Black History Month: Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block


Happy Black History Month!

I’m back after a three-day hiatus during which Dunreith and I had a terrific time in Northern California.

Here is my plan.

In honor of Black History Month, founded by Carter G. Woodson in the late 1920s, I am going to write this month about books that in some way deal with black history.

Today, the work is Northwestern University professor Mary Pattillo’s book, Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.

Full disclosure: Pattillo has written a letter in support of The Chicago Reporter, the magazine for which I work.

Pattillo’s first book, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, dealt with the issue of urban, middle-class black communities.  She devotes her second work to an analysis of the composition and changes in the North Kenwood-Oakland community on Chicago’s South Side.

A central focus of Black in the Block for Pattillo is the intra-class interactions between poor and middle-class black people within the community. The title of her second chapter, “The Truly Disadvantaged Meets the Black Bourgoeisie,” pays homage to works by scholars  E. Franklin Frazier and William Julius Wilson, who taught her during graduate school at the University of Chicago.

Pattillo writes in the introduction that instead of a monolithic block of people, the often fractious discussions between these groups are what make up the black community:

“Disputes between black residents who have professional jobs and those with no jobs, between black families who have been in the neighborhood for generations and those who moved in last year, and between blacks who don fraternity colors and those who sport gang colors, are simultaneously debates about what it means to be black.  Choosing participation over abdication and involvement over withdrawal, even and especially when the debates get heated and sometimes vicious, is what constitutes the black community.”

Pattillo shows how these conversations and debates play out in chapters about schools, public housing and crime.  In each chapter, she demonstrates through the often animated conversations and judgments that sharing physical space is not synonymous with sharing a community. Her description of middle class residents’ reactions to poorer folks barbecuing in public spaces is particularly well done, for example.

Beyond these individual issues, Pattillo cloaks her analysis in the context of the neighborhood, and, ultimately, Chicago’s history.  She shows how the neighborhood experiences racial discrimination in housing, a post-World War II heyday, and a period of decline as the manufacturing and industrial economies trailed off and received an infusion of public housing residents.

In addition to developing this context and pushing against the idea of a  one-dimensional black community, Pattillo devotes significant amounts of space to the concept and complex reality of the “middlemen” – those middle class black people like aldermen who serve as bridges between the neighborhood and the larger community.

These middlemen and women –  Pattillo identifies herself as one such person  – are in a tricky position of speaking for the community’s need while not denigrating its residents; of being able to bring in, but not single-handedly supply, resources to the neighborhood; and of helping to improve, but also possibly displace, long-term residents.

Pattillo’s honesty in describing her own situation in the community and discussion of the middleman are just two of the book’s many strengths.  Her first chapter, in which she recapitulates the history of the home  in the neighborhood that she purchased in 1998, is fascinating, well-researched and innovative.

Through exploring the story of one home, on one block in one community, Pattillo uncovers the city, and, on some level, the nation’s uneasy and complicated racial history, replete with racial restrictive covenants, crime drama and racial transition.

This type of storytelling marks a departure from Pattillo’s first work, which was converted from her dissertation, and is testament to her intelligence and creativity.

Pattillo demonstrates throughout the book an impressive ability to listen without judgment and wt insight-a skill that one sees through the resident conversations and profiles that populate the work. In consecutive chapters she also exhibits her capacity for scholarly restraint by depicting fairly  the arguments for and against expanding the number of public housing units in the community.

Chicagophiles and those interested in getting a bead on some of President Obama’s top advisers and cabinet ministers will enjoy reading about Valerie Jarrett, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and John W. Rogers, Jr., in whose offices at Ariel Investments much of the Obama transition was planned.

Pattillo’s accomplishments are made even more impressive when one considers the number of scholarly and literary works that have covered the city’s South Side before, let alone factoring in the quality of some of those books.  Some have said that Chicago’s South Side is the most-studied area in the world; luminaries like Wilson, famed novelist Richard Wright, and legendary authors St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton have all written seminal and enduring works about the community.

To find anything new to say about this area is impressive by itself; to forge a new argument and an innovative way of presenting it is remarkable.

Black on the Block has minor flaws.  For example, Pattillo’s discussion of middlemen in other cultures is so brief as to be not particularly helpful and she could do more to expand her discussion of Chicago to other American cities.  But these blemishes only underscore the quality of this thoughtfully-conceived, meticulously documented and skillfully argued work.  At a time of national openness about racial issues, Black on the Block is a valuable and textured contribution to those conversations.


2 responses to “Black History Month: Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block

  1. One of the powerful parts of Chicago’s south side is that it’s possible to navigate up from “poor” to “middle-class” all within the same community (or relatively close community). So, an intellectual icon like Timuel Black can become successful and still remain close to the community he loves, enjoying some of the fruits of his success.

    In many poor communities (including my small community in VA), the best way up is the way out. Here, in Harrisonburg, most blacks moving between classes do not look to return to this area. They are quickly up and out. That rich and complex dialogue that could take place, sadly, does not.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Great point, Dany, as usual. What’s been interesting to watch in Chicago during the past 30 years is that the number of middle-class black people has gone down, limiting the number of people availabe for the dialogue. Still, I am sure the group of people is far greater than what you describe in Harrisonburg.

      Thanks for weighing in, and let me know what’s going on with speedreading for you.

      What’s up to your family.


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