Archive for the ‘Harlem’ Category

AliciaKeysAlicia Cook (c. 1979- ), better known by her stage name of Alicia Keys, was one of the top American R&B singers of the 2000s. She is best known for “Fallin'” (2001) , which made her name and is still her most unforgettable song to date. Smokey Robinson says she is one of the best new singers.

So far six of her songs have hit number one on the American R&B chart:

  • 2001: Fallin’
  • 2003; You Don’t Know My Name
  • 2004: If I Ain’t Got You
  • 2004: My Boo (with Usher)
  • 2007: No One
  • 2008: Like You’ll Never See Me Again

“Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair” never hit number one.

Half these songs also hit number one on the American pop chart:  “Fallin'”, “My Boo” and “No One”.

For comparison, during this same period Beyonce had five number one hits on both the R&B and pop charts in America and Mariah Carey had three each.

Mariah and Beyonce have sold way more records than Alicia Keys: they have been at it longer and their music crosses over to white audiences better.

Alicia Keys is not only talented and successful but beautiful – one of the most beautiful black women according to white people. She is half Italian by blood and looks nearly white.

Her father is black (Jamaican); her mother is white (Italian-American). She considers herself to be black, not biracial or mixed race. Unlike with Mariah Carey, it has never been a question. Also, unlike Carey, her early music was more clearly black too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents split when she was two. She saw little of her father, a flight attendant, though he did remain in her life. Her mother was often poor but somehow she always found money for Alicia’s piano lessons. Alicia:

I’ve had a deep love for music since I was four… . Music came before everything, everything, everything. I would risk everything for it.

By seven she could play classical piano. By 11 she was writing songs. One of the songs on her first album she wrote at 14. She continued to learn and practise her singing and piano.

In 1997 she got a record deal with Columbia Records – and dropped out of Columbia University. But then Columbia Records did what they did to Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen before her: tried to make her into someone else:

I felt that they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah or Whitney, and I couldn’t do that. I’m not the sequined dress type, or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I’m not coming like that for no one.

They parted ways.

Clive Davis, the very man who brought us Whitney Houston, stepped in. He was struck by her talent and beauty. She was struck by how he took her seriously.

After many delays – Davis was kicked out of Arista and formed J Records, bringing Keys with him – she completed her first album in 2001. “Nothing before its time,” she says. Davis got her on Oprah’s television show and the rest is history.

– Abagond, 2009.

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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Edmund Perry

EdmundPerryEdmund Perry (c. 1968-1985), a 17-year-old black boy, was shot dead on June 12th 1985 by Lee Van Houten, a white plainclothes policeman,  a few blocks from where Perry lived on West 114th Street in Harlem. The New York Times does not ordinarily report murder north of 96th Street, but this time they did: Perry, it turned out, had just graduated from Exeter, one of the top private schools in America, and was set to go to Stanford University.

At first it seemed like yet another case of an out-of-control policeman who held black life too cheaply. But it turned out not to be so simple: Perry, according to witnesses, was trying to rob Van Houten! With his brother Jonah, no less, who was an engineering student at Cornell at the time! Jonah was later tried and found not guilty. Van Houten’s shooting was ruled justifiable.

Robert Sam Anson, a white writer for Life magazine, had a son at Exeter who knew Perry. Anson wondered what on earth would possess Perry, with such a bright future, to throw it all away by robbing someone.

After ruling out a police cover-up, Anson asked Perry’s friends and neighbours about him. They always had such nice things to say. At Exeter it was the same. But all the nice things they said did not add up. In time he found that Perry had been selling drugs at Exeter. But that only deepened the mystery.

Exeter was not a great place for blacks. One black student said they were a kind of minstrel show put on to give white students a sense of diversity: “By God, their kids are going to be well-rounded. They’re going to have Rossignol skis and Lange boots and a black roommate for ‘an experience.'”

It seems the racism at Exeter affected Perry far more profoundly than the other black students. It consumed him with anger and made him a radical, one who saw Martin Luther King as a sell-out.

His white teachers and classmates did not understand him: every time he tried to open up and be honest with them he wound up hurting their feelings. He could not talk to them. The only people who understood him were black students and the one white teacher who had grown up in Harlem. But they could not help him.

Perry did not fit in at Exeter, and yet Exeter changed him so much that he had a hard time fitting in with Harlem.  He was torn between two worlds with no place to call home.

Anson made all this into a book, “Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry” (1987), but in the end he had no answers. Michael Eric Dyson, who could have wound up becoming another Perry himself, said it was because Anson did not try to understand the black world that Perry came from, so he could not understand Perry or his anger.

The book was turned into a made-for-television film, “Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story” (1992).

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Kelis_7Kelis Rogers (1979- ), better known as just Kelis, is an American R&B singer. She is best known for “Milkshake” (2003): “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like, it’s better than yours. Damn right, it’s better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge.”

Her two other top ten hits on the American R&B charts are: “Caught Out There” (1999), the one where she says “I hate you so much right now!” over and over, and “Bossy” (2006).

No one knows why, but her music does way better in Britain than in America. Maybe it is her hair. I first heard her on Virgin Radio from London (the same is true for Macy Gray). Not only did “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There”  make the top ten in Britain, so did “Trick Me” (2004),  “Millionaire” (2004) with Andre 3000 and “Lil Star” (2007) with Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley, songs  largely unknown in the States.

Kelis Trick meKelis ft. Andre 3000 - MillionaireKelis - Lil Star

Her next album comes out later this year (2009).

She has been married to rapper Nas since 2005, but separated from him in May 2009 and filed for divorce. This came just two months before she is expected to give birth to their son! She suspects him of seeing other women. They met in 2002 at a party after the MTV Video Music Awards. Before that she was just a fan of his.

She grew up in Harlem in New York. Her father was a jazz musician and her mother a fashion designer. Her father is black, her mother is Puerto Rican and Chinese. Her name comes from putting their two names together: Kenneth + Eveliss = Kelis. It rhymes with “police”.

She went to a private school in Manhattan where most people were white and did not understand her. At 13 she cut off her hair and when it grew back she started colouring it blue, green, platinum and pink, something she is known for even now. Her natural hair is Type 3 (pictured above).

Growing up she sang at church and learned to play the piano, violin and saxophone. At 16 she got in to the La Guardia High School for the Arts, a magnet high school in New York. But just then she was kicked out of the house for reasons unclear and had to support herself.

At high school she formed a singing trio, BLU (Black Ladies United). It did not go anywhere but one thing led to another and it brought her to the attention of the Neptunes – Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. With them she was able to land a recording contract with Virgin in 1998. They wrote and produced her first two hits, “Caught Out There” and “Milkshake” and much of her early music.

Kelis about her music:

Am I R&B because I’m Black? Am I pop because I have a song called “Milkshake”? Or can I just be who the hell I am? Good Lord, people make it seem like we’re doing heart transplants here, but we’re just making music!


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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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malcolmx04Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of two main black leaders in America in the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. They were both ministers, King a Christian, X a Muslim, and they both wanted equal rights for blacks, but they disagreed about how it could be achieved: King said it could be done through peaceful protest, Malcolm X said, “Give me a .45 calibre, then I’ll sing ‘We Shall Overcome'”.

Some words and catchphrases that either started with Malcolm X or came to mainstream American society through him:

  • the ballot or the bullet: the two ways to achieve power.
  • white devils: whites as having an inborn evil nature unlike blacks.
  • black power: the only way blacks can control their own destiny.
  • by any means necessary: blacks must defend themselves with violence if necessary.
  • chickens coming home to roost: why John Kennedy got shot.

For most of his life Malcolm X thought that blacks would never get a fair deal from white society, certainly not so long as they remained poor and powerless. They needed their own businesses, their own way of thinking, their own men with guns and, in the end, their own nation.

Blacks should separate from whites: whites cannot be trusted, whites will not give up power willingly. The way whites think suits them, not blacks. Trying to be white or act white or become a part of white society was not the answer – that was a game where only whites could win.

Much of this thinking he got from his father, a poor country preacher who spread the message of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to build a black society in America independent of white society and then return to Africa.

Malcolm’s father was killed by white men who did not like what he was telling black people. Later his mother had a breakdown and was sent away.

He turned to a life of crime and wound up in prison. There he discovered the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims. It gave his life purpose and direction. It made him proud to be black. He stopped straightening his hair, something black men did back in those days (think James Brown or Al Sharpton). He started reading seriously.

Later, after he got out of prison, he became one of the top ministers of the Nation of Islam. It grew from 500 followers to 30,000. His mosque was at 116th and Lenox in Harlem. It stands there still with its green dome.

Despite his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam, they had a falling out. He left and started his own mosques.

Then he went to Mecca.

And there for the first time in his life he saw black men and brown men and white men living together as brothers, as one. It blew his mind. He now knew that all the racism he had lived under in America all his life did not have to be.

But not long after he was shot dead. At age 39.

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Eartha Kitt (1927-2008), American singer and actress from the 1950s and 1960s. She is best remembered for singing “Santa Baby” and playing Catwoman. She was one of the most famous black women in the world in her day. In 1952 the New York Times said, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.” Her sort of music fell out of fashion in the late 1950s with the rise of R&B and rock and roll.

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Brittany “Bre” Scullark (1985- ) is an American fashion model for the Ford modelling agency. In 2005 she came in third place on season five of Tyra Banks’s television show “America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM). In 2008 you sometimes see her on the “Tyra Banks Show”, as beautiful as ever. What eyes! And what amazing cheeks!

“Bre” (sounds like “Bree”) is what her friends have long called her.

After the show she landed a print modelling contract for Dark and Lovely hair colouring, appearing on their boxes. She has modelled for Prada, Valentino and Nicole Miller. She has been in television ads for Target, Old Navy and Pantene and is a spokesmodel for Ambi Skincare.

Magazines she has appeared in, among others: Vibe (June 2006), Essence, ElleGirl, CosmoGirl (June/July 2008), Hype Hair, Mahogany, Cover and Six Degrees.

You can see her in the music video “Change Me” by Ruben Studdard.

She has also been a television presenter on the show “Certified” for Music Choice. She is good on camera – or maybe it just seems that way to me because I am so taken by her beauty.

She is from New York, growing up in Harlem, which she has seen go from crack to Starbucks. She goes to the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

She had always wanted to be a model, but she never thought it would come to pass. But then one day she went down to Macy’s to try out for “America’s Next Top Model”. She and 2400 other women! That night she slept on cardboard on the pavement to keep her place in line. The next day she tried out. They kept calling her back and calling her back and then they sent her to Los Angeles: she had beat out 36,000 women all across the country for a place on the show!

Although she came a long way on the show, the judges felt that Nicole Linkletter and even Nik Place were better (but where are they now?). She was CoverGirl of the Week twice. Twiggy was one of the judges.

On the show she is probably best remembered for the Stolen Granola Bar Incident. She accused Nicole of taking her Granola bar. To get back at Nicole she emptied her Red Bull drinks and refused to pay for them. Looking back she now thinks the television producers took her Granola bar to set her off.

She says the show was a very humbling experience. Tyra Banks taught her how to handle herself as a young woman. The show changed her life, almost overnight, making her name as a model.

Her two heroes are Jesus and her mother.

She likes gopel music and hip hop, particularly Lil Wayne and T-Pain.

She has a butterfly tattoo above her left breast.

Some on the show said she was too short. She is 5 foot 8 or 172.5 cm, which is at the low end for models.

She says that if you want to model, do not let your skin colour or shade or your size stop you.

She says:

Succeed in stepping stones, never expect longevity in this career overnight, or it wouldn’t be well deserved.

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Audre Lorde, in her essay “Eye to Eye” (1983), says that all the hate that has been poured into her by white people since she was a little black girl in Harlem in the 1930s is what makes her so angry. But that anger is not directed so much at white people, but at other black women. Because it will hit the mark. Because they remind her of herself, the self she cannot love and accept. Yet they are the only ones who could ever help to make her whole again.

The essay was shortened and printed in Essence magazine in October 1983, but you can read it in all its 30-page glory in her book “Sister Outsider”.

One winter when she was five she sat next to a rich white woman on the subway train. The woman pulled herself away from her and looked at her with such hate in her eyes. Lorde looked at her new snowsuit thinking there was something wrong with it. But it was not her snowsuit – it was her! Her Snowsuit Moment, as I call it.

One time she was at the library. The white lady there was reading “Little Black Sambo” and laughing. All the white children were laughing too. But she was not.


In a thousand and one ways she was told she was worthless, that she did not matter.

She has seen “my wished-for death, seen in the eyes of so many white people from the time I could see”.

All this hate that she could not understand got laid up in her heart over the years and in time became anger, “a molten pond at the core of me”, an everyday part of her – “I know the anger that lies inside of me like I know the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit.” Her daughter kept asking, “Are you angry about something, Mommy?”

But, “in order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone, and now we bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest.”

Not just by little acts of meanness, but also by the constant judgement by other black women: if you are not perfect you are no good – “the road to anger is paved with our unexpressed fear of each other’s judgement.”

The answer is for black women to mother and accept themselves and each other, “making a distinction between what is possible and what the outside world drives me to do in order to prove I am human”.

… I can look into the mirror and learn to love the stormy Black girl who once longed to be white or anything other than who she was, since all she was ever allowed to be was the sum of the color of her skin, and the textures of her hair, the shade of her knees and elbows, and those things were clearly not acceptable as human.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Uptown, according to the Urban Dictionary, is the part of New York north of 110th Street, the part of Manhattan north of Central Park. That is the sense the word has in hip hop and in this blog.

The Wikipedia draws the line at 59th Street, but that makes the word next to useless: that would take in the rich white parts of the city to the east and west of Central Park. It is the sort of New York you see in children’s books, a very different world from what lies north of 110th Street.

Until the other day I never thought of Uptown as one thing, as one place. There was Harlem, of course, in the middle and then the places round the edges of it: Spanish Harlem, Columbia University, City College and the Dominican neighbourhoods beyond that.

I did not see Uptown whole: I saw it cut to pieces by language and race. That is the way I thought of it when I lived there and I think most people who live there do the same.

But when you step back, when you compare it to the rest of New York City and the rest of the country, especially when you look at the books and films and songs that Uptowners, black or white, have come out with, then it hangs together as one place.

Differences of race and language do matter – Uptown is far from colour-blind – but there is also a common experience that affects everyone who lives there with an honest heart.

They call that common experience “New York” or “the city” or “the world”, but it is in fact just Uptown that they are talking about. Because that is the New York, the city and the world they know. I left Uptown long ago but that picture of the world is still in my head.

And in that world there are hundreds of thousands of blacks who are poor, mostly through no fault of their own (yes), while down below 96th Street are some of the richest white people in the world. It is very hard to see that day after day and year after year. The world is the opposite of a Norman Rockwell painting.

And so when you hear how wonderful America is, when you see the smiling white people on television, you want to pretty much throw up. The injustice and the lies that the country is built on become crystal clear. Everything comes down to power.

You have little patience for sentimentality because in your experience it is almost always the sugarcoating for some sickening lie.

And so from out of that world comes Billie Holiday and “Scarface”, the Harlem Renaissance and the beats, “I’ll Fly Away” and James Baldwin, Howard Zinn and Bigger Thomas, “My Name is Luka” and “Milkshake”.

Spike Lee often sets his films in Harlem but you can tell he is not from there: he looks at Harlem through rose-coloured glasses that no one there wears.

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When I was younger there were certain Americans authors that I just loved, while I had little patience for the others who were supposed to be so much better according to my English teachers.

Here are the ones I read the most: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Ntozake Shange, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Naylor, Erich Fromm, Edward Said, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lewis Mumford.

Half are black, half are white. Two are foreign-born. But there is something that 10 of the 14 have in common: early in their lives they all lived in the same bit of America: Uptown Manhattan, Manhattan north of 110th Street in New York. Like me.

As far as I know Thoreau, Chomsky, Sinclair Lewis and Alice Walker have never lived there. But the other ten have, either in Harlem or at one of the universities next to it (or both):

  • Harlem: Baldwin, Naylor, Hurston, Jordan, Baraka
  • Barnard: Jordan, Shange, Hurston
  • Columbia: Baraka, Kerouac, Fromm, Said
  • City College: Mumford

Themes and ideas that keep coming up in these authors, whether they are black or white:

  • Many of the things you hear about America are self-serving lies.
  • If you are not careful, American society will make you into a soulless machine.
  • Most Americans are cut off from their own true feelings.
  • A hollow falseness lies at the heart of mainstream America.
  • American society has injustice built right into it.
  • America is split down the middle by race.
  • See things as they are, not as everyone says they are or wish they were.
  • Money and progress are not necessarily always good things.
  • In the end it all comes down to power.

Of course, some of these are things you can know just by being black anywhere in America.

Manhattan north of 110th Street is not part of apple-pie America. The image of Harlem becomes burned into your mind forever. The poverty. The rank injustice of race. It is so overpowering that it can cut through the blindness of even white people. At least some of them.

So even if you have money, even if you have white skin, even if you have had the best that America has to offer, it is hard to live there and believe that America is anywhere near as wonderful as it seems on television or in the history books. Not if you are honest. Not if you value the truth. Not if you see with your own two eyes.

The big smile that has been pasted over America comes to seem like the big lie.

And the angry things that Michelle Obama says make complete sense to you. The Southside of Chicago seems to be the same sort of place. And you start to wonder if Barack Obama, who once went to Columbia and has lived in the Southside all these years, you wonder if he truly means everything he says or if he is just kissing up to the mainstream.

But at least you know he knows. You do not know if John McCain knows.

Postscript (2014): Obama is kissing up to the mainstream all the way. Sickeningly so. 

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Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for two books, “Quicksand” (1928 ) and “Passing” (1929). Her characters are women like herself who are part white, part black and not quite sure who they are.

For years she was out of print. In the 1970s she started to be read again. Those who teach courses in black and women studies at American universities like her books because her characters question who they are as women and as blacks.

In America there is the One Drop Rule: if you look part African, then you are considered to be black. If you look pure European, then you are seen as white. Most people fall squarely on one side or the other. But some, like Nella Larsen herself, lie on the colour line. Some pass for white.

“Passing” is about two friends who are on that line. One marries a black man and lives as a black woman in Harlem. The other passes for white: she marries a white man, who has no idea she is part black, and lives as a white woman. She thinks it is the answer to all her troubles, but in the end she finds she would rather be poor and black than rich and white!

Helga Crane, the hero in “Quicksand”, is also on the colour line. Much of the book is based on Larsen’s own life. Crane goes from place to place, but she does not feel like she belongs anywhere. Not with whites, not with blacks. She goes from man to man but never finds love.

Larsen’s books were so good that in 1930 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first black woman ever to get one. But soon after her life started to fall apart. First people said her short story “Sanctuary” was copied from someone else’s story. Not true. Then in 1933 she went through a very public divorce.

She left Harlem. She said she was going to South America. Some thought she never left the country but changed her name and passed for white. No one knew what became of her till 1964 when she turned up dead in the Lower East Side, a poor part of New York. She had been working as a nurse in Brooklyn all those years.

Her father was a black man from St Croix in the West Indies, her mother a white woman from Denmark. Her father left and her mother married a white man (some say it was her own father passing as white). Larsen grew up in a white part of Chicago, the only black person in a white family. It was not till she got to Fisk, a black university, that she found herself among blacks.

She went from place to place till she came to New York in 1912. In time she became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Harlem (1658- ), also called Uptown, is the part of Manhattan in New York City just north of Central Park. For much of the 1900s it was, in effect, the capital of black America. Its glory days were in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo Theater is there and so is the Cotton Club.

Some streets have been renamed:

  • Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – 125th Street, the main street going east to west
  • Malcolm X Blvd – Lenox Ave, the main street going north to south down the middle of Harlem
  • Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd – 7th Avenue
  • Frederick Douglass Blvd – 8th Avenue

Strivers’ Row, which is 139th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, has some of the best terrace houses (row houses) in Manhattan.

Harlem was a woods and then farmland. In the 1800s summer homes began to appear, a place to get away from the city. In the 1880s the city itself started to spread into Harlem. At first it was a well-to-do white neighbourhood of Protestants and Jews.

Harlem turned black during the 1920s. It saw a flowering of the arts: the Harlem Renaissance. It became famous for its wild jazz joints along Lenox Avenue where both blacks and whites went. Harlem was still part white in those days. There were even white nightclubs where most blacks could not go, like the Cotton Club.

Blacks came mainly from the South and the West Indies. Some came from the old black neighbourhood on 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

By 1930 Harlem had 225,000 blacks, making it larger than any black city in Africa or the world. But the 1930s brought bad times. The buildings started to fall apart and yet more people arrived. Riots broke out in 1935, 1943 and again in 1964.

In the 1950s and 1960s another wave of blacks came to New York from the South, but this time most moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, not Harlem. By the 1960s they each had more blacks than Harlem.

Harlem hit bottom in the 1980s: crack had arrived and property owners were giving up buildings as a lost cause to the city. Most people were poor and black, with Hispanics in the east and the north. There was a small black middle-class.

Most white people were afraid to go to Harlem, even to busy 125th Street in the middle of the day. That level of fear is not based on a sound reading of police reports. It is based on outright fear of blacks. Chinatown seemed worse yet plenty of whites went there.

With rising property values in Harlem since the late 1990s it is no longer as poor as it once was. Parts are even turning white again.

Given how close it is to Midtown Manhattan, Harlem is extremely underbuilt.

You saw Harlem in these films:

  • Shaft (1971, 2000)
  • Claudine (1974)
  • Cotton Club (1984)
  • Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
  • Rage in Harlem (1991)
  • Jungle Fever (1991)
  • New Jack City (1991)
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
  • American Gangster (2007)

– Abagond, 2008. 

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You can never tell what’s in a man’s mind
And if he’s from Harlem, there’s no use of even tryin’
Just like the tide, his mind comes and goes
Like March weather, when he’ll change
Nobody knows, nobody knows

The man I love, well, he just turned me down, he’s a Harlem brown
Oftimes I wish that I were in this ground, six feet underground
He idolized me, as no other could, no, no
Then he surprised me, leavin’ me a note sayin’ he’s gone for good
Gone for good…

And since my sweetie left me,
Harlem, well, it ain’t the same old place
Though a thousand dandies smile right in my face
I think I’ll mooch some homemade hooch and go out for a lark
Just to drive off these mean ole Harlem Blues

You can have your Broadway, give me Lenox Avenue
Angels from the skies stroll 7th and for that thanks are due
From Madam Walker’s beauty shops to the Pro-Ro System 2
That made those girls angels without any doubt

There are some spots up in Harlem where I’m told it’s sudden death
To let somebody see you even stop to catch your breath
If you’ve never been to Harlem, then I guess you’ll never know
The power of these mean ole Harlem blues

Ah, there’s one sweet spot in Harlem known as Striver’s Row
‘Ditty folks come call them, one thing you should know
Is that I have a friend who lives there I know he won’t refuse
To put some music to my troubles and call ’em Harlem blues

And since my sweetie left me, Harlem, well, it ain’t the same old place
Though a thousand dandies smile right in my face
I think I’ll mooch some homemade hooch and go out for a lark
Just to drive off these mean ole Harlem Blues

Ah, there’s one sweet spot in Harlem known as Striver’s Row
‘Ditty folks come call them, one thing you should know
Is that I have a friend who lives there I know he won’t refuse
To put some music to my troubles and call ’em Harlem blues
To put some music to my troubles and call them the Harlem blues

Harlem, the Harlem blues, Harlem, the Harlem blues.

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