Running From, and Back To, Ralph Ellison’s Harlem


There are places so dense that they seem to contract into themselves to save room. Harlem is one of them, like a black hole of great and flexible darkness hiding mass unseen. Come winter, the effect is magnified so that even the most flamboyant parts are directed to intimate interiors: The yelling of schoolboys in suit and tie is silenced by a burrowed shuffle; the boombox echo of “God Bless the Child” down Lenox Avenue fades into wind-blown memory; Black Hebrew Israelites, defensively guarding their soapbox crier in leather praetorian skirts, hustle inside after a frustrated season. Emergency food lines stretch out into the bitter cold. Living here is an exercise in waiting, waiting for it to pull you in with force, or to implode without.

This place isn’t the ruin it used to be. Decayed basement churches, sidewalk shooting memorials, and stinking litter underfoot, though resilient, are no longer the vermin-invaded mazes of old. Streets are no longer illuminated by trashcan fires, and there are not limp bodies or deals in the unlit corners. Casual violence is no longer ubiquitous.

Still, there remains a dynamic menace here, much unchanged since the days of Harlem’s infested, exploited, overcrowded repute as “the very bowels of the city,” as Ralph Ellison wrote in 1948. That menace is the thief within one’s mind, a robber of composure and enfranchisement, keeper of the memory that the people we came from once had chains on their ankles and scars on their backs. Ellison himself untangled his sinister depravity, never vanquished him. Here that crook has more success eluding you because there are so many places to hide.

Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth. — Ralph Ellison, “Harlem Is Nowhere

I first came to Harlem with my broker. I was raised in wealthy, white American suburbs where my father was maybe the only black man around for miles, which might as well have been worlds. I did not yet understand the distances between them, the shallow pragmatisms of their boundaries, the unlikelihood of my father’s crossing of one. I supposed that early, subtle discomfort was needless now that I’d finally made it to New York, where I’d seen my future life play in such sharp definition across the ceilings of otherwise plain girlhood bedrooms.

Everyone everywhere had already told me that it wasn’t really New York anymore, that nothing was as good as it used to be and that it wouldn’t ever be again. That all the magnetism and perfect ugliness had been sucked then squeezed out through over-tapped, collapsed veins, which were, in a slow panic, injected instead with money and inhumanity. They said it was a cannibal, eating itself. A middle-aged man actually said to me that “a woman’s constitution is no good for New York.” But there was no place else.

It seemed that living in it, at the center of the northern Afro-American experience, might fortify me. Harlem is where my great-grandparents first stayed after passing through Ellis Island, and my grandfather went from homelessness to Columbia, where Aunt Pearl attended Abyssinian and Cousin Lil once bit off a man’s finger in El Barrio. I considered it a possibility that Harlem could connect me with my forebears, draw me into those worlds we came from, where I’d be familiar at last. Ellison was my lynchpin before Harlem, key to my estranged psyche. It was when I picked up Invisible Man that I understood something about my family that I’d never articulated before: My father’s and his father’s entire lives are a response to the color of their skin. Mine would not be.

A kind of guilt — inherited from the distance between me and them — drove me to Harlem. Unlike my father, or his father before him, the color of my skin is not “the first thing people see, and the last they forget,” as he once told me. The family line itself comes from an interracial affair, this jagged branch sticking sharply out from another family’s tree, and my West Indian great-grandmother, born of a black woman and a light-skinned married man, is at its twisted root.

So I move between worlds like a kind of quicksilver, reflecting whatever version of themselves people want to see. Most people, black or white or whatever, want to see white. It’s only after some extended conversation, a longer look at the crane of my neck and glint in my eye (I’m not really sure what gives me away), that I am recognized as some middling thing. White people ask “what” I am; what creature, what thing, what threat. So they demand my roots, as if theirs to unearth, and I satisfy them coyly with an answer like “Philly.”

But the Senegalese vendor at 117th Street, and my real estate broker, and the women putting in cornrows four blocks from my apartment — black people — ask “where.” “Where” were your parents during the Movement? “Where” did your grandparents originate, south? “Where” were your ancestors running from; “where” were their ancestors kept like raisins; and “where” still were their ancestors tilling some land when they were taken up and bought and sold and shipped in the hold?

Where? My father’s grandparents were free blacks. A not-too-distant history of sugarcane and riots nipping at their boundless ankles, they’d arrived in their new world having conquered a darkling ocean. Now I treaded the same passage, miles of time and circumstance between us. Occasionally, that distance haunts me; I cannot know them. What I do know is that their first passage through Ellis Island had come in January 1914, two persons among the 860,000 who arrived in one of the peak years of the American migration. In 1930 they returned briefly to Saint Kitts after the birth of their first child, re-entering through Ellis Island.

When I first found the ship’s manifest, a strange thunder ran through me with a shocking sense of familiarity, as if I had myself recorded the names, ages, callings, and occupations of my relatives and those they shared a boat with. Printed in a column after Able To, Nationality, Race or People, Place of Birth, Address, and Final Destination, their nearest relative and friend in the U.S. is listed, an Afro-Caribbean man called Percy Edmead. The manifest shows they stayed with him, in a brownstone at 138 West 131st Street, ten blocks from my own apartment.

To live in Harlem as an outsider who sees her grandfather in a man missing the bus or the woman behind the register, who passes the places of a convoluted family history, is to occupy a strange spot in a chaotic scene. This building where my grandparents landed is one of many that have now seen migrants of varied class and skin scuttle against their walls, colliding in succession before their elevated stoops.

These slim houses have been busted up and boarded in abandon, made useful for grisly violence and self-abnegation by a uniquely urban corruption that rendered their front steps and broken glass a ghetto playground, and their peoples alien, for decades. In these square blocks are a fogged-up, choked-up pluralism and a potential born of the irony of the black American existence, both the resentment of the land of one’s birth and the need to identify with it.

That — a split constitution — is the conflict within any descendant of America’s sordid oppression, but in Harlem this fantastic complexity is manifest in sharp relief. A man at 116th can sometimes be found screaming that he knows the smell of blood. A barbershop man called Morris Bone, perpetually unable to pay rent for all his sixty-plus years, is regarded by his grandchildren through the lens of their high degrees in social science. Women shrouded in black cloth but for their gated eyes, meeting yours, float by in groups of three and four. Loud colors cloak women in African fashion ambling at bus stops and sitting at booths, selling distilled oils and scents; long-legged girls masquerade past, hustling along the dictates of necessity.

As double-decker tour buses scan the wide avenues — named for black heroes — stopping for gospel reveries and at sites of black contribution, they ignore the place of Odessa Simms’s random death, the halfway houses and crowded hospital corridors, tending instead to a myth of black culture that is, upon closer inspection, quickly disproved on these streets. No, these monuments are not proof that black Americans have triumphed en masse. Harlem — this vortex — is more than ever that scene and symbol of the black American’s persistent and even inherent estrangement from his own country.

“When Negroes are barred from participating in the main institutional life of society,” Ellison wrote in 1948, “they lose far more than economic privileges or the satisfaction of saluting the flag with unmixed emotions. They lose one of the bulwarks which men place between themselves and the constant threat of chaos.” Now, after all that was won by the civil rights movement, the hard-fought campaign for dignity and enfranchisement, the bulwark still falters. By law now the black man is guaranteed equality. It’s all there in black and white, they say, you are equal. Then why, he asks, am I still outside?

The experience of the black American is inevitably from a crouched position, the physical rendering of an awareness and expectation that the world could again turn in on you, lock you up and call you beast. The most startling effect of such an expectation is a lack of sight, a short line between you and the ground, an inability to articulate what you are capable of or what you want to be capable of. This is the shame of America. The more established one becomes in the strata of his country, the straighter the knees get. But even when you’ve managed an upright posture, even when that posture is clothed in a fine suit and set against a white house, your direct contrast from those like you remains a reminder of what you know to be true about the world: that it would rather bind you up for its glory than see your humanity.

In so short a span of time, a stitched-up eighty years, the destitution of my relatives, their bald struggle and pain, has been transformed into physicians, law degrees, the upper middle class; literacy, homeownership, and mercurial great-grandchildren. So recently were institutional rights attained that my father was born before his could be federally guaranteed; that most parents will recall the era of segregation if asked; and that the president’s overarching campaign promise, to “make America great again,” can be read simply as a call for a return for it.

It is a new realization — that even after the Harlem Renaissance, Ellison and Baldwin, the Movement and President Obama — that we are not any more assured in our freedom. In Harlem, you are reminded of that. Harlem is evidence of the confused irony of pride and disenfranchisement, ascension and self-loathing, composure and shame inherent to black America.

A neighbor is looking into gun sales because a friend of his was surrounded in her car by three men screaming “nigger” at her at a red light in Delaware and another had hot coffee thrown in her face; a teenager on the train at 110th raps about the rope his mother gave him for the garden being used to hang him; Bill Saxton, a well-known jazzman with a spot on old Swing Street, enters a regular Saturday-night performance visibly shaking after an interaction with the police. “They’re just looking for a reason to shoot, so you gotta stay still,” he tells the audience. Then he plays.

In this country, of advantaged and disadvantaged skin, I am advantaged despite my personal history. No one knows I’m black. Tribalism is inseparable from the structure of power and society here, unique to this embattled land, and so will not be readily forgone; here, the color of our skin is currency. That is precisely the reason for the strength of my identification with my blackness, vulnerable not only to the attacks from without it, but also to that loitering crook, and his mnemonic shadow, within. The necessity to overcome our American dilemma is not inhibited by my identity. It is strengthened.

Odors of orange-flowers, and spice,
Reached them from time to time,
Like airs that breathe from Paradise
Upon a world of crime.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,”The Quadroon Girl

Longfellow’s poem about the sale of a slave takes its title from a dated designation for the number of full-blooded African relatives running in one’s veins: quadroon. You’ll notice an emphasis on the quantitative least. That is the word they had for me, for people like me, a quarter. They came out with it at auction, the stake, and at birth. They meant it of course as a mark on a scrub, a soiling of the soul, a taint, but I sometimes quietly claim it as mine when confronted with the venom of people. I grab at it in its correlative opposite instead, its quantitative most, fingering it like a key, a jagged reminder of the reversals of things, of fortunes.