New York Portrait

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New York, city of shadows, city of light.

We wake up early in the morning and I go in search of bagels. The light is grey and pale. The streets are being cleaned by a phalanx of African American men, working silently in the cold.

Later in the day we go to the Whitney Museum to see a show of Kara Walker’s work. Her work is primarily composed of black silhouettes on the gallery walls: a dream, or a nightmare of slavery and sexuality; as one writer put it, “historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation but made using the genteel 18th-century art of cut-paper silhouettes”.

The work is relentless, haunting, heartbreaking and, somehow, a relief. That someone could embrace the taboos in such a way allows the audience to confront them too.

Almost all the security guards are black.

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Afterwards, we go to Rockefeller Centre so The Anti-Poverty Organizer can see the giant Christmas tree. I’m showing off this beloved city, where I have breathed in art and culture and theatre and the life of the streets for several decades. It’s only her second time in New York. She’s never even been to Times Square.

On the way there we stop to watch a group of young African American men in matching red homeboy apparel break dance on the street. They are graceful, loud, exuberant; their bodies flash, spin and fly. We cheer them on. The cops arrive, and we boo, already a devoted audience, but the break dancers ask us to stop. They pass the hat furtively, and leave: you can get arrested for busking in this town.

As the audience reluctantly disperses I see that there is a line of people wearing Disney character costumes, also standing on the street, in a solid, silent, boring line. The police have not made them leave, and it makes for a disturbing portrait of a city whose face has been cleaned up almost beyond recognition.

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