Today we welcome a guest post from Douglas J. Flowe, author of Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, out now from UNC Press.
In the wake of emancipation, black men in northern urban centers like New York faced economic isolation, marginalization, and racial violence. In response, some of those men opted to participate in underground economies, to protect themselves when law enforcement failed to do so, and to exert control over public space through force. Douglas J. Flowe traces how public racial violence, segregation in housing and leisure, and criminal stigmatization in popular culture and media fostered a sense of distress, isolation, and nihilism that made crime and violence seem like viable recourses in the face of white supremacy. He examines self-defense against state violence, crimes committed within black social spaces and intimate relationships, and the contest of white and black masculinity.
In this post, Flowe introduces and contextualizes the historical study presented in Uncontrollable Blackness. The book is now available in hardcover and ebook formats.
Uncontrollable Blackness in Context
In the summer of 1915 New York City police arrested Sonny Wilks in Midtown Manhattan and charged him with murder. As Wilks told the story, he recently had a falling out with his girlfriend, Ada Wright, and she returned to a former lover, Jasper Diamond. Because Diamond blamed Wilks for the lapse in his relationship with Wright, he confronted him on West 61st street on a warm summer evening and things became violent. “[Diamond] tried to shoot me about a girl, and I save myself by shooting him first,” Wilks later told police in a written statement.
Wilks was “idle” at the time of his arrest, he explained, having lost his job as a cigar maker, and he was away from his wife and child, trying to figure out how to make money to support them. In the photo of Wilks, on the cover of Uncontrollable Blackness, you can almost see the mixture of shock, anger, and fear he may have experienced in the moment of his arrest and booking. He had come to New York City from Honduras in 1900 and after fifteen years of working and surviving the crucible of Jim Crow, he was finally ensnared in the net of American law. The certainty that he would not see the streets, or his own family, in the context of freedom for quite some time, furrowed his brow. His bowtie sat crooked, likely because of being jostled by police when they dragged him away from the scene of the shooting. In the photo he was in a claustrophobic, smoky police stationhouse, deep within the notorious Tenderloin district; a precinct well-known for the chorus of cries to be heard from its windows as police applied the torturous “third degree” to those unlucky enough to see its innards. He was motionless for the instant of the photo, trying to follow the directions of the policemen surrounding him, and attempting to comprehend the profundity of his situation. And he had no way of knowing that in that moment he was not only looking at a camera controlled by a white officer in a dingy, musty room, but he was also staring more than 100 years into the future, on the cover of a book he would never get to read, but one that he would live every moment of. Wilks convinced a judge that he was in fact defending himself from Diamond during the conflict but he still received an indeterminate sentence of up to 16 years at Auburn Prison for first-degree manslaughter.
Sonny Wilks’s inmate photo, Auburn Prison. Courtesy of New York State Archives.
Sonny Wilks’s story, and those of countless other men like him, provide an important opportunity to dissect the meaning of illegal, or criminalized, exploits of black men. Seizing this opportunity, Uncontrollable Blackness is not in any way meant to condemn their actions, nor is it meant to romanticize them. Whether petty crimes such as theft and vandalism, or heinous crimes like rape or murder, criminality can strike at the core of a community and rip the fabric of collective purpose. However, as a historian, I am primarily concerned with understanding the confluence of circumstances that placed Wilks on West 61st Street on that day that changed his life, the conditions that made his assailant approach him as he did, and those that made it so Wilks was armed with a gun and ready to use it, as he was. I am interested in the society they lived in, the ways that society had a part in their decision-making processes, and the crucibles uniquely customized for them. One of the greatest powers of the historian should be the ability to objectively observe and understand the past, and derive meaning that can contextualize the present; like comprehending the leaves of a tree by studying its roots, its seed, and the terra firma it is planted in. While judgement and bias might color all human perspectives, to some extent, historical study might provide a clear scope of an unseen past, and hold up a looking glass for us to observe ourselves. After all, our lives are intrinsically connected to what has come before us.
As such, Uncontrollable Blackness is an attempt to understand the societal, legal, economic, and gendered factors that may have made illegality attractive, necessary, or unavoidable for African American men in the early twentieth century, with an eye toward comprehending current issues of crime in black communities, and contextualizing continued police violence and mass incarceration. It comes to grips with how breaking the law can also be seen as resistance for those whom the legal process has turned against. It is meant to register the profound sense of dread one might feel when they realize societal inequalities tailormade for them are upheld by a body of laws that simultaneously restrict their options for recourse. How can anyone expect to address issues of crime and violence without seeking first to understand where they come from?
We can all understand Sonny Wilks because he is human, and the choices he made were set in a context that might force unwelcomed decisions for anyone who is navigating a crucible that threatens their livelihood, freedom, and life at every step. If he was telling the truth about defending himself, then he never actually broke the law, but lived the next six years of his life as prisoner number 34772 simply for trying to survive on the streets of his neighborhood. He was released for good behavior in the fall of 1921 but not before his wife passed away and he lost most of his connection with his child, who continued to live with Wilks’s aunt somewhere in New York. Ultimately, Wilks’s trials represent how the city itself got in the way of the lives black men tried to forge in the city. Whether by choice or by happenstance, they might find themselves compelled into violent situations, saddled with economic circumstances that made illegality alluring or vital, and entangled with the criminal justice system in ways that ravaged their lives. But, in the process, some used crime to gain distinct advantages. Uncontrollable Blackness tells these stories, finally, from their perspectives.
Photo by Sean Garcia
Douglas J. Flowe is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter.