Saturday, May 11, 2013

Foreword to The Women of the Hustler's Dynasty

Foreword to The Women of the Hustler's Dynasty, a discussion of the role of the women in Claude's life, love and work. 

My grandfather's profession posed curious complications that were simultaneously empowering yet still submissive and psychologically nuanced obviously. As his grand-daughter, like my mother, I was pampered and protected but also faced with demanding expectations. But of course this seems nothing when compared to my grandmother's role as Queen of his Heart. Nevertheless she was intolerant and tortured by the presence of mistresses and other women of the entourage. 

Most significant of all the women in my grandfather's life was his youngest sister, Helen* who was his only rival in terms of intelligence and worldly success in the underground economy. Her story has become legend to many in my city. I want to spend some time looking at us  to attempt to find the narrative of this extraordinary story that I have inherited. It's not a need to "make sense of things" or "seeking closure". This is strictly an exercise in recording a rich history, one that happens to be my own personal history and that of my family's. 

It is a history whose backdrop is the streets of segregated Indiana Avenue from the 1920s to beginning of 21st century. The tale is peopled with characters of all types from John Dillenger to Al Capone. My family were among the aristocrats of the criminal underworld who practiced their highly specialized craft by imbuing it with a flair and artistry and more importantly a dependability based upon reputation that earned a respect and raised the craft's success and profile. (A cheat cannot last long as a professional gambler; welsch on one bet and the word will be put out that you are a dishonest cheat who reneges. Word On the Street is lightning fast; it is the judge and jury of the ghetto whose sentence can determine one's success or failure in the underground economy.)

The Numbers, the illegal lottery, along with the legitimate businesses run by my grandfather and his sister Helen serviced the community and employed the citizens as well. Restaurants, juke joints, gambling, pawn and hock services, street loans, bootlegging and even prostitution in the very early days....

This blog is the first time I have recorded these stories which are so familiar  to me and precious. But the stories are also quite mysterious for there are many unanswered questions and the most significant players who could provide answers chose to die in silence despite repeated efforts to dissuade them. Many, many times I went to my grandfather, grandmother and great aunt to beg answers, to plead for explanation. Sometimes they answered and sometimes not. This is my first time committing this secret history to record. 

Of course it can be difficult to achieve secrecy about matters which involve and depend upon the citizens of one's own community. However there are elements of the story that have been accepted as truth which are closer to myth. Claude and Helen were savvy PR wizards and decades ahead of their time in terms of understanding that controlling the narrative is a non-negotiable power principle. Yet it must be exercised with care, without ostentation, and in secret as much as possible.   I am faced with the task of separating fact from well constructed fiction which is still much easier than trying to conjure the unknown which is a barrier that I face everytime I think on these matters. All matters that have received legal or moral censure and prohibition carry a requirement for secrecy; prohibition by way of hypocrisy demands that double standards and hidden motive function. 

I am engaged in the task of first recording the story as I know it...and unravelling the serpentine coils along the way. My history and that of my family are also the history of the 20th century in this city. Themes are woven thick and inextricably throughout: race, class, gender, labor, politics et cetera. Yet one cannot be distracted by too much academic rhetoric or one risks missing a riveting human drama. So many of those characters (they come across in my mind so vividly like characters as I write) are gone. With this narrative they come to life again.


"Under a king, a country is really ruled by women."

~Adelaide de Savoy, a favorite of King Louis XIV~

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