Remapping White Childhood: On Fresno Redlining




HIGH SCHOOL WAS the white space just above C4, not yet on the 1936 map. It was a Catholic school, built in 1945. My dad had gone there, my aunts and uncle too. By the time I passed through, the kids mostly came from the north end of town, far above Shaw Avenue — what a city planning document once called Fresno’s Mason-Dixon line. They came from Clovis, a white-flight suburb east of the city whose population boomed after the forced desegregation of Fresno schools in the ’60s and ’70s. And they came from the country, since wealthy fruit farmers, family ranchers turned agribusiness Republicans, would send their white kids by long commute to the main Catholic High School in the Central Valley. Being Catholic it attracted Mexican American kids and Filipino kids as well, a few Asians. The tiny handful of Black students often came on athletic scholarships — I’m not sure how the regulations worked. In 1948, the year my dad was born and his childhood home built, in zone C1 of the HOLC redlining map, students there put on a minstrel show.

The 1936 Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlining map of Fresno, California, sent to the author by group family email, June 9, 2020. Original Source: Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed August 3, 2020, httpss3.amazonaws.com/holc/tiles/CA/Fresno/1936/holc-scan.jpg.

Autobiographical examples open windows onto larger social processes. As Saidiya Hartman explains, the single story, necessarily limited, can do its best to avoid “navel gazing,” and “fold[ing] onto itself,” and evoke material histories that matter beyond the instance described. But any effort to untangle and account for the density of relation between part and whole, instance and system, must always only be in process, incomplete — a project, as Hartman says, suitable for a poetics rather than a project of critique. It is an experiment. The results cannot be guaranteed.

By the time I arrived to San Joaquin Memorial in the mid-1990s, kids were throwing white supremacist hand signs in team pictures and told jokes where the punch line was someone being lynched. Any white person from Fresno will have similar stories. My sophomore year, a junior lineman chased one of our Black teammates around the locker room making chainsaw noises, playacting a murder. People laughed. “What? — he’s my friend,” chainsaw guy said when a couple of us told him to stop. He hugged the Black teammate. The chased teammate didn’t say anything. The white guy was older than us, and one of my friend’s cousins. I put on my stuff and went to practice.

Across decades of defensive forgetting, details remain sharp. The wide, low table the two jumped over during the chase, painted with school colors; the place of my locker, on the bottom row three or four from the corner they ran around next. The cartoon chainsaw-noise, coming from the weightlifting area beyond my line of sight. I know the names of all the people involved, and think of them sometimes. I wonder whether their minds have been altered in any way by time. One of the hand-sign guys worked in human resources for a while. Somebody is a chiropractor. Another is now a sheriff for the County of Fresno.

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Fresno is not a place usually associated with the story of segregation in America. No firehoses, no dogs. It is, in a sense, normal: agricultural, poor, sprawling, conservative; atypical for California but a synecdoche, as I heard over and over again in interviews, for social processes visible throughout the United States. “The Best Little City in the U.S.A.,” as the old gateway arch at Van Ness Avenue reads. It was only three weeks ago when I learned that, like hundreds of other cities in the United States, maybe all of them, my hometown was born in apartheid ­­— that the story goes back to the beginning. The lateness of this knowledge is the point. Lauren Michele Jackson wrote on Twitter recently that “the year of white people realizing things is EXHAUSTING.” I want to trace the mechanisms by which such belatedness has become general and put a finger on the concrete practices that have made the conversion narrative — the narrative of white discovery — a characteristic but insufficient genre in the era of Black uprising. My aunt sent the map by group email.

Like all redlining maps, the chart of Fresno that pinged my iPhone just days after police murdered George Floyd was created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the New Deal era. As many reading this will already know, the purpose of the HOLC maps was to organize urban spaces across America according to “residential security” and determine eligibility for federal loans in the fraught, post-Depression rebuilding years: a state mechanism of selective investment. (There were hundreds of HOLC maps, searchable here.) While the precise uses to which the charts were put varied from city to city, the color-coded swatches of supposed risk decorating the HOLC map of Fresno sponsored material practices of discrimination overseen by the federal government. Redlining meant home ownership and upward life-plots for some, itinerant rentals in substandard housing and serial poverty for the rest. Under the program, poor white families were more likely to secure home loans than even affluent Black ones. In Fresno and across America, “when conventional loans were made in HOLC red-coded ‘Hazardous’ areas, they had higher interest rates for borrowers” than loans in green or yellow ones.

But the official policies comprising this positive program of racist social engineering were just the tip of the iceberg, since they provided warrant for any number of unofficial agreements and tacit compacts that barred nonwhites from areas graded “Best.” Studies like The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland have tracked these dynamics in canonical sites of American antiblackness; I am only just reading them. In Fresno and elsewhere, to protect the growing city’s islands of white normalcy, other zones had to be created. These areas, graded D and bright pink on the 1936 Fresno map, were effectively walled off into reservations for the city’s undesirable elements. Thus did certain quarters of my hometown enter the ranks of America’s “sundown towns,” the thousands of “normal” places, not usually in the South, that used legal or extra-statutory means to keep “African Americans or other groups from living in [them] and [were] thus ‘all-white’ on purpose.” “Outside of the traditional South,” James Loewen shows, “probably a majority of all incorporated places [in the United States] kept out African Americans” — 71 percent of all towns and cities in Illinois, for example. It is an American story, sharper in Fresno than in many other places. As a Fresno State report summarizes: “Discriminatory housing policies and practices, restrictive covenants, redlining, as well as differentials in interest rates, and subprime loans” all “helped produce and continue to perpetuate the distinctive separation of whites and nonwhites in residential space in Fresno.”

Like the white expanse where my high school would soon be, Fresno’s Fig Garden area didn’t exist in time to be graded on the 1936 redlining map. Friends of mine from what we called old Fresno families lived there: kids of doctors and judges, people with pool houses. In truth, there are no old Fresno families. While founded in 1872 and incorporated in 1885, the city is almost entirely an artifact of the 20th century. Now hovering at just over half a million, the city’s population has more than quadrupled since World War II, confirming that Fresno’s sprawling and exponential growth tracks precisely with the period of gathering environmental catastrophe known as the Great Acceleration, in this as in other facts the city is an exemplum of vast, even global processes — an American Babylon. Fig Garden was designed in the ’40s as an enclave for the city’s rich whites, a fact described with perfect openness. A 1944 deed there specifies that

[n]either said premises, nor any part thereof, shall be used in any manner whatsoever or occupied by any Negro, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Armenian, Asiatic or native of the Turkish Empire, or descendent of above named persons, or anyone not of the white or Caucasian race, provided, however, that such a person may be employed by a resident upon said property as a servant for such resident.

The goal of such instruments was to reinforce the partition already accomplished by the HOLC maps and double down on official government segregation with private mechanisms meant to further insulate the map’s tiny green zones and slightly larger blue ones from what the 1936 Fresno report calls the “infiltration of […] colored races.” It worked. By the 1950s, nearly 100 percent of Fresno’s Black residents lived west of the railroad tracks, around D4 and D5; a decade later Fresno had the highest rate of Black-white segregation in California, a landscape characterized by narrowed life-chances and foreclosed possibility for residents of the west side, a shot at “average childhood” for the rest. Infants in west side ZIP codes today have a one in four chance of dying before age one, while several neighborhoods to the north have, in the words of a recent study, “no infant mortality” at all. In 2018, Fresno ranked 10th on a list of worst cities for Black people in America; activists call it “Mississippi, California.”

Reis Thebault, who wrote for The Atlantic about Fresno’s history of segregation, told me by email that on his first day of reporting there, he asked someone where to go if he wanted to see an example of the city’s racial divisions. “He said: ‘just drive down Blackstone Avenue with your eyes open.’” But, Thebault explained, “at the same time, I don’t think many people know how it happened. The consequences are obvious enough; the wealth inequality there is plain. But I found that people hadn’t realized or internalized that it was the government that did this — local, state, federal. And I think this is true not just in Fresno but in most any American city.”

Before I’d learned about the Fig Garden deed, my dad recalled to me that in the mid-1970s he’d read an old ownership document for a house on Huntington Avenue, a now marginal area at the south end of town that was once among Fresno’s “better,” i.e., whiter, neighborhoods. This deed had the same language as the Fig Garden one. “It eliminated ‘Negroes,’ Chinese, and Armenians,” my dad told me over the phone. “I couldn’t believe it.” The deed he was describing was for the house my sister came home to from the hospital, signed by the previous owner: the first place she ever lived on earth. I was two. On the 1936 map it is B4, bright blue: “still desirable.”

1936 HOLC map of Fresno, California, detail of sector B4, including Huntington Avenue, location of author’s residence at age two, in 1978. Original Source: Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed August 3, 2020, httpss3.amazonaws.com/holc/tiles/CA/Fresno/1936/holc-scan.jpg.

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Where does the locker room story start? At what point does an anecdote begin? Or more abstractly: How to tell the history of a social process, of a racism baked into the very background of life, when the springs and levers of that process — its causes — have been hidden from you and nearly every other white person you know, on purpose, for decades? And when the story is then not just about structures of dispossession and apartheid as such, but also about their strange epistemological status, their partial but not total occlusion from the perspective of those whose very lives were sustained and insulated by the apparatus in question? And how about when those lives, the naïve and supposedly protected ones I mean, are not the proper subject of the story at all — are rather a distraction from it, a distraction that has for too long masqueraded as the central plot? What shape could such a story take?

In the hallucinatory handful of days since the well-documented and public fact of Fresno redlining became known to me, I have learned what scholars of race and ghettoization in Fresno have long understood; what the faculty and staff at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, for instance, have made their lives’ work; and what nonwhite residents of Fresno know firsthand. It is that Fresno’s story is the story of American segregation writ small, the HOLC map but one moment in a longer unfolding of a present defined, still, by a white supremacy built into the city plan. Is it a secret? Andrea Castillo reported on Fresno’s history of segregation for The Bee and now works for the Los Angeles Times. “It really depends on who you’re talking to,” she told me. “Black residents in Fresno know the history very intimately. […] Anyone willing to spend some time in neighborhoods south of Shaw Avenue would see it for themselves. […] Maybe [what was striking to readers of the Bee] is that I was more willing to describe the cause as what it is: racism.”

This cause operated from the start. The Central Pacific tracks running north-south up the west side formed a dividing line from the beginning, one of those old-fashioned boundaries, literally the tracks, separating the elect from the abandoned, the drowned from the saved. “If you were white,” said the late Fresno historian Bill Secrest several years ago, describing the birth of Fresno in the 1880s, “you lived on the east side of the tracks where the courthouse was, where all the retail and best neighborhoods were being established. If you were Chinese, you moved to the other side of the tracks.” Fresno’s primal moment of anti-Chinese exclusion established what historian Ramon Chacon calls a “pattern of racial segregation and ghettoization” that set terms for the city’s development going forward. The Yokuts tribes native to the Fresno area had long been pushed out, of course, expropriated to make way for a railway depot and the settlement following it.

Following these original crimes, history came in waves, piling at this novice historian’s feet: redlining in the late ’30s; whites-only deeds in the ’40s and after. In the ’50s, the main road running parallel to the Central Pacific tracks, Highway 99, was expanded into a multi-lane expressway, designed not just to shuttle traffic between Los Angeles and San Francisco but to carve the city in two, sealing hazardous elements from Fresno’s white core and demolishing thriving mixed-race neighborhoods in the process. When Black residents first arrived to Fresno in numbers after World War II, after the Bay Area armament factories closed down, they arrived to a place where segregation had been built into the city grid, the postwar garden partitioned forever from the urban plantation.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Fresno and spoke at Ratcliffe Stadium, an area described in the HOLC report as “level and […] occupied by American whites entirely, most of whom are laborers and artisans, a few being small businessmen.” I played a football game there once, just before I left town forever; the picture shows me with my two maternal grandparents, the last photo I have of the three of us. Three thousand people came to hear King’s speech at Ratcliffe, but nobody I know. King had come to speak against Proposition 14, which would allow housing segregation by enabling landlords to decide themselves to whom to rent or sell; deeds could exclude anyone. At the Fresno speech, King said: “[S]egregation is the Negro’s burden and America’s shame, morally wrong and sinful and a new form of slavery, a cancer on the body politic which must be cured.” Despite King’s speech, Prop 14 passed, only later to be overturned by the Supreme Court. But in Fresno the cancer had already spread. By 1973, a real estate broker and longtime Democratic political operative could refer openly to Highway 99 as “Fresno’s Berlin Wall.” Shaw Avenue, which runs east-west and cordons Fresno’s south and west sides from the sprawling and majority-white northern developments, would be called the city’s Mason-Dixon line in an official city planning document. When Malcolm X visited southwest Fresno in October 1963, he told a crowd of some 200 people that “[t]he day is past when the Negro will turn the other cheek.” “These statements,” reported the Fresno Bee, “drew the heaviest applause at the rally.” A clipping of the speech ended up in his FBI file.

In middle and high school, my own childhood intersected with this world-historical plot only glancingly. It happened below the Mason-Dixon line of Shaw but east of the Berlin Wall, just outside the blue island of B1, on the upper spur of C1, marked “Definitely Declining.” From the mid-1980s to the 1990s, this bubble of protection floated uneasily between the “nice” areas to the north and west and “rougher” ones to the south, common Fresno code for the relative density of white and nonwhite residents. We rode bikes along an irrigation ditch to get ice cream.

1936 HOLC map of Fresno, California, detail of sector C1, including Dayton Avenue, location of author’s home in the 1990s. Original Source: Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed August 3, 2020, httpss3.amazonaws.com/holc/tiles/CA/Fresno/1936/holc-scan.jpg.

Describing Claudia Rankine’s cancellation of this practice in Citizen, Kamran Javadizadeh refers to “the naïveté of the post-Romantic lyric” as “a literary form of white innocence.” Like its cousins the reflective personal essay or the narrative of white political awakening, first-person reflective poetry often works to uphold the mythology of transcendence that seals off and elevates white subjects in a world structured to engender and sustain this sanctifying effect. Thus do typical features of the lyric mode — confessional voice, involuted self-regard, and the presumption that the identity at the heart of the story is somehow universal — become signals for a style of autobiographical poetics that Javadizadeh, discussing Robert Lowell, calls “hygenic sincerity”: the pose by which the white writer seeks to secure a presumptively transcendent selfhood by feigning to be affected by the power of other people’s suffering.

This essay is not a lyric. The period of history I associate with bikes and ice cream was, on the west side, an era of widening wealth gaps, gathering toxicity from concentrating air and water pollution, and the effective hollowing-out of the city’s Black middle class, such that the best advice from Black parents to their children in this period was (as I heard several times in researching this essay) “to leave Fresno.” “Right now,” said Tania Pacheco-Werner, a medical sociologist at Fresno State who helps run the Central Valley Health Policy Institute there, “Black mothers don’t see a future for their Black young people in Fresno. They are not wrong.”

Pastor D. J. Criner is an activist and community leader who heads Saint Rest Baptist Church on the west side. When I talked to him by Zoom, he described a world of Black-owned businesses that, even through the early 1990s, flourished “up and down Elm,” all of which shuttered after waves of disinvestment and a sustained, targeted refusal to provide infrastructure to the area. “Self-made, self-owned Black businesses, I’m talking about,” he said. “Scott’s Cleaners, Everybody’s Market, Salaam’s Soul Food — a golden age of Black business.” It was all gone by the time Criner arrived to Fresno in 2005. “People told me I missed it.” The decades-long process of disinvestment gutting Black Fresno began in the 1970s and was punctuated by the burning of Los Angeles, four hours to the south, during the 1992 uprising against racist policing, an event Criner mentioned in his timeline of this period. From 1989 to 1991, a world away from those conflicts and far, too, from the yellow spur embracing us on Dayton Avenue, I attended an effectively white middle school in a majority Black Fresno neighborhood, one large city block from Pastor Criner’s church on Elm. The school had been created from thin air in the early 1980s, I have learned, as part of the long and failed attempt to desegregate the schools of southwest Fresno.

The middle school was a magnet; they bused us in. The majority-Black, non-magnet high school to which my school was attached had, in 1966, 1,161 students, of whom three were white; it was 99.6 percent nonwhite in 1970 — this was before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare found that Fresno Unified was in violation of the Civil Rights Act and the busing began. In 1970, six meetings were held at the north end of town to debate the plan, where, the Fresno Bee reported, “the great majority indicated they are opposed to busing their children to other schools to achieve the racial and ethnic balance required by law or for any purpose.”

Nine years later the west side’s effectively all-Black Irwin Junior High School was closed down entirely, “as part of the district’s desegregation plan.” The buildings sat vacant until 1983, when the computer-focused magnet school I attended — Computech — was invented on the same site, to “answer […] the need for desegregation in the Fresno community,” in the words of a promotional article in PC Magazine. “[W]ith a dazzling array of computer programs and an impressive staff,” said the 1985 fluff piece, the rebranded middle school aimed “to draw children from the affluent white families at the north end of town to the predominantly black Edison High School in west Fresno.” The “goal that gave it life” was “to peacefully achieve a racial balance in a nearly all-black school.” The all-Black high school and the new middle school for computer-savvy whites were separated by chain-link fence. I have trouble remembering if it was possible to walk through a gate to get there.

The Computech experiment took place in D5, a zone the 1936 map had graded “Hazardous.” Cordoned off from investment in the ’30s, turned by real estate policy and Highway 99 into an open-air prison for nonwhite residents, the area was, by the 1990s, almost entirely Black and deeply impoverished, “a segregated enclave” in the words of Chacon, where, according to a 2009 report, child and elderly poverty rates are “two to three times as high as they were throughout the [greater] Fresno MSA.” Half a lifetime earlier, in 1964, another report confirmed that this depleted present had been prepared for in the past: that the past is, in this material sense, still present. “This section of the Metropolitan Area,” the old report observes, “has the lowest educational attainment, highest proportion of unskilled and unemployed persons, the lowest income, the lowest home value, and the highest proportion of unsound housing.” On current digital maps of “SB535 Disadvantaged Communities,” it is Census Tract 6019000902, in the 96th percentile for “pollution burden” in California and the 99th percentile for low birth weight. The other scores for this space tell a story of structural exclusion from a modern political system by which some lives are protected and maintained, put in position to write essays for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and others cast aside. The relevant data is measured in YPLL, “years of potential life lost.”

In a famous moment of The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes the colonized space as a world “cut in two,” divided into the “settler’s town” and the “native town.” (Miriam Zuk, who researched Fresno’s racist geography and now works on environmental justice in Chicago, told me that colonialism is a useful metaphor for understanding space in Fresno.) Fanon explains that inhabitants of the colony’s abandoned zones — “the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation” — develop enmity for the settlers beyond the fence even when, and even more strongly because, they rarely meet. One day in eighth grade, I was milling around with other kids from neighborhoods to the north, waiting for our bus home. I hit the pavement, unconscious. Somebody had punched me from behind and walked away, a stranger. Fanon writes: “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native […] from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” It went down in the school logs as a random act, with no cause at all.

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It is plain enough that the swatches of color decorating the Fresno map encipher a program of openly racist social engineering by which a fast-growing city was shaped into a certain vision of American utopia. Producing this world required the creation and maintenance of perfectly segregated subdistricts whose boundaries were, and continue to be, enforced by violence — the economic and the physical kind, no less damaging for having been set into motion by pen and ink. If this makes Fresno a microcosm for American life in the age of Black resistance, it also means that its present should be seen as the “still unfolding aftermath” of the original acts of partition whose archives and records have been hiding in plain sight. My dad said he’d already known about the redlining of our hometown; that he’d seen the map before. Did everyone know this history? “Sure, people who paid attention knew, I guess. Not everybody wants to know that kind of thing.”

John Capitman is executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute and Nickerson Professor of Public Health at Fresno State. “I don’t know if I’d call it repression exactly,” Capitman told me on the phone. I had asked him about the particular form of unknowing that enabled Fresno’s racism to be both profoundly obvious and somehow, still, a secret. He told me that, after arriving to Fresno in 2005, he conducted college interviews in Fresno and would ask applicants how the city’s infamous inequality had affected them personally. Latino, Black, and Asian kids, Capitman recalled, all answered this question vividly and without hesitation; “but the white kids would just kind of sit there, and say something to the effect that, ‘Well, it hasn’t really affected me personally…’ It was remarkable.’” Describing current meetings of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, on whose board he sits, Capitman said that certain white politicians “put a lot of energy into denying” the existence of racism in their hometown. These officials “willfully refuse to take in the information” and “are not willing to accept” plain facts on a spreadsheet, truths they see staring them in the face. In Sundown Towns, Loewen describes this epistemological mirage-effect as “knowing and not knowing”: “White residents do know the racial composition of their town, of course; it may even be a reason why they chose to move there. But most haven’t thought about how it came to be so white; it just seemed natural.”

For me, the HOLC chart’s checkerboard of dispossession provides a tool for remapping white childhood in light of the geography of partition that enabled and sustained that profoundly incomplete experience, unwinding at a glance what Javadizadeh called the white speaker’s illusion of transcendence. The map in this sense can work like any other poetic text, reorienting one story line and replacing it as though in an instant with another, truer one. To respool the narrative of white childhood in this way is to set conditions for playing that film again from the beginning, otherwise. In the new version, small instances become large and non-events decisive, while the things you actually remember fall into the shadows, no longer important. Flickering half-scenes and tiny moments — a locker room episode, a punch in the face — become invested with significance they had been denied. The main character becomes deeply secondary. And the whole ensemble shifts genres, in this case from lyric pastoral to something much like tragedy, as the perspective shifts from the view from inside a bubble to one that would show that very bubble in the process, generations long, of being produced. “No ‘I’ […] is the whole of anything,” Rankine has said. “We cannot be committed to any version of the first person to the extent that we are unwilling to interrupt, diverge, or reroute in the name of known and unknown truths.”

Today the neighborhood my own life-plot barely touched is home to nearly all of Fresno’s heavy industry, to a meat rendering plant, to a city park built on top of Superfund site. Said West Fresno resident Robert Mitchell: “You awaken with the smell [of the rendering plant], you walk around constantly with the smell, and unless one has lived in the area with this type of stench, you don’t understand how it impacts you.” According to the EPA, this space is now the single “most environmentally, socially, and economically vulnerable place in California,” first among the state’s 8,000 voting precincts. In 2010, three times as many tons of toxic chemicals were emitted in South Fresno in comparison to the North. No surprise, then, that geographic representations of cancer risk and respiratory hazard in Fresno today take shape as ghostly replays of the 1936 zoning map — the same film played over again, 70 years on. In July, COVID-19 tests administered in southwest Fresno returned an astonishing 44.2 percent positivity rate, more than quadruple the already runaway infection rates of the city’s north side. Again, the map is a color-coded guide to where life matters, and where it does not, in the town I left after high school.

COVID-19 Positive Test Rates, Fresno California, as of July 27, 2020. The red sector, 93721, showed a 44.2 percent positivity rate. Original Source: Tim Sheehan, The Fresno Bee. httpswww.fresnobee.com/news/coronavirus/article244480787.html

JePahl White is a longtime resident of the westside whose great-grandfather came to Fresno and found a way to live south of Fresno’s Mason-Dixon line. “In the 1950s,” White said in an interview, “my great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, brought four generations of his family from Oklahoma to Fresno, California, to this property right here,” on Fresno’s west side. White lists the names of relatives who have died early from kidney disease, cancer, and other ailments associated with the toxic environment of this abandoned zone, not far from my magnet middle school or the abandoned commercial strip on Elm. “I can remember vividly drinking the groundwater here on the property, drinking from this hose. And then later, being diagnosed with kidney disease, and kidney issues. Some of them later to be attributed to ‘environmental factors’ by some of my doctors.” My own grandfather came to Fresno from Oklahoma too, but settled eventually on what was then Fresno’s north end, near C1, in 1948, where “well-built new residences [were] occupied for the most part by ‘white-collared’ workers and business men with incomes ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 a year.” Every family on the block was white. Life expectancy in the Fresno’s northwest ZIP codes, where my high school friends now live with their families, is as much as 20 years higher than those in the Black southwest.

The treeless and heavily policed deathworld of Fresno’s west side is usefully understood as an internal colony, as Zuk and Capitman both suggested to me in our conversations. It is also, by definition, a place of improvised life and adaptation, where “possibility” is produced “in the space of enclosure.” Pastor Criner told me about how, when he first arrived to Fresno on a football scholarship to Fresno State, he’d been told to stay away from West Fresno. “But they couldn’t keep us away.” He found a place called Hunt’s nightclub, and linked up with its community of middle-aged and older Black Fresnans, “40, 50, 60 years old,” Criner said. “They embraced us, and they took care of us, because they saw we were Black and we had that connection — that connection of not having. When you don’t have anything, you embrace what you do have, and you take care of other people who don’t have.” I told him I hadn’t been able to find Hunt’s in any records I’d seen. “No, you wouldn’t! To African Americans it was very well known, a legend of West Fresno, but nobody who’s white has ever heard of it. It was just Mrs. Hunt’s house. She used the kitchen for food and made the whole thing into a kind of juke joint; she was legendary for how she brought people together.” An old article about Hunt’s, the only printed trace I’ve since been able to find, says it used to be a grocery store, and that Zelma Hunt, aged 84 in the year 2000, came to Fresno from Oklahoma too. She first lived in a tent city less than a quarter mile from the site of the nightclub. The article says the place “is not going to win any interior decorating awards,” and quotes a middle-aged Black resident, Henry Nutt, who says: “If you grew up in west Fresno, you know about Hunt’s. If you’re coming here, you’re coming home.”

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If the childhood of somebody who is now an English professor occurred against a backdrop of geographical and social apartheid, a densely organized system of racist practice orchestrated to secure his own life through the selective immiseration of others, this is hardly news. The news, instead, might be that an elaborate machinery has worked, over decades, to hide the processes of that supposed protection from conscious apprehension, building up edifices of defense that produce responses ranging from curious unknowing to what Capitman called “angry denial.” To be white in the United States is to belong to a class for whom forgetting is a matter of psychic maintenance. What would be required to counteract this habitual forgetting might be something like what Capitman, in our phone call, described as “the capacity to hold contradictory ideas in the mind at once.” It is the habit of mind that would let you see, in effect, two films at once — your own mystified lyric and the actual disaster film, all together in one story. It was this “cognitive capacity to hold contradiction in mind,” Capitman said, that he found so undeveloped among his white students. Pastor Criner used the metaphor of The Matrix. “It’s like, finally people wake up and realize that what they have been living is a dream, and not reality. But people are benefiting from that dream, benefiting from the racism while other people are being pushed to the side — still. And so to realize that, to see that? It’s terrifying for people.” When, just a moment before this, I told him I’d only recently learned of the redlining map, he shook his head and laughed.

For those of us buoyed up by deprivation, whose lives have been cordoned off from ambient heavy metals and defunded schools, sealed away and preserved from not just the aerosolized residue of animal carcasses but also the knowledge that others were not, the task becomes to acquire this habit of mind at a very late hour. If one step in such a process is to coordinate the geographies of white memory against the record of American dispossession that is the true story of that memory, another is to work toward modes of expression that might displace or unwind the very narrative habits that have arisen to buttress that culpable naivete. “[C]onfessional poetics,” as Javadizadeh explains, “reifies the white subject whose identity it began by assuming.” For the would-be confessionalists and aspiring memoirists, the challenge becomes to develop a practice of white memory that might work against the lyricizing impulse, or within and against it, and labor to develop a method adequate to the “EXHAUST[ION]” Black Americans feel when confronted with news that, as Jackson put it, white people have learned something.

Such a practice might begin, and only begin, by working to show an illusion in the process of being formed. It might go further to try to index historical processes even in their refusal to become fully tangible, and account as well for the feeling of true life — the material experiences of real human beings born 10 miles from you — having slipped through the hand. To hold contradiction and preserve it in this way would be to evoke the sweep of a history many of us were prevented from seeing, even while our own minds and bodies floated on structures of advantage that were, for others, something you could smell in the air. For the essay writers and the football types, the ones who went away to school, the job is to un-tell a story that was designed, generations ago, with you at the center. Because it turns out the main characters in the film are people whose names you never knew: activists like Mary Curry, Robert Mitchell, Pastor Paul Binion II, Debbie Darden, JePahl White, and Pastor Criner himself — along with Barbara Hunt, who attended city council meetings almost every day for decades before she passed away and told city leaders, over and over again, that they were killing people. White officials condescended to her. But to the west side she was a “survivor” and a “fighter,” in her daughter’s words, and (said The Bee) was “big on collecting city documents, especially the long, tricky, single-spaced documents on bonds,” which she used as evidence in her continual assault on white power in Fresno. Hunt, as it happens, was the daughter of Mrs. Zelma Hunt, the same legend of Black Fresno who welcomed Pastor Criner and his teammates to the west side almost two decades ago.

2475 S Walnut Avenue, Fresno, California, former site of Hunt’s Café, once owned by “legend of west Fresno,” Zelma Hunt. Original source: Google Street View.

¤

In addition to the people named in the essay, I thank Brianna Calix, Debbie Darden, and Bob Mitchell for sharing their expertise with patience and generosity. Any errors are only my own. Written July 2020.

¤

Nathan K. Hensley is associate professor of English at Georgetown University and the author of Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty. He was born and raised in Fresno, California.

 

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