NYC: 1965-1995 - Photos Taken & Written By Jacob Holdt
Everything in Harlem is black - except all business which is owned by whites and immigrants. The only stores that are not owned by whites, the street people will tell you, are the omnipresent funeral homes, since white undertakers will have nothing to do with black bodies. Being an undertaker is one of the surest ways of reaching middle-class status. For death is as ubiquitous in Harlem as the fear haunting everybody beneath the uneasy sporadic laughter. Yet I feel safer as a member of the ever-present invisible "Whitey" in Harlem than most blacks are, for as always in slavery, aggression is aimed towards fellow victims rather than towards the hated oppressor.
This funeral home next to a drug rehabilitation center illustrates clearly the unremitting choice you have in Harlem - the choice between an instant death or an enslaved life under The Man. Thousands of addicts choose the door on the left.
They know all too well that if they choose the door on the right, they will either become re-habilitated, which means a return to the previous condition in which they could not survive without using drugs - or else they become "up-habilitated" by learning how to live with the ghetto jungle through mind-crippling and killed sensitivity - thus subjugating themselves to the The Man's blame-the-victim slavery of changing the victims rather than their oppressive environment.
This woman is a living illustration of the constant choice in Harlem. A mad attacker had broken into her apartment and tried to kill her with a big knife. She survived by jumping out a window on the third floor - and was crippled for life.
They are not only victims of that violence, but are capable of hitting back with all the viciousness injected into them by the "American way of life."
Often on the roofs of New York I helped tie up these bound souls. On certain street corners in Harlem you see thousands of addicts every day waiting for heroin.
At night not even the police dare move in these neighborhoods from whose shooting galleries we sometimes could enjoy an incredible view of the "big needle" on the Empire State Building.
In my vagabond years I could easily knock the guns from listless heroin addicts, but the far more dangerous crack today makes addicts so paranoid that they riddle everyone around with bullets.
Since the penalty for being an addict and the criminal existence it leads to - or in other words a victim - is the same as for being a murderer, they have no real choice.
They get a mandatory life sentence whether they act as victims or executioners. The shooting galleries are therefore extremely dangerous.
This man, who had been an addict for 16 years, suffered from malnutrition and running sores all over his body. He was unable to find any more healthy spots to shoot up in and therefore had to take the foul-smelling bandage off his leg to find a vein.
He suffered terribly and knew all too well that he had less than two years left to live. Therefore he had nothing to lose, and urged me to show the pictures to the world in order to frighten other young people so that they should never come to suffer like himself.
The most indescribable and distressing suffering I have met is that which befalls the children whose experiences of depravation and crime help to mold and cripple their minds and entire being for life.
When I was teaching a school class in Harlem I discovered that there was not a single one of the pupils who had not experienced shoot-outs in the streets, where bullets hit even the most innocent child.
They refused to believe that I came from a country with no guns. "How do people defend themselves?" they would ask.
The blacks' own view of Harlem is directly opposite the white liberal one since they cannot see only the dismal in the ghetto without going insane.
In order to survive you must look at the positive sides.
For instance, they will not emphasize that 10% of Harlem's youth are bloody criminals terrorizing the streets.
They will turn it upside down and be encouraged by the incredible fact that in spite of this criminal environment, 90% of the youth have not been in conflict with the law.
They will look at the flourishing culture thriving in the midst of the oppression, be heartened by the fact that the
majority of Harlem's population are surviving - see the many roses that manage to grow up in this jungle.
But Harlem is far from being the worst ghetto in New York. In the South Bronx, where European movie companies now shoot their footage on the destruction of Germany after WW II, there are districts where nine out of ten people die an unnatural death - from murder, hunger, overdose, rat bites, etc.
In the Brownsville ghetto I saw two murders and heard of four others the same day. As a matter of fact I haven't been back there since.
Most whites have difficulty understanding what a ghetto is. There are, for instance, no walls around a ghetto, and its existence is not necessarily a result of bad housing. It is not only the underclass we ghettoize.
In Detroit, housing is far better than in Harlem. That the ghetto is not anything physically concrete like broken bottles and litter I experienced very strongly in Detroit where I was fortunate enough to get to live on both sides of the dividing line between the ghetto and the white areas - right out there where every white house is up for sale.
Many things I can understand about white racism, but to this day it is for me an absolute mystery why we whites are moving away from everything we have built up and come to love just because a black - or in Europe a Muslim - family moves into the neighborhood
The crime of the poor - like the exploitation by the rich - is almost impossible to photograph. You can take pictures of the result, but rarely of the process itself. One junkie in the act of burglarizing almost stabbed me in the stomach with his "blade" and it took me a whole night afterwards to make him trust me.
Usually I would be with criminals for days before photographing them. In order to survive among them it was a deadly necessity that I always had faith in their inner goodness, directing myself toward the human being inside and away from the role the system normally forced them to model their lives on.
Here I was caught in a shoot-out between police and criminals in Harlem. A policeman rushed over and used my doorway as a firing position whereby I suddenly found myself photographically on the side of the police.
On such occasions I began to understand the brutal but all-too-human re-actions of the police. Their racist attitudes and lack of understanding of the reactions bred by our outside oppression is one of the reasons for the angry charges of police brutality. Society has trained the police to expect the worst instead of communicating with the good in people. Therefore they shoot before they question.
Much of it is sanctioned by white authorities. Many states passed laws authorizing the police to break into people's homes without knocking. Many innocent people have been killed in this way which I give sad example of in the following story.
One day I saw in the New York times a picture of Mayor Lindsay presenting a bouquet of flowers to a "heroic" police officer in a hospital bed. It said that he had been shot down while "entering an apartment." I decided to find out what was actually behind this incident and nosed around the Bronx for several days to find the relatives and the apartment where it all took place. Little by little I found out what had happened. James and Barbara were a young black couple who lived in the worst neighborhood in the U.S.A. around Fox Street in the South Bronx. One day they heard burglars on the roof and called the police. Two plain-clothes officers arrived at the apartment and kicked in the door without knocking. James thought it was the burglars who were breaking in, and he shot at the door, but was then himself killed by the police. Barbara ran screaming into the neighbor's apartment. When I went to the 41st Precinct police station they confirmed the story and admitted that "there had been a little mistake," but James of course "was asking for it, being in possession of an unregistered gun."
I was by now so used to this kind of American logic that I did not feel any particular indignation toward the officer. I just felt that he was wrong. Since I had spent so much time finding out the facts of the case. I might as well go to the funeral, too. I rushed around town trying to borrow a nice shirt and arrived at the funeral home in the morning about an hour before the services. I took some pictures of James in the coffin. He was very handsome. I admired the fine job the undertaker had done with plastic to plug up the bullet holes. Black undertakers are sheer artists in this field; even people who have had their eyes torn out they can get to look perfectly normal. Since black bodies arrive in all possible colors and conditions, they use almost the entire color spectrum in plastic materials. James did not make any particular impression on me; I had already seen so many young black corpses. The only thing I wondered about was that there wasn't any floral wreath from the police. I waited about an hour, which was to be the last normal hour that day. Not more than ten people came to the funeral, all of them surprised at seeing a white man there. A young guy whispered to me that he thought it was a little unbecoming for a white man to he present at this particular funeral. Then suddenly I heard terrible screams from the front hall and saw three men bringing Barbara in. Her legs were dragging along the floor. She was incapable of walking. I could not see her face, but she was a tall, beautiful, light-skinned young woman. Her screams made me shudder. Never before had I heard such excruciating and pain-filled screams. When she reached the coffin, it became unbearable. It was the first and only time in America I was unable to photograph. I had taken pictures with tears running down my cheeks, but had always kept myself at such a great distance from the suffering that I was able to record it. When Barbara came up to the coffin, she threw herself down into it. She lay on top of James and screamed so it cut through marrow and bone. I could only make out the words, "James, wake up, wake up!" again and again. The others tried to pull her away, but Barbara didn't notice anything but James. I was at this point completely convinced that James would rise up in the coffin. I have seen much suffering in America, but I have often perceived in the midst of the suffering a certain hypocrisy or even shallowness, which enabled me to distance myself from it. Barbara knocked my feet completely out from under me. Everything began to spin before my eyes. It must have been at that point that I suddenly rushed weeping out of' the funeral home. I ran for blocks just to get away. My crying was completely uncontrollable. I staggered down through Simpson and Prospect Streets, where nine out of ten die an unnatural death. Robbers and the usual street criminals stood in the doorways, but I just staggered on without noticing them, stumbling over garbage cans and broken bottles. It was a wonder that no one mugged me, but they must have thought I had just been mugged.
When I got to James' and Barbara's apartment building, still crying, I asked some children if there was anyone up in the apartment "of the man who was shot the other day." They asked if I didn't mean the man who was shot in the building across the street last night. No, it was in this building, I said. But they had not heard that anyone had been shot in their building. They lived on the third floor and James and Barbara lived on the sixth floor. I went up to the apartment, which now stood empty.
Robbers had already ransacked it, and there were only bits of paper and small things scattered around on the floor. The emptiness of the apartment made me sob even harder. There were bullet holes all over in the living room wall where James had been sitting, but there were only two in the door which the police had kicked open.
There were three locks on the door like everywhere in New York, as well as a thick iron bar set fast in the floor - a safety precaution the police themselves recommend that people use to avoid having their doors sprung open by criminals. James and Barbara had been so scared of criminals that they had put double steel bars on their windows although it was six stories up and there was no fire escape outside. Down in the courtyard there was a three-foot pile of garbage people had thrown out of their windows.
Here James and Barbara had lived since they were sixteen with their now four-year-old daughter. After a couple of' hours I ventured out of the apartment. I had cried so much that I had a splitting headache, and all the way into Manhattan the weeping kept coming back in waves. When I came to a movie theater on the West Side, I wandered in without really knowing what I was doing. It was at that time that movies directed by blacks were being produced for the first time in history. The film was called "Sounder" and was about a poor family in Louisiana in the 1930's. There was an overwhelming sense of love and togetherness in the family, but in the end the father was taken away by the white authorities and sent to a work camp for having stolen a piece of meat. The film was made in Hollywood and romanticized the poverty; after several years in a work camp, the father came back to the family, so the film would have a happy ending.
This wasn't the kind of poverty I had met up with in the South. The only time I cried in the movie was when I saw things that reminded me all too much of James and Barbara. Afterward I wandered over in the direction of Broadway. An old black woman whom I had stayed with in the North Bronx the night before had given me ten dollars so I could get some nice clothes for the funeral. She had at first not trusted me and had spent several hours calling various police stations asking them what was the idea of sending an undercover cop to her house. But when after half a day she had assured herself that I was not a police agent, she was so happy that she gave me the ten dollars, and I had to promise to come stay with her again, and she telephoned to Alaska so I could talk with her daughter who lived up there. Now I still had a little money left over and went in my strange state of mind straight into another movie theater on Broadway and saw "Farewell, Uncle Tom." It was a harrowing film about slavery. It was made by non-Americans (in Italy), so it didn't romanticize slavery. You saw how the slaves were sold at auction, the instruments of torture that were used, and you saw how men were sold away from their wives and children. It was frightful. How could all this have been allowed to happen only a hundred years ago? At some points in the film I almost threw up. I looked around the cinema repeatedly, as I was afraid that there would be blacks in there, but there were only two people in the whole theater besides me. When I got outside, there was a young black guy hanging around with sunglasses on. I stood for a long time looking him in the eyes, and I couldn't understand why he didn't knock me down.
For days afterward I was a wreck. I will never forget that day. It stands completely blank in my diary. A whole year went by before I pulled myself together and sought Barbara out. But when I came to the kitchen at the veterans' hospital where she worked, an old black woman was sent out to talk to me. She told me that she was Barbara's guardian, since Barbara had not been normal since the funeral. She had become very withdrawn and never spoke any more. I asked her what Barbara had been like before James' death. She went into deep thought for a moment and then told me with tears in her eyes about the four years when James and Barbara had worked together there in the kitchen. They had always been happy, singing, and a real joy to the kitchen personnel. They had never missed a day of work, always came in together and always left together at the end of the day. But she wouldn't let me see Barbara, for Barbara did not wish to see anyone.
Another year went by before I sent a letter to Barbara from somewhere in the South. I assumed that by now Barbara had gotten over her husband's murder. When I again went to the kitchen, the same elderly woman met me. It was as if time had not passed at all, and we just continued where we left off. She sighed deeply and looked into my eyes. "Barbara has gone insane," she said.
Barbara kept coming up in my thoughts wherever I traveled. But another event came to make just as strong an impression on me. Somewhere in Florida an unhappy white woman had climbed up a water tower and stood on the edge, about to commit suicide. But she couldn't make herself jump. It was in a ghetto area and a large crowd of people, most of them black, gathered at the foot of the tower. The police and fire department were trying to persuade the woman not to jump, while the crowd shouted for her to jump. I was totally unable to comprehend it. I shouted as loud as I could: "Stop it, stop it, please, let the poor woman live." But their shouts grew louder. It was the worst and most sickening mass hysteria I had ever experienced. Then suddenly it hit me that the screams sounded like Barbara's on that unforgettable morning. I started getting weak in the knees and rushed off, just as fast as at the funeral home. In five years I will try to contact Barbara once more. I must see her face again some day!
Trains on the subways of New York carry both uniformed and plainclothes cops, and still people are being murdered and raped before the eyes of panic-stricken passengers who dare not try and help. People are murdered on the street in front of 40 spectators, who watch from their apartments without any of them calling the police, because they "didn't know if the attackers were in collusion with the police," they told Life Magazine. Tourists return to Europe with "American neck" from continually sending anxious glances back over their shoulders.
Everywhere we entrench ourselves against the oppressed. In New York, steel bars shot up over windows at the same speed that steel shrapnel had been spewed at poor Vietnamese. The more people struggle for a so-called "freedom" without social justice, the more they cut themselves off from it, and many Americans can today look at huge army billboards from their own steel barred fortification.
Slowly but steadily the iron curtain closed in on America. Our stores are turned into closed steel cages. The wealthy can naturally afford more discreet things and invest billions in invisible electronic fortifications between themselves and the ghetto. The more electronic rays replace trust, the more the system closes itself.