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uptown: 

An Exegesis

 

Part 2

Utopias’ positive qualities [include] their illumination of the non-utopian societies from which all utopias spring. The potentiality rather than reality of America as a utopia must be emphasized.”

—Howard Segal

Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities

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Continued from last month . . .

Read Part 1 of 4 here . . .

Baby didn't say too much

She said, “Are you gay?”

Kinda took me by surprise, I didn't know what to do

 

            Wait? What? I believed I might have actually stopped jump-dancing for a moment when I first heard that line. Did he say, “gay?” Like, when two guys do it? That was my elementary knowledge of homosexuality at nine. But I knew manifestly that it was not a term,

not even a topic, that one brought up in mainstream culture. It was playground

talk; street talk. The fact that Prince talked about "gayness" in a song by

                              definition categorized him in my mind as something

                               “alternative” to the mainstream, where he maintains a space to this

                                  day. That is why it took me by such surprise when Prince reached                                                     mainstream success three years later with 1983’s 1999, and especially the next year with Purple Rain. Moms are not going to know what do with Prince when they start listening to what he’s saying. He is not like them I remember thinking, vaguely. This prophecy came to hilarious fruition once Tipper Gore heard her daughter playing “Darling Nikki” from Purple Rain in 1984. This was the genesis of the Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) and parental-advisory labels. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

            Prince’s freaky butt started that mess.

           

           So, had our urban muse caught on to Prince’s charade? Had she seen that his “hustler” façade was only a coping strategy? This was the secret dread of sensitive inner city youth. It would have taken me by surprise too! And Prince’s inner monologue shares with us his indecisiveness. That is what I loved about Prince. He was not afraid to show us his vulnerability. This was an existential crisis for him. But he plays it off like a boss.

 

I just looked her in her eyes and I said, “No, are you?”

She's just a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed-up dame

She's just a victim of society and all its games

 

Now where I come from

We don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be

Our clothes, our hair, we don't care

It's all about being there

 

            Wh—Where did you come from, Prince? Minneapolis? Like most American cities, Minneapolis saw a rise in its black population during WWII. While postwar housing programs did build extra houses for the poor, those homes were all built in the inner cities. Many Minnesotans had been fleeing to the racially restricted suburbs for years, leaving Minneapolis that same bleak landscape that every urban space undergoes once the jobs and businesses leave, then social services decline.

     

   Is that what Prince means? That in Minneapolis they don’t let society tell them how it’s supposed to be? A place where they wear what they want, they wear their hair how they want, and they pay no mind to the severe looks and turned-up noses?

             

Everybody's going Uptown

That's where I want to be

Uptown

Set your mind free

Uptown

Got my body hot

Get down

I don't want to stop, no

 

            Uptown Minneapolis? Is that where I was supposed to go? Uptown of any major city? I knew somehow that adulthood held the answer.

 

 As soon as we got there

Good times were rolling

White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin'

Good times were rolling

 

            I got it now. Adults had gotten over race. Finally. And it made sense to me. I had read about the problems of race in the past, but it did not make a lot of sense to me in 1980. It made more sense to think that when I grew up, I would be able to find places where people were not worrying about race, but were just going around dancing to good music. Unbeknownst to Prince, he had given a clue as to where Uptown was: it had to be in the borderlands; just outside the reach of municipal oversight, just outside the scope of upper-class mores. In the colonization of the New World, borderlands and frontier towns served as the first, and often the most dangerous, outposts of the Western civilizational project. These spaces were populated mostly by lumpen     

                              class rejects, the outcasts, the deplorables, the second and third sons looking                                 for claims of their own, people looking for a second chance, and women

                                    who had not managed to secure the path to economic security that a                                             husband provided. These border spaces were true meritocracies—few                                               had family connections to buffet their failures—and so often did not                                                    have space for elitist social divisions like race, sex, class, and lifestyle.                                      In the Mexicali, California, of the 1910’s, a study of the sex workers at a brothel called the Owl showed that the prostitutes ran the gamut from blanca, to morena, to mulata, to triguena to negra, which author Eric Schantz says is reflective of the “equally varied phenotypic and national background of the Owl’s clientele.” For many women, they might be listed as negra by immigration inspectors in one year and mulata by another years later, or some might even receive hyphenated racial designations, such as blanca-mulata. These things were simply not of great concern there. In 1930s New York City, entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth-century consciously created spaces where races could get together free from scrutiny. These “black and tan” saloons were expressly created as spaces where blacks and

whites could commingle and dance, and spoke to a desperate need people

had for a place like Uptown.

            Uptown is the space realized by Paul Gilroy’s “politics of

transfiguration”: the “new desires, social relations, and modes of

association within the racial community . . . and between that group and

its erstwhile oppressors.” When you went Uptown, they were already living

the way the Western world had promised would be attainable for all people black or white, but which had been betrayed by the horrors of slavery, genocide, and capitalist accumulation. That is why if you were Uptown, you would not care as much about the unfilled potential found downtown, you would be much more concerned about being there. And you would be much more concerned about being, there.

            Most of the good borderland spaces are gone, now. When borderlands submit to municipal oversight, the government’s tendency to legislate how people used and where they put their bodies comes with them. Except in this place, my nine-year-old self countered. Prince has found a place where they’ve been able to let it all go. Makes sense. Adulthood is going to be a cinch, I thought. It was good to have thoughts like this about adulthood from time to time because, as I was finding, there were many things about it that were becoming more troublesome the more I learned about them.

            Like sex.

To Be Continued . . .

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Photo Credits:

Profile Pic: Kate Hallock

All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison

About David

I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles. 

 

My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."

I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.

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