Harlem:  A Poem

By Walter Dean Myers

 

They took the road in Waycross, Georgia

Skipped over the tracks in East St. Louis

Took the bus from Holly Springs

Hitched a ride from Gee’s Bend

Took the long way through Memphis

The third deck down from Trinidad

A wrench of heart from Goree Island  

A wrench of heart from Goree Island 

To a place called

Harlem

 

Harlem was a promise

Of a better life,

of a place where a man

Didn’t have to know his place

Simply because

He was Black

 

They brought a call

A song

First heard in the villages of

Ghana/Mali/Senegal

Calls and songs and shouts

Heavy hearted tambourine rhythms

Loosed in the hard city

Like a scream torn from the throat

Of an ancient clarinet

 

A new sound, raucous and sassy

Cascading over the asphalt village

Breaking against the black sky over

1-2-5 Street

Announcing Hallelujah

Riffing past resolution

 

Yellow, tan, brown, black, red

Green, gray, bright

Colors loud enough to be heard

Light on asphalt streets

Sun yellow shirts on burnt umber

Bodies

Demanding to be heard

Seen

Sending out warriors

 

From streets known to be

Mourning still as a lone radio tells us how

Jack Johnson

Joe Louis

Sugar Ray

Is doing with our hopes.

 

We hope

We pray

Our black skins

Reflecting the face of God

In storefront temples

 

Jive and Jehovah artists

Lay out the human canvas

The mood indigo

 

A chorus of summer herbs

Of mangoes and bar-b-que

Of perfumed sisters

Hip strutting past

Fried fish joints

On Lenox Avenue in steamy August

 

A carnival of children

People in the daytime streets

Ring-a-levio warriors

Stickball heroes

Hide-and-seek knights and ladies

Waiting to sing their own sweet songs

Living out their own slam-dunk dreams

Listening

For the coming of the blues

 

A weary blues that Langston knew

And Countee sung

A river of blues

Where Du Bois waded

And Baldwin preached

 

There is lilt

Tempo

Cadence

A language of darkness

Darkness known

Darkness sharpened at Mintons

Darkness lightened at the Cotton Club

Sent flying from Abyssinian Baptist

To the Apollo.

 

The uptown A

Rattles past 110th Street

Unreal to real

Relaxing the soul

 

Shango and Jesus

Asante and Mende

One people

A hundred different people

Huddled masses

And crowded dreams

 

Squares

Blocks, bricks

Fat, round woman in a rectangle

Sunday night gospel

“Precious Lord…take my hand,

Lead me on, let me stand…”

 

Caught by a full lipped

Full hipped Saint

Washing collard greens

In a cracked porcelain sink

Backing up Lady Day on the radio

 

Brother so black and blue

Patting a wide foot outside the

Too hot Walk-up

“Boy,

You ought to find the guys who told you

you could play some checkers

‘cause he done lied to you!”

 

Cracked reed and soprano sax laughter

Floats over

a fleet of funeral cars

 

In Harlem

Sparrows sit on fire escapes

Outside rent parties

To learn the tunes.

 

In Harlem

The wind doesn’t blow past Smalls

It stops to listen to the sounds

 

Serious business

A poem, rhapsody tripping along

Striver’s Row

Not getting it’s metric feel soiled

On the well-swept walks

Hustling through the hard rain at two o’clock

In the morning to its next gig.

 

 

 

 

A huddle of horns

And a tinkle of glass

A note

Handed down from Marcus to Malcolm

To a brother

Too bad and too cool to give his name.

 

Sometimes despair

Makes the stoops shudder

Sometimes there are endless depths of pain

Singing a capella on street corners

 

And sometimes not.

 

Sometimes it is the artist

looking into the mirror

Painting a portrait of his own heart.

 

Place

Sound

Celebration

Memories of feelings

Of place

 

A journey on the A train

That started on the banks of the Niger

And has not ended

 

Harlem.