Transition 95 - Featured Article
Most everything I write here is true and happened on or around Lenox Avenue. This is where I live now; if you stand at its center, the crossing at 125th Street, and look north and then south, you’ll see it come to a dead stop at both ends. It begins at the top of the park, where you can see the Harlem Meer, where I saw fireflies in summer and where each winter, I am told, teenagers drown trying to walk across the half-frozen ice. When I first moved here, to 120th Street, I was happy to be close to this secret, manmade lake, with its Dutch name, Haarlem Meer, the Lake of Harlem. Lenox Avenue begins there at 110th Street and ends up at 149th Street or so; I have never been to the very end of it. At the end a bridge goes over the Harlem River and then suddenly it is the Bronx. The Harlem River is not a real river, just as the Harlem Meer is not a sea or even a real lake, and Lenox Avenue is technically Sixth Avenue. Downtown it is called Avenue of the Americas before it runs into the south end of the park, and up town it is called Malcolm X Boulevard, but only by the kind of person who insists on calling Bombay Mumbai or Calcutta Kolkata. They would also feel the need to call Eighth Avenue, Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Seventh Avenue, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard. One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Street is also called Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, but I’ve never heard anyone insist upon it. I don’t call any of these by their second names. The point is that Lenox Avenue doesn’t go anywhere, and yet it is thought to be the most important thoroughfare of the most important place for black people in America, if not the world.
It was on Lenox Avenue, in November, that the signs first appeared. They turned up on the bricked-up doors of mansions, on temporary walls around construction sites, on lampposts and bus shelters. The posters showed a lion crowned with the words, International Afro-Centric Circus: A Gift To The People of Harlem and gave dates and ticket prices, a number to call for those interested in group discounts, and the slogan, Thrills Spills Chills. One Hundred Twenty-Ninth Street and Lenox Avenue would be the site of the big top excitement.
I must have been pacing the streets in search of some miraculous “for rent” sign when I came upon an empty lot on Lenox Avenue and realized that this was where the circus was to be held. The next time I passed the empty lot a man was there, making indeterminate preparations. Soon after, a hut made of plywood scraps appeared, with a small window that faced out onto Lenox (for a ticket taker, I supposed). Trudging through the snow after one of the season’s first ferocious storms, I wondered how they were going to have a circus in the dead of winter, and why they would choose to have one in winter at all. When the date finally arrived, I went to the lot, but there was no circus.
From one of the signs I noted the information number and meant to call but never did; I did not want to embarrass anyone by asking about the circus that never came. The whole time I’d been coveting one of the posters, wanting this lion and its promise of A Gift To The People of Harlem in my home, but not wanting to be seen removing the poster in the middle of the day, or even at night, like a thief or a person who did not approve. Still, I wanted one badly and thought of coloring it in with bold washes of red, yellow, and green. In January, when all the posters that had survived the snowstorms looked set to crumble, I saw a smaller flyer announcing the same International Afro-Centric Circus. Instead of the lion on its haunches, the new posters showed a picture of a little boy with a toothy grin—Little Pee Wee—and announced that at the International Afro-Centric Circus, a Mister and Miss Afro-Centric Circus would be crowned. There would be prizes. Everyone was asked to bring a friend. This smaller poster was already falling from the lamppost where it had been placed months before, so I took it home to add to my pile of Harlem things. But before continuing it is important for me to tell you that a) the circus never happened; b) I never asked why; c) I pass the spot every day when I walk down Lenox to work; and d) if I am on time, every morning I come a little closer to solving a different mystery that puzzled me the whole time I lived on 120th Street.
* * *
On Saturdays in the summer I could see from my window a tiny man who wore dark glasses, a hat, very short shorts, and white sneakers without socks. He pushed a cart before him, and from a radio in the cart came the most lovely music. Usually I could hear the music before I saw the man; in my head I called him the Music Man. I used to watch him move along Seventh Avenue, oblivious to his surroundings. As it came through my window, the music was distorted, so that if it were a tune I knew I never managed to place it, and if it was a radio station on a popular frequency I could never tell which one. I liked to imagine that it was not a radio station at all, but something at once otherworldly and out of time; the scratchy analog sound, the distortion and the exaggeration of everything about him, even the outsized, out-of-style glasses on his small bird-like face, colluded to support this fancy. Once, at sunrise, I ran into him on Seventh Avenue without his glasses or his cart; after looking twice and recognizing him I said, “You’re the Music Man,” and told him I liked his music. Since I moved away I’ve seen him only once, pushing his jazz-filled cart along 125th Street. I waved at him and he looked at me strangely, not recognizing me from before.
It was also on Saturdays that I began to see the man pushing a cart of fruit up and down Seventh Avenue, crossing over to Lenox, using my street 120th, as a passageway. One day, when I had a bit of money I stopped him and bought a mango, oranges, green apples, and bananas. The whole bunch cost no more than five dollars. He also sold green beans, okra, and squash, but I couldn’t buy these because on 120th Street I did not have a kitchen in which to cook them. I liked buying fruit cheaply from the fruit man who pushes his cart on Seventh Avenue. It became part of my routine, though there were plenty of times when I did not buy anything because there was no money in my pocket at all. Then I realized there was not just one fruit man, but two. There was a skinny man and also a fat bearded man with a ball cap whom I would often see at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox at the subway stop next to Starbucks, or sometimes at the corner of 125th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the A train stops. At either place the fruit men would be surrounded by old women who seemed to know exactly when to arrive to purchase their weekly produce. It seemed many people preferred the fruit men to the Korean owned stores called farmer’s markets, at either end of 125th Street, where the produce always looked on the verge of rotting. I never paid attention to the farmer’s markets until Thanksgiving, when I was awestruck by the collard green stations they set up on the sidewalk; men with bins piled eight feet high hacked away at greens the whole day. The other option for produce was the Harlem Greenmarket on Saturdays in the summer at the bottom of Lenox, across from the Meer. It is sponsored by the Empowerment Zone and every time I went there were only a few stalls, one selling turnips, another radishes, and one table with organic baked goods from upstate. The Greenmarket never seemed to catch on. Why should it, when there were carts piled with fruit roving around Harlem at the same time? Still, I didn’t know where the carts came from, or the fruit, or the fruit men behind them who would set their bodies at a steep angle, forty-five degrees to the ground, pushing at these overloaded carts like the man pushing the boulder up the mountain only to start all over again.
And they do. Because every day now, if I leave the house at all, and if I leave the house around 10 AM, I pass the vacant lot that was to host the International Afro-Centric Circus and there I see the fruit men—the skinny one, the fat one, and about eight others. One day there was a fruit woman named Celeste. I came to understand that the vendors are independent contractors, meeting there each day to purchase their loads from the driver of a truck, which is unmarked except for what is hand-painted on the side—the letters R & B and a location on 112th Street. At night the fruit carts are parked in the empty lot, lined up as if to form a train. I had thought that the empty carts parked in the lot at night had something to do with the circus, were part of a circus train that the animals and performers would ride in. But the place where the circus never happened is where they were coming from all along. The little ticket-taker hut is still there. Just recently it was covered in graffiti, a black spray-painted figure that looks something like an embryo but may be the head of an elephant or some other symbol whose meaning is unknown to me. Below this are the words BLACK POWER. The graffiti is a recent phenomenon, appearing when winter started to break.
* * *
Throughout the brutal winter I had not bought any gloves, holding out until the moment when I had both money and time to search the city for a specific pair that I was not sure existed: yellow, kidskin leather, possibly with buttons and flared, gauntlet style sleeves. I didn’t have any money all winter so my hands were always cold. Eventually I settled for three-dollar knit gloves in the wrong shade of yellow and lost them the same day. I suffered a month more until one afternoon when, walking up Lenox, I could no longer bear it and stopped at a stand that offered the same sort of stretch knit gloves. All were black except for one pair in white, which I desired deeply but could not allow myself to buy because of the impracticality. I bought black gloves for two dollars and I must have asked the man how he was doing and he must have asked me the same, because I told him I was on my way to the library further up Lenox, that the winter had been rough, that I was looking for an apartment, and that I was a writer (to explain why I was going to the library in the middle of the day in the middle of the work week). He asked me what I wrote about and I said “history,” which was sort of a lie, and then he asked “history like Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad?” and I said “Sort of,” which was an absolute lie. Then he asked me if I’d ever heard of Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress. This was before I knew that the man I was speaking to was called Robert Smalls and before I noticed that he was wearing this name and slogan on the side of his cap, floating above a small cannon. I hadn’t heard of Robert Smalls, so he told me to wait a minute. I stepped to the side and waited because just then a group of tourists descended from the soul food restaurant next door, each of them wanting two or more items costing ten or more dollars each. Robert Smalls sold them scarves and gloves, fake Kangol hats, and T-shirts, with the word Harlem spelled out in a gothic script. I made a motion to leave but he told me to stay put. As customers continued filing from the soul food restaurant to his stand and then to the luxury coach that waited to take them back to Long Island, Robert Smalls went back and forth between his tables where the goods were laid out and the shack where his plastic bags were stored. All the while he implored me to stay. He said that he had something to show me and that I was bringing him good luck.
Robert Smalls made about 100 dollars as I stood there, and when everyone was gone I told him it was not on account of me. He disappeared into the storage shack again and returned with a sheet of paper. There was a cutout drawing copied from a history book of a man in a dark suit with a pocket watch chain, labeled, Robert Smalls 1839-1915 and beneath this a picture of the current Robert Smalls dressed in a tuxedo, smiling, beside the caption, Robert Smalls 1924- present, Entrepreneur/Realtor. At the edge of the page was a young man in an army uniform squinting at the camera, and beneath his image the words Robert Smalls, Jr., U.S. Army. Another picture, unlabeled, showed a man younger than the Robert Smalls in formal wear, but older than the one in Army uniform. It was a closely cropped photo. His head was tilted slightly askance and his broad shoulders filled the frame. His eyes were blank and his lips were pursed as though he were about to smile, or just had. There have been four Robert Smalls in all, beginning with the original who had been a slave but who captured a Confederate gunboat and delivered it to the Union forces, becoming thereafter a captain and then a member of Congress.
He purchased what is now Paris Island for the People of Beaufort.
Five Generations from Guinea West Africa and never having the temperament
Of a slave this warrior who balked at obeying such restrictions as the
Curfew bell even as a child made his transition and became an ancestor
In 1915 owning a part of the plantation where he was once a slave.
This heroic Robert Smalls was the grandfather of the man I was speaking to, the young man in the army uniform his son, the blank-eyed man his father. The present Robert Smalls was from South Carolina and spoke with a thick Sea Island accent, and I thanked him for the paper and walked up Lenox to the library. When I arrived there I forgot what it was I intended to study and instead read the history of the four Robert Smallses, each one contained in the first.
The next time I saw him he told me about his struggle to retain his narrow lot that is squeezed between two giants, one the most famous soul food restaurant in Harlem and the other an ugly concrete block called the Church of Christ in Harlem. The church’s cornerstone says it was founded in Jerusalem, its founder was Jesus, its pastor is Jesus, and its head deacon, also Jesus. Robert Smalls told me that he has fought them from both sides and hung onto his land. He said that he wants to turn it into a tourist center and a bed and breakfast and that I could join him in this venture if I was a serious sort of person. When I told him that I had recently acquired an apartment on Lenox Avenue, he explained that I must go back to the landlord—he asked if it was a white or a black landlord but said they could be equally bad—and request “one year, return of two.” It was something to do with my lease. He repeated this many times until I began to simulate understanding, but I did not understand him at all. We stood there for some time speaking about the arrangement of “one year, return of two,” which he said would help if I needed to buy furniture on a three-year payment plan, and that it was something I must arrange right then and I must do this for him.
I walked away not understanding him even slightly, and the next time I passed his stall he asked if I’d worked it out and I told him I had. The next two times I saw Robert Smalls he was walking fast down Lenox, once at night and once during the early morning hour when the avenue is full of people whose nights have not come to an end. Both times the collar of his green camouflage jacket was turned up high around his ears. Neither time did he recognize me or behave like a person who wished to be recognized.
* * *
Ross McPherson thought I was Ethiopian. This is why he stopped me while I walked down Lenox, on my way back to work after lunch. In Havana I was mistaken for Cuban, because I am black and speak Spanish. In Paris white French people approach me for directions speaking French, which I do not speak. A man in Jodphur asked me where I was from “before America,” meaning the country that my parents and grandparents had come from. He didn’t understand when I told him I was American for many generations, and a short history of the transatlantic slave trade did not clarify matters. He was so convinced that I was actually Indian that he instructed me to check with my family, upon my return to the States, about a lost ancestor from the subcontinent. It was something in my face. I had never before been mistaken for Ethiopian, but something in my face made Ross McPherson certain of it.
His hat, dreads under red, green, and yellow, his Jamaican accent and his Scottish name made me understand it was important to him because he was a Rastafarian. Ross McPherson is a Rasta historian. He showed me his books and his pamphlets because I’d told him I was on my way back from my job at a publishing house. He wanted to know if I might publish his books, and I must have told him that we didn’t publish books like that. I said goodbye and from then on he has greeted me in the street, on Seventh Avenue or Lenox, or 125th Street, with his kind eyes and charming lilt, his hand pressed to his chest, calling me Sister Sharifa and saying “blessings” when we part. He told me about the progress of his multi-volume history of Rastafarianism, but I noticed that he always holds onto his pamphlets tightly as if I might try to take one for free.
The last time we met, I told him about a book of photographs I was editing, pictures of 1920s Harlem. In the archives I squinted over crumbling prints and marveled at the photographs showing the same streets I walked every day, before they all got new names. I wrote detailed notes about each picture, recognizing each intersection, identifying whether it was a view of Eighth Avenue facing northeast just beyond 132nd Street, or a building in the middle of the block of 127th between Lenox and Seventh. In the pictures of 125th Street there are long-disappeared streetcar tracks and in a few later views, brand-new housing projects. The same churches are there, though they have changed congregations and names many times. I paused at the picture of the gothic-style church on Lenox Avenue, its tall spire like a factory smokestack; now it is Seventh Day Adventist.
Looking at the photographs of people on Lenox Avenue and Seventh and 125th Street and 135th, I wondered which were related to the people I see in the streets today. When I left the archive during lunch hour, the world of the black and white pictures collided with the same views in shocking color and made my head hurt. I didn’t mention any of this to Ross McPherson, but I told him he would know this photographer from his famous pictures of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association parading down Lenox and Seventh Avenues, legions of men in dark uniforms with epaulets, women in white on a float with a sculpture of the Sphinx, and Garvey himself, in the cortege, with his chest puffed out and his eyes narrowed—looking, it seems, straight into history and his own demise.
Ross McPherson knew exactly the images I spoke of and asked where he could purchase them. I told him it would be difficult because the archive, though located just above 125th Street, was closed to the public. He asked if there were any pictures of “his Highness’s visit to Harlem” and I knew immediately that by his Highness he meant Haile Selassie, His Imperial Majesty, the King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of Judah, Power of Trinity I. I told him no, but that I’d seen pictures of people protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and that the sight surprised me. I had not realized the extent to which 1930s Harlem was dreaming of Abyssinia. Other pictures showed marches from other decades—a man holding a sign saying England Would Do Well To Free Gandhi; a crowd of people protesting the war in Vietnam. There were records of big marches like these and of smaller ones, too, like a picture of a group of modestly dressed women picketing a liquor store.
I hadn’t seen any photos of Haile Selassie, I said, and asked Ross McPherson when the visit has taken place, but as soon as I said Haile Selassie instead of His Highness, a change came over his face. He told me that His Highness had visited Harlem twice, once in 1954 and then again in 1963. I can’t remember what I said in response, only that once I said Selassie, omitting the Haile completely, he became very serious. Of the many names I might have called out each was at that moment equally unutterable.
Thinking of it now, I don’t know if it was a greater wrong to say Selassie or to say His Highness and not mean it. I did not ask Ross McPherson and I did not tell him what I’d read recently in a book about Africa: a description of the Rastafarian colony in Ethiopia, where the surrounding locals consider them fools and how Selassie was embarrassed by these people who believed he was God. I did not tell him what I once read in an encyclopedia of African-American religion about Selassie’s first visit to Jamaica. A throng of 2,000 faithful met him at the airport singing and dancing. It was raining. His Highness wept. I did not tell him how it struck me that this historic visit by the Rastafarians’ living savior—the date of which is still observed as a holy day—was also the birthday of the Queen of England. Nor did I mention how I had wondered whether, on the island of Jamaica, on that day just four years after independence, there might have been other celebrations, a birthday party for their former sovereign, perhaps, with loyal civil servants toasting Her Highness and singing “God Save the Queen.” I did not tell him that it was also my birthday, because our conversation ended abruptly. Instead of saying goodbye when I left him, I put my hand to my chest like him and bowed my head like him and said, “blessings.” Ross McPherson must have found this strange and as I walked into the intersection, I did too. He seemed confused that I would make the motions of a believer while speaking of His Highness so profanely.
* * *
At the corner of 125th and Lenox, the Muslims mistake me for a believer because of my Arabic name and the black scarf covering my hair, worn not from piety, but from laziness. These are orthodox American Muslims; they wear kufis and djellabas over Timberland boots, and sell incense, oils, and small gold-colored bracelets, which encircle the wrist and close with the meeting of two tiny fists. I am invited to church by different groups of roving women, some who wear all white, others who have lace doilies on the crowns of their heads, and others, Adventists, who only come out on Saturdays. Politely I say no to the men selling The Final Call at the corner of 125th and Lenox, or 127th and Lenox near Mosque No. 7, or African Square, where Malcolm used to speak. Though sometimes the headlines are captivating and the men call me Your Highness, I haven’t had time for the Black Muslims ever since I was told they killed Malcolm X. I refuse the Muslims but always write down the names of churches I have no intention of attending and take pamphlets that I don’t read, and mean to go to church one day soon because I’ve begun to realize that I never meet any women in Harlem because I don’t go to church and I don’t get my hair done.
Instead, on Sundays I stay inside. My captivity is born of the fear that on a Sunday someone will see my prim clothes and ask me if I am going to church and I will smile and then lie. It is not an irrational fear. It actually happened. One Sunday not long ago I went to a bodega and the men selling me chocolate agreed that they should start going to church, where they could meet nice girls like me. I smiled and did not disagree.
By not going out of doors on Sundays I have learned that in the apartment on Lenox I can hear the entire service of St. Andrew’s Baptist Church on 133rd Street, which has amplifiers out front. I can hear the sermon, and the music, and the testimonies, but through all of these I cannot hear the exact words, only intonations and shudders, the rise and fall of syllables, and then Ha-le-lu-jah in a quivering bass. The whole service repeats with such little variation that it sounds like a tape recording. From the apartment on 120th I was able—on quiet days—to hear the call to prayer from Masjid Malik Shabazz, a green onion dome atop Lenox at 116th Street where the West Africans pray. I understood just as little of what was said. From 120th I could also hear the tape-recorded church bells from the Seventh Day Adventists church, and the real bells that chime over at the Episcopalian church on 122nd. They have duels on occasion, the tape recording and the live bells, but these are unpredictable and occur at times that do not mark the hour.
The church bells are best heard at the intersection of Lenox and 125th Street, and that is also where the hair-braiding women from Senegal, Mali, and Guinea call out to every girl who passes. I always feel a slight sense of dread when I approach them, for the encounter is scripted and happens several times a day unless I stay inside. A woman will hiss and then call out, Hello nice lady or Hair braiding, miss? And if I do not acknowledge her she will say, Excuse me? Hello? Hello? in a tone that suggests I have committed a grave offense. They usually stand in groups of two or three, all year long, no matter the weather, wrapped in African prints that show fantastic mythical birds or complicated abstractions, or cell phones, dollar bills, or diamond rings.
I can never keep walking, I always turn and smile and say, No thank you, as if it were the first time I had considered it. When I stop they ask, Do you want to see my book? I give you good price. And when I insist, they say, incredulously, You don’t want braids? And I never do. I stop only because I can’t resist the tidal pull of their calls, am weak to the haughtiness of their manner, the disdain, the accusatory tone of their solicitations. I smile and say, No, thank you, as some impotent gesture of false sisterhood, but their bands are impenetrable. I used to think they were targeting me because the black scarf on my head signaled that I was in desperate need of their services. If I say, I cannot stop just now, I cannot stop today, the very shrewdest of them will look me in the eye and ask, When? and try to schedule an appointment for later. They have business cards that show different styles and have a calendar on the hack and say, Ask for FANNY or Ask for BINTA, and list three different phone numbers: shop, cell, and residence, in case of an emergency. I smile when I pass, saying No and Thank you and Have a nice day, but as soon as I’ve passed them they start over again. They do it to everyone, it’s just that most women do not stop to discuss it.
It all comes from making eye contact too long on Lenox Avenue, where you will be sold something or converted or picked up, often in combination. I am called over to buy shea butter, offered a free sample of a perfume oil called Baby Girl, asked if I’ve eaten breakfast yet, or lunch. All along Lenox, every day, men hawk cigarettes out of black shopping bags, shouting, Newports—Five dollars insistently, as if a fresh crop has come in and will soon perish. I am forever explaining why I am named Sharifa, taking the numbers of men I will never call, refusing the services of hair braiders unless I walk fast and look straight ahead. Straight ahead is the blur of signs on the lampposts and bus stop shelters, where besides the faded and crumbling circus posters are flyers for the Harlem Psychic Fair and the face plastered everywhere of the rapist in the Celtics shirt who patrols Lenox Avenue between 124th Street (near where I work) and 135th Street (near where I live) between 7:45 AM and 9:45 PM. There are signs advertising Security Training with job Placement Guaranteed, Area Hospitals Are Hiring Now, Apartments Available with Some Section 8 Okay. I saw a handwritten sign that said All White Spanish People Think Black People Are NIGGERS, and later on the same spot in the same handwriting a warning issued To The White Spanish Fiend Who Stole My Money. Nearly every lamppost is covered in orange stickers that read:
WE DEMAND REPARATIONS FOR THE TERROR OF SLAVERY
Hanging, Beatings, Rape, Welfare, Discrimination, Bombing Miseducation, Jailing, Chain Gang, Attack Dogs, Prison, Burnings, Hunger, Electrocutions, Police Killings, Police Shootings, Poisoning, Homelessness, Occupation
REPARATION ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
HCCC HARLEM CIRCULATION/COMMUNICATION CREW
There are notices about talent contests and male stripper nights and flyers exhorting women of the world to oppose the war in Iraq, distributed by socialists assigned to the Harlem beat.
I kept all the flyers about the marches and rallies, the business cards of talent scouts, the pamphlets about the end-time, but during my move I lost them all. Among these was the flyer from the day I sat at the vegetarian café during lunch. A man with long dreadlocks sat at a table across from me more than nine feet away. Across the distance it felt as if he were my dining partner at the head of a long banquet table. I ate my sandwich and he stared at me, looking like he wanted to speak, and because there was nowhere else to look but at my plate or at his face I stared back. When he brought his tray over and asked if he could sit, I did not refuse. He moved with great deliberation and effort, which seemed to correspond directly to the length of the dreads cascading down his back. When he finally spoke, his talk was filled with many pauses, his jaws fixing themselves for each syllable to produce carefully considered tones. He brought out a flyer advertising his services, which included Website Design, Holistic Health, Legal Research, Moorish Nationality. The last one caught my eye because I remembered reading about a man who believed that black people were really Moors, and whose religion had a red flag—in honor of the red flag of Morocco, and in memory of the cherry tree chopped down by George Washington, which symbolized the attack on the rights of Africans at the founding of America. I asked him about this last item on the flyer and he asked me how much time I had. Very little remains in my memory and none of it was explained on the flyer, but I do remember that his story involved a group of friends, in the summer, a few years ago; a decision to divest from the American government and seek a new identity for black people; legal research; the discovery that blacks were not truly citizens of the United States, owing to a treaty signed by the King of Morocco in 1786; and finally a lawsuit against the federal government to gain exemption from paying taxes.
I was reminded of this man when I passed the gift shop of the Harlem Association for Travel and Tourism (HATT); in its window was a poster that read, The Black President with a subtitle that included, Nuwaubian Moors. When I stopped for a closer look, I was invited inside by the shop’s owner, who wanted me to buy candles and black dolls dressed in cheerleading uniforms, but I only wanted to read about the black president. This same figure is also the book stands along 125th Street, which sell occult titles along with books about Egypt and Freemasonry. Other bookstalls are staffed by lanky young men from Guinea who seem to have no interest in being there or selling books. The only thing they will say as you stand at their tables is that each book costs seven dollars, but this is also announced in red letters on identical yellow signs at each seven-dollar book table, all selling the same titles. Walking across 125th between Eighth and Fifth Avenues you will pass at least five of these young men, equally lanky, equally bored, selling popular urban romance novels, relationship guidebooks, books about reparations and classics such as Pimp and The Miseducation of the Negro. The young men do not solicit customers to buy their wares, the yellow signs blare their redundant message and because the selection rarely changes, I hardly ever stop, catching the titles from the corner of my eye. I gather most information on 125th Street from the corner of my eyes, looking straight ahead; its east-west bustle cuts across the avenue’s north-south glide, the pace is quicker, it is more crowded, it is not conducive to loitering. The people on 125th Street are younger. They come in and out of stores selling activewear and lengths of brightly colored hair, music shops and electronic shops that sell bootlegged or refurbished appliances. One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Street has none of the slow elegance of Lenox; it propels you across, past the young men who stand by and hiss as they watch the girls in tight jeans and high heels. I watch the girls, too, because they never seem to stop or notice that they are being summoned, and I would like to be like them. One day I was proceeding east on 125th Street, distracted, probably looking down at my feet. I walked into an oncoming group of young men, expecting to pass without incident, like the Harlem girls, when one of them grabbed my wrist like it was a handle there for him to grab and let me go just as suddenly, the force whipping me around.
On a different day, near the same spot I passed among the seven-dollar bookstalls a man selling images that I recognized from that book of lynching photographs. This man had made poster-sized color copies of the black and white photos, which made them hazy and bluish in tone. They were laminated for durability and laid out on his table in an enterprise that was surely some form of copyright infringement but also something far worse. As I passed I met his eyes for a moment and he began to yell, a hawker’s solicitation with a more insistent tone. Why don’t you stop, he asked, and, Why don’t you look and, Why don’t you want to know the history. He kept yelling as I went, his words chasing me down the sidewalk, and the images of naked swollen bodies stayed with me as I passed through the throngs of men standing around on 125th Street.
I walked into the Magic Johnson Starbucks one afternoon to find myself in the middle of another such confrontation. A begging man was being driven out by two other men, not by force, but by heckling. When they’d succeeded I kept looking toward the door where he’d gone. From a corner of the café the voice of the loudest heckler rose again, now speaking about the president and the United Nations. This was before the war had begun. The man in the corner said, “And then Kofi said to him, ‘Mr. President, I don’t care!’” The more he went on the more I realized that this particular heckler was also mad, but since I agreed with what he was saying I didn’t ignore him as most of the people in the Starbucks were doing. The men playing chess, the actor practicing his lines—all went back to their own businesses. For a time it felt like the madman and I were alone in the coffee shop. He stopped when he caught me staring. He started up and paused once more, as if the fact that he realized he had an audience had stopped the words from coming. Since my attention was making him self-conscious, I turned away. He started up again. Everyone else ignored him still, but every time I agreed with him I could not help but nod, and if he said something funny I would smile. When I moved forward in the line I came closer to him and he tried to get my attention. But I was afraid of what he might say to me, so I just smiled and looked at him, acknowledging that he wanted to speak with me but not saying anything, as if I were deaf, or mute, or did not speak English. He seemed offended by this, first by my stares, then by my silence, and said, “Okay, Okay,” as if the next topic of his lecture would be girls who stare but do not speak, and the next person driven out of the Starbucks by heckling would be me. When I left I smiled at him and said goodbye and he said, “Okay, Okay,” like he knew what I was all about.
It was some time later, far west on 123th Street when I met him once more, and he said, “I see you again.” Several weeks later I walked across 133rd Street for a moonlight view of the block of brownstones that used to be called Jungle Alley and Beale Street, full of speakeasies and after-hours clubs. Now they are ruins or evangelical churches. Coming off that block I saw him. His wild dreadlocks atop a skinny frame were illuminated briefly by the light from a store window. I could see him exactly even in the pitch darkness. He came toward me and I looked straight ahead, and through the dark our eyes locked. He turned the corner east onto 130th Street and then began to walk away, backwards, facing me as he went. I looked straight ahead, pretending I had not recognized him in the dark.
* * *
In the summer, noise rises up off Lenox Avenue all night in panicked waves. Lying awake in the darkness, the calls from below produce in my mind the picture of a wild horde coursing up and down the avenue. Hours of voices and blaring music make it seem as if the street were host to a great celebration, or a great catastrophe; it is always the same level of agitation and unintelligible noise, and it is impossible to tell whether it has been produced by a pack of two or twenty. Once, toward the end of an otherwise quiet night, a single moaning voice from the street pierced my wakeful daze, calling out once and again and a third time. I’m not sure if the moaner hoped to elicit a response or was impressed with the sound of its anguish against the emptiness of the avenue that night.
One Sunday, returning home at dawn, I noticed the uneasy stillness of Lenox without its daytime clamor or wild night cries, an eerie landscape of muted night stragglers and debris. The aftermath of Saturday night on Lenox and Seventh Avenues looked like photographs from the Harlem riots of 1935, 1943, and 1964. But the quiet of the hour is fleeting: the noise swells with the heat of the day. As the night shift lets out, small clusters of people gather before stoops and storefronts. They bring old dinette chairs and milk crates on which to squat, lining the front of boarded-up buildings. Further on down Lenox, I catch snippets of news, witness reunions, accusations, transactions, games. Most scenes I only half-understand; they are just about to begin or just about to end when I pass. But other things reveal themselves with startling clarity. One day my walk down the avenue coincided with the announcement of the daily number, and it was as if I were riding the crest of this wave, landing at each street corner at the same moment as the news. At 133rd, 130th, 127th, and so on, a woman would cry out, a man would pass with a wad of cash. When someone flashed two fingers I knew suddenly that he didn’t mean peace or victory, but two. Two was the number. The uptown stride of several people grew more determined. I imagined they were heading up to my stoop, where the numbers seem to be headquartered, to collect on their good fortune.
It took a whole year before such things were legible to me. So now, when I pass the tour groups on Lenox Avenue, I often think about all the things they cannot see. There is such little interaction between the ambulating packs of tourists and the stationary street corner clusters; the two groups seem to ignore each other cordially according to the terms of an ancient truce between inhabitants of heavily touristed places and the people who pay to visit them. The tourists have not come to see the people along Lenox, not the living ones at least, and as for the natives, perhaps they don’t mind being invisible. I always expect someone to make a rude sign or gesture, but the sense of mutual tolerance prevails. Only once have I seen such a protest: a small index card lying in the street, as if it had been floated down from a window above Seventh Avenue, which read “White people get out of Harlem” on both sides.
A mischievous urge still comes over me every time I pass a group of tourists, squinting with upraised hands to shade their eyes, the better to view whatever detail their guide is describing. His arm outstretched, his finger points at History, always located at a point just above the eye level of the passersby, but below the mutilated facades. The tourists take in the decrepit beauty of the past and the hope for the future, and their eyes glaze over at the present all around them. A man who’d just returned to Harlem from Vienna once told me about the neurotic indignation of the citizens there. It was, he said, a problem of living in the great capital of a fallen civilization—the head of a dragon that has lost its body. Like London, Rome, or Istanbul, he said. When I pass the tourists, craning my neck to hear what is said or scowling at the double-decker buses that turn onto Lenox Avenue on their way to Museum Mile, I should remember what he told me. But I cannot get over the day I left my house on 120th Street to find a minivan unloading a group of Italians who surrounded me with wild gestures and wanted to take my picture in front of the brownstones. It felt like a trespass, a violation, and yet so absurd that I could not help laughing as I walked away from the disappointed group, imagining myself tucked inside some Italian vacation scrapbook, “an authentic Harlem black.”
* * *
If I were leading a tour I would stand the group at the corner of 125th Street, looking south down Lenox, and from there they could see the green mass that is the park and the dead beginning of Lenox. To the north, the blue bridge over the Harlem River marks its dead end.
I’d take them to have lunch at the soul food restaurant next to Robert Smalls, which is owned by the Queen of Soul Food(TM), who Robert claimed was trying to steal his land. I would take them to buy his souvenirs. We would walk a bit down Lenox and some might stop to pose in front of an old mansion. The decayed board sporting fifteen different doorbells would be the only sign of life in what looks like a condemned building, but inside its grand salons have been carved into dirty cells, rented by the week, which boast crown molding and ornately carved fireplaces in strange disjunction to the worn carpets and fluorescent lights. These are the things you cannot tell from the outside of a building on Lenox Avenue. What the tourists will see is the church across the way being refurbished with the help of a German bank, and the man who wears a style of clothes I have only ever seen on television, on the Taliban, who sells Persian rugs from the ground floor of a Lenox brownstone. They will see the new boutiques that are featured in magazine articles about “The New Harlem” but the new café that has an Italian name and serves Italian specialties and is staffed by women from Ethiopia and Eritrea. I would point out the bodegas run by Yemenis where I buy twenty-five cent fudge bars and stare at postcards of ancient mud-brick towers in Sana’a and Aden, affixed to the bulletproof barriers.
The tourists would ask which places used to be Jewish and which were Italian and the location of the Irish enclave. They’d want to know where famous dead people have lived and where famous live people are moving in. They’d ask the going rate for a brownstone. They will marvel at the ruins, the wide avenues, and the wide sidewalks. I will mention that some historians claim these are what made all the migrants feel at home when they came north, and how fitting it was that they ended up in the one place in the city with wide open streets and so much sky. Standing on Lenox Avenue there is more sky than you can see anywhere else in the city. You can see the sky but not any hint of river looking cast or west on 125th Street, because to the west 125th makes a drastic turn north; from Lenox it looks as if it may go on forever. Looking east, the view is interrupted by the elevated train above Park Avenue that goes south to Grand Central and north to the suburbs of New York and Connecticut. Standing at the center of Harlem there is no evidence of any body of water, not the Harlem Meer at its beginning, nor the Harlem River at its end. Not seeing a river, but seeing so much sky, and seeing Lenox Avenue begin and end all at once with just a turn of the head, it is not impossible to think that this is the entire world, that there is nothing else beyond these streets.
The tour won’t end at the top of Lenox, at the bridge across the Harlem River; before you reach the end it is clear there is not much to see. It will end at the library, the brown brick building at 135th Street. As we approach from the south, I will tell my tourists how the library reminds me of a fort or an ancient learned city like Timbuktu, Alexandria, or Baghdad. I’ll wonder aloud if this was the intention of the architect, who also made the reading room octagonal based on ancient African geographies, and made the walls and shelves of the reading room from a special African wood. This is the main library of Harlem. The small branch libraries were built with funds from Andrew Carnegie by architects like McKim, Mead, and White around the turn of the century in architectural styles that have nothing to do with Timbuktu or Alexandria but owe much to the palazzos of Venice.
Before I moved here I used to romanticize these Gilded Age structures in the middle of Harlem and imagined myself working in them. When I arrived, I found the tables and chairs were all child sized, and the selection of books made it seem as though it were always Black History Month. There was nothing for me to do there but crouch in a chair and wait to use the computer, in a line of adults and children who wait to research jobs and rap lyrics and lingerie. I’d read the paper I’d been too cheap to buy the previous Sunday and wait my turn. Now most of these libraries have closed for renovations. Each has a sign out front that explains the closures and that the libraries will open at an unspecified date in the distant future. The big library seems more crowded because of it.
There, on Saturdays, I find myself among students researching term papers, and large groups of schoolchildren brought on educational trips. One day the halls were occupied by a group known as the Dessert Club, an after school program that used to serve dessert, but now takes hundreds of kids to Africa each summer. Their group leader told me I could go with them for free if I worked two summers in a row. He also told me that often when people go to Africa they meet their twin. It had not happened to him yet, but he had seen it with his own eyes: arriving in the airport in Accra, he saw the exact copy of a man he’d left behind at the airport in Philadelphia. It was, he assured me, this man’s African twin. I told him that as a child I’d dreamed of a little girl in Africa who looked like me because her parents looked like mine, and how I often see people in America who are unrelated but look as if they belong to the same tribe. He agreed. I descended the stairs to the reading room wondering when I would meet my African doppelganger.
In the reading room I have come to believe what is said about buzzing, flickering fluorescent lights slowly driving the world insane. The librarians seem overburdened, the assistants seem bored, and the patrons are often irate. It gets as loud in this library as in the check-cashing place where I pick up Western Union. There are phone calls from people who won’t come to the library at all but who want the librarians to do research for them over the phone. Many who do come are there to research the keywords “Harlem Renaissance.” There is a girl I see every week studying occult religions of the African diaspora; one day I overheard her telling a boy that maybe someone had put a hex on him. There are others who come to research their genealogy, though I heard one man say he would have been better off going to the Mormons. He spoke of how the history of his people was written in an old aunt’s bible, but that he wanted to have it confirmed in case of reparations. One day I heard a man speaking in a very low, careful voice to a librarian who replied in a loud annoyed tone. He whispered that he was looking for law books, that he had come all the way from Brooklyn and wanted to do legal research. I heard her yell that he’d been misinformed, that they didn’t have any law books there that would tell him how to sue to get his mother’s body exhumed.
The library is famous for collecting everything related to black people all over the world. On the first floor, where the groups of tourists gather, where the schoolchildren and conference attendees and retirees meet, there is a large hail that could be called a grand hall except that nothing in this library is grand. On the floor of the large hall is an inlaid design that is meant to be a picture of the cosmos, and beneath this mosaic lie the ashes of the greatest Harlem poet. Lines from his most famous poem are spelled out in brass; the names of the rivers referred to in that poem line the perimeter of the room. These are the great rivers for all black people everywhere: the Nile, the Congo, the Mississippi; and then also: the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Rhine.
* * *
The circus finally came to town. At first I thought the signs were a mistake, or that I’d been transported back to the previous winter, when the first signs appeared. But these signs were slightly different, and there were more of them. They were bordered with strange words that I later realized were the names of lost African empires: Ghana, Kanem, Munhu, Matapa, Kernet, Mali, Mossi, Kusk, Axum, Mero, Songhai. The location of the circus was new—139th and Amsterdam. The circus was in town two weekends in a row, but I didn’t go. Already the new signs have been ripped down, papered over, or destroyed by the summer rains.
Robert Smalls remembered me again, suddenly. I sat with him once for morning coffee and another day stood in front of his stall on Lenox while his friend reminisced about Charleston, his hometown. He said it was no longer recognizable because it was “all built up” and “modernized,” with “highways and skyways.” He wanted to go back, but there was no one left there. He’d run away when he was young to come to this city, and now there was no one left here, either. He repeated this same narrative three times as we watched the traffic on Lenox go by, and each time I listened as if it were the first time.
When I finally purchased Honoring Our Original Ancestors: A Royal Ethiopic Salute to “The Gong”/The Howellites—An Introduction to KULUNGU . . . Vols. 1-4 (without footnotes) for five dollars, I learned that the true name of its author is Ras, not Ross. Whenever I see Ras McPherson on Lenox Avenue, he is always wearing a yellow shirt, just as in winter he always wore a yellow puffer jacket. Now he bows his head and puts his hand to his heart and says, “blessings,” and then takes my hand and begins a regimen of massage-like manipulations, turning my hand palm up and then palm down in some sort of secret handshake of which I am not an initiate. He tells me he’s “been tinkin’ a lot about” me, to which I cannot reciprocate. In the book, I discovered not only his true name, but his other names. He is president of the Black International Iyahbinghi Press; founder and co-chairman of the Ethiopia Jamaica Society-JA and NY Chapters; Negus Nagast (Deputy Grand Master) of the Queen of Sheba and Pharaohs Masonic Movement Education and Research Foundation; and founder and chairman of the Ethiopian National Front. In the front of his book (it is really a square-shaped booklet, meant to accompany a CD that I could not afford to buy for an additional five dollars) he wrote “Sharifa-Prophetess,” because I’d told him the meaning of my name. I know it says this only because he told me so; I cannot make out the inscription.
The fruit men still load up every morning in the empty circus lot at 129th and Lenox, but one day I was sold rotten fruit and haven’t bought any since. The lot is overgrown now with weeds taller than I am; the Black Power sign has faded in the summer sun.
The price of Newport cigarettes dropped to four dollars a pack.
The Sunday sermon came through my window once with unusual clarity. It was a sermon about the end of time. “And the sea will give up its soldiers,” the preacher said.
I stepped into the intersection by the circus lot one day and was hailed by an old man. He asked where I was going and suggested I get into his black SUV and join him for dinner at McDonald’s. He looked to be about eighty years old and though his frail and freckled hands trembled around the steering wheel I was frightened. To verify that he was good man he showed me his driver’s license. As he flashed it I saw a suburban address and the name Gerhard Khan. He’d told me that his name was Charlie. I asked him about Gerhard and he said he didn’t like it, it was too German of a name, and that he preferred Charlie. By then I had detected his accent. He implored me to come and have coffee at least, and for too long I considered it, imagining him to be a refugee and lonely widower. Everyone with whom I have shared this story did not think that his intentions were innocent.
Because I do not have a television and had stopped reading the papers it was months before I heard, while chatting with neighbors on the avenue, about the headless body that had been found at 129th and Lenox. It belonged to woman, and it had been stuffed into a suitcase. “There’s an empty lot there,” I said.
I went to the end of Lenox. It really is the end of Harlem; there is nothing there but a bus depot and the blue bridge to the Bronx and a postcard view of Yankee Stadium. The ground shakes here, a periodic rumble from below, as the trains hurtle in and out of Lenox Terminal.
Please note: No part of these articles may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted, or distributed, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photographic, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Indiana University Press. For educational re-use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center (508-744-3350). For all other permissions, please visit http://iupress.indiana.edu/rights.