February 11, 2011
Central Booking is what the Maryland Penitentiary has come to be known, and it is the oldest prison in the western hemisphere still in daily operation. You can reach it by driving west on Madison Street from Johns Hopkins hospital, which sits in the middle of an old black neighborhood and up the street, so to speak, from Dunbar High School, named for Paul Laurence Dunbar, the great African American poet who wrote the line "I know why the caged bird sings..." which inspired the title of Maya Angelou's incredible autobiography.
Jail, as we call Central Booking or any of the other "correctional" institutions in Baltimore, is full of black men, and in my sixtieth birthday year I am given to looking back over my life from this point to the black men I have known. I am not alone among black men from poor and working class urban backgrounds who can say they are survivors. In Baltimore beginning in the seventies the homicide rate began to rise to 200 or 300 a year, black men killed mostly by black men.
However, I am given now to looking back at my childhood and adolescence, the period from 1951 to 1971, a time that coincides with the national violence that marked integration, the end of the old world of segregation and the beginning of new patterns. The aftermath is what the journalist Eugene Robinson calls the "disintegration" of black America in his new book by the same title.
But when I look back at my own life in Baltimore I see that there was, in that traumatic shift, a troubling undoing of black models for masculinity. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1940's and continued into the 60's, black men in Baltimore worked and lived in the context of a world of working class jobs and a black community with institutions built out of the immense contradictions and dangers forged in the reality of racial oppression in the world's largest democracy. Assertion of black humanity by black men and women has always been a matter of questioning de jure legislation, and the sustenance of black culture has often been a matter of ignoring or going beyond laws designed to confine and contain black life through various strategies of dehumanization. Black entrepreneurs who could not secure loans from racist bankers had gentleman gangsters as a recourse.
In the 1960's the context of all this changed. Integration created a space where black men struggled to know how to be. It was a space of anxiety, fear, and tremendous courage exerted in the face of a complex of dangers. It was the time of a war in Southeast Asia that was unlike any other war, a war with racial dimensions that were new. Men moved from combat to be returned to urban environments in a matter of days with no treatment. The journalist Wallace Terry interviewed several of these men in his book "Bloods."
As teenagers in the sixties we had to forge our way as young men against the dangers that existed in our own neighborhoods as well as the racial dangers of white hostility that surrounded us. We lived in communities under siege in ways that make current tensions in other parts of the world entirely understandable. Growing up with helicopters circling over your house and the military occupying your neighborhood amounts to a "state of siege."
Violence took on newer and more menacing aspects. Neighborhood confrontations that were settled with the loss of a fistfight were now more often settled by gunplay and knife fights. The guns that were turned on police and soldiers during the riots fed into the battles black men had with each other.
At the same time this was happening the rug was pulled from under the black community with the loss of working class jobs. The jobs that allowed our parents to send their boys and girls to college gave way to service jobs like McDonald's in the seventies and eighties. At the same time drugs flooded Baltimore as international drug lords saw America's cities as an open market with both clients and workers. The stage was set for disaster.
Parallel to Madison Street running east and west there is Monument Street. When I was a child my parents bought furniture for our home and clothes for us on layaway plans. It was also the border between black and white. My parents dressed up to go to Union Savings Bank or Levenson and Klein furniture store. Milton Avenue runs north and south and the part of it in my neighborhood had a five and dime as well as a movie house when we moved there in 1957, both of which were burned when Dr. King was killed. I watched the flames from my grandmother's bedroom window and heard gunshots echoing through the smoke. In the evenings there were soldiers patrolling the neighborhood.
I was sixteen years old with my brand new driver's license. In the summer I hung out with friends and relatives in the neighborhood. We taught ourselves courage while trying to understand the world of sex, sexuality, drinking and drugs, and we fought the white boys around us. Many of those friends and relatives are dead. A few are in prison. The little boys who were eight or ten years behind us grew up to call each other "G" for gangster, and when they were little they thought we were gangsters.
But we were kids ourselves. Riding around in our parents' cars and cars we were able to buy because we lived with our parents, we were in a world we understood but the walls of which were crumbling so that those behind us would have to struggle to know how to be men in what arose from the rubble of the past. This past was built partly with the courage of men who praised Jack Johnson and listened to Joe Louis on the radio, breathing when they breathed, punching when they punched, all in an air they could name as their own, and it was built with the courage of the women who knew the substance of that air.
In this 2006 article in the Baltimore Sun another part of the penitentiary is discussed, a unit in the old Maryland Penitentiary is called "Metropolitan Transition Center":