Harlem a city that defines joy and pain in a single sentence

It is summer in the US, days are long and hot. The temperature is in the high thirties and the sunset is around 20h00 in New York. The long-hot summer nights culminate in a beautiful mood within the city particularly in Harlem. Harlem is a sprawling part of New York with predominantly African American communities. There are a number of anticipated impromptu street parties and picnics along the alleyways of Harlem over the weekends this summer. The municipality of the city of New York Has issued notices to residence in Harlem warning them of street closures due to these events. Beautiful sounds of music from passing vehicles and aspiring disc jockeys reverberate everywhere. Harlem was and still home to some of the greatest artists, sports and political personalities including Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Keith Sweat etc. The Apollo Theater renowned for introducing many great talents into film and music fraternities still stands on the busy W125 Street on Harlem. Masjid Al Shabbazz where the legendary civil rights activist Malcolm X once preached is also located in Harlem. The city is black, in its beat and its entire sociocultural and political complexion. It epitomizes the African American culture and indeed the disappointing black development in the US. Poverty, unemployment and drug addiction stare in the faces of all who come to visit Harlem. There are also hundreds of African American men and women whose youth aspirations refuse to leave their ageing bodies. There is widespread renegation of adult responsibilities, in mannerism and civil duties. However over and above that, Harlem is also poetry in motion. The ability of Harlemites to express themselves using the choicest of words is mesmerizing. Individualism depicted in style and color command the busy streets of Harlem.

Let me hasten to emphasise that African American community in the US is not monolith, different cultures and influences characterizes their diversity. My experience in Harlem is not by a long short definitive of the general African American condition. The African Americans from North, South, West and East bring wealth of different inheritances into the cultural mix making it one of the most dynamic and creative cultures on earth. It is that imagery which the US exports to the world, it is that which drives many Africans to dream. The African American imagery sends a powerful message to most Africans outside the US that “you too can make it”. Moreover it sometimes “provide reprieve and certain privileges to some Africans in diaspora”. Many affluent Africans use the African American imagery to access privileges which would have ordinary eluded them in those countries. African Americans serve as reference points for many people around the world and indeed set the yardstick, television, film and sport play an important part in that regard.

However there is a certain stuck reality that exists in the US pertaining to the conditions of African Americans, this is more pronounced in Harlem. Poverty reigns supreme in Harlem, it is further exacerbated by rampant health challenges. Harlem is awash with outlets that sell cheap food laced with excessive sugar, salt and other preservatives. This has led to an increased numbers of obesity and other lifestyle diseases such as Diabetes, Hypertension etc. According to the New York City health authorities East Harlem has 13% of obesity. Having said that, the city is slowly resuscitating, gentrification has resulted in the revival of its economy and indeed social scenes. Wealthy Americans from various backgrounds are investing in Harlem, they are buying apartments and starting businesses. Many poor around the world have condemned gentrification, however most Harlemites seem to be welcoming the change in their neighborhoods.

Finally, over the years Harlem has experienced the arrival of new immigrants from Africa, mainly from Senegal. Their arrival has turned the city into a melting pot of cultures. However there has been a growing schism between the new African immigrants and African Americans. There is a strong feeling of superiority complex from the African Americans over African immigrants. This is “notwithstanding the fact that the majority of African immigrants own businesses and by all appearances are better educated than many African Americans”. Second, there is a feeling that the African immigrants are scooping economic opportunities meant for African Americans. Indeed there is a sizable number of small black businesses in Harlem that are owned by the new arrivals. This has given rise to the undercurrents of xenophobia.

I will conclude on a personal note. I leave Harlem having mixed feelings. Harlem and its people represented something different to me as a young person growing up in Soweto, South Africa. That feeling lingered for a while before coming to Harlem.



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Thembisa Fakude

Senior Research Fellow Africa Asia Dialogues, Johannesburg, SA Research Fellow Al Sharq Forum, Istanbul, Turkiye Columnist, Middle East Monitor, London UK.