A New York Times Notable Book
Harris has built a career on being an "insider-outsider" ethnographer, first as a black American in Africa and then in the rural Deep South (Native Stranger, 1992; South of Haunted Dream, 1993). He now follows these with a similar foray into Harlem, an attempt to witness another aspect of the black American experience. The narrative is engaging, well-written, and sometimes insightful, but it stops short of extraordinary because of Harris's own ambiguous role. The book opens with a scene that he returns to again and again: He is standing at his window late in the night, watching intently as a man across the street beats a woman. This scene and others indicate that Harris is an observer who has made a conscious choice to live in Harlem, to not have a telephone, to deplete his funds. He can, as he himself remarks, leave any timea fact that gives the narrative an almost anthropological aloofness. As time progresses, he does begin to initiate more conversations on the street, to take a vested interest in his surroundings, and in doing so, he finds much still to be celebrated in Harlem: a young mother who spends late nights caring for the neighborhood's children; a native son who, after a successful law career, returns to Harlem to help other youngsters. Harris is changed by these encounters and inspired to refuse hopelessness and, ultimately, offers a writing class at an after-school program.
The book's title becomes something of an unintentional double entendre: As an artist Harris has successfully captured the "still life" of Harlem, a portrait of hopelessness and urban decay. But by the end he has subtly convinced the reader that there is still, in fact, life in Harlem. His own small transformations become his most compelling witness to that stubborn life.
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Still Life in Harlem
By Eddy L. Harris
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 Eddy L. Harris
All rights reserved.
Toward the end of my second year living in Harlem, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a woman's voice screaming inside my head. The panic in her shouting came echoing faintly as if from out of a dream. I tried to shake myself loose from this dream, but the screaming would not stop. When I realized it was not a dream, I sat up in bed, listened for a minute, then tried once more to go back to sleep.
Many times I had heard wild rantings such as these coming through an open window. Nearly every weekend in fact, from somewhere in my apartment building or in the building across the way, a drunken couple would spend hours deep in the night hurling abuse at each other. She would end each session by throwing her lover out. He, having had enough, would always leave. Somehow, though, he would be there again the following night and the next weekend too, drunk the two of them and at it again.
When I awoke a second time, a brief minute or two later, I realized there was nothing I recognized in the shrieking. I wasn't so sure now that it came from the couple across the courtyard.
At first I tried to ignore it. I couldn't. Groggy but fully awake, I tried again to listen. I had no idea where the fighting was coming from.
There is a strange way sound bounces around outside my windows and enters the apartment. The windows in the front room open onto the street. Then comes the room where I sleep, a bedroom in the center of this long but narrow four-room apartment. The windows in the bedroom open onto a courtyardlike space between this building and the building next door. When you first hear sounds coming from the outside, very often you cannot tell if they enter the apartment from the courtyard or if they come from the street. I had to get up to find out.
I went to the bedroom window and heard nothing. I went to the front room and did the same, stuck my head out the window, and again heard no voices.
I could see nothing through the glare of the street lamp that stood just outside my front-room window. I shielded my eyes from the light but still saw nothing, no sign of struggle, nothing but a picture-perfect night in the city.
The night was cool. Autumn was coming on. There was no moon, no stars, no clouds. All was still and quiet along the street. The only sound came from the papers and the leaves that rustled in the slight breeze that now gathered and drifted gently.
A few seconds later, there it was: the screaming again. The moment of calm was splintered. I shielded my eyes once more. Now accustomed at once to the darkness and to the harsh glow from the street lamp, I could see all I needed to see. There in the shadows across the street was the beginning of the end of my life in Harlem.
The beginning of the end too, I told myself, of my being black. After this, I had had enough. I wanted no more of it.
It was quite a moment, that moment of calm, that moment of clarity when everything seemed to crystallize, a moment of utter serenity turning into utmost rage, that moment when the water boils.
I remember thinking only seconds before what a beautiful place Harlem must have been at one time and wondering where the beauty went. To be fair and honest, there is beauty here. There simply isn't enough of it to counterbalance what has become so lifeless, so tired, and so ugly. There is still life in Harlem, certainly, but there is a barrenness to it.
Up the street from where I live stand a handful of magnificent stone buildings.
Down the street from where I live, a man the other day was killing rats.
And across the street from where I live, a man this night was bashing a woman against a stone wall. He was exhibiting his power, pounding out of her the respect the world had pounded out of him, demanding with each well-placed blow the same submission from her that had been demanded of him; to demonstrate to this woman and to himself that here in these shadows, if nowhere else, he was in control and had some control over his life and somebody else's.
The man was black. The woman—she was black too.
And what in the world was I supposed to do? I felt as helpless as I had been those many many years before, when I had taken my first backward steps out of the darkness that was becoming the world of blackness.
How long—how long it has been and how far I have gone in trying at the same time to come closer and to put distance between my world and that world, both to remember and to put the memory out of my mind. Even now the memory is painful, and it makes me wince.
When I was nine years old I watched one black man stab another black man. Nothing I had seen or ever heard up until then could possibly have prepared me for the senselessness of this act, for the man doing the stabbing did what he did just for the fun of it. His victim had already been stabbed in a fight with someone else. Then along came this Johnny Cannon, a neighborhood toughie who had been in and out of reformatory and prison several times already and who later would steal my watch at a party.
Johnny Cannon had watched the fight. He might even have egged it on, but he had not been part of it. Nevertheless, he got into it now.
When the fight was over, the loser was dragged out of Kirksey's Confectionary, where the argument had taken place. He was laid on the front steps. He had already been stabbed once in the belly, and as this man lay there bleeding, Johnny Cannon knelt down beside him, pulled out a knife, and plunged it into the other man's chest. Then Johnny pushed and twisted the knife until the blade snapped off and remained buried in the dying man's body. Then Johnny laughed.
I should have cried, I guess, but I did not. I should have run, gone home, buried my face in my mother's lap, and sobbed as she stroked my head to soothe me. She would have offered me oatmeal cookies with which to erase the acid taste rising in my throat, and perhaps I would have forgotten all about the horror and stupidity I had just seen. But I did not go home. I got no cookies. And I never ever forgot.
I stood there transfixed, so stunned that I could neither move nor turn my eyes away. I watched every move anyone made and committed to memory these components of a world I decided even then, at this early age, that I wanted no part of.
I heard the sirens of police cars approaching from the south. A small crowd had gathered, blocking my view. I had to squeeze to the side in order to watch what was going on. From there I could see the eager faces of those gathered as the bleeding man's limp body was loaded into the backseat of a car. Someone shouted, "Put his head in a plastic bag." Just before they sped away, cops on their tails, tires smoking, squealing, burning rubber, the two men who had done the stabbing, Johnny Cannon and the other fellow whom I had never seen before and have not seen since, looked in my direction and caught my eye.
As I think back now, I search my memory for an appeal in their eyes, a plea for me who had seen it all to keep silent. There was no plea. There was no pain no joy no look of satisfaction. There was nothing at all, an emptiness devoid even of desperation.
It was a look of resignation and of surrender. This is how it is, they seemed to be saying. This is how it is.
From my Harlem apartment that late night and early morning I was too far away to see much of anything. Shadows were shoving shadows, that's all, and being shoved in return. But if I could have seen the face of the man that late night, I am sure that in his eyes would have been the same expression, some rage perhaps, for he was certainly angered, but with the rage the same look of surrender and resignation even as he tried to force this woman to submit to his will.
"Leave me alone," she cried. "Leave me alone!"
Over and over she pleaded, the same words, the same shriek, the same shrill voice, until the man hit her once too hard and she dropped from her arms whatever it was that he wanted her to give him.
Now he was outraged even further, and he demanded that she pick it up. When she would not, he smacked her head and shoved her hard against the wall. I heard her feeble moan as the wind was knocked out of her.
What was I supposed to do? Surely this was not the time nor the place for heroics. I had seen by then too many guns in too many hot hands in Harlem. I had been shot at, though only once, and I had been lucky. That one time was more than enough. I did not want there to be a second time.
I dialed the emergency number for the police. Then I waited for them to come. There was nothing more I could reasonably do. I was trapped—as trapped as the woman who could not escape, as trapped by what he was doing as the man who was beating her, as trapped by what had been done to him.
Though I could not see it, I could feel this look of surrender in his eyes. I had seen it enough to know that it was there.
Down the street from where I live, I watched a man the other day killing rats. In front of his apartment building there are no trash cans for the people who live there. Instead they put their garbage in the three black plastic bags that hang from the chain link fence. The fence blocks off the vacant lot next door.
This vacant lot, like all the vacant lots in the neighborhood, is a receptacle for debris. People as they pass toss empty bottles and cans over the fence. Loose pieces of paper, candy wrappers, potato chip bags, old newspapers: all get thrown into the lot along with half-eaten sandwiches, apple cores and banana peels, tree branches and piles of wood and large chunks of concrete from some building being torn down somewhere. Around the trash and the rubble, weeds grow ragged where there might once have been grass, or where there could be even now if anyone cared enough about anything so simple as beauty. No one does—or no one seems to—and the debris piles up almost unnoticed, giving the rats that live in the buildings on either side of this vacant lot a place to search for food and plenty of daytime cover. The boldest ones, though, don't need the cover. They venture right out into the open.
Several of these rats had climbed the lower links of the fence and had gnawed into the plastic bags hanging there. Once inside, the rats were trapped. As they feasted on the garbage inside, a man took down one of the bags and laid it on the ground. Carefully he held the top of the bag closed and at arm's length, as far from his body as he could hold it without letting go. Then he stomped on it. Over and over.
The rats inside screeched in panic their high-pitched squeals of pain. The bag came alive as they tried to flee. The man stomped and shook the bag, stomped on the bag and shook it again, and kept stomping until finally the bag was still. The man hung the bag up neatly again and took down the next bag. He shook it to see if there was still life inside. When the rats stirred, the man put the bag on the ground and stomped the second batch of rats dead.
The man looked up. There was no agitation in his face, no look of disgust at either having done what he had done nor at having had to do it. There was an expression in his eyes of an icy emptiness.
It was this look that I had seen so many times before—too many times before—in the eyes of other black men. It is the look in their eyes of insignificance, no matter how defiant their gestures, the look of not being taken seriously, the look of being ignored. It is the look of believing what they have been told about themselves. It is the look in their eyes of surrender.
I have known very well that look of surrender. I have seen something like it often enough in my own eyes. It too is a kind of submission, and it hides behind my own arrogance, my own defiance, but it is surrender nonetheless, a surrender of an even more noxious nature, perhaps, because it comes from the oddly unfortunate vantage point of good fortune. But in my own ways I too wear that look of surrender. It is the look in my eyes of believing what I have been told about them—not about myself, I tell myself, but about them —as if somehow I can remain apart from them and they are different from me, as if somehow I am not them.
Harlem is where they live, and where I have come, and where, of course, I can always leave. Or so I have told myself. After these two years of living here, however, I now am not so sure.
An old Italian man I vaguely know fled from his native Italy when he was a young man. The Fascists were on the rise. Italy was in the middle of a depression, as was the rest of the world. In those times life in a small village must have been pretty tough. And that is all I know of this man and his situation. He might have been escaping the troubles already existing in Europe or running from the war that was on its way. He might have been looking for a better way to live than what was offered where he had grown up. For all I know he might have simply wanted to expand his horizons. I don't know his circumstance, but I once called him a coward anyway; called him a coward because he did not stay in Italy to fight against the evil that was spreading across his land; called him a coward because he would not stay to fight and to make his homeland the better place he sought elsewhere.
If this is cowardice, then I too have been a coward. I left home the same as the old Italian. I left that area of my life that I now call Harlem and I almost never looked back, left all that was familiar to me and even comfortable, turned my back on family and friends and neighbors, if not in any absolute way then at least in a metaphorical way, and perhaps not consciously, but I left them just the same. I have been away ever since.
I have also, in a way, been homeless ever since.
I left on a Saturday afternoon. I was ten years old. My family had recently moved to the suburbs. And on this Saturday I was sent to get a haircut. I left the house, took a right turn, or perhaps a wrong turn, I may never know which, and left Harlem. In leaving this place, I was leaving behind a world that was all black. I never really went back there. I never even looked back—until now. Suddenly Harlem began to whisper in the ear of my imaginings. Harlem began to sing to me, to speak to me, to call me home.
So I returned to Harlem, even though I had never lived there—came back for the first time a little over two years ago, came back although in truth I had never been here before, came back although in a certain sense I had never been away.
Harlem is like that. For Blackamericans, there is in a way no escaping it, no leaving this place. Even if you have never been here before, you have always been here. As Ralph Ellison once said, "Harlem goes where black folks go," and try as one might to get out from under it, the shadow of Harlem falls over us all.
For Harlem is the alabaster vessel that holds the Blackamerican heart, that holds the history and hope of Blackamerica, that holds as well its frustrations and its desperation, so much of the poverty of spirit, the bitter pain and isolation of being black, and so much too of the energy, vitality, and exuberance. Harlem carries on its back the psychological freight of a people and perhaps of an entire nation as well.
Harlem is music in the soul of a people, a rhapsody, a torch song, a love song, a child's incantation. Harlem is a lullaby whispered in the long long night, a blues song repeated endlessly and coming from a place so deep in the Blackamerican soul and psyche that the words and the music are somehow known long before you have heard them for the first time, and quite impossible to forget. They are ingrained in the Blackamerican subconscious and part of the Blackamerican idiom. Harlem is the metaphor for black America.
I decided that Saturday afternoon not to go to the barbershop where my father and brother always went, where the barbers were black and the old men who sat and laughed at my father's antics were black and so were the little boys who waited patiently for their turn and never spoke a word. Their legs dangled over the edges of chairs too high for their feet to touch the floor. In an effort to be like the big boys and like the men, they slouched and tried hard to keep at least a toe tipping the ground. They watched in silence as the older men joked or talked about events in the news or in the neighborhood. The little boys kept still. They were watching carefully and listening, learning how to be black men.
I wasn't so interested in being a black man, just a man. I had watched and had been scarred the previous year by the doings of three black men, Johnny Cannon and his partner and the man they both stabbed, and if this was part of what it meant to be a black man, then a black man was not the kind of man I wanted to be.
I went that day to the barbershop where there was no gaiety in getting a haircut. There was just a stern white barber and a few quiet white men reading old magazines, no loud talking, no boasting or bragging, no laughter until I walked in and quickly out again.
"We don't cut black hair in here," the white man said.
I had no idea what he meant. I was just a little boy.
"Mister," I said. "My hair is brown."
Probably they are laughing still, but the world they had inherited, the world they then adopted, adapted, and made their own before passing it on to their heirs, is now no laughing matter. The trickle has turned into a stream turned into a river turned into Niagara Falls. The men in that barbershop could not see or would not see what I, even as a ten-year-old, could see.
I knew their world was not the one I could entirely embrace either. I was and would for a long time be lost somewhere in the middle.
I cannot honestly say that I made up my mind right there and then about anything. I hated haircuts and had not wanted one in the first place. I'm sure it had been my mother's idea. Now I had an excuse and left that barbershop rather gleeful, if slightly confused. Certainly I did not feel humiliated; perhaps I should have. There were no defiant gestures; perhaps there should have been. I did not shout back, made no threats, never once pledged aloud or to myself, "As God is my witness—," or any such thing. Instead I went to play.
Excerpted from Still Life in Harlem by Eddy L. Harris. Copyright © 1996 Eddy L. Harris. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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