Who are these new folx on the block?! In this episode, Brendane and Alyssa are talking about gentrification, blackness, mambo sauce, and the new show Harlem (2021) on Amazon Prime that has Blackademic Twitter abuzz. There are definitely spoilers in this episode!
What’s the Word? Gentrification. We explain the term, its origins, and the causes and effects of gentrification on those who are displaced.
What We’re Reading. “‘D.C. is mambo sauce’: Black cultural production in a gentrifying city” by Ashanté M. Reese. This essay centers mambo sauce as the object of observation* to examine larger tensions related to race, class, and power in the city. Both Brendane and Alyssa have Capital City Co mambo sauce in their fridges, speaking to the way materials associated with Blackness is appropriated, commodified, and circulated. We discuss the way these materials of belonging for Black people become markers of authenticity at the same time Black people are being pushed out of their neighborhoods.
What In the World?! We ask why are they gentrifying oxtail, and discuss the new TV series Harlem (2021), directed by Malcolm D. Lee that features four Black women navigating life and love in the city. We discuss the trap of representation, the in/accurate portrayal of our department, and the ways Black women are often forced to sacrifice something for success. We also discuss the census and the way population dynamics have shifted in the neighborhood in the past decade.
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Two, Episode Seven
Co-hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa A.L. James
Title: Harlem Ever After
Total Length: 01:21:27
[00:00:23] Brendane: Hey y’all! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we discuss popular culture with a Black feminist anthropological lens. I’m Brendane and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:00:32] Alyssa: Hi everyone! I’m Alyssa and I use she/her/hers pronouns as well.
[00:00:37] Alyssa: Before we get into the episode, we just wanted to say that we stand in solidarity with the student workers of Columbia University who are currently on strike. And we support the demands for living wages, better healthcare and childcare access, support for international students, and protection from harassment. So we ask that you join us in denouncing the university’s intimidation tactics and call on the administration to agree to a fair contract for graduate workers as they undergo arbitration. If you’d like to donate to the strike fund, the link will be in the episode description.
[00:01:11] Brendane: Yes, so today we are talking about gentrification, Blackness, mambo sauce—mm—and the new show Harlem, which is on the devil’s channel, lol. Before we get started, though, we wanted to say thank you to all of our supporters. Thank you to everyone who has donated to the podcast or engaged with us on Instagram and Twitter. We wouldn’t be doing this without you. Y’all are actually keeping the proverbial lights on this holiday season. You know, the stipend checks—
[00:01:44] Alyssa: They don’t—yeah, they don’t be hittin’. They don’t be hittin’.
[00:01:47] Brendane: They don’t be hittin’! By the time—you know, in September they hit, but by December? You know, you’re making a dollar out of a dime. So if you would like to donate, please head to our website zorasdaughters.com. We also love non-monetary support, so leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and follow us at zorasdaughters on Instagram and zoras_daughters on Twitter. Also, we find that the way most people hear about us is through word of mouth, so please share our podcast with your friends, your family, or suggested it instead of or alongside that Masterclass that everyone has such strong opinions about. [Laughter] Anyway, let’s get to it with our word for the day, shall we? What’s the word for today, Alyssa?
[00:02:38] Alyssa: All right, our word for today is “gentrification.” Here we are—it’s all going to make sense, that’s all we’re talking about today. And according to my wonderful Dictionary of Sociology, gentrification is “the upgrading of decaying, normally inner-city housing, involving physical renovation, the displacement of low-status occupants by higher income groups, and (frequently) tenure change from private rental to home ownership.” So the term was first used by the British urban sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, which makes sense, actually, since the root of [the word] gentrification is “gentry,” like the British noble class. And so as I was reading the definition, I was like, “You know what, let me just look up ‘inner city,’ too,” because even though I know what people are trying to say—I know what you’re saying when you say inner city—I wanted to understand what’s really meant by it particularly in a geographical or in a sociological sense. And so my trusty dictionary, when I did look up inner city, it sent me to a different term, which is “zone of transition.” And so the inner city is also known as a zone of transition, which is an urban area between the central business district and outer rings of working class and middle-class residences, like the suburbs, that contain slum houses. And typically, it’s inhabited by poor ethnic minorities and socially deviant groups.
[00:04:05] Brendane: You know, what are they really saying that they’re not saying, you know? According to the CDC report “Health Effects of Gentrification,” it is “a housing, economic, and health issue that affects the community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. [Gentrification] often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics…by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.” So I wanna hold on to that question of social capital and how that is transformed. In Sabiyha Prince’s 2005 article “Race, Class, and the Packaging of Harlem,” she points out that many of her Harlem interlocutors have lived in Harlem for most of their lives. They know their neighbors and are caregivers to elderly family members. So when you price people out of the neighborhoods that they’ve grown up in, what do you think happens to their social connections, to the kin networks they’ve had or created? They are obviously gone, right? So—right?!—like, you know, what impact does that have on their health? I mean, think about restaurants and food and things like that, which is central to this episode. But what about these networks that disappear? Gentrification is often posited as a value-add that “cleans up” communities, and implicitly improves the lives of everyone. But does it actually?
[00:05:26] Alyssa: Yeah, that’s the real question. Because once that stuff happens, then you have the policy recommendations that say, “Okay, we’re going to put in mixed-income housing,” which has actually been shown in a variety of studies to be completely useless, particularly for the low-income folks. It doesn’t do what it says it should do, and even what it says it should do is quite messed up, if you ask me. And what they say is that it will actually help with social capital, because low-income folks will have the opportunity to create connections with those with a higher income and who have more social networks and will help them get jobs and things like that.
[00:06:03] Brendane: Right. Cuz you just talk to people in your apartment building.
[00:06:06] Alyssa: Exactly. Yeah. Cuz that’s literally—
[00:06:09] Brendane: [Laughs] Definitely New York life.
[00:06:10] Alyssa: Yeah [laughs]. Listen, one time, I screamed in the apartment and [laughs]—I screamed in the apartment cuz something scared me. And my partner goes next door and he’s like, “Hey, you know, have you been having the same issue as us?” And she was like, “Oh, yeah. I heard your girlfriend scream. I didn’t come over.” I was just like, “Wow, that’s some real New York stuff right there. ‘I wasn’t even gonna check.’“
[00:06:35] Brendane: [Laughs] Imma mind my business.
[00:06:40] Alyssa: Imma mind my business.
[00:06:42] Brendane: “Imma wait for the rat news network to tell me what’s going on,” basically [laughter].
[00:06:48] Alyssa: So yes. It doesn’t work because people spend time with the people who are similar to them. So if you all are familiar with Morgan Jerkins, she wrote the book, This Will Be My Undoing. In 2015, she wrote an essay for The Guardian about how she realized that she was gentrifying Harlem, she was participating in its gentrification and its change—I was gonna say, “changement,” oh my gosh. French—French and English mixing together [laughter]. And it’s “changement.” [Jerkins] thought that she would fit in as a Black woman, even though she was from New Jersey. She was like, “I’m gonna just slide right in there.” And then she realizes, “Oh, I’m gentrifying, too.” She doesn’t know any Harlemites, right? She spends time with other professionals, her friends who also went to Ivy League universities. So if that’s who you have moving into mixed-income housing, they’re gonna spend time with their friends. They’re not gonna start talking to residents that they don’t know and residents who have lived in the city the whole time. They’re not gonna be like, “Oh, let me go and make friends with this bougie-ass person [laughs] who just moved into this neighborhood who has actually displaced me from my original apartment building or my home,” or something like that.
[00:08:07] Brendane: Right, like, that’s why mixed-income housing doesn’t do what folks think, right? And actually, for those who move into the affordable units, they don’t even have access to the luxury building amenities. I’ve heard that multiple times from people who’ve moved into those kind of apartment buildings. Like, they don’t have the washer/dryer in-unit, they have the laundry mat that’s at the basement, you know. Their apartments are smaller—and possibly more raggedy, which, you know—
[00:08:39] Alyssa: Definitely.
[00:08:40] Brendane: If we’re thinkin’ about New York scale of raggedy to luxury, there’s a lotta room. So [laughs] it’s, like, not a secret that these developers create mixed-income housing, because they want to have tax write-offs. There’s certain privileges you get as a developer, when you say, “Oh, I have some affordable housing units in my high rise.” And they’re trying to do the least possible to maximize their profits.
[00:09:08] Alyssa: Seriously. I’ve even heard of places where they can’t use the same entrance as market rate residents. So what does that—what does that sound like? Hmph, okay. And honestly, I have seen the affordable housing lottery apartments in New York City. I am on Housing Connect. Real ones know [laughs].
[00:09:30] Brendane: I was on there when I first moved to New York.
[00:09:33] Alyssa: Real ones know, and it doesn’t even make any sense to me. The rents are often so high in comparison to the maximum salary that I still couldn’t afford to live there. And then, if they are actually affordable, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a $700 unit for a studio. Got it”—there’s only two of them available. So you know you’re not gonna get it. It doesn’t even make sense. So, with that said, I’m actually curious—and it’s something I’ve been thinking about living in Harlem—you know, I’m curious about what triggers gentrification and if it’s possible to prevent or mitigate it, while still improving a community and continuing to serve the people who live and are from there. And so I guess it would be rising rents in the main part of the city. But then, you know, when I think about it, there are definitely some parts of Baltimore that aren’t gentrified, like that one neighborhood you drove me through last month. [Laughs] I was like, “Yeah, that looks like Harlem in the 90s.”
[00:10:35] Brendane: Well, even that place is rapidly changing, right? Every year, thousands of Black Baltimorean residents are displaced from their homes as “redevelopment” happens. The other day, I was driving through that exact same area for the exact same reason that we drove through. And I actually saw a sign that revitalization is coming to the very neighborhood that you saw—East 29th to East 43rd. There’s this huge sign that says—yeah, it’s like, “Revitalization is coming and is to be completed by November 2022.” There are a lot of studies with different responses to gentrification. Like most complex things, there is no reason or single cause of it. I even saw an article with an A-to-Z list: Artists to Zoning. So, artists declining crime rates, an influx of independent stores, improved transit, economic opportunity policies—that, of course, only benefit those who don’t need that economic opportunity, really, right—job growth, traffic, lack of housing, and there’s definitely more, but for a place like Harlem and a place like Baltimore, these decreased crime rates and an already established Black middle class probably had a lot to do with it.
[00:12:00] Alyssa: True. I’ve actually heard that artists, queer folks, and students, they tend to make places trendy. So when they start moving in—and generally for queer folks, it’s, like, they’re people who have been discriminated out of living in particular areas, so now they start moving to another area, then it becomes trendy. And then once they move in, the middle class moves in. And so Columbia, for example—Columbia University in the city of New York—has definitely been bringing students to Harlem for a while. And we can definitely say—and you had a class that kinda addressed this and the way that the university has been complicit in some of this displacement and gentrification of Harlem. In any case, of course, I had a chat with bae about this episode. I know y’all love hearing about him [laughter]. But he actually is one of the few people I know who was born and raised in Harlem. And I’m pretty sure any of the other ones I know, I know through him, so I don’t think I get out enough. Anyway, I asked him if he thought Black people could gentrify. That’s a hot topic. Is it? I don’t know, maybe. It should be. And so he said that he didn’t think so because there’s a component of gentrification that involves cultural erasure. And Black people tend to move here because they identify with Harlem’s culture, Harlem’s history, its people, and not because they want to change it or get rid of it altogether. So with that, I was like, “Okay, I can’t even argue except to play devil’s advocate.”
[00:13:38] Brendane: In true Aquarian style [laughter].
[00:13:42] Alyssa: Cuz I [unclear]. The only little amendment I would make is that I don’t think cultural erasure is what’s at stake. And as we’ll see in our next segment, it’s more of a museumification of culture. I’m not making that word up, but I might be using it incorrectly, so the museum studies folks, y’all can come for me. But what I think it is, is it treats the neighborhood or the city as though its cultural vibrance and production—like music, art and festivals—they treat it like it’s a thing of the past and the refined or, you know, whitened versions are what’s on offer that demonstrate that the place hasn’t lost its authenticity. But we know that authenticity rhetoric often means stasis and that doesn’t work for culture or for human life in general. So that narrative doesn’t really allow for Black geographies to be understood as living, breathing communities that are always changing.
[00:14:41] Brendane: You know, I feel like you planned for this to be a great transition into what we’re reading today.
[00:14:48] Alyssa: Girl, everyone knows that we script these episodes [laughter].Yes, so what we’re reading is “’D.C. is mambo sauce‘: Black cultural production in a gentrifying city” by Ashanté M. Reese. Dr. Ashanté M. Reese earned a PhD in anthropology from American University. Broadly speaking, Dr. Reese works at the intersection of critical food studies and Black geographies, examining the ways Black people produce and navigate food-related spaces. Animated by the question “Who and what survives?” Dr. Reese’s work has focused on the everyday strategies Black people employ while navigating inequity. Her first book Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, DC, takes up these themes through an ethnographic exploration of anti-Blackness and food access. Black Food Geographies won the 2020 Best Monograph Award from the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the 2020 Margaret Mead Award jointly awarded by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. Currently, Dr. Reese is working on a cultural history of sugar and Sugar Land, Texas, in which she explores the spatial economic and carceral implications of sugar and the sometimes contradictory and deadly sweetness that marks Black life. A committed teacher, Dr. Reese was the recipient of the 2020-2021 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship. So I’m really excited to be reading her work for the podcast. I actually had a Zoom meeting with her last year when I was working through my exam lists, and she was super helpful with me. You know, she really got me thinking about different ways to come at food and farming in my particular project.
[00:16:32] Brendane: Yes. Well, I have not met Dr. Reese in person yet—imma say “yet”—but you are lucky. I’ve heard so much about her and her work, so it’s a pleasure to discuss today. This essay takes mambo sauce as the object of analysis through which Reese comes to understand the class and racial tensions that are foregrounded by gentrification in DC. I found it to be an approachable introduction to critical food studies, honestly, for me. I am a Taurus Venus who enjoys food, but I actually cannot bring myself to study it. But I will say—and this—mambo sauce is mentioned specifically in the article—I have Capital City company mambo sauce in my fridge and in my cabinet. My ex put me on and my fries have not been the same since.
[00:17:23] Alyssa: I, too, have Capital City mambo sauce in my fridge. Okay, so [laughs] we did not choose that article for this reason. It’s actually—it’s just the universe coming together nicely for us as it often does. So it was actually gifted by one of bae’s friends the last time we were in DC. So, yes. It’s a very—we could talk about that, we could talk about that, actually. Cuz this whole mambo sauce gets interesting. In any case, Reese uses this essay to write about how mambo sauce travels—which I can say it is at least to my kitchen here in New York, to Brendane’s kitchen in [with accent] Baltimore. Did I say it right? No? [Laughs]
[00:18:09] Brendane: [With accent] Baltimore? Baltimore.
[00:18:10] Alyssa: [With accent] Baltimore [laughter]. But of course, that is not what Reese means, per se. So in DC, space becomes marked by the presence or absence of this meaningful condiment that has a role in distinguishing DC, which is where Black folks live, and Washington, which is the government center—or at least it’s separated in that way by some of her interlocutors. Mambo sauce is a condiment served with chicken wings at carryout restaurants, which Reese’s interlocutor explains serves strictly Chinese food, right? So when they say—it’s like takeout, but they’re talking about Chinese food. And specifically, Black people are eating the wings, the French fries, the fried rice, things like that, not all of the Chinese food. And each restaurant has a slightly different recipe or version. So they switch up the ingredients and it gives it a different flavor because they are—they’re kind of trying to, like, accommodate for the tastes of people in their neighborhoods. And so the essay tracks the movement of mambo sauce from historically Black and in low-income neighborhoods, to upscale and mainstream restaurants, another example of the way material associated with Blackness is appropriated, commodified, and circulated. At the same time, these materials of belonging for Black people become markers of authenticity, a sign that the city isn’t losing the charm that drew them to it in the first place—for the interlopers—even as Black people are being pushed out of the city. It’s that museumification we discussed earlier.
[00:19:42] Brendane: Right, for sure. In the article, Dr. Reese starts with the micro—this kind of everyday material—rather than these major questions of displacement and dispossession that are commonly associated with talking about Black life in the city to remind us that symbolic violence can be slow and it can also be small. And by small, it’s not just about the tiny mambo sauce packet, but also an attention to the affective, these emotional connections that one has with foods. So what we eat and what we consume—and I’m marking consumption as something different from eating—carry so much more than “nutritional value”—and I’m doing my little air quotes here because we’ve talked about fatphobia, right, so nutritional value is tied up in that—and that determines whether something is “healthy” or “unhealthy.” So our food signals borders, boundaries, traditions, family histories, as well as colonial histories of displacement and dispossession. And Reese aims to have us consider those different textures as we think about gentrification. How does mambo sauce as a metaphor and a material signal shifts, undoings, and realignments as gentrification shifts the racial landscape of DC? And she actually interestingly talks about in her methods—I found—and she talks about walking through the city with her interlocutors. And one way that she marks these shifts and realignments is through these formations of these “chocolate maps,” which she draws from Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life by Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria Robinson. So these chocolate maps are sites and networks of places where Black culture is created, maintained, and defended, and mambo sauce firmly holds his place on DC’s chocolate city map—even though DC is no longer Chocolate City, it’s Latte [City] [laughs].
[00:21:35] Alyssa: What did they say, Latte, Cappuccino City? Cappuccino [laughs].
[00:21:40] Brendane: She tracks this movement of mambo sauce from the hearts and carryouts of Black DC to the Black-owned Capital City Company that sells the packaged mambo sauce that sits in Alyssa and her boo’s fridge and in my cabinet and my fridge. And then transverses the Anacostia to the upscale restaurant named The Hamilton just a mile away from the White House. Reese explains that food is just one of the ways that, in particular, white and middle-class people play and engage with difference, how they “contest and transverse”—or “and traverse,” excuse me—the boundaries of what is safe and what is not.
[00:22:16] Alyssa: It’s so interesting. So the reason I was saying we can talk about the mambo sauce in my fridge, because of—specifically, because of who it was given to us by. So when I went in the summer, it was my second time in DC. The first time, I was with a white friend, so we did not talk about this mambo sauce. Didn’t hear about it, had no idea. This time we were visiting bae’s friends—a couple, they’re Black, they grew up in DC—or definitely in the DMV. And they were like, “Oh yeah, you’ve got to take home some mambo sauce with you from Capital City.” And so he went to one of the grocery stores and picked it up for us and gave us, like, a spicy version then the mild version. And I was like, “Okay, but why mambo sauce? What is it?” And he was just like—his friend, his name is Langston—I’m name-dropping—he was just like, “Yeah, you know, we—this is just something that we that we eat here. It’s like an—just an old school, grew up with it. And then this—you know, this Black woman, she created this brand to sell, you know, and they sell mambo sauce. So you just have to try it when you get home like—you know, have it with some fries or with chicken wings.” And so he was just really explaining it to me, and I was just like, “Oh, this is really interesting. This is different.” I like mambo sauce now. It’s very tasty [laughs].
[00:23:37] Brendane: Yeah, I’ve had it a couple of times. Like I said, my ex—my ex went to University of Maryland in College Park and so it’s like—oh, when we moved down to Baltimore together last year, it’s like, “Oh yeah, we gotta try all these different mambo sauces and different carry outs and stuff.” And it is different depending on what carry out you go to. Sometimes it takes more like ketchup. Sometimes it tastes—which, ugh, you know, ugh—
[00:24:04] Alyssa: Tastes more like barbecue sauce.
[00:24:05] Brendane: You know, tastes more like barbecue sauce. But the one that we both have, I think it really does have a unique taste to it. I like the spicy version, it’s like mmm. Yeah, it really does—it adds a little something to my fries [laughter]. I enjoy it but it’s—even your—you name-dropped Langston and I’m like, “Even the name Langston in an episode about gentrification of Harlem is, you know, the universe coming together” [laughs].
[00:24:36] Alyssa: I know. Well, his parents are—they were like big labor union activists in the area. I wanna to say like the 80s—like, just from like the 60s on. And there’s actually an article about them—about his parents—in The Times or something [laughs].
[00:24:59] Brendane: Oh wow!
[00:25:00] Alyssa: Yeah, so they’re very, like—uh, what is it?—very progressive in that sense. I also had to ask about what go-go and half-smokes are. It was in the article. So I got the answer on gogo, but they did not know what half-smokes are. Do you know what half-smokes are?
[00:25:22] Brendane: Unh-unh.
[00:25:25] Alyssa: All right, can someone from the DMV please write us, please send us an email, hit us up on Instagram, and just let us know. Cuz one of the T-shirts apparently says, “Mambo sauce, go-go, and half-smokes.” So go-go is a type of music. It’s like a DMV, like—maybe just [EDM?] [laughs]. Dance club music, something like that?
[00:25:47] Brendane: You know, it’s club music. I cannot say that I am a fan. But I’m also southern. I like Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, so if that is any indication of where my hip-hop—
[00:26:03] Alyssa: Where your knowledge lies?
[00:26:04] Brendane: —[Crosstalk] you know? It’s either Crunk Juice—Crunk Juice till I die [laughter].
[00:26:11] Alyssa: But I think—I mean, I think that shows the power of ethnography, right? And of, like, our anthropological toolkit, because Dr. Reese is not—she said she’s not from DC, I’m pretty sure. So she went there for grad school and—so she’s getting to know all of these, like, little cultural references that people wouldn’t necessarily have to explain to people who are from there. And so that’s what I really like about this article about anthropology as well, is the way that you have to—you have to really spend time with people and have them explain things to you in order to understand. And you can’t really—can you really understand another’s culture fully? No. But can you, like, come to know more about it through spending time with them? Yes. So it’s not just enough to read or observe, right? You really have to participate.
[00:27:08] Brendane: Or send out surveys. [Pause] [Laughter] You know, I had to do it, I had to. Okay, I’m done [laughter].
[00:27:18] Alyssa: But I mean, when we get to the next segment, that’s what they—that’s what one of the critiques of the main character is, is that she hasn’t done enough fieldwork, that you can’t, you know. And her mentor—or the woman she wants and wishes was her mentor—is like, “You really have to spend time with people. It’s not just enough to observe, you have to be in the community.” In any case, Reese brings it back to what Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a 2018 Facebook post about mambo sauce. She says that she had never heard of it until she was an adult. It’s not the be-all end-all of DC. And of course, she wouldn’t. Though she may be a Black woman, she grew up in northeast DC and she attended private schools. So she’s actually more aligned with the “newcomers and gentrifiers who have changed Chocolate City to Latte City.” So her comments do not reflect the significance of mambo sauce to DC, but rather her physical and symbolic distance from the people and places that serve it. Mambo sauce is not part of her social map, even though she’s a Black woman. And her experience highlights how class and race must be considered together when we think about Black foodways. As a side note—and here’s an exercise for all of y’all cuz I know you’re gonna be assigning this podcast episode to your classes. So there’s an exercise that I like to do, which is have people draw maps from memory of a particular place. So I did it a couple years ago in a class I was teaching—or well, I did a kind of guest lecture—and I had students draw a map of campus and then compare their maps with, you know, whoever they were sitting next to. I also did the same thing with a few friends and I just said, “Draw Harlem”—that had some really interesting results. But with the students, it was very telling to say who considered Barnard a part of the Columbia campus, or who included the library, who included John Jay Hall, you know. It tells you where people go, where they spend their time, and what their personal maps of space and place are. So, you know, I know if y’all are gonna use this episode for class, just let it be known I helped you have an activity, too [laughs].
[00:29:32] Brendane: Yes! And be sure to cite Alyssa. I think this activity is really good and highlights the ways that space is socially and affectively given meaning. It’s something that I hope to do with my interlocutors when I’m able to sit with people in-person [laughs]. So, the chef who Reese mentions in the article, who had added mambo sauce to his menu, could be seen as demonstrating ingenuity and creativity, right? Like, “Oh, wow, look at this new thing that you’re doing.” Innovative. But Reese actually points out that this is within an established practice of appropriating and repackaging foods for a broader—which we all know reads as white—audience. And particularly when those that these foods are appropriated from—like, for example, in this case, Black people—are read as always already available for the taking. So our foods, our clothes, and our speech are just some of the things that need refinement when taken up for the white gaze and white consumption. And this dynamic, where an unhealthy and unrefined food made for Black tastes becomes something expensive and desirable when “refined” for white palates, is quintessential anti-Blackness. Quintessential colonizer behavior, right. It erases the cultural, social, and political milieu that produces the Black cultural product, which often includes complicated histories of anti-Black violence and resistance. So as Reese says, “…Gentrification creates contested spaces in which bodies and tastes are conscripted to maintain (or liberate) borders and to stake claim on a changing city.” Gentrification and the uptake of Black cuisine and cultures outlines what spaces are too Black to be livable, to be something, right—Black spaces are always written as an urban context where there’s nothing in a sense—and which spaces Blackness as life, as coolness, and as currency are valued. So the latter does not have to be a space, though, where Black people are present. And we wanna make sure we mark that, right: Blackness can be in spaces where Black people are not present. And in other words, when Black people do something, it’s ghetto, right? But when white people finally get around to doing it, it’s classy and cool. Like oxtail, as example, right? Why are y’all consuming oxtail now? Why do I go to the grocery store—why is it that when I try to pick up a pack of oxtail from Safeway, that a pound and a half is $23? I wanna know. But also, I guess the question is why did I spend the money, but—you know, I spent it cuz I was cooking dinner for myself and, you know—
[00:32:23] Alyssa: You wanted oxtail.
[00:32:24] Brendane: —special occasion, so, you know, I wanted some oxtail. I feel like the next thing up is chitlins, which I feel like will be the new hot cuisine. But y’all won’t be serving it with hot sauce [laughs].
[00:32:37] Alyssa: No. Highly unlikely. I just—the oxtail gets me. The oxtail gets me as a fake Yardie. It just—I’m actually—I’ve been loving the tweets about why you shouldn’t gentrify oxtail. People will be like, “Oh, it doesn’t sit right in your stomach,” and like [laughs]—
[00:32:55] Brendane: Isn’t—think about it, it’s the tail of an animal!
[00:32:58] Alyssa: It’s highly fatty. And I just mean, like, it is already expensive enough. Like, the video that’s been going around on Food Insider, they said it can cost up to $10 a pound. I was like, “I need to—I need to go where you are going!” Because when I bought it last week for my mom’s visit, it was like $15 a pound. I was—even my mom was shook. She was like, “Oh, I’m gonna call Mama”—her mom—she’s like, “I’m gonna call Mama and tell her how much oxtail is here. She’ll never believe it!” Like, she just couldn’t believe it. [Laughs] I was shook.
[00:33:30] Brendane: It’s a delicacy!
[00:33:31] Alyssa: The thing that I’ve been saying is actually next up—and I’m surprised it was oxtail—I think it’s gonna be ackee—I wish I didn’t say that on this podcast—but I think it’s gonna be ackee because it’s such a, like, low-calorie food. It can be, like, a replacement for scrambled eggs, that’s what people say. So I’m just like—if they start gentrifying ackee, I’m gonna be so upset. But anyways, the perfect—
[00:33:53] Brendane: Wow, the ways in which I don’t know what that is and I—
[00:33:57] Alyssa: You don’t—you don’t know ackee and saltfish?
[00:33:59] Brendane: I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never had it.
[00:34:02] Alyssa: Okay, next time you come—I have a can in the cupboard, so next time you come over, I’ll make it for you. It’s more of a breakfast-brunch food. But it has [crosstalk]—
[00:34:12] Brendane: I’ll come earlier. [Laughs] I’ll come over earlier in the day.
[00:34:14] Alyssa: Well, you can eat it any time, but it’s typically served for breakfast. But there we go. Here we go sharin’ our lil’ lives and cultures. Which is a great segment—wow—which is a great segue into our next segment, which is what?
[00:34:33] Brendane: What? In the world?
[00:34:34] Alyssa: In the world?
[00: 00:34:36] Brendane: What in the world is goin’ on?
[00:34:37] Alyssa: What? What in the world? Y’all know what’s goin’ on right now! Cuz it has been—it’s actually been pretty—it’s been all over Black—Blackademic [Black academic] Twitter, I’ll say.
[00:34:48] Brendane: I would say, yeah.
[00:34:50] Alyssa: It’s been around.
[00:34:51] Brendane: Because people are upset, I think, with representation, but we’ll get to that. Today—
[00:34:55] Alyssa: When are people not upset about representation? Like, representation is never enough. Okay, but anyways.
[00:35:03] Brendane: We’ll get to it, we will—we’re gonna [laughter]—I—asterisk, bookmark on that. Today we are talking about the new Amazon Prime series called Harlem. Spoiler alert! Boom, boom, crash crash. We will try to keep them to a minimum as much as possible, but sometimes we will say a bit to say what we need to say, you know. And we should also say that because of our interest in anthropology—as anthropologists—anthropoltergeists—we are [laughter]—because that’s the life we’re gonna be living once the season is over—we are mostly gonna talk about Camille[‘s], who is kind of the main character, storyline.
[00:35:49] Alyssa: Yes. So Harlem is a ten-episode series about for Black women thirty-somethings trying to navigate life and love in Harlem, directed by Malcolm D. Lee of Girls Trip fame.
[00:36:01] Brendane: Oooooh.
[00:36:02] Alyssa: Yes. The series features Camille, played by Megan Good, the self-involved adjunct cultural anthropology professor at Columbia University; Tye, played by Jerrie Johnson, the masc lesbian successful tech entrepreneur.
[00:36:18] Brendane: Fine.
[00:36:19] Alyssa: So—mm. Okay.
[00:36:22] Brendane: [Laughter] Angie! [Laughs]
[00:36:24] Alyssa: Angie. Angie, played by Shoniqua Shondai, the “says-what-everyone-was-thinking” singer who is down on her luck; and Quinn, played by Grace Byers. If y’all watched Empire, you know who she is. She’s also West Indian—bop, bop, okay. And she plays the trust-fund baby and former banker turned flailing fashion designer. Why did I put so much alliteration in that description? Okay.
[00:36:52] Brendane: You were feeling creative.
[00:36:53] Alyssa: I really was and then I forgot I had to read it out loud. Okay [laughter]. So the show has not been able to avoid comparisons to Insecure, of course, and Run the World, which is a Starz show that features four Black woman in Harlem—one of whom is a PhD candidate at Columbia in African American Studies, and she is in a relationship with her supervisor—that would never happen, but I just had to say that, okay?
[00:37:20] Brendane: Never.
[00:37:22] Alyssa: Nah. And especially when they have the dinner party and they invited other faculty over—never! Okay. Overall, I’m glad to see that there are three TV shows that feature Black women, particularly where the story is not about struggle, right? And so in Harlem, gentrification itself becomes almost a fifth character and seems to be an undercurrent in a lot of the episodes. Throughout the season, they addressed the decreasing Blackness of Harlem, sexual awakenings, Black hair, being first-generation American, and the ways Black women are often forced to sacrifice something for success, whether that’s their mental health, their relationships, and so on.
[00:38:04] Brendane: And so while the focus of today’s episode is gentrification, I think it’s important to briefly bring in some of the other things we’ve discussed on the pod, and particularly colorism, because that definitely animates the plot of this show in a lot of ways. And I don’t know why I’m actin’ like I didn’t know that Malcolm D. Lee was, you know, of Girls Trip—I—that also helps me make a lot of sense out of this. But the character Angie is a dark-skinned woman who’s humbled, essentially, by the loss of her music career and so she’s living off of Quinn, living on Quinn’s couch, who—and Quinn is this very light-skinned—and for me, coded biracial. Even though we know that both of her parents are Black, there’s a sense that she’s Black but not in a way. And Angie’s life is wild, it’s unpredictable, it’s unstable, and that is the character whose existence seems to be mired with suffering. She can’t seem to get ahead before she gets behind. And so she, as, really, the only dark-skinned woman—aside from Aunty Tammy, who you are introduced to in later episodes, right—are the major sources of comic relief in the show. And I just—I just was watching and I was like, “Yo, why can’t we avoid these tropes in describing Black woman’s lives?” Like, I feel like, even though the show provides some form of, you know, “representation,” right, it does so in a pretty trite way.
[00:39:37] Alyssa: Definitely. And one of the things I don’t like about TV shows—and movies sometimes—is when they’re overly didactic, right? Like, the purpose is just to moralize and you definitely get that with some scenes in the show. There are points where I’m like, “Oh, I feel really seen and understood because this is something I’ve been through or something I’ve experienced.” But then there are other parts where it’s like, “Oh, you’re just really trying to play up that, like, white liberal guilt and get these white liberal guilty people to be better white people.” And I’m just like, “I’m over—I’m over that.”
[00:40:10] Brendane: I’m over it. Like, can we get a break yo? I feel like [laughs] the interracial love story, which—okay, as a queer person who’s been in queer relationships, I think, sometimes, like, people think that two women loving each other—there’s a certain way to represent that. So how quickly they got into each other, and then kind of the fiery end to it I thought was very tokenizing, but that’s—you know, that’s another layer to—underneath the interracial aspect of it. But I was, like, watching it and I was like, “Girl, like, what does this add?” Like, for real? Like, okay, now we know that white women have feelings, too, and that they can be hurt. Like, okay, I guess.” But if—I would only have a question about that if I never have lived on this planet before. We know this.
[00:41:10] Alyssa: But, I mean—but that final scene was really about, again, teaching certain people—white people—the right thing to say, which is like, “Yes, I have blind spots. But I’m willing to learn for—you know, for you and for this situation.” And I was just like, “I’m gonna hear this repeated to me any—like, the next time I call out a white person for doing something white, right, like—so, it was just like. I did kind of like the whole, like, two masc lesbians hooking up and tryna be in a relationship and trying something new. That was so funny.
[00:41:43] Brendane: That was hilarious. That was funny to me because there’s a reason why I am not a lesbian. And that’s because, you know, I’m—I mean I’ll be—
[00:41:52] Alyssa: You can’t deal with the gender roles thing.
[00:41:54] Brendane: You know, I can’t. Some of y’all can be really gender essentialist. And so the idea that masculinity means you’re always initiating, you’re always kinda taking charge, you’re always doing this—it’s a thing, it’s a thing. But would I ever leave Tye? Absolutely not. Would I leave Tye? I wouldn’t. I would not.
[00:42:18] Alyssa: Could not.
[00:42:19] Brendane: Could not.
[00:42:19] Alyssa: I mean, but one of the things that she’s—I think her challenge in the show is actually her vulnerability, and her lack of vulnerability and difficulty being vulnerable with people. So I think—as much as I didn’t like that scene with the little girlfriend, that was one of the things you saw there. It’s like she wasn’t really able to open herself up to her or to anyone in general. And we see that when she ends up in the hospital when she’s not feeling well, when she passes out, right? It’s like—yes, she’s struggling with this, like, not wanting to seem weak. At the same time, I was kinda like, “Yeah, we get it. Black women aren’t listened to, we have worse health outcomes.” Like, we know, we know. And I think that the way—the fact that it happened wasn’t the problem, it was more so the way that they dealt with it. And some of it was comical, like when the doctor was like, “You know, you should get a hysterectomy.” And she was just like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Just because I’m masc does not mean that I don’t want to have children,” or whatever the case may be. But anyways, we’re getting off track. I just wanted to say that that is the trap of representation, right? Where you have a show, you have a series or a movie where it just becomes full of moralizing rather than just experiencing and watching lives being lived.
[00:43:41] Brendane: Yeah.
[00:43:43] Alyssa: All right, so: most of the episodes involve a lecture or a voiceover by Camille—and she’s the adjunct professor at Columbia. And so in the first episode, her mentor tells her that she’s going to move the budget around to give her tenure. So just so you know, that is not how tenure works. Does not work that way. Yes, tenure is a long process. So you have to go through, you have to be hired onto the tenure track and an adjunct is not necessarily—is not on the tenure track. So, of course, her mentor gets fired because of some TERF stuff that she says—that’s the “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” Brendane does not believe that you can be a radical feminist if you’re trans-exclusionary. Okay.
[00:44:25] Brendane: Period.
[00:44:25] Alyssa: [Laughs] So I think that scene was supposed to poke fun at cancel culture and how soft—or, like, this perception that undergraduates are soft and they can’t handle things. But I think that joke was actually at the expense of trans women. So in any case, in the lecture, Camille tells her students to be “Mosuo”—a tribe known as the Kingdom of Women—for a week. So highkey, most anthropologists are way past the point of telling our students to appropriate a culture.
[00:44:57] Brendane: We would hope.
[00:44:59] Alyssa: Lowkey, I really like her course. It’s called, like, “Cultural and Social Anthropology of Sex and Relationships” or “Sex and Love” or something like that. And I was like, “I wanna do that kind of research. I wanna teach”— like, no wonder all of her classes are over-enrolled.
[00:45:14] Brendane: Right? Like, what undergraduate doesn’t want to know how people have sex across the world. I felt like you would be great at it. You love analyzing relationships. It’s like we’re always talking about relationships—real ones or the ones on TV. And I think what was interesting about Camille and even just how they introduced us to the department was I found that the representation of anthropologists in our department was, like, accurate, but not really at the same time. Like, the low numbers of Black women. Absolutely. We’re sitting at one, you know, in our entire department. But I guess that kind of representation is accurate, but now is called a caricature. There’s probably already a word for that. And as I was watching, I, too, was, like, feelin’ a little, like, “Okay, who was out here watching my life?” Like, Camille’s character—her character was, like, an odd mirror to me in a lot of ways. And if you know me in real life, if we’re friends, you know exactly what the fuck I’m talking about—wink wink. But for those of you who don’t know me, I feel like the most confirmation that I’m going to give about the mirroring is that we’re both Geminis bopping around the Columbia Anthro department [laughs].
[00:46:37] Alyssa: Yeah, that was—it was so interesting. I was watching I was like, “Hang on, were they—were they following Brendane around? This is so odd.”
[00:46:46] Brendane: [Laughs] I know, it does. The—
[00:46:46] Alyssa: So someone asked if I sold your story to Prime, I was like, “…No.” [Laughter] Anyhow, even though Camille’s course is about relationships, and she, of course, named-dropped some of the biggies—the big anthropologists, like Helen Fisher. Her thesis, —”her thesis”—because we write dissertations to get a PhD. I guess it’s just too many syllables—her “thesis” was about gentrification. And so her voiceover really appealed to me and my own interests. In the second episode, she says that historians often say that if we don’t learn about history, we’re doomed to repeat it. And she kind of counters that and says—but “in Harlem of today, anthropologists tell us that by learning who we were, what the city was, we might get lucky enough to repeat it.” So it’s not so much that, like, corollary of if we’re repeating it cuz we didn’t learn, it’s gonna be negative. There’s a negative connotation to that idea. She’s like, “What if it was actually great to repeat it?” And so she goes on to say that cities and communities are always changing and evolving, right, which we talked about earlier. And then she asked how much of the past should be respectfully preserved, and how much should be discarded in order to evolve. And so in the context of gentrification, cities benefit from cultural production, while displacing and economically limiting those same people. And so Reese writes that “while the city capitalizes on and promotes Black history, it also actively attempts to erase it.” And so that tracks with so many major cities everywhere: London, New York, Toronto. I see it in Harlem right now, right? Like, I just saw a walking tour in Harlem a few weeks back. It was all white people. And [bae?] was like, “I remember a time when you would never”—this was what he said, he was like, “I remember a time where you would never see white people up here.”
[00:48:43] Brendane: Yeah, it’s like, not you witnessing a safari tour [laughter]. Like, grab your gear, grab your coat.
[00:48:52] Alyssa: Oh, it was exactly like that. It really was. They all had umbrellas and—it was hilarious.
[00:48:57] Brendane: Oh, the one I saw they all had umbrellas. Okay, that’s really funny. Right, like, there was a time where white people didn’t ride past 160th. You know—
[00:49:08] Alyssa: And if you’re talking about the 2—
[00:49:10] Brendane: —maybe 125th.
[00:49:11] Alyssa: If you’re talking about the 2 or 3 train, it was 96th. That’s what he said. He was like, “They would not ride pass that stop.” Like, every—all of them—it would just be an exodus and it would be the only time you could get a seat on the 3 train during rush hour. That was what he said [laughs].
[00:49:25] Brendane: Wow.
[00:49:25] Alyssa: Yeah.
[00:49:27] Brendane: I remember walking around Harlem back when I used to be a young PhD candidate—or student—youth [laughs]—and, like, seeing posters with the white men in business suits, that were sitting on stoops of, like, brownstones and I was like, “Why would you sit on your stoop in a suit?” but okay. The poster read something like “This is Harlem,” or some shit like that, and I was shook. I was like, “I know Langston Hughes and the other Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance are, like, rolling around in their graves right now.” [Laughter] I think—stemming back to something that you said earlier about gentrification kind of being like an undercurrent fifth character. I thought that it was, like, there and they made it a big theme in certain episodes, but then it also kind of served as, like, this socially conscious backstory to Camille’s chaotique [chaotic] love story. Girl—you know, in true Gemini fashion—is going through a lot. I feel like they could have been more didactic with the gentrification piece, though, versus focusing on Camille’s complicated relationship with Pruitt—with Whoopi—and Ian’s toxic—like—
[00:50:47] Alyssa: So toxic.
[00:50:47] Brendane: I know this is not the center or focus of this episode at all, but I really feel like he is a Libra—or Lie-bra. As they say, no tea, no shade. But the replacement—which, in one of the gentrification—or the main, kind of, center of it is this restaurant that was Ray’s—formerly known as Ray’s—that becomes this, kind of, like, upper-class restaurant. And so this replacement of the failing but popular Black-owned business, with this, kind of, fancy-ass restaurant demonstrates one of the myriad ways that food signals a shift in the borders of race and class. Like, we go from eating turkey wings at Ray’s to eating foie gras at—
[00:51:34] Alyssa: Yeah, what—
[00:51:34] Brendane: —the new place.
[00:51:35] Alyssa: —was it? It was, like, some kind of foam, I forget what kind of foam it is now, like—oh, it was a foie gras foam, I think.
[00:51:41] Brendane: Yeah! And it was like—
[00:51:43] Alyssa: I thought that was—
[00:51:44] Brendane: Aunty Tammy was not happy [laughs].
[00:51:47] Alyssa: I thought that was really interesting. But what I think helped—so she’s, like, outside protesting it, right, and I think what they did to complicate that whole idea of gentrification is that the chef of the restaurant is Black, right? And he’s—you know, he’s at least lived in Harlem in the past, right? And that then complicates that question of what and who can gentrify, and is it gentrification if there are Black people involved, even though he’s not necessarily of the community? So it’s something—I thought that that—if you wanted to read into it—which, you know, we do, but [laughs]—but they probably weren’t.
[00:52:29] Brendane: As we do.
[00:52:29] Alyssa: It was really complicating that question of “What is gentrification and who is gentrifying?” So since you mentioned Dr. Pruitt, she is introduced in episode three. Dr. Pruitt is played by Whoopi Goldberg. And there’s a scene where she’s like, “Camille, I am a big fan of boundaries.”—
[00:52:48] Brendane: Yo, that hit.
[00:52:49] Alyssa: So come over to my house for tea later.” I was just like, “I need to live this way. I need to just be”—
[00:52:53] Brendane: That hit. A big fan of boundaries? I was like [Imitates record scratch].
[00:52:57] Alyssa: I need to be [told?]. That was also the episode where they see the poster for “The New Soul of Harlem”—that’s what the ad says—and then it’s all white people at the table. And I actually remember when that poster was making the rounds on social media last year. It was upsetting people. People were angry. People were like, “I can’t believe! Who put this up?!” And then, finally, there’s an account called TBOHarlem—The Best of Harlem—and they were like, “It’s a poster from a movie, everyone chill.” But we can also you know, think about what that means for Harlem, because the show is actually supposed to be about gentrification. But it was just—it was just hilarious just to finally see something that I saw going around and being like, “What is that? What is this?”
[00:53:43] Brendane: And then to know that it’s from the devil? Yo, hilarious.
[00:53:47] Alyssa: Amazon Prime. I mean, yeah. That—wouldn’t be surprised if they started buying buildings over here. And so Dr. Pruitt’s research project is—or her new research project is going to be on Seneca Village, the Black settlement that was moved to make space for Central Park in New York. And Camille suggests that that was one of the earliest moments of gentrification in the city. And so that village—Seneca Village—that’s for real. And there’s actually been some work done on it already by an archaeologist at Columbia. And there’s still much work to be done. I think that there’s at least a PhD—former undergraduate student who’s now doing her PhD—and I think she’s going to do her project on that from what I recall.
[00:54:34] Brendane: That’s cool. I feel like—before we continue—I honestly—the conspiracy theorist in me is like, “What is the size of the check that Amazon wrote Columbia?” given what—how we started this episode? You know, given how we talked about the stipend check running out as December moves on. You know [laughs]—that’s all imma say on record.
[00:55:03] Alyssa: No, but they must have gotten—they must have had a license to use Columbia because they say the name, they have the sign at the panel. They have the full logo. So it doesn’t just say, like, sometimes—
[00:55:18] Brendane: Yeah, and the letterhead!
[00:55:18] Alyssa: Yeah, so—and the letterhead! So sometimes things will just say, like, “Columbia” or “Columbia U,” and then I think those aren’t necessarily licensed. But it had the whole government name on there—Columbia University in the City of New York—and I was like, “Okay. Yep. Definitely signed some checks.” But at the same time, they called out Columbia and its roots in the slave trade, and how Columbia got rich off of it, so.
[00:55:42] Brendane: Yeah, episode five, is where we see the queer, interracial situation—sitchiation, right—where Tye’s walking around town with—
[00:55:55] Alyssa: Around Harlem.
[00:55:55] Brendane: Around Harlem, specifically, with—and the way that her name has completely escaped my mind, oh my gosh. Amy? It starts with an A. And, you know, they’re walking down the street and a Black couple—a queer Black couple side eyes them, and Tye’s like, “Ooh, I’m a little shook.” And then—but she’s like, “You know what, you know, love is love,” da da da da da. And then they’re walking down the street and a Black man with a white woman kind of gives Tye a—
[00:56:32] Alyssa: The nod! The nod! [Laughs]
[00:56:33] Brendane: Like, a nod like, “I see you seeing me seeing you with your white queen”—
[00:56:39] Alyssa: [Laughs] Oh no!
[00:56:40] Brendane: —”Salute.” [Laughter] Salute. And so the theme—at least one of the things that came from that moment was in Tye’s processing and trying to figure out “Okay, what do I do as the CEO of a tech company that’s supposed to put queer people of color together? Who am—who are me to have a white partner in this situation?” And you know, one of the responses to that is, you know, “Love is love.” But Tye says, “Yes, love is love, but a relationship is a choice.” And so I feel like, you know, love is also a choice, but that is more my philosophical—if I had my own side show, I would have a little philosophical moment about, you know, how we can choose—we can, in fact, choose who we love. But interracial relationships become one of those kind of sticky points, where we talk about kind of the, like, hypocrisy that some folks have of prioritizing Blackness, Black love, etc., but then will be out here with their non-Black people. An Angie does address this in the show in the conversations with Tye. But I wanted to know, like, how did you feel about it? Like, I really—I—you know I already talked about how I feel like it was unnecessary for them to even have an interracial love story plot considering all the other shit that was going on with Tye in this. Like, they could have just—you know, we could have skipped that. But what did you think?
[00:58:20] Alyssa: I am a fence sitter [laughter]. Those who know me know why.
[00:58:28] Brendane: I’m talkin’ about on the show!
[00:58:29] Alyssa: Those who know me know why. On the show, like I said, I think it was more moralizing for white people.
[00:58:39] Brendane: Oh, it was a teachable moment.
[00:58:40] Alyssa: It was a teachable moment.
[00:58:40] Brendane: Like, if you are going to—
[00:58:43] Alyssa: And—but then again, I think—
[00:58:44] Brendane: —have your genitals bump—
[00:58:44] Alyssa: I think that there are, of course, some Black folks who do meet and fall in love with white people and they do have their own crisis about it. So, you know, in that sense, it’s real. Maybe it wasn’t necessary, but I think in that sense it is.
[00:59:01] Brendane: I think it’s—I’m not saying it’s not real. I think in a show about Black women loving and losing love and all of that, can we not put white people in the mix? Can we just have a moment where Black people are loving each other on TV? Or is that—are we past that moment now?
[00:59:28] Alyssa: Not until—
[00:59:29] Brendane: Have we passed it? I don’t know either. I—
[00:59:33] Alyssa: Not until—
[00:59:33] Brendane: I mean if I could be become an actor—
[00:59:34] Alyssa: Not until segregation comes back, Brendane [laughs].
[00:59:41] Brendane: I mean—you know, let’s [laughs]—
[00:59:42] Alyssa: All right! So on to the next episode—
[00:59:45] Brendane: [Laughs] The next episode [laughs].
[00:59:43] Alyssa: —that we are going to talk about. Episode seven was all about addressing the strong Black woman trope and Black excellence. And at one point, Angie who’s just dropping knowledge, speaking facts the whole season—
[01:00:01] Brendane: Period. The whole season.
[01:00:02] Alyssa: She was like, “Black excellence is a trap.” And I was like, “Oh, my edges are gone. Where my edges go?”—snatched. So one of our episodes last year was about Black girl magic. And I think I had talked about how much that that phrase and how it’s proliferated—it has never really sat right with me. And I think it’s because it just feels like a double-edged sword that Black women and girls have to be magic or excellent just to be seen as worthy. And some—and not even just worthy, but just present, which is something that other groups get without question. And so I think that you really see this whole, like, Black excellence being a trap—you see that in the scene when Dr. Pruitt tells Camille that she doesn’t have the publications, she’s not ready to become a tenure track, or a tenured professor—I don’t know which one they said specifically. She doesn’t have enough publications, she doesn’t have enough fieldwork. And if she messes up, she’ll ruin it for all the Black women who came before and who will come after her. And Dr. Pruitt didn’t think that Camille was worth the risk. And so there you see, like, the weight of Black excellence, even when we are successful. It was just like, she was punishing Camille for being a Black woman, right? It was like the double jeopardy thing. You know, having to be twice as good, not being able to grow into the role like others are able to. So that part was kind of triggering.
[01:01:35] Brendane: Yeah.
[01:01:36] Alyssa: And then—
[01:01:37] Brendane: I mean.
[01:01:38] Alyssa: And then—
[01:01:39] Brendane: Again.
[01:01:40] Alyssa: And then a Black man gets the job over her. And she’s sitting there and she’s lamenting, and she’s just like, “Oh, it’s awful. You know, I can’t even blame it on racism or something, because the person who hired is a Black woman, and you know, the person who got hired is a Black man.” And it’s like, “Yes, but there’s, like”—there’s a difficulty that we face—that Black woman face—a.k.a. misogynoir—that can be internalized and can be wielded against Black woman. So it’s not like there wasn’t—it’s not like race and gender weren’t involved in the way that she was denied even the possibility of applying for the job. And she says that, you know, she—and I’m sure that, like, they know this in a sense, right—cuz she says on the panel with Jamison, the—he’s, like, a local activist who—you know, he’s opening a charter school for Black boys—and she’s like, “What about our Black girls?” right? We are the ones who are left behind. So that was that was where I stood on that. I think the series overall, it also speaks to how we are expected to choose in academia. You know, you have to choose between a public life—a public academic life, a personal life, and, like, an academic, intellectual life. And I think it’s a rare person who is a successful public scholar, who is equally taken seriously as an intellectual, right? And I think if you prioritize—because I mean, if you think about it, like, a lot of people know Cornel West, right, in the public sphere. I’m just using him as an example. I very rarely see him cited in the texts that I read that talk about race. That’s just what I’m gonna say.
[01:03:27] Brendane: I think—yeah. And I think if you do see certain folks cited in text, it signals—as you were saying, like, it signals a kind of—where that text falls in a hierarchy of understanding. Like, whether this text is canonical or not. And so I—I mean, we’re bring—to bring up the masterclass that everyone has so many thoughts about. There’s a—there—you know, he’s a name listed in that in that masterclass, so there’s a certain type of legibility that he has as a public scholar that will persist regardless of his relationship to Black women. But—which imma leave it at that—but, like, I think that—yeah, I totally agree with what you’re saying. It’s really difficult to—and I think also—I mean, in our department, like, folks who have a more public, intellectual life that’s not “Oh, everyone knows me as the theoretician behind capitalist XYZ,” right, like, “That’s my public persona,” which is still kind of academic in a sense, right? There are very few people that we know in our department, or even at Columbia, who are able to kind of go between—
[01:04:49] Alyssa: Navigate both? Yeah.
[01:04:50] Brendane: —both and do, like—cuz even Saidiya Hartman has a public life, public persona. But I don’t think that she would consider herself a public intellectual. And we had a conversation about this one time. Cuz she called me a public intellectual—
[01:05:07] Alyssa: Okay, flex on us. You havin’ separate conversations with Dr. Saidiya Hartman? Flex on us, Brendane! [Laughs]
[01:05:14] Brendane: Yes. Well, that’s when—you know, when I’m able to have them, I do. But [laughs]—and yeah, and because of what happened last year with the whole How to be Antiracist thing, and I was like, “Oooh, I don’t know if that’s want, like, I don’t know.” And she was like, “Sometimes you don’t choose. Sometimes being a public intellectual is just what you do.” And so it is really difficult to be seen seriously, as an academic, if your work has a certain public and/or political inflection to it. And, like, that is something that this—I think when they kept talking about social media and Pruitt was like, “Yeah, you’re active on social media, but what about what you’re doing? These”—
[01:05:58] Alyssa: “What about”—
[01:05:59] Brendane: —”academic journals”—
[01:06:00] Alyssa: “Where are your publications?”“
[01:06:02] Brendane: Right, like, it doesn’t mean anything if you’re publishing in Essence, right? But, again, that begs the question, like, who is your work for? Who is it legible to? And also, in connection to the Black man being chosen and promoted, they also marked—right, there was a diasporic difference and he was African. And I think that also adds another layer of, again, caricature of our department. I think it adds another layer to that. What does it mean to be Black American? I’m the only Black American person, right, as a PhD level in our department.
[01:06:46] Alyssa: And that’s been—
[01:06:46] Brendane: So what does it mean to be Black—
[01:06:47] Alyssa: And it’s been pointed out to you.
[01:06:50] Brendane: Multiple times by multiple people. And so I think that also adds another layer of, like, academia, who’s promoted, who’s not promoted? Who is seen as a right kind of Black or the “real” kind of Black, which is what I was told—I’m a real Black person versus, you know, not being a Black American person and being a different type of Black. So, I think the show hedges around that, but doesn’t really actually give us the critique.
[01:07:22] Alyssa: Right.
[01:07:23] Brendane: Because she—I mean, she pops up, right, at Pruitt’s house, and she’s like—
[01:07:27] Alyssa: Such a weirdo [laughs]. But I mean—okay, so then, on, like, the other end—on another side of that choice of the things that you have to choose between, right—like, if you prioritize your personal life, especially as a woman, you’re also not a real academic, right? And you see that in the end when she finally gets to her last—her only—her remaining 10 minutes of therapy. The only 10 minutes she goes to the whole season, which of course solves everything in her life.
[01:07:55] Brendane: It’s like, “Girl, you should’ve”—she should’ve been actually sleeping outside the therapist door [laughs].
[01:07:58] Alyssa: But this is what I’m saying. But she—you know, she’s not prioritizing her mental health, she’s not prioritizing her, you know, her self-care and all these kinds of things. But—so she’s sacrificing her mental health in order to prioritize her work life and her personal life, her relationships and our friendships. So, alongside this whole public persona thing, she gets punished because of her presence on Twitter, for writing for the public, not publishing enough in academic journals. And then, in the end, she kind of stands up to Dr. Pruitt, you know, telling Dr. Pruitt that her courses always have waitlists, the number of Black students majoring in anthropology have increased since she’s been a professor there because of her presence and because of her accessibility. And so all of that unserious side job stuff is here to stay, like, that’s the new academia, get with it, or you’re gonna fall behind. But I think that just overall, those last few episodes speak to the way that we have to sacrifice something in order to have it all. So we—is that really possible? Then, of course, we must talk about Angie, who was being asked to apologize to the racist white woman on set. I was so upset, like, I loved her fantasy response. I was like, “I wish that had actually happened.” But then, I saw that she apologized and it just—it really upset me to think about all of the things that we as Black women have to swallow in order to support ourselves and pay our bills. And I think that that is part of the trap in the scam of capitalism.
[01:09:32] Brendane: Purr. Purr. I’m absolutely agree. I think—and, too, for the twist that comes later, right where it’s like, “Okay, I apologize. Here I am.” Plot twist. It really kinda highlights how much of a scam all of this shit is. And as someone who will walk away from situations now—and we were talking about this before we started recording—who will walk away from situations now that are not healthy, I think all the time, like, “What if we just divested [pronounced DIH-vested] from—or divested [pronounced DYE-vested], excuse me—from all of this and said, ‘I quit at the first sign of disrespect’” yo? Like, as soon as you start popping off at the mouth—”Actually, I gotta go.” My dream is that we’ll be able to create a world in which, you know, we don’t have to pay with our money, our sanity, our bodies, our relations to each other, right, to live. Like, one of the biggest scams of colonialism is that we literally have to pay to eat. Like, the fuck. I—every time I think about that when I get hungry, like, “Oh, I’m spending money to nourish myself every week.”
[01:10:49] Alyssa: Isn’t that a meme? It’s like, “I can’t believe my parents chose to have me and now I gotta pay to be here”? [Laughs]
[01:10:54] Brendane: Yes, yes!
[01:10:56] Alyssa: That’s the meme that goes around.
[01:10:58] Brendane: And it’s like, “Why? Why did y’all create a world in which people literally have to pay to live? Y’all couldn’t ‘a did nothing else?”
[01:11:07] Alyssa: But anyway, that’s our conversation on the show. We’re going to move quickly. We’re just gonna chat a little bit about the census and Harlem. So according to the last census, Harlem lost 10,000 Black residents and gained 18,000 White people this decade. So overall, Harlem’s white population grew from 11% to 16% of all residents. And so, since the 2000s, Harlem has not been a Black majority. But from 2010 to 2020, it’s had the biggest proportional decline. So it’s gone from 56% to 43% Black in the past 10 years.
[01:11:49] Brendane: That’s wild.
[01:11:50] Alyssa: So it’s just—you know. Things are definitely changing. And that article that we mentioned earlier, Sabiyha Prince’s article—she was starting to document that gentrification and talking about Harlem in the 90s. She was saying that there were actually some incoming, like, Black professionals that were adding to a Black middle class, and—which I found really interesting, because, of course, when people think of Harlem, they think of, like, low-income Black people that live here, but there’s actually 25% of the Black population is middle class in Harlem.
[01:12:28] Brendane: Yeah. And I think in order to justify this image of gentrification is cleaning up you do have to do this kind of mythologization of Black middle-class people, right? Because if you—if people can imagine or not essentialize Blackness as—with poverty and say, “Oh, there’s actually a strong contingent of Black people here who have some form of wealth,” then the cleaning up stuff loses a little bit of its, you know, its gravitas, like, its urgency. So I do—I thought that that was, like, a really salient point is to think about how the Black middle class is, like, shifting in Harlem. And then how it then becomes kind of this myth that—right—that we have to bring Harlem back to, in some way, even though it never really left, it’s being pushed. So it’s that—all that complication—and the other article that we talked about earlier, by Morgan Jerkins, in which, towards the end, she kind of described herself as a—and other Black gentrifiers—as parasites. I was like, “Oh. I don’t know. I mean, I guess maybe if we look at this from multiple vantage points, maybe we could get a little parasitic I guess.” But I was like, “I guess, girl, if that’s what you’re into.” I feel like there are ways to come into communities and not serve as a parasitic force, but we do have to be very careful in how we do that, for sure.
[01:14:05] Alyssa: Absolutely. Yeah. I think—one of the things I was thinking about is that alongside revitalization comes a preservation movement. And—so I wonder, in Baltimore, between—in that neighborhood that you were talking about, what are they—what are people going to see as worth preserving? Who is it that they’re going—
[01:14:30] Brendane: The murals.
[01:14:31] Alyssa: —to be talking about [laughs]—the ones—
[01:14:32] Brendane: Murals, the ones that—
[01:14:34] Alyssa: —that say, “Real niggas die”? [Laughs]
[01:14:39] Brendane: LOL. A throwbyke [throwback], yes. That one and the one where we rode pass and you were like, “Oh, wow, that one’s really pretty”—I think that one’s definitely going to stay. But the carryout on the corner, the hair store that I was, like, “Oh, I maybe want”—I mean, I don’t need hair products anymore but—
[01:14:58] Alyssa: But essentially—
[01:14:59] Brendane: Old me would’ve been there.
[01:15:00] Alyssa: But effectively the sites of Black social life, right? And not, like, sites of, like—what could you call it—like sites of memory or sites of—I wanna say representation, but that’s not really the word that I’m looking for.
[01:15:18] Brendane: Yeah, like, the stuff that’s marked as cultural, right? Like, the explicitly marked as cultural versus the stuff that helps constitute the culture. Yeah.
[01:15:27] Alyssa: But yes, that’s just something that got me thinking. But yeah, that Morgan Jerkins article was odd. Even though she mentioned that church, I was just like, “I know exactly which one you’re talking about!” Cuz they’re always talking about the white devil and the white gentrifiers and, like, all these other, like, homophobic and, like, anti-Black things in there. And it’s just—it’s an odd church, but—I probably shouldn’t have said that in public [laughs]. Before they come for me [laughter].
[01:15:57] Brendane: You’ll be on the marquee next [laughs].
[01:16:00] Alyssa: I know, don’t even remind me—I will—I already happened. Cuz as Morgan Jerkins said, even though she is not named, she is implicated, and so I have been implicated in many of those. I mean, they even hate on Barack. They’re just like, “Barack Obama is the white man in a black sheet—in blackface”—somethin’ like that. Like, they’re wild.
[01:16:24] Brendane: Not them having a[n] intersectional analysis of everything. Ha! It’s just like, “What intersection are you standing at?” honestly, but [laughs].
[01:16:33] Alyssa: Right, definitely the wrong side. Okay. But yes, so I think that what Morgan Jerkins was expecting is that, like, she would move in and then become invisible, right? But I think that with work like Sabiyha Prince, Leith Mullings, and John Jackson’s work, they demonstrate that there’s still a tension between Black folks who do move in—particularly because the ones who are moving are often more middle-class, educated, they’re looking for a place near the city—near the areas where they work that they can live in to make their commutes easier. And so there’s still, like—there’s a lot of complexity, I think, that really throws our assumptions of what makes a gentrifier and what—and who is the gentrified and throws that kind of into relief and complicates it. So before we close out, I just want to give a shout out to the documentary. We’ve been talking a lot about the US, but, of course, this is happening in Canada, it’s happening all over. I want to give a shout out to the documentary Tallawah Abroad: Remembering Little Jamaica by Sharine Taylor and it won an award at the Canadian Screen Awards. So definitely check out that documentary. It’s about the erosion of Little Jamaica in Toronto. Wow, I said it the American way, but I really needed that emphasis. I’m also reading the book Frying Plantain. I also don’t say it “plantain” [pronounced plan-TAIN] I say “plantain” [pronounced plan-TUHN] but I also felt like I needed that emphasis [laughs].
[01:18:06] Brendane: Oh wow.
[01:18:07] Alyssa: It’s the way—
[01:18:08] Brendane: Let me find out you’re appropriating.
[01:18:10] Alyssa: I know!
[01:18:11] Brendane: You’re appropriating!
[01:18:12] Alyssa: [Crosstalk]—Toronto and plantain. Anyways, I’m reading Flying [laughs]—anyway, I’m reading, Frying Plantain. And it’s really good. It’s about a first-generation Canadian whose family is from Jamaica and just like growing up—I’m only 100 pages in but I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is, like, the quintessential Toronto Jamaican diasporic upbringing.” All of it is just—it’s perfect, so—and I think that this is a good way to kind of, like, you know, incorporate Toronto and thinking about Canada and different—
[01:18:26] Brendane: Gotta put it on the—
[01:18:31] Alyssa: —ways of life!
[01:18:47] Brendane: What do you call it? The Six? Is that what it’s called? I don’t—
[01:18:51] Alyssa: Yeah, only Drake calls it that. We never called it—we never called it the Six. I will say—and I’m going to—I’m gonna embarrass myself a little bit here because I had my partner dying. He was just like, “I cannot believe this.” But I actually—so I was born in Toronto, I lived in Scarborough for a little bit, then I moved out to the burbs. But Scarborough is—it’s part of the GTA, so it’s one of these, like—one of these, like, neighborhood areas of Toronto that kind of got amalgamated in, like, the 90s or the 2000s—I can’t remember. And it’s a place that is tends to be, like, very immigrant, pretty low-income and so there are a lot of, like, gangs and violence and things like that. So people used to call it Scarlem. [Pause] Like Harlem and Scarborough.
[01:19:02] Brendane: I—
[01:19:04] Alyssa: A portmanteau [laughs].
[01:19:23] Brendane: I—yo.
[01:19:27] Alyssa: It was called Scarlem, Scarberia, like, it was just—I can’t even [laughs].
[01:19:54] Brendane: Yooo, that’s wild. That’s—
[01:19:57] Alyssa: I mean, it was not that bad. Just—it was one of the—you know—
[01:20:03] Brendane: It was the Canadian version.
[01:20:05] Alyssa: [Laughs] It was the nice version! The kind, friendly one [laughter]. So—
[01:20:12] Brendane: That’s wild.
[01:20:13] Alyssa: Yeah, they was just, like, “I”—
[01:20:14] Brendane: The US reputation.
[01:20:15] Alyssa: “I feel like you should be embarrassed. You should never admit that to anyone,” and here I am telling it to thousands of people on our podcast. Okay! Well, that’s our episode for today. Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Scarlem original, Alyssa James [laughter] and Brendane, and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts and Science Graduate Council and donations from listeners just like you.
[01:20:51] Brendane: Thank you all for the support, like, we needs it, we needs it.
[01:20:55] Alyssa: We love it.
[01:20:56] Brendane: If you—we loves it and we needs it. If you liked this episode, please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. We would love to hear what you have to say about this episodes, so be sure to follow us on Instagram at zorasdaughters and on Twitter at zoras_daughters. And for transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or donate, visit our website, zorasdaughters.com.
[01:21:21] Alyssa: Yes, yes! Be kind to yourselves everyone. Bye!
[01:21:23] Brendane: Bye! Byeeee!