After the tragic death of Freddie Gray in 2015, Dr. Lawrence Brown fired off a bunch of tweets; as @bmoredoc, he connects with over 15,000 Twitter followers. He could clearly see what the issue was and he had to research to prove it. It was not long after that that the Acquisitions Editor for Johns Hopkins University Press reached out to him. Brown was onto something.
The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America is a complex book that will both intrigue and shock you. You will find yourself both grateful for his research and frustrated that it hasn’t yet reached the right hands. It’s not every day that a blueprint is created to directly address the issues of an urban city. This book is not only an eye-opener, but also a call to action, and a reminder of the work that needs to be done to heal a city with many open wounds.
Brown, an Arkansas native, landed in Baltimore back in 2010 to complete his post-doctoral fellowship at Morgan State University. In 2020, he became the Director of Law County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program in the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. And just recently he returned to Morgan to get Center for Urban Health Equity up and running.
The title of Brown’s book refers to the shape that outlines the deeply segregated regions of Baltimore City. When looking on a map the mostly black populated East and West sides of Baltimore create the shape of a butterfly. Inside of the butterfly is the “white L”, the predominately white sectors of the city. We sat down with Dr. Lawrence Brown on a snowy afternoon to discuss his thoughts on race, equity, and the Black Butterfly.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Can you tell me a little about how the Black Butterfly project manifested and how long you’ve worked on it?
Lawrence Brown: Well, it started because the acquisitions editor of Johns Hopkins University Press saw me blathering and posting away on Twitter and always sort of talking about how the political establishment was reinforcing and maintaining Baltimore Apartheid. And I would often talk about the way that things could be done better, or about the dismantling or uprooting the black community.
After the uprising in April 2015, a lot of people went into overdrive, trying to do volunteerism. People outside of the Black Butterfly were saying, “I’m really going to help this time. This time it’s going to be different.”
Ferguson was the year before. You had St. Louis and Milwaukee in 2017. Baton Rouge had an uprising in 2016. It was a wave of urban uprisings that were popping off, a season of uprising. A lot of times it happened when grand juries wouldn’t indict police officers who killed unarmed black people. I was talking about racial segregation being the root of all this…how hyper-segregation was breeding hyper-policing. It’s creating this cauldron for these conflicts and these fatal police shootings. After I signed the contract in 2017, I spent three and a half years researching and writing and then a few months getting everything else done.
Baltimore Fishbowl: So, you mentioned Baltimore Apartheid. What did you mean when you coined that term?
Lawrence Brown: I’m leaning on previous scholars who were already talking about this. I go with the Mindy Fuller Love definition. Racially segregating people, concentrating them into communities and then uprooting them over and over again, urban renewal, building highways in the middle of the black community, demolishing public housing, and then dispersing residents all over the place.
To build public housing back in the 1930s and 1940s, they cleared out slums to build some of the housing projects that we see today. You had an uprooting to build the initial public housing. Pigtown had an uprooting in the 1880s down by the B & O Railroad. And across from Mercy Hospital, there used to be a black community there and they pushed them out of the way. And now there’s a park there called Preston Gardens. In Baltimore, that’s happened over and over again.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You talk a lot about the White L and the Black Butterfly. How did you come up with this idea?
Lawrence Brown: I was looking at a racial dot map of Baltimore. That map was created by a scholar named Dustin Cable, who used to be at the University of Virginia. It was a map of the entire United States online. I zoomed in on Baltimore one day in 2015. I was looking at Baltimore and his map doesn’t have the boundaries for the cities. So, I decided to draw the boundaries of Baltimore on this map, so I could share on social media. As soon as I did that, I was like “whoa.”
A few months before that Kendrick Lamar had come out with this album To Pimp a Butterfly. And I was thinking about that analogy… how you can have something beautiful that gets exploited. At the same time, it’s a butterfly and it’s beautiful. It represents potential especially when it’s a caterpillar.
It had a nice ring to it. It was a metaphor for potential. It brings beauty to the top of people’s mind. It’s a counter narrative. People usually think of black neighborhoods as pathologically blighted with no potential.
The interesting thing about it is artists picked up on it, and they started to run with it. Like one graffiti artist spray painted a black butterfly with an “L” next to it on a building in Woodberry next to I-83. He drew a white L and a big black butterfly.
Chris Wilson also painted a big black butterfly. I believe he sold it for a great price. Artists picked it up and made it popular. When they started to pick it up, it took on a different life. It really took flight. That was the thing that really made it popular. I was using it on social media of course, but when the artists started picking it up it took on a different dimension.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You give your definition of racial equity, what do you think these government officials and organizations really mean by racial equity?
Lawrence Brown: People outside of the Black freedom struggle, outside of Black Lives Matter — whether they are philanthropists, nonprofits, governments — when those entities are using it, they are talking about racial disparities and they tend to talk about looking at issues with black folks with a “lens” or “perspective.” I don’t know what this lens is supposed to do but most times it leads to no actions, policies, practices, systems or budgets. You got to actually do something. It doesn’t start until you actually make transformative changes.
Having a conversation about racial disparities is not racial equity. You have to actually do something. It doesn’t start until you make policy, practice, systemic or budgetary changes. It’s a 5-step process to doing this that I go over in the book.
Baltimore Fishbowl: How important is Morgan State University to you?
Lawrence Brown: It meant a lot to me to have Morgan in the story. There are multiple ways that Morgan shows up. Like George McMechen, when they first did the residential racial zoning law. McMechen Hall was named after that guy after he moved into a white block and was attacked. They pushed a law because of him.
You had Morgan trying to move to Mt. Washington. Then they tried to move to Lauraville and they tried to block them there. The legal cases support Morgan and that’s where Morgan is today. Morgan was the blueprint for the civil rights movement. The sit-ins and demonstrations, desegregating the eateries and shops at Northwood plaza. Before Greensboro, Morgan students were doing that in the 1940s and ’50s. That was the other thing that I felt excited to do. I was at Morgan when I wrote the book and I’m back there now. I think I basically showed Morgan is at the heart of the civil rights story for black people in America. Morgan should get its due for the way in which it played such a central role in the story of civil rights in America.
Baltimore Fishbowl: That sounds like your next book. What’s next for you?
Lawrence Brown: I’m trying to rest. I don’t know when or if I’ll write another book like this. Maybe five years from now I’ll be like I’m getting the itch. It was just a moment in my life where I was able to zero in on. I don’t know if I’ll be willing to make those sacrifices again.
This is the best thing I’ve done that’s scholarly and maybe the best thing I’ll ever do. I don’t know that I can top this. I don’t know if I want to try. This is it. I’ve said what I wanted say.
I would like to do a coffee table book to complement this. The visual guide with images and maps. Something fun and leisurely. That’s my personal hope.
The other thing I’m working on right now is a music project. I want to get spoken word artists from Baltimore together on a project. Baltimore spoken word artists are these truth tellers. I would love to have them and some Baltimore rappers be on a project. I want to uplift some of the artists that deserve much more accolades and limelight—from a political standpoint. Of course, Baltimore slam poets are renowned and politically, they have been saying a lot of this stuff. And they are always sharply critiquing. So, don’t just appreciate their art form but their message is really powerful. I’m a poor musician, but I will see what I can do to put this together.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Well, they have YouTube for that. You can teach yourself any skill you’d like.
Lawrence Brown: That’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been on YouTube trying to learn all this stuff.
Dr. Brown was in conversation at the Enoch Pratt Library on February 17. Watch the event on the library’s Facebook page at any time. Information and links are here.