I walk briskly through the corridor in my office building, my feet touching the floor so lightly that it looks like I’m floating. Most people are longer-limbed than I am, so I’ve adopted the habit of moving quickly to keep up.
While walking, I meet the eyes of a middle-aged woman of my hue. I do what my Grandma raised me to do: subtly nod my head, smile, and say good morning. The woman doesn’t return my greeting and passes on. I sigh gently, the incident a sobering reminder that I’m not in Harlem anymore.
I’ve visited New York City three times, but my most recent trip was the first time I stayed in Harlem exclusively. My significant other and his family are generations deep there. While many bemoan the gentrification there and say Harlem’s culture is diluted, I fell in love with the neighborhood.
I felt such exhilaration as I strolled down 125th Street, my man’s fingers intertwined in mine. I was enveloped with the tranquility I had when I saw Bed-Stuy in 2001 and in Dar Es Salaam in 2006, a comfort that I rarely receive in Seattle, the city of my birth. In the Emerald City, I can rarely forget that I’m different, the fly in the buttermilk. My awareness that I’m a minority here only subsides when I’m at church or with family. But in the streets of Harlem, I’m just regular. My skin, my billowing densely coiled hair, and rounded hips are normal, so they don’t elicit stares or wonder. Indeed, within two hours of my arrival, I stopped playing the count the number of Black people game that’s part of my life back home. There were so many that it was pointless!
“Miss, miss, you want your hair braided”, a statuesque West African woman calls to every woman who walks by. “No thank you”, I smile and reply to her. I am not looking to get my hair done, but I’m digging the idea that I could get my daughter and my hair done so easily if desired. On these avenues, the fast NY pace has been grafted with the African marketplace. I recognize the ‘get money’ mentality of the vendors selling earrings, shea butter, African cloths, and food around me, wishing there was something comparable back home.
There were numerous soul food restaurants in the vicinity, but we didn’t eat at any since I had an unshakeable craving for jollof rice that day. The soul food/Black American owned restaurants had something other than food to offer though. So when my man spotted Harlem Shake on W 124th Street he pulled me inside. I smiled at the wall covered with signed photos of Black American celebrities and politicians, mulling whether I should order a milkshake.
“I need to use the restroom, can you hold my phone for me”, I asked my partner.
“You should probably take your phone with you”, he replied, smiling brightly. I looked at him perplexed but carried my phone in with me anyway. Once I entered I gasped, immediately understanding why he insisted that I hold onto my phone.
The interior of the bathroom was decorated with what appeared to be every cover of JET magazine, the Black American weekly magazine first published in 1951. Like most Black Americans of my generation, I was intimately acquainted with JET. It was one of a few publications my late Grandma subscribed to. Seeing all those covers took me back to my teen years, to laying on my stomach in the living room, gently turning the pages of JET’s so that I didn’t rip them. As my eyes scanned the walls, from the vintage black and white covers to the color one with President Barack Obama, they filled with tears. The beautiful and rich legacy of my people lay before me. I composed myself and snapped a few pictures with my iPhone before doing what I came to, washing my hands, and leaving. “Thank you for recommending I keep my phone with me”, I told my partner, who gave me a knowing smile as we continued on our way.
I wasn’t overjoyed by everything I saw in Harlem. The previous evening we visited the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Center, located in the building that he was assassinated at on February 21st, 1965. I felt a sense of melancholy as I walked through the doors. Malcolm X is one of the few Black leaders of that time whom I still admire deeply. As I stood there I recalled the brutality of what was done to him, of how painful it must have been for Betty Shabazz and their children to witness him cut down like that.
On my last day in Harlem, we visited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Schomburg Center is linked to Malcolm X for me as well, as I only learned of its’ existence through reading his autobiography when I was eleven years old. It was recognized as a National Historic Landmark this year and recently completed a two-year renovation. My partner and I viewed the Schomburg’s Black Power! exhibit. The exhibit was thorough, covering that tumultuous era well. It left me with mixed feelings which can’t be summed up in a paragraph or two. To do justice to the exhibit, I’ll devote a separate post to it later this week.
When we finished the exhibit it was time to head to the house and grab my luggage. With high winds already preset and heavy rains expected, I wanted to leave early to ensure we arrived at JFK in time.
My Harlem blues started before I even boarded my flight, the heaviness descending on my spirit coming just as I knew it would. It’s the only downside to my travels to the East Coast: I never want to come home. But this trip was different. I could continue to complain about where I live, or I could make concrete plans to move. For the sake of my daughters’ education, I cannot leave Seattle yet. But in less than five years she will be in college, and I’ll have no reason to remain here.
Once she graduates high school, I’ll wave Seattle goodbye and start the next phase of my life in the Northeast. The sands of time are already slipping through the hourglass, and I’m a patient woman. My heart is in Harlem and I know I’ll get there. So I came home, comforted by the knowledge that just like troubles, my Harlem blues won’t last always.