Friday, August 08, 2008

Cut adrift in Harlem

You might have heard the saying that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality. Well, here's a story to illustrate the quote.

Susan Crain Bakos is an older, white, female liberal. A few years ago, she wrote a column announcing that she'd given up on white men and now preferred the company of black men. She wrote that she deliberately chose black men because of the racial difference and because black men not only had "more energy, style and edge" but were also "gentlemen, something which white men no longer are".

Well, she's now written another column. It turns out that she acted on her decision to only date black men by moving to Harlem and socialising in a Harlem bar. At first, things went well. The bar, St.Nicks Pub, was a bubbling hub of diversity:

On that Saturday night when I first went with friends to hear the Africa Band, I thought the pub — Harlem! — welcomed me. And I rhapsodized about the experience to friends. Striding into St. Nicks on a balmy August night, working my embroidered denim Halle Bob skirt with the deep front slit, I felt Harlem gently kissing my thighs. Nelson, the bar manager, smiled at me and brought folding chairs up from the basement to arrange seating for us because, he said, “I want you sitting here where I can keep an eye on those pretty white legs.”

I was surrounded by the kind of crowd that I imagined assembled in small Harlem jazz bars during the Renaissance and again in the 1940s and the 1960s, time periods when the excitement in the air was inextricably linked to a sound appreciated by sophisticated people who sought out diversity. Africans and African Americans, whites, Latinos, European and Japanese tourists — a mélange of ages, races, sexual orientations and interracial couples — they were jostling against each other in this tiny crowded space without animosity ...

But as time passed problems emerged. There was crime:

It was always a place where cash disappears from unwatched handbags, a jacket or cashmere shawl tossed casually on the back of a bar stool may be sold to another patron and “salesmen” come through hawking everything from tube socks to portraits of the Virgin Mary. Between the casual theft and the men who asked, “Will you buy me a drink? Lend me some money? Help me buy a new car?” — Yes, a car! — I had stopped carrying more cash than I would spend on two drinks and a cab home. Drugs, of course, were available for purchase in the backyard, which usually smelled of pot smoke.

There was jealous hostility from black women:

... the undercurrent of anger that I’d seen as an occasional flash in a black woman’s eye turned into more open hostility. The African-American girl bartenders, especially on Sunday nights, brazenly overcharged white customers and told them to leave for “being disrespectful” if they complained. Black women “regulars” made loud negative comments about white women ...

There were political resentments:

One of the regulars, an educated, successful black man, lectured me repeatedly: “America must apologize for the original sin of slavery and offer reparations.” “The prisons are full of young black men caught with nickel and dime bags,” he declared, “Incarcerated on the three-strikes-you’re-out rule.” “Reverend Jeremiah Wright! Why is he being pilloried for saying what black ministers say every Sunday in Harlem!”

There was violence:

...the violence was escalating, too ... There were stories of one musician slashing another in the backyard, of fist fights among drug buyers and sellers, of guns waved but not shot. One Friday night, I was in the pub when some thugs came in and roughed up some other thugs. Most of the African-American regulars bolted for the door; the white people stayed.

Then there was Mykul, a thug who knocked her to the ground to steal her handbag:

Mykul, my assailant, is a thug; and I was naive to have ignored that.

I discovered during chatty conversation at the pub that Mykul—pronounced Michael—was a hairdresser who initially learned his craft while in prison. Liberal white woman that I am — was? — I believed in rehabilitation, so I made an appointment with him at Big Russ’ Barber Shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And I even returned a second time.

I’m sure he stole my wallet on that second hair appointment, though he blamed a gypsy cab driver for its loss. I wasn’t going to make a third appointment. Then the shakedowns for more money began. He called asking me to pay more “because you would pay it downtown.” Apparently desperate to cover the debt with his drug dealer, he’d told me he had — or maybe just to buy more drugs — he stepped up his game.

When I hit the concrete with the back of my head and the small of my back, I knew that I was forever changed. I was mugged once before, but it wasn’t personal. No one I actually knew by name had ever raised a hand to me. Born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., I had nevertheless lived my life — until that night — in a world where men do not hit or shove women.

She found herself friendless:

No one outside the pub that night would loan me a cell phone to dial 911. Crying, I went inside and borrowed a phone from Melvin. Two uniformed cops responded to the call, a man and a woman, young and as unsympathetic as the patrons at the bar — who hugged me in greeting most nights — and now wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Nobody knows you,” the cops said. “Nobody saw anything,” they said.

“It’s always like that in there. Someone gets stabbed in the backyard and nobody saw nothing, nobody knows nothing."

... The next day, a friend who has written about Harlem said: “I am sorry you lost your idealism and innocence; you held on to it far longer than most people do ..."

She concludes:

Often I think that African Americans give us too much power. White people aren’t the primary force keeping them down. Thug Life is. I haven’t seen Mykul since that night in May. If I did, I’d probably find a safe building and hide. The physical sense of violation I felt when Mykul attacked me was so profound that I could not understand how my neighbors could stand by and offer no help, no sympathy.

She began by glamourising the diversity of Harlem, but her own experiences there led her to observe that:

Harlem is no place for a woman without male protection.

Having cut herself adrift from her own community, she found herself in a place where she no longer felt, in her own words, "emotionally safe".

Hat tip: Pilgrimage to Montsalvat


  1. She shouldn't feel bad that nobody showed much sympathy when she got mugged. It wasn't personal or racial. I was involved with a mostly-black church at one point and one of the things that struck me was the general lack of mutual support. When something bad happened people didn't come together, they withdrew from each other.

  2. It is no surprise that her "friends" would not help in her time of need.
    Here is an example of what happened in a Florida housing project.
    The neighbor says that she didn't care that her neighbor was raped.

    That is the culture of the ghetto. Isn't multiculturalism lovely?

    The demands for reparations and further government support just show that welfare causes people to feel ungrateful and entitled. They didn't pay to build Harlem, most of them live their on someone else's dime, so it doesn't matter to them. There is no sense of community or looking out for each other.

  3. Mr. Richardson, you really understate what Susan Crain Bakos is about. She is your basic slut, in thrall to "good sex", and Harlem is where she got laid good.

  4. As someone that lives within walking distance of the pub and as a jazz lover, I must say that I've never been inside. It just doesn't appeal to me and as Susie says, it doesn't seem like the type of place a "proper" lady would go without escort. Knowing that she needed to stay out of there like I do. Not to mention that the general area around the pub is still a little unsavory (though improving) it still isn't safe to be around that area (most deserted) late at night which is when the pub has most of their best sets.

    There is nothing romantic about it at all and I've lived in the area for quite a while. She is a liar -- there are plenty of other "safer" places to listen to great jazz in Harlem. As a matter of fact, one just closed because he was offer free jazz during the day and couldn't get audiences. If nothing else, there is the Lenox Lounge on a busy intersection that is a historical landmark. There is no need to go to a dive to hear the best jazz in Harlem. I'd also like to say that the apathetic attitude was just New York knocking her upside her head (she obviously hasn't live in the city long enough to know that). I fell off a curb into the street when I first came to New York. Flat on my face on a busy intersection. No one helped me and a few people laughed. I skinned my knee. No one cared. I should have bought one of those tourist t-shirts that say "welcome to New F-in York". And there you have it. Not a race issue, not a class issue, not a location issue. Just a people issue. In general folks have their own problems and don't want to take on your. There you have it.

    Finally, as an AA woman, I felt violated by both of her articles. She was very condescending towards Black Women in them. I can't understand where this anger towards black women -- while worshipping black men -- stems from. I just find the woman a little kooky and if I happen to see her around the nabe will steer clear. Amazing who gets all that space to publish when there are real issues that need to be addressed. My mother had her purse snatched when I was kids by a black man. Was that a race crime?

  5. jaz, I first wondered if you were judging Bakos unfairly, but after going back and reading her original piece, I have to agree with you: it really WAS all about the sex!

    What a silly, frivolous woman. I hope she at least gained some wisdom out of this.

  6. one of the things that struck me was the general lack of mutual support

    I wonder how a culture gets to be that way. It's so different to what I've experienced. In the Melbourne of my youth (and even today), it was part of the culture to "be there for your mates" - or for your family, or even for a fellow Australian.

    Liesel, thanks for the link. It's an eye opener - I didn't know conditions were so bad on some of those estates.

    Anonymous, I accept your comment that there are better places in Harlem than the one frequented by Susan Crain Bakos. The point of the story was really to show the naivety of a white liberal who required a violent mugging to rethink her politics.

    Jaz, Bernhardt - you're right that there's another story relating to Susan Crain Bakos - the story of her attitude to sex.

    She's a woman who aims to live a lifestyle based on casual sexual encounters, but who's reached an age at which her peers have mostly partnered. It appears though that there are black men who are still interested.

    It seems a pathetic existence to me - it's another way in which she's cut herself adrift. Her attitude to sex doesn't connect her in terms of human relationships - not to a husband or to children.

  7. Mr. Richardson, I think I understand the point of your post, and this woman's realization about Harlem's dangerous side, and her liberal disillusionment. But in reading her first column I was really stricken with her moral disorder, she flaunts it shamelessly. Is that a cause or effect of her liberalism? Can her disillusionment with Harlem be a cause of her finding some moral order?

    She really is just a disconnected, floating pleasure-seeker. I don't think she could form a lasting bond with anyone, even her own children if she could have any. And note how she describes sex with black men as "freeing."

    It's as though the more "free" (emancipated, liberated, constraint-free) you are, the more "freedom" you seek. She is almost internally driven to seek continually more freedom. Augustine would call it slavery: as many vices as you have, that is how many masters you have.

    I doubt the black men she services are interested in forming a lasting attachment.

  8. as many vices as you have, that is how many masters you have

    A good quote, I hadn't heard it before.

    I doubt the black men she services are interested in forming a lasting attachment.

    At one point, she admits that they're not.

    Jaz, I agree with you that she is probably a long way from escaping the condition she is in.

    She has had an experience, though, which has led her to question her identity as a liberal. Perhaps it's a starting point for her (though again, so late in life).

  9. Just for reference, a more complete Augustine quote, from "City of God":

    Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but, what is worse, as many masters as he has vices.

  10. Her whole story illustrates the phrase "Asking for it." in more ways than one.