Letter from New York


If anything begins to explain the allure of New York it is the huge diversity of choice. Such was my dilemma on a recent wintry Saturday when faced with a menu of highly hyped options.

The headline grabbers were the theatrical unfurling of the Christo Gates in Central Park, the distinguished Westminster Dog Show of significant interest to pet-obsessed New Yorkers, and an important Barney’s shoe sale of crucial concern to me. I instead opted for the public funeral of Ossie Davis in Harlem’s Riverside Church. A civil rights activist, actor, playwright, gentleman, Ossie Davis was embraced universally and luminaries from both the Afro American and white nations were there in droves.

Whilst oratory may have unobtrusively slipped out of fashion in contemporary politics, that day in Harlem it was alive and on fire. Harry Belafonte delivered a most eloquent, considered eulogy which clearly established that the smiling islander in the tropical shirt had been an uncompromising champion of black rights his entire life. There followed a succession of inspired homilies by daughters and grandsons, by Maya Angelou and Spike Lee and warm tributes from Bill Clinton, Alan Alda, Burt Reynolds. During Wynton Marsalis’ painfully poignant trumpet solo, I understood that I was at the equivalent of a state funeral for Black America.

Too stimulated to go straight home, I took the 3 train down to Central Park and joined the tens of thousands of spellbound visitors ambling under the saffron flags. Christo, Jean Claude and Peter Pan had presented New Yorkers with a gift whose unifying effect will last about as long as the exhibition.

Two weeks later I went back to Harlem. This time to the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Odell Clark Place which was already full an hour before the ceremony started. I was shown to a small gap in a tightly packed balcony row of people who shuffled reluctantly, suspiciously to make room for me. It was the national commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and this time, mine was the only white face in an audience of more than 2000.

That explained why there were no security guards or bag searchers who otherwise appear all over the city, at museums and galleries, at stores and entertainment venues, wherever people gather. It explained why the political oratory was even braver, more defiant, and it explained why no white supporters came. Malcolm X predicted a future where a united black America would achieve not only civil rights, but equality. Dangerous stuff.

In post election America the side effects of neo-con rule are everywhere. The newly formed Department of Homeland Security, designed to foster homeland insecurity, is right on the job. Mainstream theatre is facile, film feels good, art is reassuring. The anti-war activists of the presidential campaign have hunkered down to their usual lives, reasoning that the people have spoken. Liberalism is unpatriotic in a country at war. Maintain the fear to sustain the war and all is well in the house of Bush. Whilst Americans are content with their captivity, there is no need for the machinery of totalitarian rule.

As The Voices of Haiti sang a medley of pan African anthems to illustrate the dream of Malcolm X, a sprinkling of people rose to their feet, with one raised, clenched fist. More followed and more, until 2000 people stood, singing with one voice. Here was the fearless passion of a humiliated people with little to lose, who will not be silenced in their own home and who have identified their adversary.

Today as then, many have rejected Malcolm X in favour of Martin Luther King. Ossie Davis knew this was a choice without wisdom. Professor Manning Marable in telling ‘the remarkable, true story’ of Malcolm X will include the three chapters missing from his autobiography, scary FBI files and his vision for a peaceful, internationalist solution. It will also shed light on the consequential circumstances of his death.

I wonder if the shoe sale is still on.

A major report on the Pathways Project will be published in November 2006 by Mission Australia and Griffith University.

See also: Freiberg, K., Homel, R., Batchelor, S., Carr, A., Lamb, C., Hay, I., Elias, G. & Teague, R. (2005). Pathways to participation: A community-based developmental prevention project in Australia. Children and Society, 19: 144-157.

Stanley, F., Richardson, S. & Prior, M. (2005). Children of the lucky country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter. Pan Macmillan.

Developmental Crime Prevention Consortium (1999). Pathways to prevention: Developmental and early intervention approaches to crime in Australia (Full Report, Summary and Appendices) (400 pages). Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service

See Patton, G., Bowes, G., Sawyer, S., Homel, R. & Stanley, F. (2005). “Towards a national agenda for youth?” (Editorial). Medical Journal of Australia, 183(8): 394-395.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1981). Children and families: 1981. The silent revolution. Lecture delivered at Macquarie University, July 1981.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.