Rolling into Harlem on a rainy Friday evening behind streaming Greyhound windows, I watch black men on streetcorners huddled around smoking trashcans wrapped in bulky jackets , straining to catch the wretched heat from the smouldering coals. Drunk winos passed out in alleys and doorsteps with a bottle of 40 ounce malt liquour, Crazy Horse or St.Ives, so raw it'll take the lining off your stomach if you're not careful. Lines of shops selling everything from Southern Fried Chicken to sewing machines , bolts of bright fabric , stacks of TV's,VCR's, stereos piled high and deep, sold quick and cheap under the name of the Great God Layaway. Nothing down and ten months to pay - if you're around that long.
Into the tunnel that stretches into New York like the tunnel into hell, except that there's no Cerebrus, just a couple of cops arguing over who's turn it is to buy the sugared doughnuts. Down into the tunnel we fly , into the bowels of the city where everyone gets kidnapped at Fates will and chewed up and excreted . The sun brightens and illuminates a couple walking hand in hand - the girl with her hair in cornbreads , the boy in overalls. Except for his bald head and beeper they could have stepped straight out of some dusty Alabama road. Children on the brownstone steps sit and watch me as I roll past them on the big grey bus.Their black eyes watch me , their mouths wrapped around hot food as they wonder where I've come from , where I'm going to, studying me and thinking perhaps, one day I'm gonna step up on a bus just like that and keep on travelling , dont know where, just somewhere else...........
Through a window, lace curtains like a veil, I see a TV flickering and a man chewing on cereal watching the news. He's wondering when he's going to find work again. He's a slave again, only this time it's now a white man who's his master but some unnamed deity who decrees who's going to work and who's not. Work , that blessing that bestows legitimacy , a position, respect on a man or woman and gives them the right to live, to give of themselves to the world around them, instead of just existing in limbo like some half-shadowed ghosts.
And here a mother sending her kid to school , patting his curly hair , making sure his backpacks on tight and that he's got his second best pair of sneakers on, not the expensive ones his daddy bought him. No use getting shot over a peice of canvas. And standing on a streetcorner, a baglady pushing a pram filled with her life. I remember lines from Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" - "You're black, you're poor, you're ugly , and you're a woman. You're nothing !" She doesnt look like nothing . Proud and regal , she is a queen in rags. Striding down the rain-swept street ,a tall Rastafarian with a cello, his dreadlocks swinging furiously as he strides towards his destiny. His eyes are focused on his feet, on putting one in front of the other , balancing his way through the world.
A faded sign , a jazz club , no Harlem Renaissence here. All the jazz musicians are gone, run to Manhattan where they sit in air-conditioned bars and play clean, antiseptic not-jazz for yuppies on their lunchbreaks , guys in horn-rimmed glasses and fancy braces. They pop peanuts and talk about their latest deal, their latest steal, their latest small coup that marks their importance - while behind them the jazzmen play tames, their fires gone, occasionally giving a polite solo that makes barbered heads nod in appreciation. Wow , that guy can really swing. Here the days of true jazz are a memory, the days of Bird and Roach, of Miles and Coltrane, of Dizzy and Ella , the days of skit-dat-diddly-bop-boom-zoop-did-da-a-tisket-a-tasket-I've-lost-my-little-basket...........the only music you hear now on the streets of Harlem is rap, bumping and jumpoing from the trunks of cars, East Coast flava boy and you better back up. Sound as true as jazz in it's rebellion and roughness.
America this is one of your organs, the humans just cells circulating in and out , just peices of some half-remembered dream, opium pipe dream, the figment of a choirboys imagination. America this is one of your children - but not one of your planned prepared efforts; this is a bastard , that grew like a weed , a marijuana weed and became an entity of it's own, with a soul and pride of it's own, a character that spat in your face and say to hell with you I dont need you anymore. America , watch this place for it is a palace from which the princes and princesses of tomorrow will come , and if there is discontent there will be rebellion. It is the seeding ground, the nursery . Watch over it to make sure that evil does not enter and guard it like the prodigal son it is. There is a rage in Harlem and it has not died.
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