The aim is to convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life. To this end, I employ a mode of close narration, a style which places the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text.1
I’d walk the paths I’ve made through Harlem without actually thinking about the act of walking. In the morning I’d bustle down Frederick Douglass or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard toward the express train immersed in private sensory exchanges with the buildings, streets, and neighbors I felt were an extension of home. It was all a matter of proximity to the familiar, and what you allowed to become familiar, and then what became routine when exchanges settled.
Up early, I was among a small group of neighbors around Strivers’ Row who worshipped dawn. We all tended to have Southern heritage and so I think the early shrill of yard birds was in our blood. On either avenue, I knew their names, the names of their dogs, and the buildings or townhouses in which they lived. If it were the sea we all stuck out our heads from familiar shells. And if I didn’t see a neighbor after a long while, I knew (we all knew) the blocks we shared were changing.
Looking back, I realize that I was the sum of these everyday exchanges. That we had grown to share the same sense of cordiality and humor, that we felt Harlem similarly and that we were extensions of one another. I realized that as I witnessed Harlem, Harlem witnessed me. For example, Mr. Billie was a retired truck driver from Macon County, Alabama, who reached out to shake my hand one morning as I made my way to work. He never spoke his last name, the “Mister” was enough.
Mr. Billie appreciated the consistency of my presence each morning and the fact that I was then a professor. He was one of innumerable elderly black men (coffee cups in-hand) who stood on Harlem corners during the early morning like attendant figures guarding ancient temples on causeways named after black men. Their eyes passed along the bustling avenues slowly as if in remembrance of histories they understood not to speak or take lightly.
My parents are from Alabama and so we talked a lot about Alabama (which I knew very little of). He shared his migration story and I shared what I knew of my parents’ migrations. I didn’t know where he lived but I knew where to find him and he knew when to find me. He’d told me once that he had a daughter back home but, to me, the other men his age standing along the avenues seemed to be his only family.
When men like Mr. Billie pass away you see their photographs on makeshift posters taped to lampposts near where they held court, where a good word was always spoken to children and the aspirant young. The day I saw Billie’s Xeroxed portrait on the lamppost where we’d spoken the day before, I understood his passing as part of a larger feeling of Harlem’s erasure. The neighborhood was changing, and for all of Mr. Billie’s compassion and grace, I wondered who would speak for him. Who else could call him a friend or say they had saved some scrap of paper or grace he’d shared? Who amongst this phantom crowd had learned these lessons? When he was alive I never thought of Mr. Billie as dispossessed, but he was. Proximity can engender the blindness, and routine can become the performance of that blindness, here, to the fragility of others.
What I have remembered in this essay about Mr. Billie is but a small and fragmental contribution to a larger archive of his life that exists in my dreams. Seventh Avenue in Harlem was renamed after Malcolm X and not its elderly attendants, like Mr. Billie, who made Harlem’s gentrifying avenues a form of home. And mine was not necessarily a wayward life but New York is a wayward city dependent, it seems, on erasure to remake itself. Is it Marcus Garvey Park or Mount Morris Park? Is it Harlem south of 125th street, or SoHa? I didn’t think to save the makeshift poster of Mr. Billie (how could I dare take it? He belonged to everyone who knew that Harlem). Instead, I’ve tried to keep the narrator close to what I remember of Mr. Billie, and that Harlem. It is a small contribution to what I hope is a larger archive, that, if it does exist, may not be recognized as such.
- Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019) page xiii.