60 years ago Lady Day, a superheroine and genius jettisoned from full recognition in America, sang of Paris as a haven from prejudice and music industry exploitation. There, she and other African-American talents were not only recognized in their own times for their gifts but treated as if they actually had some.
This is how I have been made to feel 60 years later in Harlem, on a break from Chicago– where things have gotten difficult for African-American talent and artists. I love to work and write in the metropolis one hour from where I was born, the Hyde Park neighborhood of my alma mater University of Chicago specifically. However, after my work is done, I want the proper rest, celebration and (most importantly) compensation for it. Social work, missionary service and charitable giving are entirely separate and distinct from the labor, industry, practice and entrepreneurship of an arts or entertainment profession. Often outside of New York and L.A., just for creatives to do what they love they must dive into working for low-to-no pay or in situations meant to reform rather than to just entertain as artists do. This was the expectation for Lady Day and her contemporaries in America, to necessitate they run to Europe for more money, straight work, promotion and fringe benefits to make their jobs easier. What Europe was for them, the Big Apple is for me.
What I appreciate about New York City in general and Harlem in particular (for Blacks) is the regard and disposition to professionals like me as actual nonstop hard workers who run businesses. There is unspoken respect that we all have most likely scrambled through dark tunnels to reach some sort of pinnacle we must then scramble to maintain– no matter how rich or famous one may rise up to. Even Oprah Winfrey saw her next dream almost backfire and she had to scramble to recover OWN. So, if it is like that for her then one can only imagine what it is like for the rest of us.
So, in a climate where my cluttered mind is respected and my time is seen as actually filled to the brim, I flourish into the right directions of opportunity and moments of community my soul and career need most. And, when I want to stop, take a breath and give of my time or talents to help worthy causes then I can and do. However, it is not expected of me here at all. And, when it is given here it is treated in truth- like I have done the world a favor from me, and not the other way around.
In just one amazing Spring birthday month of April in Harlem, I have had friends show me the best New York has to offer and I truly love and appreciate them for it– including Ron Kavanaugh at Mosaic Literary Magazine, who took my first Harlem birthday pic at a lovely Afro-French restaurant we wandered to after seeing Deborah Willis speak at The Schomburg Center. I was driven to see Philadelphia for the first time in nearly a decade actually, and was shocked to re-realize that it remains one of America’s largest cities in midst of enormous changes for Black people.
And I have been blessed to sit before our new Billie Holidays and geniuses it is up to us to consecrate as such: photographers Chester Higgins and Deborah Willis, authors Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin and Harriette Cole, artists and philanthropists Quincy and Margaret Troupe, and Senegalese music impresario Cheikh Lo; Cheikh Lo’s final NYU Artist-in-Residence concert was my first official going out party in New York City, and what a party we had! You never know who people are until folks put some African drums on the floor.
(Clockwise l-r: Cheikh Lo (courtesy of CheikhLoMusic.com), Chester Higgins’ iconic Moslem Woman (courtesy of ChesterHiggins.com), artists and philanthropists Margaret and Quincy Troupe (courtesy of MPICIA.org), Harriette Cole (courtesy of Bet.com), Farah Jasmine Griffin (courtesy of FarahJasmineGriffin.com), Deborah Willis (courtesy of NYU’s Tisch School), and Chester Higgins (courtesy of PBS.org))
Amazingly, and at divine last minutes, I was steered into direct contact with the preaching and prayer over my life from men of God such as Bishop Noel Jones and Dr. Todd Coontz; due to the miracles of the Internet and televangelism, I have to credit them as being one of the many preachers who delivered God’s words and voice to me so I could still be standing here today working for the same in this world.
I have met and explored new visual artists Adejoke Tugbiyele and Olushola A. Cole. I created community with my fellow Sisters in Crime in the NYC/Tri-State chapter including authors Cathi Stoler and Ursula Renee, and Amazon Kindle Singles Writers at a great party Amazon hosted for us; writers Gordon Haber and Harris Sockel, #WeNeedDiverseBooks editor Vivian Lee and arts curator Amanda Shapiro were just a few of the inspiring like minds and tireless souls making change in this world through hard arts work.
Since I am away from home I have mail directed to a friend here, so she had received my first hot-off-the-press copy of Solemn but I had not seen it yet. And the beautiful women at Calabar Imports and Women Writers of the Diaspora conversation series, longstanding pillars of Harlem and supporters of the arts, surprised me with chance to do my first book party in this miraculous place I will always love so much. I am truly grateful to owner Atim Annette Otom and series leader Celesti Colds Fecher for the love.
And then, of course, there is Prince. His passing was text-messaged to me early on that Thursday morning by friends I did not believe. But after one too many cars drove past with a Prince song blaring from their stereos, I decided to look into it. I was heartbroken for my family in Kankakee, Illinois; we do not have the pace, heights, whirlwinds and flurries of the big cities to drown out the harsh realities of life. For us, the stars truly were real stars meant to be bigger than life so we could get through it.
Prince ranks highest up there as one of those who helped us smile, dance, feel sexy, celebrate occasions and even form identities in the case of my father, who was once a D.J. known for playing Prince’s music. I just happened upon a celebration of his life in front of the Apollo Theater on that very sad day and night, so I was not alone with nothing but the Internet and a bottle of wine to try to understand it. I am somewhere in the corner of this awesome video showing just a snippet of what 125th did for Prince. The crowds kept coming, we all kept dancing and singing, and the candles stayed lit while all those good and bad times from my life with his musical soundtrack dropped off my psyche and consciousness like a true relative had gone on.
May God rest his soul and keep all of ours…