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December 10, 2008

‘I, too, am America’

Text by Anita Nair. Illustration by Bappa

The historic win of US President-elect Barack Obama takes Anita Nair on a nostalgic ride, as she remembers her first visit to Harlem and the ‘colour’ woes her Afro-American aunt faced

In November 2008, history acquired a new dimension with Barack Hussein Obama being elected as USA’s first African-American president. And as I watched President Obama make his victory speech, it took me back to a time when the idea of an African-American president still seemed a rather shaky proposition.

It was 18 years ago. A wet January evening in Washington Heights in Manhattan. My uncle, his African-American wife and I were sitting in an Irish pub. It was a place my aunt favoured and so we were there celebrating some workday triumph in her life.

As we talked, I said only half in jest to my aunt, “So when are you going to have a woman president?” My aunt took a deep sip of her wine and retorted, “I would think we need to have a black president first.”

From what had been a sanitised monotone evening, striations of colour made its presence. For the first time my aunt talked of the instance when fresh out of NAFT she was hired as a trainee designer by a fashion wear company, not exactly in southern most USA but south enough to be asked to use the service entrance because they thought she was one of the coloured housekeeping staff.

The ebullient woman she is otherwise, seemed cowed down in memory of the indignity of that moment when everything she had accomplished was negated by the sheer colour of her skin. And it was colour that had urged her and my uncle to buy a brownstone in the heart of Harlem. It was her edifice to having made it in a world where being white or black so determined where you stood. For the colour of Harlem is singularly black — ranging from a light mocha to a deep pecan to a glistening midnight blue. On the uptown A or D train, the compartments empty whites at 110th street. From there on, it is a black world.

Alex Haley’s Roots familiarised us with the multi-generational journey of a slave to a college professor. For both Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, the colour black is the temple of their familiars. But perhaps the most singular black voice for me has been Langston Hughes, the Harlem Shakespeare as he was called.

Though it has been 18 long years, my first impression of Harlem in New York is still freshly etched in my memory:
Piles of black polythene stuffed with environment-friendly garbage. Cruising blue and white cars. Rotting pizza crusts and orange rinds. The crunch of glass – crack vials. Bottles and broken window panes shattering underfoot. Leather coats and multi-hued afros. Korean vegetable stalls with crates heaped with yams, green bananas and other Hispanic veggies. Beat-up cars with radios blaring. Tramps, students, illegal immigrants. Sometimes a whiff of shit [read grass, weed] floating in the air. Jazz clubs, soul food cafes, churches, store windows advertising divorces for $150. Going under sales. And the smell of rancid cooking fat. Newspapers flapping in the breeze. Grates spewing steam, overflowing drains, and decrepit old houses…

North of 110th street stretching to 155th is a third world polyglot city within one of the greatest cities of the world. Harlem is a potpourri of people, languages, cultures and flavours. A place that boasts of the legendary Apollo Theatre. And the highest crime rate in the world.

But what many don’t know is that Harlem was also home to what was an unprecedented outburst of creative activity from 1920 until about 1930 among African-Americans in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions, this African-American cultural movement became known as The New Negro Movement and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become The New Negro, a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. He moved to Harlem, New York in 1924. Hughes is particularly known for his insightful, colourful portrayals of black life in America from the 20s through the 60s. “I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard Bach,” Hughes said.

Unlike other notable black poets of the period, Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people without personalising them, so the reader could step in and draw his own conclusions.

Hughes was the first African-American author to support himself through his writing; he produced more than 60 books – novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing. He earned critical attention for his portrayal of realistic black characters and he became one of the dominant voices speaking out on issues concerning black culture.

My uncle and aunt sold their brownstone when my aunt’s knees gave way. But for a long period it was a dream lived. That beautiful old brownstone house so lovingly restored by my uncle and aunt. That more than a 100-year old house had a kitchen on the ground floor with cast iron skillets, wicker baskets and a steel fridge. Here my African-American aunt fried chicken, baked the thanksgiving turkey, barbecued spare ribs and poured wine with a free hand. The attic, five floors high was a studio where my uncle painted when he was not gazing at the Manhattan skyline. Parquet floors, giant fireplaces, tiffany windows, this house was almost the architectural version of the Afro-American dream as sung by Langston Hughes in 1925 and the essence of what Barack Obama spoke at Grant Park:

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

Anita Nair is the author of the best selling novels The Better Man, Ladies Coupe and Mistress. Her new book is Good Night and God Bless.

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