Black and White and Wet All Over
When I learned, a month or so ago, that esteemed Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson had a new book coming out that was an examination of Philadelphia’s public life, I begged the publisher for an advance copy. How fascinating it would be, I thought, to read the observations of Anderson, a longtime Penn prof before he moved north to Yale. I don’t know a lot about sociology, but I’ve lived and worked in Philly and its environs all my life. I couldn’t wait to dive in.
When the book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, arrived, I started eagerly, expecting to glean new insight into this city of mine. The first chapter, “A Center City Walking Tour,” was exactly that, from the Delaware River to West Philly, through Love Park, Old City, Rittenhouse Square. … “Farther up the street are a Dunkin’ Donuts and an Eyeglass Emporium; up to the corner and down the way is a Marriott Residence Hotel.” Uh. Hmm. This is what counts as scholarship at Yale these days?
It got worse. Anderson moved on to Reading Terminal, sat himself down, and told me what he saw: “[B]lack men work for the German butcher with apparent easygoing demeanor and attitude. Some of the white-owned businesses even have black cashiers . … ” Well, gee, Elijah, get out much? Maybe blacks are rare at Yale—up until two years ago, the school offered “ethnic counselors” to freshmen of color. (For a view on race relations at Penn, see this column from yesterday’s Daily Pennsylvanian.) But here on the mean streets of Philly, some of us have (wow!) black colleagues and friends.
I thought maybe I was being unfair, so I called my daughter, who’s in college, and said, “I’m reading this really weird book where this guy just goes to public places in Philadelphia and sits there and writes about what goes on.”
“An ethnography,” my women-and-gender-studies major said knowingly.
“It seems kind of stupid,” I said. “Like the emperor having no clothes.”
“Well,” she told me, “it would probably be more interesting if he were writing about someplace exotic, like Kuala Lumpur.”
So maybe familiarity was breeding my what was now verging on contempt, as I plowed through page after page of Anderson’s pedestrian (literally) prose: “Rittenhouse Square Park hosts many special events: the annual art show, summer concerts, occasional political demonstrations, even a formal dinner-dance to raise money for park maintenance.” Or maybe not; I found a similar viewpoint in an article on Anderson’s book at Slate.com, written by Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh: “[T]o devote pages of vintage ‘fly on the wall’ sociological observation to a portrait of safe public intermingling,” wrote Venkatesh, “can’t help seeming like a curiously superficial endeavor in 2011.” Hail, Columbia!
Then, in yesterday’s Inquirer, columnist Annette John-Hall busted my balloon. The problem I was having with Anderson’s book wasn’t his methodology or his writing; it was my race. She gets his book. She and he even once shared what Anderson calls a “Nigger Moment” at a restaurant in West Philly, when a server was “rudely indignant” to “the acclaimed sociologist and the veteran journalist,” as she describes the pair of them.
Being black is a prism I’ll never be able to look through. Discrimination is real. The tragedies of poverty and inferior education and insufficient health care are real. But a comfy park bench in Rittenhouse Square hardly seems a logical place from which to address them. Neither does Anderson’s book.