Saturday, January 06, 2007
james brown's wake: a view from west harlem
I got a phone call from Jack Sprat in the middle of the afternoon a few weeks ago. He told me that they had brought James Brown’s body down 125th street in a white carriage earlier, drawn by white horses, festooned with white plumes on their heads. They drove all night from Atlanta to have him there by 1pm. Later, I would see photos of his family walking beside that carriage led by a remarkably somber Al Sharpton, with all of the pomp and dignity that’s usually reserved for dignitaries and heads of state. How completely and utterly perfect, to bring him to the very heart of Harlem, the (cultural) capital of Black America, the site of what many consider to be his greatest triumph – Live At The Apollo, the series of performances that changed so much for him. For all of us as a people, really.
This is the part where I was going to try to explain exactly why Harlem is such a special place and why it matters so much to me and just about every other black person that I know or have ever met. How when I decided to live in New York City, there was no other neighborhood. But I don’t think I can.
I remember when a trip to Charleston brought me to a family reunion for my aunt’s people. When I told one of them that I lived in Harlem, she looked starstruck. I felt compelled to ask why. She said that although she traveled far and wide, she’d never seen anything like it: coming up from out of the125th station at Frederick Douglass Boulevard, there was every kind of black person imaginable, from all over the entire span of the African diaspora, every shade, every ilk, everyone – from the beautiful Senegalese woman draped in beautiful robes waiting to cross the street to that Nigerian graduate student on his way to City College to the Kenyans and the 'Bamas playing chess and arguing politics at Starbucks to the that ghetto princess, that thug, that hoodrat that everybody knows to the neighborhood grandmother from somewhere down South that everybody loves, making her way to prayer service, and all kinds of southerners everywhere – everyone, all together, and busy, moving at a pace she could neither understand or keep up with. All of us, a sea of Africans to the core, living ordinary lives of epic significance. This sight, when combined with the history of the area that oozed at you from every nook and cranny all around you, had a dizzying almost stultifying effect on anyone that came uptown. More so for black folk, because it’s ours.
I can’t forget the look of awe and wonder and pride that was set aglow on her face as she described all this to me in painstaking detail.
If Jack hadn’t called me, I would never have known that they were holding a wake for James Brown at the Apollo. I was resolved to go the following day but before I knew it, I was in the throes of unhinging my apartment – cleaning, reorganizing, and discarding things that I’d held onto for years. Dana was moving into her own place off Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and I told her that she could take a few large pieces. She promised to come by at 4pm. Three hours later, she showed up – all apologies. The wake was to end at 9pm but I went anyway. Ralph went with me.
In retrospect, I’m glad we did.
We walked down Convent Avenue to 126th street and headed east, the route I used to take when I did Harlem Song. I can still remember the older black folks I would wave to on the way there, the bodega I’d stop in to get a cup of tea occasionally and the crackhead that would wave me down everyday before I got to the backstage door, like we’d known each other our whole lives. (I miss doing that show...) That familiarity still rang true. Although we could hear it from Convent Avenue, by the time we got to St. Nicholas Avenue, we could see the overspill, and it was all over creation. It was all of us Africans from the far-reaching corners of the globe that my distant relative had seen on her Harlem visit, to the tenth power. And it was glorious.
The line stretched all the way down past 129th street with a huge bottleneck in front of the benta funeral home, strangely enough. There were a lot of police and an endless array of barricades and the confusion that comes with traffic routed and rerouted. There were storefronts and boomboxes and cars circling the area slowly, all of them blaring James Brown songs. There were those who felt compelled to testify, to television interviewers on cameras and into radio microphones and to any passerby. There were those who played congas in the middle of the street, those who made grand proclamations and read poetry aloud. There were those who cried openly. There were those who felt compelled to dance. All of this was happening all around us. It was emotional and spontaneous and random and free. The last time I felt anything anywhere near that, I was either at the Grand Canyon or a Parliament Funkadelic show. Both experiences left me with the same sensation: that i was face to face with something that completely overwhelmed me from the inside out.
Once I realized that I couldn’t get through the backstage door, Ralph remarked that they may as well have had a gigantic pile of pure gold inside. The security around the area was that tight. We drifted towards the front of the building in the hopes that I would be able to grab someone that I knew but a cop told me that they were about to cut the line off because they didn’t want to stay out there all night long. Ralph quickly suggested we get going before the rest of the crowd behind us figured it out. We drifted along its periphery, chatting here and there until we walked the length of 125th street and realized that we were hungry. we opted for fish in a nearby african restaurant off of St. Nicholas Avenue instead of a fish sandwich from my favorite spot, "a taste of seafood (and a touch of soul)" over by Mt. Morris Park (or Marcus Garvey Park, depending on who you ask).
there was still so much excitement in the air, as we drifted along. I couldn't shake the sensation that something was about to happen. i think that's when i realized that all of us, all together -- that was the excitement. our unity, our collective selves, even in sorrow, made us one and filled us with conviction and joy and a kind of power that can only come in such moments. when do those moments happen nowadays in the black community?
it was revolutionary, somehow. it was explosive at that moment, as someone walked by brightly singing "say it loud (i'm black and i'm proud)," i felt a wonderful connectedness to every African everywhere, whether they were from mali or all the way around the corner. i knew that the love i felt in that instant might fade but that connectedness never would.
what's the next spark to bring us together?