Slightly Autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side

On October 26, 2011 by admin

Rashidah Ismaili-Abu-Bakr

The Lower East Side of New York has little relation to the mid-upper (but not too far) East Side. In the early ’60s, when I was living there, it had a distinct “otherness” from the West Side. Most people refused to think in terms of geographic opposites: east-west. Therefore, one said “The Village” and knew it meant west of 5th Avenue not above 14th Street and not below Houston. This was/ is where the “artists” lived.

The Lower East Side of the ’60s was surrounded by a world of turmoil: rebellions, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, Kent State, assassinations, and a host of human rights violations in the United States and abroad. Sandwiched between the racial and class barriers of the West and South, Africans in America walked the streets of the Lower East Side with ease. Bouyed by a historically more progressive and diverse zone, Black men ventured freer with their white female partners, arm in arm along the cluttered streets with fruit and vegetable sellers from Eastern Europe (although few would be so bold as to stroll after dark along Hudson Street or go too far south, into Little Italy).

The rich ethnic mixture of the Lower East Side was built up by waves of immigrants from war-torn Europe who found themselves in limited confines of five-story tenements: walk-ups with hall toilets, bathtubs in the kitchen. Densely populated streets offered little space for their children or for merchants. A functional co-existence did, however, develop. Bakers were indoors all year round; rag collectors traveled the streets; and vendors and brave pedestrians shared the sidewalks. Although these immigrants constituted a lower class of marginal socio-economic status, they were for the most part in control of their profits. Those Africans who were living nearby (Harlem contained the bulk of the Black populace in the early 1900s) were the buyers. Even in this non-affluent area, class alignment with color was in full practice.

But in the ’60s there was war and chaos and, simultaneously, hope. Here, in cramped apartments and cold-water studios, the essence of life and the role of art and artists were discussed, fought over by Black and White artists with an air of seriousness. Poets read their works in bars, cafes, parks, and studios. They carried heavy bookbags of manuscripts. Dog-eared books lined their shelves. Perhaps encouraged by the questioning and revolt, believing change (for the better) was immanent, African American artists came together on the Lower East Side to begin the job of articulating the stories of their people.

The corner of East 10th Street and Avenue C is about a fifteen-minute walk from where, a century ago, the first African Theater stood. It is about the same distance from where the old city limits were drawn. Here the bodies of Africans, slave and freed workers, were dumped. But for me in the ’60s it was less than five minutes from the homes of my friends. In one building lived Joe Johnson (and Steve Cannon, I think–at least that’s where I met him) and Askia Muhammad Toure. My son used to play with Ishmael Reed’s daughter.

Not too far away, on East 5th or 7th, lived Archie Shepp. Our sons were around the same age, and Garth, his wife, and I bartered sittings. I would watch Pavel and Accra while she worked to augment the earnings of the budding giant of modern music. When Archie was on the road, we would cook big pots of food and let the boys play as we kept each other company with stories of our childhood and other experiences. In fact I read my earliest works to her, and Garth always seemed to recognize them as poetic.

On Friday nights Tom Dent would hold meetings of Umbra at his tiny apartment. There would always be a gallon of communal wine, ashtrays filled with cigarettes, and loud voices demanding to be heard over others. After a few hours of discussion of the latest poems and the contents of so-and-so’s novel, the girlfriends would start to arrive. I had to leave early because of my son, and I remember having the feeling of being left out. Somehow, it was after I got out on the street that I would notice that all of the women were White.

For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives. Calvin Hernton was to chronicle this dilemma in Sex and Race in America, and he was willing to tackle this sensitive issue in serious dialogue.

African-descended women tried to balance their creative urges with home and the personal demands of their men and families. A few found relative, and some permanent, happiness in the arms of White men. But these sisters paid the price. Some were denounced, others ignored. The pain we inflicted on each other as a negative continuation of racial pathology cost us all dearly.

Yet our art flourished.

Our children went to the movies on Saturday mornings, with “the other” children. They saw Danny Kaye in his many films, The Red Balloon, and the other safe, non-violent features of the time. Seldom, if ever, did they see a film in which they could see them-selves positively. In the sandboxes of Thompkins Square Park, the great sculptor Valerie Maynard ran a day progam of arts and crafts. My son was her pupil. She used to keep Daoud while I went to class; in exchange, we posed for her. She helped me see color by giving language to the many tones of brown of his skin.

We grown-ups had our playgrounds, too. Stanley’s Bar for the vanguard of the “new” arts movement. Slugs and Five Spot for the best in musical expression. I must say I didn’t understand the undercurrents, the subterranean movements to the men’s room or “outside.” My eyes and throat reacted too violently to smoke. My clothes and hair would soak up so much “atmosphere” they would take several days of airing and shampooing to cleanse. This further alienated me from “them.” I was still married–waiting waiting ….

When I tell younger artists who step over dog dung, garbage, and street laundry that things used to be different, they shake their heads. Sometimes memory can make things better (or worse) than they were. Surely it was dangerous. My apartment was frequently robbed. The fire escape provided easy access; doors, mere minor obstacles. But the fruits, were real as was their smell.

I’ll try to give a sense of my long, intense conversations with the renowned artist Tom Feelings, about what and where Black art should be, what it should do, about how those conversations helped shape and reinforce my work. Tom had made a conscious decision in the ’60s about what his art would look like and, most of all, for whom he intended it. Tom proved to me to be the most important trustee of “Black Art” since Langston Hughes. He taught me to have faith in the integrity of my inner voices, the characters who danced before my eyes, the integration of performance and cognition.

Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years.

When I moved to The Village, Tom introduced me to Virginia Cox, a great artist to whom I also remain a faithful friend. So I say to young artists of African descent: Hold on to each other, and demand of yourselves the best. That is what has sustained the friendships I have with these artists.

As I have returned the Lower East Side–or Harlem–over the years, I am always saddened. To go there is to evoke the demise of my favorite bakery, Rattner’s, and of the movie house. The fruit stands are gone, as is the Essex Street market where I bought food stuffs and little delicacies, yams to knit. The shops are either gone or so greatly diminished that their impact is obliterated. I no longer hear the various Eastern European languages being spoken.

The “flower children” of the “counter-culture” took over certain streets. And the documentation of the privileged (i.e., privileged to) revolt has obfuscated much of “our” involvement in the events of the ’60s. Accounts of the impromptu be-ins of St. Mark’s Place abound. But where are we to read of the old building of rickety stairs and high ceilings that housed the Negro Ensemble Company and served as a home to Black playwrights, actors, directors, and arts administrators for years. People we take for granted now–Frances Foster, (the late) Adolph Caesar and Geoffrey Cambridge, Cicely Tyson, Esther Roue, and Rosaline Cash, along with director/producers Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks–created the space and maintained it for over a decade. When the arts on the Lower East Side are reviewed, this most important institution is usually missing, or captured in a one- or two-sentence statement.

The New Federal Theater of A-B-C country mounted the works of Ed Bullins, LeRoi Jones, and Ron Milner. Just before its final curtain call, there was a retrospective of 20th-century Black theater in America with stellar casts and performances. Would that we had such now, for we have so many well-trained actors, playwrights, and directors, and theatergoers hungry for Black productions.

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, my brother and “mentor,” created a genre of poetic performance that continued and updated the tradition of Langston Hughes. As a performer, he was/is as dynamic as his work. Baraka’s poetic discourse is often contextualized by the Beat movement. Yet while many of his peers–“progressive” White men and a few White women–sought to create new artistic paradigms, Baraka’s contributions remain centered in his African and American experience. The erasing or obscuring of African American input in the arts movement of the Lower East Side is historically inaccurate and ultimately dangerous.

Few people can say they created a theater of “alternative” perspective and sustained it for more than two decades. And of these few, Ellen Stewart remains alone on the throne. After starting her dynastic theater in her Lower East Side apartment in the 1960s, she moved La MaMa to the 4th Street complex we see today. There she has produced works by a list of Black and White playwrights that would form a virtual who’s who of American (and international) theater. From Dutchman and The Slave to Hair, this woman of incredible imagination, determination, strength, and fortitude has changed the face and structure of off-Broadway theater in America—indeed.

[Next & Final Instalment to Follow]

Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr is a writer of short stories, plays and poetry. She is widely anthologized and has four collections of poems. Her plays have been performed internationally as well as national. Ms. Ismaili has read her poetry solo and with musical instrumentation. She has been a writer in residence at many colleges and art centers in the country. Originally from West Africa, Dr. AbuBakr has taught French and English Speaking African Writers, Literature of the African Diaspora and has taught the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude literary movements. She was a part of the Black Arts Movement of the 60’s in New York where she resides.


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