Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 

  Two Fifth, as residents of Harlem USA call African-America's main thoroughfare, is seeped in more history than any street this side of Pennsylvania Ave, and most of it went down in open air, not behind closed doors and secret service details. Langston Hughes and Charlie Parker transversed Two Fifth daily, marinating in crosscurrents of rhythm. Malcolm X preached on the corner of Lenox, a soapbox's height above the crowd. This is where Adam Clayton Powell and Marcus Garvey held court and Mike Tyson threw his back-from-prison party. This was where you came to buy incense, oils, Afrocentric books, bootleg flicks and lunch without crossing a single store threshold. Until Guiliani killed street vending in '96, anyway, opening the door for new tenants like Old Navy, HMV and The Disney Store.

This may be Bill Clinton's new stomping ground. His decision to abandon the midtown building tainted by Mark Rich's connections in favor of Harlem office space reaffirms two axioms of Clinton's presidency: that he knows how to satisfy black folks, and that he knows where to go when he's in trouble. As soon as Clinton arrived on Two Fifth, speaking the language of economic empowerment, the community embraced him as usual. "Homeboy," read the New York Post headline, to be filed in the presidential scrapbook next to Toni Morrison's oft-quoted description of Clinton as "the first black president" and Chris Rock's assertion that Clinton's got more soul than most black folks he knows.

Certainly, Clinton is more comfortable in black spaces, more adept at navigating the physical and psychological terrain of blackness, than any white politician in American life. The rhetoric of inclusion sounds best coming from Clinton; his natural charisma, huge appetite for life and personal understanding of what it's like to be down and out make him somehow recognizable, hit a chord with black voters. Clinton's comfort becomes theirs; this is a politician who can stand on Two Fifth and strike up a conversation with the first cat who walks by -- a young black man on his way to a minimum wage job, let's say, holding a McDonalds bag in one hand and a walkman tuned to Hot 97 in the other. Clinton can talk to that cat for two hours if he wants to, about whatever that cat's issues are, and make him feel understood, heard, central to the world. Hug him goodbye with sincerity on both sides. He's that smooth.

All of which gives Clinton great powers of manipulation when it comes to the black community; he can make you like him personally, believe he cares about you -- which he does! -- even while he's piping you politically. The rate of incarceration for black males rose by four hundred percent during Clinton's eight years, and the insidious privatization of prisons accelerated unabated. Racially skewed drug policies which mandate stiffer sentences for crack and heroin than designer drugs were not significantly challenged by Homeboy's administration. Nor was racial profiling, the unconstitutional police practice which has affected thousands of his prospective neighbors.

Clinton's symbolic missteps, too, have been profoundly offensive. As he presided over the dismantling of the welfare system, Clinton's dais companion was the stereotyped Welfare Queen incarnate: an overweight black mother from the inner city overjoyed that he was changing her life. This although the vast majority of welfare's recipients have profiles closer to Clinton's own childhood identity: poor, rural and white.

Clinton, and his Senator, can afford to play black folks out at such moments; they know the bedrock of their black support is sturdy. More than ninety percent of New York City's black voters cast their ballots for Hillary -- many, in Harlem, froze for hours outside malfunctioning polls like the one at which I voted -- and yet in her first post-election speech Rodham-Clinton chose not to address this support, instead emphasizing how important upstate will be to her administration. Such decisions hint at a tacit understanding historically common in black-white relationships: the true dynamics of power can never be revealed.

In fact, much about Clinton's intimate relationship with the black community calls to mind the complex, often-hidden and often- abused historical bonds between black and white Southerners. Specifically, Clinton is reminiscent of past generations of Southern white men essentially raised by black women, men who returned to those women for comfort throughout their lives without ever doing much for them. Clinton has done plenty, but he has also come to expect an almost maternal response from the black community -- understanding, unequivocal welcome no matter what time of night he shows up soaking on the doorstep, rebuke only in the form of kindly tut-tut headshaking -- and thus, like many who are privileged with such love, he has realized he can get away with anything.

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing