Improvising Joy on a Harlem Afternoon
In the week after the protests began, I rode my bike down to Harlem. This was a few days before the deranged commander in chief tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to the dissent that had come, like those roosting chickens, to his front door. After a day of incendiary communiqués, he retired to the White House bunker from which he sent still more tweets threatening to set dogs on black protesters, Bull Connor-style.
In the early days of the unrest, I gorged myself on CNN, The New York Times, Twitter, TikTok. At first, the focus was the murder. Then, in the blink of an eye, the coverage wasn’t about George Floyd anymore. It was about America’s sinister perception of black people as looters and criminals destroying their own neighborhoods. The hungry eye of every camera recorded image after image of black bodies running through the tear-gas fog, black bodies silhouetted against the leaping flames of a burning Minneapolis police station.
Even as the protests spread, as the outrage grew and people poured into the streets, the coverage was edged with a mounting hysteria; an undertone that said, Careful! They’re out of their box. Subtler still, an unsettling glee emerged because, once again, black pain had breeched its containment. The grief and anger of ordinary black people, rightful and imperative in an epidemic of police murder, was overshadowed by a national fixation on black rage. Unwillingly we had, as we have many times in America’s history, provided the country with a repository for its discontents, a surrogate for its miseries and frustrations.
Into this state of affairs, I rode my bike into Harlem. I should add that I have spent the past months cooped up in my apartment, like many New Yorkers who were able to stay home during the pandemic. Confinement has had various deleterious effects, among them a wariness of the world, a tendency to peak through the blinds for signs of contagion. I am ashamed to admit it, but glutted with my steady flow of clickbait protest news, I half-expected to see busted windows on every corner, spent tear-gas canisters rolling through the empty blocks. I knew better. But I am not immune to the power of suggestion.
On 145th Street, I saw a couple in workout gear heading to St. Nicholas Park. The coffee shop I liked on 142nd and Edgecombe was closed, but the one on 149th and Frederick Douglass was open, so I got an iced coffee and leaned against the bike rack outside. The metal roll-down gate at the St. Nicholas Chess & Backgammon Club was up, but there wasn’t anyone inside. City College sat atop its hill, eerily vacant as the coronavirus shutdown wore on, but the guards were still there gabbing on the sidewalks. A guy in a pair of neon-orange kicks glided down Adam Clayton Powell on a one-wheeled electric skateboard. A woman read a book on the steps of a majestic brownstone on 144th near Convent. That is to say, there was a lot of living going on; a lot of black life in all its quotidian glory. And it was glorious. Black people doing regular things, just being, is cause for jubilation when we are so often defined exclusively by what has been taken from us and what has been done to us.
Those iniquities are, of course, among this nation’s gravest sins and oldest wounds. When there are jobs enough to go around (just barely, not quite, not really), stores in which to shop, and money to buy things, the outrage at those old wounds lies mostly dormant. Now the nation suffers: 20 million unemployed, 115,000 dead, and a craven government that cannot summon the decency to mourn them. Now, as at other moments of rupture in our history, the American consciousness turns with particular keenness to black suffering. I am not cynical about white allies or white outrage. I am glad for it and hopeful that this cacophony of voices will lead to meaningful evolution. It is also true that in the intensity of the white gaze, black people are flattened, more symbols than human beings.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes that white Americans suffer an “inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.” Perhaps there is a fear of running out, a terror of scarcity that fuels this white supremacy that needs to take people, lands, and goods into itself so that it will never be without. In our centuries as the object of these schizophrenias, black people have invented countless modes of renewal. We are psychically and culturally self-sustaining. We make new things out of old things. We made hymns out of dirges. We invented an entire cuisine out of slave masters’ scraps. We built a university system out of white refusal to let us into theirs. But these are grand, lofty things. I mean to keep it simple. I want to return to Harlem and my afternoon bike ride.
On 125th Street, Harlem’s bustling main artery, a few banks and chain stores had plyboarded their street-level windows. As for the rest, it was business as usual, if a bit subdued. A not-so-orderly line of socially distanced (more or less) patrons waited to enter a pharmacy. Among them, a woman in her motorized wheelchair. The man in front of her tried to wave her ahead so she wouldn’t have to sit in the heat. But she wouldn’t have it. She wanted to chat. She wanted to hold court. She had dressed for the occasion in royal purple, with a coordinating hijab bedazzled in small gold, pink, and white rhinestones sparkling in the sun. COVID-19 is not to be trifled with, so she wore a face shield, its top and sides bedazzled to match the rhinestones in her hijab. She was splendid. She had improvised herself some joyful PPE, which she wore as she improvised herself a little companionship in these days of isolation.
Improvisation, as the late writer Albert Murray once wrote, is the “ultimate human endowment.” And so we do — improvise, that is. I am so proud of us, so proud to be one of us. Murray also wrote, in one of his many essays about blues music, that it is during the break — the interruption in the regular rhythm of a song — that improvisation is most necessary and most sublime. We are the people of the break, the people of the rupture, just as banal and glorious as we can be — when the world is watching and, most important, when it is not.