Duneier mitchelle

Duneier mitchelle - Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol 29 N0 3...

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Unformatted text preview: Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 29 N0. 3 May 2006 pp. 543—565 Voices from the sidewalk: Ethnography and writing race Mitchell Duneier in conversation with Les Back (photographs by Ovie Carter) Flight BA 175 from London Heathrow to New York touched down on time. The transatlantic passengers snake through the immigration hall guided by the lines marked out on the floor. We come to a halt and wait to have our visas checked. I fill the waiting time by reading Mitchell Duneier’s extraordinary ethnography Sidewalk (Duneier 1999). It is the story of the homeless book vendors who improvise a living from selling second—hand books on makeshift tables that line Sixth Avenue. Famously known as the ‘Avenue of the Americas’ it runs through the artistic enclave of Greenwich Village, h01ne to writers and artists from Jane Jacobs to Bob Dylan. The booksellers are expert collectors, ‘hunting’ the trashcans and rescuing discarded fashion magazines and treatises in cultural theory and selling back to the affluent literary locals. Their right to trade in printed material is enshrined in the law, yet the barred city spaces of Manhattan make it almost impossible to find a place for them to find shelter or even to go to the bathroom. This is the paradox of uneven citizenship in America. In the richest nation on earth the most fundamental and basic hunlan needs are denied to some. The immigration line moves without me noticing. I am lost on Sixth Avenue wandering thrOugh the pages of Mitch Duneier’s extraordin- ary evocation of the life of the sidewalk and the vividly drawn portraits of public characters like Hakim Hasan. A cough and some irritated chatter forces my eye up from the page. I look down,'my toe is on the yellow line, it is my turn but I must have been standing there for five minutes motionless. The line looks on impatiently, I grab my hand luggage and move. ‘Must be a really good book’, says the African American Immigra- tion Officer. I tell him it is a great book. He asks me what brings me to New York. ‘I am here to interview the man who wrote this book, actually. He’s a sociologist and he’s written about the people who sell (if? 2006 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0141-9870 print/14664356 online g Bagggggggwp DOI: 10.1080/014198706005981 13 544 Mitchell Duneier & Les Back [Ovie Carter] books on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village.’ ‘Mmm', he says, nodding approvingly, while peeling back the pages of my passport. He asks me to look into the camera and to make a fingerprint. After the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, this has become a new feature of the US. travel ritual. ‘Are you a writer too?” he asks. ‘Well I try, I try.’ It’s 16 December 2004 and arriving at Grand Central Station the city is teeming. New York glitters all dressed up like one vast Christmas tree. Walking down Park Avenue the thing that is immediately striking is how wide the sidewalks are, four stone slabs deep, places of encounter, commerce, and also places to seek refuge even in the bitter cold. One of the most revealing tales in Mitch Duneier’s book is the story of the Romp family. Billy Romp, his wife and their three children spend nearly a month every Christmas living in a tiny camper van selling Christmas trees on Jane Street. It is an all- American story: theFrench Baker supplies the family with fresh rolls, a neighbour extends a power line from his basement, a series of other residents leave apartment keys along with an open invitation to take a hot shower, shave or a nap (see Romp and Urbanska 1998). Mitch Duneier contrasts this parable of seasonal goodwill with the life of the booksellers who live on the sidewalk year round. The hospitality conferred on the Romps is partly an effect of the privilege of their whiteness. The mostly African American booksellers by contrast are an unwanted permanent presence, so much human trash that the urban redevelopers want cleaned up and cleared out. The next day I make my way to meet Mitch at his apartment on West 11th Street. It is a bright New York morning, Christmas wreaths are tied with red ribbons to the fences outside the elegant brownstone apartments. A well—groomed white couple walk their manicured dog past a homeless man sleeping on a cardboard bed. He is completely covered by what looks like a pile of rags to keep out the cold. At the edge of this makeshift bed are his weathered sneakers: next to them is a Coke bottle half filled with urine. It is an uncanny reception. As I saunter along Mitch Duneier’s book conles alive before lne. Mitch is waiting for me outside his apartment at the corner of 11th and Bleeker Steet. He has been calling me on his Blackberry mobile phone, my wandering has made me late. A very striking figure in his early forties, Mitch has a shock of curly brown hair and he wears brown tortoiseshell spectacles. The itinerary for the day is already fixed and Mitch is a generous and attentive host. Born on Long Island and ' he grew up in the suburbs but made his reputation largely through his award winning first urban ethnography Slim ’3 Table, 21 study of working-class African American men in Chicago (Duneier 1992) which many credit with leading to a resurgence of urban ethnography Voices from the Sidewalk 545 (Photograph OVie Carter) in the U.S., after a long decline. It’s immediately apparent why he’s such a great ethnographer. There is a kind of innocence about him, an openness that makes him a fantastic communicator. Howard S. Becker called Sidewalk a ‘masterpiece of fieldwork’. Wandering through the streets of New York he shows an extraordinary capacity to talk to people, putting strangers immediately at ease, engaging them with charm, s01neti1nes an alluring awkwardness, always with humour and without a hint of condescension. He walks with a slight limp the result of an automobile accident that nearly finished his career. Both his legs were crushed by the front and back wheels of a Mack truck in the late eighties, and he spent a few years on a stretcher and in a wheel chair before he learnt to walk again with the help of a physical therapist. Today, he is Professor of Sociology at Princeton University in New Jersey and works part-time at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he co-founded the Urban Ethnography Workshop which meets on Thursdays and which has become the centre of a large community of people working in that tradition. The salary from his second position is donated back to the Ph. D program at CUNY, where we are heading for our first stop. The Graduate Center is based in an old apartment’store in the shadow of the Empire State Building. We start what will be a series 546 Mitchell Duneier & Les Back [Ovie Carter] of conversations here about the place of ethnography in the writing of race. Les: How did you get started as an ethnographer? Mitch: Well, you know I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago. As a freshman I took a course with Howard Becker which was the class that became the basis for his Writingfbr Social Scientists book. It was a class in writing and I was eighteen years old and all the other people in the class were graduate students and I don’t even know how I even wandered into this class exactly but it just had a major impact on me both as a writer and in terms of generating a real interest in sociology. And from that point on I knew that I wanted to be a sociologist. Les: It’s interesting you mention Writing for Social Scientists (Becker 1986) because it is a beautiful guide to clarity. Your writing is characterized by a kind of very rigorous attention to clarity of expression that doesn’t fold into simplicity or simplistic thinking. It’s interesting that you mentioned thinking of yourself as a writer. Do you think of yourself as a writer first before being a sociologist? Mitch: I think that for Becker the writing is very much bound up in the craft of ethnography and with all academic work. He’s had a lot of influence on ethnographers, but his work has influenced people far outside the field of ethnography and I think that this emphasis on clarity is something that Becker has impressed upon a lot of people and I certainly was a beneficiary. My dissertation adviser was Edward Shils, who though not an ethnographer, introduced me to the Chicago School of Sociology. Les: Tell me were there books that you read at that time that really influenced you? What were the first ethnographies that you read? Mitch: The first ethnography that I read was Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner (Liebow 1967). And to this day that book has a tremendous influence on me. Les: Reading Sidewalk yesterday on the plane, starting it again, re—reading it. I kept going back in my own mind to phrases in Tally’s Corner. Mitch: To this day I think it’s one of the four or five best ethnographies that we have. One of the things that Liebow understood that resonates with me in particular was the ‘chain linked fence’ that exists between the observer and the observed. I thought that sort of metaphor that he used in the book is something that really should stand the test of time for ethnographers who don’t want to lose sight of their white privilege. Liebow said that he could never be one of them but he also wasn’t so far distant that he couldn’t understand them and I think that he really left open the possibility of a white man entering into a serious dialogue with the lives of poor blacks and producing a book that was not nothing, that gave you something significant, even if Voices from the sidewalk 547 it was not full understanding, which we can never get. He gave us a really wonderful approximation of the lower class black man’s world that one could really respect. And I think that people often forget that metaphor of the chain linked fence. Les: One of those things that I think is incredibly impressive about Sidewalk is that you’re steadfastly observant of your own position. And unflinchingly honest about that, even in difficult or uncomfor— table circumstances. Mitch: I feel as though I try to be and I think that I was influenced by ethnographies like Liebow. I have also been influenced by Carol Stack. Her book All Our Kin is one of the monumental precursors to a lot of the contemporary developments in sociological and anthro— pological ethnography (Stack 1974). All Our Kin was a book that was not self—consciously reflexive in the sense of she wasn’t out there saying here’s what I’m doing and here’s the way in which I’m sensitive to my racial position or my white privilege or anything like that. I mean she wasn’t in any way in dialogue with any kind of methodological thinking that later came about in anthropology, in the kind of reflexive turn. But she pulled off, even more than Liebow, an amazing sort of self—reflexivity about her own white privilege and her own place in the 'lives of these poor black women that she got to know. There was no illusion on her part that she was one of them. She always understood the difference between her and her subjects and that book I think is not nearly as much appreciated any more for the way in which it anticipated changes and transformations that would come about in ethnography. But I think within it are represented so many of the best things that have happened since then. And I think that anything that I’ve done in my own work really you can look back to Liebow and to Stack and I think that they really are two of the people I get most of my inspiration from. I don’t think that there’s much new since then. Les: There is a lot of discussion now about the interplay between the social identities of the ethnographer and the people he or she listens to. How do you think about that? Mitch: I’m a firm believer that there is no right answer to the question of the ideal relationship between the subject and the infornlant or the collaborator or whatever you call the individual, the partner. I think that there’s no real ideal relationship. I’ve seen fantastic ethnographic work come from people who do it in all different kinds of ways. And I think that there is a tendency in all methodological writing about ethnography to rationalize the way that one has done one’s own work. Goffman said that many of the methodological statements that we read are rationalizations for what the writer has done and what has happened in a particular research relationship. I’m really sceptical of any notion of there being an ideal relationship or one ideal way of developing a relationship with 548 Mitchell Duneier & Les Back [Ovie Carter] (Photograph Ovie Carter) subjects. And I certainly do not believe that Liebow’s approach or Stack’s approach which inspired me is the one right way. Or, that the way that I’ve done this in my work so far is the one right way. But it’s the one that’s worked for me and I feel it is the one I’m most comfortable with given my own views on white privilege and given my own views of the place of race in these kinds of encounters. Les: I think you know, one of the things that I think is extraordinary about Sidewalk is the way the participants become the authors of their own lives. I am thinking particularly about your relationship to Hakim Hasan. You embrace him not simply as some sort of mouthpiece but he becomes a writer himself. He writes the Afterword to the book. I think what’s interesting when he writes about you, he talks very honestly about his initial reservations but also about the transcending of social divisions of race and class. Mitch: Again, I really do agree with you that there are times when that can happen. I think that it’s interesting how the ways in which so much that goes on in ethnography is actually no different from everyday life. And so I think that it requires kind of the rethinking of the idea of a distinctive ethnographic encounter, an encounter that is different from other things that we do, so that these are possibilities in life more generally. And I think that ethnography is one of the sub—set of cases where those kind of transcendent connections and Voices from the sidewalk 549 recognitions of the humanity of others are possible, where it is possible to gain access to the humanity of ‘others’ despite the normal barriers that are there. Les: Hakim says something in the book about this that really caught my eye. Can I just read it to you: ‘I am still trying to understand how Mitch and the people whose lives he documented developed relation— ships on several New York City streets where race and class conflicts derail most efforts to transcend such barriers. Does this mean people sometimes find ways — the will, actually — to work through their phobias and prejudices on these streets. Is it a matter of being willing to listen to one another with respect?” (Hasan 1999, p. 330). Mitch: I think that there is a danger in a sort of romantic conception of the place of listening and the possibilities of respect. It can be an important element in an ethnographic encounter and Hakim is absolutely right that for me it is a crucial aspect of the way that I do ethnographic work, and I hope, of the way I live my life. But in my own ethnographic work, there is a connection between those interac- tional moments of respect and the larger social institutions that influence the relations historically between people like me and people like them. To lose sight of the connections between the two of those would teach the wrong lesson for ethnography. I do believe that a fruitful ethnographic encounter can come without a recognition of the connection between the encounter and those other forces, but it’s potentially deeply problematic when it’s not connected to a recognition of the historical relations between the kinds of people being studied and the kind of person doing the study, in this case a privileged white man and a group of poor US black descendants of slaves. Les: It seems that you are trying to bring together a whole series of theoretical and political issues in your ethnographic practice and Sidewalk is a kind of experiment with a different approach to ethnography, is that right? Mitch: The book was written out of a desire to bring developments in postmodern ethnography, feminist methodology, and critical race theory into a dialogue with the positivist traditions of American empirical sociology. I really do see myself as a social scientist, and I am at heart a realist, but a lot of the questions the postmodernists raised about ethnography in the eighties were extremely useful for me as a practitioner. So a lot of writing Sidewalk was about trying to reconcile different intellectual cultures in a practical way. The idea of redistributing ethnographic authority, even if there could only be one author, the idea of bringing the research subject into the process of taking notes of their own, helping me to know what were important research questions to know about, democratizing the research process, was something that came to me from reading a lot of abstract writings about ethnography that came out of postmodern and feminist writing. 550 Mitchell Duneier & Les Back [Ovie Carter] Les: You asked Hakim to write an Afterword, but you also went back to the respondents and read them what you’d written, even if they didn’t want to listen! Tell me how that worked? Mitch: I was trying to push those kinds of things further along and do more of those kinds of things to the extent that they were possible in the context of this project. So teaching a seminar with Hakim at University of California, Santa Barbara, was one such example. Hakim came to Santa Barbara for ten weeks and the department hired him as a guest lecturer. We taught a seminar for undergraduates in the Black Studies Department and Sociology and it was a seminar in which we used the first draft of Sidewalk as a way of seeing student reaction and as a way of Hakim and I getting to have a dialogue about it. And that encounter, in the classroom, was an extremely important one in terms of the development of our intellectual relationship around what the book was about and my starting to get a sense from Hakim how it could be improved by asking questions that would be his questions and the questions of others on the street. At that seminar we brought out a few other vendors from Sixth Avenue, one named Marvin and one named Alice. It was from that experience of having finished the manuscript but ’ still not having yet worked as a street vendor, that they said to me if you really want to understand this, why don’t you become a street vendor? The first draft of the book, which was really centred around Hakiin’s table and the interactions there was a much thinner book about the way in which a book table gives rise to an intellectual life among poor blacks out on the street. I really saw it as a thin sequel to Slim’s Table. It was going to be called Hakim’s Table and it was really meant to be a representation of a different kind of public sphere where rather than a cafeteria and working—class men, you had black women out on the street talking about books. This was a period during which three black women writers — Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker — all had best sellers at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The experiences of black women were being represented in black literature in ways that they had not been before. So the first draft of the book was really about the intellectual life of his table. It was only after he came out to Santa Barbara and read the manuscript with me and we talked about it in front of the students and then brought out other people from Sixth Avenue that we came to see together how much more could be brought to the book if I would add the homeless scavengers, the panhandlers, and the other people who constituted Hakim’s social world. That was when I decided to move back to New York at the end of the school year and become a street vendor. Les: So you had a complete manuscript. Then you decided that it wasn’...
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