The Once and Future Harlem

      Two children absorb the images and sounds of Harlem in 1943.

On West 116th Street, I saw the remnant of a poster from a recent election. It’s not uncommon in a neighborhood where flyers from Obama's first contest remained in place long after inauguration day — celebrating a campaign so long as to become permanent, or perhaps maintained out of a disbelief that something that could be understood as victory had finally come. But here the slogan was not "Change" circa 2008, or the "Forward" of 2012, but "Votez contre les Talibés."

Someone had tried to rip the sign down, so the details were not legible. What remained pasted to the building's facade bore the image of bare, dusty feet against dry earth. Later I learned the poster was part of an effort to raise awareness about the plight of young boys, known as talibés, or "disciples," who are sent to Dakar from the Senegalese countryside for Koranic studies and then forced to beg in the streets. On West 116th Street, the heart of Harlem’s Little Senegal, I have often swerved in and out of the sidewalk games being played by the children who live there, and thus between Africa and America. The poster asked that citizens participating in Senegal’s July 2012 elections remember the other children and vote to protest against their circumstances: their families forced to send them away, their religious teachers able to exploit them. The issue was as worthy of attention on 116th Street as it was an ocean away.

All politics are local. Soon after the liberation of Timbuktu by French paratroopers, I went into the Maliba African Market at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 119th Street. A crinkled envelope was taped to the cashier’s booth; on its front was scrawled "Donations to the Malian Army." There was nothing official about the enterprise, but it made the conflict there immediate in a way that recent headlines had not.

The next time I visited, the envelope was gone. Since the woman behind the counter barely made eye contact, I didn't see an opening to ask if the money had been conveyed or whether collections had ceased due to sudden questions about the legality of raising funds for a foreign army. I lingered and listened while a man came in to ask about sending something to Bamako, but my eavesdropping French failed mid-sentence, so I didn’t hear whether it was a parcel or cash. I focused instead on how the man and the shopkeeper pronounced the name of the city, studying the relative nature of what is near and what is far.

In 1925, the scholar Alain Locke declared that Harlem would be a race capital that focused a people. His words were like a magic trick: describing the place and speaking it into being, all at once. From Harlem, Locke said, blacks would enter American democracy. He was speaking when the idea of black Harlem was just becoming a fact. Now the idea of black Harlem is on its way to becoming a memory. Recent data show that the black population no longer forms a majority in Harlem, and 15 percent of black residents are foreign-born. Historical black Harlem has always been home to Caribbean and African immigrants in addition to Southern migrants and native New Yorkers. Whether co-existence equals common destiny involves two different narratives. According to one, the neighborhood is a fount of meaning, a hallowed ground. Meanwhile, there is the larger story of immigrant New York, where 116th Street and its environs are no more or less sacred than any other past or present ethnic enclave in the city’s boroughs. A place to enter, yes. And a place from which to move on.

Common Destinies

My connection to African Harlem has failed to advance much since I moved here more than ten years ago. I survey our shared territory by way of transactions; go to shops to find Tunisian dates still on the stem; and retrace culinary footsteps by purchasing the dried black-eyed peas that entered the American palate via the transatlantic slave trade. I search for loose mint, sweet bissap tea, a clay vessel for burning incense. There is raw cocoa butter, African black soap and Senegalese takeout. I buy phone cards to call an old friend — they have names like Mother Africa, Speedy Africa, Made in Africa or Mandela, and sometimes feature ridiculous graphics: lions and leopards and silhouettes of savannah landscapes.

This pattern of consumption does not match the moments when black Americans in Harlem threw their lot in with struggles on the continent. It was in Harlem that Marcus Garvey grew his Universal Negro Improvement Association, declaring "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad!" In the 1930s, Harlemites rallied for Emperor Haile Selassie and agitated against the Italo-Ethiopian war. Harlem received Kwame Nkrumah, first as a student working as a peddler and later as the father of African nationalism, when he was met by great throngs in the streets. Those crowds gathered at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, a corner known as African Square, where Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore stood (it was the self-proclaimed "Repatriation Headquarters for the Back to Africa Movement"). The bookstore was torn down to build the Harlem State Office Building — a project opposed by a three-month protest encampment in 1969. The plaza that replaced it is still the location of public meetings; soon, it will undergo a $21 million renovation that will reimagine it with a yearning theme, invoking elements from fifteen African villages and the Nile River. I once saw a meager group at the plaza, marching in circles to celebrate African Liberation Day and chanting, among other slogans, "Mugabe is right!" That they were marching on territory seized from the former Repatriation Headquarters mattered directly to their unyielding support for the liberation-era leader turned dictator. But the size of the crowd suggested how few were keeping tabs on the debate.

Tags: african harlem, gentrification, harlem, new york city