Discovering what a particular time in Harlem says about the whole nation
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
American Heritage, were kind enough to suggest that I write something this month about my new novel, Strivers Row, published by HarperCollins, and now in fine bookstores everywhere.Richard Snow and Fred Allen, my editors here at
I was, of course, far too modest to contemplate any such advertisement for myself, but then I remembered the adage of the great labor leader John L. Lewis: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.” So here goes.
Strivers Row is set in Harlem, during the tumultuous summer of 1943, and it completes the “City of Fire” trilogy of historical novels that I began with Dreamland and continued in Paradise Alley . My intention was to write about three different peoples, three different religions, and three critical moments in the development of our nation. The city in question is New York, which has been the most contested ground in American history, the place where we have first determined just who gets to be an American, and what that privilege means.
Dreamland revolved primarily around the Jewish immigrant experience at the turn into the twentieth century, Paradise Alley , the Irish Catholic experience, from the great immigration of the 1840s through the Civil War, but I could just as easily have written about, say, the Italian, or the German, or the Chinese experience. What I wanted to do was to show what becoming an American meant on a human level. Too often the immigrant saga is depicted as an unbroken triumphal procession. I wanted to depict the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people, but also their confusion and the division of their loyalties, the struggle and the sacrifice that surrendering their old identities for this new one inevitably entailed.
Strivers Row concerns the African-American experience during World War II, and as such it presented a new set of challenges. Blacks, of course, were not really immigrants at all, as we tend to use the word; the first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626. Unlike every white immigrant group, they did not come of their own free will but were dragged over as forced labor—and under the most brutal and degrading circumstances imaginable. If the story of white America has been that of ever-widening acceptance, the story of black America has been one of rejection.
It was an article of faith in many black churches that their perseverance would ultimately redeem the nation.
And yet, African-Americans persisted in staking their claim to America, with a tenacity so remarkable that it is by itself almost enough to make one believe in some sort of divinely sanctioned destiny for our country. Indeed, as Albert J. Raboteau establishes in his fascinating survey A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History , it was an article of faith in many black churches that it was their perseverance that would ultimately redeem America. As the African-American theologian Theophilus Gold Steward put it, the black church was a “hidden church in the wilderness” that “God has maintained for himself as a witness” and that one day “shall shine forth as the sun, and welcome the universal Christ.”
It was an idea that would echo all the way down to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the Negro may be God’s appeal to this age—an age drifting rapidly to its doom.” King foresaw a day when “the historians will have to pause and say, There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”
By 1943, though, black patience had frayed close to the breaking point. Harlem, the de facto capital of black America, remained an incredibly dynamic place, despite the toll the Depression years had exacted. It ran 24 hours a day during wartime, and servicemen who were on leave or en route flocked there to stomp at the Savoy, or to hear even more glorious music—perhaps the best music that ever was—played well past midnight at someone’s rent party. But black residents of Harlem were still charged much higher rents that whites were, squeezed into overcrowded apartments, and endowed with almost none of the public parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and other amenities that white neighborhoods were given. They were still regularly harassed by the police and excluded from most decent jobs and from nearly all of the white city’s respectable restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs. (Strivers Row was the name of a couple of Harlem blocks that were built by the finest architects in New York around the time of the First World War and intended for a white upper class that never quite got that far uptown. Along with Sugar Hill, it was where the city’s African-American elite were forced to live all on top of one another—doctors and lawyers, musicians and prizefighters, dancers and ministers—and it remains to this day a gracious, tree-lined neighborhood.)