Harlem: Red, White and New

Getty Images
Getty Images

It isn't often that you get to choose where to watch history in the making, but Election Night was that rare event that you could pick your perch.


I chose Harlem as my perch. I don't live there, but I work there once a week, tending to the cheese program at a wine bar—yes, a cheese program at a wine bar. You see, Harlem 2008 is different from the Harlem of the Renaissance and Harlem as the locus of black nationalism in the early '70s. My life wouldn't be the same without those Harlems. I read the Renaissance writers, and my first Gil Scott-Heron album contained the poem, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox," which made me go there 30 years ago in my first week as a New York City resident.

Postmillennial Harlem is a new and intriguing dynamic; it's perhaps the most comfortably integrated urban neighborhood in America. Not only has the demographic changed to what feels like 30 percent white, but it has done so with minimal fears of a takeover. Most Harlem residents are protected by very tenant-friendly rent regulation laws, and the neighborhood's vibe has assimilated the newcomers. It's the closest thing in New York to Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood of President-elect Barack Obama.

And while Harlem was a whole lot whiter than it was in Countee Cullen's day, for Election Night I knew I had to get away from all my downtown New York friends of a certain hue who feared an upset. C'mon people, this isn't John Kerry or Al Gore…or Michael Dukakis. I needed to get to Harlem.

When I got to East 125th Street after 8 p.m., I felt like I was early to the party. People were rushing around trying to finish their Tuesday. A few folks were gathered around TVs in barbershops and cell phone outlets, but there was no immediately palpable sense of anticipation. Then I heard a celebration bursting forth from a place called Renaissance Cigar Lounge—the kind of celebration you could hear from a block away. Pennsylvania had just been called for Obama, and the gleeful, mostly black coed crowd of cigar aficionados was cheering.

The party was starting.

Crossing 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, where Langston Hughes once lived, another cheer went up. This one came from inside Mobay, the Caribbean restaurant, where a party was already going strong. Ohio's first returns had come in, and the results were very positive. From there—as one state after another was projected into the Obama column—it was hard not to think of Parliament's underrated classic, Chocolate City.


I began to wonder what Aretha is going to sing at the inauguration.

My Aretha dream was broken by a horde of teenagers happily running down 125th yelling "new MF'ing day, y'all." They were followed closely by a couple glumly wondering "how long till they assassinate him."


Outside of Sylvia's famed restaurant on Lenox, an artist was creating an ice sculpture of Obama's name, and I began to notice a heavier police presence but with a difference. The officers were laughing it up with an increasingly giddy crowd. Some of the officers were wearing Obama buttons. Maybe we are on the brink of a new day.

By this time, it was after 10 and everywhere—from the Starbucks on the corner of 125th and Lenox, where folks were watching returns on laptops, to the Lenox Lounge, where a party was very live—everyone was doing electoral math. For several weeks, we'd known it was no longer "if" but "when," and now we knew exactly what time. Just after 11, when the polls closed in the Pacific Rim states of California, Oregon and Washington, the number crunchers were all concluding, the electoral vote tally would cross the 270 threshold.


It was time to get to the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building Plaza, where Congressman Charles Rangel was holding a party.

If at 9 I felt like I was early to the bash, now, barely an hour later, I was late. The plaza was packed with a big screen telecasting the event to the thousands who had gathered there, and I joined the burgeoning mass across the street in front of the Studio Museum in Harlem. You could see folks in the lower floors on the State Office Building gleefully watching. A series of speeches from local leaders took up time before 11 as the anticipation built. There were crowds at Times Square and in front of Rockefeller Center, but did those crowds have drum circles and choirs? This was Harlem style in full effect.


Then came the moment; the screen flashed the projection and a jolt of electricity that topped everything on this electric evening roared through the crowd, and the celebration was on. Speakers blared McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," then Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." While they were fixing the audio feed so that President-elect Obama's address to the crowd in Grant Park could be heard, someone stepped to the microphone at the State Office Building and yelled in classic hip-hop style: "All the registered voters in the house, let me hear you scream!"

No sooner than that, the roar died down, Florida was projected for Obama, and everyone laughed and cheered again. The victory had turned into an electoral landslide. The dream—yes, that dream, the one that had been knocked off course by 40 years of divisive politics from Nixon to Reagan to two men named Bush—was back on track. This neighborhood and this crowd were emblematic of what America could be and finally—FINALLY—we had a president to match.


As I walked over to Nectar Wine Bar to watch Obama's speech along with a packed house of folks sobbing and staring in wondrous disbelief, I saw kids chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A," and some folks proudly wearing American flags draped over their shoulders. The right-wingers didn't understand Michelle Obama's comment about being "proud to be an American." This outpouring of patriotism would have been an object lesson to the Fox News Channel folks of what pride actually looks like.

From that point, the party raged well into the wee hours. The ice sculpture in front of Sylvia's had become a photo op for everyone in the neighborhood. Impromptu parades cavorted down 125th Street happily coexisting with traffic. A jazz combo at Lenox Lounge took its party into the street. At the corner of 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, I thought I saw a man with his arm raised in a black power salute, then I realized he was holding a small camera recording the festivities. He looked like a guy who didn't smile easily, but he had a grin that just wouldn't stop.


After this celebration, it may be a long time before I hear car horns as an annoyance again.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter