What is the nature of the genius of Black style, of Black art? Long held apart, held back, weâ€™ve evolved with our own parallel universe of cultural achievement. Undeniably, itâ€™s been heavily informed and even imbued by white influences. But, all the same, itâ€™s somehow different.
[Notes From The Frontline]
Atlantis! We’ve known each other since she was just 2.
Only, somehow, suddenly, this annoying spoiled child, is 6-feet-tall, in her stylish, satrapy, high-heeled slippers. Elegantly arrayed in an evening gown, her hair swept up, her neck and ears adorned by sparkling rhinestones, Atlantis has become a young woman, all grown up!
Last week, along with 100 other well-wishers, I attended an intergenerational party in honor of her graduation from Hunter College.
Near Marcus Garvey Park, on 121st Street, her parents’ Victorian row-house is a perfect place for an impressive blowout. With most of the furniture removed, despite the throng and the heat, a steady breeze from the high windows and frosty, tropical punch, kept everyone dancing comfortably to the DJ’s nostalgic selections.
The “baby” of her family, her parents make a striking pair. Habitually wreathed in smiles, Carman is a native of Guyana. Not long ago she was lovingly described by her dotting husband, resting on their bed, after her bath, as appearing like, “a seal on the beach”.
Ordinarily affable, pallid and skinny Axel was born in Germany so, sometimes his stern side does surface, particularly, if he’s espousing his anarchist political views. But there was none of that, not the other night. All eyes then and all thoughts too, were on a radiant lady at the threshold of a useful and meaningful life. It’s a life that’s been well planed for and carefully thought out. She intends to lead it, right where she was born, in Harlem.
It’s not merely because, as an adolescent, Atlantis introduced me to one of my favorite TV programs, that makes me look up to her. More important is her independent spirit and determination to succeed. Watching Sex In The City together, that first time, her great insight astonished me.
Initially ecstatic, because the hottest guy at her gym had gone out with her, the character, Miranda, best known for declaring later that she wouldn’t be caught dead living in Brooklyn, gloated to her friends with pride. Only, the more assertive and less needy she becomes, the more distant and turned off “Mr. Adonis” seems.
“Oh my goodness”, exclaimed my precocious companion, a 14 year old, “she is ‘lettin’ him make her lose her self esteem!” How could one help but to hold in high regard such a self-confident girl?
Alright, I confess, Like Miranda, from Sex In The City, I’m one of “those”, too. Snooty, lazy, irrational, I’m a Manhattanite, loath to leave local splendors to laboriously venture to Brooklyn. In a way, our position is perfectly reasonable. There is so much to do, to see, conveniently here—why bother, to go elsewhere?
For those of us who are African American , or who admire Harlem of yesteryear, there are two excellent reasons to visit the “city of churches.”
The fourth largest urban area in the nation, before it became a part of New York in 1898, Brooklyn’s historic significance, to people of color, pales compared to Harlem’s. Only thanks to gentrification, now, it’s Brooklyn that boast the region’s biggest Black population. As a result, it’s also become home to many of the restaurants, night clubs, shops and other ethnic repositories of culture, that are not always so easily found in an ever more assimilated Harlem .
“Is the whole world crazy?” That was the rhetorical question raised by my friend, Malcolm Harris, the handsome fashion designer who founded the activist group, Designers for Darfur. It was opening night for Alvin Ailey at BAM. We were being given a hard time about our tickets, by an officious young man in charge of public relations. He made us miss the first piece. Yet, after turning down wheelchair seats, ultimately, we were placed in one of the opulent auditorium’s commodious, always empty, boxes; put there by a courteous and understanding Black usher. This proved, once again, how important perseverance is.
Completed in 1908, as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM is an ornately embellished architectural masterpiece that was designed by theatre specialist Herts & Tallant. They were also the designers of Harlem’s lost Polo Ground’s grandstand. Their building at BAM is reminiscent of the earlier, stylistically more flamboyant Harlem Opera House, that was torn down in 1970.
Resident at BAM from 1969-1971, the Ailey troupe’s return to Brooklyn after a 35 year plus absence, was a part of their 50th anniversary celebration. Followed by a lively party, flawlessly executed, their performance featured three audience favorites. Highly appreciative, at every opportunity, the capacity crowd , that included notables like Joan Rivers, greeted the dancers with abandoned applause and lusty cheering.
Establishing his award winning, classically trained company in 1958, brilliant Black dancer-turned choreographer, Alvin Ailey, was as passionate about life, as he was about art. The first time we met was over 20 yeas ago. We were both engaged in a favorite, highly pleasurable diversion.
In those days, shopping at the extraordinary, untidy and disorganized, combination thrift store-antique shops, found all over Harlem , was a guaranteed “cheap-thrill”. Among dusty piles of indifferent merchandise one was liable to find anything from a Serves vase to a Van der Zee photograph.
Ordinarily, $15 was my limit, for these purchases which always filled me with delight. This afternoon, first seeing Ailey, I made an exception. Chatting breezily with the proprietor, he’d seemed familiar. Was he someone I’d seen on TV?
As knurled as the Chinese philosopher’s stone he was considering on the counter, it was Alvin Ailey’s bare, aching, dancer’s feet, that gave his identity away. Alas, because of the interest he expressed in a pair of rock crystal-like, engraved Lucite obelisk I’d spotted, I’d had to pay the full $35 being asked.
But, this incident, leading to laughs and a friendly conversation about mutual friends, had provided the opportunity to meet an admired hero. It also helped me make up my mind about my antique fix. Sadly, not long afterward, Alvin Ailey died.
Emphasized by the tumultuous reception at BAM, it’s pretty evident that the maestro’s legacy lives on. Like me, many present have seen Ailey’s famous dance, Revelations, the grand finale, literally dozens of times. And, still, when it ends, jumping to our feet, we cheer and clap with glee! Why?
Partly, what it is that keeps one riveted watching Revelations, is Ailey’s sure juxtaposition. He’s constantly contrasting “life’s big picture”, with the varied intimate episodes of everyday. In each act, much as in a battle scene or an orgy, in a movie, apart from the general action, there’s individual activity that also commands one’s attention.
As recognizable as they are magnificent and timeless, the longing spirituals that score this dance, are also integral to its power. You need not be Christian or even necessarily religious to be moved by the music’s magic. Along with the dancers evocative movement, it can compel anyone with a modicum of understanding about what it is to struggle to be human.
Even while accomplishing feats of athletic virtuosity, worthy of an Olympic gold medal, the dancers are always smiling. We are too far away to notice their heroic effort, to observe either, their fierce panting for breath or perspiration that flies, like showers of rice at a wedding. So splendidly muscled, brimming with vigorous energy, from where we sit, they seem to be some separate, elevated species, removed from poor ordinary weight-watching mortals.
This is why, for me at least, the experience of the dance, always includes my musing, “will I ever, again, find romance with someone so exquisite?” Women, my friend Atlantis assures me, are not burdened by these petty carnal distractions, but I wonder?
It’s also perplexing to contemplate, how these dancers, manage to bring such brio to each presentation, that it seems to us, that they’re experiencing it for the first time?
Imposing, bald and beautiful, Judith Jamison, who succeeded Alvin Ailey as company director in 1989, insist, “it’s Alvin, he wrote the drama that makes his work new to you each time, in each piece!”
A faun-like Parisian, who says he’s danced Revelations some 107 times; Willy Laury, more pragmatically explains how the performers have the challenge of dancing a different role each time they appear.
Sylvia Waters, my neighbor, who runs Ailey II, credits both the richness of the choreography, as well as its varied demands, with giving Revelations an always changing vitality. “Let’s face it”, she says, “Notwithstanding its lofty status, It’s a modern classic, but it rocks!”.
What is the nature of the genius of Black style, of Black art? Long held apart, held back, we’ve evolved with our own parallel universe of cultural achievement. Undeniably, it’s been heavily informed and even imbued by white influences. But, all the same, it’s somehow different. Some maintain, that this difference, contrasted with the ennui inducing predictability of America’s moribund European-derived cultural offerings, makes Black culture better?
This was what we were discussing at a round table, after BAM, at Chez Josephine, my favorite restaurant at Mid-Town Manhattan on 43rd Street. It’s a homey kind of place, not unlike renowned Harlem spots from back-in-the-day, such as the long gone Jocks, on 125th Street.
A whole lot of the intoxicating atmosphere found here, is due to exceptional old-school entertainers. Crowned by an extravagant hat, playing piano standing up, the inimitable Sarah McLawler and her sidekick, swinging trumpeter, Jean Davis, are supreme jazz stylist. Short and sassy, Boncellie Lewis, on the other hand, is a soul-singer! That lady can make one weep, belting out the blues from a vast repertoire of sentimental love ballads.
Ageless, elfin Jean-Claude Baker, sporting a coral-colored silken tunic, befitting one of the “rainbow tribe” of children adopted the legendary artist Josephine Baker, is our host. Nothing short of a secular shrine, dedicated to the ultimate Auntie Mame-type of guardian some of us once craved, Jean-Claude’s place is as festive as a bacchanalia and as subtlety decorated as a Christmas tree.
As he’s providing us with excellent champagne, so cold and so good, we know not to be too disagreeable. It’s he who declares jazz and Black dance to be superior to any white counterpart. This prompts me to recall thoughts expressed earlier at BAM, by Brooklyn Councilmember, Leticia James. “How important it is having Ailey here again !”, she’d shouted, “It’s so important for young people in my district to see all the possibilities of what people who look like us can do given the chance.”
Recounting this caused Jean-Claude to denounce public schools, postulating, the absurdity of failing to teach little children, living in Harlem or Brooklyn, with low expectations and little hope of becoming the model, actor, hip-hop star, or sports giant of their dreams and then to denounce them for finding a little pleasure and needed income, from sex or drugs: “Before my mother rescued me, the limited world of most children in Harlem, that was my world too.” Then, for a second time Malcolm Harris asked, “Is the whole world crazy?”
Round and round, and back and forth we went. More champagne, then food arrived, lobster bisque, salmon tartar, Chinese ravioli, fraise bois, with ice cream, coffee, port.
Utterly undeterred by the repeated necessity of rising and leaving us to greet an arriving guest or bid those departing, “adieu”, our host more than held his own. Everyone agreed, that the unlikely triumph of Senator Barack Oboma, was an encouraging miracle.
It wasn’t until after the port arrived that Malcolm Harris really got started. Before that, Senator John McCain was being criticized, but in a general way. After a while, for the fashion designer, this wasn’t good enough.
“Is McCain crazy?”, he asked? “His president and his party have been in charge for nearly eight years. They’re the ones who lied about WMD, about the war. They’re the ones who lost what they started. Who, but they can be blamed for $4-plus gasoline? Can you even remember Gray Davis, the Governor of California ? He was pushed aside through a devious manipulation of deregulated energy. Artificially, people like Bush, people like McCain, didn’t they make fuel prices skyrocket then? That’s the same thing happening now, and they’re the ones, people like Cindy and John McCain.”
“And Amanda Mortimer Burden”, I added insistently. “Yhea, Amanda Mortimer Burden too, who are benefiting. They deregulated the S&L’s, leading directly to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, right? Who else deserves credit for their mess? How, doing the same crap that led to the disaster we are all living, can John McCain, possibly be an agent of change now?”
This was enough to even silence Jean-Claude, if only for a moment. Following an affirmative grunt, he called out, “calvados for my friends!”
FOR ALL WHO WOULD LIKE TO JOIN THE HARLEM DEBATE, BE SURE TO COME OUT TO BILL T. JONES FORUM AT THE GATEHOUSE AT CITY COLLEGE, ON CONVENT AVENUE AT 135TH STREET, AT 7:PM ON THURSDAY JUNE 18TH
To comment, to subscribe to or advertise in New York’s leading Pan African weekly investigative newspaper, please call (212) 481-7745 or send a note to [email protected]
“Speaking Truth To Power.”