The only white faces on the street belonged to me and my companions. All of the other faces were black. They smiled at us from behind their paintbrushes as they painted broad brightly colored murals on the storefronts. They leered at us as if we were a curiosity they had never really seen before. They nodded at us with shy respect as if they thought us brave to visit their neighborhood at all. But mostly they just smiled.
The only other white faces were on tourist busses that rolled up and down the street, carrying drivers who described Harlem culture over loud speakers. The white faces peered out of the glass in long rows. Their eyes were both probing and inquisitive, yet they told of fear. It was as if they were on an African Safari, and wouldn’t dream of getting out of the vehicle to join the natives and wild animals in their habitat. They preferred the safety of something on wheels.
I could only laugh. I had always wanted to go to Harlem. I had long imagined it like a brightly woven tapestry of culture. From the art, to the gospel, to the jazz, I had always been intrigued by this jewel of Manhattan.
I was intrigued by the Apollo Theater which had featured jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, as well as reputedly being a hangout for Malcolm X.
I was intrigued by the restaurants, spilling out the smells of Soul Food into the gritty streets. I could imagine cooks boasting of hot ribs which fell right off the bone, and pork chops that induced finger licking. I heard the black eyed peas sizzling in bacon fat. I could smell the sweet potato pie, and the Rum and coconut cakes baking on every corner.
I was intrigued by the churches. And I was intrigued by the art; the murals of their culture painted on every storefront. All of it spoke to me. And I wanted to go.
My family didn’t think it a very good idea.
I remember that when I expressed my desire to go to Harlem to my family, many of them discouraged me from going. I had been born into a family of left wing liberals, open minded and intellectual folk who fought against racism at every turn, and I could hardly believe my ears. “We’re just afraid for your safety,” they told us. “It’s a fact that Harlem is full of crime.” I believed they had succumbed to the fear mongers who exaggerated stories to create drama for their news shows. I was not deterred in the slightest.
In fact, I made the pilgrimage to Harlem twice, and both trips were unforgettable journeys.
I remember attending a gospel service at a downtown Baptist Church one Sunday. My companion and I were the only white faces in the church that Sunday morning, and as the Ladies arrived, I had never seen in my life such a dizzying array of costumes. They wore every color of the rainbow; one might be dressed head to toe in orange, with an enormous orange hat perched on their head and orange right down to their orange shoes. Another would be in lime green, and the third in purple. Each hat was more outrageous than the next; reminding me of Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. I noticed there were very few men, only women and children. They preached hard about the black men abandoning their families. But mostly they just made music. The band made you want to jump out of your seat and dance in the aisles, which most of us did. And the singers raised the roof.
I remember visiting the Apollo. I touched the walls as if to soak in the history. I remember buying street art from street vendors. I treasured that art for years to come.
But the best moment of all was the night we went to the Cotton Club.
The Cotton Club called me like no other place in Harlem. Even the name evoked romantic feelings inside of me, and I could almost taste the history when I said the name of the Club out loud.
The Cotton Club.
Since its inception in 1923, The Cotton Club has gained worldwide notoriety for booking the finest musical entertainment in the country. It has been home to numerous legendary greats, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. I found that the thought of going was irresistible.
But even the locals warned us we might not want to hang out in Harlem at night. “You’re fine during the day,” our new friends would tell us. “But after dark is another matter.”
But it didn’t stop us. We were determined to go. And that night, we jumped in a cab and entered the Cotton Club just after eight o’ clock in the evening. It was already packed.
A few eyebrows rose as we found our way to our table. It was apparent that the regular patrons were a little surprised to see a group of white folk enter their club, but mostly, all I remember were smiles. Smile after smile. A sea of smiles.
“Excuse me,” I said to the cocktail waitress. “I hear it is not at all uncommon for some big names to wander in here on any given Saturday night.”
She smiled big. “Well, you’re in for a treat. Rumor has it that James Brown and his entourage is coming in tonight.”
We were all stunned. Our eyes got as wide as saucers. “THE James Brown?”
She laughed. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what they’re sayin’. I’ll keep you posted.”
But she didn’t need to update us. When James Brown entered the Club, he would have been pretty hard to miss. His presence alone filled the room with energy. His black cape made a dramatic twist to his velvet suit.
Standing beside him was the Reverend Al Sharpton. Beside the Reverend stood the X Mrs. Sharpton.
Behind him stood a half a dozen body guards, all sporting black suits and sunglasses.
Behind the guards we spotted the actress Clarice Taylor, who played Anna Huxtable, the grandmother on the Cosby Show.
The cocktail waitresses fell all over this tribe of Greats, and ushered them to the very front row of the Club, directly in front of the stage. But they weren’t far from us, and I watched James Brown like an eagle hunting it’s prey; I was glued on every move he made. I was literally bubbling over with excitement.
The band called Rev. Al Sharpton’s wife to the stage almost immediately. I really didn’t know much about her at the time, but she turned out to be funny and engaging, and she had a powerful singing voice. She wowed the crowd with a James Brown song, and as she performed, the crowd went wild.
But I don’t think anyone went as wild as I did.
I was beside myself, singing at the top of my lungs, dancing on my seat. I was swept over by a passion I can hardly explain.
When Mrs. Sharpton finished her song, she pointed in my direction, and said loudly into her mic, “Yo sho look like you’re having one hell of a good time!”
The crowd at the Club burst into laughter. I looked to my left, and then to my right, wondering who she was talking about.
“I’m talkin’ to YOU!” She said, pointing directly at me.
“Me?” I whispered pointing to my chest.
“Yes, YOU. You got the spirit in you TONIGHT! You sound GOOD. You know any James Brown songs? Why don’t you get up here on stage and sing him one.”
Suddenly, my reality snapped out of focus. I was dreaming, certainly, and Mrs. Sharpton’s voice started sounding as if it were underwater. This surely couldn’t be happening. My cheeks were hot.
My friends all started shoving at my shoulders, pushing me out of my chair. “They want you to sing,” they’re all whispering. “Go.”
It was one of the craziest moments of my life.
To this day, I can’t remember which James Brown song I sang. I was in some sort of delirious auto pilot as I took my place on the stage and told the band the song I would like to sing. The music started in earnest, and I found my way to the mic.
But what gave me chills was seeing James Brown himself, seated directly in front of me. He removed his sunglasses and stared me down, eyeball to eyeball. And then he winked.
And I began to sing. I was in Harlem, New York at the Cotton Club. I was singing a James Brown song to James Brown himself. And when James Brown got up to sing after me, I realized that in a way, I had just opened for James Brown. It was an ethereal moment. I can’t remember finding my way back to my seat. I was utterly limp.
I often think that people who live their lives in fear miss out on all of the best stuff.
I can still hear the pianist tickling the ivory and doing a tap dance up a ladder of sound. I can still feel the saxophone blowing kisses on the back of my neck as I cried the blues to the moon. I can still smell the sugar on the streets of Harlem. They smelled like cinnamon buns. Hot and sticky.
I can still remember that hot summer evening in Harlem. It smelled like caramel.
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