There’s a clip of Paul Mooney walking through Harlem in the 125th street area with his camera crew filming the intro for one of his standup shows “Jesus is Black”. In the clip, he’s walking through the streets of Harlem, chatting it up with people and fans, shaking their hands and whatnot and then you hear his voice over the clip say “New York. ‘Cause they like being Black here. They do. They’re real comfortable with it. They’re not in denial. So that’s why I like it.”
And I couldn’t agree more.
Harlem was unapologetically Black. And still is in many ways, despite gentrification. There was just something in our air supply that made it that way. Maybe we were breathing that residual Harlem Renaissance air, I don’t know, but it could get you high and have you feeling “Super Black”. I mean, Malcolm X and Dr. King came to Harlem all the time, the former taking his last breath in the nearby area of Washington Heights. That’s history. And Harlem is home to the historic Schomburg Center, the only place of its kind that is dedicated to preserving Black history and culture. That’s spirit.
I remember going to grade school in Harlem and seeing pieces of kente cloth regularly (not just for the obligatory public school Black History Month “celebration”) interwoven into the school hallway/bulletin board decor, usually to celebrate an event like students making honor roll for the marking period. I know that it sounds like the ultimate of cliches but it’s kind of a big deal when you’re a Black child in the American school system who is only taught to connect their African ancestry with savagery, pain, slavery, suffering, and disgrace yet your school and larger community is trying to give you a tangible reminder- in the form of kente cloth- that there is waaaay more to the story, to your identity and to the African continent than that. It was like leaving us bread crumbs to follow. Granted, there weren’t any formal lessons on what kente cloth was, what it meant, or which country it came from but we knew it was African, it was somehow part of our collective legacy, it was connected to celebration and it was something to take pride in.
I remember one school year, my teacher taught us the Black classic McFadden and Whitehead song “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” for one of our school annual performances (remember school performances? Those were fun). At the time, it didn’t seem that important but looking back I realized that that simple act of our Black teacher teaching her Black students a Black American classic was her way-Harlem’s way- of telling us Black kids that we had our own unique culture and music that was worth celebrating and preserving and passing down. And every single school assembly was opened with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the singing of the Black National Anthem (everyone’s favorite part of assembly). To me, this is the equivalent of Greek parents sending their children to Greek schools where they learned Greek songs or Jewish students learning songs in Hebrew. We didn’t have formal “Black” or “African-American” schools so we worked with what we had.
One year Stevie Wonder did a week tour in Harlem when I was a child, so this was like in the late 80’s, or very early 90’s. And during his tour, he came through to visit some of the schools to do music classes with the kids. And guess what? He came to my classroom! Yup. Stevie. Wonder. A living legend. In my classroom. I get to have that memory with me until I die, thanks to Harlem.
Every single year, our local drugstore (with Black pharmacists, I might add) would put out the “African American Historical Calendar” with each month highlighting an important figure in Black history. I grew up using these calendars and even though I haven’t lived in Harlem for years, my Great-aunt actually sent me this year’s calendar. It’s like a mini-tradition, I guess.
And somehow despite being located in the major, booming borough of Manhattan, Harlem had this Black small-town feel to it. Like, greeting each other was customary and pretty much expected. Residuals of our southern roots, no doubt. Even though street harassment is and has always been annoying and scary sometimes, I can honestly say that in Harlem, I’ve encountered plenty of men who knew how to just greet a woman without being ridiculous. Many Harlem dudes knew how to look a woman in the eye and offer a simple, non-intrusive “Hey Sister, how you doing?” type of greeting and keep it moving. Appreciated, fellas.
Don’t get me wrong, Harlem was not without blemish. Harlem had its share of serious problems, especially for the generation that came up right before mine. But, for me, Harlem had other things that made up for it’s shitty parts. When you’re a Black girl growing up in a country that says you aren’t as smart, as talented or as valuable as non-Black people, it means something when your school’s Principal and Assistant Principal are both Black women. It means something when your local drugstore provides yearly reminders of your cultural history and significance in the form of a calendar. When society says that Black people don’t achieve much in America or squander their opportunities, it means something when you grow up going to a Black owned dental practice. When Hollywood whitewashes the hell out of every single movie, tv show, etc., it matters when your community has a local theatre boldly and unapologetically named “The National Black Theatre” -which was founded by a Black woman- and you have access to events and programs for the family that showcase Black talent and tell Black stories. When society tries to erase Black history and cultural contributions and achievements from the record, it matters that your downtown area has a state office building named after a prominent Black figure and that same state office building was designed by an African-American architect.
I guess I am writing this piece because I miss old Harlem and am feeling a bit nostalgic. But more importantly I want to thank Harlem by acknowledging the ways that it helped mold my identity and instilled a strong sense of cultural pride in me without me even realizing it. And reflecting on that and seeing the rapid changes in Harlem is a reminder to not take certain things (person, places, or experiences) for granted because it may not always be there. There were so many amazing things I learned about Harlem after I left that I wish I had known while I lived there (like that a Black architect designed the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building). I can’t really put years of life experiences into a single blog post to truly convey what Harlem has done for me in molding me into the person I am today. I could go on and on- with both the good and the bad. This single post doesn’t really do it justice. But I am really happy I was able to call Harlem home. So this is a salute to you, Harlem- the place where I first learned that Black lives matter.
Photo: My own.