Writing the Urban Discourse into the Black Ghetto Imaginary: Louise Meriwether's Daddy Was a Number Runner

Article excerpt

Starting with the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, the city has emerged as a site of racial geography that constructs blackness and whiteness in terms of spatial definitions. (1) The racialized urban space introduced a cognitive map of the predominantly white city where the ghetto became "an ideological construct" (Sugrue 229) even more than a physical one. Since the 1960S black ghettos have become the subject of serious sociological research that analyzes inner-city communities in close scrutiny. (2) The sociopolitical and ideological constructs that caused the spatial isolation of black Americans were achieved by "a conjunction of racist attitudes, private behaviors, and institutional practices that disenfranchised blacks from urban housing markets and led to the creation of the ghetto" (Massey & Denton 83). Since the historical frame of reference of the term "ghetto" (3) signifies a spatialized term, it also signifies, as the Kerner Report of 1968 suggests, that "white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto" (qtd. in Bernasconi 345). (4) The fact that blacks are confined to the black ghetto is a forceful statement on the ideology of whiteness: the historical and political agency involved in the creation of the ghetto signifies "the collapse of public institutions" (5) in the city since the mid-1970s (Wacquant, 438). Hence, the black ghetto, in Joe W. Trotter's terms, draws attention to "the presence of white racism in the socioeconomic and political life of the city" (4).

Segregation in ghettos has caused unemployment and the social isolation of black people, "reducing their chances of acquiring the human capital skills, including adequate educational training," that facilitate upward mobility (Wilson, "From Institutional to Jobless Ghettos" 121). The neo-racist strategy of racializing urban space in an attempt to pathologize black bodies results in seeing drug use, unemployment, prostitution, welfare dependency, and teenage childbearing as a natural outcome of the decline of inner cities. The 1965 Moynihan Report conceptualizes the black ghetto as a site of pathology, because of the socioeconomic system responsible for the black urban poor which causes other forms of pathology. (6) The pathology of the ghetto is also at the basis of the culture-of-poverty argument that proposes the thesis that people are poor because their culture is defective, blaming the victim in its assertion that "basic values and attitudes of the ghetto subculture have been internalized and thereby influence behavior" (Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged 61). Starting in the 1960s, urban studies of ghetto life have utilized research data to show "how the experiences and the patterns of conduct of ghetto residents are shaped by powerful structural constraints in urban American society" (Wilson, "Introduction" xii). Sociologists investigate measurable conditions and observable social behaviors in terms of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status. But "urban culture has other dimensions that do not lend themselves so easily to quantitative analysis or narrative description" (LeGates & Stout, "Introduction" 91). Here, ghetto fiction plays a crucial role, as literary representations of the ghetto show different dimensions of ghetto life which cannot be measured by quantitative analysis. By its definition, ghetto fiction as an urban cultural genre forms a city discourse in which the black ghetto is the site of devalorization against the "white" city. Textualizing the ghetto becomes a way of seeing the city. (7) We see ghetto residents are not passive victims; on the contrary, they struggle to find effective strategies of survival. Racialized urban space creates an ambivalence that obscures the interactions between the black ghetto and the white city. The ghetto signifies the social construction of a marginal space, reconstructing the city "as a mechanism of spatial exclusion, surveillance, and social control" (Smith ix). …