African Americans, California, and Place

An article titled “Black Population Drops to 3.9% in San Francisco” in the February 4, 2011 in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, got me thinking.

The percentage of African Americans in California was never very high even when I lived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. My sense was you were either very poor or extremely rich. A handful of us lived somewhere in the middle. Where you lived and the type housing you lived in was and is defined by your socio-economic status.  Not so nice neighborhoods were more concrete than grass and trees. Nice neighborhoods had more access to recreational amenities like local and state parks, and even the ocean. This dichotomy was true for African Americans living in that sprawling city I once called home.

Director Michael Mann made even the gritty poorer neighborhoods look good soaked by electric lights, stars, and the moon in the story of a white hit-man played by Tom Cruise and a cabdriver portrayed by Jaime Foxx:

Based on the article, I considered  African Americans in urban/suburban place/environments. For example, people across ethnic lines yearn(ed) for suburban McMansions, as noted in the article, where African Americans have been increasingly migrating from San Francisco to places like Antioch to sprawl out on larger tracts of land. In another example, gentrification has long redefined cities including those in California for impoverished blacks. Historically, they have been forced out of the only places they have known, their cities of concrete, asphalt, a few struggling trees, and some patches of crabgrass. Upper middle-class people often come in and replaced the former occupants of  public housing.

Socio-economic status does define where you live, the meaning of place, and what your urban and suburban environment look like. I am constantly reminded by this issue of social justice when it comes to these landscapes and African American people.

Siren Dinah Washington Sings “This Bitter Earth”

Oh, the glorious sounds of Dinah Washington. I sat upright one afternoon when I heard the words and notes of “This Bitter Earth.”

Ms. Washington was born in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She left behind a powerful and enduring legacy of her torch songs when she died in 1963 of a drug overdose. Her albums spanned from 1950 to 1967. Listen to the full range of her artistry with her 1999 box set titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.

Her haunting torch song  “This Bitter Earth” (1960) was on the movie soundtrack of Killer Sheep, a film of African Americans set in Watts in Los Angeles during the 1970s. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart for one week and was #24 on the pop chart in 1960.

Listen to Ms. Washington sing:

The lyrics to “This Bitter Earth” are as beautiful as the melody:

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter earth
Can it be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon your old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all

Ms. Washington, you are remembered in this time when environmentalism is part of the our common parlance. This bitter earth . . .