Painting a Portrait of Black Experience in the Bronx
By SARA RIMER
obbling around the basketball court at the South Bronx housing project on his worn-out knees, the 57-year-old Fordham University professor passed the ball to his 55-year-old research associate. The younger man executed the classic jump shot that had electrified crowds all over the neighborhood back in the 1960's.
"Beautiful," said the professor, Mark Naison.
It was a sweltering morning in mid-July, and Professor Naison, in khaki shorts and a sweat-soaked T-shirt, was conducting scholarly research. He and his colleagues in the African and African-American studies department at Fordham, in partnership with the Bronx Historical Society, have set out to document the history of people of African descent in the Bronx. It is a group that numbers more than half a million, according to Professor Naison, and yet, he said, they have been largely ignored by historians, or else viewed through the lens of social pathology.
"The most compelling portraits of the communities of the Bronx have been of the Irish and Italian and Jewish families," he said. "There hasn't been the same sort of compelling portrait of the African-American communities of the Bronx."
Professor Naison acknowledged the work of Lloyd Ultan, the official historian of the Bronx, but pointed out that Mr. Ultan writes primarily about African-Americans before the 1950's and 60's, when African-Americans from Harlem and the South were migrating to the borough in large numbers.
Professor Naison, director of Fordham's urban studies program, has already spent many hours poring through historical documents. But there are gaps in the record that can be filled only by personal interviews, he said, and that is the sort of research he lives for.
Playing ball with Nathan Dukes, a Bronx community organizer whom he has enlisted as his research associate, is one of his favorite methods of learning the territory. It is hard to miss the big, loud, white, red-haired man on the basketball court. People come over to find out who the new player is, and before they know it, he is lining them up for interviews.
"He asks extremely great questions," Mr. Dukes said, adding that he has been waiting 30 years to tell his story.
The two men were on the court at Patterson Houses, the public housing project where Mr. Dukes grew up, and where Professor Naison is concentrating his research. Much has been written about the drugs and crime that began invading the project in the late 1960's, turning it into a place families feared, and fled.
But Patterson Houses was also a place where black working-class families, as well as Latinos, raised children and nurtured dreams of upward mobility. That is the history that Professor Naison, who grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, intends to tell.
"So much has been written about the falling apart, but not about the community before it fell apart, the excitement of being part of it, the joy," Professor Naison said. "You had a combination here in a public housing project of incredibly supportive, communal life and rich, publicly funded youth services. And as a result, you had young people growing up in that time that had opportunities no one in public housing has today."
There were people like Allen Jones, who grew up to become a banker and radio commentator in Luxembourg; Adrian Best, a cameraman for ABC; Victoria Archibald-Good, a social worker, and her brother, Nate (Tiny) Archibald, the former N.B.A. star; and Mr. Dukes, whose basketball prowess and academic ability catapulted him to Benedict College in South Carolina, and to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he earned his master's degree.
In his interviews with these veterans of Patterson Houses, Professor Naison has been asking not only about parents, jobs, school, religious life and race relations, but also about dating, sports, music and food.
What were the smells of Patterson Houses?
"I remember Mr. Bonita used to make doughnuts for everybody," Ms. Archibald-Good told Professor Naison. "And he had this big pot of oil, and we would just sit out on the stoop, because we could smell them, you know, from the stoop, and he would call us up and everybody would have a freshly made doughnut."
What were the sounds of Patterson Houses?
"You had Bobo Johnson and James Johnson; they had their doo-wop, they had their doo-wop groups," Mr. Dukes told Professor Naison. "They were doing their little doo-wops in the hallway or in the summer time, especially in the summertime. They would always get a big crowd 'cause they would do, like, Little Anthony tunes, and they would also do Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers."
History is made of such details, said Professor Naison, who drives around the Bronx in his van, blasting the music of hip-hop singers from the Bronx, KRS-One, Big Pun, Fat Joe, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. ("I probably know more about hip-hop than any 57-year-old white guy in the country," he said with characteristic bravado.) He feeds his research subjects lavishly from Joey's Hero Shop, on Morris Avenue, several blocks from Patterson Houses.
"History shows that you can have a poor, working-class black and Latino community that nurtures its children and nourishes dreams and achievement," he said. "That's what Patterson was, and that's why it should be cherished."