Written by: Alvin Baugh
In my first semester at the School of Labor and Urban Studies I was asked to read some writings by John Locke, a philosopher whose ideas are fundamental to the founding of the United States. As I read Locke, I saw an intersection between his ideas and my own life. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, adherents to Locke’s 17th century theories have allowed many Black Americans, African Americans, and descendants of African slaves to have their possessions, homes, and land robbed from them by means of deception, thievery, even murder, resulting in no generational wealth, limiting a Black family’s ability to own a home even into this 21st century.
The application of Locke’s theory of possessions and property have had negative consequences, over and over throughout my life. My family is not an anomaly. Many Black American families have had similar experiences living in this country.
My first intersection dates to approximately 1912. My maternal grandmother’s family was forcibly removed from her family’s land, in the north east corner of North Carolina, 16 miles south east of Elizabeth City, by white men who simply appeared and asked them to show papers proving ownership. Her parents and neighbors owned the land which had been passed to them, but unable to produce documents, they were forcibly removed, and her parents killed. My grandma was then raised by neighbors.
The land she was forcibly evicted from became a beach tourist area for wealthy North Carolinians. My grandma was part Native, her mother belonged to the Cherokee Meherrin tribe of Pasquotank County, NC. They were displaced from the marshlands and beaches to make way for hunting lodges. According to the Cape Hatteras City’s official history, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “Visitors first arrive on Hatteras Island in the form of wealthy hunters and fishermen. Hunt Clubs are established, including the grand, (and now long gone), 1,500-acre Gooseville Hunt Club in Hatteras Village.” This history ignores the real history and the people who inhabited the land before the “visitors” arrived.
Locke argues that people who do not use land in the best way “expressly or tacitly” give up all claim to the land, and that others who would use it more “rationally” are entitled to it. Who decides what is rational? Who determines the best use of land? The death of my great grandparents and the displacement of my grandmother from the gateway to the shores of the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras, coincides with the appearance of the wealthy hunters. If they are indeed connected, then Locke’s theory and the ideologies of wealthy men are in lockstep with one another. It was not unheard of in southern states to have your birth rights taken away by your tacit agreement, at the barrel of a gun or other implements of death.
Redlined and Segregated
Another intersection between Locke’s theories and my life took place back in 1976, soon after my father’s passing from cancer. My mother attempted to buy a home, fulfilling a dream my parents shared. While my father was alive, due to redlining and reverse redlining my family could not get a loan to purchase a home to live in their preferred neighborhood. Now armed with my father’s Postal Service Pension and an insurance payout, mom could afford to put a nice down payment, or maybe even buy a home with cash. However, she was not shown homes within our Flatbush, Midwood, Prospect Park South neighborhood. Our apartment was on the edge of the Q train tracks that divided Flatbush from Prospect Park South. The Flatbush side of the tracks were mostly apartment buildings, on the other side were large Victorian homes all built around the turn of the 20th century, owned predominately by white people.
Racism kept my mother from being shown homes in our neighborhood, instead she was shown homes in Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York and Brownsville, predominately poor crime ridden Black neighborhoods. My mother kept insisting it must be in Flatbush, Prospect Park South, Ditmas Park or Midwood or else she was not interested. To make her dream come true she changed realtors, one recommended by a fellow churchgoer. We finally got to see a home in Midwood, East 19th Street and Glenwood Road, a beautiful Victorian home, a Painted Lady in fact.
The realtor, however, became obstinate once my mother showed interest in the home, saying, “Why do you want to live here? I thought you people like to live together.” My mother’s retort, was, “Actually I believe it is you people who like to live together. I like to live where my family will be safe comfortable and together, wherever that might be. My kids all attend schools only a few blocks from here, I work nearby, within walking distance in fact, this is where we will all be comfortable.”
While we awaited an answer from the realtor for our full price offer of $55,000, my mother decided to stop by the home to speak with the owners directly. Upon being invited in, mom had a lovely conversation with the wife, after which her husband joined in. They agreed to sell the home to my mother without using a realtor. In the meantime, the realtor got wind of the whole affair, and informed the neighbors that a single parent, black family, whose mother was only working part time, and had 5 children was about to purchase the home next door. These two families got together and made an offer on the home through the realtor. The homeowners contacted my mother and told her what had happened, that they were under obligation to consider the $70,000 offer. They dropped my mother’s full price offer. We were all devastated, my mother especially. She gave up hope.
Locke saw servants as possessions, and as property. By God’s command, Locke reasons, the earth must be subdued, subjugated, otherwise it remains part of nature and no one’s possession: “God and his Reason commanded him to subdue the Earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of Life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour.” Slaves and their meager possessions, could be labored upon, subdued, removing them from nature and thus become property. This reasoning, with the blessing of God, has led to the dominion and control of Black bodies even today, making them easy prey for racial capitalists like greedy realtors, racist home owners, banking institutions, credit companies, higher education, and even the medical profession has been shown to exploit us for their own gain.
This subjugation won’t allow Black people to live where we want, even if we have the money, due to the racist European/American view of our dark skin. It’s as if Locke and his followers are saying, “you belong to us; you are our property, and you have no rights that we recognize.”
Property Values and Gentrification
Locke’s views also affected my paternal grandparents during the mid-late 1990s/early 2000s. As gentrification took hold in Park Slope many of the homes began to be sold to realtors, leaving my grandparents as one of the last Black families to live on their block. My uncle Anthony lived in the basement, his place was dark and dank, one could barely see down there to know what it really looked like. The garden apartment was occupied by my great aunt Laddie, my grandmother’s eldest sister. It was a lovely Victorian apartment with classic mid-century modern furniture. Her apartment was the best furnished of all the relatives that lived there. One flight up lived my Aunt Claudette, my dad’s twin, her husband and their two children. The third floor is where my grandparents lived, and my Aunt Loretta also lived with them. Up on the 4th floor was my Uncle Russell, his wife and their 3 children.
Unfortunately, my grandfather became ill and was unable to work. Private citizens and realtors approached him frequently with offers to buy his home at prices that were way under market value. Grandpa’s neighbor knew the ugly side of gentrification first-hand, Mr. White, after losing his job at Pfizer in Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sold his 4-story limestone for around $275,000. My grandpa wasn’t about to be ripped off. Sick as he was, he refused to sell his home at a discount. He felt his place was worth at least $325,000 and was not taking anything less. He knew that at the low end of the price spectrum he would not have been able to purchase another home with the offers he was receiving.
After grandpa’s passing, the home then went to my Uncle Russell, who soon also passed away from cancer. The home went to my aunt, who was not a very nice person and seemed to hate all her husband’s family. After observing multiple funerals within a short period of time, the sharks smelled blood in the water and came out of the depths. Realtors constantly called and stopped by asking if my aunt wanted to sell. With the big bread winners of the family gone, grandpa a nightclub owner, and my uncle an MTA bus driver, my aunt was now feeling the pressure. This went on for a few years, bills began to pile up, deferred maintenance set in, property taxes unpaid, the home went into disrepair.
While drinking an Old English malt liquor and having a smoke sitting on the stoop, grandma was approached by a particularly aggressive, rude, and condescending realtor who said, “You obviously can’t afford this home, you’re living beyond your means, and you need to sell it. Don’t you see all your neighbors upgrading their houses? Your home is substandard by comparison!” My grandmother was in the USO in 1920’s Naples, Italy. She was a wonderful songbird and an accomplished dancer and did not suffer fools gladly. Grandma ejected her from the stoop with extreme prejudice. Cursing like the sailors and army men she was constantly surrounded by in her youth, with my cousins Pookie (Alvin), Peanut (Russell), and Uncle Anthony by her side like MP’s.
The realtor was playing out the theories of Locke: “’Tis Labour then which puts the greatest part of Value upon Land, without which it would scarcely be worth anything.” The realtor thought that my family should lose the home if we could not keep up the labor to improve it.
Further, since the neighbors were increasingly all white, the racial capital aspects of the realtors’ and speculators interests, are not lost on me. Commodifying the pain of loss is nothing new for Black people. Realtors are just one of a long line of racial capitalists we have to deal with. White people see our dark skin with only dollar signs and disgust.
Rebuffed at not being able to take the home by direct assault, the realtor began to labor another way to obtain the home. She began paying the property taxes on the home, a scheme used widely at the time to take properties away from unsuspecting owners. With my aunt now in charge of the home’s affairs, no one in the family knew the full extent of the home’s financials. The scheme works like this: private citizens or realtors would pay the property taxes on a distressed property for a period of time, and then approach the homeowner with a bill for the back taxes plus exorbitant interest. If the homeowners were unable to pay, a lien would be placed on the home. Once a lien is in place, you could not sell the home without paying off the debt.
With the interest compounding, the bill quickly skyrocketed. My aunt agreed to sell the home to the realtor for $234,000, well under market value. After nearly 68 years in the home, my grandmother and Aunt Loretta had to move out, as well as the rest of the relatives. They would move to a home they did not own for the first time in their lives. We found them an apartment in my neighborhood of Flatbush where the apartments are large, hoping the space would mitigate some of the shock of moving.
Approximately eight months after the sale of my grandparents’ home it was listed in the New York Times Real Estate section for $1.3 million. I attended the open house. The home was unrecognizable, though beautifully modern, many of the period details were missing or covered up.
I experienced the pain of “private real estate” again, about 12 years ago when my Flatbush neighborhood began to gentrify. For over 20 years, I lived in a very nice and large two-bedroom two bath apartment with a 24-hour doorman. I was earning under $35,000 per year working full time for the NYC Human Resources Administration with the Civil Service title of Eligibility Specialist II. It took two paychecks to pay my rent and utilities, with my electric bill being especially egregious at, on average, $90/month owning to the ancient stove and refrigerator and makeshift wiring leading to the basement from one of the bedrooms.
After management changed hands, new owners came in with aggressive plans. However, the building fell under NYC’s Rent Stabilization Laws and owners had to adhere to those guidelines. Management requested keys to everyone’s apartment so they could renovate with new appliances, knocking down walls for the trendy open concept layout, as well as other updates. I informed management I was not interested in these updates, as I knew they would ultimately leave me on the hook for “capital improvements” and higher rent. From then on, I was harassed by management, taken to court seven times over the next couple of years, on trumped up issues. One of them was because my upstairs neighbor had an unsanctioned washing machine, and she flooded my kitchen, which leaked into the basement destroying supplies in the storeroom beneath. I was taken to court, they claimed I had damaged the walls and floors of the storeroom and destroyed supplies due to my negligence. When those tactics failed, Management stopped accepting my rent payments. I put them in escrow as I’d done in the past with “Dracula” while under a rent strike. Even with a lawyer, I eventually gave up my apartment because I was fed up with the harassment, the inaction by the court on my complaints against management, even my supervisor at work was giving me grief because I had to take so many days off, I felt that I had no choice but to leave.
My refusals to sanction the construction were tantamount to refusing to subdue the property, to refuse to improve the space. Therefore, according to Locke, “So that God, by commanding to subdue, gave Authority so far to appropriate. And the Condition of Humane Life, which requires Labour and Materials to work on, necessarily introduces private Possessions.” – John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 35
I understand that in reviewing the foregoing I am drawing but the thinnest of connections between my simplistic interpretation of Locke’s Eurocentric theories and my family. In my own defense, I am a simple guy, I do not pretend to be an academic by any stretch of one’s imagination. Still, the connection that I do see, however thin, the intersections have happened time and time again in my life. With losses to my family alone totaling into the millions; my paternal grandparent’s home in Park Slope had a recent valuation of $4.2 million, the home my mother was trying to buy was recently listed for sale at $1.8 million, and the land stolen from my maternal grandmother is currently, priceless.
Locke’s viewpoint permeated my thoughts, even prior to my learning of them, to the point that I was moved to create a triptych dedicated to my old neighborhood while pursuing an undergraduate degree in a fine arts photography program.
On the one hand Locke has helped me understand how white people might have reasoned in relation to property and possessions back in his time, and possibly prior thereto. It also helps me see that offshoots of this reasoning are still very much alive today. On the other hand, the negative consequence of his ideology continues to intersect my life and has kept my family within our current lower-class status. Most of us living from paycheck to paycheck, only able to afford rent in forgotten neighborhoods, stifling our ability to own property or locate suitable housing. Like my mother, I have also given up hope that agents of Locke and capitalism will ever do right by Black Americans in my lifetime.
Maybe it is time for CUNY students to read Cedric Robinson’s, The Making of a Black Radical Tradition (1983) instead of John Locke. This might make the next generation more understanding of the forces that Black Americans struggle against every day. With this one change, maybe Black families like mine won’t ever again be Locke’d out of our own neighborhoods again.
2John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 45
5 John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 32
Page 4- 7 John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 43
 John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 45
 John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 32
 John Locke, Second Treatise, §§ 43