Wednesday, April 29, 2015

800 Words: Home

Baltimore is my city and will never be my city. I am an interloper to its developments, a Johnny-whose-family-come-lately in a city where your only credibility is your insiderness, and whose wounds and tensions stretch back 350 years. The land of Barbara Fritchie and Hattie Carroll is not mine, and perhaps I delude myself in thinking that the land of Roger Taney and Spiro Agnew is not mine either.

But it is the place where I've spent the vast majority of my life so far; not in the true Baltimore, but in an ersatz Baltimore - a bubble northwest of the city where Jews enact a separate but greater-than-equal community free from the goyisher molestation that's never happened in America. There is no way for a Pikesville kid to ever find out where the true Baltimore is, I don't know whether the true Baltimore exists anymore or if it ever did, and it certainly isn't there. But is the true Baltimore simply a nightmare from which we can only wake up by leaving it?


How does a place so seemingly right go so wrong? At the moment when America was at its most prosperous, we lost all our hope. America has never been more prosperous than it was in the last century's second half. For all its unimaginable poverty and inequality, there was still less devastation here than anywhere else in the world. And yet the moment this century ended, we all lost hope for America's future. The most privileged country in the history of the world, which has done more to lift more millions of people out of poverty and squalor than any European nation on its most altruistic day, and whose entire identity is based on a brighter future, is now a place of despair. The one thing every citizen in this country seems to agree on, regardless of ideological background or ethnic origin, is that something has gone horribly wrong. Nobody agrees on when or how or if it was ever better than it is today, but nearly every American now seems to agree that America is a shitty place, and only getting shittier.The one country in the world for whom pessimism was never in the national lexicon is now a place where everybody seems to dread a future worse than what came before. We won everything, and by winning, we lost.  


An overheard conversation:

"What's going on in Baltimore?"

"The Schvartzes have gone crazy."



Baltimore is one of the racial fault lines of America - it should be no surprise that this round of protests and riots started around St. Louis - the city closest to the exact center of the country. Baltimore has all of St. Louis's salient qualities: a huge black underclass, enough white progressives to help give them voice to their grievances, but not enough progressives to lift them out from where they come. Anywhere further north, and there would be enough liberals to make a dent in the underclass, anywhere further south and white conservative control over the black underclass would be so ironclad that a riot would be nearly impossible. Nowhere in America has had more hope continually dashed than Maryland. In pre-Civil War Baltimore, slaves and educated free blacks rubbed up against each other every day. After the war, Maryland's inability to secede meant they wouldn't get a cent of reconstruction money,and its antebellum progressivism ensured a law that all blacks must receive an education, and as a result, former slaves arrived in Maryland by the thousands. But the conservatism that forced Lincoln to treat Maryland so destructively ensured that the education could only be received in segregated schools. Black leaders, having hoped for a new day, had to explain to their constituents that they had to back Jim Crow so that the vision of a universally educated Black America could be fulfilled. Blacks and whites together served in the steel foundries of World War II, and many poor Southern whites came to Baltimore looking for well-paying jobs which the heirarchical South would never allow them. But when the jobs started moving out of Baltimore, the whites who were always wealthy moved away from Baltimore too. All that was left was poor black people living near poor white people.


For all the complaining this overprivileged white male does on a daily basis about the ineptitude of Baltimore's local artistic scene, Baltimore as a subject has produced more memorable, sometimes stunning, art about racial divides by great artists who know it intimately than nearly any other city in America: Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Liberty Heights, Serial, The Accidental Tourist, Roc, the Tess Monaghan series. We here in Baltimore are acquainted with tragedy, dashed hope, farce, and epically dramatic events as few if any American cities have ever been. Some cities are an American success story writ large. We are a million stories of American failure. But people from more secure places will never know success like a Baltimore success - to climb to victory over a millions obstacles, to make it in a town that conspires to take it away. For those few who ever made it, how sweet it must be. But we are the city of failure, and by losing everything, we have gained the freedom to be ourselves which so few others ever did. 

No comments:

Post a Comment