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“You can’t talk to a disease:” Peter Breggin on how biological psychiatrists refuse to understand people labeled with schizophrenia

Biological psychiatrists–nowadays most psychiatrists–are fond of saying You can’t talk to a disease. The communication of so-called schizophrenics makes no sense at all to these doctors who want to control symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, with drugs, electroshock, and incarceration.

The idea that these extremes of irrationality are due to a disease is inseparable from the survival of psychiatry as a profession. If schizophrenia is not a disease, psychiatry wold have little justification for using its more devastating treatments. Lobotomy, electroshock, and all of the more potent drugs, including neuroleptics and even lithium, were developed at the expense of locked-up people, most of whom were labeled schizophrenic. The search for biochemical and genetic causes keeps psychiatrists, as medical doctors, in the forefront of well-funded research in the field. The notion that patients have sick brains justifies psychiatry’s unique power to treat them against their will. It also bolsters psychiatry’s claim to the top of the mental health hierarchy. In short, if irrationality isn’t biological, then psychiatry loses much of its rationale for existence as a medical specialty.

60 Minutes Dramatizes Psychospirituality in Schizophrenics

On July 27, 1986, 60 Minutes produced a show entitled Schizophrenia. It was based on biopsychiatric theories, and one of their experts declared, We know it’s a brain disease now. It’s like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease. On the show, vignettes of patients were presented to impress the audience with the bizarre quality of their communications, and hence the absurdity of any psychological meaning or underpinning to their disease.

The first 60 Minutes patient, Brugo, bolsters his identity with spirituality, as well as religion, and declares that he’s not extinct: And I’m Croatian Hebrew, which is Adam and Eve’s kin. And I have been Croatian Hebrew for centuries and cent–upon centuries. And I’m a Homo-erectus man, and I’m also part Neanderthal, and I mean to keep that heritage, ’cause I’m not extinct.

Packed into these few remarks is symbolism about his desperate need for personal value and dignity, his identification with religion and humanity, and perhaps his awareness of primitive impulses stirring inside himself, as well as his fear of personal extinction. Here is more than enough material to stimulate anyone’s desire to communicate with him.

The second patient, Jim, is dismissed by the interviewer because he is convinced he was shot to death when he was a baby. Yet his brief remarks seem like a metaphor for child sexual abuse by a male: I had my head blown off with a shotgun when I was two years old. And–and before that, things happened in my crib. I remember all these things and stuff, but I just remember, you know. I remember all this stuff.

A therapist with experience in listening to people immediately would wonder about what lies behind Jim’s direct hints about terrifying memories from early childhood, not to mention the symbolism of the crib in relation to his present trapped condition. More than one patient of mine has begun with just such anguished fragments of memory before discovering the agony of his or her abusive childhood and its relationship to current entrapments.

Another 60 Minutes patient, Ronnie, clearly is struggling with his own identity and his separateness or isolation from other people. He, too, talks in psychospiritual terms, again with undertones of possible sexual abuse. I thought everybody’s bodies was connected to mine, and their–their spirits were–I was–I was laying in bed and I played–you know how we live, where, you know, like you’re smashing some air for yourself? Well, like, I was smashing every spirit next to me, and the–all kinds of bad things were happening.

Still another patient Lynn, identifies herself with God and with being different, and clearly tells us that her wisdom is more than she can handle. She’s practically inviting us to ask her about the inner knowledge she cannot bear: I’ve got the wisdom of God in me, and I have to learn how to cope with it. Nobody seems to think you’re suoppsed to survive when you’re different. [Crying] But I know–as–like the words in Job said, all I can say was, Have pity on me, my friends. I’ve been touched by the hand of God.

Brain Disease or Psychospiritual Crisis?

The patients’ quotes were selected by 60 Minutes to demonstrate that so-called schizophrenia is a biochemical disease rather than a crisis of thinking, feeling and meaning. Yet people with real brain disease–such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, or a tumor–don’t talk symbolically like these people do.

Instead of metaphors laced with meaning, brain-damaged people typically display memory difficulties as the first sign that their mind isn’t working as well as it once did. They have trouble recalling recently learned things, like names, faces, telephone numbers, or lists. Later they may get confused and disoriented as they display what is called an organic brain syndrome. In fact–and this is very important–advanced degrees of brain disease render the individual unable to think in such abstract or metaphorical terms. The thought processes that get labeled schizophrenia require higher mental function and therefore a relatively intact brain. No matter how bizarre the ideas may seem, they necessitate symbolic and often abstract thinking. That’s why lobotomy works: the damage to the higher mental centers smashes the capacity to express existential pain and anguish. As we’ll find out, it’s also why the most potent psychiatric drugs and shock treatment have their effect.

Objects or Beings?

How are we to approach people who get labeled schizophrenic? Do we think of them as troubled humans struggling in a self-defeating style with profound psychological and spiritual issues, usually involving their basic worth or identity? Or do we view them as if they are afflicted with physical diseases, like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, in which their feelings, thoughts, anguishes, and aspirations play no role? Do we try to understand them, or do we try to physically fix them? Do we look for profound hurts and failed psychospiritual efforts in their lives, or for biochemical aberrations in their brains? Do we wonder about what meanings and values they are seeking–and how they became so helplessly mired down in the process–or do we search for the biochemical imbalances that have twisted their brain processes?

If people who express seemingly irrational ideas are best understood mechanistically, then these people are broken, disordered, or defective devices. If we take the viewpoint that they are persons, beings, or souls in struggle, then an infinite variety of more subtle possibilities comes to mind for understanding and helping those who seem mad, crazy, or deranged.

If we are beings rather than devices, then our most severe emotional and spiritual crises originate within ourselves, our families, and our society. Our crises can be understood as conflicts or confusion about our identities, values, and aspirations rather than as biological aberrations. And as self-determining human beings, we can work toward overcoming those feelings of helplessness generated by our past spiritual and social defeats.

By contrast, the typical modern psychiatrist–by disposition, training, and experience–is wholly unprepared to understand anyone’s psycho-spiritual crisis. With drugs and shock treatment, the psychiatrist instead attacks the subjective experience of the person and blunts or destroys the very capacity to be sensitive and aware. No wonder the treatment of mental patients often looks more like a war against them. It often is.

Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 23–26.

“Goodbye to All That,” by Robin Morgan (1970)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rat, was one of the leading counterculture / New Left newspapers in New York City. In January 1970, a group of women who worked at Rat, fed up with the increasingly aggressive sexism of the paper’s content and internal hierarchies, took over the newspaper and, with the help of women from Women’s Liberation groups in New York, converted it into a feminist newspaper. In the first issue, Robin Morgan (then a member of W.I.T.C.H.) contributed Goodbye to All That. The article has since been reprinted widely in anthologies of radical feminist writing; this copy is based on the reprint that appears in Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. A slightly different version appears, together with a long introduction and explanatory footnotes, in Morgan’s The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992.

Goodbye to All That

So, Rat has been liberated, for this week, at least. Next week? If the men return to reinstate the porny photos, the sexist comic strips, the nude-chickie covers (along with their patronizing rhetoric about being in favor of women’s liberation)–if this happens, our alternatives are clear. Rat must be taken over permanently by women–or Rat must be destroyed. (¶ 1)

Why Rat? Why not EVO or even the obvious new pornzines (Mafia-distributed alongside the human pornography of prostitution)? First, they’ll get theirs–but it won’t be by a takeover, which is reserved for something at least worth taking over. Nor should they be censored. They should just be helped not to exist–by any means necessary. But Rat, which has always tried to be a really radical cum lifestyle paper, that’s another matter. It’s the liberal cooptative masks on the face of sexist hate and fear, worn by real nice guys we all know and like, right? We have met the enemy and he’s our friend. And dangerous. What the hell, let the chicks do an issue; maybe it’ll satisfy ’em for a while, it’s a good controversy, and it’ll maybe sell papers runs an unoverheard conversation that I’m sure took place at some point last week. (¶ 2)

And that’s what I wanted to write about–the friends, brothers, lovers in the counterfeit male-dominated Left. The good guys who think they know what Women’s Lib, as they so chummily call it, is all about–who then proceed to degrade and destroy women by almost everything they say and do: The cover on the last issue of Rat (front and back). The token pussy power or clit militancy articles. The snide descriptions of women staffers on the masthead. The little jokes, the personal ads, the smile, the snarl. No more, brothers. No more well-meaning ignorance, no more cooptation, no more assuming that this thing we’re all fighting for is the same; one revolution under man, with liberty and justice for all. No more. (¶ 3)

Let’s run it down. White males are most responsible for the destruction of human life and environment on the planet today. Yet who is controlling the supposed revolution to change all that? White males (yes, yes, even with their pasty fingers back in black and brown pies again). It could just make one a bit uneasy. It seems obvious that a legitimate revolution must be led by, made by those who have been most oppressed: black, brown, yellow, red, and white women–with men relating to that the best they can. A genuine Left doesn’t consider anyone’s suffering irrelevant or titillating; nor does it function as a microcosm of capitalist economy, with men competing for power and status at the top, and women doing all the work at the bottom (and functioning as objectified prizes or coin as well). Goodbye to all that. (¶ 4)

Run it all the way down. (¶ 5)

Goodbye to the male-dominated peace movement, where sweet old Uncle Dave can say with impunity to a woman on the staff of Liberation magazine, The trouble with you is you’re an aggressive woman. (¶ 6)

Goodbye to the straight male-dominated Left: to PL, who will allow that some workers are women, but won’t see all women (say, housewives) as workers (blind as the System itself); to all the old Left-over parties who offer their Women’s Liberation caucuses to us as if that were not a contradiction in terms; to the individual anti-leadership leaders who hand-pick certain women to be leaders and then relate only to them, either in the male Left or in Women’s Liberation—bringing their hang-ups about power dominance and manipulation to everything they touch. (¶ 7)

Goodbye to the Weather Vain, with the Stanley Kowalski image and theory of free sexuality but practice of sex on demand for males. Left Out!—not Right On!—to the Weather Sisters who (and they know better—they know) reject their own radical feminism for that last desperate grab at male approval that we all know so well, for claiming that the machismo style and the gratuitous violence is their own style by free choice, and for believing that this is the way for a woman to make her revolution…all the while, oh my sister, not meeting my eyes because Weathermen chose Charles Manson as their—and your—hero. (Honest, at least, since Manson is only the logical extreme of the normal American male’s fantasy, whether he is Dick Nixon or Mark Rudd: master of a harem, women to do all the shitwork, from raising babies and cooking and hustling to killing people on command.) Goodbye to all that shit that sets women apart from women; shit that covers the face of any Weatherwoman which is the face of any Manson Slave which is the face of Sharon Tate which is the face of Mary Jo Kopechne which is the face of Beulah Saunders, which is the face of me which is the face of Pat Nixon which is the face of Pat Swinton. In the dark we are all the same–and you better believe it: we’re in the dark, baby. (Remember the old joke: Know what they call a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger. Variations: Know what they call a Weatherwoman? A heavy cunt. Know what they call a hip revolutionary woman? A groovy cunt. Know what they call a radical militant feminist? A crazy cunt. Amerika is a land of free choice–take your pick of titles.) Left Out, my sister—don’t you see? Goodbye to the illusion of strength when you run hand in hand with your oppressors; goodbye to the dream that being in the leadership collective will get you anything but gonorrhea. (¶ 8)

Goodbye to RYM II, as well, and all the other RYMs—not that the sisters there didn’t pull a cool number by seizing control, but because they let the men back in after only a day or so of self-criticism on male chauvinism. (And goodbye to the inaccurate blanket use of that phrase, for that matter: male chauvinism is an attitude—male supremacy is the objective reality, the fact.) Goodbye to the Conspiracy, who, when lunching with fellow sexist bastards Norman Mailer and Terry Southern in a Bunny-type club in Chicago found Judge Hoffman at the neighboring table—no surprise: in the light they are all the same. (¶ 9)

Goodbye to Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution, which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves—reinstituting oppression by another name. Goodbye to the assumption that Hugh Romney is safe in his cultural revolution, safe enough to refer to our women, who make all our clothes without somebody not forgiving that. Goodbye to the arrogance of power indeed that lets Czar Stan Freeman of the Electric Circus sleep without fear at night, or permits Tomi Ungerer to walk unafraid in the street after executing the drawings for the Circus advertising campaign against women. Goodbye to the idea that Hugh Hefner is groovy ’cause he lets Conspirators come to parties at the Playboy Mansion—goodbye to Hefner’s dream of a ripe old age. Goodbye to Tuli and the Fugs and all the boys in the front room—who always knew they hated the women they loved. Goodbye to the notion that good ol’ Abbie is any different from any other up-and-coming movie star who ditches the first wife and kids, good enough for the old days but awkward once you’re Making It. Goodbye to his hypocritical double standard that reeks through the tattered charm. Goodbye to lovely pro-Women’s Liberationist Paul Krassner, with all his astonished anger that women have lost their sense of humor on this issue and don’t laugh any more at little funnies that degrade and hurt them: farewell to the memory of his Instant Pussy aerosol-can poster, to his column for the woman-hating men’s magazine Cavalier, to his dream of a Rape-In against legislators’ wives, to his Scapegoats and Realist Nuns and cute anecdotes about the little daughter he sees as often as any properly divorced Scarsdale middle-aged father; goodbye forever to the notion that a man is my brother who, like Paul, buys a prostitute for the night as a birthday gift for a male friend, or who, like Paul, reels off the names in alphabetical order of people in the women’s movement he has fucked, reels off names in the best locker-room tradition–as proof that he’s no sexist oppressor. (¶ 10)

Let it all hang out. Let it seem bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanisesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libelous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating. We are the women that men have warned us about. (¶ 11)

And let’s put one lie to rest for all time: the lie that men are oppressed, too, by sexism—the lie that there can be such a thing as men’s liberation groups. Oppression is something that one group of people commits against another group specifically because of a threatening characteristic shared by the latter group—skin color or sex or age, etc. The oppressors are indeed fucked up by being masters (racism hurts whites, sexual stereotypes are harmful to men) but those masters are not oppressed. Any master has the alternative of divesting himself of sexism or racism; the oppressed have no alternative—for they have no power—but to fight. In the long run, Women’s Liberation will of course free men—but in the short term it’s going to cost men a lot of privilege, which no one gives up willingly or easily. Sexism is not the fault of women—kill your fathers, not your mothers. (¶ 12)

Run it down. Goodbye to a beautiful new ecology movement that could fight to save us all if it would stop tripping off women as earthmother types or frontier chicks, if it would right now cede leadership to those who have not polluted the planet because that action implies power and women haven’t had any power in about 5,000 years, cede leadership to those whose brains are as tough and clear as any man’s but whose bodies are also unavoidably aware of the locked-in relationship between humans and their biosphere—the earth, the tides, the atmosphere, the moon. Ecology is no big shtick if you’re a woman—it’s always been there. (¶ 13)

Goodbye to the complicity inherent in the Berkeley Tribesmen being part publishers of Trashman Comics; goodbye, for that matter, to the reasoning that finds whoremaster Trashman a fitting model, however comic-strip far-out, for a revolutionary man—somehow related to the same Super-male reasoning that permits the first statement on Women’s Liberation and male chauvinism that came out of the Black Panther Party to be made by a man, talking a whole lot about how the sisters should speak up for themselves. Such ignorance and arrogance ill-befits a revolutionary. (¶ 14)

We know how racism is worked deep into the unconscious by the System–the same way sexism is, as it appears in the very name of The Young Lords. What are you if you’re a macho woman—a female Lord? Or, god forbid, a Young Lady? Change it, change it to the Young Gentry if you must, or never assume that the name itself is innocent of pain, of oppression. (¶ 15)

Theory and practice—and the light-years between them. Do it! says Jerry Rubin in Rat‘s last issue—but he doesn’t or every Rat reader would have known the pictured face next to his article as well as they know his own much-photographed face: it was Nancy Kurshan, his woman, the power behind the clown. (¶ 16)

Goodbye to the New Nation and Earth People’s Park for that matter, conceived by men, announced by men, led by men—doomed before birth by the rotting seeds of male supremacy transplanted into fresh soil. Was it my brother who listed human beings among the objects that would be easily available after the Revolution: Free grass, free food, free women, free acid, free clothes, etc.? Was it my brother who wrote Fuck your women till they can’t stand up and said that groupies were liberated chicks ’cause they dug a tit-shake instead of a handshake? The epitome of male exclusionism—men will make the Revolution—and make their chicks. Not my brother. No. Not my revolution. Not one breath of my support for the new counterfeit Christ—John Sinclair. Just one less to worry about for ten years. I do not choose my enemy for my brother. (¶ 17)

Goodbye, goodbye. To hell with the simplistic notion that automatic freedom for women–or nonwhite peoples–will come about zap! with the advent of a socialist revolution. Bullshit. Two evils pre-date capitalism and clearly have been able to survive and post-date socialism: sexism and racism. Women were the first property when the Primary Contradiction occurred: when one-half of the human species decided to subjugate the other half, because it was different, alien, the Other. From there it was an easy enough step to extend the concept of Other to someone of different skin shade, different height or weight or language—or strength to resist. Goodbye to those simple-minded optimistic dreams of socialist equality all our good socialist brothers want us to believe. How merely liberal a politics that is! How much further we will have to go to create those profound changes that would give birth to a genderless society. Profound, Sister. Beyond what is male or female. Beyond standards we all adhere to now without daring to examine them as male-created, male-dominated, male-fucked-up, and in male self-interest. Beyond all known standards, especially those easily articulated revolutionary ones we all rhetorically invoke. Beyond—to a species with a new name, that would not dare define itself as Man. (¶ 18)

I once said, I’m a revolutionary, not just a woman, and knew my own lie even as I said the words. The pity of that statement’s eagerness to be acceptable to those whose revolutionary zeal no one would question, i.e., any male supremacist in the counterleft. But to become a true revolutionary one must first become one of the oppressed (not organize or educate or manipulate them, but become one of them)–or realize that you are one already. No woman wants that. Because that realization is humiliating, it hurts. It hurts to understand that at Woodstock or Altamont a woman could be declared uptight or a poor sport if she didn’t want to be raped. It hurts to learn that the sisters still in male-Left captivity are putting down the crazy feminists to make themselves look unthreatening to our mutual oppressors. It hurts to be pawns in those games. It hurts to try and change each day of your life right now—not in talk, not in your head, and not only conveniently out there in the Third World (half of which are women) or the black or brown communities (half of which are women) but in your own home, kitchen, bed. No getting away, no matter how else you are oppressed, from the primary oppression of being female in a patriarchal world. It hurts to hear that the sisters in the Gay Liberation Front, too, have to struggle continuously against the male chauvinism of their gay brothers. It hurts that Jane Alpert was cheered when rapping about imperialism, racism, the Third World, and All Those Safe Topics but hissed and booed by a movement crowd of men who wanted none of it when she began to talk about Women’s Liberation. The backlash is upon us. (¶ 19)

They tell us the alternative is to hang in there and struggle, to confront male domination in the counterleft, to fight beside or behind or beneath our brothers–to show ’em we’re just as tough, just as revolushunerry, just as whatever‐image‐they‐now‐want‐of‐us‐as‐once‐they‐wanted‐us‐to‐be‐feminine‐and‐keep‐up‐the‐home‐fire‐burning. They will bestow titular leadership on our grateful shoulders, whether it’s being a token woman on the Movement Speakers Bureau Advisory Board, or being a Conspiracy groupie or one of the respectable chain-swinging Motor City Nine. Sisters all, with only one real alternative: to seize our own power into our own hands, all women, separate and together, and make the Revolution the way it must be made—no priorities this time, no suffering group told to wait until after. (¶ 20)

It is the job of revolutionary feminists to build an ever stronger independent Women’s Liberation Movement, so that the sisters in counterleft captivity will have somewhere to turn, to use their power and rage and beauty and coolness in their own behalf for once, on their own terms, on their own issues, in their own style—whatever that may be. Not for us in Women’s Liberation to hassle them and confront them the way their men do, nor to blame them—or ourselves—for what any of us are: an oppressed people, but a people raising our consciousness toward something that is the other side of anger, something bright and smooth and cool, like action unlike anything yet contemplated or carried out. It is for us to survive (something the white male radical has the luxury of never really worrying about, what with all his options), to talk, to plan, to be patient, to welcome new fugitives from the counterfeit Left with no arrogance but only humility and delight, to push—to strike. (¶ 21)

There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear—an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears the flesh of her neck. And the last protection from seeing the truth will be gone. Do you think, tugging furtively every day at the chain and going nicely insane as I am, that I can be concerned with the peurile squabbles of a counterfeit Left that laughs at my pain? Do you think such a concern is noticeable when set alongside the suffering of more than half the human species for the past 5,000 years—due to a whim of the other half? No, no, no, goodbye to all that. (¶ 22)

Women are Something Else. This time, we’re going to kick out all the jams, and the boys will just have to hustle to keep up, or else drop out and openly join the power structure of which they are already the illegitimate sons. Any man who claims he is serious about wanting to divest himself of cock privilege should trip on this: all male leadership out of the Left is the only way; and it’s going to happen, whether through men stepping down or through women seizing the helm. It’s up to the brothers—after all, sexism is their concern, not ours; we’re too busy getting ourselves together to have to deal with their bigotry. So they’ll have to make up their own minds as to whether they will be divested of just cock privilege or—what the hell, why not say it, say it!—divested of cocks. How deep the fear of that loss must be, that it can be suppressed only by the building of empires and the waging of genocidal wars! (¶ 23)

Goodbye, goodbye forever, counterfeit Left, counterleft, male-dominated cracked-glass mirror reflection of the Amerikan Nightmare. Women are the real Left. We are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies; bright glowing mad in our inferior brains; wild hair flying, wild eyes staring, wild voices keening; undaunted by blood we who hemorrhage every twenty-eight days; laughing at our own beauty we who have lost our sense of humor; mourning for all each precious one of us might have been in this one living time-place had she not been born a woman; stuffing fingers into our mouths to stop the screams of fear and hate and pity for men we have loved and love still; tears in our eyes and bitterness in our mouths for children we couldn’t have, or couldn’t not have, or didn’t want, or didn’t want yet, or wanted and had in this place and this time of horror. We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive. Power to all the people or to none. All the way down, this time. (¶ 24)

Free Kathleen Cleaver!Free Kim Agnew!
Free Anita Hoffman!Free Holly Krassner!
Free Bernardine Dohrn!Free Lois Hart!
Free Donna Malone!Free Alice Embree!
Free Ruth Ann Miller!Free Nancy Kurshan!
Free Leni Sinclar!Free Dinky Forman!
Free Jane Alpert!Free Dinky Forman!
Free Gumbo!Free Sharon Krebs!
Free Bonnie Cohen!Free Iris Luciano!
Free Judy Lampe!Free Robin Morgan!
Free Valerie Solanis!
Free our sisters!Free ourselves!

–Robin Morgan (January 1970)

The history of the Black Metropolis, the inner city, and the underground economy in Southside Chicago (from Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books)

This is from the first chapter, Living Underground, in Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s Off the Books:

Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the dilapidated streets and empty lots, Maquis Park has a storied history. From the neighborhood’s beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century until the early 1900s, working-class Irish immigrants populated the community. The region as a whole changed in the mid-twentieth century. African Americans pushed southward from areas near the central business district in search of cheaper rents and better neighborhood conditions. They moved into communities like Maquis Park that had been largely closed off due to segregation, real estate discrimination, and redlining by banks. Migrants also came from the sharecropping American South, and their arrival by the thousands in Chicago meant that the ghetto was always on the verge of bursting at its seams. Maquis Park’s white homeowners had used restrictive covenants to prevent the sale of homes to blacks, but such resistance was futile in the face of overwhelming population growth and the expansion of the black community.

As their numbers grew, black Chicagoans built a Black Metropolis. Maquis Park became part of a broad area of black Southside settlement where migrants and native black Chicagoans could find comfort, opportunity, and a place of their own in the bustling city. But largely they were shunted off from much of that city due to the racism of their white neighbors and the ruling white machine. While they lobbied, protested, and struggled for their share, as a partial response they turned their energies inward. Maquis Park and its neighboring areas became a parallel urban world, integrated into Chicago yet set off because its inhabitants developed institutions that mirrored those of the larger metropolis but served mostly black Chicagoans. They forged what at the time was called a city within a city.

The Southside Black Metropolis would be alternatively celebrated and criticized. It held a thriving black press, prominent black businesses, healthy and active civic associations, and the kind of diversity and spontaneity one would expect to find in an urban milieu. It was known as Bronzeville, a term that honored the unrelenting spirit and commitment of black Americans to forge the good life. On the other hand, its residents were cut off from many political and economic resources, and they were largely unable to acquire homes or run businesses in white neighborhoods. Thus the Southside suffered overcrowding and inadequate housing, limited commercial development, high unemployment, and severe blight. A mansion might adjoin a transient hotel, and a row of shacks might sit opposite a thriving entertainment district. The most prosperous black Americans were reminded daily of the ceiling on social mobility that kept them segregated and that forced them to fend for themselves when the city’s institutions failed them. For this, they shouted at both the ruling political elites and their own black political representatives who worked in the city machine.

In their drive to provide for themselves, black Chicagoans developed an alternate, underground economy–one interrelated to, but distinct from, the wider urban political economy. Even though black laborers were a significant part of the city’s industrial and service sector labor force, there were not enough jobs available for black job seekers. So they worked for menial, off-the-books wages, often in their own community, as janitors and cleaners, waiters and entertainers, shoe shiners, tailors, house-painters, and general laborers. Whites would not hire black contractors for home repair, but they would turn to black women for domestic help, housecleaning, and child care, and they typically paid them under the table. Although black businesses flourished, there was inadequate financial assistance available from white-owned banks. So those starting businesses and those needing cash to survive a downturn went to unregulated creditors, loan sharks, and political bosses for a loan–for which they faced not only high interest rates but also physical harm if they were unable to repay. A significant share of this parallel economy involved criminal work, like numbers running and vice, in which not only were the earnings unreported but the activities themselves were illegal.

The outcome of all these practices was the emergence of a vibrant shady economy in Chicago’s Southside. Well into the postwar era, the Black Metropolis boasted a vibrant alternative sphere of exchange and trading that supplanted the mainstream commercial sphere. It was not only a necessity, it was also a core part of the cultural life of the region. Politicians grew famous by dispensing patronage in the form of city contracts and off-the-books work–sometimes for a kickback and always for a vote on election day. In entertainment and gambling, unreported income was always available if one had connections to the ward boss, madam, or loan shark who controlled numbers, betting, local lotteries, brothels, and gambling parlors. Storied films like Uptown Saturday Night and Cotton Comes to Harlem spoke to the flattering view that many people, not just in black America but the country as a whole, held of the shady aspirant. For centuries, the outlaw, fighting both government and the entrenched powers to rise above the fray and accumulate wealth, has been an American hero, and in the mid-twentieth century this figure found an avatar in the black ghetto hustler.

After the civil rights era, Maquis Park suffered the fate of many American inner cities. Its wealthier classes left and moved into previously segregated areas, while its working and poor households remained. The area lost whatever mitigating effect on poverty the better-off households once contributed–to ensure that some streets were cleaned, that some parks were maintained, that some schools were kept in decent condition–and blight overwhelmed the physical landscape. Many of the beautiful brownstones reached a level of disrepair that required attention beyond the financial resources of their owners. Apartment buildings became abandoned due to neglectful landlords and the out-migration of the middle- and upper-class families. Sanitation services grew insufficient, and one saw litter and refuse everywhere. The homeless set up camp in the abandoned buildings but also in shanties alongside roads and in parks. People sat idle and out of work nearly everywhere.

But the alternate economy continued to thrive. Indeed, the underground economy was fast becoming a primary economy for black ghetto dwellers. Buying goods cheaply, whether on the street or in the alley, behind closed doors or outside of the neglectful state, was still part of their recipe for household survival. Off-the-books services, from tax preparation and general labor to security and entertainment, were plentiful.

Hustling was the word coined in popular discourse to refer to the indefatigable and creative attempts by the down-and-out to find work, make a buck, and make ends meet. But importantly, hustling included not only the labor to find illicit earnings, but also the work entailed in dealing with the consequences of living by shady means. Hustling meant insecurity, crime, and exploitative behavior, to which people had to respond. And in a time period when policing was inadequate and law enforcement relations with inner-city neighborhoods throughout black urban America were colored by neglect and distrust, it meant people sometimes had to take matters into their own hands. Thus, the hustle also involved a diverse set of strategies to make sure that the shady world did not completely ruin the social fabric. These strategies were often as creative as the illegal activities themselves. Whether they settled disputes or enforced underground contracts, people hustled not only to put food on the table, but also to maintain order in their streets and communities.

In time, the coexistence of despair and the outlaw lifestyle would draw the attention of those in the wider world. A wellspring of public scrutiny arrived at the doorstep of communities like Maquis Park in the eighties, after nearly two decades of poverty, unemployment, business failure, and high crime had swept through and ravaged the social and physical landscape. In academic and press reportage, critics and scholars tried to make sense of the apparently marked remove of the black ghetto from the mainstream. In The Truly Disadvantaged, sociologist William Julius Wilson diagnosed the presence of a subclass of black Americans living not only in conditions of extreme impoverishment, but also in relative remoteness from their surrounding city. More than their inability to find work marked their social isolation, Wilson argued. They suffered from inadequate integration into many urban institutions, from the police and schools to philanthropy and the press. And, he pointed out, unlike the mid-twentieth century there were no middle-class persons to serve as role models or provide social controls over unruly and delinquent behavior that was now growing out of control.

Following Wilson’s essay, a flurry of critical assessment arose over the black ghetto. Scholars focused on the household as the root cause of isolation, deploying all kinds of statistical data–such as the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy, high rates of welfare dependency, absentee fathers and mother-led families–in an effort to isolate the role of black family formation in the reproduction of poverty. Detailed press reports, like Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, spoke of the cultural pathologies, such as a lack of work ethic and a predilection for unruly behavior, that had been spawned in areas seemingly forgotten by time and morality. Human interest reportage, like Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, pointed out the limited mental horizons of inner-city youth and young adults; few of these young people could envision a life for themselves beyond the ghetto, in marked contrast to the yuppies who were defining the renewed American spirit in the era of globalization. By the beginning of the eighties, when cities initiated revitalization programs to attract middle- and upper-class residents, the ghetto was pitied for what it lacked (normal families, good schools, working adults) and criticized for what it boasted (gangs, drugs, and crime).

In a way, this kind of attention to the urban underclass was nothing new. From the late nineteenth century onward, Chicago’s black communities (and those in other major industrialized cities) were the repositories for public indignation and, eventually, some type of social reform. The clarion call of distress over a population living outside the social mainstream occurred every two or three decades. Depending on the political climate (conservative or progressive), policies like mass arrest and incarceration, urban renewal and housing construction, philanthropic investment and community development, would follow to integrate the disenfranchised. America’s concern in the nineties for the dispossessed black inner city, seeing in it a form of existence that must be razed and then restored, is really part of a long history of inveighing against and expressing moral outrage at how the minority poor live.

In the midst of this public clamor and sometimes self-righteous inspection, Maquis Park and many other alienated and poor black communities perdure. Though not always in full measure and in comfort and security, households manage. Parents feed and clothe children, chaos does not rule, and people experience joy and see beauty. Residents deal with problems, like crime and delinquency, even if their ways of coping and maintaining social order do not receive much attention. And, as this book contends, an important dimension of their daily struggle to create a habitable place to live and work has occurred behind the scenes. Their labor takes place with resources amassed in the underground economy. Their work to restore order and keep Maquis Park safe and secure takes place often outside government agencies that can be, at varying times, neglectful and begrudging in allocating resources, yet spiteful in the drive to police and punish. Their collective labors have coalesced largely outside the watchful eye of media and scholars, for whom the tragedies of poverty have perhaps justifiably attracted more attention than the simple and remarkable ways in which people actually tend to their affairs in such environs. This book is about making visible these everyday shady efforts by Maquis Park residents to maintain their community.

–Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (2006), pp. 14–20.