Jazz Forum No.1 June 1946 0013
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Frederic Ramsey, Jr.
LAUGHTER IN HARLEM.
The district called Harlem which thrusts north beyond Central Park is a part of America. Itâs not a good part, but that doenât throw it out of America. Harlem does exist, and that it continues to exist as it does is something to wonder at, in the enlightened year of 1945.
To casual visitors, Harlem sometimes appears gay and carefree. There are even songs, notably Christmas Night in Harlem (written downtown) which perpetuate this legend. But I saw Harlem in a different light when I went uptown the other day.
Perhaps it had something to do with the
weather. The sky was overcast with grey, dour
clouds. What light filtered through was cruel and unkind. Occasional spurts of rain didnât give any lift to a bedraggled landscape. From 125 th Street, where I got off the crosstown trolley, Lennox Avenue stretched north, long and monotonous. There was no break in the endless double lines of closely joined four-and five-storey buildings which faded to a distant vanishing-point.
I have to think of Harlem as people, or the thought of these physical surroundings would turn my dreams into insomniac nightmares. As people, they began by being beautiful. Through something they never asked for, they are now crushed and sordid. Yet in spite of what they have suffered, an occasional gesture will often reveal the beauty that has gone underground. I saw a man between crutches, who waved to a friend ; his hand was a sculptorâs dream, wrought in a fine sweep of rich bronze. Another man stood in front of a newsstand, lounging carelessly. A thumb was hooked in each slash pocket of his large, roomy trousers ; his shoulders were elegant and hunched, like those of a lion in complete repose.
If thatâs all I had seen in Harlem, I could write it off and forget about it. But I continued my walk up Lennox Avenue. The hard part came when I saw the faces, and the dragging bodies that throng the sidewalks. There was death and erosion branded on each passerby. The short walk from 125th to 136th Street along Lennox Avenue was like the last act of a Shakespearian tragedy. I saw so many dead and dying in such a short time.
â Theyâre such gay people,â I once overheard someone say at a cocktail party, â theyâre always out all over the street, smiling in the sun.â I guess the person who said that didnât know why these â gay, carefreeâ people spread out all over the street. I guess he didnât know how many thousands live crowded in one block on Lennox Avenue, in New Yorkâor on Monument, in Baltimore ; South Street, in Philadelphia ; 35th in Chicago ; Vine, in Kansas City ; or any avenue any city. The avenues where Negroes are confined in America are a monumental transcontinental superhighway of tragedy and human disintegration. In the âReconstructionâ following the Civil War, this road was neglected.
I guess the person who wanted to believe all Negroes are gay and carefree didnât know about â hot beds ââthe beds that are rented out in eight shifts of three in twenty-four hours (and sometimes more shifts than there are in twenty-four), to occupants who share them in turn. I
guess he didnât know anything about the way life could be, behind the dingy brownstone fronts. Heâd probably never been in one of these apartments when a womanâs time was near, and life (gay, carefree) was about to begin. Heâd probably never seen that life spilled out on a dirty newspaper, while the cockroaches danced for joy.
I doubt if this person had seen how it could be next door, too, where life was about to end. He couldnât imagine anything like the tired old woman the police found lying on the floor. Diabetic, paralyzed, she had been there for days. The kids would rustle a bottle for her, but no one took her to the clinic, or attended to her. A place can smell after a few days of that.
Housekeeping is limited under these conditions. Furniture is makeshift. Upholstery is caked with a grease-deposit of years. In the summertime flies crawl on everything, including the children.
Thus it isnât hard to understand why so many persons are out on the street, and why their faces are so worn. In the years following our last major depression, the governmentâs Soil Conservation Service dramatically attracted the attention of the American public to problems of soil erosion. I hope that the years following this war will see similar efforts extended to help the erosion I saw on the faces of Harlemâs residents. There is too much of it here now. On my short walk, I saw syphilitic chancres, lesions, cancerous gaps and diabetic discolorations. Too many tom and twisted frames dragged painfully along the sidewalk.
Along with erosion, physical and spiritual, there is hope. Signs are full of hope. Scrawled on storewindows, old patches of cardboard, bare planks, they proclaim the new world to come. Hope in Salvation. Hope in Prayer. Hope in drugs, food, alcohol, stars, luck. Thereâs hardly a window that doesnât proclaim hope.
One store-window was filled with herbs, crosses, elixirs, chromo pictures of saints, and coloured candles. Next to the candles the proprietor had placed a â numbers â book. Its cover was unconsciously surreal, with horizontal numbers drawn across its surface, each number supporting a dreamâa couple on a sofa, a ritzy automobile, a gabled cottage with a rose-trellis. The booklet cost thirty-five cents, and its preface warned readers not to take numbers too literally.
A wrinkled old woman hobbled in to buy some hope at the elixir store. Beside the rose-and-purple candles, her face was grey as the sky overhead. When she same out of the store, two girls hip-swinging up the avenue chattered at her like a pair of parrokeets. Lissome and supple, they mimicked her embarrassed gait. It was a strange effect, those pretty hips dancing to the awkward rhythm set by an old skeleton.
Occasionally on this grey day, the sun flashed through, and then everything seemed better. On one of the sidestreets, there was a row of brick houses, each with its green-sprouting hedge. It could even be called picturesque, if you didnât know how many persons had to live in that row.
Then I saw a man in a barbershop. He was Continued on page 24
When the long hunt had ended, the unknown streets filled at last with buildings symmetrical as a theory, erected with torturing patience, fitted together like the completed simple jigsaw ; after the extended hand, the caution, the official papers, the hurry in corridors, the keys, the naked electric bulbs ; while the large pleased faces sipped their drinks and the stories were told, the man was put in a white cell and the door was closed on him.
His problem was an easy one. For now the whole of his existence was simple and square as the walls. Outside, one could open doors into other people and enter their lives, mingle afterwards with their memories, make something there subtle and growing like a wave or a flower. But now the man could cross no threshold but his own so that as he turned his back on that familiar clang and jingle, his problem, the problem of how to keep alive, was at once reversed and emptied out of many rooms into this one mirror-like room, his task diminished to a quiet unobserved birth behind his own iron door. Once this fact had established itself in his mind, the man patiently began to gather his materials, knowing that a life sentence is short and that now he would have to rely entirely on his own efforts to remain alive at all.
Indeed, sometimes as he bent in the courtyard to slip a pebble or scrap of wire into his shoe, as he concealed pieces of toilet paper in his coat lining or bargained bread for stubs of pencil, his hand would twitch suddenly as if time were a nerve in his arm, and he would feel the tensions and pressures in his body distorted queerly into a pose almost of guilt. He would look round at the other silent prisoners, those grey figures who had sifted so imperceptibly to the front of his mental audience, and he knew that he must hurry, must discipline himself entirely to the one aim, lest they should break their silence.
For he realised now that that interchangeability outside the prison was love, and he had to express this love before it was too late. As every day he gathered the precious refuse of prison life, he was forestalling the voices of his companions so that he might prove his love to them before they could criticise and threaten it. Sitting in his cell at night after stowing away the dayâs glearings, he turned over these discoveries and knew that proving his love had become the same as proving himself, and this thought would remind him of his work. He would go round the cell, making sure that the string was well hidden in the mattress, the bits of wood quite out of sight in the ventilator, his fragments of mirror-glass still in place behind the loose water pipe. Every few moments he looked up to see whether the eye of the warder was regarding him through the peephole in the door. Freedom consisted in that flow of one individual into another, he thought ; freedom and love were the same as living ; it was only an artificial kind of life, a view taken from outside the prison walls, which could separate them one from the other. Strangely enough, no warder ever looked through the eye-hole when he was counting his stores of material.
It was natural that the man should always be hungry, for after every meal he bartered half his
portion for the small articles he needed. Though these articles had once been worthless, they had a price in prison, a value which was always rising as the manâs desire became more desperate. The weaker he grew, the fewer objects he could obtain. But he did not give up ; slowly the hidden places of his cell were filled. Now he lay on a mattress stuffed entirely with paper, nails, thread, flint, feathers, needles, coloured chalks. In his mind his thinking lengthened into a long chain pointing to the future and his creation, his final justification. As his concealed collection grew, so his thought became thinner, more lucid, tenuous. He lay awake planning the thing he would make, thinking backwards and forwards along his chain, a spider spinning a web, an artist lost in his purpose.
â What is .the individual ? â the man asked in the night. He had to be careful ; the thread was thin. â I am not my audience, I am not my conscience. They are other free people who live in me now. I must lift layer after layer until I arrive at myself.â So the man lay awake and meditated, almost in anguish ; so he starved and gathered his material ; so he slid slowly down the chain into illness.
But now illness did not trouble him, though he could no longer go into the courtyard or trade his food with the others. For he had everything he needed for his creation. At the ultimate point of individuality, his focus reached, knowing himself as a small point moving across all the social mirrors which made up his personality, he was about to expand, to prove himself by making a self which would go on for ever. It only remained to build up enough strength to leave his bed and walk about the cell. Now that he had nearly reached his goal, he no longer feared criticism. At every meal he ate the good food sent across from the prison hospital. The warder peered approvingly through the spy-hole. The man grew stronger ; but he still felt hungry.
One night he knew that his time had come. A small light burned outside the cell and shone through the frosted glass high in the wall by the ventilator. Hurriedly the man rose from his bed and exposed the mattress. Everything, all his hoarded treasure, he pulled out and heaped on the floor. He felt behind the water pipe and added the things he had hidden there. Still weak and dizzy, he balanced on his stool and retrieved the contents of the ventilator. At last all was ready and he set to work. His crouching shadow moved across the message-riddled walls.
As the hours passed and he built the great machine filling the whole cell, he realised that he was becoming weaker and feverish. But all must be finished in this one night. Frantically he scribbled idea after idea on his pieces of paper, threaded them on cords, arranged reflecting mirrors and many-faceted stones. He was cold and hungry; his head was spinning. But slowly his own mind grew beneath his fingers, expanded out of him into the room, himself stretched out there from wall to wall and up to the ceiling, fantastic, growing, at last achieved. There it was, quite still in the faint yellow light.
Though now he was almost too weak to think Concluded bottom col. i overleaf.
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