her years in East St. Louis, and the interviews with civil-rights activists Ivory Perry and Percy Green badly need editing. Finally, the columns by contemporary journalists writing for our local daily -- Gregory Freeman, Lorraine Kee -- have all the insipidness characteristic of that paper. I applaud Early's attempt to include popular media, and it must be admitted that The Riverfront Times has not published much work by black writers, but the Post's editorial standards and stance are so crippling that it is difficult to imagine anything appearing in that newspaper worth binding into a book.

That said, "Ain't But a Place" is a worthwhile and surprising -- or, as Early notes, "amazing, dismaying" -- batch of stories about this city. When we read about the place where we live (particularly if it is not often used as a literary setting), we come alive at the mention of what is familiar. Reading this book, I was struck by how a number of local landmarks and phenomena stood revealed as utterly strange and unfamiliar. W.E.B. DuBois famously described African-American consciousness as veiled; let me share some glimpses this book gives of our city seen through that veil.

Our dirty river: Lucy Berry Delaney's mother was born free but stolen into slavery; Delaney eventually sued for her rightful freedom and won the case. While still enslaved, she was given a load of laundry to do, which she washed in water drawn from the muddy Mississippi; "the results of my washing," she wrote, "can be better imagined than described."

The Gateway Arch: Curt Flood says the monument "soars above downtown St. Louis like a huge croquet wicket." He continues, in a more critical spirit, "It stands also as an emblem of local and national priorities. A scant few blocks away are some of the most horrible slums in the United States." Dwellers in the projects, he notes, "are free to enjoy superb views of the arch and to draw what conclusions they will." When Jackie Joyner-Kersee sees the Arch from the East St. Louis slums, she concludes that it is "a gateway to the whole world," and when she looks out from the top of the monument she sees "the possibility of finding that other world." Our final glimpse of the Arch has activist Percy Green hanging off it, 125 feet in the air, protesting that minority contractors are not being included in its construction.

Union Station: We first see the old beauty through the eyes of future NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, who was born here. He describes the station as "a tower of stone built to imitate a French chateau" when he imagines his parents arriving here from Mississippi. The Wilkinses wander around Union Station looking for "the colored washroom" but never find it; "Jim Crow hadn't bothered with the train depot." Wilkins' father regarded sharing a washroom with the dominant race as "a miracle." When they get in a trolley car and see white people sitting in the backseat, they laugh out loud.

The black music scene: Miles Davis, not a man given to overpraise, had a generous analysis of the local black community. He found local black folks, so many of them recent migrants from the Deep South, "kind of hip in their countryness. A lot of people from that area had a whole lot of style." His praise helps explain why so many great musicians got their start here, even if they moved on to bigger cities where careers are brokered.

Integration: Harris Teachers College graduate Demosthenes DuBoise writes about being among the first black teachers to teach in a white school; he and another black teacher taught only the black students bused into the school and had to use the black janitors' toilet! Nancy Grant tells how black musicians first came to play with the St. Louis Symphony during a concert memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., just days after King's assassination.

Our gang problem: Henry Armstrong learned to brawl on the South Side of St. Louis, eventually taking his skill into the ring, where he once held the crowns of three separate divisions simultaneously. To him, St. Louis was a tough, slick city where people dressed as sophisticates and fought like savages. "Fighting," he says, "was the main form of recreation, self-expression and also of social contact." His gang, the Papin Street gang, was interracial, as was the neighborhood it defended.

Even while scrutinizing St. Louis with a caustic eye, Curt Flood adds the qualification, "I can testify that St. Louis is no more barbaric than other cities in the United States." Our barbarism, such as it is, unique or not, stands revealed in these pages, as do a few pleasures -- even hot sex that (in the words of poet Arthur Brown) leaves "the flesh just/singing on the bone." Early considers the harshness of the anthology's portrait of the city to be the most "worthwhile" thing about it. "It could be liberating," he says, "to honestly confront how black people feel and have felt about St. Louis. It could free some people from a view of the city and themselves that has not been terribly useful." "Ain't But a Place" does offer some hope, too; in the words of Flood again, "The world contains possibilities other than wretchedness." One imagines the voices of black St. Louis responding, "Show me.

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