newark black: 1940-1954

by C. K. Williams

Vailsburg (Newark)

Black coal with a thunderous shush
plunging into the clearly evil-inhabited coal bin.
The black furnace into whose maw
you could feed paper to watch it curl to black char.

The hats women wore with black, mysterious veils,
even your mother. The “mascara” she’d apply
more meticulously than she did anything else.
With her black lashes she was almost somebody else.

The incomprehensible marks on blackboards at school
you conquered without knowing quite how.
The black ink in the inkwell. The metal pens
with blots that diabolically slid from their nibs.

Black slush, after the blizzard had passed
and the diesel buses and trucks were fuming again,
but you still remembered how blackly lovely
the branches of trees looked in new snow.

The gunk on the chain of your bike.
The black stuff always under your nails.
Where did it come from, how to get it out?
Even between your toes sometimes there was black.

The filthy tires hung on hooks in the garage-store
we had to pass through to get to our shul.
Black Book of Europe, first proof of the war on Jews—
illicit volume, as forbidden to Jewish children as porn.

Black people the states in the South began to send up,
keeping what they needed for cheap labor and maids
and exporting the rest: a stream of discarded humans,
with the manufacturing plants just then closing down.

The photo of black children in the ‘20s, frolicking
on the bench of the Lincoln statue by the courthouse.
I took the bus once to go sit in its lap, his lap:
how kind he looked, how surprisingly hard his bronze lap.

The other statue, Captive’s Choice, in a park:
the girl kidnapped by Indians who forgets she’s white,
then, “saved,” gives up Indian husband and children.
Who decided it should have been that, and there?

The first black kids in our school, fine with me,
because Clarence Murphy, sixteen in fourth grade,
stopped beating me up because I’d killed Christ
and raged instead with even more venom at them.

I was afraid of Clarence but not of black people,
except that day on the bus: the sweat-stench of men
who’d worked hard and not had time yet to change.
Though I already knew it was shameful, I fled.

“Blackballs” to keep Jews, Italians, and Irish,
then naturally blacks, out of the country clubs
in Maplewood and Montclair. The unfunny jokes
about signs on their gates: No Dogs, Niggers, or Jews.

Our gangster hero, Longie Zwillman, who had a black car;
so did our mayors—bought off, we were told by “interests.”
Irish, Italian, finally at last a black mayor:
all the bought-off ones with their Cadillacs of corruption.

Thick soot on the bricks of the mills by the tracks,
smoke billowing, then extinguished forever.
Rivers with rainbows of oil on their surface,
their beds eternally black venomous chemical sludge.

Miles of black turnpike and parkway pavement
scrolled out onto the soil of the no-longer farms.
You could speed now from one place to another
and not see the slums, the factories in broken-eyed ruin.

Everywhere ruin—did nobody see it arriving?
Urban flight, urban decay, shopping centers and malls,
the department stores downtown shuttered,
then small businesses, theaters, and the rest.

The finally unrecognizable city, done in by us all.
Only the ever benevolent Lincoln, unblackened
by time or pollution, emblem of promise and hope,
patiently waited, patiently waits.

Image: Bongiorno Productions via Newark Museum
Image: Bongiorno Productions via Newark Museum

C. K. Williams offered this remembrance of his Newark boyhood for the 2011 anthology New Jersey Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates. He reissued it as “Newark Noir” in his own Writers Writing Dying (2014).

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