Wanda Coleman’s “The Riot Inside Me”

In The Riot Inside Me, Wanda Coleman’s understanding of space and place in South-Central Los Angeles constitutes a distinct power dynamic which works to systematically oppress the Watts community. For instance, Coleman frequently describes her community, as well as her place in it, in spatial terms. While offering information about her father and mother, she states that they, “hung on the periphery” of a select social circle “of coloreds who had seemingly gained entree into the White world” (248). Here, Coleman observes socially constructed, and internalized, boundaries which work to define her family, the community, and the “White world”. Not only are her parents detached from the “White world”, but they are also only affiliated through peripheral contact with a few people, Coleman refers to as “coloreds,” who have “gained entree.” This understanding of the social ladder depicts a hierarchy among the community which favors the “White world,” as those who have access to it are a select few who possess a certain skill; she refers to these members as the “talented tenth” (Coleman 248). Of her life outside the home, Coleman states that she “lived in a White world” where she had little agency over her own place in space. She states, “The hands of teachers — females — were rough as they snatched my forearms to move me away from one spot or to another, one place to another, without any explanation except ‘You belong over here.'” (249). In this instance Coleman is literally being transferred from place to place, or from “one spot . . . to another” and specifically told where she “belongs” by “White authorities” (249). In this way, social and physical constructs of space determined by “White authorities,” in the case of Coleman in grade school, and internalized by the black community demonstrated by Coleman’s explanation of her parents in relation to the community, play a major role in maintaining power-positions between marginalized communities and dominant authority figures. In examining the conditions of Watts, and the uprising of 1965, the dense population of the community of South-Central with its lack of space, the displacement of Black communities by means of Mexican immigrants (as identified by Coleman), and the “restricted housing” which Coleman argues, “crippled their chances for economic stability” are all factors which contribute to the systematic oppression of the Black community in Los Angeles.
Moving forward, it is important to realize ways in which space is not neutral, and how the way it is designated, controlled, manipulated by those in power, and sequentially internalized. This is something that cannot be ignored when understanding the Watts Uprising and the community in Watts today. Questions to consider further would be: How does designating a certain space as a “Food Desert” tell a narrative which does an injustice to a community? What kind of narrative does the spatial of positioning of bodies in Jorja Leap’s video tell?  

3 comments on “Wanda Coleman’s “The Riot Inside Me”
  1. Alex’s brilliant observation of the power of space is an excellent reimagining of the powers at play within the South Central Los Angeles communities. I’d like to go further into a connection between the space that Coleman outlines, and how the spaces of North and South merged in the Emmett Till murder. Alex points out Coleman’s mother and father “hung on the periphery” of white societies, specially placing them first on the brink of social acceptance by whites. Coleman saw that their place was still precarious, that her parents “hung on” to this social spacial placement, but this was lost when the Southern African Americans began to swamp the South Central LA area. They lost it, as Alex explains, due to loss of housing, that they were not able to stay spacialy close to their social circles to which they “hung.” And Coleman blamed her classmates, the Southern Blacks (as Gabe points out) for her loses, and her growing yet not understood agitation with her own race, those who came from a different area, the south, than whom she was more acquainted with: the blacks who were the select few allowed to hang on the periphery of white society.
    This clashing of the southern blacks and SoCal blacks, their pains of finding ways to settle (which, as we have heard from Kevin and Anthony, it can be argued have not come to pass due to the systematic beaucratic suppression of South Central blacks), is reflective of the issues that the nation saw with the murder of Emmett Till.
    Emmett Till, from Chicago (or the North), was visitinging his grandfather in Mississippi, a Southern state, when he whistled at a white woman and was kidnapped and murdered for this “crime” against, if I may, “Southern decency.” This understanding of Emmett’s “crime” can be argued as a distinctly Southern mentality, one that Emmett from Chicago did not understand as being something he could be punished for while in the boundaries of the South. His northern understanding of his place in white society may have differed from that of the south, a placement that is most effectively seen through Jim Crow laws of the south (however it must be stated that the north did have their violent crimes against blacks also, but it was not as blatantly legal as the southern states until the Civil Rights Act). While Emmett was more than likely subjected to subpar treatment by whites, possibly the same as Coleman experienced, I would argue it was not nearly as hard and harsh as the southern states (as seen since the founding of the Jim Crow laws there was a fleeing of blacks from these hard laws to the north and the west). When Till went to Mississippi his actions were seen as a violation by the southern white men that killed him. This was then a violent reaffirmation, especailly after four years without a lynching, of the power of whites over blacks, of the distinctions between acceptable actions in the north versus the south, and the reprimands that were carried out. With Alex’s explination of spacial power, I see the murder was a merging and clash of north and south through the actions of the two different communities and their understanding of power disparities between the races, and the differences of that power over the Mason Dixon line.

  2. Alex, your discussion of space and the manner in which it contributes to the the systematic oppression of Blacks is followed perfectly by your question of Food Deserts. This reminds me of the conversation we had at the SCL and the manner in which certain labels become attached to a community so much so that the community itself will perpetuate them.

    As Yusef continually mentioned, these initiatives, these movements that are created to aid the community do not address the actual issues. Labeling a space as a Food Desert which the USDA defines as, “… parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers”. Here the inability to attain fresh fruits and vegetables is simply attributed to inaccessibility. Yet this is completely devoid of context. There has been a shift in the popularization of health food stores and farmers markets as initiatives such as these begin to bring them into South Central LA, but is it not more of a disservice when the financial issue, when the real matter is never addressed? Like many of the initiatives that are designed to aid communities in need they simply graze the surface of the true problems. It is as if they are created to distract the public from the true and more urgent issues. Our conversations at the SCL really put somethings into perspective for me as I thought it was a great idea to bring more farmers markets into the “low income” areas of LA. Yet now I ask how has the label of Food Desert and the “availability” of fruits and vegetables truly helped those who are impoverished? Also what does it do to have community members themselves standup and makes claims that aid in popularizing initiatives that simple graze the surface of the problem. As you have said there are many factors that contribute to the continued marginalization of communities and space as well as the labels that are associated to those spaces are instrumental in that.

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