They took the road in Waycross, GeorgiaSkipped over the tracks in East St.LouisTook the bus from Holly SpringsHitched a ride from Gee's BendTook the long way through Memphis third deck down from Trinidad wrench of heart from Goree IslandA wrench of heart from Goree island to a place called Harlem. Harlem was a promise of a better life where a man did have to know his place simply because he was Black
Thus starts Harlem the poem- book by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers. It feels like we are reading two stories, one in text and the other through images. This father-son collaboration brings alive the cultural renaissance that was Harlem. The book details how the people were brought over from Africa to the plantations of America where they then ran to a promise of freedom within it called Harlem.
A child in the balcony. Illustration by Christopher Myers from the book Harlem
Originally a Dutch settlement Harlem has been a refuge and home to Afro-American slaves and runaways who spent many a harrowing year in the plantations of the South. Deep from Alabama, Georgia and St.Louis, they came in droves with the song of their ancestors on their lips to a place where they did not have to justify the colour of their skin. Set in the Harlem of the 1920's and 30's the book talks of the citizens of Harlem whose genes were filled with music. They sang songs they had heard as children, with a rhythm that now intermingled with new found freedom to set the foundation of the music hub that Harlem was set to become. It was not a sound of softness and elegance, but one that contained the primal sound of survival. Hoarse, strong and true - unlike any that had been heard before.
Children played, while the grown-ups listened to Ray Charles and Joe Louis. Storefronts served as church pulpits, while street corners saw the birth of the jive and choir singers. Music echoed and bounced from pillar to building. Mothers made collard greens and other soul food hummed tunes, as they did; they sounded like backup singers for bands. The streets and homes, the activities that form the business of living were all done through the lens of the music that uplifted and made life worthwhile. The book captures the milieu of the day where rent parties were in vogue. The tenants of Harlem got bands and musicians over, at the end of which they passed hats to the party attendees to collect money for their rent. The poet says that the even the wind and the birds stopped to listen to the music of Harlem.
Young men passing notes, checkers playing on the street, someone singing a soulful tune at the corner of the street, all add to the atmosphere allowing the reader to experience Harlem better. The poet ends the book with the following strain:
Place, sound, Celebration, Memories of feelings, of place. A journey on the A train that started on the banks of the Niger and has not ended
The A train was the subway that ran through Harlem and was made popular by Billy Strayhorn in his jazz signature note with the Duke Ellington band.
Walter Dean Myers, winner of The Coretta Scott King Award for African-American authors five times had this to say of Harlem and his other collaborations with Christopher Myers:
Christopher Myers (left) and Walter Dean Myers (right)
Our books are tools, journeys that can be taken again and again, and upon which one will discover new things each time. Explore the book with a child or with yourself the way you imagine you would explore a rich land you haven't visited before; eat the food, haggle at the market, then write home and tell people what you see.
Harlem is a Caldecott Honour Book. In its review of Harlem The Publisher's Weekly noted:
This is by no means an easy book-most of the allusions, if not the poem's significance itself, will need to be explained to children-but its artistic integrity is unmistakable; the effort its presentation to young readers may require is worth it.