The Contender by Robert Lipsyte Background to understanding setting

Do Now
In three to five sentences, describe
what emotions this portrait evokes?
What message might the photographer be sending?
The Contender
by Robert Lipsyte
The novel is set in
in the early 1960s.
Harlem is a large, historically black neighborhood, stretching almost river to
river in northern Manhattan. It was named by the Dutch settlers after the city
of Haarlem in the Netherlands.
The heart of
Harlem is
125th Street
and Malcolm
X Boulevard.
extends to
northern tip
of Central
Park, where
the cave
Alfred Brooks
and his friend
James hideout
in THE
Harlem history
Why was this a magnet area
for African Americans?
1) Life in the South was pretty awful. Economically, there were
very few opportunities. Although blacks were emancipated,
many could only find work farming on white lands as poor
2) They faced institutionalized racism, meaning that by law
blacks and whites were kept separate in public. There were
black and white water fountains, black and white restrooms,
black and white schools, etc. Inevitably, the black facilities
were far worse. The system of segregation, keeping blacks
and whites separate, was held up by so-called Jim Crow laws.
3) Sometimes to “teach a lesson,” a lynch mob of Southern
whites would round up a black man and murder him, usually
by hanging. This horrific practice was known as lynching.
A backbreaking way to make a poor living…
Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow Laws
In some courtrooms in the South, there were separate white and
black bibles for taking the oath as a witness…
Map of Lynching by Region
Naturally, millions left the South
Naturally, millions left the South
Great Migration
• Between 1910 and 1930, cities such as New York,
Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland saw their AfricanAmerican populations grow by about 40 percent,
and the number of African-Americans employed
in industrial jobs nearly doubled.
• In the 1920s, Harlem's African-American
population exploded — with nearly 200,000
African Americans inhabiting a neighborhood
where there had been virtually no blacks 15 years
The Contender is set after the golden age of Harlem and
before the riots and unrest of the Civil Rights era.
Civil Rights
Riots and
Harlem Renaissance, 1918 – 1937
The golden age of Harlem, when thousands poured in
from the South and the arts flourished
Langston Hughes,
Countee Cullen, poet
Zora Neale Hurston, writer
Harlem Renaissance, 1918 – 1937
Jazz musicians and clubs
Harlem Renaissance, 1918 – 1937
Jazz musicians and clubs
Harlem Renaissance, 1918 – 1937
Jazz musicians and clubs
Duke Ellington and his band
The Harlem Renaissance was great while it lasted but
afterwards, the area started to slide downwards…
White landlords rented tenement buildings
(substandard apartments) in Harlem plagued by
rats, roaches, bad plumbing, chipped paint and
falling plaster. Other urban problems included:
high infant mortality
drug addiction
high rates of unemployment and crime
substandard schools
There were a few ways out of the despair felt by many residents
of Harlem at this time…
• Get a good job and move out to nicer areas,
like Queens (as represented in The Contender
by Alfred’s Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Wilson)
• Do really well in school (as represented by
Alfred’s cousin Jeff) and go to college
• Become a pro boxer (What Alfred Brooks tries
to do in The Contender)
Many turned to religion for hope or guidance…
In the novel, you will see competing
religions Malcolm X
Aunt Pearl attends a storefront church…
There are black nationalists in the book,
representing the Nation of Islam
The Contender is set just
before the unrest of the
mid-1960s, when many
big cities across the
country, from Detroit to
LA to New York, would
experience protests
against the conditions in
black ghettoes.
This picture is from the
1964 riot in Harlem.
Street scenes of Harlem from the time period of
The Contender
These incredible pictures are by Gordon Parks, a famous
African American photographer associated with Harlem.
Street scenes
Your Do Now also featured this
Gordon Parks photo

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