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Harlem Vibrates with Possibility

13 Apr Posted by in Jewelle Gomez | 1 comment
Harlem Vibrates with Possibility

“I used to live in the world, then we moved to Harlem.”  So goes the opening lines of one of the poems in Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.”  I saw that theatre piece more than anything else before or since.  It signaled the possibility that art could actually center around women and opened the doors to my writing.

Maybe it was just the magic invocation of Harlem, the place that had become a dream for African American artists before, during and after the period that has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance.

For a couple of years I worked at the Harlem Cultural Council which had its office in the New Lafayette Theatre on 7th Avenue and 137th Street.  It was named for the famed, original Lafayette, which had been the premiere stage for Black Theatre during the Harlem Renaissance. It had been home to productions by the best and the brightest including Orson Wells’ reinterpretation of Macbeth with an all Black cast.

I used to get off the train at West 135th Street and see Harlem Hospital, the birth site of James Baldwin (and a lot of other people, famous and not).  As soon as I’d step onto Lenox Avenue I felt (or imagined I felt) the leaning in of all the creative spirits that had trod those mean streets.  The taps from the dancers at the Apollo still ring in the city canyons.

The air sings with energy as if you could become an artist just by taking a deep breath.  And maybe it’s true. The people filling the sidewalks were and still are an art piece.  They keep their heads up in the face of benign neglect, create amazing children and work at soul-killing jobs yet party with an expansiveness that includes camera toting tourists and kids of all ages.

Yes there is crime and decay.  Yes, it’s riddled with drugs and guns and politicians and fury.

But it is still Harlem.  Even with the current gentrification the city blocks vibrate with possibility.  The stoops and streets hold the memories of creativity.  Countee Cullen, Butterfly McQueen, Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Alberta Hunter, Beaufort Delaney, Bruce Nugent…and more.

When James Baldwin left New York for Paris in 1948 with less than $50 in his pocket he carried that spirit with him—from the art to the anger.  Like many writers he seemed to need that distance from the core in order to have a full perspective.

That perspective lends Baldwin’s work a profound sense of history making his writing revelatory and enduring.  Behind his words we can sense the stories of slavery from his paternal grandmother, feel his fear on his first trip to the south, his hurt at being called ‘frog eyes’ as a child, his outrage at the segregation that riddled the north as well as the south.

It’s not surprising, then, that it was in the move away from Harlem to Paris and in the novel, GIOVANNI’S ROOM, which featured white characters that Baldwin actually wrote specifically about his deeply felt emotions…his love for men.  The tragic tale of Giovanni’s love for a man who will not love him back is a sad reflection of the heartbreak in Baldwin’s own life.

In the yearning and unstoppable love of Giovanni we understand the passion that filled Baldwin’s life.  And like all of Baldwin’s fiction there is always more than the simple words on the page.  The passion Baldwin expresses is never just for the physical or the romantic.  Fortunately, Baldwin’s passion is not just for an unattainable lover, but also for justice.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website:

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