by Jennifer Ciotta
As I ventured out into the freezing cold this past Saturday, I almost ran back inside, put off by the wind gusts of 15-20 mph. Yet this deemed to be a special occasion, since this was the start of Black History Month and I was to take a walking tour of Harlem, focusing on the 1920s Renaissance period. This is an era which is the paramount of African American history, since these years established black society in New York City and on a national level.
Bringing pride to the African American community were incredibly talented musicians, artists, writers and various leaders in politics and civil rights. In the 1920’s African Americans were thriving in Harlem, enjoying the benefits of living on Sugar Hill, a middle class section–a societal division which has a different connotation from the dying middle class of today’s America. Throughout the tour I heard explanations of the poetry of Langston Hughes, the hair care products of self-made millionaire Madame C.J. Walker, Baptist churches, gospel choirs and even the long ago speakeasies and old time jazz clubs.
Yet the one thing which impressed me the most was the Renaissance which Harlem is undergoing today. Unfortunately, this upper section of Manhattan has suffered greatly since the 1920s, giving way to run down buildings and violent crime.
Walking along, listening to the tour guide, I noticed brightly colored brownstones of such brilliance, I could not think of anywhere else I had seen such uplifting and positive paints. The streets were lively with vendors selling merchandise and cheerfully informing customers of how to get to Hamilton Heights or Bill Clinton’s office. As I trekked up Sugar Hill, around West 135th Street, the illuminated brownstones gave way to a view reminiscent of those I had seen in Europe with cathedral spires amidst modern apartment high rises. Back in the Harlem Renaissance, Sugar Hill was inhabited by the black middle class, which meant owning a multistory brownstone, complete with a live-in maid. Quite different from the modern day middle class of any race, it was difficult for me to fathom owning that much space in Manhattan, especially without copious amounts of money.
Battling the blustery conditions, I crossed over to the east side at 127 Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Hughes’ house is now owned privately thus we could only view the ivy crawling up the facade of the brownstone. As the guide shared with us, Hughes is one of the most translated poets in the United States, in fact, people enjoy his writing from fast-paced Asia to safari Africa. It is his poem “Harlem” from which theater and movie productions have been created. Crossing over every racial barrier, Hughes wrote these legendary lines:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
In this house lived Hughes, who was a mentor for struggling writers of every generation. He was the first black writer who made an income solely from his art–even if the income was modest. Being a quiet neighbor, as the guide related, Hughes used writing as his utmost form of self-expression.
The generation of Langston Hughes was also renown for its fabulous nightlife of speakeasies and nightclubs. To say that Harlem was the place to be and be seen in New York City during the Renaissance is not an understatement of any kind. Women wore elaborate costumes of feathers and fringe, while their male counterparts donned pinstripe suits and gentleman hats. This was a common site on the streets of Harlem, especially at the spectacular Apollo Theater. As the tour made its way back to the starting point, we paused outside the Apollo, with its world famous cream-colored sign with red letters vertically spelling out the Theater’s name. Opening its doors in 1934 the Apollo created a sensation which influenced the musical world of the United States. New music such as jazz, bebop, R&B, soul and hip-hop emerged from artists which have performed here over the years. Many in the black music community have risen to stardom at the Apollo. Such names include: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, and even Bill Cosby for his comedic standup.
We appropriately ended the tour at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on the corner of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. As the guide related to us, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg immigrated from Puerto Rico with a seemingly unobtainable goal–to promote understanding and tolerance among the black, Latino and white communities. Schomburg succeeded in regards to founding the Center and compiling black memorabilia such as slave narratives, artwork and rare books–many of which Schomburg discovered himself. Today the collection boasts five million items, and the Center receives funding from campaign drives backed by Bill Cosby and Maya Angelou.
As Harlem goes through its second Renaissance at the present moment, I am curious to see this section of Manhattan in years to come. Harlem is the third most popular tourist destination in the city; therefore, visitors from all over the world must feel a connection to this African American neighborhood and the history of the Harlem Renaissance. It is nice to see a community rebuild itself and reclaim a spirit which has been “deferred” for too long.