Philadelphia, Where Blackness Transcends

Illustration for article titled Philadelphia, Where Blackness Transcends
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America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.

If we needed a Capital of Blackness, we’d make it Philadelphia.

Philly is the soundtrack to blackness, every facet of black life rolled into a hoagie of diasporic oneness. Every elastic, painful, ebullient chord, like Gerald Price’s mystically floating fingers across piano keys at Zanzibar Blue, or young brothers freestyle battling elder cats on trumpet at Ortlieb’s.


There is an inexplicable richness, rawness and deeply embedded resistance. Six degrees of everything-is-black separation. In Philly, black is Black...with a capital “B.” As not-this-side-of-the-tracks ethnic white as it is, Philly is the only place where you defiantly exhibit the infinite spectrum of your blackness, the many kaleidoscopic wonders in political fist-full flashes of dreadlocked glory, chiseled beards, homegirl scrappiness, old-school pulpit, trademark black Islamic swagger and a nonstop blend of sound, art and taste oozing through every asphalt, Fairmount Park vein.

There’s power in its black cowboys on horseback, the gifted rage and misery in its soul and neo-soul, its Freedom Theater, its mural art. It is the only place you’d spot a car-sized Afro pick outside the main city government office building, just to piss white people off over Frank Rizzo, Philly’s version of Confederate generals. Black Philly is mic-booming Black Israelites on Center City soapboxes and stone-faced, armed MOVE brothers staring down sweaty crimson-necked police on a humid Philthy day.

The Force pulling on her like a Jedi, my late grandmother—who just transitioned a few weeks ago at 92—couldn’t fully explain why she picked Philly. But she knew “[t]here’s no place as black as Philly,” Mary laughed, half-chuckling through memories of a mourned exodus from Jim Crow Virginia, younger years in D.C. and then Philly, with kids and without much of an initial plan. Yet, it was something always stirring that gripped her like those heart-bursting, roof-shaking gospel solos you can find in any random North Philly church.

And, sometimes, when Philly police drop a bomb on your neighborhood or knock a handcuffed sister to the ground by the lock of her hair, or the public schools are so hot from no air conditioning that the kids miss weeks of school, that’s OK, because “we all we got.

“PHL” is nearly 44 percent black (the highest black population share of the top 10 most populous American cities), a colorful canvas of black imagination and grit; a 26 percent poverty rate where half of it is black. Still: black mayors? We’ve had three, each winning two full terms (even the one who ordered the bomb drop). Black politicians, community leaders and a citywide organization class is business as usual. Black power principles are universally acknowledged, albeit scaled, regardless of neighborhood and class. There is a constant busyness to Philly’s blackness, a constant need to start some shit, good or bad: from political firsts to the black architect who designed everything from our iconic art museum to our central library. There is the legendary Philly Black Mafia that was more organized and elusive than its Italian and Irish peers of cinematic repute.

Half-a-million people make annual pilgrimage to our Odunde Festival, symbol of Philly as capital of black spirit and black standards. We are a place of black options. We have the nation’s oldest, largest and near daily black newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune. We enjoy constant black-owned broadcast gems such as WURD, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania, and just a few like it in the nation. The oldest HBCU? That would be Cheyney University, struggling on the edges of town.


Mind you, none of this is perfect. But black Philadelphians are, as WURD President and CEO Sara Lomax-Reese reflects, “... heirs to revolutionary legacy.”

“With all its flaws and hypocrisy, we were the place where the ideals for a free, egalitarian society were shaped,” says Lomax-Reese. “This was an epicenter of the abolitionist movement.” A place of promise and possibility for enslaved Africans, where heroes like Octavius Catto and William Still blazed the path for freedom firsts and “the fight to claim our basic humanity.” Something about Philly blackness refuses to accept second-class status and less than. Tired of sitting in the discarded pews of a white church, Richard Allen just started his own thing, creating the African Methodist Episcopal church. Philly gave life to organized black theology in America.


“Philly is a tough place to live, but black Philadelphians are some tough people,” says Marilyn Kai Jewett, longtime journalist, marketing consultant and Yoruba priest. “We ain’t afraid of nobody; it’s been that way since this place was founded.” Real African spiritual traditions thrive in Philly unlike anywhere else in the nation, many continuing to practice Yoruba and Ifa traditions to this day.

Yes, it is an unforgiving place, a clash of our best and worst. Black Philly is the birthplace of black middle-class Jack-and-Jillery. But parasitic high poverty and bad environment permeates every social and economic indicator ever studied. Philly can make your blackness—or it can eat it alive.


Black prose is poetic and Biblical in a city of contradictions, Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Black chests proudly rising as paradox, spawned from the city’s 337-year history. It is a blackness of the good and bad happenings that consume it, of celebrations at the Dell and living while black at the local Starbucks. The weathered and weathering blackness of streets with famous Philly black names and dreams gambled to fate. No wonder W.E.B. Dubois used it to pen his inaugural work The Philadelphia Negro, the first authoritative volume of American sociology.

“We are a town filled with black leadership,” says Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who’s late husband was Congressman Lucien Blackwell (D-Pa.). “There are a lot of black people involved in things that move the city forward. We are involved in all of the discussions to turn it around, on every major issue.”


Michael Coard, civil rights lawyer and WURD host, is “The Angriest Black Man in America,” ...and you can’t pull that off anywhere else but in a city as black as Philly. “What makes us the blackest city in America? Octavius Catto’s statue on City Hall grounds, one of the greatest voting-rights activists in history. Three black former mayors, a current black city council president, a black police commissioner, and a black sheriff.”

The world mistakenly relegates Philly blackness to groupie gimmickry, but Philly is so much more than “Summertime” on Belmont Plateau, the overused grease of footlong cheesesteaks at Broad and Erie or Made in America concerts on Ben Franklin Parkway. Of course, black Philly is proud of that. But we are so much more than our beloved Eagles, our blackness a bigger triple double than our Sixers, our issues so much deeper than freeing Meek Mill. We are aging, decaying symbols of imprisonment like Mumia Abu Jamal, and we are nail-solid activist lawyers like Cecil B. Moore whose name is forever etched across a long strip of Philly avenue.


“This is home to countless sons and daughters of the diaspora,” says State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia). “We have the region’s largest West African and Caribbean population, we have parents and grandparents who migrated from the segregated South looking for opportunities.”

In Philly, our black goes big. Some of it is the Philly you know: from Uptown to Philly Sound; from countless names like Anderson, Abele, Scott, Gray, Gamble, Huff, Stone, Tucker, Washington, LaBelle, Pendergrass, Morgan, Vanzant, Wideman, Delaney, and, yeah, (damn) Cosby, too. Philly is so black that folks like Ella, Sonia and Badu stopped through for inspiration or stayed. There are no boundaries to the blackness of Philly, the blackness that empowers you, protects you and never leaves. The blackness that brings you home and loves you back.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is Contributing Editor for TheRoot & ExecProd/Host of 'Reality Check' on WURD Radio (Philadelphia). + Washington Correspondent, The Philadelphia Tribune; Principal, B|E Strategy


This is a beautiful description of our city. I love this place, warts and all.