Black Metropolis: Upholding Sugar Hill’s Radical Tradition

Wash­ington Heights: That was where I’d found my kind of party people, that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black)


The BUP Nationalists

Before moving to New York in late 1982 I re­ceived two prescient pieces of advice on hooking up a crib, a squat, a hovel if you lucky, here in the Scrap­ple. The first was that venerable Manhattan riff “It helps to know somebody.” The second pearl was more arcane and requires an anec­dote: an environmental-artist friend up from Atlanta says he landed on Central Park West proper (just so you know we ain’t talking about those buppy projects across 96th Street) by vibing on CPW as the only neighborhood that could house him and his wife in the manner they were accustomed to. In effect my man had mojoed his way onto CPW, and I took his lore to heart when I could finally afford to discriminate between boroughs and pull-out beds, between rent-stabilized buildings and sleeping bags on floors where friends had set out the welcome mat. But while my friend sought door­men and oft-swept streets, I put my mojo to work on squatting me down in Wash­ington Heights.

My reasoning was simple: That was where I’d found my kind of party people. We’re talking about that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black) and whose idea of culture with a capital K is Fela, Funkadelic, and later for all the black conservative bullshit. They all went to Howard, Columbia, or City College together and came up ho­meys in Harlem, the Bronx, or do-or-die Bed-Stuy. These folk work in black youth programs or the music or information economies. They sculpt their dreads according to that peculiar interface of fashion, religion, and dogma, the new black aesthetic. They learned to Latin before they learned to reggae and are au courant enough to know the difference between the Wop, the Snake, and the Pee-wee Herman.

Washington Heights is also a Domini­can colony, with the bulk of small-busi­ness ownership split between that coun­try’s immigrants and Asians. The sound of merengue from bodegas and record shops on Broadway between 135th and 165th reduces even L.L. Cool J to a whimper along certain stretches of the Heights. My Washington Heights, though, is the 500th-block of Edgecombe Avenue, formerly known as Sugar Hill. It’s populated by a melange of race-con­scious bohemians and buppies, black working-class and middle-income fam­ilies, brownstone owners, by Americans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans. The tourist books recommend the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Sylvan Terrace compound. I recommend Town Foods, Wilson’s salmon cakes and grits, and the Amazonian overgrowth and outback rock formations that we on Edgecombe have in place of your nosy neighbors across the street.

The mojo that got me my apartment was my embrace of the milieu. The who­-ya-know was Flip. Flip and I go back to the yard at Howard, where he first dug me blowing John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on a ghetto blaster and I dug him carting a trumpet case to the School of Communications. Flip favored black berets like Diz was still bebop’s most styl­ish response to the Left Bank. Our post­graduation dream was to waltz up to Miles’s former 77th Street asylum with the Moorish architecture and become court biographers to the Prince of Darkness. Flip graduated the year after I got there and I wouldn’t see him again for seven years, but the bond had been made. Our shared passion for black music had made us cutbuddies for life.

Flip has integrated more of black cul­ture’s oppositional modes into his being than most folk can even intellectualize. We’re talking a regular churchgoer who embraces Rasta consciousness, a serious trumpet student who revels in what Har­ry Allen would call hip-hop dopidity, a Greek letter man (Alpha) with Pan-Afri­kanist politics, a career buppy with no desire to own a Mercedes-Benz, a former atomic dog who counts black lesbians among his best friends, a Black Rock Coalition cofounder and Washington Heights Area Policy Board member, a devoted family man who’d still like to be a full-time musician. Where does one Flip begin and another end? Don’t even try it: The man is a continuous loop. The only way to describe the flip side of Flip is as a Mobius strip. The Flip who empathizes with why Rastas no check fe politicians is at one with the brother who’ll tell you he feels it’s his responsibility to vote in ev­ery election because “cats like Medgar Evers got blown away so we could pull those levers, man. I’d vote on a new ordi­nance for dog catcher if they mailed me a notice. Guess it’s my southern upbringing.”

Flip is the nouveau black culture’s ver­sion of a model citizen, a radical-bup par­agon if you will. Flip is a sales rep for a major black monthly and lives with his Jamaican wife, Patricia, a registered nurse, and her five-year-old son, Alex, from a previous marriage at 555 Edge­combe Avenue, that stately white brick plum of Sugar Hill architecture. Among former tenants the building can boast Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and any num­ber of Cotton Club chorines. Among its present distinguished residents are Andy Kirk Sr., the swing bandleader whose orchestra launched the careers of Mary Lou Williams and Fats Navarro, and Flip’s next-door neighbor, Clarence Holte, a black pioneer on Madison Avenue who in 1952 began a 20-year career as a market­ing executive with Batten, Barton, Dur­stine & Osborn. Holte is also owner of one of the largest private collections of books about blacks in the world — a portion of which is now the Clarence L. Holte Collection of Africana housed at Kashim Ibrahim Library, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria — and an au­thor of scholarly articles on such unlikely topics as “The Black Presence in Pre­-Revolutionary Russia.”

As 555 has long been home to such race-conscious and culturally hip black professional family men, Flip is obviously about upholding the tradition. His per­sonal history begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born an only child into a two-parent situation. The nuclear unit moved to Harlem when baby was one and the South Bronx when he was four before settling into the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhoods fast on its way to becoming black and Latino. They lived there until Flip’s parents divorced in 1969. He reminisces about his old neighborhood as a place where mom and dad were on a first-name basis with the winos who “looked out for you until your parents came home from work.” Flip was raised in what black folk call a Southern household, meaning “our house was more disciplined than others in the neighbor­hood and rudeness to older people was not tolerated.”

Flip’s mother worked as a receptionist for Zebra, one of the first black ad agen­cies; his father was a security guard in a juvenile home before becoming a U.S. marshal. Shortly before the divorce he moved the family back to Virginia, where he was one of the first black marshals in the state’s history. After the split Flip’s mother moved to Virginia Beach, where busing provided him his first exposure to American racism’s classic vernacular­ — “Virginia Beach was lily-white except for this one little black neighborhood where my grandparents lived. Blacks bought their own property, built their own houses, and weren’t thinking about integrating with white folks.

“There was a chain separating the black neighborhood from the white and the iro­ny was the houses on the black side were better. We were shipped off to these pre­viously all-white schools and the white cats would jack us up the wall talking about what they were going to do to coons, niggers, and jungle bunnies and the only time I’d ever seen that was in In the Heat of the Night. All I could think of was how I wished some of my boys from the Black Spades were with me.”

Midterm Flip’s mother trekked cross­-country to the San Diego area, where he became the only black student in a La Mesa junior high school. There he experi­enced more alienation than racism, ex­cept for epithets hurled his way by surf­ers and a dark-skinned Mexican student who “taught me something about the dif­ferences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans when he got mad once and called me a nigger.”

Flip doesn’t recall his parents talking much about race issues except when they had trouble finding housing. Flip’s moth­er moved back to Virginia Beach after a year in San Diego and married an Annap­olis realtor. This unit became, in the lit­any of Flip’s first-black-to episodes, the first black family in a formerly all-white ward, but they experienced no hostility. Things were different at Annapolis High, where forced integration and the black consciousness movement had even politi­cized Flip’s varsity basketball team, the first all-black team at the 75 per cent white school, and probably the last to paint “red, black, and green liberation flags on our white Converse sneakers.”

Flip chose Howard after visiting the campus and being overwhelmed by its progressive black cultural environment and “all these beautiful black women who were friendly and didn’t seem to have attitudes.” While he regrets not pressing himself more academically he feels he got a decent education there and, more im­portant, “stopped thinking of blackness only in terms of being a black American. I came to understand that being of Afri­can descent meant that you were part of a worldwide black community.”

After graduation Flip found that his media arts degree didn’t mean diddly-­squat to local broadcasters. Frustrated, he took his first job in sales at Balti­more’s black newspaper, the Afro-Ameri­can. When an uncle told him IBM in New York was hiring, he landed a job on Wall Street selling office equipment. Flip de­scribes his introduction into white corpo­rate America as an awakening in terms of both assimilation and alienation. “You had to act ‘white,’ dress conservatively, and shave. I didn’t even know how to dress for the corporate setting. My uncle had to say look, this is what it is: no more pink and green shirts and wearing your handkerchief all fly out the pocket. You’re not dressing for the disco, you’re dressing for this job.” Flip lasted two years with the multinational, “and when I quit my father thought I had lost my mind giving up all that security.” Flip went to work for the aforementioned uncle, who had his own sales firm and repped a black monthly newspaper insert. For Flip the decision was partly ideological, as he felt black families should work in business together as whites always had — though another virtue of sales and advertising was that “it wasn’t monotonous, and it meant I got paid to do something I could always do well, which is talk.”

In 1984, Flip’s uncle turned the busi­ness over to him to pursue a new venture in the northwest. Shortly thereafter the company’s major client tried to replace Flip with one of its own executives, and he resigned. Soon he went to work for the monthly that employs him now. He sees his work as having political content at least to the extent that he’s “always having to justify the existence of a unique black marketplace and legitimize the buy­ing power of the black consumer.” Flip says some marketers play a numbers game to prove blacks couldn’t possibly afford their products or try to pretend their products aren’t big sellers among blacks even when research proves other­wise. This he attributes to the racist atti­tude that since blacks already buy the product why go out of your way to appeal to them? “We’re the invisible people to corporate America and they only think of us when it’s useful to them.” Flip doesn’t get into politics too deeply on the job, but every now and then does manage to get a broadside in edgewise. “I was having a tough time with this guy at one of the multinationals who kept saying he didn’t think blacks were familiar with his company. Finally I said, sure blacks know about your company and how you offed that cat down in Chile. Man, you should have seen his face turn red.”

At 555, Flip is active in his tenants group, which prodded him to join the Washington Heights Area Policy Board “because people felt we needed English-­speaking representation on the board. It’s primarily Dominican and that communi­ty has its agenda and problems, particularly around the issue of undocumented residents.” Flip thinks of Washington Heights and Harlem as the last frontier for white developers and a kind of last stand for black/Latino New Yorkers who want to build a beneficent community and future. The owner of 555 is a black who’d like to keep the building predomi­nantly black. Flip hopes this inspires the other tenants of 555 to have greater con­cern for the upkeep and upgrading of the building.

Flip and Pat met three years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She spent her first 14 years in Kingston, oldest fe­male in a family of six children. Her father was a tailor in Jamaica who did farm work in Florida for several seasons before migrating to New York for piecework at a Dupont textile factory. When that plant moved, be became a cab driver. Her mother was a housewife in Jamaica, became a nurses’s aide in the States and now works as a medical secretary. Pat spent her adolescence in the Bronx, where her parents now own a home near the Westchester border, attended City College, and works at the Bronx’s Ein­stein Hospital, in the Cardiac care unit. Patricia beams levelheadedness, speaks in a lilting Jamaican lisp, and carries herself with a radiantly self-possessed el­egance that would come off haughty in a lesser Nightingale. Although she dreams of returning to the stage-acting and Afri­can dancing she had to abandon after high school, careerwise her goal is to su­pervise a public health clinic. Like Flip, she’s less interested in the corporate lad­der (hospital-administration version) than in using her job to create financial independence for her family. Her field is no less racist than any other and she laments for qualified friends who’ve pur­sued positions and suffered rejection time and again.

Flip and Pat’s home is decorated with her antique furniture and modern Turk­ish rugs, his jazz, reggae, and Brazilian record collection, coon art ads, and (by way of the Studio Museum and the Schomburg) Romare Bearden posters and Jacob Lawrence paintings. Unlike Flip, Pat is not partial to Washington Heights or 555 as the ideal place to raise a family and looks forward to seeing changes in the neighborhood. She prefers Riverside below 125th, Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. The population over in the crack district, the 150s be­tween Amsterdam and Broadway, she sees as “dangerous and devastated people with no culture and no respect for any­body else’s.” Sometimes she wishes they could be “dissected” from the area and “placed in an intensive rehabilitation center.” Her son now attends a private preschool in the Bronx. She’s investigat­ing the multiracial Barbara Taylor School on 160th Street for first grade because it stresses putting children in touch with their culture. At one point her son came home from school believing that Flip and Pat were white, that because he was darker than them he was black and there­fore bad. They realized they’d better start reinforcing his blackness. “Now if you ask him what be is, he’ll tell you he’s an African or an African-American. At his preschool he’s not taught about black he­roes, he gets his ideas about himself from cartoons and the toys he plays with and other kids at school. The school he goes to will be important in shaping his ideas about himself because he’s going to spend more of his life there than with us.”

Not long ago Flip introduced me to a neighbor of his named Playthel Benjamin who had read my writ­ing on black music and was inter­ested in my reading his. I had seen him around the neighborhood, a bearish, bullheaded brother in a Stetson hat toss­ing a foam football in front of 555 with his son or taking son and daughter to the playground. In our brief first meeting Playthel delivered an abridged version of an essay about Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, the nature of genius, and the fraudulence of abstract expressionism as an extension of “the great tradition of Western painting.” As it turns out, this is the kind of thing Playthel has spent his adult life doing for pleasure. Filling the gaps in between is one of the more varied and remarkable lives you’ll ever encoun­ter. In the course of 46 years Playthel’s been a merchant marine, a top-security combat defense officer guarding the Stra­tegic Air Command’s Arctic Circle nucle­ar bomber base, developer of the Minor­ity History Motivation Program for Opportunity Industrial Centers, a profes­sor of history at U. Mass., bandleader and percussionist for Jean Carn, publicist for Michael Spinks, and almost-promoter for the Leonard-Hagler bout derailed by Sugar’s detached retina in 1982. Present­ly Playthel is a working member of the Master Painters and Plasterers, a partner in a Brooklyn real estate management and development company, and director of education for Harlem Fightback, the action-oriented coalition of black and Latin blue collar workers known for shut­ting down construction sites where con­tractors refuse to meet affirmative action requirements. Playthel is a longtime stu­dent if not scholar of both African and Marxist-Leninist history who admits to having once been a Stalinist and a Maoist and who now describes himself as a “worker-intellectual, cosmopolite, and democratic socialist.”

Playthel’s generation of bebop-loving black activist-intellectuals (typified by people such as Paul Carter Harrison, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, Michael Thelwell) are the ones who brought their civil rights and black power backgrounds to the Ivy League 15 or 20 years ago. Boasting a dual interest in activism and theory, they brought scholarship to the black consciousness movement and grap­pled mightily with the conundrum of making an American socialist revolution from a black nationalist base. In contrast with Flip’s (and my) generation, they had a clear sense of continuity with the black leftists of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They didn’t limit questions of culture, identity, and politics to a close circle of friends, always considering their relationship to the black working class and later the so­-called underclass. In reflecting upon that generation’s accomplishments I always realize how much homework my contem­poraries must do to progress beyond be­ing bups with a hip sense of community and self. As admirable as it might be for the times, it’s not much of a moral or radical platform to stand on — or to fight and organize from. Playthel is a man of ideas, a family man, and a man of the people.

This is after all someone who left the university to take up a trade because he felt himself “in danger of becoming one of these comfortably bourgeois black in­tellectuals.” So instead he’s become a comfortably bourgeois worker-cosmopo­lite. The walls of his airy five-room apartment have gold trim, but he did the painstaking work of putting it there. There is an extremely modest library dominated by black historical tomes. Af­rican masks adorn the living room and a Benin bronze sits on a Greek pedestal by the front window. On a glass coffee table there is a jade plant and a sepia portrait of Stetsoned and stogie-smoking Playthel set in an ancient braided bamboo frame. As I enter the radio is tuned to a classical station, another of Playthel’s lifelong pas­sions — “there is no Slav who loves Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto more than I or no German who derives more pleasure in Beethoven’s Appassionata.”

Out of his broad social experience, Playthel offers reminiscences about ev­erything from hanging out with Harold Cruse while he was writing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to the business savvy of prostitutes in Saskatchewan. An eclectic freethinker who doesn’t play fa­vorites, Playthel is as likely to proclaim his ace boon Stanley Crouch “a gifted writer and critic but a novice when it comes to political discussion” as take on leftist slavery-historian Eugene Geno­vese’s praise for the ethics of the antebellum Southern gentleman. Not long ago, Playthel had a train-station debate with Harvard’s touted black neo-con, Glenn Loury. There he harangued the rotund “pootbutt professor for his uninformed and sophomoric notions about affirma­tive action for women and blacks in the building trades. I cited three affirmative-­action cases now in court and the man hadn’t heard of any of them. Finally he said, ‘Enough, enough, how can you ex­pect me to have this information at this time of night.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s late for me as well, and I’ve probably had a much harder day than you. Do you think I’ve been standing here preparing for this en­counter’? He turned then and literally ran, trotting, away from me.”

Interestingly enough, Playthel’s spa­cious apartment in 555 — where he lives with his wife, June, and his twin children, Makeda and Samori — once housed Paul Robeson, a fact Playthel didn’t discover until after he’d moved in. That sort of coincidence, extraordinary to you or me, is routine for Playthel, as you realize once he begins reciting the tall tale of his life. Playthel is a natural storyteller whose primary yarns digress into secondary tales where autobiography, family histo­ry, and major historical figures and events converge. A typical Playthel anec­dote, like the story of why he dropped out of Florida A&M in 1959, begins with him getting arrested in one of the first South­ern sit-ins, dovetails into disillusionment with black academia in the face of white power, details how he joined the air force a patriotic American, became “a SAC-­trained killer,” and left a pacifist, nucle­ar-age nihilist, and black nationalist.

Following these yarns Playthel an­nounced plans to use his Arctic background to apply for a North Pole expedi­tion led by a former Playthel student who now teaches at Harvard. Case you’re shal­low in basic black history, Matthew Hen­son was the African-American member of Admiral Peary’s expedition who many believe was robbed of recognition as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Point­ing to a magazine article debunking Pea­ry, Playthel says the expedition will use dog sleds and honor Henson by planting an African-American flag on the Pole, “reclaiming the legacy stolen by this motherfucker here Peary.”

Playthel looks upon himself as “the consequence of the two major cultural traditions among black Americans, those E. Franklin Frazier [author of Black Bourgeoisie, among other milestones in black sociology] defined as the ‘colored genteel’ tradition and the ‘black peasant’ tradition.” Playthel was born in Philadel­phia, but grew up in St. Augustine, Flori­da. His father was a descendant of slaves who worked as a welder by day and a barber by night while attending Temple University, and “had two children and his own house before he was 25.” His mother was the descendant of free blacks and mulattoes. One of his maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a fleet of limousines in Harlem in the ’30s chauf­feuring rich whites, another was a pimp who “threw a cracker off a bridge in Florida, had to get out of town, came up here, dressed himself like an Indian ma­haraja with a turban and a beard, started hanging out in places like the Stork Club, and ended up pulling this millionaire white woman. He spent all her money and used to drive Duesenbergs.” Playthel is a self-educated man, a process begun with fervor while he was in the air force. There a race-conscious black officer gave him a copy of J. A. Rogers’s One Hun­dred Facts about the Negro — with Com­plete Proof. Rogers’s frequent citing of the Schomburg led Playthel to that insti­tution. In this period he also came under mentorship of Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, and an entire coterie of older black Marxists who’d left the CPUSA because it abandoned its Black Belt Nation program, during ’50s re­forms. To them he owes his theoretical undergirding.

“Here’s a pedagogy I believe a black person who is interested in becoming a critical thinker should study. They should study the regular humanities cur­riculum simultaneously with an Afrocen­tric perspective on our position in history and the world, read that simultaneously with John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Ben­nett, Walter Rodney, Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity about blacks in Gre­co-Roman civilization, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois is an absolute must. They should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the major thinkers of those revolu­tions that grew out of those traditions in the Third World — Nkrumah, Fanon, Ca­bral. But then we also need to read George Padmore’s Pan-Afrikanism or Communism, and various of his other 12 works, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and the works of C. L. James, the most orginal radical thinker of the 20th century in my opinion. And they should read the work of black American radical thinkers, like Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and James Boggs’s The Ameri­can Revolution, Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Racism & the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution & Evolution in the Twentieth Century, written with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is one of the most original American economic thinkers out here and that rarity among leftist thinkers, an actual worker. He was an assembly-floor worker in the automobile industry who went through the party experience. He’s writ­ing about capitalism from the perspective of a worker in one of the major modern capitalist industries. He was the first that I know among American radical thinkers to talk about the role of technology in changing the relationship between class­es, the first to talk about the conse­quences of the cybernation of the American economy, the first to talk about structural unemployment, about a class rendered obsolete by technology. He was the first to see that contrary to the classic Marxist model that saw conflict emerging between the working class and the ruling class that the major conflict was going to emerge between the employed and the unemployed.”

From his own position as a worker­-intellectual in New York’s building trades, Playthel has seen first-hand the necessity for affirmative action programs — and, he emphasizes, activist-advocacy groups like Harlem Fightback — to insure that work­ing-class blacks, Latins, and women are given equal employment opportunities. “You have these black neo-cons running around now talking this bullshit about how teenage pregnancy is the cause of our economic condition. Our economic position in this country is the result of our being denied full participation in the economic system. For you to be black and employed you have to be either an intel­lectual, a professional, or in the public sector. The black working class is up against a world of exclusion in the build­ing trades. The American worker is a highly skilled individual and that ac­counts for why so many buildings can go up in New York with so few disasters. But this doesn’t require genius. Any ordinary person, any of these young brothers out here could learn these trades. I’ve talked to Irish and Greek immigrants who came here and didn’t know any trades and got in the union. I’ve had foremen who were so illiterate they could barely fill out their paysheets who are making $40,000 a year, own stocks and bonds, and are putting children through college. Even with affir­mative action you need a Harlem Fight­back to get blacks on construction sites and people want to talk about how our young people don’t want to work.”

Playthel told me all his adult life he’d been consumed by three questions: Where did we come from, how did we get in the mess we’re in now, and how do we get out of it? The latter is the question he expects to be grappling with, along with the rest of us, for the rest of his life. And if you got to grapple with that mutha, 555 ain’t a bad ebony tower to be holding court from. The building lost its doorman and awning a few years ago and, no, Washington Heights isn’t what it used to be — but with people like Flip, Patricia, and Playthel up here now, no one can say the modern black condition suffers in silence up on Sugar Hill. ■

Research assistance by: Crystal Weston  

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2020