Structure Matters: “Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community” and (Yet Another) Respectability Failure

Orange Mound Park, Photo by Thomas R. Machnitzki

Orange Mound Park, Photo by Thomas R. Machnitzki

 

My mother grew up at Midland and Boston in the Belt Line, a small working class subdivision in Orange Mound, in the 1950s and 1960s. Orange Mound is widely recognized as the nation’s first black neighborhood, and came into being when businessman Elzey Eugene Meachem bought the land from the Deadericks, who had run a sprawling plantation on the space. Meachem divided the land into plots and sold it to the city’s growing black population, pouring into Memphis from its rural surroundings in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Because of Orange Mound, and later, black communities in South Memphis and North Memphis, Memphis once boasted the largest percentage of black homeownership in the nation. (Because of unequal and racially discriminatory housing policies, the city posted some of the largest losses amongst black homeowners in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. But I digress.) In Orange Mound, like in black communities across the country, residents created a strong sense of place that was rooted in racial uplift and the kind of general, if tenuous and fraught, mutual dependency that segregation necessitated.

Let the Politics of Respectability tell it, my mother came of age in the final two decades of “community” in the neighborhood, as integration would come along and devastate Orange Mound like it would do to other black neighborhoods. Presented with new opportunities for access to schools, resources, and services in new neighborhoods, middle classes moved out, the story goes, and left working classes and the poor to languish in a “culture of poverty” that included drug abuse, teen pregnancy, absent fathers, violence, gangs, sagging pants, dreadlocks, braids, gold teeth, HIV/AIDS, slang talk, booty shorts, and Love and Hip-Hop Atlanta. When these middle classes moved out, the working classes and poor folks left behind forgot how to take care of the outside of their homes, and broken windows, peeling paint, and crooked shutters abounded. Old folks were afraid in their homes as a black urban dystopian Clockwork Orange took over. When the children of the poor and working classes grew up, they either fled the neighborhood or were too disrespectful of the neighborhood’s history, or too cracked out, to cut the grass. And then babies were raising babies and grandmothers were 35 instead of 55. If only the men would take responsibility for their families, then men would be men, women would be women, and poor nigras would remember their place (behaving quietly and respectably and not embarrassing the black middle classes) again.

*Pause here for yawn.*

This narrative has been roundly critiqued, of course, not only for its logical fallacy but also for its inaccuracy. First, we know that the notion that all black folks across class lived right next door to and across the street from each other is simply wrong. Even within the strictures of a segregated society, black middle classes and elite carved out separate spaces within black neighborhoods and engaged in social and physical boundary work to demarcate those spaces and identities. This was especially true in the South, where more black people proportionally meant more black neighborhoods, which were differentiated, though subtly and certainly not completely, by status and wealth. And Orange Mound, like South Memphis, was comprised more of poor, working class, and what we might consider lower middle class blacks, than the relatively elite blacks of neighborhoods in North Memphis. Further, class, gender, and sexuality differences have always complicated black political organizing, and these complications were reflected in a host of institutional spaces, from churches to schools to neighborhoods. Integration merely allowed for a more definitive physical separation between classes.

Further, we know that black people across class adhered to what are today called middle class values. Again, this is especially true in the South, where a stronghold of evangelicalism and religiosity, combined with the rural rearing of most people who came to populate black southern city neighborhoods, yielded a sort of dogged conservatism that has rendered southerners unprepared for a host of changes from shifts in the global economy to public health threats like HIV/AIDS. Certainly folks lived outside of this rigid respectability plane–and those folks tended to be poor and working class and were the ones who created the blues and later rock n’ roll, jazz, and hip-hop. Yet, the rule of the day was respectability, which observed no class boundaries.

Third, we know that for all its pressed hems, closed legs, and mannerable tones, the politics of respectability ain’t never stopped, can’t never stop, and won’t never stop shit structural. It ain’t stop white folks from lynching scores of black people. It ain’t stop white men from raping scores of black women. It ain’t stop police brutality. It ain’t stop racial microaggressions. And verily I tell you it ain’t stop deindustrialization, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, public education profiteering, changes in the welfare state that disproportionately disadvantaged black families, and that strategic disinvestment in the urban core known as urban renewal.

Unfortunately, some of the commentators in Emmanuel Amido’s new documentary, Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community, would have us believe that pre-integration was a happier, less contentious time for black folks simply because of the compelled closeness of the time (rather than the significant structural shifts that happened in tandem with desegregation); that “values” are essentially a possession of the middle classes, and without their guiding presence after integration, poor and working classes forgot how to act; and that the politics of respectability could stop urban renewal and global deindustrialization.

Selected for competition screening at this year’s Indie Memphis film festival, Orange Mound, Tennesseee is a stirring portrait of the people of Orange Mound, of their memories of the tight-knit southern community of religiosity, respectability, and education that made Orange Mound the community it was, and of the commitment of the community’s residents to the neighborhood’s history, present, and future. It focuses on the memories of long-standing families in the neighborhood as well as neighborhood elites–the griots, the keepers of the neighborhood’s history. Taking us inside the storied Melrose High, the neighborhood school, we walk the halls with (now former) principal and Melrose graduate Leviticus Pointer as he endeavors to impart wisdom and order to students. We hear the Melrose choir singing classical and classically respectable Negro spirituals. We learn the history of the community, its significance and importance, and the sense of place older residents attach to the neighborhood.

Like I do with most things that shed light on a/the black southern experience, I want desperately to love this documentary.

However, Amido’s portrait is one that eschews actual structural analysis–facts, as it were–for the voices of people who are in some ways tragically incapable of telling a story that does not emphasize personal responsibility as the central causal factor for the neighborhood’s decline. Besides clips from a cartoon about an evil villain profiting from neighborhood decline (interesting in itself but poorly contextualized for the documentary) and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who highlighted the role of Reagonomics and the importation of drugs into black communities as cause and context for the current state of Orange Mound and other such communities, structural chunks of the story were glaringly absent. This is largely a function of the sets of voices that are present and privileged in the narrative. Thus, despite the absolute essentialness and sheer beauty of the film, by relying too much on a narrow set of “experts” to theorize what he finds, Amido perpetuates the very stereotypes about inner-city neighborhoods and black people that he hopes to challenge.

Commentators in the film used phrases like “cycle of poverty” to talk about “babies having babies” with no indictment of the good southern churches in the neighborhood (and beyond) that refuse to engage in comprehensive sex education, that shame girls about their bodies and their desires, that take quiet pride in boys’ sexual prowess even if they in principle condemn their behavior, and the structures that cut young women off from access to reproductive health care. While there was handwringing over absent fathers, there was no discussion–NONE–of the prison industrial complex that profits from the incarceration of thousands of black and brown men, or of the changing structure of work that disadvantages the unskilled and working classes (and has done so since the 1960s), or of the ineffectualness of education to significantly improve poor people’s life chances, or of a shoddy physical and mental healthcare system that discriminates against people of color. “Permissive” parents (read: single mothers) were blamed for the state of the neighborhood without mention of deindustrialization, a discriminatory labor market, the prison industrial complex (and the misguided and unfair war on drugs that feeds it), or urban disinvestment.

To let the commentators tell the story, Orange Mound is not only racially segregated but is isolated from the effects of structure as well. At one point, a young white male visual artist who has  moved into Orange Mound says that children of single parents are 70% more likely to have poor educational outcomes and live a life of crime. Beyond the fact that this is simply a boldface case of lying with statistics, I almost screamed at the screen, “DID YOU CONTROL FOR CLASS & EDUCATION DOE?!?!” (In case you’re wondering, the answer to that is, “of course he didn’t, because he’s a visual artist, and not a statistician.” Poor people are exposed to structural violence that disadvantages them and their children–violence not endemic to the state of single motherhood. Further, unlike white single mothers, few black mothers are raising children “alone” even if the child’s biological father is not involved at all. The same complex kin networks that made possible the imagined community of pre-integration also make possible childrearing networks. The problem is, as my colleague LaShawnDa Pittman argues, that these networks are now stretched far too thin as labor market changes allow less leeway for caring for ailing parents, small grandchildren, and oneself simultaneously with limited resources.) Amido offers nothing to contextualize, challenge, or simply correct these various assertions of “fact.” Consequently, fallacious and problematical opinions reign as gospel truth. Because these statements are presented as plausible, and because the only check on them is Whalum and the housing cartoon, we can only assume that Amido has uncritically accepted these explanations as well–which I hope and do not think is the case.

Watching the film in an audience of largely white folks save for a few black folks sprinkled here and there and a contingent of folks from Orange Mound who had participated in the documentary, I became increasingly irritated with the tired, trite explanations for neighborhood change. If we went into a white midwestern or southern town overcome by methamphetamine, would we say permissive parents and the absence of middle class values were the cause of the town’s woes? Should we allow people on the street with certain epistemological predispositions to explain Obamacare to the masses without context or correction? If Moynihan could have had a film accompaniment to his report, this documentary, driven by the classist Cosbyian respectability politics and astructural commentary of a few powerful voices (of baby boomer blacks), would have been a contender.

In addition to the documentary’s lack of structural context for the changes in black communities over time, the film also does not grapple with broader processes of urban change. Similar projects about neighborhoods endeavor more wholeheartedly to simultaneously present a structural narrative in concert with a “people” narrative, which this documentary should have done as well if it wants to make the bold claim that Orange Mound is “America’s community.” I certainly believe that Orange Mound is America’s community, and that there is an important story there to be told about history, race, region, class, culture, and neighborhood change from Reconstruction to Obama. However, the documentary may not incline viewers to take ownership of this community, since, to let some of the commentators tell it, it got itself into this mess.

America’s most vulnerable communities aren’t declining because of permissive parents and the absence of (middle class) “vallllllews.” City governments, in concert with realtors, lenders, other elite stakeholders, and sometimes the federal government, strategically disinvest in certain neighborhoods to create capital for the few with the latent consequence of further impoverishment or displacement for people in those neighborhoods. Public transportation in and out of these neighborhoods is underfunded and sometimes unreliable. Access to quality food and healthcare is scarce, which affects people’s ability to work, parent, and do a host of other things. (White) Homeowners and banks are often absent and irresponsible about property upkeep in black and poor neighborhoods where renters are a significant percentage of residents. Jobs are often a geographic and skills mismatch for the people who need them the most. Like other cities, we constantly lure companies here who pay few or no taxes and who pay our workers, the most vulnerable, the least.  We won’t even fund quality education that will ensure that folks can do better because then how will we lure companies who want and need vulnerable workers that they can underpay and fatten their bottom lines with before they relocate to the global South? And then how will middle class (white) Memphians get kudos for sticking it out in a poor black city with big heart?

I will reserve comment on the young white suburban folks who are moving into the neighborhood to minister to people. Whalum says they’re not gentrifiers, but good people who really are operating from a place of love. Reserving. Comment.

I know that it might be difficult to engage in critical structural analysis, especially in a documentary like this one. However, Amido’s own admitted biases about inner-city neighborhoods are still on full display, despite the immense and genuine respect he has gained for the people of Orange Mound over the course of filming. When asked in the Q&A about the lack of structural analysis, he fumbled and launched the “cycle of poverty” play. When asked why the voices of these young folks who are supposedly responsible for neighborhood decline weren’t in the documentary, Amido replied that he had, in fact, interviewed them, but that they did not want to be featured in the film because many of them “are wanted.” (Sidenote: If I could get away with it, I might also tell someone that I didn’t completely trust that I had warrants to avoid appearing in a way I couldn’t control in a documentary.) His description of the circumstances they find themselves in–they’re incarcerated, they can’t get jobs, they turn to crime because they can’t get jobs, etc.–still doesn’t fully attend to structure. These men are more likely to be incarcerated for petty drug offenses because of the structure of racialized policing and a racist criminal justice system, which has nothing to do with permissive parents and values and everything to do with white supremacy. We know that black folks don’t even have to commit an actual crime to be swept up into the jaws of the criminal justice system. Just be in the wrong place. Or hell, be in the right place. Really, just be in your body.

The film suffers deeply from the absence of their voices. We get Negro spirituals–a respectable black expression–but no Melrose High School band, a clear and intergenerational centerpiece of the neighborhood’s identity. There are scores of rap songs repping Orange Mound (can you really make a documentary called Orange Mound, Tennessee and not play Eightball and MJG’s “Coming Out Hard,” like, throughout the entire soundtrack?), but nothing about the ways in which rap and hip-hop music continue the legacy of the neighborhood, deepen its sense of place, and extend its reach far beyond Memphis and the nation to the world. And there are ways to work in the perspectives of folks who don’t want to be on camera, especially if they hold such a crucial piece of the story. Without their voices, the documentary implicitly invites us–folks who aren’t their peers–to try them in absentia in Respectability Court.

As a stunning visual oral history of Orange Mound, Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community works quite well, highlighting the voices of people who have lived through the neighborhood’s transition and their commitment to the community, despite the neighborhood’s change over time. The older residents featured in the film are hopeful about their community, if sometimes sad about the change, and we root for them as keepers of the legacy. Yet, as a comment on community change in America, and especially black community change, the documentary is an epic failure of respectability politics that presents a truncated history from the viewpoint of experts on respectability and personal responsibility. To understand what happened and what will happen in the future of the community, as Amido wants to do, a more careful and deliberate tangle with structural factors, as well as an engagement of the voices of young people, is essential.

This is the first of three reviews of films that screened at the 2013 Indie Memphis Festival. Click here for my review of Review of Susanna Vapnek’s Mabon Teenie Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original and Jonathan Isom’s I AM SOUL.

Comments

  1. Gay Taylor says

    Zandria, what an excellent critique. I didn’t see the movie you discuss but I did go to Melrose from 7th through 12th grade in the sixties. The time when I actually lived in Orange Mound was only a couple of years but I always felt a sense of community about Orange Mound, TN.

    The issues you mention are the structural causes of the problems addressed and you are so right, you cannot address these problems without evening mentioning the underlying causes. I look forward to your documentary that corrects these oversights and really gets to the heart of the matter. When is that forthcoming?

  2. zandria says

    Ha! The documentary wasn’t irrevocably broken. He just needs to edit some things out and add in some structural analyses. I do want to transition to doing documentaries, though, so I hope to bring some things to the screen soon!

  3. says

    Zandria, thank you for this insightful critique. I finally saw the film last night, and was glad to read your piece this morning as I continued to think about the many things I thought were misguided, incomplete, and just plain wrong in the film, as well as the things that were beautiful and valuable about it.

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