Hip Hop & 1980’s Brooklyn – A Nostalgic Affair – My Invisible Community

The statistics have been always  grim for any lower income community, especially those constituted by minorities. To be frank, ‘ghettos’ stink everywhere, independent of the ethnicity of their inhabitants, yet in America, there is a certain paradox that lurks around certain lower income neighborhoods. It would seem far-fetched to imagine that given the disproportionate amounts of stress and challenges faced by many African American our collective mental health would be abysmal, but that’s not the case. “It’s a long-standing mystery in public health: despite the inarguably vast number of psychological and sociological stresses they face in the U.S., African Americans are mentally healthier than white people. The phenomenon is formally described as the “race paradox in mental health”.

In fact, if I hadn’t lived in a community where I could witness the resiliency, laughter and humor that suffuses all aspects of daily life, I’d find this paradox to be suspect, perhaps a result more of sub-standard analysis and an improper demographic sampling. Nonetheless, it’s hard to look at these pictures, and not see see ‘it’.

About These Photos

These photos were taken from this lovely article: Portraits of Joy: The 1980s Street Photography of Jamel Shabazz. There are some great insights and thoughts in that article.

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I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
-Ralph Elison, The Invisible Man

Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.
-Ralph Elison, The Invisible Man


The other day someone remarked to me that they would hate to be black or live in the black community. I am certain they weren’t expecting my uproarious laughter. After I calmed down I shared the thought that judging from their sentiments they wouldn’t be able to recognize a black community even if they wandered into one. What is the black community? It’s more than just a a concentrated amount of black folk inhabiting a few square blocks. Mostly when you ask people to describe anything ‘black’ what you get are tired invectives and polemics, that haven’t had the decency to leave the stage, despite the fact that their heyday has long passed.

I’ve joked about the fact that people only meet me after the 4 or 5th time of meeting me. The first few times are a guided assessment of the extent to which I adhere to their ingrained stereotypes. The person I am (David) is for intents and purposes invisible, and maybe also the fact that I am a person. Nothing proved this more for me than when I make a new friend from another ethnicity and become a ferryman ushering  them between the different social realities that I inhabit. “Is it true that Blacks do or don’t do ‘x’ activity?”, “Did you or anyone you know sell crack or was in a gang like in the rap videos? “, “Did a teacher reach out to you and inspire you to do better in life”. To extend the analogy, if I am the ferryman, questions are the boat, and the river we are crossing is a modern day Acheron the River of tears and woe wrung out by the unmitigating grasp of oppression.

My world works on a different set of rules and I am most thankful for living in its particular Brooklyn iteration. There is no attempt in this world, to sanitize reality. You can’t turn your eyes away from tragedy because it suffuse everything, there is no place to hide. At the heart of every tragedy, is comedy. I can remember doing my homework at the kitchen table late night and hearing gun shots, but I do also remember more than than the former laughter, seeing beautiful couples walking down the street as their children ran ahead of them sometimes great violence. There was great love and beautiful couples and their children running around as well. Everyone was a character and interacting with them only served to increase the fecundity of your creativity and or imagination. Despite the variety of different ethnic groups, personal and community drama discomfort is never an excuse to not engage, provided you can read the situation well enough to know how to engage.

Check out this song Brooklyn  by Mos Def


Yo sometimes I sit back, reflect on the place that I live at
Unlike any place I ever been at
The home of big gats, deep dish hammer rim caps
Have a mishap, push your wig back
Where you go to get the fresh trim at
Fulton and Jay got the Timb rack
Blue collars metro carding it
Thugs mobbing it, form partnership
Increase armament, street pharmacist
Deep consequence, when you seek sleek ornaments
You get caught, rode the white horse and can’t get off
Big dogs that trick off just get sent off
They shoebox stash is all they seeds gotta live off
It’s real yo but still yo, it’s love here
And it’s felt by anybody that come here
Out of towners take the train, plane and bus here
Must be something that they really want here
One year as a resident, deeper sentiment
Shout out “Go Brooklyn”, they representing it
Sitting on their front stoop sipping Guinnesses
Using native dialect in they sentences
From the treeline blocks to the tenements
To the Mom and Pop local shop businesses
Travel all around the world in great distances
And ain’t a place that I know that bear resemblance
That’s why we call it The Planet

One comment

  1. This reminds me of the important lesson I learned from reading Ellison’s Invisible Man. I used to wonder why everything was about race for black people (meaning the black activists, etc. I saw on TV, since I was a pretty sheltered white girl). I didn’t understand why every wrong could be traced back to the color of someone’s skin. And then I read Invisible Man and I understood. For black people, everything is about race because white people will never, ever let them forget they are black. When white people quit seeing the color of everyone else’s skin, then racism will become obsolete in our institutions. It won’t die, because you can’t really kill the hate in someone else’s heart, but it will cease to matter as a tool of oppression in schools, government, etc. Until that happens, we will have to fight against the insidious affects of racism.


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