City Lit: Out of Africa

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From 1992 to 1999, I worked as a book vendor on Sixth Avenue at 8th Street in Greenwich Village. It was there that I befriended Yusef, an African from Côte d’Ivoire who was trying to “make business,” as he put it, by selling African masks.

In 1994, Yusef’s father died. Because his temporary visa had expired, INS regulations barred him from returning if he left the United States. Yusef had to choose between attending his father’s funeral or remaining in the United States. He decided to stay.

For me, Yusef’s decision was a revelation. Like many black Americans, I romanticized Africa, but knew nothing of he reality of poverty there. I knew little about the economic devastation in Africa when France, pressed by the World Bank, devalued the CFA-franc (the currency of 14 African countries that belonged to the Communaute Financiere Africaine), causing the cost of medicine and simple goods to skyrocket. Nor did I realize the role that corrupt post-colonial African leaders played in the fiscal mismanagement of African countries. But Yusef’s decision magnified the terrible economic conditions in Côte d’Ivoire, which he talked about endlessly.

In Money Has No Smell, Paul Stoller draws a connection between the intractable poverty most Africans endure and the predicament of African immigrants like my friend. Stoller, an anthropologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, examines the lives of African traders who fled their continent to become street vendors in New York City.

New York City has seen two distinct surges of migration by African traders. The first, which began as early as 1982, came primarily from Senegal; the second wave, with West African traders coming en masse from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire during the 1990s, is Stoller’s primary focus.

When the Senegalese arrived in New York City in the early 1980s, they set up shop on fashionable Fifth Avenue in front of ultra-chic stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Trump Tower, which had its own coterie of chic boutiques on the ground floor. They sold counterfeits of Rolexes and other brand name watches from makeshift tales. In the 1990s, competition heated up between the ubiquitous Senegalese vendors and the newly arrived West African traders from Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria.

Inevitably, the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association, led by Donald Trump, began to complain to the Koch Administration about the vendors. Forced to leave the sacrosanct Fifth Avenue commercial district in 1988, the vendors migrated to 125th Street in Harlem, nostalgically regarded by some historians and cultural critics as the “cultural capital” of black America. It was here, interestingly enough, that the newly arrived West Africans abandoned Rolexes in favor of Afrocentric baseball caps, tee-shirts, textiles, jewelry, and art to black Americans.

The rich Afrocentric market in Harlem gave rise to unexpected business alliances between Africans and Koreans. Stoller documents how “Afrocentric” goods were manufactured by Koreans in sweatshops along Canal Street in lower Manhattan, then bought wholesale by African street vendors uptown and sol to black Americans, to whom they symbolized authentic African heritage and identity.

“Korean merchants in lower Manhattan…did not want to bow out of the lucrative market,” writes Stoller. “And so they traveled uptown to invest in bolts of wholesale ‘Ghanaian kente,’ which they brought to their sweatshops in lower Manhattan, producing hundreds of ‘kente’ caps at a price cheaper than one could get buying cloth on 125th Street and commissioning an African tailor.”

While the African vendors sold Areocentric goods to black Americans–what Stoller calls a “simulated” version of authentic African identity–many of the vendors wore baggy “homeboy” jeans, baseball hats, and clothing from the Gap. Whether or not this was a deliberate attempt to appear American–Stoller does not say–the lesson is clear: Globalization creates cultural transvestites, global citizens able to operate in a multitude of ethnic milieus.

But as street vendors multiplied along 125th Street, Harlem’s main commercial artery, tensions began to rise between the vendors, local merchants, and the political establishment: Community Board 10, the 125th Street Business Improvement District, and the Harlem Business Alliance, among others. Like the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association, these converging interests petitioned Mayor Dinkins, and later Mayor Giuliani, to remove the vendors.

In 1994, under the auspices of then-Police Commissioner William Bratton, Mayor Giuliani disbanded the vendors on 125th with a show of police force that bordered on a military invasion. The wholesale removal of the vendors from 125th Street was one of Giuliani’s first symbolic acts of control over public space, one that set the tone for his rancorous relationship with the black community during his two terms as mayor. To further complicate matters, the City, in an unlikely–some said unholy–political alliance, put a local mosque in charge of the vendors. Officials of the Masjid Malcolm X Shabazz now preside over an alternative vending site at 116th Street.

Stoller’s account is painfully accurate, though he fails to document the rise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in New York City in the early 1980s and during the 1990s. This is a serious omission, because of the influence they had in regulating the use of public space. The BIDs successfully pressured police and city officials to remove vendors, even when they were in full compliance with city vending ordinances.

This is complicated terrain. To his credit, Stoller articulates the nexus between global trade policies and poverty in Africa. Yet he fails to show how economic development policies in poor black communities (in this case Harlem) can also cause economic fissures and migrations of their own.

Undoubtedly, the macro-migration of West African traders to New York City as a response to globalization is important to reconcile and understand. However, the constant micro-migration of African vendors within New York City is also important. Do the vendors distinguish between the political and economic forces that drove them from their homelands and those that drove them from 125th Street?

The African vendors in Stoller’s book, very much like my friend Yusef, share a stark disillusionment with America. But it is tempered by economic expediency and geography: in the end, they prefer to be disillusioned in America, with a greater chance of economic survival, than in Africa. They have no time for lofty speeches or négritude analysis. They gather their goods. They move. They sell. And so, after the police crackdown on vendors in Harlem, Yusef migrated to the Village; we agreed that he would sell his masks from underneath my book vending table.

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Without lapsing into academic doublespeak, Stoller traces he consequences of globalization on the diasporic lives of his informants, men like Issifi Mayaka, El Hadj Moru Sifi, Idrissa Dan Inna, all of whom are devout Muslims. Relying on cooperative economic practices based on Islam, many see survival by trade as life, fortitude and honor–the ethos of most street vendors. They create informal banks to loan one another money, paying back only what they have borrowed, since interest is forbidden by Islamic law. Their collective goal is to maintain their tradition o trading and the economic lifelines to their families.

There are instances when Stoller’s informants’ accounts of village and family life are unconvincing. This is particularly true when the vendors talk about sexual fidelity and polygamy. Their stories convey that there is no strife, no tension–all is well in traditional African society; yet, Stoller writes:

“To avoid opportunities for infidelity, long-distance traders often insist that their wives live in the family compound, surrounded by observant relatives who enforce codes of sexual fidelity….many of these men, especially if they are travelling, believe it is their inalienable right to have sexual relationships with other women. As Muslims, moreover, they have a right, if they chose and are financially able, to marry as many as four women.” One wonders if Stoller has read So Long A Letter by the Senegalese feminist novelist Marima Ba. Considered a classic work of African literature, Ba debunks the myth of happy “co-wives” in polygamous marriages and demonstrates how “culture” has been used to limit, if not destroy, the ambitions of women.

But for the most part, Stoller’s “montage of social analysis and ethnographic description” is purposeful, vibrant and unobtrusive. Based on fieldwork he conducted in New York City from 1992 to 1998, Stoller’s intricate theoretical narrative creates what Meyer Shapiro, the great art historian, called “an entrance” into the lives of West African vendors in New York City.

By examining the lives of African vendors, Money Has No Smell uncovers the hidden anthropology of African life in America. Deeply informed by Stoller’s extensive experience as a cultural anthropologist on both sides of the Atlantic, Stoller’s book gives us a fascinating glimpse of New York City’s third world urban future.

Hakim Hasan is the Director of the Audrey Cohen College Urban Institute in New York City.