There are very few words synonymous with blackness. “Harlem” fits that bill. Harlem is a place, yes, but it is also an idea; it is an exhortation. It is our very own Oz. In fact, Harlem, unlike most things in America that signify blackness—“inner city,” “urban,” “welfare”—is triumphant. It represents the very best of us, black excellence epitomized, from Malcolm exhorting love for self from a street corner (Harlem’s most famous street, Lenox Avenue, is named for the man), to serving as Jimmy Baldwin’s stomping grounds and muse.
From Harlem’s very pores drips blackness. Moreover, black humanity. Harlem is all of us: good, bad, indifferent. It is attitude, energy, spit game, furs, ice, poverty, violence, chuuuuch, hair braiding, check cashing, queerness, black doctors and numbers runners, mosques, funeral parlors and dibi, collard greens, chicken and waffles. It houses The Rucker tournament where streetball reigns supreme. A Harriet Tubman statue with roots in the ground. It is the roots of Dapper Dan and Dame Dash.
Marcus Garvey’s first meeting was held in Harlem. Malcolm made his bones in Harlem. Langston’s home remains in Harlem. As does Maya Angelou’s. Zora Neale Hurston lived here. Hell — even in popular culture, “Harlem Nocturne,” “Across 110th Street,” and yes, “Harlem Blues” all sing its song.
It’s Mo Betta Blues and Mo Bamba. Cam’ron and The Cotton Club. Madam CJ Walker. Small’s Paradise. Adam Clayton Powell. Aaron Davis Hall. Columbia and City College. The Harlem Renaissance. Even its underbelly is legendary: Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, Rich Porter and Alpo in all their violent glory helped to gift Harlem its exquisite flavor. It’s an energy. It’s a boast. It is black humanity, black excellence, black culture and fame. From the projects to Striver’s Row, Harlem is blackness personified. The Studio Museum. The Schomburg. The Apollo. The National Black Theater. The National Action Network. It is the “collective black consciousness” that pours into the streets to mourn the death of our icons (Michael Jackson, Prince, Aretha, Mandela, Castro) and celebrates our wins (see: the night Barack Obama became president in Harlem). In these architecturally unique blocks lay a village like no other in the world. In this relatively small space (110th Street to 155th Street, east to west), Harlem has been gifting us its exquisite flavor to a hungry world since forever. Its very streets are named for us: Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Malcolm X Boulevard...
Harlem today has changed, sure. The astronomical rents of “Money Makin’ Manhattan” have driven many of its inhabitants further north to the Bronx, or even out of its confines. It is openly very queer. Very (West) African. Very gentrified. And so it morphs into our future. It evolves as any living thing does. But its legend, its people, will ever remain the very best of us. Ain’t NO party like an uptown party. There is no competition.
There has always been a strong cultural component to Harlem, from The Harlem Renaissance, a literary and arts movement that saw the best of our folk (Langston, Zora, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen) converge on this place to imagine and write a world; to today where cultural institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the HarlemStage, Aaron Davis Hall, Schomburg Center, National Black Theatre, and the Legendary Apollo still stand. But there always was a political movement, too, from Marcus Garvey holding his first meeting in Harlem, to Adam Clayton Powell’s fight in Congress, to Malcolm X’s rallies, to Al Sharpton and the National Action Network today.
From Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club to Teddy Riley, Kurtis Blow and Kool Moe Dee, Diddy and Doug E. Fresh and Dip Set. Today there’s A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, Dave East, Teyana Taylor, Azealia Banks and 16-year-old Sheck Wes carrying on the tradition.
The very first time I ever heard of the then-weird sounding, now popular pairing of chicken and waffles, it was from my mother who said she used to go to Sherman’s BBQ in the 1960s/70s and get the breakfast/lunch meal. It is said to have been served in supper clubs in the 1930s, and today it remains. Harlem invented chicken and waffles. And the pairing is perfect, like Harlem: Sweet, savory, satisfying.
There are damn near too many to name (see above and then add about a million more).
Cultural touchstone or unique black fact
I could talk about the time in 1960 when Cuban leader Fidel Castro came to America and stayed at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem (at the invitation of Malcolm X) after being disrespected at a midtown Manhattan hotel; or when in 1958, Martin Luther King was saved by the doctors (some black, of course) of Harlem Hospital after being stabbed with a letter opener which almost pierced his aorta. But for me, there’s Hamilton Grange, which was the “country” home of Alexander Hamilton and sits right in “Hamilton Heights,” adjacent to the City College of New York. Hamilton, now made even more famous by a little play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, resided in Harlem and was the child of an alleged creole woman from the island of Nevis. He wrote the Federalist papers, founded the U.S. Mint, the Bank of New York, the New York Post, wrote part of the Constitution. He was also murdered like so many other giants from this part of town. To me, he was just another Harlem dude making his mark on the world. ; )