On April 18, 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, residents took to the streets to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Devin Allen was there, with his camera, capturing life in his West Baltimore neighborhood before, during, and after the Baltimore Uprising, and A Beautiful Ghetto is the result.
The book opens with a handful of short essays, on Freddie Gray’s death, on Black life in Baltimore and demands for redress (as mentioned above), on Allen’s photographs and movement through the community and the Uprising, on Ghetto life before Reagan and the rise of the modern GOP, and the crack epidemic, destroyed community owned businesses, two parent families, opportunities for upward mobility (or just maintaining a decent standard of living) and exasperated the income, unemployment, and incarceration gaps between black and whites.
Most of the time, everyone gets on with it. Black youths learn early to fear the police and (hopefully) stay alive; mothers do the best they can to keep children moving straight. Except for the police presence, it was more or less similar for me and my cohort: loads of single mothers, running from the police, losing friends to drugs and jail. But I had options: family support for college, even long after I was out of High School; a very low likelihood of dying at the hands of police (or anyone but myself, really); few barriers to whatever I want or need. Yet I still (sometimes) have cause to raise my voice, march or mill about in support of my community, my neighbors, marginalized groups, and against racism and other social ills. I probably don’t do enough in that arena, and may Allah guide me to better.
Devin Allen was there. In it. Pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed with the rest of them. But he had a camera. And Time Magazine put a shot of his on the cover in 2015, “America
1968 2018: what has changed, what hasn’t.” (Some things, surely; not much, practically.) And he became a sort of hero or role model, and GoGo. His pictures are moving and personal, the gestures and expressions are authentic. In the first half, “A Beautiful Ghetto,” there are children and parents, grandparents, a Horseman, barbers and broken down buildings, everything that makes Baltimore a beautiful ghetto. In ‘Uprising,’ the second part, all of these participate in or form the backdrop for riot police and peaceful protesters, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “stop resisting,” milk being poured in tear-gassed eyes, broken windows and burned cars, shouting and praying, everyone, both sides looking partly angry, partly disgusted, and wholly weary. Still? 2015, and still?
Poems from Tariq Touré introduce the two sections and end the book, and add something for those who appreciate poetry more than I do, and shame on me for not so much.
All in all, the words and photographs come together to make a portrait of West Baltimore, A Beautiful Ghetto is an interesting document of its time. I hope it stands as something of a historical novelty, rather than another reminder of how little we have moved beyond our baser beliefs.
You can get a copy of A Beautiful Ghetto direct from Haymarket, for really cheap, and probably at other booksellers. Allen has photo essays and interviews up on EndPain, Aperture, the Fader, and elsewhere, and he was the recipient of a Gordon Parks Foundation Through their Eyes fellowship in 2017. He’s also active on Instagram and worth a follow, there. And the next time you (or I) hear of a protest against police violence, or state racism, or in support of poor and marginalized groups, let’s put our feet and bodies to work, raise our fists, and participate.