‘When People Answer that All Lives Matter, They are Lying’
A Lifelong Resident of Downtown Considers Blackness Within a Bubble of Privilege
“This community exists largely in a bubble,” reflects Mariama James, a local leader who serves as the co-chair of the Quality of Life Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1). “For the most part, there’s nothing malicious about this, but people are tucked away in their own spaces. And what you’ve never seen, never lived, is hard to imagine. So there’s not really an understanding of how bad things are in other places, because they are not so bad here.”
Ms. James moved to Lower Manhattan as a child, in 1971, when her family took up residence in the newly opened Southbridge Towers. “My dad worked for Citibank, at 20 Exchange Place; my mom worked at Bache, on Gold Street, and I was a latchkey kid, attending local schools,” she says. “Race was something we were conscious of, but in different ways. My best friend growing up was Italian, and her family loved me, but always made clear that I was an exception in their eyes.”
At a time when Lower Manhattan was an office district with no more than a few hundred residential households, “there were a handful of families of color,” she recalls. “These kids and parents would travel as a group to beaches or public pools on Staten Island, where we were looked at with suspicion and hostility. So my first insight into race came from venturing outside the community.”
“Even though my dad worked for a bank and my mother worked for a stock broker, they were urban hippies, who were revolutionary for their time,” Ms. James observes. “Another early example of becoming aware of race was hearing my parents talk at the dinner table about being arrested in South Carolina. My mother was locked up for being Angela Davis,” the 1960s radical leader, “because she had a similar hairstyle, and they put my father in handcuffs for explaining that she wasn’t Angela Davis. And those officers left my sister, who was three years old, standing alone on the street corner where they arrested my parents.”
As a young girl, Ms. James vacationed in South Carolina, at her grandmother’s home, “where I knew poor kids—both black and white—who lived in horrible poverty. Race and class are handled differently in other parts of the country. My grandmother would warn me that if a white person came to the door, that I shouldn’t answer. That’s something my parents would never worried about in New York.”
Before reaching school age, Ms. James tested well enough to make the cutoff for the Hunter College Elementary School, “and the admissions people told me mother that they’d love to have me, except they didn’t need any more black girls,” she remembers. “They were looking only for black boys at that point.”
“So I had awareness of these issues, but they didn’t weigh upon me heavily, or on a daily basis, when I was young,” she says. “That began to change as I grew up. I went to the High School of the Humanities, which had a racially mixed group of students. About three months before graduation, the principal called me into her office. She explained that I wasn’t in any trouble, but they had found gun in the locker of an emotionally disturbed white girl, who had told them she was planning to shoot me. So they said I would have to transfer to another school. Why they didn’t send the crazy white girl with a gun to another school was never explained to me.”
“But I had very good grades, so they said I could go wherever I wanted, and asked me where I would prefer,” Ms. James says. “I choose Washington Irving, a school with mostly black students, and a white principal who was afraid to go above the fourth floor. So the gangs could do whatever they wanted.” During summers in her high school years, she remembers, “I was managing Ice Cream Extravaganza on Pier 17,” in the South Street Seaport. “The owner lived so far away on Long Island that he delegated to me doing a manual, cash payroll and dropping each day’s earnings off at the bank’s night deposit box.”
“My boyfriend in high school got arrested three or four times,” she recalls. “It was mistaken identity, because he lived in a housing project in Canarsie, where police would scoop up black kids by the dozen to put them in lineups, sometimes resulting in false charges. Whenever I didn’t hear from him for several days, I knew he had been arrested, and I had to wait for him to be arraigned and released.”
After graduating from Washington Irving in 1989, Ms. James toured several colleges. “My boyfriend and I took a Greyhound bus to visit a school in Vermont,” she notes, “but stopped at a diner on the way. Literally, the entire restaurant stopped eating and stared at us as soon as we stepped in. We immediately walked out and caught the next bus home, without ever visiting the school.” She eventually chose Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania (and the nation’s first such degree-granting institution), which is the alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and poet Langston Hughes.
As a young woman, fresh out of college, Ms. James treated herself to a Mustang convertible, which provided a new (if unsought) source of insight on race relations. “I was repeatedly pulled over by police, who couldn’t explain why they had stopped me,” she remembers. “There’s no way for me to prove what they were thinking, but I believe they assumed a black woman driving such a stylish car must have stolen it.”
With two female friends (who were mixed race: black and Filipino), Ms. James rented the upstairs unit of a two-family home in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of Staten Island. “White teenagers would thrown eggs and bottles at our windows,” she says, “and when our boyfriends would come to visit us, they were sometimes chased.
Returning to Lower Manhattan, Ms. James embarked on a career and began a family. “My youngest daughter is very fair skinned, and has green eyes, which makes her race hard to discern,” Ms. James explains. “When she started kindergarten at P.S. 234, and I would pick her up, all the other Tribeca parents assumed I was the maid or the housekeeper. And when she came home that first day, the first thing she told me was, ‘I’m the only black kid in the class.’”
Ms. James’s financial acumen led to her being recruited by a lighting company, where she worked for decades. “The owners would showcase how enlightened they were by introducing me as the corporate comptroller,” she recalls, “even though they never actually gave me that title. I was never promoted higher than assistant comptroller.”
“I wasn’t ever treated poorly,” she acknowledges. “But I was always treated black and female. So I earned less than peers who had similar experience and qualifications. This is something you can’t escape—it’s always there. As you scale the ladder, it becomes less obvious. But it never goes away.”
“I was prepared for this by my father’s history,” Ms. James says. “He retired as a senior vice president at Citibank. But he was never paid what other executives with the same title were. You bottle this up and tell yourself you just have to live with it.”
“What’s happening now is that society tells tens of millions of people to just live with it and keep quiet—whether ‘it’ means being paid less, or having your dignity taken away, or being put in physical danger. And people do, until they can’t anymore. And then there’s a moment like this.”
“The point of saying that black lives matter is that they matter, too—not more and not instead of anybody else’s life,” she says. “And when people answer that all lives matter, they are lying, because one of the central lessons of racism is that some lives are treated as less valuable. Saying that all lives matter is a dismissal, designed to sound gentle and loving, while avoiding any change. People who are willing to listen to this lie are part of the problem.”
“Our country’s racism hurts all people of color, but it mostly focuses its violence on young black men,” she notes. “That’s why black mothers are terrified of having sons. Our culture views black men as a physical threat, and this justifies using deadly force against them. This is part of why black people roll the dice whenever they deal with authority or government officials.”
“We’re now seeing protests in all 50 states, plus 18 other countries,” Ms. James reflects. “These are the largest demonstrations ever. One of the things I want to see change is the way that those who would fight the oppressor have always fallen back to sleep in the past, forgetting that it ever happened, and then we have to start all over again ten years later.”
“We owe it to the protestors of 50 years ago to finish the job, and finishing the job is about educating people,” she insists. “Everybody in America, no matter how much or little schooling they’ve had, can tell you the meaning of the Fourth of July. But not one in 50 can tell you the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the significance of Juneteenth”—the June 19 anniversary of the last Confederate state (Texas) abolishing slavery. “Why don’t we teach every American about these things? Why do we instead teach the lie that slavery was not a unique crime, and that other injustices, like indentured servitude among whites, were nearly as bad?”
“In addition to education, we need equal access to healthcare and to credit,” she continues. “The last big recession was largely caused by usurious loans to minorities. These are banks that made their fortunes on the backs of my ancestors—the wall that Wall Street is named after was built by slaves, and was the site of a slave market.”
“Housing is another urgent priority,” she observes. “Every time black people try to build our own communities, after being told we are not welcome in yours, those get taken away, too. In the past, thriving black communities were burnt to the ground. But these days, they are gentrified out of existence, just as is happening in black neighborhoods around New York today.”
“Not every problem can be solved immediately,” Ms. James reflects, “but we have to begin immediately. Right now, while the protests are still going on, is when we have to fund schools and change curricula, and launch other reform efforts. If we wait, it will quickly be too late, and all of this opportunity will have been wasted.”
Each day, a different encore presentation from the company’s Live in HD series is available for free streaming on the Met website, with each performance available for 23 hours, from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 6:30 p.m. the following day. The schedule will include outstanding complete performances from the past 14 years of cinema transmissions, starring all of opera’s greatest singers.
One million Jews and tens of thousands of others, including Poles, Roma and Sinti, and Soviet prisoners of war, were murdered at Auschwitz. Auschwitz has become the most widely-recognized symbol of the Holocaust and the tragedy of World War II as well as a painful reminder of what can happen when ethics and values are shattered by ideologies of hate and racial superiority. Join Pawel Sawicki, press officer at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, for an online discussion of ABSM’s expansive work. Free. Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Test your trivia IQ at home with your friends and family! Follow along on Zoom and enter your answers via Kahoot for a digital version of Brookfield Place’s weekly trivia series with ThinkFast. Part of the #BFPLatHome series. Prizes: 1st Place: $150 gift card to a BFPL restaurant of the winner’s choice; 2nd Place: $20 BFPL Gift Card; 3rd Place: Two bags of For Five Coffee – winner’s choice! (must live in NYC, NJ, or CT).
Get your fix of Kindie Rock at home with great songs and videos from the Battery Park City Authority’s roster of children’s music stars. Learn a few new tunes and enjoy old favorites in this charming musical experience. Free.
Inspired by confinement and virtual connectivity, The Attendants 2020 is a re-imagining of the cutting edge interactive performance presented at Brookfield Place in 2011, during which the public communicated with performers through text messages and tweets. Chance Muehleck and Melanie Armer, co-founders of The Nerve Tank, have adapted the project in response to the public’s new normal, which relies on technology more than ever to communicate and connect with others. The plexiglass cube from the 2011 performance has been replaced by the 2020 2-D rectangular screens we have all become so familiar with and reliant on. And the concept of waiting, which was so vital to the original piece, has taken on a whole new meaning. Viewers will be able to influence the piece by sending messages to the performers through a digital platform. The performers can only respond with their bodies, each streaming in from the safety of their own homes. Noon to 6pm.
Jesse Rice-Evans, a queer femme rhetorician and doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center researching intersections of language, disability, and digital culture, reads from her new book The Uninhabitable (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). Noon.
June 9: Today in History
1909 – Alice Huyler Ramsey becomes the first woman to drive
across the United States.
1822 – Charles Graham patents false teeth
1909 – Alice Huyler Ramsey becomes the first woman to drive across the United States. In fifty nine days she, accompanied by three female companions, none of whom could drive a car, drove a Maxwell automobile the 3,800 miles
from Manhattan to San Francisco.
1934 – First Donald Duck cartoon, Wise Little Hen, released
1957 – First ascent of Broad Peak, the world’s twelfth highest mountain
1962 – Tony Bennett debuts in concert at Carnegie Hall in NYC
1979 – Michael Cairney topples a record row of 169,713 dominoes
Peter the Great
1672 – Peter the Great [Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov], tsar of Russia
1781 – George Stephenson, England, inventor of the RR locomotive
1812 – Johann G Galle, German astronomer who discovered Neptune
1937 – Harald Rosenthal, German biologist known for his work in fish farming, ecology, and international cooperation.
1944 – Twenty-three puppies, a record litter, born to Lena, a foxhound in Pennsylvania
1961 – Michael J. Fox, Canadian actor
1936 – Novelist and journalist George Orwell weds Eileen Maud O’Shaugnessy at St. Mary’s Church
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Downtown Non-Profit Sues to Gain Release of Protestors
A non-profit based in Lower Manhattan is suing the New York Police Department (NYPD) to obtain the release of more than 100 protestors arrested during the recent demonstrations over the death of George Perry Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25.
The Legal Aid Society, headquartered at 199 Water Street, filed suit on Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court, on behalf of 108 detainees who were arrested in Manhattan during the first five days of protests.
CB1 Endorses Push to Expand VCF Coverage to Pandemic Illness
Community Board 1 (CB1) has signed on to a campaign that aims to expand the eligibility criteria of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) to include illnesses related to the outbreak of the pandemic coronavirus.
Crashes in Tourism and Business Travel May Signal Trouble for Downtown Hotel Sector
A hotel developer seeking to repeat a 2017 coup may face headwinds that could work against such a reprise. Last December, Hidrock Properties, a Manhattan-based builder of hotels and office properties, completed demolition of two small buildings at 110 and 112 Liberty Street, between Greenwich Street and Trinity Place, which it bought for $38 million in 2018. (Local residents may remember them as the home of the Ho-Yip and Essex World restaurants.)