This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to experience Fourth of July weekend in New York City. I was even luckier to be able to stay with a friend who lives in Harlem, just blocks away from the Apollo Theater.
There I was, in this legendary place that creative greats like Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellison had waxed poetic about. I couldn’t wait to see the Apollo Theater first hand and maybe even try out the infamous Sylvia’s Restaurant.
But suddenly, as I’m walking down the street, I feel 50 curious eyes on the back of my neck. As I turn around to figure out where that creepy feeling could possibly be coming from, I found myself face to face with a double-decker bus filled with white tourists. I was like a deer-caught in the headlights… literally. They were leaning out the windows and over the railings, taking pictures of me and every other black person on the street.
It was like I was at the zoo… except I was the animal.
And in that moment, I became aware of the multiciplicity of not only these tour buses, but the “walking-tour groups.” Promising tourists an exotic taste of the “real Harlem.” Of course the irony being that the tours rarely ventured past the gentrified Lennox Ave.
I found myself angry, “how dare they,” I thought, “I’m not animal!”
But I couldn’t help but be struck with the reality that this type of voyeurism has been an American intoxicant for decades (at least). The most obvious being 1920’s Harlem, eloquently described by the aforementioned Ellison, as a haven for white’s to participate in debauchery deemed to inappropriate to be engaged in, in white company. White’s would travel to Harlem to absorb and appropriate the cultural energy of the inhabitants, as well as to assuage whatever addiction they may have had.
Although this behavior is deeply disturbing, particularly in the way it continues to go unchecked in today’s Harlem. It occurs to me that facebook may serve similar purposes across populations.
All of us “know somebody,” who has spent hours perusing through the photo album’s of others, on some level or another, living vicariously through the life presented on the web. Even more strikingly, it seems that functions like “honesty boxes” (a facebook application that allows you to leave anonymous messages to the user who installs the program on his or her page), facilitate the type of “anonymous” debauchery that characterized the behavior of white’s in 1920’s Harlem.
Even newer social networking sites like twitter, that allow instant updates of every step an individual takes throughout the day (that can now include photos and video), seem to encourage a type of anonymous voyeurism that in some ways can be problematic. In the same way that the tour buses that run through Harlem allow the tourists an anonymous distance that gives them the freedom to treat its residents like animals. I can’t help but wonder if the anonymity of facebook, twitter, myspace, etc (at least anonymous in the sense that you can’t know if somebody is watching you), provide a type of emotional and psychological space from those being viewed that can encourage socially aberrant behavior.
It seems at least worth thinking about.