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The African Piper of Harlem

August 24, 2018

 

 

This is an excerpt from my latest book -- a fantasy exploring how African immigrants and African-Americans recognize and embrace each other's cultural differences.

 

General George Washington’s letter, written in 1776, read: "We are now encamped with the main body of the army on the Heights of Harlem," he explained, "where I should hope the enemy would meet with a defeat in case of an attack." That minor battle, fought during the New York and New Jersey campaigns of the American Revolutionary War, marked his first battlefield victory against the British. Hope was revived in the hearts of Washington and his men – hope that the tide of war would change in their favor and a new nation would be born. A nation of free men in which blacks were slaves.

 

The legacy of slavery is a pain still being processed by each generation. About six million African-Americans would eventually abandon the states of the Old Confederacy between 1915 and 1970. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, chronicled this migration. One inference that one can draw from her book is that the different migrants were linked together by a desire for a better future. Many of them found their way to Harlem.

 

Some of the new arrivals found that history had arrived too late to recoup promising lives squandered under the restrictions of segregation. But many other arrivals rejoiced at being part of a cultural renaissance and seeing the effects of the civil rights movement unfold in real time. Harlem was synonymous with dignity and hope. That longing for a particular thing to happen was, perhaps, best described in the 1932 movie, “Harlem is Heaven.” The opening scene contains scrolling text, which reads:

 

“Many years ago, a jobless actor stood by the big tree on 7th Avenue near 131st Street, Harlem, wishing for work. While leaning against this tree, he heard that a downtown manager was seeking him for a leading part in a new show. Since then this tree has become a favorite stopping place for unemployed actors. Its legend has spread throughout the country, and it is now famous as "The Tree of Hope."

 

Today, in greater Harlem, which runs from river to river, and from East 96th street and West 106th street to West 155th street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population. Gentrification comes with its own inherent opportunities and challenges. Additionally, about 15% of Harlem’s black population is foreign-born, including members of the voluntary African diaspora.

 

Every citizen of this district is filled with hope. Proverbs 13:12 in the Bible states: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” American poet, Langston Hughes, known for having his finger on the pulse of the African-American experience penned “Harlem,” in which he referenced that deferred hope:

 

“What happens to a dream deferred?

   Does it dry up

   like a raisin in the sun?”

 

New immigrants have seen the realization of that hope for the African-American icons. And they are here to participate in that dream, including the fictional characters discussed in the following chapters. The family comes from Nigeria – the most populous country in Africa, containing at least 300 ethnolinguistic groups. Once derided as a colonial construct, Nigeria is a country rich in culture to match its status as the richest country on the African continent when ranked by gross domestic product.

 

Perhaps this family may have had ancestors who were middle-men facilitating the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But that, and skin pigmentation are the only physical similarities they conceivably share with the American descendants of slaves. Thus, begins the age-old dance of assimilation, exchanging old stories and acquiring new ones.

In a bygone era, connections formed in ethnic enclaves over time, perhaps a generation or more, would have eased these transitions in a welcoming and appropriate manner. However, we live in a technologically accelerated era, where every incident is breaking/fake news and being “different” could translate to being “dangerous.”

 

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