Old Black Business

On the block in North Philadelphia
Family. Photo courtesy of the author.
A North Philadelphia block party
A North Philadelphia block party. Photo courtesy of the author.

My fellowship activity will amplify North Philly Black and Brown legends, social health, economy, pleasure, presence, and well being. I am remembering how care and beauty were made and performed by the Black North Philadelphians who raised me while living through apocalyptic spatial conditions. I am calling on the long memory of a place and a people in epic conversation with the ugliness and inhumanity of a city and national politic surviving on anti-Blackness, Native genocide, and violence.

The way I understood it growing up was that you had to pick a place repping where you were from, and that was your flag to fly when anybody had any questions about your sense of belonging. Where you were from could place you in or out of the game. Where you were from, and then where you went to high school, could have someone, anyone, treating you like this or like that, regardless if they knew you at all.

I was born into a migrant family, as many of us are. I was four years old when we moved from my birthplace in Detroit, Michigan, to my parents’ hometown in North Philadelphia. Quiet as it’s kept, Mama had left Pop because the shit wasn’t workin out. So she moved back home and our first residence was my grandparent’s house on a tiny, tight-knit block in North Central where most of the neighbors had been sharing space together for at least thirty years.

At home with fam
At home with fam, Uptown in Oak Lane. Photo courtesy of the author.

I fell deep in love with North Philly early on. I wasn’t born there so I wasn’t from there, but I was there now through some magic portal activated long before I landed. 1981. Family everywhere. We would walk between neighborhoods in packs of kinfolk. Block parties. Drunken parents singing their blues to each other, to us and the streets. Spades and pinochle. Late-night Chinese food and epic sleepovers with the cousins.

I am the grand kin of Liddie Belle Gilchrist and John William Thompson Sr., and Gladys Robinson and Hayes Reed. Those four ancestors arrived to Philadelphia in the 1930s and 40s. Historians like to nicely and neatly call this period of refugee Black movement “The Great Migration.” It sounds cooler on the collar, sounds like an orchestra performing an opera. But the millions of Black folks who came North were refugees fleeing the white supremacy and state-sanctioned terror of the U.S. South. 

Did those great Blacks who positioned themselves in the space of movement to and from both here and there feel they had to choose to belong to a single, unfamiliar, and possibly unreliable place, like I did? Or did they recognize the freedom they were shaping by choosing to come and go, creating more space? 

Father Divine and Mother Divine at a luncheon for their anniversary, Bible Institute, 1530 N. 16th St., April 30, 1951. Photographer unknown. George D. McDowell Evening Bulletin Photographs Collection, Temple Special Collections Research Center.

My grandmother’s intentional migrations back down South over the years, bringing her children two-by-two in alternating visits set the foundations for my life as a migrant. Because my mother continued the legacy of migration performed by her mother,  I feel as much at home in the South as I do in Philadelphia. I spent every summer down South from the age of six until eighteen.  This movement shaped me to be both multi-culturally influenced and locally aware. Thank you, grandmother 🤎 . Thank you, mother 🤎.

When we arrived here from the D with Mama, Philadelphia was 38 hotttt. Niggas was cracked out. Niggas was reporting homicides multiple times a day. Niggas was policing the hell out of niggas’ neighborhoods and filling up the cells but niggas didn’t seem to know where niggas was gettin the shit from. Niggas was on the news calling us super predators. Niggas was making laws criminalizing people in their own homes. Niggas was lookin at other niggas thinkin they was better or less than. Niggas painted the buildings this horrible matte maroon color just because they could. Niggas owned the buildings occupying our space but we ain’t never see them niggas. Niggas walked around outdoors feeling like they was in prison. Too many niggas died. Too many niggas still in prison. Niggas was wildin. Niggas ain’t over that heartbreak. Niggas still wildin.

Black cowboys out Norf
Black cowboys out Norf. Screenshot, courtesy of the author.

My first failed attempt at research in institutional archives was at Philadelphia City Archives. I am saying failed here following how cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman and poet NourbeSe Phillip talk about Black non-conformity and refusal as acts of critical and political radicality—spaces for creative imagination that persist alongside white supremacy’s anti-Black terror and violence.  The mayor’s executive orders and mayoral records (1691 – 2000) stored at City Archives are not racially cataloged. This choice of the institution that emerges from the archive reads that race is an afterthought when it should be understood that race and race relations are central to the creation and managing of the city. I fail to see the innocence of such a choice.  The archive is a tool for white supremacy that must be deconstructed. Hartman and Phillip draw from the archive the impossibility and possibility of Black life. They look to terms like “non-being” and “abolition” as ways to break and enter the colonizer’s text to recover our own that has been boosted, unnamed,  and spoken for.  Reading their scholarship makes me think about how I will “tell stories that [have] exceeded, even as they [have] not escape the violence of the archive, to regard Black life from inside the circle, and to recapture the wild thought and the beautiful recklessness capable of imagining the with and the us and the we.

At City Archives, I could not locate what felt like Black subjectivity there. What I found was a vast array of references that talked about Black people as some sort of phenomena. Prior to my time at City Archives, my archival research had been conducted in conversation with friends and family with us sharing old photos and stories over laughs, tears, and wine. In contrast, the archive as an institution reveals Black presence in the city always in the wake of an impending investigation, doom, terror, threat, hunt, capture. 

Members of the Philadelphia Black Panther Party are handcuffed and stripped by Philadelphia Police during an early morning raid of their Columbia Avenue headquarters, August 31, 1970. Photo by Dominic Ligato. George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs Collection, Temple Special Collections Research Center.

But I don’t ever remember a public recognition about what happened with the manufactured events we call the crack epidemic, Iran contra affair, the war on drugs, the war on crime, and countless others. And what happened to all those people? Why is the prison on State Road a major employer for workers in the city of Philadelphia? Why are white people now safely roaming hoods you never would’ve seen them niggas at on the regular? And why is Temple University Police Department, a publicly funded but privately run enforcement agency, the third-largest police department in the State of Pennsylvania? And niggas still cracked out. And there have been no reparations of note to match the brutality niggas been facing. This Old Black Business feels unsettling, but it is true true facts. 

How do we be consistently in the practice of caring for ourselves and each other in space with conditions where there is no safety for us and while failing systems implode and crumble?

My research is preoccupied with the ongoing conversation between Black culture, Native space, and the shaping of place. I am making an archive for rememory, as writer and legend Toni Morrison named it. I am “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past.”

What can the interior archives located in our families and communities teach us about a future? About our enduring presence? As Philadelphia devises its ways and means of becoming, how can we continue to fail at belonging here or there? How can we be both here and there, deepening and expanding our senses of space and belonging?


Copyright 2021 by muthi reed. All rights reserved.

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muthi reed (they/them) is a poet and maker. They compose and animate light, space, and sound with personal and public archive material. They take Black aesthetics, embellish them with Black things, pull aesthetics apart, and reimagine Black citing the miraculous of the mundane. The composite icons are made and shared as sketches of sonic memory and vernacular acts of care. muthi lives bi-regionally in Philadelphia and the black belt region of the U.S. South, where their grandparents are from.