1 - Introduction
From Harlem with Love: An Ivy Leaguer's Inner City Odyssey
Have Faith, Mrs. Stokes, Harlem Will Rise Again!
The late spring sunshine dances through the breeze, illuminating the immaculate lawn of Langdell Hall, perfecting the physical conditions for the Harvard Law School graduation ceremony. The social conditions are far less ideal, but I'm hoping my anxieties melt away with the noonday sun.
As I inch forward in the line to receive my diploma from the dean, I look out over the sparkling green and the panoply of proud parentsmdash;and my ambivalent ones. Trying to put it all in perspective, I flash back to a time when I was ambivalent about one of their missions, a dozen years before, thousands of miles across the Atlantic: the day we arrived in Sweden to begin Dad's tenure as U. S. ambassador.
Anguished over having to give up the familiar, like football, for foreign things like soccer, I'd cried throughout the flight to Scandinavia. As our plane had landed at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport, my tears had quickly dried. I'd looked out of the window at hundreds of riot-ready police officers and military troops that surrounded protesters, who were waving placards and brightly colored banners and signs:
Holland = USA Imperialism
Dad was assuming a controversial post that had been left vacant for over a year in a diplomatic snub. The Nixon White House had cold-shouldered the Swedes because they'd switched their diplomatic ties in Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi, and had pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to North Vietnam as well as defiantly granting asylum to U.S. draft dodgers. But I'd had no idea we'd be entering hostile territory.
The Genocide Continues
Did You Also Fly a B-52?
We had descended from our jet onto the tarmac, Dad leading the way, followed by Mother and my sister Lucy. I had intentionally trailed behind, providing the rear guard in our precarious circumstance, my only frame of reference for such perilous international settings being From Russia with Love, a James Bond movie I had finally persuaded my parents to let me see.
I was struck by the dozens of photographers, the phalanx of TV cameras, and the gauntlet of dignitaries, soldiers, protesters, reporters, and cops that lined the couple of hundred yards between the aircraft and the terminal, which now loomed before me as a safe harbor.
Suddenly a large, blond demonstrator had broken through the security line and had sprinted toward us. I'd grabbed Lucy's and Mother's arms and had leaned in toward Dad, knowing his still bulky frame (the legacy of his days as a football player) was the best available shield. Before a host of soldiers and cops had tackled the rebel, he'd screamed in English, "You are not wanted here!" Then, "Nigger, go home!"
Nigger, go home? Had I traveled from one continent to another only to land on the battlefield gladly left behind in the American Southmdash;in "tolerant" Sweden, no less?
* * *
The graduates mingle with diplomas in hand, relishing the moment of accomplishmentmdash;except for me. I dread the inevitable question. A smiling parent approaches; it's too late to disappear. Here it comes.
"So, young man, which firm will you be joining in the fall?" I hesitate and rub my forehead. Dad clears his throat. Mom looks away. How quickly I turn from hero to fool.
"Well . . . I don't have a job yet," I offer weakly. There is an awkward silence.
The inquisitive father chuckles. "Decided to take a year to travel? I did the same thing after law school. Best year of my life, cycling around Europe." I glance at Dad, sense his temperature rising.
Adding fuel to the fire, this father pats Dad on the shoulder. "You're a braver man than me. My boy got a clerkship. I insisted he take it. Times are tougher now. I told him Paris will still be there down the line. Then it will be on his own nickel, not mine."
The dad laughs; mine tries to feign a smile. I know I'd better beat him to the punch, but before I can offer my obligatory explanation, the other father is whisked away by his graduating daughter to greet a friend. But before I can finish my sigh of relief, another parent presses the inquiry, forcing my hand.
"I'm moving to Harlem to give back to my community," I announce.
"Oh," the inquirer remarks, trying to figure out what to say. "Well . . . that's different."
"Why Harlem?" queries another parent.
My hopes for a mercilessly brief exchange are dashed. Should I obfuscate or declare my hand? Okay, I'll let the truth come out so I can nip the conversation in the bud.
"Harlem is still the cultural capital of black America," I affirm. "If you can make a difference there, the benefits will spread to other needy communities."
Somebody's mommdash;sincerely: "That sounds like a very noble thing to do."
Somebody's dadmdash;sarcastically: "Good luck."
A classmate beckons, offering me an escape, and I walk away to meet her fiancé.
* * *
As I shake hands, my mind races to the day I made the decisionmdash;or rather the decision was made for me. I was crossing the manicured grounds of a suburban country golf club on a humid afternoon. I had slipped away from my peers and the partners at the Wall Street law firm, who were enjoying the exquisite décor, extensive wine lists, splendid floral displays, elegant buffets, and consummate service of the firm's annual summer associate outing. I was having difficulty seeing myself climbing the corporate ladder to a high-flying career as the firm's first black partner (it had already been hinted at). Walking along the fairway, I glanced at my watch and quickened my pace, concerned that my mentor Joe Strauss might send out a search party if I stayed away from the Clubhouse much longer. Making a shortcut across a green, I had Harlem on my mind, although Harlem was as distant for me as Stockholm.
I'd grown up in southern Virginia on the campus of Hampton Institute, a historically black college founded to educate ex-slaves in the wake of the Civil War. As the son of a college president, I'd been sheltered in the bosom of the black elite. I'd been insulated from the violent realities of the civil rights movement: I'd participated in no bus boycotts, diner sit-ins, or freedom rides. I'd never been bitten by dogs, knocked down by fire hoses, battered by police clubs, or terrorized by swinging nooses and burning crosses. Yet a seed of social consciousness had been planted, which I cultivated through my Cornell University history-and-English double major. I'd been captivated by the literature and politics of the Harlem Renaissancemdash;the decades from roughly 1905 to 1935, when Harlem was in vogue.
I maneuvered around a huge sand trap and summoned my Renaissance muse in the verse of my favorite poet Langston Hughes and favorite poem "Harlem" to distract myself from the banality awaiting me just beyond the eighteenth hole.
But I never got beyond the first line: "What happens to a dream deferred?" I was thinking about the meaning of Hughes' question, when . . .
I looked up and around. An errant golf ball was coming straight at me. I ducked in the nick of time. The ball just missed striking me in the head.
That certainly got my attention! I stopped to ponder the serious possibility that God was trying to speak to me about direction for my life, and I kept ducking. In that moment, the thought of Harlem took on colors and shapes and places and people. I saw myself amid the bustle of an embittered urban landscape: 125th Street; black people, all the hues of the diaspora, in dashikis and Afros, hustling by me, passing under the Apollo marquee, ignoring its beckoning. The poetry of Hughes and the music of Ellington and Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" rang in my ears.
For a silver-spoon member of the black elite like me, the choice could not have been starker: a smooth transition to New York's downtown white upper class versus a defiant detour to its uptown black underclass.
In my imagination, I tried to flee the vision and the sense of calling that encircled me. However, I stumbled over a beggar on the sidewalk. One of his hands held a plastic bucket, the other clutched at me. I pulled away, resolving to fend off notions of community service and urban renewal, of social justice and divine destiny.
The Clubhouse loomed ahead as a refuge from my reverie, and my stroll turned into a jog. I began to sweat, slowed down, and pulled out my handkerchief to mop my brow.
"Joe!" The voice startled me. It was one of the partners, on his way back from the links. "Glad I ran into you. Got a matter I want your help with. Pro bono case, uptown in Harlem."
My mouth dropped open. I closed it quickly to cloak my astonishment. The partner had never uttered more than hello to me until this momentmdash;and his first real communication was punctuated with Harlem?! The partner rambled on, but I was preoccupied with this bizarre confluence of Harlem moments at a suburban country club, coming at me like a cultural train to ride as an escape from the all-consuming Wall Street world for which I seemed destined.
* * *
"Time to go." Lucy's whisper breaks my reverie. She nods in the direction of Mom and Dad, noting their agitation. My expectations of a silent, tense walk to the car are unfortunately fulfilled. Lucy and Mother ride with Grandma, Aunt Doris, and Uncle Joe, strategically setting me up for the climactic one-on-one with Dad that I'd hoped to avoid. I brace myself, sensing his impending last stand against my Harlem move. Though Dad is no stranger to idealism, past exchanges have revealed he's not seduced by my quixotic notions of community service, divinely inspired or otherwise.
I haven't even closed the car door when Dad starts in. "Unlike me when I finished school, you can go anywhere and do anything and you come up with this silly mission in Harlem?!"
It's a familiar point that tends to find its way into every major discussion about my career. His generation of African Americans didn't have the opportunities that mine possessed. He's just more emphatic about it today. Though offended by Dad's constant characterization of my Harlem direction as "silly," I respond with a moral argument I've not used before. "There's nothing silly about serving the urban poor. It's the right thing to do. If we don't take care of our own communities, who will? If we leave it in the hands of whites, we end up with paternalism. If we leave it to the government, we have dependency."
My college research had helped me understand the dynamics of Harlem's devastating decline. The influx of African Americans into Harlem during the Renaissance had become an exodus of middle-class blacks during the years of economic and social disintegration that had followed. This reverse had yielded a greater concentration of poverty in Harlem and other cities across the nation, and had left in its wake a new frontier in the quest for American social justicemdash;the plight of the inner-city underclass. While the passage of civil rights legislation in the sixties had advanced the fortunes of the middle class, the spread of the welfare system had worsened the plight of those left behind. My studies had left me both aware of and intimidated by the magnitude of the problem.
My father's frustration grows. "Where did you get such a crazy Harlem idea?" We pull into a gas station and Dad begins to refuel the car.
As I focus on how best to respond, I recall the mysterious turning point in the genesis of my "silly" mission. I had been up late one night in Langdell Library, brooding over my future instead of writing a constitutional law brief. My current assignment at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau had caused me to research housing-discrimination cases, which was eerily similar to the file I'd been given by the partner at the Wall Street law firmmdash;namely, investigating unfair housing practices that had been uncovered by a Harlem non-profit. Even though the research for the pro bono case had been library-based, I'd used the project as an excuse to make innumerable trips to Harlem, where I'd walked the streets and breathed the uptown air. I'd looked for confirming signs and found none. This had left me wondering whether I'd lost my mind. I still resisted any impulsemdash;divine or otherwisemdash;that insisted that the path from Harvard to Harlem was one I was destined to travel.
Despite my best efforts to escape, however, I'd been besieged by signs directing me to Harlem. They'd started in the classroom. My Real Property Law professor's lectures had been about land-use entanglements in Harlem. An Evidence lecture had featured a defendant from Harlem. Business Planning had used a case study on Harlem. And my Race and the Law seminar had highlighted a discrimination suit with a Harlem complainant. My very first Legal Aid Bureau client, a middle-aged alcoholic facing eviction, had regaled me with stories from his hometownmdash;Harlem. In a lively discussion in our weekly Black Christian Fellowship group about taking personal responsibility for the problems of our communities, a fellow student had lectured us on "The Return of the Native Sons to the Ghettos of Americamdash;If We Don't, Who Will?" And there had been those from the fellowship who'd embraced the vision: James O'Neal, Leslie Walker, Dennis Henderson, and Jacqueline Patton. We'd prayed, fasted, and strategized about relocating to Harlem.
The signs had kept on manifesting themselves. A sermon by my pastor, Reverend Michael Haynes of Roxbury's Twelfth Baptist Church, had enthralled me. His theme rose from the divine commission of Isaiah, in the Old Testament: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Reverend Haynes had implored us to respond to the providential call just as Isaiah had. Here I am. Send me.
The most riveting encounter had come through John Perkins, a Christian community developer from Mississippi, who'd come to Boston to talk about his grassroots, holistic work to uplift the poor of the Deep South. Perkins had emphasized community institution–building to empower people economically, just as nonviolent civil rights–protest marches had empowered them politically. He'd explained his unlikely relocation from California to Mississippi as obedience to divine calling. He'd described the sacrifice of leaving his career, uprooting his family, and traveling thousands of miles, not because of a better job or lifestyle but because God had told him to do it.
The distance from Harvard to Harlem still seemed light-years away, so I'd cornered Perkins afterwards for some frank discussion.
"Why did you do it?" I'd asked him.
"Obeying God's call is the most important thing you can do in your life. I did and got no regrets," was his response.
"But how do you know it's God's call?"
"Sometimes you don't know until you go. Harlem isn't as far away as you think. Remember, with God, all things are possible."
I had consequently bought Perkins' book Let Justice Roll Down, detailing how he'd endured unemployment, physical violence, imprisonment, and the discrimination of the 1960s South to create educational programs, a health-care clinic, and businesses that generated jobs. Perkins was part of a generation of black church leaders who debated whether to fight racial segregation and injustice primarily through politics or with the Gospel, whether by changing the law or altering hearts and minds. Perkins rejected this false dichotomy, believing both were imperative. He argued that redemption must encompass not just individuals but entire communities. This vision resonated with my own perspective.
Nonetheless, my pragmatism had prevailed. I had rationalized all the signs and support for my vision as peculiar happenstance. I'd continued to cling to my plan of taking the best Wall Street job offer and pursuing an international law career with an office in Stockholm.
* * *
Back in Langdell Library, I glanced at the clock, distressed that my mental woolgathering had squandered so much studying time. Rubbing my eyes, I put down my casebook and noticed that the student who'd been sitting across from me had gone, and had left a newspaper on the table. I yawned, and slid the paper toward me.
The paper had been turned to the comics page. I was about to turn it when a Doonesbury strip caught my eye. It depicted two ladiesmdash;Mrs. D., a white senior citizen, and Mrs. Stokes, her black maidmdash;talking about Harlem! I rubbed my eyes again to make sure I was still awake.
"Tell me, Mrs. Stokes, where are you from originally?" the white boss asked.
"I'm from Harlem, Mrs. D.," Mrs. Stokes replied.
"Harlem? Really? Why, it's been years since I've been to Harlem!"
I picked the paper up and held it to the light, making sure not to miss a word of this captivating conversation.
Mrs. D. continued: "Dick and I used to go up to the Cotton Club in the 30's to hear Billie Holiday. What a marvelous, exciting place it was then! Everyone called it Harlem's Golden Age."
Mrs. Stokes turned away: "I don't know nothin' about no Golden Age, ma'am. Seems like Harlem always been just a place to give up hope."
This declaration deflated me, and her boss: "Yes, I know. The riots of '35 brought that home to us. It was very sobering."
In the concluding frame, Mrs. D. tried to encourage memdash;and Mrs. Stokes.
"Have faith, Mrs. Stokes," she affirmed. "Harlem will rise again."
"Yes, ma'am," Mrs. Stokes counters. "So will Jesus, but I ain't waitin' up nights."
I'd read this strip over and over, mystified over its meaning for my own life. As I identified with the skeptical Mrs. Stokes, her elderly employer took on a divine voice: Are you going to have faith or listen to Mrs. Stokes?
I smiled. God did have a sense of humor, resorting to cartoon characters to foster my resolve about Harlem. But my chuckle had quickly turned to fear. Moving from Harvard to Harlem was no laughing matter.
* * *
As Dad returns to the car, I decide against disclosing my Doonesbury inspiration. I would risk not only his disdain but a likely referral for a mental-health examination. I hate this negative turn in our relationship. Having followed in his footsteps, I became a Cornell All-American football player. I could do no wrong, until now. What a filial fall! My Harlem decision threatens to drop me from favored offspring into the ranks of the disinherited.
Dad goes for the jugular, using arguments from the professional ("I didn't raise you with the best of everything, send you to the top schools, and open doors for you, for you to be a struggling community lawyer") to the political ("We're Republicans. Those Democrats in Harlem will never help you") and the practical ("Take care of yourself first, then maybe you'll be able to take care of the less fortunate").
Dad's pragmatism was always his most challenging argument: make money first; give back later. His conventional wisdom, however, begged the key question: Must community service take a back seat to more lucrative career opportunities? I could have counter-argued from Gandhi (unearned suffering is redemptive), King (risk-taking for social justice is liberating), Christ (humble self-sacrifice is leadership). But I resisted. The key now was not to win an argument but to discover common ground.
I float a compromise. "You agree that Harlem needs help, right?" He looks askance, wary of my approach. "So look at my time in Harlem as the Peace Corps, or military servicemdash;my giving something of value to the country."
"That's a big stretch."
"C'mon, Dad, work with me on this."
"So why don't you join the army?"
"You really want me to enlist?"
"You'd probably be safer. At least in boot camp you'd learn how to use a gun. You'd need it more in the ghetto than in the military."
I don't like his analogy, but his tone is encouraging. I press on. "If you're really worried, I'll take martial arts."
"Just don't lose your football legs. At least you can run away from trouble."
"I still hold the Ivy League record: carries in a game." I flash a smile, hoping for a return. My reach for levity falls short.
"How much time are we talking here?" His question is the first sign of an imminent breakthrough. I'll probably need at least half a dozen years, but I go light to make a deal.
"Give me five years. If my progress hasn't convinced you by then, I'm out."
"Three," he counters.
"Four," I offer, sensing that it might be unrealistic, but feeling that I may be ready to move on by then, anyway. "Like two tours of duty. Four years."
"Y'know, there's a fine line between vision and fantasy." Our eyes lock. I extend my hand. He grudgingly takes it for what has to be the most satisfying handshake of my life. Silence rules the half-hour ride to my uncle's house in Newton where my graduation dinner awaits. I spy my father's wry smile. I've made a lousy bet, and Dad knows it.
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