Harlem today stands as a symbol of America, the land of diversity and transformation. Million dollars homes and high rise apartment buildings attract people from all over the country, black and white, participating in this experiment of God for His people on earth. Man can and must live together in peace and harmony, it is the secret to the future. Expensive high end stores now seek to be part of this great excitement. In my youth and post depression days, Harlem still had the excitement, which continues to make it great and a mecca for all who wish to touch the heart and diversity of America. I sing Harlem it is the place of my birth and salvation. It was from its warm shelters that I learned the strength to survive and the courage to excell.

Harlem on my mind

 

 

Harlem is not some mythical place. It is not the battleground to fight all the battles of injustice. It is not that sacred streets where imaginary people believe imaginary things happened. Harlem is not the seat of capital for over 40 million Black people. Harlem is not the place where mental images of millions of people trying to break free from the throws of oppression. The images of Harlem and the reality of Harlem are not always congruent. Harlem is not the justification for the feeling of anger and frustration for the unrealized dreams of countless individuals who were never able to work out their soul salvation or the under expectation of their dreams. Harlem is my home.

Harlem is the land and place of my birth. The streets gave nurture and support to the hopes and dreams of many. Harlem is the place where school buildings welcomed students from all walks of life, and said sit down and learn. Harlem is the place where Irish teachers, one step above the poverty line, provided encouragement to individuals seeking to work their way up from the feeling of better, and into the possible reality of better, best. Harlem offered a view into the world of the possible. Harlem has the footsteps of the Langston Hughes, Count Bassie, Duke Ellington, and Arthur Schomburg. Harlem offered the voices of men and women who did not know that they were deprived or disadvantage, and were therefore on their way to becoming the best of their being. Harlem offered the passion and dedication of Adam Clayton Powel Jr. lifting his voice in a call for economic justice.

Harlem offered the churches, which gave daily and weekly support to a people and validated the uniqueness and correctness of their positions. Harlem offered the political battles between the passive theology of Martin Luther King Jr., and the proactive, “by any means necessary” of the my rights Right, and right now, Malcolm X. Harlem offered the well dressed, gloved and hat young ladies leaving church on Sunday afternoon, and meeting in Snookie’s Sugar Bowl on 7th avenue, to exchange small talk over ice cream and pie. Harlem offered many watering holes and ice cream soda holes where young people could meet and learn the rules of polite and acceptable behavior. Behavior was shaped and supervised by these watering holes by owners and managers of these Black owned businesses. Harlem offered an opportunity for advancement and change. Paying attention in school would be rewarded with a full scholarship to the City College. Admission into the college was the fastest key to upward mobility, and it was free.

 Harlem residents knew that education was the key to the future of anywhere. High schools accepting the Harlem residents prepared them for the world of gainful employment, or the College of academic professional studies. This resulted in mobility. Education means economic improvement and economic improvement often means a chance to try a different neighborhood. The flight of the Harlem educated resulted in a void that was difficult to fill. Harlem welcomed new comers to the neighborhood, but the new comers had no role models.

The height of the renaissance was followed by the flight of the role models and cultural trainers of Harlem. The fight for rights in the outer world may have caused a loss of the understanding of the human drive for self-determination.

Somewhere along the way, Harlem lost its ability to self governs itself from inside of homes and churches. Somewhere along the way Harlem lost the understanding of the value of education as the key to all dreams.

Somewhere along the way, Harlem gave itself permissions to accept the rejects from the teachers and policemen being given work assignments from the city. Somewhere along the way, some parents decided to enter into battle zones with some teachers in some schools.

Somewhere along the way, children caught the idea that knowledge was wrong, and the ability to demonstrate ignorance was something to be celebrated – the streets became the teacher. The music industry influenced the street. Gone were the sounds of romantic love flowing from the pens of creative poets, helping young men express feelings for young women.

In its place came poetry of violence and disrespect reflecting the frustrations of the day. Young men called women negative sexual names, and forced the women to respond to these names. These names were played to a hypnotic beat, which clouded the judgment between right and wrong. The rejects of society were put forth as respected peers and leaders of the culture. Prison wear became fashioned wear. Girls showed their young bodies and young men showed under garments. Tattoo inked signs forced on men in prisons, became fashionable street wear.

Harlem let itself be invaded by a cancer, which was worst than poverty. The economically challenged  homes of the past turned out individuals with dignity and respect for themselves and their family.  Poverty was not intended to define character or existence. Harlem experienced a real decline in school performance and educational expectation. There was money in poverty and poverty became a political issue. The idea was to maintain the status quo. Expensive communities would mean nothing unless Harlem was the center and representative of poverty.The schools sent more and more young people to prison as a result of dumbing them down and teaching a fear curriculum to a population no one wanted to upset.

Young men learn their identity in prison, and came out, and re-taught  this false identity to impressionable young men. The role models had abandoned their post so there was no one around with the courage to challenge these wrong thoughts. Churches retreated behind closed doors, and preached sermons to senior citizens preparing to meet their maker. They did not know how to handle these changes in the populations, and they were not interested in trying.

Colleges taught in sociology classes that african americans were an inferior group, so traumatized by the historical events of slavery that they were unable to learn, establish productive families or make any meaningful contribution to society. Colleges taught that there should be a “Benigned neglect” policy for black people, be kind but ignore them and any future possibility for them. Harlem developed  into one of the worst educational districts in the city if not the country, it was not that the students were dumb, the teachers had been taught in college, to ignore them and have low expectation for the students.

Churches gave up on children, and the educational institutions I remembered in my youth went into decline. Churches became afraid of children and not interested in families. Harlem became the Titanic and people were leaving the ship before it left port or deciding not to attempt the ride on the doomed ship.

Individuals entering into the ministry lost their courage to lead, pastors adopted traditional Christian theology and spoke about saving souls, Being Born Again, preparing to die and get to heaven for the promised life. These new pastors, many of whom had gone through transformational experiences in their lives and life styles, were so grateful to be “Saved” that they forgot, or never have known, that Black ministers preach a different theology. Same God, same Jesus, same Biblical stories, but the Word is translated in different form and style. Black folks did not do prison ministry, they did anti prison ministry. The prisons are the slave plantations and Black ministers knew that it was their job to cut off the supply to the plantation and keep Harlem out of the zip code for feeder populations. Harlem churches were villages and the purpose of the village was to save and raise a child. Teenagers mouthed off to policemen and there was no one around to back hand them across the mouths and save them a court trip. Many fought for their rights to prison, and they won those rights.

Somewhere along the way, the politicians and representatives sold out the citizens of that small area for thirty pieces of silver. Somewhere Harlem became the drop in center for opportunist seeking to cash in on an underserved population. Somewhere along the way Harlem decided to take a back to the future trip on its way to the 21st century.

Who was it that discovered this gem surrounded by two rivers? Who was it who discovered that all road lead to and through Harlem going any place in the United States? Who was it that discovered that the grand buildings in Harlem are worth millions, and it would be impossible to duplicate its structure? Who discovered that two major universities are situated in the center of this awesome place?

The politicians who represented Harlem should be ashamed of themselves. They attended the rubber chicken circuit, and promised everything and delivered nothing. Most stood by as the Harlem school system, which at one time was one of the best, became one of the worst school system in the country. A former Mayor of New York City tried to point out the failure of the school system, and the unfair treatment of minority students, but the teachers union, and the Black community attacked him.

Harlem did not see a change until after 9/11, the entrance of Bill Clinton into Harlem, and a sizeable population discovering that it was a nice place to live. Clinton, business and white people came to Harlem, and now Harlem is being restored to its old self. What Black people did not have the courage to do for them, white people are doing for them. White people are showing Black people how to be Black again.

                Somewhere from the heart of the two great rivers running under that stretch of land, the souls of the Harlem cried out and said, remember me, remember my greatness, remember who I am. The soul of Harlem, that soul that lives on forever and passes from generation to generation has found its spiritual voice and the Harlem of all the yester years is coming alive. The voices of its writers, singers, poets, artist, prayers, the voice of the people who have shed tears and blood in its cement gardens cry out to be heard. The sounds are different. They may be mixed with Caribbean, African, Asian, and Haitian; there are some of the old souls from the southern parts of the country who refused to move out of this exciting neighborhood. There are some that were so financially secure, that there housing reflected their financial elegance, and the saw no reason to move. There were the secret millionaires who maintained the quiet dignity, which they had worked for or inherited. There were the churches, which continued to hold the traditional services with the same dignity and grace that is accepted by the folks who know.

There are the multimillion dollar brown stones that have been passed down from generation. The insides of these homes of elegance will never be viewed in the media. These homes are the secrets of the silent majority. These are the holders of the traditions and the richness of this community. The 21st century has ushered in a new period, in this Harlem.

With the slow death of racism, developers are quickly moving in to cash in on this gem between the rivers. Buildings are being planned with views over the gateway to the United States. Someone discovered that racism is not worth billion of dollars. Someone is discovering that Harlem is on the Island of Manhattan and the Island of Manhattan is the financial capital of the world. Someone has discovered that this multi-cultured country is represented in this small but exciting piece of real estate. Harlem is today, as it has always been an interracial, international home to all who love her. As a daughter proud to share her history, I celebrate that Harlem is the place of my birth.

I remember my days as a public school teacher working in the Harlem and Washington Heights areas, it was exciting because I was teaching in the land of my birth and I knew the culture and feel of the community. I was born in Spanish Harlem, so I know the feel of the Puerto Rican community. I grew up in central Harlem and went to public school and church in that area, so I was familiar with what went in Harlem and what did not.

I taught for many years in Harlem and Washington Heights, so the very proud people of the Dominican Republic community were part of my knowledge base. There were many times when I would come across children acting up in the school environment, when all I had to say to bring back into their own awareness was, “Black people do not behave that way.” The statement, “ Dominican children do not act that way,” was enough to pass an eye meet of knowledge and understanding and an immediate behavior change into their family value system. Families expected the very best from their children and when you reminded the child of family expectations they quickly lived out those expectations. Today when some people see our children acting “right” they are accused of acting “white.” A Black or Latino parent would never permit a child to be rude or disrespectful especially not in public. You seldom see Black or Latino children screaming in temper tantrums on a Department store floor that is called “white kid stuff.” Having high expectations for children inspires them to live up to those expectations.

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