Week 6, or Harlem Blues

I’ve woken up essentially every day this week, praying that the bad mood has passed. The current soundtrack to my life would probably be some weary blues music. I find that deeply disturbing primarily because I’m (almost) 23 and life shouldn’t be that hard yet.

I’m trying to force myself to have positive thoughts, in spite of my car dying and still having to write a conference paper for Saturday. (!!!) Even though I’m not the most productive I’ve ever been, I’m focusing a little more energy on taking care of myself. I’m making time for pleasure reading (which sounds impossible considering the amount of academic reading I have to do each week), I’m meditating a little more, trying different teas and taking myself out to coffee shops I like. I spend more money than I’d like to admit on specialty coffee drinks, but it makes me happy. I recently discovered an Alice In Wonderland-esque cafe near the College, Culture Cafe. It serves some of the best lattes I’ve ever had in mismatched ceramic mugs and there’s plenty to look at while I sip: old, first edition, leather bound volumes with yellowing pages line the book shelves which cover the walls from floor to ceiling in the upstairs work area; paint spattered tarps double as curtains; a chandelier of mismatched Edison bulbs hangs just above my favorite spot, an old paisley couch with a coffeetable in need of a new paint job before it. I’m pretty sure the inside of my mind looks something like this cafe.

While I was there, waiting the arrival of a friend, my mind wandered, as it had done so many times this semester, to the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The more I learned about them, the more they came alive, filling my mind as so many of my novel characters do. I wondered what they talked about over coffee, and what the rapport was between all of them. Reading David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue makes me laugh at the way he describes the boys of the moment and I’m enthralled by the drama of it all. I texted my friend saying I would love to write an HBO series called Harlem which would follow all of these interconnected lives. 

Every time I’m introduced to a new character, I usually equate them to an artist I already know. I could barely contain myself when I realized Jean Toomer sounded a lot like my friend, Ed: brilliant to the point of genius with words but scatterbrained and so ill-focused he produced only one work. Whenever my professor narrates Jean Toomer’s life, I can’t help but imagine Ed, long and lanky, floating from project to project, attracted to whatever piqued his interest. I see my friend Araba in my mind’s eye when we speak of Zora– hard, unyielding, talented, with a tongue and mind that’s sharp as a whip. Then, of course, Langston Hughes always reminds me of Micah, the modest documentor of the harshest of Black realities. Her work is so sonic, infused with hip-hop, only a step away from Hughes’ jazz flavored everything.

Sometimes I wonder who I’m like of the group. I relate to both Countee Cullen and Jessie Fawcett, Countee for his love of the classic but mixed with Black flair that he admits he knows less of than he does French, Jessie for her valiant artistic effort but true talent as the teacher, the editor, the stage manager of the Renaissance. Then, sometimes, every now and then,  I come back to Nella Larsen, the mixed raced, foreigner to America in every way. A Danish mother and a West Indian father gave birth to an American Black Nella who didn’t fit, couldn’t fit by the American standard. Europe didn’t have her answer, Black America didn’t have her answer, and the homelessness haunts everything she writes. What I admire most about Nella, though, is the almost feline sharpness with which she writes. Her style is so distinct that I’d be hard pressed to pick up a piece of her work and not know its hers. She’s attentive to fashion and textiles and colors that correspond to moods, which shift almost from page to page. There’s this lack of self-restraint that I love about her novels, the unapologetically sensual female leads that run her stories.

There’s a detail that really makes me hesitate and linger over Nella: after her husband divorces her, she disappears from the Harlem scene for ten years with barely a trace. 

Things are not always what they seem…the leading message of both Nella’s work and her life, something that deeply resonates with me at the core of my being.

I like Sunday morning Harlem musings. The more I read about Black art and Black artists in the 20th century, the more I realize that’s where I want to reside when I teach. I love my comics, I love my literature, and this is just an extension–or a specialization, depending on how you think about it. I’m discovering my time periods and my contexts. No matter how much I love Ida B. Wells, she just doesn’t capture my entire imagination like the artists do. When I’m thinking of late 19th and early 20th century, my mind immediately goes to a paper. My interest in Ida B. Wells quickly turned into a paper topic: the self-representations of Ida B. Wells as a New Woman, in light of Booker T. Washington’s uplift and respectability politics. But when I’m thinking of Harlem, my mind spins with art projects. How would I do a web series version of my Harlem HBO series? Could I do a graphic biography of Nella Larsen’s life? How can I paint this? How can I imagine this? How can I create work that adequately places itself in conversation with the intellectual discourse of the time? In a lot of ways, it seems a shame to write an academic paper on the Harlem Renaissance, when I know these artists would have been more receptive to my art. They would have been curious to see how their discourse would have shaped my thought.

Making art is not the absence of critical thought. It is the most critical expression of thought that we have.

It’s why I’ll gladly keep my Sunday morning Harlem musings, with a cup of tea in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

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