Discovering what a particular time in Harlem says about the whole nation
Richard Snow and Fred Allen, my editors here at 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.
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.
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.)
At the same time, thousands of Harlem’s sons were being drafted and shipped South to basic-training camps. There, in the service of a nation that claimed to be fighting a global war for human dignity, they were abused by racist officers and routinely arrested, beaten, bullied, and even killed by local white lawmen and citizens. Nor was this sort of persecution confined to the South. Attempts by blacks to integrate defense plants and shipyards were greeted with brutal mass assaults by white workers in Chester, Pennsylvania, and Beaumont, Texas, and with three days of pitched street fighting in Newark, New Jersey, that killed a 15-year-old boy—to name just a few examples. Attempts to integrate new housing projects for defense workers in Detroit led to a vicious white-on-black riot that left 34 people dead.
Reports of these disturbances fell on Harlem like a steady drip of poison. Throughout that summer, James Baldwin would recall seeing “the strangest combinations” of people gathered “on stoops and on corners and in doorways”—all of them, it seemed, “disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read. . . .” He remembered that “on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow.” Their rage would soon explode, in another riot that would kill six people, and devastate their community.
Strivers Row tells the story of this fateful moment through two main protagonists. One of them is the Reverend Jonah Dove, a fictional, composite character, whose story is based in part on the experiences of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., “the Big Cat,” longtime minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and Harlem’s first congressman. Jonah, who lives on Strivers Row itself, among the community’s elite, is the pastor of one of Harlem’s leading churches, a position he no longer feels worthy of fulfilling. He fears he will be unable to protect or lead his people in the ever more violent world he sees emerging everywhere, and he is thinking of deserting his flock and imitating his sister by trying to “pass” in white society.
The other main character is a young Malcolm X, still known as Malcolm Little, who was in fact a teenage street hustler in wartime Harlem. To write anything about such an iconic figure is to confront some obvious obstacles, for Malcolm X was the ultimate irreconcilable, a bone in the throat of America. Malcolm didn’t want equal rights; he wanted out . For most of his adult life he was the chief spokesman of a cult that considered all white people to be literal devils, the degenerate creation of a mad black scientist. There could be no compromise with such creatures, only separation.
It has often been pointed out that Malcolm modified these views somewhat near the end of his life—but only somewhat. In order to discover just what Malcolm did believe, one must begin with his own words, or at least his words as recorded by Alex Haley in the Autobiography that was published following his assassination in 1965. Malcolm’s life story has become a totemic American text, and deservedly so, but like all auto-biographies, it is less than wholly reliable, and like most, it reveals more than it intends. The Autobiography is both a classic conversion story and a bid for power, and as such Malcolm skirts certain aspects of his life and exaggerates others, including just how bad he really was in his hustler days. Having been down the farthest, he could make the case that he had risen the highest.
Yet what I found most intriguing about The Autobiography of Malcolm X was what was written between the lines. Again and again, Malcolm recounts episodes of how he fooled, thwarted, or patronized older (and presumably darker) men. Whether he is outwitting an entire hunting party of black neighbors, or winning over a barful of hustlers by making a fuss over an ancient pickpocket, or facing down a pimp and then a fearsome Harlem gangster, it is always the younger (and probably lighter) Malcolm who triumphs. He repeatedly expresses dismay and embarrassment over the uninhibited passion that marked the black church services his parents took him to, yet he claims an inherent black superiority at dancing and rhythm, including an almost preternatural ability for himself.
Over and over again Malcolm’s story reveals the tension in which he lived, suspended between the white world and the black. When he was a boy, his father mocked him for the white ancestors he had through his mother’s side, but he beat him much less than he did Malcolm’s darker brothers and sisters, and he liked to take him with him whenever he was visiting either black or white neighbors. Malcolm’s siblings and black neighbors teased him with nicknames such as “Milky” and “Blondie,” “Chink” and “Freak of Nature” for his skin color, at the same time that his predominantly white classmates called him “nigger,” and “darkie,” and “Rastus.” Those same white classmates liked him well enough to elect him class president, and they pitied the abject poverty in which he lived enough to chip in and buy him a brand-new coat. And yet he was told by his homeroom teacher that the most he could possibly hope for was a life of a carpenter. Malcolm insists on the second page of his autobiography that he “learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Yet even at the end of his life—with his stories of outwitting all those older black men—he did not seem to notice just how much of white racial attitudes he had yet to purge.
Forty years after his death Malcolm has been reduced to a single gesture of defiance: the glowering face, finger thrust out toward the camera, over the caption of his famous vow, “By any means necessary!” His hagiographers would make him into the avenging specter the white mass media of his time would use to titillate its audiences, “The hate that hate produced.”
Yet in watching anyof the surviving footage of Malcolm, it’s impossible to be genuinely frightened by this man who never came close to killing anyone, who probably never committed any act of violence, as either a hood or a revolutionary. His intelligence and humor are too manifest, the need to engage too readily apparent, even when he is saying ugly, blustery things. One senses an anger stemming more from frustration than fanaticism, a continuing astonishment that white people could be so driven by the inane concept of race—and a need to goad them out of it, even if it means throwing the same idiocy back in their faces.
The life of Malcolm X was an essentially American story, even though he probably would have denied it even in the last, more questioning months of his life. It is the story of a man suspended between identities and haunted by race, a man forced to struggle for everything he got and to educate himself within a prison—and yet who ascended to undreamed-of heights.
It would be facile to say that it could have happened only in America, a country that rebuked and scorned him at nearly every turn. Rather, it was all the Malcolms, all of those once deemed unworthy of citizenship, black and white, who made America the place where such things could happen. In this sense, the black theologians surely were right, and the cornerstone of the building has indeed become the stone that the builders rejected.