The Once and Future Harlem

The Once and Future Harlem

A sense of common destiny with Africa ebbs and flows in New York's gentrifying black enclave.


Two children absorb the images and sounds of Harlem in 1943
Two children absorb the images and sounds of Harlem in 1943 (Negative by Gordon Parks, Office of War Information)

On West 116th Street, I saw the remnant of a poster from a recent election. It’s not uncommon in a neighborhood where flyers from Obama’s first contest remained in place long after inauguration day—celebrating a campaign so long as to become permanent, or perhaps maintained out of a disbelief that something that could be understood as victory had finally come. But here the slogan was not “Change” circa 2008, or the “Forward” of 2012, but “Votez contre les Talibés.”

Someone had tried to rip the sign down, so the details were not legible. What remained pasted to the building’s facade bore the image of bare, dusty feet against dry earth. Later I learned the poster was part of an effort to raise awareness about the plight of young boys, known as talibés, or “disciples,” who are sent to Dakar from the Senegalese countryside for Koranic studies and then forced to beg in the streets. On West 116th Street, the heart of Harlem’s Little Senegal, I have often swerved in and out of the sidewalk games being played by the children who live there, and thus between Africa and America. The poster asked that citizens participating in Senegal’s July 2012 elections remember the other children and vote to protest against their circumstances: their families forced to send them away, their religious teachers able to exploit them. The issue was as worthy of attention on 116th Street as it was an ocean away.

All politics are local. Soon after the liberation of Timbuktu by French paratroopers, I went into the Maliba African Market at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 119th Street. A crinkled envelope was taped to the cashier’s booth; on its front was scrawled “Donations to the Malian Army.” There was nothing official about the enterprise, but it made the conflict there immediate in a way that recent headlines had not.

The next time I visited, the envelope was gone. Since the woman behind the counter barely made eye contact, I didn’t see an opening to ask if the money had been conveyed or whether collections had ceased due to sudden questions about the legality of raising funds for a foreign army. I lingered and listened while a man came in to ask about sending something to Bamako, but my eavesdropping French failed mid-sentence, so I didn’t hear whether it was a parcel or cash. I focused instead on how the man and the shopkeeper pronounced the name of the city, studying the relative nature of what is near and what is far.

In 1925, the scholar Alain Locke declared that Harlem would be a race capital that focused a people. His words were like a magic trick: describing the place and speaking it into being, all at once. From Harlem, Locke said, blacks would enter American democracy. He was speaking when the idea of black Harlem was just becoming a fact. Now the idea of black Harlem is on its way to becoming a memory. Recent data show that the black population no longer forms a majority in Harlem, and 15 percent of black residents are foreign-born. Historical black Harlem has always been home to Caribbean and African immigrants in addition to Southern migrants and native New Yorkers. Whether co-existence equals common destiny involves two different narratives. According to one, the neighborhood is a fount of meaning, a hallowed ground. Meanwhile, there is the larger story of immigrant New York, where 116th Street and its environs are no more or less sacred than any other past or present ethnic enclave in the city’s boroughs. A place to enter, yes. And a place from which to move on.

* * *

Common Destinies

My connection to African Harlem has failed to advance much since I moved here more than ten years ago. I survey our shared territory by way of transactions; go to shops to find Tunisian dates still on the stem; and retrace culinary footsteps by purchasing the dried black-eyed peas that entered the American palate via the transatlantic slave trade. I search for loose mint, sweet bissap tea, a clay vessel for burning incense. There is raw cocoa butter, African black soap and Senegalese takeout. I buy phone cards to call an old friend—they have names like Mother Africa, Speedy Africa, Made in Africa or Mandela, and sometimes feature ridiculous graphics: lions and leopards and silhouettes of savannah landscapes.

This pattern of consumption does not match the moments when black Americans in Harlem threw their lot in with struggles on the continent. It was in Harlem that Marcus Garvey grew his Universal Negro Improvement Association, declaring “Africa for the Africans at home and abroad!” In the 1930s, Harlemites rallied for Emperor Haile Selassie and agitated against the Italo-Ethiopian war. Harlem received Kwame Nkrumah, first as a student working as a peddler and later as the father of African nationalism, when he was met by great throngs in the streets. Those crowds gathered at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, a corner known as African Square, where Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore stood (it was the self-proclaimed “Repatriation Headquarters for the Back to Africa Movement”). The bookstore was torn down to build the Harlem State Office Building—a project opposed by a three-month protest encampment in 1969. The plaza that replaced it is still the location of public meetings; soon, it will undergo a $21 million renovation that will reimagine it with a yearning theme, invoking elements from fifteen African villages and the Nile River. I once saw a meager group at the plaza, marching in circles to celebrate African Liberation Day and chanting, among other slogans, “Mugabe is right!” That they were marching on territory seized from the former Repatriation Headquarters mattered directly to their unyielding support for the liberation-era leader turned dictator. But the size of the crowd suggested how few were keeping tabs on the debate.

After a century of what the historian Richard B. Moore called “Africa Conscious Harlem,” where can one find that sense of common destiny with Africans on the continent, let alone around the corner? The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th Street, just off Lenox Avenue, is a bazaar featuring African jewelry, clothing, instruments, oils, incense—each stall selling nearly the same goods as its neighbor, variety being unnecessary in the service of tourists and locals seeking Afrocentric accents. Its existence dates to the mid-1990s, when the Giuliani administration moved to stop vendors from operating on 125th Street. The market, developed in collaboration with the nearby Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, was opened to house African traders displaced by the sweep. The mosque, whose green onion dome once dominated the skyline of 116th Street, is now overshadowed by a condominium tower.

When considering common destinies, this moment of local politics is instructive: the 125th Street vendors were divided between African and black American vendors. The African traders coalesced around the 116th Street market anchored by the mosque. A different location, Mart 125, was the stronghold of those black American vendors who chose to lease space in the city-owned building. But now it is defunct, shuttered by the city due to unpaid rents. It stands empty, awaiting “revitalization” as part of the new Harlem.

Walking along West 116th Street, I came to the Association des Senegalais d’Amerique. I stopped to look at a sidewalk table with reading material. Most of it was in Arabic, so I perused a copy of The African Sun Times, a New Jersey–based weekly whose front cover announced the wedding of a British-Nigerian NFL player to Miss Angola 2011. It is edited and published by Chika Onyeani, author of a self-help book titled Capitalist Nigger, as well as a spy thriller reviewed twice in his own newspaper’s book pages. A man emerged from inside the association building; I asked if I needed to pay for the paper and he motioned no. When he remained standing in the doorway—half in, half out and taking my measure—I decided to broach a conversation. “What happens here?” I asked. He looked at me above the rims of his glasses with an expression both scolding and vaguely affronted. He didn’t say a word. Into the silence, I offered the obvious: “It’s the Association of Senegalese—” I began. “Yesssss,” he said. The awning above him read: “A Community Center for the Community.” I thanked him and wished him good day.

So when I came upon a similar group a few blocks away, the Association des Maliens de New York, I did not go in. In the windows were tourism posters for Dogon Country, Djenné and Timbuktu, announcing them as “l’Afrique Authentique.” A sign out front less romantically advertised the “multi-services” on offer within: copy, fax, scan, notary. Through the vertical blinds, I could see walls covered with group portraits. They reminded me of similar photos showing members of benevolent associations that served Harlem migrants of a century past: the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, the Virginia Society, the Georgia Circle, the Southern Beneficial League.

Later, I returned to the Association des Senegalais and was greeted by Kaaw Sow, who manages the center. He sat behind a small glass window that opened onto the storefront’s main room; a poster on the wall advertised a fundraising campaign for the group to buy a Lenox Avenue townhouse, to be known as Senegal House. Sow explained his work connecting recent immigrants with housing and employment opportunities and how many of the association’s services—tax preparation, for example—were open to all. It didn’t take long for our conversation to arrive at that most local of political issues: gentrification. Sow said it affected foreign- and native-born Harlemites alike. West 116th Street is full of recently emptied storefronts, and he lamented the entrepreneurs who are losing their businesses to rising rents.

Sometimes, in conversation with West African neighbors, or on a bus with a fellow passenger, or venturing a few words as I accept the black plastic bag with my just-purchased items, or chatting with the driver of a livery cab, I will ask, “Where are you from?” The response will be “Africa,” as if that is a satisfying answer, a whole continent being too much for small talk. I always ask, “Which is your country?” Mali, Senegal, Guinea, I am told—the centers toward which African Harlem turns. A vendor on 116th Street sells miniature flags from those countries; sometimes you see them dangling from the rearview mirror of a cab. They share the same colors, the red, gold and green that many new African nations adopted upon independence, borrowing from the never-colonized Ethiopia. Those colors were adapted into Garvey’s red, black and green black-nationalist flag, still seen all around Harlem.

In 2011, Lizzy Ratner wrote about the 100-block divide between Wall Street and Harlem, and how the recession ground on in the historically African-American neighborhood while high-end restaurants to the south were chock-full of previously disgraced and scorned financiers. Read all of the articles in The Nation's special issue on New York City.

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