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A Tale of Too Many Cities: Blackness, or Post-Blackness, in America

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The grave of Frederick Douglass in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY.
The grave of Frederick Douglass in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY.

I went across country this past week to discover -- rediscover -- how remarkably similar American cities are. Rochester is to my eyes a mid-sized town, though it's the third-largest city in New York: notably woody and almost quaint in spots, with a cozy main street and houses that looked to me stately and charmingly old, even the ones that haven't aged all that well. But it is, as its own mayor declared in the local paper recently, a tale of two Rochesters.

One Rochester is comfortable and relatively prosperous and white; the other is the opposite, which almost by definition means working-class to poor, struggling and black. The public schools are predominantly black and mostly dysfunctional. Just like L.A., Rochester had a serious riot in the '60s that resulted in some civic soul-searching that then led to some efforts at reform and urban growth, which too soon petered out and wasn't replaced with enough. In the absence of enough, things declined in the lesser half of Rochester without anybody raising too many objections, and then the Great Recession/depression revealed in stark detail what had been true for a long time.

The question now is the question then. Rochester is headquarters for once-quintessential American companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox, both of which have been outstripped by technological developments and are relative shadows of their former selves. The city is soon having a fifty-year observation of that momentous riot of July 1964, which was touched off by a young black man's encounter with police, but on a deeper level it was about black discontent over being shut out of decent employment that seemed more possible at the time in Rochester than just about anywhere. More possible, but that's about as close as things got.

We'll have a similar observation here next, I'm sure, to mark the fifty years since Watts burned. It is an odd thing to commemorate, a riot, unless the commemoration is a celebration of the great progress or peace made in the aftermath. But that hasn't been the case, so these observations mostly serve to remind us of how open-ended history is, especially black history. If we can refocus attention on the problems that fed the unrest in the first place, that's fine, but that never happens either. So despite the usual bold rhetoric about change and moving forward, these things get almost morbid.

I went there to attend a literary conference about the highly controversial notion of post-blackness at the University of Rochester. In a very elegantly appointed room that had a wall inscribed with the history of the man who invented xerography, scholars and writers like myself deconstructed the already considerably deconstructed idea, advanced by the author and MSNBC personality Toure, that blackness is something to which black people don't need to limit themselves anymore.

Like consciousness itself, blackness is ultimately a bit impossible to describe, something at once real and wholly invented, with the truth shifting constantly in the vast middle. But whatever blackness is precisely, any proposal to escape it necessarily assumes it is a negative, and this is what we had all gathered to dispute. We did that very well, I have to say, in great, dizzying detail that included charts and videos and fine-tuned analyses of history, politics, culture, and literary texts. But the on-the-ground reality of blackness -- an undebatable reality that never seems to sell as many books as sexy but highly speculative theories like "post-blackness" -- overshadowed everything.

After the conference, my last morning in Rochester, a friend showed me the sights, including the grave of Frederick Douglass. In a park near the cemetery, a bronzed statue of Douglass stood on a grassy slope erect and dignified, but very much alone. I was struck by an isolation, which said volumes; the great abolitionist belongs spiritually to both Rochesters -- to blacks and whites across the land, across time -- but because so much history is incomplete, he can't really rest in either place.

My friend told me on the cold afternoon of Obama's first inauguration, he went and sat at Douglass's grave; he figured he would have approved. Most likely he would have. What Douglass would have to say now, six years later, with virtually no change in the conditions of African Americans everywhere? I don't know, but I do know that his famous caution about power conceding nothing without a demand still applies. Even with the power being, at long last, a black man.

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