On the Shoulders of Giants: My Personal Journey Through the Harlem Renaissanceby Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Obstfeld (With)
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From 1920 to 1940, the Harlem Renaissance produced a bright beacon of light that paved the way for African-Americans all over the country. The unapologetic writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, the fervent fiction and poetry of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, the groundbreaking art of Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson, and the triumphant music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong gave voice and expression to the thoughts and emotions that Jim Crow segregation laws had long sought to stifle. In On the Shoulders of Giants, indomitable basketball star and bestselling author and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar invites the reader on an extraordinarily personal journey back to his birthplace, through one of the greatest political, cultural, literary, and artistic movements in our history, revealing the tremendous impact the Harlem Renaissance had on both American culture and his own life. Beginning with the rise of the Harlem Rens as pioneers of professional basketball, Kareem traces the many streams of historical influence that converged to create the man he is todaythe NBA's all-time leading scorer and a veritable African-American icon.
Travel deep into the soul of the Renaissanceto the night clubs, restaurants, basketball games, and fabulous parties that have made footprints in Harlem's history. Meet the athletes, jazz musicians, comedians, actors, politicians, entrepreneurs, and writers who not only inspired Kareem's rise to greatness but an entire nation's.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born in the midst of a cultural reawakening, carried on the shoulders of athletes trying to prove there was a lot more at stake than a ball game, men and women who made music that could break your heart, and writers and intellectuals who gave voice to not just the ideals of a movement but the raw emotions. Kareem tells what it took to get these revolutionaries to Harlem and how they changed the world. A world that is still riding on the shoulders of giants.
The New York Times
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On the Shoulders of GiantsMy Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Raymond Obstfeld
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2007 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Some Technicolor Bazaar" How Harlem Became the Center of the Universe
Harlem! ... Its brutality, gang rowdyism, promiscuous thickness. Its hot desires. But, oh, the rich blood-red color of it! The warm accent of its composite voice, the fruitiness of its laughter, the trailing rhythm of its "blues" and the improvised surprises of its jazz. poet and novelist Claude McKay It's Harlem - and anything goes. Harlem, the new playground of New York! Harlem - the colored city in the greatest metropolis of the white man! Harlem - the capital of miscegenation! Harlem - the gay musical, the Parisian home of vice! author Edward Doherty I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia. folk saying
When Black Was in Vogue
Once upon a time there was an enchanted land called ... Harlem.
Considering all the transcendent things that have been said about the Harlem of the twenties and thirties, it would be easy to romanticize the place as an elaborate set of a movie musical-comedy extravaganza, filled with bubbly jazz melodies and populated by a happy cast of all-singing, all-dancing cockeyed optimists. But to do so would simplify the complexities of the history-making, life-and-death struggle that was really going on in Harlem. Andit would reduce the residents to convenient one-dimensional stereotypes - the same indignities that the Harlem Renaissance fought so hard to erase.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Harlem has been considered the unofficial capital of an unofficial country: Black America. Because of that, in the minds of most white Americans, Harlem has symbolized all African-Americans - educated or illiterate, urban or rural, cop or criminal. One size fits all.
And that is the problem that Harlem, as a symbol of Black America, has faced from the beginning: there have always been two Harlems.
First, there was the idealized Harlem that white people imagined because of its portrayal in white films and in white literature. In the beginning of the Jazz Age, whites concocted "Oz" Harlem, the Technicolor home of sassy black women and musically inclined black men, eager to burst into song or dance at any opportunity. Sure, times were tough and they had plenty of nothin', but, hey, by their own admission (or at least by the admission of black characters created by white writers), nothin' was plenty for them. Whites admired how Harlemites had learned to accept their miserable lot in life with a Christian smile and without pointing any angry fingers of blame. "We could all learn a lesson in humility from them," whites said approvingly. In Oz Harlem, white folk were welcome, particularly in high-class nightclubs such as the Cotton Club, which featured black jazz performers, black dancing girls, and a deferential black staff - but allowed only white patrons. In Oz Harlem, blacks entertained and served, but didn't mingle with whites. Oz Harlem was a white fantasy of perfect race relations, a racist's Disneyland ("the honkiest place on earth"). And thousands of whites visited this Harlem weekly, seeing only what they wanted to see. Like people visiting a zoo who marvel at the animals but ignore the cages.
But behind the velvet curtain of Oz Harlem was the other Harlem - "Daily" Harlem - the one that black people wrote about, sang about, painted and sculpted. The one where black people actually lived, worked, cooked, went to church, gossiped about neighbors, and buried loved ones. This was the Harlem where they raised families, raised rent, and, on occasion, raised the roof. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, those two Harlems - Oz Harlem and Daily Harlem - came to represent the two different ways all African-Americans throughout the country were viewed, not just by whites, but by other blacks as well.
In the end, these two radically different visions couldn't peacefully coexist. For those who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, white America's romanticized ideal of happy black folk singing away their worries and cares only encouraged the poverty and injustice to flourish. It allowed the real problems to be ignored. Especially by white politicians who had the power to change things. Ignoring Harlem, and African-Americans throughout the country, was business as usual for most politicians. As police detective Coffin Ed Johnson says in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), "What the hell do the attorney general, the State Department, or even the president of the United States know about one goddamn thing that's going on up here in Harlem?"
But Harlem would not be ignored.
Jazz legend Miles Davis said, "Jazz is the big brother of revolution. Revolution follows it around." What was going on in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was nothing short of a cultural and political revolution. Certainly jazz provided the backbeat, but the revolution itself was orchestrated by a group of confident, educated, and talented young men and women undeterred by the perceptions and injustices of the past, their eyes firmly fixed on the prize: a future filled with limitless opportunities for blacks. And most of these cultural warriors would live and work and create, even if only for a short while, in Harlem.
How Harlem Got Its Black
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Harlem seemed an unlikely location for a capital of Black America - or the Mecca of anybody but moneyed whites. Located just north of Central Park, Harlem was where upper-middle-class whites resided in fancy apartments and magnificent brownstone houses. If you wanted to find the majority of New York City's black population, you'd have to travel south of Central Park to the West Side, particularly to an area called the Tenderloin. This was where most of the city's sixty thousand African-Americans were crammed. And living around them, like an army laying siege to a castle, were various groups of whites, mostly Irish immigrants, dedicated to driving the blacks away.
Central Park was a physical border beyond which blacks were not welcome; but money was the practical barrier keeping blacks from living in upscale Harlem. Without equal education or job opportunities, movin' on up to Harlem didn't seem possible. Yet, we know it happened, or this book would be about the Tenderloin Renaissance. But how? Ironically, it was Harlem's desirability among the well-off whites that eventually resulted in Harlem's evolving from ritzy white enclave to the destination for blacks from all over the country, and even from outside the country.
The section of the Tenderloin between Twenty-seventh Street and Fifty-third Street was called Black Bohemia. Black Bohemia sounds almost cheerful, like a lively jazz club or a tropical Jamaican resort. But, in fact, it was a squalid ghetto where black families strove to raise their children amidst brothels, gambling dens, nightclubs, pool halls, and unbearable poverty. In 1911, the average black laborer earned $28 a month; the average rent for a small four-room apartment in Black Bohemia was $20 a month ($2 to $5 more per month than in white neighborhoods). That left only $8 a month to survive. In 1900, Harper's Weekly condemned the housing situation:
Property is not rented to negroes in New York until white people will no longer have it. Then the rents are put up from thirty to fifty per cent, and negroes are permitted to take a street or sometimes a neighborhood. There are really not many negro sections, and all that exist are fearfully crowded.... Moreover, [the landlords] make no repairs, and the property usually goes to rack and ruin.... As a rule ... negroes in New York are not beholden to property owners for anything except discomfort and extortion.
The rents weren't the most serious problem. Hostility toward blacks reached explosive proportions in August of 1900 during the Tenderloin riots. The spark that lit the fuse occurred on August 12, on Forty-first Street and Eighth Avenue when a white undercover police officer dressed as a civilian attempted to arrest a black woman whom he thought was a prostitute soliciting. When the husband, not knowing the man was a police officer, attempted to defend his wife, the officer clubbed him. The husband then stabbed the officer with a penknife, killing him. Though the husband, because of the circumstances, was exonerated a couple days after the stabbing, police and white gangs roamed black neighborhoods in the Tenderloin looking for vengeance. Innocent pedestrians who ran to the police for protection were shoved into the crowd of rioters by angry officers. Frank Moss, who compiled the affidavits of black victims, said in his account, The Story of a Riot:
The unanimous testimony of the newspaper reports was that the mob could have been broken and destroyed immediately and with little difficulty ... [but that] policemen stood by and made no effort to protect the Negroes who were assailed. They ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters, and in many cases they beat and clubbed men and women more brutally than the mob did.
An official investigation not only cleared the police of wrongdoing, but praised them for keeping the situation under control. Yet, "the situation" was anything but under control for black residents, who lived under the constant threat of violence. Realizing that geography was destiny, the residents of Black Bohemia began looking around for someplace else to live - someplace where their children would have a better life than they did. As one Tenderloin resident observed, "Every day was moving day."
Harlem, by contrast, has heaven. White heaven. Thick, healthy trees lined the wide streets and avenues, which were newly paved and bracketed by luxurious apartments and houses. In a way, this was the paradise that public transportation had built. Named Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) in 1658 by the Dutch settlers after a Dutch city, and renamed Harlem when the English took control in 1664, the area quickly became a haven for wealthy farmers, who built expansive estates overlooking the Hudson River. Passage to New York City proper required a ninety-minute steamboat ride. That kept Harlem isolated and virtually undeveloped until 1880, when the city constructed an elevated railroad along Eighth Avenue. This access to the west side of Harlem encouraged developers to turn the agricultural fields of Harlem into what they envisioned as a refuge for upper-middle-class whites from the turmoil of downtown Manhattan. Then came even more good news: a subway would be built under Lenox Avenue, making the east side of Harlem a mere eight-minute ride to downtown rather than the hours it used to take by streetcar. In anticipation of the subway, which was scheduled to be completed in 1904, developers began constructing many new apartment buildings. However, so many speculators had the same idea that too many buildings were constructed. By 1902, with two more years until the subway would reach Harlem, and brand-new buildings standing around unoccupied, many of those speculators faced bankruptcy.
In Harlem, necessity was the mother of integration.
Enter twenty-four-year-old real estate agent Philip A. Payton, later known as the Father of Colored Harlem. If anyone was the quintessential example of a Harlem Renaissance man, it was Payton. Despite being a college graduate, the only jobs he could get were as a barber, a slot-machine attendant, and a porter in an apartment building. Payton later recounted the early struggle:
The hardships that my wife and I went through before things broke for us would fill a book. If I have gained any success, to my wife belongs the major portion of the credit.... My customary amount of cash to leave the house with was fifteen cents; five cents to ride downtown, five cents for luncheon and five cents to ride back up town at night.... I just simply was not making any money. My wife was doing sewing, a day's work or anything else she could get to do to help me along.... All of my friends discouraged me. All of them told me how I couldn't make it, but none of them, how I could. They tried to convince me that there was no show for a colored man in such a business in New York.
Opportunities just weren't there, so he made his own and became one of the first black real estate agents in New York. "I was a real estate agent, making a specialty in management of colored tenement property for nearly a year before I actually succeeded in getting a colored tenement to manage," Payton said in an interview. "My first opportunity came as a result of a dispute between two landlords in West 134th Street. To 'get even' one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants." Though blacks got their first opportunity to move to Harlem to spite another landlord, Payton took full advantage of the chink in the wall. His success was such that he convinced several other desperate white landlords to allow him to fill their vacant apartment houses, not with the white residents they'd hoped for, but with blacks anxious for decent housing and a safe neighborhood. And come they did. It was as if the great sea that was Central Park had parted, and African-Americans fled toward what many considered the New Jerusalem.
Despite the growing African-American population, white landlords refused to give up without a fight. They saw the incoming blacks as invaders and were determined to drive them right back to the Tenderloin. The Harlem Home News articulated white fears in 1911: "We must warn owners of property ... that the invaders are clamoring for admission right at their doors and that they must wake up and get busy before it is too late to repel the black hordes that stand ready to destroy the homes and scatter the fortunes of the whites." Whites responded to the call to arms and counterattacked by forming realty companies for the express purpose of buying any houses in which blacks lived and evicting them. The real estate publication the New York Indicator chided that blacks should live "in some colony in the outskirts of the city, where their transportation and other problems will not inflict injustices and disgust on worthy citizens." John G. Taylor, the president of the Property Owners Protective Association, suggested that a "dead line" be built to mark the border between whites and blacks; this demarcation would be in the form of a twenty-four-foot fence (not unlike the one proposed in 2006 between the United States and Mexico).
In 1904, Payton responded by founding the Afro-American Realty Company to buy and lease residences in Harlem that would then be rented to blacks. But aggressive pressure from white real estate agents, including the Property Owners Protective Association, made it difficult for Payton to procure mortgages, or even keep the ones he had. His Afro-American Realty Company was soon forced out of business. But Payton wasn't. Fueled by his failure, he quickly partnered with a wealthy undertaker, bought two five-story apartment houses, evicted the white tenants, and rented to blacks. Two of his salesmen from the defunct Afro-American Realty Company also started buying buildings, evicting whites, and renting to blacks. They convinced other African-Americans to invest in Harlem real estate, including the wealthy St. Philips Protestant Episcopal Church, which bought thirteen apartment houses and replaced the white tenants with black ones. Eventually, white landlords abandoned Harlem. In 1905, only about 4,000 blacks lived north of 125th Street; by 1920, 84,000 blacks lived there; by 1930, 200,000 blacks lived there, which was 60 percent of the population of Harlem. Payton, and the blacks of the Tenderloin, had their revenge: Payton became the most successful black real estate agent in New York City, and the black families of the Tenderloin had a new home - and new hope.
But the black residents of the Tenderloin weren't the only ones in search of hope.
Movin' on Up: Jim Crow and the Great Black Migration
In 1910, while Harlem was developing into a popular black neighborhood among New York City's African-Americans, 90 percent of the black population of the United States still lived in the South, most of them in rural areas. In fact, three out of four black Americans lived on farms. If blacks in the Tenderloin thought they had it bad trying to migrate to Harlem, the Southern blacks had it even worse, contending with severe poverty, discriminatory Jim Crow laws, and frequent lynchings. These harsh living conditions, combined with the onset of World War I, and severe blows to the cotton crop, convinced many to leave the South. Between 1915 and 1930, 2 million Southern blacks migrated to the North, mostly to New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. In 1910, New York City's black population was 91,709; by 1930, the population had more than tripled to 328,000. Because of this Great Black Migration, the Harlem Renaissance would not only be possible, but necessary.
Excerpted from On the Shoulders of Giants by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Raymond Obstfeld Copyright © 2007 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is recognized by Sports Illustrated and Time magazine as history's greatest basketball player (he is the NBA's all-time leading scorer). The author of several New York Times bestsellers, Kareem's previous books include Giant Steps, Kareem, Black Profiles in Courage, A Season on the Reservation, and Brothers in Arms. Since his retirement as a player in the NBA, Kareem has worked as a special assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and acted as a volunteer coach for children on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona. On the Shoulders of Giants is currently in production as a documentary film.
Raymond Obstfeld is an associate professor of English at Orange Coast College, and is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including studies of the Italian Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Moby-Dick.
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This mentoring classic is a must-read for young athletes and business people of color. It clearly depicts that a clear conscience and stardom can either crossfire or become friendly fire. Inspirational and visually entertaining.