A few months ago, I wrote an article in The Guardian about being a black gentrifier in Harlem, to much praise and criticism. One of the critics turned out to be my next-door neighbor, a black man named Steven who has lived in area for almost twenty years. He read the piece and watched the embedded interview, and then sent me a private message on Facebook, asking if we could meet up for smoothies. At first I was afraid. According to his page, Steven was the Assistant Curator of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division at the Schomburg, one of the leading institutions of black culture in the world. In my article I’d declared that, despite being black, I felt a separation from the rest of Harlem, and I assumed that meeting with him would only make me feel more alone. I expected that he wanted nothing more than to eviscerate me for my ahistorical and irrelevant points over a nice strawberry-banana smoothie with a wheatgrass shot.
He told me to meet him in the afternoon in front of the lobby at the Schomburg, which was located less than ten blocks from my apartment. A few minutes after I got there, I saw a fair-skinned bald man emerge from the door. He had thick-rimmed glasses, a goatee, and a dignified smile. After grabbing our smoothies from a small shop around the corner, he took me back to the Schomburg, a place that holds Langston Hughes’s ashes, signed documents from Toussaint Louverture, and a rare recording of a Marcus Garvey speech. Over ten million objects of the black diaspora are stored there.
Steven led me down to the courtyard where we spoke about what it meant to be black, especially in a place like Harlem. He told me that he had wanted to meet me in person because, although he thought my article was interesting, he found it to be incomplete and knew that there had to be more behind my words. He was right. At the time, I hadn’t been able to elucidate all the oscillations in my thoughts about who I was and what Harlem meant to me.
Towards the end of our rendezvous, he matter-of-factly declared to me, “Blackness is everything.” It was there in that courtyard where I began to see my neighborhood through a new lens.
I moved to Harlem last July. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t get used to the block parties that lasted far past midnight, the arguments underneath my window at 2 a.m., the rap music blaring on the corners. Although I was the same race as my neighbors, I was not used to indulging in our culture in the manner through which they did.
Where I grew up in suburban New Jersey, loud music and talking were reserved for inside the home. We shared soul food and exchanged African-American Vernacular in private. On the outside, we knew how to code-switch to “respectable” language and to tuck away our emphatic gestures and booming voices until we were alone with ourselves.
I honed this ability to compartmentalize my blackness when I went to Princeton. There, being black was clearly and visibly to be different; not only that, there were different types of black: West Indian, African, or “Just Black,” a pejorative term for African-American. If you knew which country you were from in the West Indies or Africa and spoke a language other than English, you were not “Just Black.” You were a step higher above those of us who had lost most of ourselves during the Middle Passage.
I carried this mindset to Harlem. It’s why in The Guardian article, I concentrated on how my Ivy League degree and my suburban roots distanced me from native Harlemites. I thought, am I doing something wrong by being here? Although I’m neither white nor wealthy, am I already too unlike my neighbors because I have never known what it’s like to be in a predominantly black space? Have I assimilated too much to the other side to be called family? I thought that if I could not be a part of the swagger, I would dilute this place.
But once I was living there, I saw a new story—my story—developing about this neighborhood. On my very first night, a barber approached me on West 129th and Lenox. After he complimented me on my smile and natural energy, he asked, “When’s the last time you got your eyebrows done?” I was gobsmacked. The only other person who was concerned about the upkeep of my eyebrows was my mother. When I told the barber that I didn’t know, he guided me two blocks down to the barbershop and waxed my eyebrows free of charge. Before I left, he said, “Come back again sometime. I’ll have your eyebrows looking right.” I returned to my apartment feeling grateful that somebody cared about me. Although I’ve never gone back to his shop, I still pass him on my way to home to my apartment and he either waves or tips his hat towards me.
When Steven told me that blackness is everything, I remembered this barber, and started to learn what community was. Community comes in different manifestations. I find community whenever I see my hairdresser in the supermarket, or spot a person I’d noticed at the gym in the pews at First Corinthian Baptist Church. I find community when I can walk into a CVS and be instantly greeted by several employees with the kind of warmth that compares to that of a loved one.
When Steven told me that blackness is everything, maybe he meant that blackness is not one specific characteristic. It is many things , things that I have yet to discover. It means that different variations of blackness can find home in one another. And we, as well as our overarching home that is Harlem, need to be cultivated as one would till a garden.
I cannot say when the exact moment was that I began to call Harlem a place that I had a stake in. Maybe it was the first time I danced in Silvana’s, a club that plays West African and Caribbean music all night long. Maybe it was when I was praised for my Marley twists by passersby. Or it could have been the accumulation of small, trivial moments, the result of simply being in a space where countless people who looked like me moved around me. It wasn’t only that I was acknowledged but that I started to acknowledge others, cementing my existence in this space. The many ways of being black became a delight, and, in this city of over eight million people, I started to feel I wasn’t so alone. I simply am. They simply are. We are who we are—together.
This multiplicity means to me that my body is not so definite, that it expands far and wide, from Central Park to the Apollo and then elsewhere. I am part of something bigger, something grander. I don’t know what that something is, though I think it’s as immeasurable and elusive as the idea of blackness itself.
When I walk down the street, I see older black men who have been sitting outside of barbershops for hours, conversing just as loudly and proudly as they want to. I see African men and women selling sweet potato pies, raw shea butter, and incense right on the sidewalk. Hebrew Israelites speak through microphones about saving Harlem, or about how black people once ruled Europe. When I go to a Starbucks or a Planet Fitness, all I see is black. When I go to a CVS—black. When I walk down the street, I am crossing paths with mostly black people, my kin. They may come from Nigeria or Senegal. Their clothes and their voices may be different from mine, but when we see each other, we recognize that we are all part of a global diaspora of blackness.
Before Harlem, I had never been in a space where blackness was so real that I could taste it—the consistency of baked macaroni cheese, the sweetness of yams, the smoothness of the surface of fresh cornbread. It fills me up and comforts me, but I understand that our relationship cannot be one-sided. I have started to go to block association meetings, to explore more parts of Harlem, to pay more attention to the politics surrounding me. Blackness seems like an engine that needs constant oiling.
I do not know anymore if I am a gentrifier, but what I do know is that I will never transverse another Harlem street thinking that I am any different than the barber, the woman giving psychic readings right in front of Red Rooster, or the group of friends hanging out in front of the bodega. Like the blackness I see every day, I am pulsating. I don’t question my right to breathe to the neighborhood’s natural rhythm. I do not know how long I’ll live in Harlem, but what I do know is that blackness is as expansive and incomprehensible as ever. Blackness penetrates and absorbs, and I am willing to be saturated in its power.