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.