Feature • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
I went on a tour of Harlem, thinking it would be useful to know what the packs of visitors were being told. We met at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, in front of the Schomburg Center, just two blocks from my building. The tour guide, a young white woman, began by asking the group to shout out whatever came to mind when they heard the word Harlem. Some said music, others said riots. Those who didn’t say music or riots said Bill Clinton and soul food.
After that exercise in free association, the guide led us on a brief circuit covering a radius no larger than five blocks. As we began, she gave a condensed history of what happened when blacks first moved into Harlem. With a call-and-response style reminiscent of kindergarten, she asked what happened next. The chorus of mostly white tourists shouted out: The white people leave!
The guide had a habit of calling Lenox Avenue, Fifth Avenue. As we passed through one block of brownstone houses, I overheard a couple marveling at the architecture, noting the little pointy tops of a cluster of homes. The man asked his wife, had they seen them before? Like the mansard roofs in France? Did she remember they were named after a guy called Mansard? A woman came out of one house and asked if anyone in the group knew someone to rent her top two floors. When one tourist asked about the price of brownstones these days, the guide, a young graduate student in history, asserted somewhat huffily that she was not a real estate broker. One woman repeatedly interrupted the tour to ask how far away was the famous Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant.
Often, I fell away from the group, trailing behind. I was familiar with most of the history being discussed. For me, the biggest revelation had come at the beginning of the tour. As we stood at the meeting point, the corner of 135th and Lenox, in the shadow of the Schomburg Center, the guide had passed around a photo. It was a picture of the street that crosses my corner of Lenox Avenue. The caption on the back read West 133rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 1880–1881. Today, standing at the corner of 133rd Street looking east across Lenox Avenue (formerly Sixth Avenue), one sees the six towers of the Lenox Terrace apartment complex. The picture showed that same area, but in 1880 it resembled a moonscape. The terrain is utterly flat and is covered by a rough sod. In the foreground stands a group of three attached brick townhouses. Their windows form an orderly grid, and the steps leading up to each building look bright white, untrodden. Most importantly, this group of three houses doesn’t connect to any others. They stand isolated, with empty space on each side. After a gap of about twenty yards, a second cluster of three attached houses is seen to the right of the first group. They are also flanked by open space. Beyond that group, after another twenty yards or so, we see yet another bank of houses. Across the gaps they seem to reach toward each other. These three groups of houses are built parallel to each other, in a line, respecting the logic of an invisible grid. But the houses do not quite form a street. They form the beginning of a street, the intention of a street, the merest suggestion of a street.
In the far distance, visible through the gap between the first two sets of homes, there is a fourth detached set of buildings. It is the dream of another street. Toward the vanishing point, flanked by nothing at all, is a solitary tree, a remnant of what was there before this idea of a neighborhood was imposed on the landscape. The picture preserves a moment when the idea was not yet accomplished, it hangs between dream and reality. This is a pre-historic Harlem—nothing that counts for History has happened there yet. There is sky, open space, and very little shelter. Without the caption, it would be hard to know if this was the beginning or end of a civilization—a place just being built, or recently destroyed.
This is Harlem, barely inhabited—at the very beginning of its settlement in the 1880s. The buildings are only a few years old, the vast blank spaces between them are evidence of how this land—a farming suburb—was haphazardly annexed by the metropolis. The houses were built as speculative enterprises, each group of three representing a gamble by some intrepid pioneer. The bourgeois commuter society that would grow up here is not yet established, nor are the other houses that would eventually complete this and other streets.
The houses in the picture all face south, toward settled Manhattan, expectantly oriented toward the people who would arrive from downtown. But there are no people in the photograph. And though the buildings themselves suggest the presence of people, the arrangement of those structures in that space and the utter quietude of the landscape collides with the clamor we know should accompany buildings like those. Curtains hang in a few windows of the first group of buildings. One window, on the top floor of the middle house, is slightly ajar. Someone is there. Or, someone has been there and just left. Or, someone is about to arrive.
Here, blank spaces, which are possibilities, prevail. This picture shows what is about to be built, and also what is now already gone. In the 1950s the houses and tenements and even the very streets from 132nd to 135th between Lenox and Fifth avenues were razed in a slum-clearance program, to build the high-rise middle-class housing complex of Lenox Terrace. A single row house remains, hidden in the midst of the towers. Nuns live in that house. There is some empty space on either side, and it no longer lines any street.
I used to stare into similar wide, open spaces as a child. I grew up in a city where the combined meaning of the words urban and planning was imprecise. To reach the side of town where we lived, you took a highway from the city center that crossed vast stretches of undeveloped land. From the window of our car, I stared into these spaces. I sought evidence of activity in the deep distance—perhaps a figure dashing across the field—from which I could invent a story. Typically, the only figures in those fields were small herds of undernourished horses or cattle. This brittle land was used as a makeshift pasture—livestock foraged for nourishment among the dry brush between oil pumps and electric towers. I looked out the windows of our car to see how far into the horizon my eyes could carry me, watching for something I hadn’t noticed before. But that landscape never changed. It was twenty years before new housing was built along that highway. When I was a child, those fields were always marked with faded billboards offering the acreage for development, perpetually in search of a willing taker.
When I came to live in Harlem, the fenced-off, overgrown empty lots here also attracted my eye. At first, they were evidence: I had indeed arrived in the place I’d heard of. The empty lots held some significance similar to the feeling when, riding from the airport in New Delhi, I first saw cows in the road. Yes, this is the place I have heard about, I’d thought. There are cows all over the road exactly as they were in the guidebook pictures. The empty lots in Harlem had the same verifying quality. Later, those empty lots provided something beyond veracity. They were a place for the eyes to rest. This was not some romance for ruins. These blank, disavowed spaces had been labeled as blight, but they provided a visual and mental break from the clamor of the buildings and people. There was a hint of the horizon.
Here was solace from the crowded landscape—both the physical crowdedness of buildings and people and the crowd of stories and histories. A friend of mine describes certain cities as being full—too much has happened there, you cannot move. Paris, he says, is the quintessentially full city. I suspect he’d say Harlem is another place that is too full—though its crowdedness and overpopulation have been discussed in other terms. In the empty lots, my mind escaped history.
Later I understood that these empty fields were indeed the setting of a history, the loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight. But at first, as in Texas, those spaces where my thoughts played were just settings for scenes and fancies whose significance was fleeting. I admired the wild patches of Queen Anne’s lace that grew up in summer. Independent businessmen used some lots as locations for unofficial open-air markets, selling used furniture or vintage clothes.
Many of these places are now occupied by new condominiums. One is now a Mormon church. As the empty lots disappeared, I became more interested in what was there before. In some places it is possible to see what was there: the foundation of a building remains, a front stoop rises up from the sidewalk but leads to nothing. Such things recede into the background, part of the natural history of this place, as if they had always been like that. But this is the evidence of an unnatural history—it was not always this way, it came to be that way for a reason.
There are new empty lots different from those I noticed upon first arriving. Returning after a year’s absence, I found an empty lot at the southwestern corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street. It was covered with fresh gravel, to stop its reversion to a wild field. When I first saw the lot, something sank inside of me—the sensation mocked the feeling of a demolition, a building brought to its knees. This new empty lot opened a new horizon: from 125th Street you could see clear through the block to 124th Street. But the view was not one that gave rest or inspired the eye and mind. There was only the instantaneous, frantic search for something that once was there, and was there no longer.
It was a grand old apartment house whose facade hugged the corner, making the intersection look like a stately plaza. It might have been a candidate for landmark status, but its windows were sealed up with cement bricks. Soon after I arrived in Harlem the few tenants remaining in the building’s storefronts—a decrepit Chinese restaurant, a flamboyant haberdashery, a store specializing in women’s undergarments, and a shoe shine and repair service—had all closed up shop.
The building stayed in place long after those stores had gone. For a few years it brought revenue as the background for various athletic-wear billboards; for several seasons a heroic image of Muhammad Ali, having just knocked out an opponent, loomed over Lenox Avenue. I heard a rumor that the building had not been demolished because a family lived inside and that they’d defiantly refused to leave when the other tenants cleared out. This seemed impossible with all of the windows bricked over, and I never saw anyone enter or exit the building. But I did always see—through a small window in a battered door on Lenox Avenue—a light illuminating the vestibule.
There used to be an empty lot near my house, on Seventh Avenue just south of 133rd Street. One day in summer, I saw through its chain-link fence a pile of watermelon rinds at the rear of the lot. There was an open pit in the ground nearby, where someone was burying the waste. Later, the pile disappeared and the open pit was covered by recently turned earth. Soon, construction began on that site. It was only a matter of weeks before the frame of a new building rose up on the lot. A security guard was now stationed there each night to guard the property. He didn’t wear a uniform, and, like many of the men (and sometimes women) who work security jobs at construction sites in Harlem, he was an immigrant from West Africa.
Later, when construction was nearly completed but the premises were not yet occupied, I passed again one night and saw through the building’s glass doors the outline of a man sitting in the condominium entry. There were no lights on inside, he kept watch in near darkness, visible only by the light of a nearby street lamp. Whenever I passed the spot, I looked to see if anyone was inside. Sometimes the guard was there, slumped in his seat, sleeping through his shift out of exhaustion or boredom. Other times, there was only an empty chair. A few times, the watchman waved hello. Once, the figure beckoned me inside.
I didn’t accept the invitation. The building still looked unoccupied, but a large sign now hung from its facade. The building is called the Ellison. To advertise the property, the sign shows a photograph of a handsome, clean-cut young black man in a suit. He is shown in regal profile, his eyes are closed, his chin is lifted toward the sky. Change your state of mind, begins the sales pitch for the new condominiums. The man on the sign looks lost in contemplation, on the brink of transcendence, about to receive some celestial enlightenment. Or maybe the picture captures him with his head thrown back, his mouth about to unleash a howling laugh.
I found a picture in the digital archive of the library. The circumstances were not extraordinary; I was not looking for anything in particular. I had merely typed the word Harlem into the image archive and waited to see what it would yield.
The picture shows an intersection, but nothing about the juncture is immediately recognizable. A large apartment building sits in the background, and in the foreground stand a man and a boy. The back of the man is turned against the camera, the boy is seen in partial profile; they are watching the scene coming toward them and toward me.
It is only people walking; it is not remarkable. The men all wear dark suits with waistcoats, and fedoras or newsboy caps. There is a woman in the group wearing a skirt of black organdy that shines against the dominating flatness in view. Another group stands under the awning of a storefront, their backs also turned against the camera. The store’s sign—w. a. holley pharmacist—is crowded alongside advertisements for Coca-Cola and other billboards. One promotes a new comedy called 309East. At ground level is a sign for straw hats, a partially obscured sign for a cigar shop, and another sign, drugs. At the left edge of the frame is the slightest suggestion of street furniture: a lamppost or subway entrance. There is an unidentifiable piece of debris on the pavement. Most people in the picture walk determinedly, in the typical city-dweller’s trance, but one walker—forever caught in the middle distance—is worth noting. His hands are in his pockets, his upper body torques as if he is turning, midstep, to greet a friend. There is something familiar in his stance. It is the strut of a Harlem dandy, and his descendants can still be seen on the streets. Although the quality of the photo is poor, and the camera is too far away to capture any defining features, there is the faintest flash of white where his mouth would be. He is in the middle of a shout or a smile.
An apartment building occupies the background on the far side of the intersection. Just visible in a few of the upper-story windows are figures looking out from their apartments—people surveying the happenings on the street, keeping watch from within. No one looks at the camera. I can tell from the clothing of the walkers that the picture dates to the 1910s. The shadows should tell me the time of day, but I can’t decipher the angle at which they fall.
It is a Harlem street scene. It is another Harlem street scene. It is not an especially crowded scene, so it does not tell the story of Harlem’s legendary crowdedness. The people are elegantly dressed, so it does not tell the story of Harlem’s legendary destitution. The comedy advertised on the billboard is the movie adaptation of a 1919 stage play of no great distinction—the story of a minister’s daughter who comes to New York, lives in a boarding house, winds up a chorus girl, and then falls in love—so it does not tell the story of Harlem’s legendary artistic outpouring of racial consciousness.
In fact, the story that captured my attention was not told by the photograph itself, but by its caption. The picture is titled Within Thirty Seconds Walk of the 135th Street Branch. There is nothing to indicate whether these words were fixed to this image by its maker, or by its cataloguer. It gives a piece of information not contained within the frame: there is no street sign in view alerting us that this corner is the intersection of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. For the caption’s author, the crucial thing was not the exact location—we do not learn whether you could reach this scene by walking north, south, east, or west. Essentially, the caption does not describe what the photo shows. Instead, it offers a lesson about perspective that has nothing to do with the position of the photographer’s camera. According to the caption, the people we are looking at, and their various activities, are not of primary importance. The scene is important only in relation to what is nearby. For the author of the caption, defining this image for the official record, the crucial thing was time: thirty seconds was all it took to go out and meet this scene. The source of its significance is its distance from the library. All things in the street refer back to the library, just as the hour of the day around the world is determined by one’s distance from Greenwich. I scan the image looking for some other sign and wonder how many times I have hurried over that very spot.
It has the character of a clue from a treasure hunt: Within thirty seconds’ walk of the 135th Street Branch you will find.... But there is a tear in the parchment. It is not possible to hunt treasure with such incomplete instructions. Within thirty seconds’ walk of the library you find a Halal grill cart manned by Egyptians, and West African women standing at the subway entrance, selling the Daily News and New York Post. Walk in another direction and you find the Yemeni bodega where I go for tea and junk food while working at the library. At the intersection of 135th and Lenox, within thirty seconds’ walk of the library, I once found a man toting a portable xylophone who offered to play me a song. He walked with me in the direction of my building, chiming his keys, but he would not tell me, when I asked, the name of the tune he played. He acted as though it were an insult to ask, and a blasphemy to answer.
Within thirty seconds’ walk of the library, just near the corner of 136th Street, a handsome and serious-looking African man sells incense, perfume oils, and shea butter. Watching him during my breaks from the library, I notice that usually he is not minding his wares, but sits planted beneath a sidewalk tree reading the Koran, making notes, and manipulating a length of prayer beads. I imagine him to be a diligent scholar of Islamic law and wonder how he came to be a street merchant outside the library. One day, taking my break under a nearby tree, I saw that he’d been joined at his station and in his activity by two attentive students. I could not hear his voice, but the tender incantations of his young charges, timidly repeating their lessons for review, carried over the sound of traffic from that makeshift classroom beneath a shade tree. First they answered in concert, then each child spoke alone. The smaller of the two boys struggled to stay focused. He scribbled hurriedly in his composition book when his eyes were not darting up and into the crowd, as if searching for clues in the faces of the people streaming by.
Before moving to Harlem, I often visited the library as a college student during trips to New York. At the time I didn’t think of this as “going to Harlem,” because I was “going to the library.” Technically, when setting out on such journeys I was already in Harlem, because I was always staying with a boyfriend just north of Columbia University. If I’d been more enterprising, I could have walked to the library, or taken a series of buses, but instead I’d take the local 1 or 9 line from its elevated tracks at 125th Street and Broadway downtown to 96th Street. From there I would then take the express train back uptown to 135th Street and Lenox, via the 2 or 3 line, which deposited me directly at the library door.
When I came up from the station, it was necessary to get my bearings. This was not difficult—on one side of the intersection at 135th and Lenox was the hospital, on the other side was the library. I could invent for you the street scene of a decade past, some loud summer noise or curious encounter, but they would be just that, inventions, because I don’t remember a thing. I don’t remember a thrill that was specific to being in Harlem. The thrill was in the library. Harlem was the place I rushed past to meet it. The library was my true destination.
Once inside I settled into my work. My research at the time was scattered but intense. I went to the library armed with a list of topics, usually for some writing project that was never accomplished. The library was where I read the history of the Scottsboro trial. I read about the cult of the Black Madonna shrines scattered throughout Europe, deciphering the controversy about whether the faces of the Madonna statues had been black intentionally, perhaps hearkening back to dark goddess worship beginning with Isis, or whether the images had become blackened through the operation of time and the residue of smoke from candles burned by her devotees. I studied minstrel shows. I read about the Great Migration and about the public execution of a twelve-year-old slave girl in 1786. All of these subjects consumed me at the time, the answers to a series of questions whose urgency I have since forgotten. Even though the hours spent at the library in those years did not produce any tangible achievement, my pilgrimages were carried out with a great sense of purpose: I was in the place I needed to be in order to know all things. But my visits to the city were brief. I would leave the library and dash out past Harlem, back to New York.
Looking through my own old photographs I found a strange souvenir of those days, a picture I do not remember making of a vista I don’t recall having admired. It is a street scene, a Harlem street scene. It shows the intersection of 135th and Lenox Avenue—looking south down Lenox and taken from a slightly elevated view. When I first discovered the picture, it took some moments to understand how I could have achieved such an angle. Looking closer, a slight glare revealed that it was taken through a window. I soon realized only one place could have offered this particular vantage point: the library. Perhaps I’d abandoned my research that day and had been staring out the window. But I was looking out at nothing in particular, it seems. I did not train my lens on an event taking place in the distance or on any specific person. From the clothes of the people in the street I can tell that it was winter. There are no shadows by which to tell the time of day.
Another picture in the library shows the point of departure for that thirty-second journey. It is the reading room of the 135th Street Branch, in 1935. A group of fashionable aesthetes are gathered for a portrait. They sit in a formal semicircle, with some in chairs and others standing behind in a second row.
The static composure of these figures suggests none of the clamor that could be found in the intersection just a few yards away. The Staff and friends of the Negro Division of the 135th Street Library occupy a distant realm. The gentlemen sit with legs placidly crossed and arms folded in their laps, the women tuck their ankles in quiet propriety. One man wears white spats over his shoes; some of the women hold pocketbooks. The ladies are coiffed with hairstyles plastered into finely marcelled curls. One woman’s dress fastens with a multitude of buttons, another wears a corsage. In center of the room is an Italian marble sculpture of the great nineteenth-century actor Ira Aldridge as Othello, depicted at the moment when he mournfully clutches Desdemona’s handkerchief. Around the room, framed pictures hang salon-style, and bronze busts decorate the tops of bookshelves. In the background, African masks jut out from the wall. Standing in the back row, unassuming, is Arthur Schomburg, the man whose collection was contained in that library, the man whose search for origins made the place a destination.
What became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture began as the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Indeed, the now world-renowned specialist collection was, at first, just a few files of newspaper clippings on black history, collected by a white librarian, Ernestine Rose, and her black assistant, Catherine Latimer. Upon arriving at that post in 1920, at the moment when the slowly accumulating mass of blacks was beginning to assert its permanence and purpose, Ernestine Rose devoted herself to creating a facility that might answer the question posed by the crowd in the streets outside. As she saw it, Instead of considering the Negro problem shall we not treat the Negroes as individuals, with the opportunities and restrictions only which surround all individuals?
If the street was the place where black Harlem constituted “the Negro problem,” where people were only of sociological interest, then the library would be a temple of the individual, worshipping the personal aspirations and collective triumphs of black people and their culture. The purpose of the 135th Street Branch, articulated early on by Rose, was to preserve the historical records of the race; to arouse the race consciousness and race pride; to inspire art students [and] to give information to everyone about the Negro.
Rose and Latimer set up a program of poetry readings and book discussions, and, most important, they began to build a small collection of books, periodicals, and clippings related to the history of black people in Africa and America. The novelist Nella Larsen worked there as a librarian. The young poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes were regular patrons. Of course, a great many other seekers came to the library whose purposes and accomplishments will never be known. The black history collection soon became so popular that the librarians, after consulting with a committee of local intellectuals, removed the items from general circulation in the lending library, keeping them on the upper floor of the branch, where they could only be retrieved for reference on the premises. The few books available on black history were so frequently used and so much in demand that many hard-to-find and irreplaceable books were read until they fell apart.
By the time this mania for the black past was unfolding at the 135th Street Branch library, Arthur Schomburg was already a noted bibliophile, well known for the breadth and value of his collection and the ardor with which he pursued it. Schomburg belonged to a circle of race men who were also book fiends, sharing and trading recent acquisitions. Before there was such a thing as the “New Negro movement” he had cofounded the Negro Society for Historical Research, was a member of the Negro Book Collectors Exchange, and a president of the American Negro Academy. These organizations were all ambitious in their aims and they were all short-lived, but their existence tells us much about the spirit of their age. The desire of these men to uncover the forgotten history of black people was matched by a desire to protect and steward that knowledge.
The books and documents Schomburg and his colleagues hunted were precious, and they had to compete with better-funded white collectors. According to one history, Schomburg once refused to sell his collection to a wealthy white man because the prospective buyer wouldn’t reveal his plans for the materials. Upon learning that many white institutions had impressive collections of historic black books, Schomburg wrote to a friend, You would be surprised to know that libraries in the South who bar the Negro’s admittance have a large amount of his literature.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a native of Puerto Rico, born to a German father and a black mother. His interest in black history was sparked when a teacher told him that black people had no history. By the time he was living in Brooklyn and making a respectable, middle-class living as a mail clerk at a bank, he was still passionately attempting to refute that charge. Schomburg was said to have a magic sense that guided his quest for new material, spending his lunch hours and weekends digging through New York’s antiquarian bookstores. In his search for treasures, Schomburg corresponded with other collectors around the country and abroad, including Haiti and Liberia. He drafted friends into his research, sending requests to travelers like James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke when they were just about to depart for sojourns in Europe. He also traveled around the country, partly because of his duties as a freemason.
In addition to collecting, Schomburg produced monographs and papers on neglected black figures from world history. His pamphlet Is Hayti Decadent? investigated the political situation of that country leading up to and in the midst of the American occupation. He researched and wrote of notable men of African descent who made important but sometimes forgotten contributions to world history, including the Chevalier de Saint Georges, the Guadeloupe-born composer and courtier; Antonio Maceo, a black officer in the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain; Alessandro, the Florentine duke who was known as “the Negro Medici”; and Leo Africanus, the Moorish geographer from Granada, a place Schomburg visited during his only journey to Europe.
In 1925, the 135th Street Branch library hosted an exhibition featuring a small assortment of Schomburg’s collection. There is a Negro exhibit at the New York Public Library, one report began. Within a dozen cases there lies the story of a race. A dozen cases, narrow, shallow, compressed and yet through their clear glass tops there shines that which arrests, challenges, commands attention.
Writing of that same exhibition, without mentioning that the collection on display was his own, Schomburg issued what may have been a challenge to that old schoolteacher who had robbed him of his claim to history:
Not long ago, the Public Library of Harlem housed a special exhibition of books, pamphlets, prints and old engravings, that simply said, to skeptic and believer alike, to scholar and schoolchild, to proud black and astonished white, “Here is the evidence.”
The exhibit was so well received that in 1926 the New York Public Library, with a grant funded by the Carnegie Corporation, purchased the entire collection for ten thousand dollars. The Schomburg accession included more than five thousand books, three thousand rare manuscripts, two thousand etchings and portraits, clippings albums, and several thousand pamphlets. Among the treasures were original manuscripts of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar; an original, signed edition of Phillis Wheatley’s poems; and an original Proclamation of Haitian independence, signed by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Schomburg’s collection was added to the existing holdings at the 135th Street Branch, forming the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints. Though he relinquished ownership of his collection, Schomburg did not give up its stewardship or his quest. He continued to acquire items and in 1932 was appointed curator of the Negro Division, overseeing the fulfillment of his vision until his death in 1938.
The original 135th Street Branch building still stands. It is one of several libraries in Harlem dating back to the philanthropic atonements of the Gilded Age, all funded by Andrew Carnegie and all featuring facades in the Palladian style. The Schomburg Center was enlarged in 1977. The new addition was made to connect to the old building via an atrium, though its style does not at all communicate with the old one—one is a civilizing fantasy of the European renaissance, one is a purifying fantasy of Afrocentric brutalism. After the library closes in the evening, the upper rooms of the old library remain lit. Walking across 135th Street at night, I am often startled by shadows that can be seen through the ivy-covered windows. They are only busts and statues in a windowsill—their silhouettes throw outlines against the drawn blinds. But at first they look like moving figures, busy in the library after dark.
Some time passed on Lenox Avenue before I knew Julius Bobby Nelson by name. This is because when I first arrived there, I did not know anyone and was not known by anyone. When I passed into and out of my front door, the people standing at my stoop would part to let me enter and part to let me leave. For a long time little was exchanged between us except “excuse me” and “thank you.” I didn’t know who they were, or where they lived, these older people who stood facing Lenox Avenue during the day, or the younger ones who came at night to guard the same spots. But they seemed to belong there more than I did, provoking in me the need to practically apologize for my presence at my own front door. I was not used to living in the middle of it all, right there on the avenue with only the thinnest of veils to pass through before meeting the world.
Eventually I did begin to know my neighbors and be known by them, but this process happened by degrees. I came to know Ms. Bessie and some of the others, even those who eyed me with some suspicion at first and did not speak unless I insisted on it. Sometimes I would pause before going out or pause before going in; and this became my habit, so I was often late to wherever I was going on account of having paused at my door to chat.
I don’t remember if I was going out or coming in the day I met Julius Bobby Nelson. I don’t even remember for certain if what I am about to tell you happened on the day we formally met, or if it is simply a day I remember with some clarity because what he said compelled me to write it down. I would have already known his face by then, and he would have known mine. It was spring. I had probably stopped under the tree to speak with Ms. Bessie or Ms. Minnie when Julius Bobby Nelson got my attention and beckoned me to him with a pull of his eyes and his hand and a flick of his chin. I knew he wanted me to come closer and listen to what he had to say.
To listen well one must come close indeed, for his speech is somewhat impeded. I am not sure of the reason, but the longer I listened the clearer he became and the more I understood. Sometimes I heard him with a tantalizing clarity, but then a crucial word would disappear into the back of his mouth, never reaching my ear. Before I knew him by name, I knew him by this manner of speaking; in my head I thought of him as “The Mumbler.” He did not seem bothered by or necessarily aware of my difficulty in understanding him. I never noticed anyone else having this difficulty. When I still knew him as “The Mumbler” we had at least one exchange: he told me that he was a champ, that he’d been almost pro. I never did ask what he was a champion of. I assumed it was boxing, and I assumed that was why he spoke the way he did.
On the day I learned his name, Julius Bobby Nelson beckoned to me and said, I live here… I grew up here, and I knew immediately he did not mean the city or even our neighborhood, but the block in which we stood. He is a tall man, and as he stood there, it was like he stood on the whole block all at once. He waved his large hand in a gesture only slightly more dramatic than the one which drew me into his audience. He took the whole block into view—indicating the breadth of his knowledge and the passage of time. He told me that his mother and father had lived in No. 469, the building adjacent to mine, his sister had lived in No. 471, and his school had been P.S. 89, the Douglass School. He pointed out the Douglass School, which is no longer there. We both faced the direction of where it was not, on the southwest corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, directly across from the library. A tall apartment building is there now.
He mentioned names and characters and happenings without any explicit suggestion of their significance. It was in this way I learned about the gypsies, about the guinea Italian in the cigar shop who wouldn’t sell him a hot dog, about Dick’s liquor and about Chicken Joe and the butcher. It was in this way I learned that they didn’t kill the white lady at the school. At the time, these facts hung together in a way that fails in the retelling, and you will understand that I did not stop him to ask who were they or who was the white lady or under what circumstances did they not kill her at the school.
To point in a different direction was to land upon another set of disjointed facts. He pointed across the street where Lenox Terrace is now, and he said I built it and he said bricks and he said twenty-year lease and he said horse and carriage. As before, I did not stop him to beg for clarification. He told me that his nine brothers had lived across the street, he said something about the all-boys school on 119th (he said “nineteenth”) while looking down the avenue in that direction. When his eyes came back to rest on me he said, I live here. I grew up here. I know all of it.
Julius Bobby Nelson told me more of what he knew, and I continued not to understand all of what he told me. He said he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and later, when I went inside and wrote this part down, I noted that he repeated it with a certain glint in his eye. He told me about a river, but I did not understand the name of it, and his repetitions did not help. Ms. Barbara was sitting there under the tree with us and she understood what I did not. He was talking about the Cooper River, she said, and she asked What about that river? Whether he answered or what was the meaning, I did not record. Some importance was attached to it, I noted, or merely my own curiosity. He returned to more immediate geography. First he pointed northeast to the Franklin Theatre on 135th Street just off Lenox, which is now a church, then to another theater, the Lincoln, on 132nd Street behind McDonald’s. It is now an empty shell.
He pointed behind me, and for a moment I did not turn in that direction. I knew he was pointing at the funeral home on the next block. He said he was friends with the man—I don’t know if he meant the proprietor or the man being buried that day. It was then he began to present riddles even stranger than before. Watch the walking, not the dead, he told me, and I had to have him repeat it. The ones who are walking, not the ones lying down, he said. I asked him to run it by me one more time, and then he said something about having laid a body out.
I am what I am, he told me. I am the law.
That was it. Was there anything more to say? Thus did God rebuke the impudence of Moses, when he dared to ask the unspeakable name. I went inside. Later that afternoon I left the house again and I saw Julius again and he began again: I am what I am who I am.
Now Ms. Bessie was sitting under the tree. He pointed to her and said he knew her son, her daughter, her daughter-in-law, and a long list of other relatives. Ms. Bessie nodded to affirm his knowledge of her whole family. I did not doubt he could tell me the name of every person who had ever lived on the block. I know everybody, he said, and pointed again in the direction of the funeral home, as if to continue the point he had begun earlier. Clearer than anything else he said that day, he asked, See that hearse over there?
My notes drop off here. I didn’t write down what he told me about the hearse or who was in it. I did write down that Julius Bobby Nelson mumbled something more about the South and about Mississippi, but those were the only words I made out. I did not speculate as to what he meant to tell me, but I was sure it was something pertinent. Once, he pointed toward the library but he made sure to indicate that he meant the old library.
I went through all the books, he told me. I’ve read every book that you’ve read.
After that day we seemed to understand each other. Our conversations take the pattern of a strange dance: he leans in too close and I step back, trying to look as though I am not in retreat; I step in and his attention is carried off by someone else passing by, or some drama unfolding down the block. Often Julius Bobby Nelson says something that makes me throw my head back in laughter, only just now I cannot remember any details to pass on the jokes. When I came back after a year’s absence, I saw Julius Bobby Nelson, and we picked up precisely where we had left off: the gypsies, I built this, I know everybody.
Julius Bobby Nelson is not the only one with stories to tell. When I meet Ms. Minnie at the door of our building she is often alone. She goes out early in the morning to get fresh air. As soon as winter comes she scolds me for not having enough clothing on. She does not want to see even a triangle of skin between the top button of my coat and the scarf wound about my neck, because she says the tiniest gap is enough space for a cold to get in. If I am bundled up when we meet, she takes equal note—I have heeded her suggestions.
Often our conversations veer back toward her home. Without any specific motivation she will tell me how they used to make soap out of lye and lard in a cauldron in the backyard, and how she used to pile into cars with her girlfriends and drive from South Carolina to Georgia to go to dances. Mostly our conversation happens out of doors, though once—when I passed her standing at her threshold when going upstairs to my apartment—we spoke and exchanged our usual greetings and she brought me inside her place. She showed me her collection of precious objects that included delicate Chinese pieces and carved wooden sculptures and heavy antique irons, the kind you’d heat on a wood-burning stove. As she showed me each item and explained its provenance, I was in awe of this unexpected intimacy that rarely accompanies alliances made on the street.
Often Ms. Minnie’s stories have the quality of a sudden revelation: we are talking about something that happened yesterday and end up a few decades in the past, back in South Carolina; we are exchanging polite greetings and I end up in her apartment looking at some of her most treasured possessions. Once when I passed her, and she asked me about my day, I produced my own unprompted intimacy. It was the birthday of my dead grandmother, Cora. Ms. Minnie, noting the day, March 17, said it was a good number. I was headed inside, but told her I wanted to show her a picture of my grandmother, so I dashed upstairs, collected it, and then came back down. Someone else was there so I explained again that it was my grandmother’s birthday, though my grandmother was dead. Ms. Minnie looked at the picture and said, Still, we celebrate.
She tells me important background information of certain unsavory characters on the block, as a warning. She says that to get this information you must sit and watch, stop and stare. She declared that she was street smart, and I asked her if she’d always been that way, even when she was new in New York. She said that she had been. Often now, when stopped on the street writing down some detail in fear that it will not be there when I return, I think of Ms. Minnie gathering her information and telling me to stop and stare.
Then there is Monroe. For a long time I did not know his name, so in my head I called him Mr. Mississippi because he is always asking me, When are we going to Mississippi? He asks this because I am always saying I want to go there, and he is always telling me about his home. He is from a place called Yazoo City, and it is near the Mississippi River. Although I have been on that river in New Orleans (staggered by its breadth, its murk, its riverboats advertising a journey back to that more graceful time When Cotton was King, Sugar was Queen, and Rice was the Lady in Waiting), in my imagination I’ve always pictured that when the Mississippi rolls through Yazoo City it is a mere creek, a bit of water trickling through. This might be because Monroe once told me that to get to the house where he grew up you have to cross the river. Something about the way he told it made me think that this was a crossing made as easily as I sometimes jump over puddles by the curb. I later learned that, even in Yazoo City, the Mississippi River is still mighty. One day I intend to see that place. Monroe told me that after the river, you have to cross railroad tracks. It is a white house on the hill, impossible to miss, and there is a great plum tree there. I like to think that by these particulars I could find my way through Yazoo City, to the setting of Monroe’s stories, like the time he was trapped in an empty country church as a boy; how he’d gone and sat at the mourner’s bench where sinners are supposed to confess and disbelievers are encouraged to abandon the fate of certain damnation. There, he told me, he was attacked by a horde of wasps that descended from the rafters, and he said they’d never before made a sound during Sunday services when the church was full. As he told it, the story seemed to deliver a great unspoken parable, whose lesson I could not determine. He tells me he knew Emmett Till, and that he used to ride the rails, never venturing too far from home. He left for New York on a truck heading for the strawberry fields upstate, but eventually he made his way to Harlem and did not go back to picking.
One day I met him and my simple question of how he was doing was met with a dark glower. It was a bright morning in late summer but he said he was in the middle of a storm, and that it don’t feel good, and that he was trying to push it back.
He was all alone, he said, and it had something to do with people in North Carolina. I didn’t understand the reference to North Carolina, since he was from Mississippi, but as soon as I expressed my confusion he changed the subject.
I dreamed of my home, he said. My home must have been a devil’s town.
He’d seen a field of cotton, and the cotton heads, the bolls, looked like the heads of snakes. Then, he said, the plane came and killed the cotton. I did not know what he meant. It killed the cotton?
Don’t you know about the boll weevil? he asked. Do I have to tell you the boll weevil story? He did not seem to want to tell the boll weevil story, but I knew that the boll weevil had its part in the history of Harlem, because when southern cotton crops were overrun by this scourge that had come from Mexico, many sharecroppers gave up and came north. I didn’t mention this, I simply asked with some enthusiasm for him to tell me the boll weevil story.
It’s too long, he said. That’s a long story. He gave me the short version. The boll weevil eats the cotton. The plane comes to kill the cotton. Without any further explanation, he returned to the scene of his dream. The cotton was lying down. Miles and miles and miles, he said, of cotton laying down. He was in the backseat of a car with two people. They must have been the devil’s disciples, he said.
That was the end of his dream, or the end of his telling it. He said it made him worried—maybe there would be a hurricane. I told him I wanted to go Yazoo City. He misunderstood me. You been?
I told him I hadn’t been, yet. He said, You better go before it’s gone. The river is right there! The Mississippi River is right there. This shadow of destruction was overtaken by another. It’s thick with white people. You got to go to a certain part to see black people. I asked him if it had always been that way and he said it had been, as long as he’d known. He said the black part was full of black people shoulder to shoulder, like blackbirds flocking. You ain’t seen the blackbirds flocking, he said. They fly in and take over the whole space. I would like to see it again.
That’s a long story. Once my neighbor Ms. Barbara was telling me about growing up in South Carolina on land owned and farmed by her grandparents. She was on her way there to attend the annual family reunion and said the best thing about going back was that all the family still lived on the land, in different parcels nearby, so she didn’t even have to get in a car during her whole trip, they just walked back and forth visiting with each other. Ms. Barbara told me I should join her at the reunion one year, and I said I would very much like to. She told me how her grandfather used to own a lot more land and that they’d never had to work for white people, but he had sold it off for $150 per acre. Because she used to help him with his business by doing the receipts, she had suggested he sell for $500 per acre. He had not taken her advice, but he had only sold to blacks.
During the course of her telling me all this, and about which cousins would try to flirt with me at the family reunion and about all the things they used to grow on the land, Ms. Barbara mentioned in passing that she had been born in Harlem but taken back to South Carolina as an infant to be raised by her grandparents, and that she’d come back here as a young woman. It was related as a minor detail, but the thought of Ms. Barbara being born in one place, carried away as a tiny baby, and then returning sounded like an epic.
There are other stories I have forgotten because I didn’t write them down, and if I lived on a different block I would be told different stories. This fact strikes me when passing a corner that is not my own, where, in front of the liquor store or the bodega there stand arrayed a group of men—strangers to me, but familiar in disposition. They warily eye my advance until I broach a hello, inviting a chorus of returned salutations. If I tarried a bit longer, or invented a reason to pass those other spots with regularity, I might gain a new set of friends and a new set of stories. Another writer might have done just that, trawling each gathering of street-corner men as doggedly as Arthur Schomburg once searched dusty bookshelves. But I say hello and continue, thinking to mind my own business, thinking I should not turn my daily life into a hunt for “material,” and knowing that I could never linger long enough on enough different corners to hear all that everyone had to say.
Once I was far from my usual circuit—“far” being 127th Street near Eighth Avenue as opposed to 133rd and Lenox. I was not walking slowly; I was not looking for a story. Despite carrying on at a normal pace—with a normal attention to my own business—I heard an old man tell a short yet complete, and completely staggering, tale: He kicked me in the head and I stabbed that cracker in the heart and he died. My daddy brought me here in the back of a truck.
It’s a long story, indeed.
There are times when I go to the library on a daily basis, so that when I pass the neighbors on the way—calling out good morning or good afternoon—certain ones of them ask going to the library? and most of the time I am. My researches there have grown only slightly more focused, so that when I am on assignment and need to learn everything about the history of Liberia in a week’s time, or all there is to know about the Haitian revolution, I spend some days at the library.
When I am bored with my own efforts there is much else of interest. High above the main reading room are the four mural-sized paintings by Aaron Douglass. They portray various stages in “the black experience.” The figures are all in silhouette; they don’t have faces, and their bodies are dark and angular. But this characteristically modern lack of expressive features does not detract from the anguish of the scene of Africans being kidnapped into bondage, the scene in the cotton fields, or the muscular striving in the scene of blacks moving into the industrialized cities. In the painting depicting slavery, a figure stands apart from the rest. He reaches out with his arm and points into the distance. There are no cardinal directions in a painting, but it is safe to assume that he is pointing North—he is indicating: Onward! He leads the way to freedom, and also progress. So when I am bored with my own progress, I am reminded to take some of his initiative, look back down at my work, and carry on.
Once, I was looking for information about the numbers game because I never understood my neighbors’ attempts to educate me about Harlem’s clandestine lottery. On finding me a hopeless pupil, one neighbor abandoned the effort, adding that I didn’t need to know about the numbers anyway. This is why I was at the library with Rufus Schatzberg’s Black Organized Crime in Harlem: 1920–1930 open on my desk. Schatzberg, a former New York City police detective who in his retirement became a PhD specializing in criminal history, gives an account of petty crime in Harlem as
a three-way standoff in which the white policeman, racketeer, and politician standing on Harlem street corners find themselves at the very center of a silently contemptuous world. There was no way for them not to know it: few things are more unnerving than unspoken hatred and hostility. Thus exposed, they retreat from their uneasiness in only one direction: into callousness and violence that become second nature.
My study effort about the numbers racket was accompanied by other research fulfilling a separate line of inquiry, an article I was writing about the national movement seeking reparations for slavery. So, aside from my extracurricular investigation, among the books which I’d called down that afternoon was We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People. The book compiles the effort, led by Harlem-based Communist Party leaders William Patterson and Henry Haywood and endorsed by Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois, among many others, to enumerate the crimes committed against black people in America, from lynching and other forms of mob violence to police harassment and brutality. The 1951 document of grievances was presented to the United Nations, to lodge a case on human rights violations in the United States.
I must have been moving from one train of thought to the other when a name in the litany of abuses and abusers jumped out at me. One episode mentioned in We Charge Genocide was the May 4, 1950, case of a Mrs. Charles Turner of New York City, prominent proprietor of “Mom’s” restaurant. Mrs. Turner was beaten by officer Rufus Schatzberg and other unidentified police when she and a very fair-complected Negro man companion, Melvin Barker, were leaving her place of business after closing time. Schatzberg was suspended. The information stunned me. I could not make any sense of it. There was not any sense to be made. Yet it seemed to suggest an order within the library. Its design was unfathomable and inaccessible from any catalog system—a great labyrinth whose center could only be reached by walking steadily, blindly, with one foot placed in front of the other. One book held the key to another, though it solved a riddle I had not been trying to answer, and provided information I did not know how to use. What other mysteries might be unraveled the more often I came and the longer I stayed?
I heard a man ask the librarian for a map of Africa with the whole thing on it: Tanzania... and Khemet. I heard a different man ask the librarian for a book that would show him a secret underground city in Egypt. The librarian did not know the place, and probably suspected, as I did while listening to their exchange, that this secret underground city did not exist. When he insisted, she tried to direct him to the well-known subterranean carved churches of Ethiopia. A library patron who was also a Rastafarian once filled the reference section with his booming lilt. He complained that he shouldn’t have to speak softly, or not speak at all, in a library devoted to the culture of black people, because we were originally an oral people whose histories and stories were preserved by speaking. At the microfilm machines I looked over the shoulder of a man who had a fist Afro pick stuck in the back of his Afro: he was looking through reels of old issues of the Black Panther newspaper. I noticed that he paused at certain articles, including “In Defense of Self-Defense,” “Breakfast Programs,” and “Eldridge on Black Capitalism.” The man must have been observing me as closely as I observed him, because later he approached and invited me to attend the weekly meeting of the New Black Panther Party. He said that in preparation I would need to visit www.newblackpanther.com, study the Ten Point Platform, the Nine Objectives, and consult a list of study guides. Because I didn’t want to engage him in a long discussion, I accepted his card and nodded when he told me a name I would need to mention at the door, like a password, which I have since forgotten.
It was at the library that I later made the acquaintance of a man who said he was a member of the original Black Panthers, which means, for clarification, more original than the ones from Oakland, and certainly more original than the ones who meet these days in Harlem, under cover of secret codes. As a token, he gave me a copy of the item he had come to the library to find. It was an article in the New York Times, in which he himself was quoted. He had marked the quotation with blue asterisks in the margin. The headline said City Proposal to Rebuild Harlem Gets Stony Community Response. The dateline was February 3, 1983. One speaker, David White of United Harlem Growth, described the proposal as another game trying to get us out.
He also gave me a photocopied poem called “The Protector (about David White).” The author of that poem was not credited on the page, but a footnote mentioned that David White was a founding member of the original Black Panther Party started in Harlem, NY Summer, 1966, which had spun from the Loundes [sic] County Freedom Organization in Alabama.... This was pre–Huey Newton whose California group had received its orientation from the nybpp, then developed its own separate agenda.
One section of the poem was pertinent to the newspaper article, describing the forces against which protection was needed:
Flashing through the streets / covering kickbacks / documenting the process of deals made / to demonize the rightful rulers who seek / to grow the community / documenting the process of deals / dealing away what we want and never get. / Rape of our village / Rape of our landmarks / Rape of our future / the minds of the children / of all things near and dear / to the underpinning of what sustains / a people filled with hope.
I am sometimes distracted by what goes on at the library, but Arthur Schomburg anticipated all this activity in his contribution to Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology, “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” It is worth quoting at length:
The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset. So among the rising democratic millions we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and apt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.
But they do so not merely that we may not wrongfully be deprived of the spiritual nourishment of our cultural past, but also that the full story of human collaboration and interdependence may be told and realized. Especially is this likely to be the effect of the latest and most fascinating of all of the attempts to open up the closed Negro past, namely the important study of African cultural origins and sources. The bigotry of civilization which is the taproot of intellectual prejudice begins far back and must be corrected at its source. Fundamentally it has come about from that depreciation of Africa which has sprung up from ignorance of her true role and position in human history and the early development of culture. The Negro has been a man without a history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture. But a new notion of the cultural attainment and potentialities of the African stocks has recently come about…
History must restore what slavery took away. The imperative of these words has chased me since the first time I met them on the page. I was not the only person thus affected: in the copy of The New Negro at the library, some other reader, perhaps decades ago, had underlined those very same words. Schomburg proposes a daunting task for the student of history, one that may be beyond satisfaction. Yet, when I look up at the various students, scholars, hobbyists, and crusaders working at Mr. Schomburg’s library, I know he was accurate in describing the melancholy that compels us all: a yearning for the past from which our ancestors were irrevocably torn. Thus Rufus Schatzberg, thus Khemet. We are all looking for the underground city. Sometimes it seems the library is that city, and we at the library wander its unnamed streets—alone yet in a crowd—walking with our heads down to solve mysteries written on the pavement.
The emblem on the ex libris of the older books in the library—the bookplate that labels them as property of the Schomburg Collection—is a new interpretation of the Egyptian winged orb, adapted for some personal myth. The original symbol once guarded the entrance of all the temples in Egypt, thresholds to the underground domain of pharaohs and gods.
The symbol celebrates the victory of Horus over Set, the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. In the version depicted on the Schomburg bookplate, the traditional orb at the center of the symbol is replaced by a simple drawing of an opened book, the typically Egyptian wings unfurl from its pages. The Egyptian symbol is also associated with Freemasonry; the bearer of this sign has attained the highest degree of knowledge.
When we consider the facts, certain chapters of American history will have to be reopened. Schomburg had an unyielding faith in the facts, a faith in some latent power to be unleashed once all the facts have finally recovered from oblivion. And now? The facts are there at the library, open for consideration. I have only scratched the surface, stumbling through Mr. Schomburg’s labyrinth. I have not even ventured to touch the audio recordings of oral histories and photo collections, the complete correspondences and the boxes archiving the exhaustive research of various long-ago scholars for books that were never written. Schomburg was delighted by what he called the dust of digging. But I confess to sometimes feeling buried by it. So the Negro historian today digs under the spot where his predecessor stood and argued.
But I remember what Julius Bobby Nelson told me: Watch the walking, not the dead. Langston Hughes’s ashes are interred under the lobby of the Schomburg Center. Often, the poet’s remains are mentioned along with other notable items in the library’s holdings, as if they are merely another item on the miles of bookshelves. I am not sure if it was the poet’s own desire for his earthly remains to spend eternity beneath the feet of library patrons. I walk gingerly across the expanse of tile beneath which his ashes are sealed, observing as much decorum as possible, when taking a break from various labors in the underground reading room. Fragments of Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” ring the cosmogram on the floor created in his honor. It is a map of the world, but not an easy one to read: blue streaks flow from the center. In the poem, the rivers tell time: the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, the Mississippi.
The Langston Hughes Atrium is available as a rental facility, so that Hughes’s resting place is also the location for receptions, conferences, and cocktail parties. Once I came up from the reading room to find a reception and conference taking place there. It was attended exclusively by Senegalese and was being conducted in French and Wolof. It seemed to be a conference focusing on business and real-estate development in Senegal. I would have ignored it, but one of the many displays crowded into the space caught my eye. It showed the map of a vast city. I recognized its name, Touba. Along the stretch of West 116th Street called Little Senegal there is a shop called Touba Wholesale, whose business involves shipping goods to Africa. It is adjacent to a restaurant that advertises its dual specialties in “Jamaican and Southern Style Cuisine.” Several other African stores on 116th share the name Touba; it is also a brand of coffee sold in those same shops. The store windows are filled with shelves bearing cans of Touba coffee stacked in alluring displays, among other dry goods imported to supply homesick West Africans. The picture decorating the package shows a tall minaret rising from the mosque at the city’s center.
Touba is the holy city of the Mourides, a sect of Sufis in West Africa. There is a concentration of Mouride faithful in Harlem’s Little Senegal. Touba means “bliss,” referring to the eternal life afforded the pious. The city’s mosque holds the shrine and burial place of the Mouride saint Cheikh Amadou Bamba. It is now the destination of a pilgrimage so grand that detractors charge it as blasphemous for attempting to compete with Mecca; during the life of the Cheikh the same land was a vast wilderness. It was the place where he launched his teachings on how seekers could keep to the spiritual path by emphasizing work and generosity, along with other teachings that made him an enemy of French imperialism. According to the conference brochures, a massive suburb was being developed in the neighborhood of Touba—un projét de realisation de 12,000 logements à Touba—presumably allowing those Mourides who are both faithful and well-heeled to dwell as near as possible to the resting place of their ascended master.
On another occasion, I visited the library and found that a large gathering was taking place in the auditorium just beyond the Hughes memorial. It was a public hearing convened by the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, who was then traveling the country to take testimony that he would present in a report to the international body. The hearing went on for hours, with hundreds of people signing up to bear witness to historic and contemporary experiences of injustice, violence, and indignity. These ranged from the treatment of Haitians seeking asylum to inequalities in education and housing, and from the plight of mothers who had lost their children to a sometimes draconian child welfare system to the difficulties faced by ex-convicts who wish to find work. Some speakers presented their testimony with the cool detachment of academics. Others, relating the more immediate horrors of their daily lives, approached the rapporteur as if he were endowed with the power of direct intervention. The rapporteur listened to them all, and when the hearing was done, he thanked everyone profusely, but took great care to mention that his only power was to listen and then to submit a written report to the larger body. He said he hoped the facts would be taken into consideration.
Around the same time, the library hosted an exhibition in its gallery on the art of that Senegalese mystic sect whose saint’s shrine is found at Touba. Their holy men minister with words. If you are in need of guidance or are in ill health, the priest will write out a prayer that is also a prescription. The ink is washed from the wooden board where he writes; you are cured by drinking the water that washed away the words. In other instances, he might write out the remedy on a cloth. You make a shirt from it and wear it till it falls apart, or wrap yourself in it and, while covered in this shroud, the words heal you as you sleep.
There are many things you will not find at the library. I am thinking of my friend Ms. Bessie. At some point early in our friendship she told me that she used to write home every week in the days after her arrival in New York at nineteen from a town called Scotland Neck in North Carolina. I have often wondered what she said in her letters home. She did not elaborate, she probably mentioned those letters in a sharp-eyed aside between asking after the health of my mother back in Texas and lamenting the unfortunate constellation of the number that had just hit.
Dear Family, all is well here, I imagine they began. Do not worry, the winter is not so tough. I am putting away money for a new coat and here is a bit for you. She told me she lived on Lenox Avenue when she first came here, around 126th Street, and at some point I walked past that location and it looked as though a very long time had passed since anyone had called it home. The apartment is nice, sister is here, on Thursday nights we go dancing, the lady at the job is not so mean.
The lady at the job would make her clean a spot and then clean it again and stand over her watching as she worked. This lady was a Russian Jew, Ms. Bessie told me without malice. That lady is long gone, she said.
The boss lady is long gone and so is young Ms. Bessie on her knees scrubbing a floor somewhere on the Upper East Side during the middle 1950s. Also gone are Ms. Bessie’s letters home not describing that scene as it was happening—this, perhaps, was not the kind of news you sent home in the weekly letter. Dear Family, New York City is full of charms and I miss you.
Ms. Bessie once said that there wasn’t anyone left, that she would like to go home but there wasn’t anyone at home. If there isn’t anyone there any longer, there is almost no question that her letters weren’t preserved. They are all scattered; they are all gone. If she hadn’t mentioned them to me, I would not have thought to ask. Ms. Bessie’s letters are not at all the kind of thing you can expect to find in Mr. Schomburg’s library, because they are not, in his sense, evidence of anything of much importance. They would give evidence of a girl going from a small place to a much larger place; evidence of the people she left behind and the ones she came to know; of the places that gave her shelter that are no longer there; of the cruelties she suffered at the hands of people who are long gone. But not evidence that could be lodged in an argument about a people’s humanity or claim to civilization, or a refutation of the charge that black people have no history. The letters of Ms. Bessie and the other dutiful daughters writing home to North Carolina and South Carolina on a weekly basis would be summed up as a footnote in a story about migration and boll weevils and the war-driven manufacturing boom.
The letters are gone, and so is the building across the street where Ms. Bessie once lived. She points to the towers of Lenox Terrace. They were erected where tenements and brownstones once stood, razed during the hyperactive slum-clearance programs of the 1950s. Ms. Bessie remembers all of the addresses of all of the buildings where she’s ever lived in Harlem. She sometimes plays their digits in combination for the daily number, along with the addresses of the buildings where her sisters lived, and the birthdays of her sisters and the birthdays of her dead husband and dead children.
My neighbor Bing always asks me how this book is going. How was your day? How is the library? How is the writing? Once, after many months of asking those questions, Bing greeted me as I came out of my building on the way to the library. He took my shoulders firmly in his hands, sent me off with a kiss on the cheek, and said he hoped I’d finish the book soon. On another occasion when I arrived home in the evening, I found him at the stoop, and he asked me how the day had gone. A younger man, whom I did not know, was standing nearby. He was interested in the book, too, and upon hearing I was writing about Harlem he began to be excited. Everything you need to know you can just ask him, said the younger man, indicating Bing, somehow acting as a broker for all that Bing knew. I agreed, saying there was a great deal I would like to learn. But Bing protested that everything I possibly needed to know was in the library. The younger man didn’t listen to me or to Bing. He eagerly began to list what Bing could tell me about Harlem, about all the famous writers and artists and musicians and athletes who had lived here, about the riots and the hustlers and much more, but I had stopped listening to him and Bing was staring across the avenue into the dark.
Eventually the younger man left. Bing sat down next to the door in one of the discarded dinette chairs that serve as sidewalk furniture. There was a second empty chair, so I sat down, too. I told him I would like very much to hear about his youth. He told me he had grown up on 135th Street, where the hospital is now, where his tenement building stands no longer. He said I’d find in the library a picture of the building the way it used to look. (I did not realize it then, but I had already found such a picture; that apartment building looms in the background of the photo labeled Within Thirty Seconds Walk of the 135th Street Branch). I told Bing I’d look it up next time, and that he would have to tell me more about it. Though he nodded at the suggestion, Bing resumed staring. After a few moments in which neither of us said a word, he declared it was time for dinner and that he would be going in. I went inside, too. I did not return to the library the next day, or for many days thereafter.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and Transition. Her first book, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, is forthcoming from Little, Brown.
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