One of my flaws is that I get stuck in the past, re-rehashing experiences over and over. But recently it came to me that I’m being led into the pages of black history to help keep it alive.
When I resided in Harlem from 1993 to 2000, I often reflected that at any given moment, my foot could be landing on the same spot once touched by the giants of our culture. I imagined the white outlines of Langston Hughes’ steps as I trekked the same streets as he did throughout our Uptown neighborhood, with his landmark home (lower left) located at 127th Street, while my apartment nearby was at 132nd.
Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and more launched careers at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, and all around nightclubs thumped with the black magic of music legends, who made tracks to gigs in wingtips, slingbacks and peep-toe pumps.
In 1921, Ethel Waters (right) recorded for Black Swan Records on 138th Street in Sugar Hill. Pianist/composer Fletcher Henderson said he heard her performing in a Harlem basement one night, and invited her to come record some “sides.” Label founder Harry Pace claimed that Waters was his discovery, when he happened upon her at a cabaret in Atlantic City, and then sent her a ticket to come up to New York and record “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy.”
Waters maintained yet a third version of the story: “I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me,” according to redhotjazz.com.
The entertainer aimed for the stars, and never hesitated to give herself a raise, which proved well worth it to Pace, who reported: “I sold 500,000 of these records within six months.”
So you could make art in Harlem, as the Renaissance amply proved, and you could make love:
My future grandparents had their “meet cute” on the steps of the 135th subway station. That’s where Oliver Johnson bumped into Wilma Elliott one fine day when one walked up and the other down the steps of the station. The Caribbean immigrants—he from Barbados, she from Antigua—had four kids, including my dad, the baby of the bunch.
My parents met in Harlem, too, on 111th Street, where my mother’s grandparents lived on one side, and my father’s parents on the other. Mom remembers Dad pulling the ribbons in her hair when they were kids. Years later, after a military tour in Germany, they came home to Harlem, my birthplace. Who knew that as my parents rolled my stroller along those fabled streets, before they relocated to L.A. a few months later, that I would grasp Harlem in my tiny, balled fists, and never let it go?