As I walk through the cold towards the subway on this Sunday, wrapped up in my heavy coat and woollen scarf, I am filled with apprehension. I am on my way to Harlem to attend a contemporary African American church service at the First Corinthian Baptist Church. In my naivety, I envision a Harlem of the 1970s- one of urban decay. As a bunch of white folks, will we be welcome? Are we a moving target for harassment? As we all settle into the hot, stifled carriages of the subway, I grow more nervous. I undo my coat to stop from sweating. When we reach our stop and walk up the stairs to 116th Street, we are greeted by the sun’s warmth. It is as if God is saying ‘You are welcome here in Harlem. Come.’ I relax immediately and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As we make our way to the Church, we are greeted by the ushers, big friendly smiles on their faces, as if we full-time members of the congregation.
As we take our seats, I am reminded of the Revivalist service that Maya Angelou recalls in her book ‘I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings’. Filled with wonder, I take in the scenery and sit in the dress circle, eager for the ‘show’ to begin. I am not disappointed. A service full of encouragement, celebration and tools to live your best life possible. The key message I took away was- be free. The only person watching you is God.
After the service, we are taken on a street tour covering the locations of the authors we have studied for this trip. Cedric and Marissa were our guides, who shared their wisdom, knowledge and their passion for literature as we walked the sun-kissed streets.
While we walked along West 120th Street, Cedric suddenly stopped and stood on the steps of number 58. This, he proudly announced, was the New York residence of the great Maya Angelou. He then gave us a wonderful reading of her poem ‘Still I Rise’.
Like the poem itself, Cedric delivered a performance that varied from playful and defiant, comical and angry, self-assured and bitter. And like Maya herself, the last lines: `I rise I rise. I rise’, were triumphant. I think we were all taken by surprise of Cedric’s execution of the poem and we all burst into applause at the end.
Cedric and Merissa then chatted about the connection between Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Maya started writing her autobiography simply because Baldwin dared her too! I found this great video of Maya and James together.
Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot there, myself included, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering. During the tour, we heard about how much Harlem has changed over the last 50 years. What was once a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity, now due to the gentrification of the neighbourhood, Harlem is being remade and transformed for wealthy white people. Is this the end of Black Harlem? Walking around, I could still feel her soul. She still has her heartbeat. As we walk, we see someone preaching in the middle of the street. A man is working out at the traffic lights. Boys in their bikes ride past shouting `Welcome to Harlem!’.