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April 11, 2014

Harlem: On Being Home & Belonging

April 11, 2014


 “Harlem was home; was where we belonged; where we knew and were known in return; where we felt most alive; where, if need be, somebody had to take us in. Harlem defined us, claiming our consciousness and, I suspect, our unconsciousness.” ~ Ossie Davis 

The other day I got home from the gym and opened my mailbox to find my lease renewal form waiting for me.  Though my lease isn’t up until the end of June, I had expected to see the paperwork fairly early this year. (My building has recently switched owners causing quite a bit of ruckus in the process.) As I ripped open the envelope, I stilled myself in preparation for the increase in rent.  (NYC rent is NOT a game.) As I peered down at the number for my rent I blew out a breath coming to the realization that after two years in my little studio, it is no longer feasible to continue living here. (Not in this little space for that much money.) I knew then that I would be moving. Only three more months in my first real big girl dwelling, a home that I’ve called my own.
Two years ago, after finishing undergrad at NYU, I went back to my hometown for a little bit, biding my time until I could move back to NYC to begin my graduate studies at Columbia.  Even then it was Harlem over any other neighborhood that had been calling my name.
Except for the four years that I spent at NYU, I’ve always lived in neighborhoods that have been “isolated”; cut off if you will, from the rest of the city. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, almost as east as one could get. (Damn near in the lake if you know anything about Chicago’s geography.)  99% of the people in my neighborhood and the surrounding areas were brown people. I went to an all black preschool, elementary school, and middle school. In the majority of the activities that I participated in (bougie block parties, Girl Scout sessions, forced basketball lessons) the people that I interacted with looked like me. It’s difficult to understand how comforting that is until you no longer have that blanket of protection. Until you’re the only Black person in the room. ( A near constant state of being for me during the past six years.)
In high school my horizons were opened in the best way possible. I realize in retrospect how rare that type of “diversity” actually is.  I would take an express bus from 67th Street and Jeffery until 110th street in downtown Chicago (no stops in between) and transfer over to a train that dropped me off near my school on the near north side.  This was my comfortable cushy ass experience from birth until 18 years of age when I moved to NYC to begin my freshman year at NYU.
Thinking I was destined to live like a young chocolate Carrie Bradshaw I was in for a rude awakening. First I had to contend with being the only black girl in my year for my program and when I went to Duane Reade (Walgreens) I could find nary a hair product that I recognized to tame my kinks and curls.  My frustrations of course didn’t end there, but as I got older and I hope a bit wiser I started to find my niche and seek out my own group of friends.
But then there were those days, days that I still have every now and then when I just wander about the city, people watching and contemplating. On days like those I always seemed to drift towards Harlem. I know people feel that same way about Brooklyn and other hoods, but with Harlem the history was always so prevalent in my mind. The Garvey parades in the 1930’s, sites and locations from Malcolm X’s autobiography. The apartment parties during the Renaissance. The places and spaces where Hughes, Hurston and McKay talked, wrote, lived and experienced.  Not too far from Columbia, it was the ideal place for me to end up.
116th and Lenox, Last Sunday
Harlem is familiar; it’s always been just like home. I feel as at ease here as I felt standing on the bus stop at 69th and Jeffery back home or when I spent summer days lounging about at 63rd street beach listening to the men drumming as I ate jerk chicken and rice. Nowadays much of my time is spent on express trains running from 59th Street to 125th Street (no stops in between). As the train hurtles towards my stop, towards my home, I never feel isolated I simply feel freer.
As June 30th quickly approaches, I have some decisions to make. I’m open to the world (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself), but the truth, is I’m not sure if Brooklyn or LA will ever measure up to the love I have for Harlem or even for my hometown. Right now all of that is up in the air.
People ask me why Harlem, why am I so attached? It’s because of my history and my people and the fact that it’s always embraced me without judgment. I’ve never felt the isolation that I felt when living in the West Village. In my fellow Harlemites I see my family and my friends.  In these past couple of years I’ve had some crazy experiences and I’ve learned a lot about myself. One thing though is for certain; Harlem has never asked me to be anybody I’m not.
xoxoxo Chocolate Girl in the City xoxoxox