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1 Unfair Housing Today, in the very eye of the storm of the Negro revolution the ghetto stands—largely unassailed—as the rock upon which rests [sic] segregated living patterns which pervade and vitiate almost every phase of Negro life and Negro-­ white relationships. —From “A Housing Program for All Americans,” National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, Ten-­ Year Plan, October 6, 1964 A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the moon) Her face and arms began to swell (and Whitey’s on the moon) I can’t pay no doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon) Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still (while Whitey’s on the moon) The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night (’cause Whitey’s on the moon) No hot water, no toilets, no lights (but Whitey’s on the moon) I wonder why he’s uppin’ me? (’cause Whitey’s on the moon?) I was already payin’ ’im fifty a week (with Whitey on the moon) —Gil Scott-­ Heron, “Whitey on the Moon,” 1969 In August 1967, nearly two weeks after an uprising in Detroit had prompted the first deployment of federal troops in an American city since the Civil War, dozens of demonstrators burst into the chamber of the House of Representatives chanting, “Rats cause riots!”1 Just days before, Congress had rejected a two-­year, $40-­million bill to exterminate rats in the inner city, and in response the protestors sat in the gallery of the hall for twenty minutes, repeating the slogan “We want a rat bill!” at progressively higher volumes. The previous attempt at passing 26 Unfair Housing the bill had not been merely voted down but ridiculed in the process. A Virginia Republican made a mockery of the legislation, saying, “Mr. Speaker, I think the ‘rat’ smart thing for us to do is to vote this rat bill, ‘rat’ now,” while other white representatives filled the Congress with howls of laughter, referring to the rat legislation as “another civil ‘rats’ bill.”2 No laughing matter for the people who lived in the inner city, rats were the most visceral example of the unequal living conditions forced onto Black people .3 In the 1960s, African American media regularly reported on rat attacks on the most vulnerable members of Black urban households—the children. Loraine McTush, a single African American mother, complained to a Chicago Defender reporter that she stayed up most nights because of rats—the rats crawling in her bed, which made her nervous, and the rats in her children’s beds, which terrified her: “They . . . get into the bunk beds, and so I sit up all night. I am miserable and afraid.” McTush received an eviction notice shortly after her story appeared in the newspaper.4 Days after Thelma Earl was released from a hospital in Washington, D.C., recovering from rat bites, her landlord served her with an eviction notice as well. Earl, an African American single mother of ten children, had forgone reporting the bites on herself and her children previously for fear the hospital would inform the authorities: “I’ve been bitten by rats before and so have my babies. But I never reported it because I was afraid an eviction would happen. But you got no choice when you go to the hospital. Now I can’t find another place to live and sometimes I think I should have died of rat poison at home.”5 Popular Washington Post columnist Jimmy Breslin went to East Harlem and interviewed a Puerto Rican couple, Ebro and Cathy Marrero, about the condition of their building. During the interview, two rats darted out of the kitchen into the bathroom. Breslin asked why they did not just put poison down. The father explained, “The children. You cannot have traps and poison around the babies.” He went on to describe how he and his wife protected their kids from the rats: “Our baby is only three weeks old. We keep him in the bed with us. The other two, we have the crib set up high. No rats come there so far, but you still can’t leave the baby alone.” Breslin described the sound of rats scratching through the kitchen wall as “the sound you carry with you for the rest of your life. It is something heard by poor people in every poor neighborhood in every city in the nation.”6 Rosie and R. V. Townes and their two small children...


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MARC Record
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