THE BOTTOM IN MY TIME
Ostensibly, The Bottom was so called because it was wedged in the lower portion of West Philadelphia. It existed in an area roughly between 33rd and 4oth streets east and west, and to Lancaster and University Boulevard. The ascription, “The Bottom” could also have meant that most of the residents lived at the low end of society. Throughout The Bottom most streets were little and narrow embanked by rows of small, lowly houses. And to a lesser degree, there were larger thoroughfares, avenues, apartment buildings and impressive, stalwart homes within the area.
Over the many years The Bottom had existed, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Dutch, Polish and other ethnic groups inhabited the lowly working class community. During the time I grew up in The Bottom, the l940’s and 50’s, Negroes were a majority with a sprinkling of its earlier residents around.
Throughout my childhood The Bottom was a principality with longing, invention, inspiration and discovery, a place flowing with precious, valuable humanity. (The location was a marvelous, dim structure for distance and time with visions that reproduced myths, legends and sparkling glimpses of the brilliant light of wonder). The Bottom was a place of astounding glory, a place spreading out its arms of warmth and texture to me, a place of encouragement and hope.
No sophistication or betterment of life could ever drain my memory of The Bottom, for it was fertile ground for my imagination…a bejeweled, poetic excursion that authorized the Writer I am today.
The Bottom’s inhabitants were largely poor. And nearly everyone in the community worked for a living. People were employed in factories, plants, as domestics and in other service-type jobs: city workers, garages and filling stations, restaurants, hotels as well as in other skilled and unskilled jobs across the City of Philadelphia. And despite the misery and struggles faced by all back then, a caring cooperative spirit incorporated The Bottom.
Many who lived in the Bottom were among that enormous flow of Negroes who were abandoning their southern homeland for big northern cities. My parents and many of my relatives were a part of that huge migration during the 1940’s and 50’s abandoning the south. They were romantics, adventurers, dark pilgrims, young, clothed in innocence and immaturity, leaving behind the burden of poverty and racial segregation and injustice, for a life in the North they thought was better and promised shelter. Northern-bound, the southerners traveled on trains, Trailways and Greyhound buses and automobiles, traversing rails, highways and roads. They were wrapped in hope and an idealistic dream, with the strength of their projections dented by doubt, and their visions ushered by burgeoning loneliness. Traveling in the summer months meant days of relentless, burdensome heat with images of solemn countryside and seas of prolific fields burning in the blazing sun, while the nights swelled with the sweet aromas of honeysuckle and magnolia, and the pure magic of soundless, smooth darkness along with the long tracts of landscape looming with mystery and intimidation. Autumn and winter travel presented cobalt, somber skies, cold rain and vast vigils of stark, lonesome woods. And, there were the sights of lifeless pasture, and fields stretched by stubble and isolation-the empty fields bore gracious manors, or tiny, tarpaper houses shackled to silent, leaden landscapes.
The flow of southern arrivals enriched the northern cities for they brought a tender message-the melodious song of the south: the announcement of ‘newcomers’ was affectionately spread rapidly throughout the community as a runner passes a baton. Sadly, they seemed unable to break the bond with their roots, the south that nurtured them. They used, “Down Home,” and other familiar phrases like a badge of honor to reflect how deeply they felt.
The Nineteen Fifties seemed to put a hold of silence over The Bottom and across the American landscape.
The looser attitudes of the 1940’s were being put to rest; the 1950’s period had brought in a strong stabilizing front. The 1950’s was a time of sober hopeful, silent messages; detractors composed of manufactured superficial delights: televised variety and game shows, picturesque golf course, camper trailers, and ‘rock and roll.’ The gates to promise and fulfillment and accessibility began to open, nonetheless it was a time of solid, stark heavy-laden opposition; Negroes knew well their rejected, hidden place in America. It appears, however, that while the heavy dark shadows of injustice and inequality plagued Blacks, the elite amongst them thrived at this point in time.
It was a time notable for a quiet form of activity conducted by Negro leaders. Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell, Thurgood Marshall, and NAACP, Core, and other organizations formed to strangle the prejudice and racism aimed at preventing Blacks from breathing freedom. These people and organizations served as a coverlet intervening for the harsh, bruising rambling injustice concretely and miserably set before Negroes. This quiet activism settled quietly around the middle class structure.
During the 1950’s upper middle-class and middle-class Negroes solidly positioned themselves more than ever; those within their ranks used influence to elevate directives.
I experienced my life swelling with aspiration and inspiration. I felt myself crossing a barrier between me and the desires and dreams I envisioned. The existence of destructive, dark forces within my working-class neighborhood remained, but could not compromise the community’s safe, secure, cooperative overriding nature. And I continued to imagine and have marvelous experiences through messages transporting me to exciting places, even imagining being carried away as an invited guest at castles and palaces, messages captivated me and lifted my spirits, I became aware of a sense of calm captured in sunny skies, pleasant streams, by curtains moved by a soft wind, nature’s simple, energizing measures kept signaling me for my contentment.
I came to realize that a spiritual connection elevated my senses. Simple experiences reflected that. I felt a sense of elation and contentment strolling through a dining room and a certain slotted chair captured my eye. Or whenever I came upon objects somewhere that gained my attention: a colorful coffee pot, a decorated tall jar of raw pasta wrapped in a blue bow, a variety of spices and seasonings.
What a wonderful experience, feeling as though life had placed me in the palm of the open sky, and I wandered through wanderlust with the silky smoothness that resides with floral beauty and tranquilizing breezes, and the breathless beauty in all other wonders of nature and life.
Life seemed an extraordinary spirit-filled reflecting pool whispering love; a mystery co-existing with hope. Hope is love stored as a mystical image, calling, to empty into the dark, forlorn awaiting forest of the mind/heart/soul. Intimidation wraps itself around us, and we stumble through life unaware.
Undaunted I continued following the dream I would attain, whatever that dream might be.
I’ll now address life in The Bottom of today after giving my observation generally of life in America that it became. I notice that societal displacement has led to world chaos and a sense of disaster and doom. Certainly, the rules of normal behavior have changed. It’s all about serving ‘self’, ‘doing your own thing,’ regardless of its effect on the larger society.
A time ago, you didn’t see such desolation and depravity. The public is unhinged and without thought and reasoning, just plain misguided. Have sensible, reasonable guideposts for living vanished, I ask myself? Immorality is breaking down America and destroying the world: You have only to awaken in the morning to find the state of society more destabilized than the day before. Anything goes in our rudderless, dispassionate society. Civility, once commonplace is becoming a thing of the past, plus proper conduct losing to ruthlessness-without cause or reason people are ready to ‘strike out’ and they prey on others as wild animals might.
There’s no calm world-wide with the uptick of animus, radicalism and violence. The world is rife with eruption and disrupting elements. Where has adherence to goodness gone? Social incompatibility has pushed society into social unrest. We’re wading in moral decay. An opposing force seems to have transformed and desensitized our human capacity, sensibilities, and sense of decency, and replaced it with self-absorption, self-aggrandizement and incivility.
When my thoughts turn to what’s going on with young people in American society I see a decline in standards, a ‘digital’ component has aided. It seems a renegade spirit has taken over. My worst impression of youth today involves young males wearing their pants low. First of all the sight of young men with their pants hanging off of their behinds contributes to public discomfort. Secondly, it’s a ridiculous sight when they lift their pants to avoid tripping, looking as if to curtsey. Generally speaking, the values my parents taught me have slipped away. Something seems to have eroded the values of my generation. And clearly, they worked so hard to bring us out of our African American historical baggage. First enslavement, then a time when injustice ruled with Jim Crow period with a mandate known as, ‘Sundown laws’ threatening any Black caught in the town after the sun went down that he could be lynched. Regrettably, the Sundown laws affected one of my relatives.
Decency, morality and solid values have been high-jacked.
Far too many Black youth have no idea what a two-parent, religious practicing household is. The so-called musical form known as Hip Hop or Rap can serve to destroy social standards and a sense of decency. It’s an outlandish form deleterious that reflects the absence of respect for society and in particular for females. The more outlandish their rap, the better the rappers feel, nonetheless all of it does nothing except to rob them of the true goals of the society about which they create their rap. Some might respond that at least they’re making a statement about the horror of their situation. And I say to that, why use harmful, deleterious messages that obliterate the standing of decency that use to exist in the community. Why not try advancing measures that improve the conditions of your culture? Haven’t depressed societies always strove to dismantle or disassemble or break through entanglements preventing them from advancing in life? Clearly, rappers and hip hoppers send a vile, demeaning message about the Black community. Certainly it’s an environment of despair and crime, a community with little that’s positive to drawn upon. There is no incentive to imagine or aspire, or to build or rebuild. It seems many have lost hope. As a consequence everything of lethal or bad consequence exists there: babies born out of wedlock, crime, drugs, and total disregard for authority. There are too many real life disasters in the African American community and too many too accustomed to living in an environment in which wrong doing is normal. Young women and girls are ill-equipped for the babies they bear. They’re having children too early, too young to have any comprehension of how to care for them. One situation I heard about which is not unusual, involves a young woman with no husband, has four small children, one an infant, and all of her children have different fathers. Some in this young woman’s predicament are sure to harm their children’s futures.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. intended to establish a just place for African Americans in society. We lifted ourselves from the injustices of the past and attained rights equal with everyone else in America. You have young African American men of today incarcerated at an incredibly high rate. In essence they become a silent majority essentially, an unaccountable segment, non-contributing part of society: not in the work force, not maintaining the family structure- not available even for family procreation.
Why have many Black males that have shifted to risky and criminal behavior. I’ll try to bring up some of the causes for this horrific condition in which the Black male finds himself. It all goes to the uninspiring, poor, negative environment where they live. They see little to nothing in their midst to give them the initiative to lead productive lives. Drugs and blatant criminal activity in the community act as a lure. They grow up in homes where they don’t receive proper attention and nutrition, education, everything necessary for developing physically, emotionally, and with the skills or competency society requires. In conclusion, everything adds up as an improbable situation for Black males. Perhaps with some understanding, we can think of Black males sauntering about wearing low pants as a superficial means to boost their low self-worth.
The high rate of arrests for petty or low-level offenses might account for some of the huge numbers of African America males in prisons across the country. Removing them from society and handing out long sentences for having an insignificant amount of marijuana helped serve to break up the family structure. It becomes less and less possible to have households with a mother and a father. And what is this thing called, “The Down Low?”, and is it taking a toll on African American women. The practice of men HIV-AIDs sleeping with men and then with women without disclosing they have the disease can have deadly consequences.
The irrational, immoral behavior that involves sharing paraphernalia infected with HIV-AID’s also accounts for the way the horrific disease is spread.
The recent rise in gun violence disturbs me as no other crime. Across the nation its victims are innocents: from babies to adults Urban centers are dens for ‘shootings’ with streets marked with the outlines of the young who suffer violent deaths, or maimed are hunched over in wheel chairs like 90-year-old men. How much worse can things become I ask myself hearing about the increasing number of horrific crimes that take place daily? What is causing society to deteriorate, and can we pre-empt moral decay? I trust that what I have just said in no way reflects prejudice or moral judgment. Neither do I want to appear narrow-minded or harsh.
Speaking generally, a conversion of looser system of values and mores in place is responsible for a malfunctioning, declining American society. America is a ‘chaotic’ environment, suffering due to an agenda disrupting normalcy; the ill-effect of ‘aberrant’ premises and messages being advanced is experienced in every aspect of society. Perhaps Humanistic thought and Universal has derailed American understanding, who knows the reason that society is weakened, and eroded. For certain in regard to religion, and many things that once moved America in a substantive, positive direction seem under the effect of erosion.
Let it be said that living with a consoled spirit is a Total possible experience…it’s not something life allocates naturally. Nonetheless, it’s imperative that the Nation and the world use vigor against a darkening horizon. We need a beacon of Hope, a strand of common good that can stretch across globally to a quieter zone.
Even though I see perilous times in The Bottom and all around, I still feel that God’s Grace over-spreads life in the United States of America!
As an African American writer away from The Bottom seventy-some years, I remain drawn to that wayward dimension, that unanswerable tract of visions and yearning. I continue to find myself hovering in space and time, suspended in an inner-sanctum unified with inspiration, hope and serenity.
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