New York City - Harlem
( Originally Published 1924 )
Until ten years ago Harlem was a district of New York, a suburban section within the city, inhabited by second-generation Germans and German Jews. Today it is a city in itself. Negro Town. The heart and the pulse of the colored population of Greater New York. Harlem cannot hold the whole colored population of New York. Neither can the older negro district, the Fifty-ninth Street section. Neither would Brooklyn. There are obstructions and objections and restrictions everywhere against them. The center of the colored people is in Harlem. Indeed it is the center, the intellectual center, of the colored population of the United States.
There are between three and four hundred thousand colored people in Greater New York. In the last census there were not one tenth that many. But Chicago rioted after St. Louis had gone on a "nigger spree." Atlanta. Georgia, had its dance. Lynchings, burnings, persecutions, are the main reason why colored folk have bee.' flocking to New York, where a "nigger slaughter" is not so frequent an occurrence.
All shades and all sizes. Woolly-haired, immense, half-lumbering Africans as black as pitch. Brown-colored, bronzed men and women, mahogany blonds, down through all nuances, and the almost white negro, straight-haired and blue-eyed, whom nobody suspects.
Not all white men of Europe are of the same race. Of the same blood. Of the same faith. Not all negroes are alike, although most of their ancestors have been ravished from Africa. Since their arrival in this country there have been many intermixtures into their blood. I have seen perfectly black negroes of long Spanish faces, with the cruel penetrating eyes of the Moor and the elegant gait of Iberians. I have met red-haired negroes with a wistful Irish smile. I have friends of a lighter shade, from New Orleans, where they have so thoroughly mixed with the French they are hardly to be distinguished, with all the love of color and softness of one race and the precision of mind and clarity of the other. The Italians have mixed with the negroes, and so have the Slays and the English and the Mexicans and the Indians.
Of these mixtures the ones with Indian blood are the finest. The women especially—of skin like golden bronze dyed in deep-red blood. The big gala eyes swim in clear-white pools, and the hair is like shavings of ebony; lustrous and rich, plaited down over trim and beautiful necks. And there are Jewish negroes, Abyssinian Jews squat and long-bearded, hook-nosed Falashas, real Jews, who because of their color are compelled to live among people of an alien faith instead of among their own coreligionists.
Four hundred thousand negroes in New York. There never has been such a number of negroes in any one place, either on this continent or on any other continent. Every twelfth person in Greater New York is a negro or has negro blood. Four out of five negroes have white blood in them. And they are none the better for it. The best the race has achieved was achieved by pure-blooded Africans. They have their own life, their own dreams. More isolated in their social relations than any other single group, their dreams and ideals may be sectional but they are their own. Thicker walls separate them from any other population. Not only of color. A thousand and one aversions. A thousand and one superstitions. A thousand and one traditions. We have been taught the negro is a different sort of an animal. Because of his color. Because of his particular odor. Because of the coarseness of the grain of his skin. Because of his speech. Because of his taste for certain foods. Each of our major senses has been prejudiced against him. And yet . . . Four out of five negroes have white blood. There is at least as much white blood in the American negro race as there is black. And that is so not because of black immorality but because of white immorality and the inhumanity of our ancestors. The whiter a negro the weaker he is physically. The pure blacks are giants. When slave-dealers went to Africa they selected the strongest specimens for work and breeding. Only the strongest survived transportation on a slave-ship.
And yet almost everything we have of true native art in this country is of negro origin—folk-lore, the spirituals, jazz, the dance, and some of our best poetry. The negroes brought that in their souls from Africa. The origin of native American art is African.
Some of the greatest art the world has ever possessed has grown out of slavery and oppression. Greece in her imperial days, Rome in her strength, Egypt in her glorious period, have had their art produced only by slaves, by those who suffered and endured. Those who had comfort and leisure enjoyed what the others produced without appreciating its value. Had it not been for the great suffering in Russia I doubt whether any of the arts which the Muscovite empire has produced would have flourished. Pushkin was a negro. Shevchenko a slave. Any one who could remain with dry eyes and calm heart during the singing of spirituals by negroes should be avoided for callousness. Any white man who could gaze into negro eyes without horror for the wrong done them during centuries should be . . . condemned to read the prophet Isaiah's fifth chapter for the rest of his life, mornings and evenings.
Four hundred thousand negroes in one city. It has not increased immorality. It has not increased crime. They have their own proportion of vice and their due percentage of criminals, neither more nor less than any other single group in this city. They have their gambling-dens and cabarets and houses of prostitution and corrupt politicians and swindlers and saints and institutions and churches and artists and novelists and musicians, exploiters and exploited, and bankers. Not one quality, not a single vice of modern civilization is missing. They are as a matter of fact living as separately from any other group as any other group lives separately from them. The pity of it! For so much lightness, so much gaiety, so much naive merriment is lost. Nowhere in the city does one hear so much frank laughter as in the Harlem or the Brooklyn negro sections. Nobody can laugh as engagingly as a negro. It is one of the first things that strikes a visitor that New York is a laughless city. Somehow one leaves his ability to laugh frankly at the outskirts of the city. But there is laughter in Harlem, in the Brooklyn negro quarter in Bensonhurst, on Fifty-ninth Street, and even in the narrow Carmine Street and Minetta Lane where the congestion is such one is able to cut the air with a knife. There is laughter and song and dance.
A friend of mine recently said to me: "Harlem! The old Harlem is dead. I lived there all my life until not long ago, when I was squeezed out by the negro population invading the old section. All the Gemutlichkeit of it is gone. Gone are the comfortable Weinstuben, where one could smoke his pipe and peacefully drink his glass of Rhine wine. Gone is the old Liedertafel and the hundred and one social organizations, and the Turnvereine and the singing-clubs, where one could pass the evening peacefully. They have all moved elsewhere, and the new places don't have the atmosphere of the old ones. Gone the old restaurants where one could have his Knackwurst und Sauerkraut, served by a golden-haired, white-skinned, blue-eyed Margaretchen. Gone the agreeable homes where the rows and rows of long-stemmed meerschaum pipes hanging from the wall gave to every home that manly quality so dear to the Teuton race. It used to be so pleasant to pass a Harlem street on a summer evening. The young ladies were accompanying their Lieder with the twanging of the soft zither, and the stirring robust melodies from the Lutheran churches used to fill the air on a Sunday. It is all gone now."
It is all gone. But in my recent long perigrinations through the Harlem streets I have failed to see the little notice under the "To Let" signs, "No Jews need apply," or the other little notices in German, "Keine Juden, and keine Hunde." An American city with such signs on doors was a shame. The absence of them largely compensates for the absence of the other things my friend so much regretted.
At 138th and 139th Streets, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, are two rows of houses that were designed by Stanford White. Built in pre-negro days, they had been the pride of the neighborhood, houses of fairly well-to-do white people until not very long ago. In my eagerness to see what the negroes had done to Harlem I visited these streets again. They were still there, the houses, and, although inhabited every one of them by negroes, still as beautiful, still as tasteful, still as clean. The little bits of color in the curtains, the flower assortment on the sills and in the cement urns of the broad side-walks, made them more agreeable than ever.
The story of the passing of those houses into negro hands is the story of negro Harlem. Below the surface of that story is the story of the negro migration from the south. When the Fifty-ninth Street district around Seventh and Eighth Avenues was no longer able to hold the negroes of the city, even after they had been sardine-packed, Harlem was in one of her periodical real-estate slumps. The old-fashioned railroad flats, mostly dark and cold and uniformly built, were being vacated steadily for the better houses built in the Bronx and elsewhere. There was not a house but had several empty apartments. But the owners would not rent to negroes.
In his eagerness to cover his carrying expenses, one of the shoe-string landlords rented an apartment in the middle of the block to a mulatto family. By the end of the month the rest of the tenants living in that house had vacated their apartments. By the end of the following month the whole house was occupied by negroes. They had been living packed four and five families in one apartment in the Fifty-ninth Street negro section before that. Tenants of houses adjoining, to right and left and across the street, began to abandon the block. Before winter that whole block was a negro block. And as the negroes were not in a position to pay rents as high as the whites who had abandoned them, the houses were up for sale very soon. They passed into the hands of negro owners and of such white owners as did not object to having negro tenants, expecting to increase their rents as soon as conditions permitted. In this respect the negro owner has, like Emperor Jones, learned a thing or two from the white landlord.
The white population fled as if in dread of a contagious disease. Block after block was deserted by the white ten-ants. Negro realtors, seeing their chance, infiltrated in other blocks by buying a house and going in to live them-selves. No one refused to sell. Dollars were dollars. Some of the strongest objectors to negroes sold their houses. It was enough that one negro family should come to live in a house for the whole block to be abandoned to them. And because of this invasion 138th and 139th Streets, and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, though distant from the steady biting in of the infiltering colored population, were being steadily abandoned. White people vacated in advance of the invasion. The beautiful houses designed by Stanford White stood empty for a long time, until the bank owning the mortgages, which had been allowed to become defaulted, decided to tear them all down and sell the ground. The houses were a useless burden and a loss on their hands. They could then have been bought for five or six thousand dollars apiece, although they had cost fully five times that amount to build. Upon the advice of Mr. Jacques Nail, a negro student realtor, the houses, instead of being torn down, were sold on small payments to negro tenants. The invasion, which had till then only been from the south to the north, began to run from the north to the south, until at present hardly a house in that section of Harlem, between 120th Street and 140th Street, and between Lenox and Amsterdam Avenues, is not inhabited by colored people. Churches, banks, stores, theaters, the power to grant political offices, municipal offices, everything has passed into the hands of negroes. A city in itself, brown, black town, Harlem. And the negroes have not left Harlem as they found it. A visit to Harlem would help dispel the idea that "niggers" are shiftless—when they have an incentive for their work—something more than corn and sow-belly. But it will also teach how prejudice might, because of enforced congestion, cause one of the most serious holocausts this or any other city has ever experienced. As it is, the infant death-rate is just keeping pace with the birth-rate among the negroes of Harlem.
The beautiful Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street has the Rev. Dr. Powell as pastor. It was designed by a negro architect, built by a negro contractor, with negro labor from and moneys collected from negroes in the city. Not a thing within the church, but it has been done by negro hands. The pastor, a tall, colored man, with a thunderous voice and big curly head of hair, looks very much like the picture of Alexandre Dumas, who was himself of negro blood. I am yet to listen to a better choir than the one directed by the choir-leader of that church. I am yet to listen to a better church organist than the colored woman treading the pedals and combining the stops of the magnificently voiced organ of that church. This church, like most other negro churches, is really more than a church. It is a social center. At a service on a Sun-day the pastor comments upon the political events that have taken place during the week, and sways the audience to his view by his thunderous oratory. He speaks as much of earthly events as he praises the Lord. Not a thing that has happened in the world escapes him; and he is not afraid to denounce the things he does not agree with.
At one of the recent services Dr. Powell announced the church was going to have classes for instruction in sex conducted by capable physicians. Children of all ages were urged to come, and there were also classes for the parents. As far as I know it is the first time that such a course has ever been undertaken by a church. Dr. Powell does not hold that ignorance is bliss in all matters. "Why dodge the sex question when the living are a testimony to its existence?" he thundered. "It is because of ignorance that so many diseases have spread."
There are numerous courses and classes within that church. It has an employment bureau, sewing-classes, cooking-classes, a gymnasium; and the Rev. Dr. Powell showed me with great pride his home. "Furnished very much as the best homes on Riverside Drive, so that a colored girl coming here looking for employment in one of the better homes might, by helping to take care of my apartment, learn how to work and earn her wages elsewhere," he explained. "The Southern negro girl on coming here must be helped to become a capable worker."
At the revival meetings, while hymns and spirituals were sung, the old folks "got religion." The women, in shrill, piercing voices, screamed out: "Yea, Lord! Yea, Lord ! Yea, Lord!" while the droning voices of the multitude moaned and wailed. Voices break out, self-denunciatory and praying for the Lord to come to their aid and save them and protect them against the evil spirit that is within. The whole congregation joins in prayer, only to be interrupted by another rousing voice citing a whole chapter from the Bible and commenting upon it. Rising to his feet, another man is so moved that he completely loses control of the tongue he has been using, and passes on to an incomprehensible gibberish, into a language and tongue he himself no longer understands, a subconscious language if one may say so, which has been stirred from centuries past, beyond the time of other days, like under-enharmonics of life—the base of all emotions and reactions. Really, these people have religion. They go to church not as an obligatory call, a duty, a formality. It is part of them.
I saw a young white boy of splendid physique and beautiful blond hair and blue eyes distributing literature to the folks between hymns. "Surely," I asked Walter White, who was with me, "this young boy is not colored."
"He is," Walter, who is himself blond and blue-eyed and fair-skinned, answered me. "Only one drop of colored blood makes a white man a negro, but nine tenths of white blood in a colored man do not make him a white man. It has been so decreed. See how white he is. Should he live among white people and should they find out he is of negro ancestry they would draw away from him as if he were the worst kind of criminal."
At another time, on coming to services at the same church, in company with Miss Rebecca West, the English novelist, we saw a number of white women and white men in the church who could unsuspectingly pass anywhere as white people. At St. Philip's Church, on 135th Street, in the Bible class of the Rev. Mr. Bishop, who himself looks more like a patrician Italian than a negro (this church was also designed, built, and constructed by negro labor), I saw a beautiful, golden-haired, blue-eyed girl. She was as fair to behold as any golden beauty I have ever seen.
"And is she a negress ?" I asked the Rev. Mr. Bishop.
"Of course she is," he answered in the most matter-of-fact tone.
"But golden-haired?" I questioned, and passed on to other matters.
And then I understood a good many other things. I understood why there are so many supposedly white women married to colored men in the negro quarters! Why there are so many white men married to colored women in the negro quarters ! I remembered a girl friend, whose desk had been next to mine on a local newspaper, whom every-body had condemned because she had married a colored man and gone to live among colored people. I remembered the case of a man whose wife, seemingly white, gave birth to a colored child, and the woman, rather than confess her race, preferred to be divorced on the ground of infidelity. She wanted to free herself of the negro Ghetto, free her-self of persecution and restrictions. And I also remembered another case where, in spite of the opprobrium of all who knew him, a friend of mine took his blond wife and negro child abroad, for he was the only one who knew; the wife had confessed her race to him. And I was told of another man who had crossed the line and married into a white family, but who committed suicide when his first child was born, not because his wife had withdrawn her love but because he had hoped to free his offspring from the opprobrium.
But there are many more negroes, men and women, who have successfully crossed the line, many more than we care to know or to admit. And, oh ! the tragedies caused by nature's playful and wilful ways with these people. A blond child will be born to two perfectly matched negroes, a black child to two perfectly matched blonds.
There are a hundred little churches housed in apartment ground floors, with little window-pane pictures of the saints pasted on the panes of the windows and gold-lettered wooden signs on the wall. Some of them have the most fantastic names—Eureka Church, Oasis Church, and the like. And services are announced in the quaintest possible language, in removable enameled letters. The reason for these many small churches is to be found in what follows. A colored man after having lived in New York for a little time returns home, South, on a visit. Going to church on Sunday the brother is asked by the preacher to step up to the front and to tell to his brethren about the great city. The visiting brother is well dressed, looks prosperous and happy. He generally draws such a glorious picture of the opportunities, the tolerance and the economic conditions here that the whole community, including minister, doctor, and undertaker, follows him to the city within a week or two. The hardships they encounter could only be braved and vanquished by laughing, gay-hearted folk. Any other kind would succumb.
Within the last year close to five hundred thousand negroes have migrated from the South. It is because of this that housing conditions in Harlem and in other negro quarters are appalling. Really no one would dare publish the result of investigations on the density of the population in some of the Harlem districts, or the Brooklyn districts for that matter. The danger of the colored invasion once past, because these houses had passed into colored hands, rents were raised until they are to-day, relatively speaking, probably the highest in the city. Apartments for which white people had paid a few years ago forty dollars a month are now rented for a hundred dollars or more. Families have doubled up, and tripled up, to pay the exorbitant rents from the wages obtained in such occupations as are open to the negroes. One must not forget that only a very few occupations are within their reach. Trade-unions have long refused them membership. Whenever they have won such privileges, it was only for fear lest they be used as strike-breakers during an industrial war. As it is, many trades have barred them from the possibility of earning a living.
There is greater privacy in the low dives and cabarets, in the streets, in the dark hallways, in the numerous saloons which flourish in spite of white prohibition, than in the homes. Because of high rents less than a hundred colored children graduate yearly from the high schools of the city. They must work. There would be starvation in many a home of negroes if child-labor laws should be strictly en-forced. High rents caused by segregation are the cause of the black immorality and lawlessness and of the blind pigs leaning on the walls of the police stations. The white messenger who collects the protection money has his drinks served in his own cup which he carries in his pocket, and complains of black immorality! Most of the expensive dives in Harlem are supported by white customers, who complain of black immorality. If the blacks should do to the whites what the whites do to the blacks for insults to women there would be a hundred lynchings daily in New York.
Chris Matthews, formerly one of Harvard's greatest athletes, related to me the other day on his visit from Boston how for a year he had been refused by his team-mates permission to eat at the same training-table with them.
In Annapolis they had drained the water from the pool after he had taken his swim, in spite of the fact that he had been instrumental in winning the championship for his team. I have listened for hours to tales of riots and lynchings, as told by Miller and Lyles, the co-authors of "Shuffle Along" and "Runnin' Wild," and to the tales of Walter White and Wendell Johnson ; but the tale of the lynching of Matthews' soul seems to me the most tragic one. Though his body still lives, they have killed him.
And in spite of that, and in spite of all the misery they have endured, what joy and gaiety and merriment the negroes are capable of ! What full-throated laughter, what spontaneous giggling, in which every limb and the whole body takes part in an expression of joy or merriment) Heinrich Heine in one of his essays said that the dance is the song of the limbs. The colored people have made laughter the dance of the inner voices.
There are some six weekly newspapers edited and published by colored people for colored people in the city, not to speak of several magazines of more serious import. The professional men of all walks meet and know one another thoroughly. There are numerous lodges and groups and societies where they come to discuss things. Like the intellectuals in other districts, they also have their coffee-houses, where they stay till the wee hours of the morning talking about this and that.
At the Abyssinian Jewish Synagogue the black-bearded, dusky-faced men affirm that Moses, Jesus, and Solomon, and David were Ethiopians like themselves. They point to numerous passages in the Bible, interpreting them this way and that to confirm their views and opinions. They sit day after day, night after night, discussing the Old Testament, which they have at their finger-tips, in the old Hebrew. With that curious separatist spirit so marked in the Orient, the few hundred Abyssinian Jews are split into a hundred factions, because of the interpretation of a verse in the Bible. They are the butt of the ridicule of the other negroes, who take their religious argumentation but lightly. Yet these people come to dispute religion even in the Christian churches. Their propaganda fervor holds perhaps the explanation why the Jews are so disliked by Gentiles. The apostles must have been as insistent propagandists. And those who finally accepted the creed continued to dislike them for their methods. How little color has to do with the marked characteristics of a race or a nation! In their studiousness, their sad humor, and their lack of ability to laugh as loudly and as frankly as others, they show themselves to be much more Hebrews than the white Hebrews are. And when I asked one of them what he would really wish his condition in New York to be he said, "To live among the other Jews." They resent the epithet "negro," and their inability to mingle with their white brethren of the same religion makes them bitter against their privileged coreligionists. And one of them told me, "There is no chance of any of us ever crossing the line; for there is no white blood in us."
And his wife stood up in her enormous corpulence and added, "And there shall not be."
To which her husband replied, "Except if a white co-religionist marries into our fold."
They are very poor, for their children also are forced into poorly paid professions because of their color. Most handicrafts are closed to them. The negro is not persecuted in New York. He is segregated and tolerated. Only the poorest-paid work is open to him whose skin is not white.
One night I was sitting at a table with two negroes and their wives at one of the "protected" cabarets of the town. There were about a hundred people in the establishment, but I was the only man in street-clothes. They were all immaculately dressed. The women were resplendent in gorgeous gowns. Rivers of diamonds were displayed shining brightly in the subdued lights of the place. They danced, frantically, joyously, with the most sensuous abandon of body and spirit, to the jazz played by a gyrating band, the musicians actually dancing on the platform while they played. The drinks were unusually expensive, and though because of their profession, which I suspected, the visitors should have known better, the only difference in the wine, in spite of the different prices, was the color and the shape of the bottle in which it was served.
My male companions at the table did not wait long to strike up friendship. A tall, corpulent man leaned over to me and questioned gently :
"Your name, please."
I told him. Whereupon he rose and ceremoniously introduced me to the rest of the company. He eyed with displeasure the bottle in which my wine was served, for it was not of the highest priced. It shamed his table. The other tables topped one another in the costliness of the drinks that were ordered. He asked me politely to consent to partake of his wine. When I had consented he spilled my wine in the brass bowl and put the empty container under the table out of sight. As the waiter did not appear quickly enough to suit him, Mr. Smith raised his eyebrows and said:
"Is it not remawrkable ho' these ma-an servants are procrastinating?"
"They are procrastinating!" the other assented, happy to mouth so high-sounding a word. "Yes, sir, they is procrastinating; yes, sir !"
While the music played and the dancing women exhibited their diamond-studded garters through the slit in their gowns, and the phosphorescent white combs in their hair were gleaming, he inquired of my profession. And then he spoke of his.
"The other gentleman, Mr. Jones, and I is partners. I 's a sci'ntist and di'tishon and chemist. A sci'ntist, that 's what I is, a di'tishion. There are plenty of learned folk in Harlem, sir."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, that 's what I is. We two, my partner and me, is going to change the color of our race and make it happy. We are going to make 'em white, so they can live every-where and go everywhere and be even the President of the United States. The only trouble with the colored race is that it ain't white. Not that I says we is inferior ! No, sir ! Only when you are in Rome you 've got to be like Romans, as Lincoln said. So we will make 'em white."
"Is that so?"
"All this straightening out hair business, permanent wave, is not the thing; ain't near the real thing. The hair is like tassel on corn. To change it you must change the seed. It is not sci'ntific. I am a di'tishion. I believe in doing things fundamentally."
Suddenly he raised his voice and looked to the people about him. People crowded our table now, though the music played.
"Why am the Northern people blond? Why am they blond, I asks." And his large belly shook like jelly while his black eyes rolled furiously in the white pools. "I say they am blond because they eats fish; cold-blooded animals they eat. And because of that they have fair skin and blond hair. Color comes from within, and not from out-side. That is sci'ntific. But you cannot change the whole colored race into a white race at once. Burbank he ain't done changing the nature of fruit by paintin' it. You 've got to do it sci'ntifically. And through the mothers especially. None of the hair-culture is the real business, although it does come in in my scheme, for religious purposes. And so when a woman has got sense enough to come to me I look at her and study the grain of her face. Then if she is very black I prescribe a diet of fish with a little vegetables three times a day. And I give her the right kind of face-powder. And it 's the face-powder I 's interested in with my partner here."
Mr. Jones puffed at his cigar and bowed in acknowledgment.
"Still, the business is idealistic, it is. But there ain't no reason in the world why ideals should be losing propositions ! No, siree! And if a woman of lighter shade comes up I give her a diet of two-times-a-day fish and a little more vegetables three times a day. And I give her the right kind of face-powder, a little lighter. For it 's the face powder I 's interested in with my partner here. And the right kind of face-powder. And if a woman whiter than that comes she gets fish only once a day and the use of a different kind of face-powder. And I knows face-powder because I 's been interested in face-powder all my life. There are eight hundred and forty-nine different kinds of face-powder to choose from. And I selects the right kind after studying the grain of the face and the hands. I 's a di'tishion and a sci'ntist, a chemist."
"And then you think that will straighten out a woman's hair ?" I asked.
"I ain't interfering with another end of my business ; that is hair-culture. No, siree! But do you knows the Bible ? Do youse know the Bible ? I asks." He waxed more enthusiastic as he continued. "Do you remember how Jacob got them striped sheep from his father-in-law Laban? He fooled him by putting the half-peeled branches from the trees in front of the water-well, where the ewes used to come to drink. And so most of the sheep were born flecked because the ewes looked at them. Well, do you remember it?"
"Well, that am exactly how I do the things. Nothing like the Bible for an honest man. Study the Bible for ideas. It 's all in there, in the good book. The good book. There ain't no gold enough to pay for it. I loves it. I do. I got in my house the most expensive Bible there is. Gold bound and everything. I have a woman eat fish and give her the proper shade of face-powder, and she '11 be looking into the mirror at herself a dozen times a day. Women is that fallacious, vain, and perspicacious. And watch her off-spring. That is sci'ntific. Like Laban's lambs got striped, her offspring is gwine to be whiter. . . . It 's in the Bible, sir. If you believe in the Bible, you can't dispute this here fact, or you is a heathen. For I 's a sci'ntist and di'tishion and benefactor and a student."
I told him he was wonderful, whereupon a dozen more gentlemen and ladies, evidently already the clients of the firm of Smith & Jones, crowded our table. And my friend affirmed to them that I had said it was wonderful.
"And this gentleman knows, for he is a celebrated sci'ntist himself, and a student of the Bible."
Who will ever imitate the nice jollity and naivete of the man? The music played, and the couples danced, and as they passed by the women patted his cheek assuring him that he was wonderful. And they were getting such tender and sweet glances in return! Even his own wife, who was with him, in a fit of amorous tenderness could not hold her arms away from his neck or her lips away from his. And it was not drunkenness that had done it, not the wine in the bottle.
A little later I questioned the man as to the status of certain white and colored women who came and went. Too delicate to say in the presence of his wife and the other persons what he thought they were, yet unwilling to leave me in error, he closed his eyes for a little second, and then explained:
"Them is the kind of women who permit a man to assume with them marital relations without legal obligations."
What a perfect Gilbert & Sullivan line! What fine, delicate phrasing!
There are a hundred, a thousand, different charlatans of his kind in Harlem, who want to make the colored people happy by making them look like whites. Every other house on the avenue holds a practitioner of some sort. The colored people are easily separated from their money. They are naive and confident. Not only all the sciences but also all the superstitions flourish in like manner. There are a horde of representatives of schools of medicine I have never heard of. Podopractors, manopractors, pedipractors—doctors all of them.
In the anteroom of the famous place of Barron Wilkins, which is practically a spiritual continuation of the old Marshall place, so famed in days gone by, Marshall's place which was the origin of all cabaret life in New York City —in the anteroom of Barron Wilkins's a group of colored men discuss intensely sociology, housing conditions, medicine, psychology. Big, powerful Wilkins, whose pull with police and politicians is greater than that of any of the other four hundred thousand negroes in the city, sits and listens intently to the discussion. There is a tender, loving gaze in his eyes as he watches every one having his say. He seldom says anything, but how he reads down to the very soul of the man who is talking, analyzing the wisdom and sincerity of what is uttered! His entrance, while the conclave is sitting, is like that of some governor or other high political person. There is power vested in him. He comes in, six feet three in his stockings, proportionately broad and stout, with a loud call of "Good evening, gentlemen!" Every one rises to his feet. "Be seated." And uncovering his gray head, he nods as he occupies his chair.
Wilkins's place on 134th Street is a club. Only members are admitted. It opens on week-days at about eleven o'clock P. M., officially, but the place really never gets started before one o'clock at night. It is frequented by white men, with only a sprinkling of negroes, although it is known as a colored man's cabaret. Bons viveurs from all the strata of society, financiers, lawyers, and theatrical people, with their women or in search of them, are dancing to the negro jazz band, while expensive food and drinks are being served at the tables, and the thick smoke of cigars and per-fumed cigarettes hovers low over the white-haired heads of the males and the wavy hair of the females.
Between the dances a professional singer or dancer is doing his or her stunt, and as the entertainers are always negroes the art is generally a very special one, fit only for the sophisticates of Barron Wilkins's club. One must have his purse well garnished when visiting the place. A hundred-dollar bill will not go very far and is not intended to do much service in this luxuriously fitted-out cabaret. But what charm! What exoticism! One easily forgets that all Harlem is not like it! Harlem, the Harlem of the poor, overcrowded, underfed, with children crippled with rickets and scurvy.
Wilkins's has undergone several changes in the last years until it has chameleoned to its present form. It is no longer the happy-go-lucky place of the time when it was partly owned by Jack Johnson, he with the big laugh and flashing teeth. Somehow one feels that the loose ends have been pulled together by a more expert hand in affairs than Jack's. Jack's fingers were wide open; gold just flowed between them. In its present form Wilkins's is the rich man's black and white cabaret. Southern gentlemen coming to the city, who cannot very well get on without negro society, are the first to look it up; and they learn to know after an experience or two that they must be on their guard. No affront or insult to the colored race would be suffered by any one of Wilkins's associates.
Another well-known cabaret is the Nest, one of the owners of which is part Italian and part negro. It has the reputation of having the best dance band in town. Its clientele is more evenly divided between blacks and whites. The white attendance outnumbers the black only on a Saturday or Sunday night. It is also a very luxurious and ex-pensively fitted-out place. It is Broadway's next.
There are any number of other cabarets, some with very sinister names, like the Bucket of Blood, where the "goings-on" seem to be put on to attract the rubberneck looking for extraordinary sensations. And there are any number of "genuine" places 'way below Lenox Avenue frequented by Harlem's population of below par, bootleggers, prostitutes, pickpockets, gangsters, and all that the Bowery once held of the white man. No one seems to bother much about them. Wine, whisky, and narcotics are sold freely. The police are in on everything. I once saw a Southern gentleman punch a negro who had offered a white powder to a white woman. The gentleman did not resent the traffic. He was himself an addict. He resented the commerce between a black man and a white woman. He resented the familiarity. Even the degenerating dope had not softened the Southerner's contempt for the negro. That accident explained why so many negroes leave the South yearly.
The advent of Marcus Garvey, who styled himself the Emperor of the African race a few years ago, has had very much to do with the factionalization of Harlem. The full-blooded negro was made to feel, through Garvey's propaganda, that he was better than his brother of lighter skin. The blacker the greater the pride. And a thousand and one disputes have been going on since Marcus Garvey's advent. Undoubtedly this negro Moses started out as a saint with high ideals, with great love in his heart. His de-sire to take his people out of this country and lead them back to Africa had a solid emotional background. It was unfortunate that he should have become involved in the financial intricacies which ultimately led him to jail. He was a picturesque and imposing figure with a sad and eloquent voice and magnetic gestures. Somewhat of a poseur, yet—genuine. There are any number of people to this day in Harlem who still believe he was honest and who cannot be convinced that he ever swung aside a single penny which they gave him. They bought shares in the different enter-prises that he started; and the Black Star Line, so much scoffed at when its lone vessel was confiscated by the prohibition agents for carrying whisky, is still something of which they dream. "Garvey was jailed," they say, "because he is colored." They will tell you big interests were behind his persecution. He was a black genius of organization and therefore dangerous. Some even spoke of him as the Gandhi of the negroes—a Gandhi nipped in the bud.
Marcus Garvey's influence is still strong in Harlem. It has worked havoc in the relations between the West Indian negro and the native negro. This antagonism breaks out in all fields. It is of frequent occurrence that a West Indian ruins another negro in business. They boycott one an-other's stores, restaurants, and dancing-places. There is no peace between the West Indian negro and the rest of the population. They neither associate nor intermarry, and seldom if ever belong to the same society, lodge, or congregation. It also so happens that the West Indian negroes are of more astute commercial make-up than the other negroes. Most of them have become quite wealthy in a very short time. They are not as happy-go-lucky as the other negroes. They save and invest their moneys in sound ventures, and do not part with their gold for hair-culture salves and the like. They are seldom as profoundly stirred in their emotions as the others are. They take religion more casually. They don't dance as well. And one of my colored friends said, "They are the Jews of the colored race"; by which he evidently meant to say, the business men of the people. They are quite satisfied to stay black, are proud of their race. There is less white blood in them than in the native negro.
A most interesting little man is Mr. Roach, the owner of the Renaissance Dancing Hall. A wealthy man and influential in the community is this Mr. Roach. He confessed to me he had once had literary ambitions, and had drawn his inspiration by being a cook for Mr. Irving Bacheller. Later on he became a servant to a Miss Watkins whose writings he admired. But it availed him naught. He had great difficulty. Write as he would, imitating as closely as possible either of his two masters, his stuff did not sell. In despair he became a valet to Mr. Wilton Lackaye, the actor, whereupon he promptly had better luck by selling a moving-picture scenario for sixty-five dollars. This made him think about pictures. To-day he owns a picture theater, has invested in a colored production company, and is the proprietor of several buildings and dancing halls. Had any of his stories been accepted he would to-day be a publisher.
A little below the Renaissance, on Lenox Avenue, is the Lafayette Theater, once the home of the Ethiopian Players, of which Charles Gilpin, now of national fame, was once a prominent member. The Ethiopian Players have produced a number of negro actors who have won national fame. They have staged Shaksperian plays, plays by Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen, and plays by local authors, mostly on negro subjects.
There are a number of very remarkable dramatic art readers who from time to time are called to read before the many cultural organizations of the district. At present, the Ethiopian Players having been disbanded, the Lafayette Theater is a vaudeville house, in which mixed acts are being staged. It is one of the most popular houses of the neighborhood, and plans are again on foot for the Lafayette Players to start in a new series of productions.
Among interesting Harlem figures are men like Dr. Dubois, the editor of "The Crisis," and James Weldon John-son, the poet, whose commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of the negro was published in the "New York Times" in 1913. It was one of the most widely discussed poems of the year. His poem, "The Young Warrior," set to music by H. T. Burleigh, almost became the national hymn of Italy during the World War. Mr. Johnson has published several books of poetry of his own, and is the editor of "The Book of American Negro Poetry," published by Harcourt, Brace & Co. Walter F. White, my companion during my Harlem days, is a novelist and one of the best known figures in Harlem. Welcomed everywhere, known everywhere, a fluent talker and fiery orator, as ready with tears in his eyes as he is with a smile on his lips, he knows Harlem and knows his people. He is, for this and many other reasons, one of the most valuable assets of the negro race. He has investigated almost every riot and lynching for the past ten years; and should one want a nightmare, without going to the trouble of eating Welsh rabbit, and meet with Walter White, he can have it.
Claude McKay, the author of "Harlem Shadows," though a Jamaica negro, is one of the most pampered poets of Harlem. Young, handsome, and fiery, with undeniable talent, he is loved by everybody, and even his escapades are being recounted with great gusto. McKay is now in Russia, the guest of the Soviet Republic. Another interesting figure was Mrs. Lillie C. Walker, who became both famous and wealthy from her hair-straightening process. Branches of her parlor are now in operation all over the country, and her bottled preparation is selling in almost every drug store. Mrs. Walker, who in her lifetime made several million dollars through her invention, and from shrewd real-estate investments, was also a speaker and a singer and one of the most race-conscious negroes in the country. When she died she left her estate to her daughter, who, a most handsome Amazon, as though hewn out of dark bronze, stands fully six feet in her stockings. She is living in grew luxury in a palace she has had designed and built for herself by a negro architect, in Irvington, New York, surrounded by all the luxuries of life and by social secretaries. A well-traveled and cultured woman, she, too, is a very proud negro. Her father having been killed in a riot, she is anything but passive on the subject. Rising from her chair as she talked to me, she looked more like an African empress than the offspring of a former slave. Speaking about negroes whose relatives and parents have been killed either in riots or in lynchings, her frame trembled, her lips quivered, and her eyes filled. She looked like an avenging Nemesis. But white Irvington objects to her living there. She is as isolated as if she lived on an island a thousand miles from a shore . . except when her own people come to visit with her.
In general, what one feels very distinctly in Harlem is that it is composed practically of two elements: those whose ambition it is to "cross the line" or have their off-spring cross the line, to live with the whites as whites ; and another much better element who refuse to live with whites under false pretenses, who want to live as negroes, race-conscious, who hope by their achievements to compel the white people surrounding them to recognize them as their equals. And they insist that their best men have been full-blooded negroes. To them the great number of people now invading Harlem and New York is very agreeable. They have them all together. They can hold meetings with larger crowds. They can lecture to them. They can make them race-conscious and with their help agitate for such legislation as is favorable to the race.
At a meeting in a church, when their greatest woman orator, Mary Burrows, spoke, they raised a young fortune in ten- and twenty-dollar bills for propaganda work. She made it quite plain that the negro was no longer going to submit as he has done heretofore.
"America must awaken or she will find herself weighted down with a millstone on the neck that will drag her to the lowest depths," she thundered, speaking about anti-lynching bills.
People like her and the crowd of the Association for the Advancement of Colored People are laboring for the education of the negro by making his life more complete, by pointing out to him values in literature, by making him conscious of a poetry all his own, a theater all his own, encouraging sculpture and painting and higher education; building a new edifice on an old foundation, by pointing out the great arts that flourished in Africa in olden times and down to the time their ancestors were ravished from the coasts of Africa and brought as slaves here. Native music and dance are almost entirely of negro origin. A visit to musical comedies such as "Shuffle Along" and "Runnin' Wild," which have been tremendous hits on Broadway and in most of the principal cities of the country, proves their contention. These comedies have been written, staged, and executed from first to last by negroes, and have a quality all their own. The tunes and dances are both intoxicating and infectious. Not one risque or obscene joke. And yet the woman dancers have been forced into tights by our censors, while the white dancers in revues and follies romp bare-limbed in other theaters. And when a man like H. O. Tanner, the painter, becomes famous, the negroes get angry because he is referred to as an American painter, and not as a negro, which he is.
At the moment of writing I am informed that negro realtors have bought two blocks of real estate formerly belonging to the Astor estate, on 116th Street below Lenox Avenue. That will relieve in part Harlem's congestion of population. What will soon happen can be readily fore-seen. Within a short year the blocks between the newly acquired property and 125th Street will be vacated by the white population and become part of negrodom. One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, the Broadway of Harlem, has till now resisted all invasion, but its days are numbered. Every group section in this city has its own amusement center, its own Main Street ; 125th Street is the natural Main Street of Harlem.
How prejudice against negroes has been melted in New York is perhaps best illustrated by the recent enormous success of the singer Roland Hayes. For years and years this great artist sought an opportunity to show his ability and his great art. It was refused to him only because of his color. Managers raised their brows. No white public would come to hear a negro singer, they said. In despair Hayes went to England, where in less than a year after his arrival he had been summoned to sing before the king. When he returned to New York on a visit to his parents in 1923, he found quite a different attitude. His success was overwhelming. I counted four white persons out of every five in the audience at some of his concerts. And although he sang very beautifully in several languages, he never reached such heights or depths as when singing the simple spirituals of his own race. Even those who had come to scoff remained to praise and admire, and looked at one another somewhat ashamed of themselves.
Daily hundreds of negroes arrive in New York from every Southern State. It is pathetic to see the eagerness with which the other negroes, poor and overcrowded as they live, extend to them their hospitality. Yet hundreds find themselves on the street. The Harlem Forum, where many are taken care of out of charity, is overcrowded nightly with shivering, ragged, hungry creatures, who look as though they have just escaped from hell. There is no way to stop the invasion. There is no way to enlarge the houses in which negroes live. Space inclosed by walls is rigid. Segregation breeds immorality, criminality, disease, and increases mortality. One twelfth of the population of a city cannot harmlessly be restricted to live in one fortieth of its area, and be excluded from most decent means of earning its livelihood. Prostitution, bootlegging, and charlatanism are rampant on every corner. The saloons are wide open. So are gambling-dens and dope joints. I have been accosted by boys under twelve who offered to sell me gin, while the policeman on the corner twirled his club and looked aside. I have been winked at by women from windows and doorways of houses before which children played dice. Rents are high. Wages are small. Trade-unions are adverse. And yet . . . Harlem goes earlier to work than any other district. Street-cleaners, dish-washers, chauffeurs, elevator men, and home-sleeping servant-girls have to be early at work. And at night ten thou-sand men, exceedingly well dressed and looking more prosperous than the others, go to their employment; for that many are nightly employed in cabarets and dance-halls as musicians.
And yet . . . watch them in the street-cars, sub-ways, and elevated trains. They laugh and giggle. The eyes sparkle and the white teeth flash; recounting last night's dance, last night's party, last night's meeting, last night's affair at the church. Never do they call one another by Christian names. It is always "mister," "missis." And when one of them recently gave me his visiting card it read:
MR. ELEAZAR GODSON Chief Indoor Aviator etc., etc.
I puzzled long before I discovered "Indoor Aviator" meant elevator man, and that "Of Hygienist Bureau" meant Street Cleaning Department.
If another such displacement of negroes from the south to the north should take place in 1924 as took place in 1923, when close to five hundred thousand abandoned their home States, the day is not far off when there shall be a negro population of a million in the city. Their political power is already a considerable one. Political machinery is at work to swing it this way and that, in exchange for winked-at privileged liberties and favors. Whether the negroes in New York can be permanently segregated in one particular quarter is very problematical.
And one of them bitterly remarked to me the other day : "They sing our songs, the whites do. They dance to the music we make. They dance our dances. And the bullets made no difference when they killed us in the war, whether we were white or black. And yet when it comes to renting us an apartment they turn up their noses. As soon as I get enough money I shall go to live in France where they don't discriminate against us."