Reflections on Harlem USA by S.K. Johannesen

Eric and I have corresponded about this project since its inception, a project which began in his fascination with the chess players of Saint Nicks, journeyed into moody footage of the Hudson River and kids playing in the streets, and settled on the story of gentrification—an intricate political and social process with many winners, many losers, few obvious heroes or villains, but whose inevitable outcome is an end to Black Harlem as it was. Nothing less than the end of a world.

Watching this film take shape has meant reliving and re-examining the peculiar experience of race of an American of my generation.

There were scarcely any black people in the white immigrant world of my childhood in Brooklyn. One knew all about the jokes, the flashpoints, the permitted licenses, when it came to Scandinavians, Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles. Even to an extent with the growing numbers of Puerto Ricans. Friendship was not impossible across these boundaries. If there had been any black people in my neighbourhood would I have had a friend among them? I don’t know.

I met black people later. I can’t say I ever had a black friend. I encountered black people, shall we say. All vivid memories. Memories of something at once familiar and wholly other. I come up with a short list.

—1953, a runaway kid, my first experience of the segregated South. Louisiana, Texas. Worked next to a black pin-setter in a bowling alley in Austin. He was the only one of us who could work three lanes at once. White bowlers would get drunk and try to catch him in his amazing acrobatic routine and break his legs. He just laughed.

—Also in Austin, washing dishes. Black cook named Wash and his assistant LeRoy. Sassy, kind, generous, funny pair, playing ‘the dozens’—the traditional insult-competition—on each other, unfailingly courteous to the white mostly divorcée car-hops. Two black Air Force officers passing through one day refused service by the manager. I saw through the kitchen door LeRoy crying and Wash holding him and comforting him.

—Back in New York, maybe 1956, me and two friends, a boy and a girl, take a trip to Harlem to hear Mahalia Jackson, who is singing for an Adam Clayton Powell political rally in a black church. We are lifted on the same tide of solidarity and spiritual sophistication that carries Jackson to flights you never heard on records.

—Year or two later. A girlfriend’s Ukrainian mother from upstate is a disciple of Bishop S.C.Johnson of The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith. In fulfillment of a promise we trek up to Harlem to hear him preach. What I remember of the evening is a courteous black cop at the head of the subway stairs, as though planted there just to watch out for innocents. Asked where we were going. Told us to take a bus the one block over, where the church was, which we did.

—Then the Army. Black sergeants in basic training the coolest people you ever met. I ended up in a colour-guard MP unit in Germany, however, that was almost entirely white. Except for a beautiful black guy who put us all to shame in spit-and-polish. Spent his leaves visiting a Danish girlfriend. He disappeared one day. First Sergeant got rid of him. Hints of theft in the barracks, which no one believed.

—In grad school I discovered the Harlem Renaissance and wrote a thesis on the short fiction in W.E.B. DuBois’s crusading, anti-lynching magazine The Crisis, little stories mostly about the tragedies of ‘passing,’ and its obverse, the dawning recognition of unacknowledged negritude. Crises of racial identity. Dramas of betrayal and of awakening.

I think now inevitably of DuBois’s great book of 1903, The Souls of Black Folk. Behind the particulars of Eric’s final cut, his tribute to a quietly eloquent, dignified people, the echo of DuBois’s grand, Biblical, quarrel with the Almighty: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?”