Beloved Harlem: A Literary Tribute to Black America's Most Famous Neighborhood, From the Classics to the Contemporary.
The one regret I have about Beloved Harlem is that Dr. John Henrik Clarke didn't live long enough to experience the praise the final product has been receiving. As William Banks thoughtfully records in several places in the anthology's Introduction, Dr. Clarke, who made his transition in 1998, was intimately involved in the project, often providing the editor with suggestions and good wishes.
"Whatever you do, when you sit down to put the thing together, don't make it seem that the (Harlem Writers) Guild or other black writing groups were just places to help you get published" Dr. Clarke advised Banks during a phone conversation. "Just like all the writers who were influenced by Harlem, particularly the ones that came before us, we were also about struggle:'
"A cursory look at a few of the group's illustrious founders and alumni--Dr. Clarke, Ossie Davis, Grace Edwards, Bill For&, Keith Gilyard, Rosa Guy, John Oliver Killens, Louise Merriweather and Sarah Wright-and it's clear that some of that relentless struggle has borne fruit. To make his task easier, Banks merely leaned on many of these former members for his sdections, and none was more pleasing than the excerpt from Davis's hilarious play Purlie Victorious.
Rarely are scenes from the play presented in anthologies, but in choosing the first act, readers will certainly seek out the entire play and perhaps long to see it revived. An example of the late Ossie Davis's gift of humor and bathos is revealed in this exchange where Missy and Lutiebell talk about Purlie.
"Missy: Used to read everything he could get his hands on.
Lutiebelle: He did? Ain't that wonderful!
Missy: Till one day he finally got tired, and throwed all his books to the hogs--not enough 'Negro' in them, he said. After that he puttered around with first one thing and then another. Remember that big bus boycott they had in Montgomery? Well, we don't travel by bus in the cotton patch, so Purlie boycotted the mules!"
Another precious gem that only the very informed have ever heard of is the so-called voodoo version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was performed at the Lafayette Theater in 1935. There is no better indication of Banks's skillful research than to find a copy of Orson Welles's treatment and direction of the Bard's masterpiece, which featured the great Canada Lee as Banquo.
No book about Harlem would be complete without entries from lames Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Ann Petry. That W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Van Vechten, Dorothy West are on the roster comes as no surprise.
Unlike the front essays and excerpts where there are a few nonfiction pieces, the back end is weighted with fiction. With an eye toward showcasing a coterie of promising writers-several with ties to the Guild--Banks is unerring. Among the new voices, and Brian Keith Jackson and Diane Richards could have been in this category if the editor hadn't placed them in an earlier decade, are Karen Robinson, Funmi Osaba, Ayesha Randolph, Carmen Scheidel, Rachel De Aragon, Olubansile Abbas Mimiko, Rosemarie Robotham and Tracy Grant. The names alone indicate a diverse ethnicity, and this is clearly in keeping with the ever increasing mix of ancestries in gentrified Harlem today.
Grant's "Pudd'nhead Barnes" and Randolph's "My Father's First Bra," by their titles alone catch the eye. Both young writers demonstrate that beyond the catchy titles, they are adept storytellers with a keen regard for language and character development. Grant's piece was particularly engrossing since an argument propels his tale, and it's a discourse that has all the earmarks of a Greek chorus.
This excerpt from Grant's story, which was written especially for the anthology, involves an exchange between two patrons at Pudd'nhead's bar in Harlem. They are debating who is the better baseball player, Jackie Robinson or Roy Campanella.
"You crazy, Milton! Ain't no way in hell Jackie Robinson is better than Campanella. Campy hit three-twelve last year, forty-one homers, and one hundred and forty-two RBIs."
"So what. That was last year."
"Jackie ain't beat it."
"Just shows how ignorant you are, Fleetwood. Jackie broke the color line. He made history. Wasn't for Jackie, Campy wouldn't even be on the Dodgers."
And there's Diane Richards short rift on Harlem that proclaims: "I love Harlem cause that's where I live and what I know, right up there on 122nd Street and Manhattan Avenue. White folks live right across the street, too. They are Harlem folk, that's right. You don't have to be black to be Harlem folk."
Each of the four sections, arranged chronologically, begins with an introduction (as well as a short account of the author) from the editor, who continues as the executive editor of the Harlem Writers Guild. Beloved Harlem is packed with a lineup and writers that should guarantee an enduring legacy, and be required reading for any course on the subject.
--Reviewed by Herb Boyd Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to Black Issues Book Review.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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