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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Nobody Loves a Genius Child

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension… I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness… The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, 1845

In these scant lines, Frederick Douglass succinctly describes the ongoing crisis of the Black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves — often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation. If you want to hide something from a negro put it in a book. Douglass knew from experience the compound oppression of being poorly fed and poorly read, but also of having to stand Black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else Black was around to have your back. When the windchill factor plummets that low, all that can steady you is the spine of cultural confidence and personal integrity.

This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside the culture’s communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as “the Black familiar” has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the cross­roads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or the Boogie Down Bronx.

Dull unwashed windows of eyes
and buildings of industry. What
industry do I practice? A slick
colored boy, 12 miles from his
home. I practice no industry.
I am no longer a credit
to my race. I read a little,
scratch against silence slow spring
afternoons.

— LeRoi Jones, “A POEM SOME PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO UNDERSTAND,” from Sabotage

To read the tribe astutely you some­times have to leave the tribe ambitiously, and should you come home again, it’s not always to sing hosannas or a song the tribe necessarily has any desire to hear. Among the Senegambian societies of the West Africa savannah, the role of praise singer and historian is given to a person known as the griot. Inscribed in his (al­ways a him) function is the condition of being born a social outcast and pariah. The highest price exacted from the griot for knowing where the bodies are buried is the denial of a burial plot in the com­munal graveyard. Griots, it is decreed, are to be left to rot in hollow trees way on the outskirts of town. With that wisdom typi­cal of African cosmologies, these messen­gers are guaranteed freedom of speech in exchange for a marginality that extends to the grave.

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The circumscribed avenues for recogni­tion and reward available in the Black community for Black artists and intellec­tuals working in the avant-garde tradi­tion of the West established the precon­ditions for a Black bohemia, or a Blackened bohemia, or a white bohemia dotted with Black question marks. Re­markable in the history of these errant Sphinxes is certainly Jean-Michel Bas­quiat, posthumously the benefactor of a loving and roomy retrospective at Vrej Baghoomian gallery. When Basquiat died last year at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose he was the most financially suc­cessful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud. Besides affording an opportunity for reappraisal of Basquiat’s heady and eye-popping oeuvre, the exhibition in­vites another consideration of the Black artist as bicultural refugee, spinning be­twixt and between worlds. When the fire starts to burn, where you gonna run to? To a well without water?

Given the past and present state of race relations in the U.S., the idea that any Black person would choose exile into “the white world” over the company and strength in numbers of the Black commu­nity not only seems insane to some of us, but hints at spiritual compromise as well. To be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope, making your precarious existence a question of bal­ance and to whom you concede a mort­gage on your mind and body and lien on your soul. Will it be the white, privileged, and learned or the Black, (un)lettered, and disenfranchised?

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.

—LeRoi Jones, “leroy,” from Black Art

Spooked, dispossessed, split asunder by his education, his alienation, and his evolving race-politics, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) sought to perform an exorcism on the learning he’d done at the laps of white men, vaccinate himself against the infectious anxiety of influence that came with investment in that knowl­edge he’d codified as Western. But we can say that African history and the history of border crossings made by Black artists and intellectuals from this country’s ear­liest founding to the present have blurred, blotted out, and disrupted any proprietary claims the Eurocentrists among us would care to make on the languages of ethics, aesthetics, and logic. In light of the mounting evidence of anthropologists and archaeologists and the revisionist scholarship of peoples of color, there is no province more in danger of dwindling to a vanishing point than that of “white knowledge.” Increasing the store of human knowledge has been everybody’s project since the beginning of womankind. The idea that the human brain first began functioning in Europe now appears about as bright as Frankenstein’s monster.

What remains, however, is the en­trenched racism of white-supremacist in­stitutions bent on perpetuating, until their dying breaths, that popular fantasy of slaveholders and imperialists that the white man represents the most intelligent form of life on the planet.

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No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the “serious” visual arts. To this day it remains a bastion of white suprem­acy, a sconce of the wealthy whose high-­walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Man­hattan, or a feature in the pages of Art­forum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean­-Michel Basquiat, something of a fucking joke.

My maternal grandfather used to say, Son, no matter where you go in this world and no matter what you find, somewhere up in there you will find a Negro. Experience has yet to prove him wrong, especially where the avant-garde is concerned. In Wilfredo Lam we had our Cubist adventurer. Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and LeRoi Jones bopped heads with the Beats. The British Invasion got vamped on by Jimi Hendrix while Arthur Lee and Sly Stone were spear-chucking protopunk and funk into San Francisco’s psychedelic Summer of Love. Bad Brains reclaimed Rasta and hardcore rock and roll from the punks. And we won’t even get into separating the Black aesthetic inspirations for all these movements, or raising up the counterhegemonic monu­ment that is Black cultural difference.

What’s often as exceptional as the artistic talents of the aforementioned Black crossover acts is their genius for cultural politics, the confidence and cunning with which they established supportive bases for themselves in white circles of knowl­edge, power, and authority. Nobody loves a genius-child? Basquiat, lonesome fly­boy in the buttermilk of the ’80s Down­town art boom, was hands down this cen­tury’s most gifted Black purveyor of art­-world politics. He not only knew how the game of securing patronage was played, but played it with ambition, nerve, and delight. Like Jimi Hendrix he had enor­mously prodigious gifts and sexual cha­risma on his side. He was also, to boot, another beneficiary of being the right Black man in the right place at the right time. Eric Clapton attributed Hendrix’s whirlwind ascendancy in the English rock scene to his arriving just when the scene was in desperate need of some new blood. The blues and soul boom was decaying. Hendrix, Black and from the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock, was extraordinarily fluent in all three styles, could whip up a frenzy from the stage like Dionysus on a tear, and was a preternatural innovator besides. The question with Hendrix is never why him, but how could the British rockers resist?

There is a sickness to the black man living in white town. Either he is white
or he hates white, but even in hating, he
reflects, the dead image of his surrounding…
There is a sickness to the black man in white town, because
he begins to believe he can beat everybody’s ass, and he can,
down there, where each man is an island, and the heaviest bomber,
throwing down tnt can establish some conditional manhood in the land
of the dead, in the country of the blind.

— Ameer Baraka, “Poem for Religious Fanatics,” from Target Studies

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The period of ferment that produced Basquiat began on British soil and was then transplanted stateside. 1981 the number, another summer, sound of the harmolodic drummer! Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs. But just as the classic blues, rock, and soul cats were the romanticized fig­ures who made the very idea of a Hendrix seductive to the Mods, it was the invigo­rating folk culture of the graffiti writ­ers — operating at a subterranean remove from the art world that made them all the more mysterious, manageable, and ulti­mately dismissable — that set the salon stages and sex parlors of the postmods up to be bedazzled by Basquiat. Phase II, Daze, Crash, Lee, Blade, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Fab Five Freddy, and Ramm-­El-Zee. These writers and others might have tunneled their style wars out of “Afrerica” (© Vernon Reid) and into the gallery affairs of the snooty, the elite, and la bohème, but it would be the Haitian boy-aristocrat with the properly French name who’d get to set their monkey-ass world on fire.

Jean-Michel is the one they told you must draw it this way and call it black man folk art, when it was really white man folk art that he was doing. That’s what he draw… white man folk art. He does not draw black man folk art because they told him what to draw… They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means scribble-scrabble. Un­readable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down and that’s what he draws, bro­ken-down imagery.

— Ramm-El-Zee, B. Culture, No. 1

I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude ar­chitecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses or mag­azine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together; ev­erything is a 32nd of an inch off.

— David Hammons to Kellie Jones in Real Life, No. 16

Negative gesture can be just as impor­tant as positive thrust. Indeed I got a richer sense of this characteristic of his work when I showed Basquiat a quick sketch I made of one of his works, Unre­vised Undiscovered Genius of the Missis­sippi Delta, a painting of Southern Im­ages, and all he would say was, “You forgot to cross out CATFISH.”
— Robert Farris Thompson, catalogue essay for Basquiat’s 1985 Mary Boone exhibition

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Clearly, Basquiat’s conception of mak­ing it in the Western art world transcend­ed those of the train-writers. To Bas­quiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even col­lecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of the major critics, museum curators, and art histori­ans who ultimately determine such things. What he got for his grasping for immortality from the gaping mouths of these godheads was a shitload of rejec­tion, (mis)apprehension, and arcane or inconclusive interpretations. That he re­fused to let the issue of his genius die on the spent pyre of his accumulated earn­ings reminds me of some cautionary ad­vice I was given by filmmaker Haile Ger­ima: “Whenever white people praise you, never let it be enough. Never become satisfied with their praise, because the same power you give them to build you up is the same power they can use to tear you down.”

By all accounts Basquiat certainly tried to give as much as he got from the Amer­ican art dealers, critics, and doyens, most effectively in the end by his sustained levels of production, excellence, and irre­ducible complexity. Though we can cer­tainly point to racism for the refusal in certain quarters to consider Basquiat a serious painter, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Basquiat, like Rauschenberg and Warhol, his brothers in canvas­-bound iconoclasm, made paintings that were unrepentantly about American cul­ture. There is a strain of Europhilia among our art historians and critics that is as uncomfortable with American art­ists looking to this culture for subject matter and vernacular as they are with artists holding the celebrity of household names. Looking to the uncertainty and reticence that abounded — and still abounds — in so much writing about Stu­art Davis on down through Robert Rauschenberg, Bob Thompson, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Alison Saar, and Jeff Koons, it seems that the surest way to be con­signed dilettante-hick status, ruining your chances for fawning art-historical hagiography, is to act as if you thought the United States was spilling over with the stuff of Art.

That Basquiat, like Bearden, made work that was unmistakably and vehe­mently about being a Black American male did not help matters any. Basquiat was as visually fascinated as anybody in our culture by cartoons, coon art, high-­tech, and the idea of private ownership. References to these elements are con­stants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of­-conscious shopping list, pointing up our daily overdose of mass culture’s effluvia. But he also gave equal attention to ex­huming, exposing, and cutting up the nation’s deep-sixed racial history, in all its nightmarish, Neo-Expressionist gory. If you’re Black and historically informed there’s no way you can look at Basquiat’s work and not get beat up by his obsession with the Black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat, and popular entertainment. No way not to be remind­ed that lynchings and minstrelsy still vie in the white supremacist imagination for the Black male body’s proper place. (Any­one doubting the currency of this opinion need only look to the hero’s welcome Spike Lee got in see-a-nigger-shoot-his-­ass Bensonhurst or to Robert Hughes’s New Republic “review” of Basquiat’s death in which he defames the brother by calling him the art world’s answer to Ed­die Murphy.)

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In the rush to reduce the word games found in Basquiat works to mere mimicry of Cy Twombly’s cursive scrawls, we’re expected to forget that Basquiat comes from a people once forbidden literacy by law on the grounds that it would make for rebellious slaves. Expected to over­look as well that among those same peo­ple words are considered a crucial means to magical powers, and virtuosic word­play pulls rank as a measure of one’s personal prowess. From the perspective of this split-screen worldview, where learning carries the weight of a revolu­tionary act and linguistic skills are as prized as having a knockout punch, there are no such things as empty signifiers, only misapprehended ones.

Basquiat’s exhausting lists of weights, measures, numbers, anatomical parts, cuisine, and pop icons function as autop­sies on forms of knowledge, reading the historical entrails of literacy and numer­acy for traces of their culpability in the subjugation and degradation of Black people. In so many paintings it seems Basquiat is on a mission of retribution against the Anglos’ precious and allegedly value-free banks of information, here gutting the store of numbers for racking up the surplus-labor of human chattel, there looting the warehouse of words for legis­lating the difference between slaveholder and savage. Similar abstract historicizing can be found in the work of Basquiat contemporaries, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Conceptualist photographer Lorna Simpson, and performance art collabora­tors Alva Rogers and Lisa Jones.

All of which is one way of reading Bas­quiat’s wordiness. But remember that this is also an artist who began his public career, roughly around 1978, as SAMO©, a street-level graffiti writer of non sequi­turs. The tag, spoken twice, is Black slang for “the same old shit” but also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo. Poised there at the historical moment when Conceptualism is about to fall before the rise of the neoprimitive upsurge, Basquiat gets the last word and the last laugh during ’70s conceptualism’s last gasp, pronouncing the brute shape of things to come by way of the ironic, sardonic slur he’d chosen for a name. Having a voice, giving a name to new things, multiplying and refracting meaning were always a part of Basquiat’s survival game and image-making procedures.

So Basquiat enters the field as a poet. Truly, many of his paintings not only aspire to the condition of poetry, but invite us to experience them as broken-­down bluesy and neo-hoodoofied Symbol­ist poems. Often the cerebral pleasures of his work are derived from sussing out the exquisite corpses he’s conjured up through provocative conjunctions of words and images. One painting entitled Catharsis is a triptych whose left panel abounds with symbols of power drawn on what appears to be the inside of a subway door: a crown, a clenched Black fist, a circus strongman’s barbells, a model of an atom, and the word Radium. On this last we find the vowels scratched out to pro­duce the Jamaican patois term Ridim or rhythm, another radioactive source of energy. The middle panel lumps the words liver and spleen with throat and positions the term il mano, Italian for “the hand,” between the thumb and forefinger of a limp and possibly blood-­drained hand.

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Things get more active again in the ­right panel. The top left half is dominat­ed by a leg with a dotted line cutting across the base of the foot, over which reads Suicide Attempt, an inscription that invokes race memories of the risks undertaken by runaway slaves as well as the tragedy of urban dance-floor guerillas without feet to fly their escapist maneu­vers. (Much has been made of Basquiat’s ruder street-connections, but his links with hip-hop are high-handed deploy­ments of scratchnoise, sampling, freestyle coloring, and bombing the canvas.) Named and labeled throughout the rest of the panel is a plethora of other de­tached or phantom limbs, four left paws, two thumbs — a dissection chart whose mix-matched labels for animal and hu­man body parts speak to the fate of the captive Black body as much as the energy sources surging through the first panel allude to the Black body in motion, bion­ic and liberated.

Just as diagrammatic and zig-zag with meanings is Wicker, where the scratched-­up name of Black boxer Henry Arm­strong is boxed into a rectangle crowned by the words buzzer and bell. Nearby hovers a Romanesque figure with exposed intestines and a tag indicating its bladder. The boxing anecdote forms a parenthesis around a text all about the bestial body work done to the image of Black men. On one side of the painting a speared elephant is being levitated, his (he has tusks ) physique branded with a black band like that used on TV reports to keep the interviewee’s identity protect­ed and disguised. Implanted into the elephant’s hide is a tacky Instamatic cam­era. Floating around the right side is one of Basquiat’s patented Black-ghost fig­ures, this one materializing out of the urbanized jungle of a willowy potted plant in a wicker basket.

In juxtaposition these images hit us as loaded symbols: of Western man haunt­ing the wild with his voyeuristic technol­ogy, and of Black spooks haunting the living spaces of the privileged with their irrescindable presences.

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The one thing Vladimir Nabokov said that left a lasting impression on me was that the only thing a writer has to leave behind is her style. When people ask Miles Davis what he wants from a musi­cian, he usually croaks, “Somebody who can play a style,” by which I’ve always thought he meant a musician with a unique sound and a personal way of turn­ing a phrase. The best contemporary mu­sicians to come through the academy of Miles have developed styles that enfold emotion and intellect into a captivating species of lyricism. Like any of those mu­sicians, or like Baraka’s poetry in his Dead Lecturer, what’s finally so compel­ling about the Basquiat corpus is the in­divisible meshing of style and statement in his sui generis tones and attacks.

Initially lumped with the graffiti art­ists, then the Neo-Expressionists, then the Neo-Popsters, in the end Basquiat’s work evades the grasp of every camp be­cause his originality can’t be reduced to the sum of his inspirations, his associa­tions, or his generation. For all his refer­ences to pop America and the gestural vocabulary of the late-modern American Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat’s signature strokes dispossess themselves of any value but that of being in a Basquiat painting. He has consumed his influences and overwhelmed them with his inten­tions, leaving everything in his work a map of his imagination and intellect. In the same way that the music made by Miles’s bands always sounds like orches­trations of Miles’s trumpet-persona, Bas­quiat’s paintings read as hieroglyphic en­sembles that glow with the touch of his hands and the unmistakable sign lan­guage that evolved out of his free-floating psyche.

But can’t you understand that nothing is free! Even the floating strangeness of the poet’s head? The crafted visions of intellect, named, controlled, beat and erected to struggle under the heavy fin­gers of Art.
 LeRoi Jones, “Green Lantern’s Solo,” from The Dead Lecturer

You are the only very successful black artist…
I don’t know if the fact that I’m black has something to do with my success. I don’t believe that I should be compared to black artists but rather to all artists.
— Basquiat to interviewer Isabelle Graw

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In the November issue of Elle there’s a Peter Schjeldahl essay about Basquiat and the Baghoomian retrospective in which the critic attributes Basquiat’s sig­nificance to his difference from other Black artists: “Most work by non-whites in the New York mainstream has been marked by a tendency, mordantly popu­larized by Spike Lee in School Daze as ‘wannabe’: a diffident emulation of estab­lished modes, whether already academic or supposedly avant-garde. So I would not have expected from a black artist Basquiat’s vastly self-assured grasp of New York’s big-painting esthetics — gen­erally, the presentation of mark-making activities as images of themselves in an enveloping field… I would have antici­pated a well-schooled, very original white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.”

In a recent Sunday Times essay about African-American artist Martin Pur­year’s first-place award in the São Paulo Bienal, Michael Brenson asks, “Why is he [Puryear] the first black American artist to be singled out for international attention?” To Brenson’s mind the an­swer boils down to Puryear’s difference from other Black artists: “Part of what distinguishes Puryear from many other minority artists is his lack of defensive­ness about mainstream American art. He remains something of an outsider, with one foot outside the mainstream, but he has one foot comfortably within it as well. Many blacks feel too alienated from the mainstream, or too angry at it be­cause of its continuing failure to make room for black artists.”

Taken together these two opinions pre­sent us with quite a conundrum. Whom can we trust? Schjeldahl, who believes that Black artists can’t make the grade because they’re trying too hard to be white, or Brenson, who thinks they’re too busy being Black, mad, and marginalized to take notes during art history class or keep up with the “mainstream” (read white, male, upper-middle-class) art world? But of course I’m being much too coy and polite.

What’s wrong with these patronizing and patriarchal pictures is their arrogance and presumptions. Most of the se­rious Black artists I am familiar with know as much about art as any of their white contemporaries but would certainly have no interest in proving their Black­ness to satisfy Schjeldahl or in taking a quiz from Brenson. In trying to help oth­er white men figure out by what freakish woogie magic Basquiat and Puryear made it out of Coontown and into Cracker Heaven, Brenson and Schjeldahl regurgi­tate two very old and very tired ploys. Divide-and-Conquer is what we call one, One-Nigger-at-a-Time-Puh-Leeze names the other.

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The cold fax is this: the reason that Puryear’s work came before the judges in São Paulo, and thereby under Brenson’s scrutiny, is because of Kellie Jones, the first Black female curator with the un­precedented clout to nominate a Puryear and have it mean something to the art world’s powers that be. Before we can even began to appraise Puryear’s excep­tional talents we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned Jones in her exceptional historical position.

In every arena where we can point to Black underdevelopment or an absence of Black competitiveness there can logically be only two explanations: either Black folks aren’t as smart as white boys or, racism. If the past 20 years of affirmative action have proven anything it’s that whatever some white boy can do, any number of Black persons can do as good, or, given the hoops a Black person has to jump to get in the game, any number of times better. Sorry, Mr. Charlie, but the visual arts are no different. Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of devel­oped artists than a need for popular criti­cism, academically supported scholar­ship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.

During the furor that arose around Donald Newman’s “Nigger Drawings,” I recall hearing talk in the art world de­manding to know why Black people should expect to be exceptional at any­thing else just because they were so good at music. If the Eurocentric wing of the art world wants to remain a stronghold of straight-up white-boyism, one has to sus­pect it’s because the white-boyists want something they can call their own. This might be understandable if they didn’t already own every fucking thing under the sun and made no bones of dehuman­izing the rest of us to maintain hegemony.

The bottom line for people of color is that we don’t need any more Basquiats becoming human sacrifices in order to succeed. We don’t need any more heroic Black painters making hara-kiri drip can­vases of their lives to prove that a Black man or woman can do more with a tar brush than be tainted by it. What we need is a Black MOMA, or, Barr-ing that, a bumrushing Black MOMA-fucker. ■

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Channeling the Abolitionist in Frederick Douglass Now

The first three words of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo show, Frederick Douglass Now, currently running at the Irish Arts Center, sound as if they might have come from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass’s bestselling 1845 autobiography. “I am a fugitive slave,” Smith solemnly intones. But he then races away from any definable source material, continuing, “I live underneath the Hollywood Freeway or the Brooklyn Bridge somewhere, under the rainbow of my coalition kept warm by blazing barrels of trash scraps from the canefields and the fast-food establishments.” In this feverish speech, he offers a phantasmagoria of African-American experience, speeding from overseers to O.J., from the Underground Railroad to Rosa Parks, from chitlins to crack—”a nightmare called history.”

Following this tumult of prose, Smith exchanges his words for Douglass’s, reciting the abolitionist’s letters, speeches, and newspaper columns. This includes a powerful missive Douglass addressed to his former owner, Thomas Auld. Though couched in civil language and closing with an invitation to enjoy Douglass’s hospitality (“I should esteem it a privilege to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other”), it also reveals Douglass’s grievance and rage as he attacks Auld for the treatment of his brothers and sisters, yet unfree, and ends pointedly: “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”

Smith has performed this piece for nearly 20 years; occasionally, it shows. When he portrays Douglass, he sometimes seems detached from the material, merely repeating well-rehearsed gestures and phrases. But in the play’s first speech and in the concluding section, in which his words move from speech to chant, from chant to song, he gives an effortful, forceful performance. As Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

In A Boy and His Soul, at the Vineyard Theatre, actor and writer Colman Domingo describes his own struggle: coming of age in ’80s West Philly amid backyard barbecues, Jheri curls, and Good Times. This is a world that Frederick Douglass enabled—would he have celebrated or reviled it?

At the beginning of the show, an adult Domingo returns to that Philadelphia home, preparing it for a real estate showing. He finds the house in disarray, looking “like a worn-out ho after Fleet Week.” Yet once he descends to the basement, he makes a welcome discovery: a cache of soul records. The albums flood him with vivid memories of his youth and of the music that sustained him. As he plays different tracks, he assumes the voices of his parents and siblings, and of his own adolescent self, laboring to accept his sexuality.

A Boy tells a slighter tale than Frederick Douglass Now, but Domingo is a delightful performer, and his insights into music’s pleasure and solace are compelling. Back in New York and victim to depression, he finds succor in these old records: “I’ll just keep a song in my heart like Mom says and keep on moving,” he declares. No struggle, no progress—sure. But what good is that, Domingo might ask, without soul, without joy?

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Speech & No Debate

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Culture Project shows are created more or less equal, that they are endowed by their creators with certain unalienable qualities, that among these are political engagement, leftist sentiments, and the pursuit of happiness—or at least self-congratulation.

Rebel Voices, adapted by Rob Urbinati from Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History of the United States, proves no exception. Like past Culture Project shows based on first-person accounts, such as The Exonerated
and Guantánamo, Rebel Voices features actors portraying the disenfranchised before a wholly sympathetic audience. (Sometimes, famous actors—Wallace Shawn, Lili Taylor, and a mess of Redgraves—are slated to appear.) On a bare stage, six performers and a guitar-toting singer recite excerpts from some of the most powerful speeches the powerless have uttered.

As the actor (Tim Cain) playing historian Zinn explains, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong. That the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of jail. That the wrong people are in power, and the wrong people are out of power.” This piece attempts to give voice to the voiceless. But it isn’t very rebellious: Who today (and certainly who in the Culture Project audience) doesn’t cheer Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass? Who would side with the villains of the piece, those attacking civil-rights sit-ins or busting unions with bullets?

Which isn’t to say that we don’t need reminding of the history of civil disobedience or the defiance of unjust laws. But the play doesn’t offer much to challenge our entrenched positions. It would be stronger if it included a few more authentically contrarian viewpoints, like Malcolm X’s call to violence or Eugene Debs’s belief that we ought not participate in World War I.

Adapter Urbinati, who co-directs with Will Pomerantz, hasn’t done much to shape the speeches. He does provide one nice scene where three ’30s female union organizers overlap, and he splits an Allen Ginsberg speech in two, but he makes few structural interventions. And while the staging is relatively clean, he and Pomerantz haven’t established a consistent style among the actors: Some strive to portray characters, others simply declaim the speeches. (The songs, performed by the charming Alison Moorer, are an unfailing treat.)

In the final speech, all the actors take turns reciting the words of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Rebel Voices wants to show progress, but where’s the struggle?

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Bland on the Run

There was certainly nothing wrong with the doro wett ($14). In fact, it was superb. A thigh and drumstick floundered in the thick and spicy red sauce, and the submerged mystery hump turned out to be a boiled egg. No utensils here, so we wrapped our fingers in the spongy flatbread to bludgeon the egg into edible pieces, and wrench bits of chicken from the bone. After devouring the dish, we held up our hands and cackled—they were stained blood red like a murderer’s.

Our foursome was chilling in the city’s newest Ethiopian restaurant, Zoma, at 113th Street and Frederick Douglass, in a neighborhood recently dubbed SoHa (“South Harlem”) by real estate developers looking to sell shiny new condos. Zoma’s interior is relentlessly modern, with none
of the mesob basket tables or walls plastered with rugs and touristic gewgaws that were once standard in Ethiopian restaurants. Rather, a discreet collection of anthropological artifacts are displayed museum-style on bone-white walls, including silver jewelry and wooden neck pillows. A well-lit bar glows eerily on one side of the darkened room. While Zoma
rarely seems to pour the Ethiopian honey wine called tej, there’s a list of Western wines
with mercifully low mark-ups, including a pleasantly aggressive Ravenswood Zinfandel that usually runs $11 in liquor stores. Zoma charges a modest $21.

Alas, nothing else on the menu can quite match the spice-intensive thrill of the doro wett. Though nicely prepared with wholesome ingredients, many selections suffer from a mind-numbing blandness in a cuisine that relishes hotness. A stir-fry of lamb tidbits, called awaze tibs ($15), arrives dry and not tasting much like lamb. “Awaze” is a complicated red chile paste, and the dish had none of the heat or subtlety that it usually confers. And what happened to the cardamom-scented butter that accompanies this dish at Washington, DC, Ethiopian spots? Maybe Mayor Bloomberg has declared SoHa a fat-free zone. Prepared the same way with chicken, doro tibs is every bit as blah, and so is Zoma tibs, which commits the same crime with beef. Besides doro wett, the best thing on the menu is gomen be siga ($13), a tasty swamp of collard greens and stewed beef. It succeeds admirably, maybe because it’s not supposed to have any kick.

A good dining strategy at Zoma is to order the generous vegetarian combo ($17), which includes any four of the seven flesh-free main courses found on the menu. It easily feeds two. The art of vegetarian cooking is especially advanced in Ethiopia, since the Coptic Christians there observe 40 fast days a year, in which no fish, meat, or poultry may be consumed. The best of the seven-dish collection is buticha, a concentration of cool starch that tastes like cookie dough. A kinky cousin of hummus, it’s made of chickpea powder flavored with lemons, purple onions, and olive oil. Despite the presence of jalapeños, it’s not hot. The other highlight of the sand- and brick-colored heaps is misir wett, an elastic puddle of red lentils that tastes engagingly of ginger and cloves.

For the tender-tongued, for vegetarians, and for wine lovers, Zoma is something of a boon. But for anyone who craves the intense spiciness of Ethiopian food, Zoma can be real estate hell.

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Gettin’ Dibi With It

Despite the dwindling number of Senegalese street vendors peddling knockoff designer handbags and counterfeit watches, the city’s stock of Senegalese restaurants continues to grow, especially in Harlem’s Little West Africa. There are now five on the two-block stretch of West 116
th Street between Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, and a few more on the adjacent avenues. Newest is Dibiterie Cheikh, which advertises French-West African Cuisine on its awning. The compact premises are located across the street from the city’s grandest Senegalese eatery , Africa Kine, which boasts such unexpected amenities as a ballroom, a coat check, and a carryout window, situated on two floors connected by a sweeping stairway. Why on earth would you want to go to Dibiterie Cheikh instead?

In Wolof, the language of Senegal’s dominant tribe, “dibi” refers to any dish of grilled lamb. Combing French and Wolof, “dibiterie” signifies an open-air chophouse that specializes in lamb roasted over charcoal. The Dakar yellow pages lists six, and now New York has one, too. Named after proprietor Cheikh Goumbal, Dibiterie is the usual bare-brick box we’ve come to expect from West African restaurants. True to form, there are two humongous monitors, both tuned to CNN. Among other things, these are intended to help West African immigrants with their idiomatic English. Pictures of Senegalese marabouts—Muslim holy men—dot the walls.

Predictably, the dibi ($10) is awesome. Rather than serving lamb chops, as other Senegalese and Ivory Coast restaurants do, Dibeterie hacks irregular hunks of lamb from the leg, flame-blackened morsels that include bits of skin and bone. The taste of this locally sourced halal meat is far superior to anything you’d find in a midtown brasserie. The humongous entrée comes with salad, a small plastic cup of vinaigrette, and rice decorated with tomatoes and onion relish. The same mustard-laced relish accompanies the fried or grilled pink snapper ($12), served whole, and it also smothers the roasted chicken. Sure, the half-chicken is commendably crisp and greasy underneath the relish, but even better is the pintade ($10), a roasted guinea fowl that’s mainly dark meat, with a more assertive flavor. Choose french fries, white rice, or fried plantains to go with your main course.

Big news: Dibiterie Cheikh has broken the appetizer barrier. While most West African restaurants eschew first courses, Dibiterie provides two: fataya ($5), four small half-moon empanadas stuffed with kippered herring, accompanied by a fiery Scotch bonnet dipping sauce; and nems, Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with beef and vermicelli. Why Vietnamese? These rolls were brought to Dakar by Vietnam War refugees in the early 1970s. Back in Saigon, pork would have been the preferred stuffing, but these spring rolls remain otherwise faithful to the originals.

While dinner at Dibeterie is mainly French-leaning entrées, lunch is reserved for tribal fare. The midday menu swarms with oddities rarely seen before in local eateries, including caldou (diced fish in okra sauce) and domoda (lamb cubes in spicy tomato sauce). Alas, only two or three items are typically available per day, always including the national dish of cheb ($9), a vegetable-intensive spin on paella. Recently, I enjoyed thiou (“chew”), a fish fillet in a dense sauce that incorporates orange yams, potatoes, and caramelized onions. It was so tasty, I resolved to visit often enough to try all 11 luncheon entrées.

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Oh Shito!

Real estate makes strange bedfellows. I rediscovered this quintessential New York fact one Friday afternoon when I decamped the No. 2 train at 110th Street, as Christo’s orange curtains were flapping alarmingly in a high wind, tangling themselves on their stanchions, causing uniformed munchkins to run around using tennis balls on long poles to dislodge them. I’d gone on one of my periodic checks of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, onto which the city’s premier African strip has begun to spill, after turning the corner on 116th Street. There was a new Senegalese bank, a store selling products from Guinea called, logically enough, Guinean Store, and Salimata, a halal café of indeterminate nationality. In the center of the action was Florence’s Restaurant. The pulled-tight lace curtains signaled an African eatery, even without “African American Food” stenciled on the windowpane.

I stepped inside to find a lively lunch scene: a dozen African men animatedly conversing in a tribal language, allowing a few English words to slip in from time to time. Needless to say, the premises were unprepossessing, a combination of neatness and clutter, with boxes oozing palm oil—a very good sign—stacked on opposite sides of the room, threatening to topple and inundate the kibitzers in odoriferous red oil. What a surprise when the menu was presented—not only because there actually was a menu, but because it contained both Ghanaian and Ivory Coast fare. That’s a pair of strange culinary bedfellows if ever there was one.

Also in contrast to other West African restaurants, most of the things on the menu were available. I requested omo tuo, a mash of white rice. Soup choices included palm oil, okra, spinach, egusi (crushed melon seeds), and peanut. Like a kid craving a peanut butter sandwich, I dove for the latter, with goat as my meat option ($9 together). Proud of my mash-eating technique, I picked up a wad of omo tuo with my right hand, dipped it deep into the soup, then launched the bolus mouthward.

On several subsequent visits, my crew and I explored other mashes, which ran to banku (fermented cassava meal), yam fufu (mild and lovable), and waakye, a mushed-up mingling of dirty rice and black-eyed peas, forerunner of Jamaican rice ‘n’ peas and African American hoppin’ John. The menu also featured Ghanaian snacks, including kelewele ($3)—sweet plantain slices with a salty, fishy rub. But it wasn’t long until we were deep into the Ivorian side of the menu. Many of the choices seemed to exploit the overlap between Ghanaian and Ivorian food, including okra and peanut soups, which are designated gombo frais and arachide, respectively.

Côte d’Ivoire’s national dish, attieke poisson braise ($10), is a whole sea bass smothered in a dice of tomatoes, onions, and green chiles. The cassava stodge called attieke comes on a separate plate, tender and slightly sour grains of white cassava meal. Lapping the sides of the fish were two condiments. The pungent, dryish one of smoked fish, ginger, and chile I recognized as shito (“sheeh-toe”). The other looked like a darker version of applesauce, cool and refreshing. I asked the cook, who was doubling as the waiter, what it was. “That’s shito too,” he replied, a twinkle in his eye. So now you know what I know—shito comes in at least two distinct varieties.

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Jayson Blair Comes to Harlem

Harlem, U.S.A., March 12—Jayson Blair has come to Harlem on this Friday evening for one reason: He thinks we can keep them away. The disgraced and highly former New York Times reporter spent the past week hawking his falling-down memoir—sparring with Katie Couric, jousting with Larry King, crying the blues to Chris Matthews. But for his first public book signing—and his only one in New York—he’s come to Hue-Man Bookstore, the self-proclaimed nation’s largest black literature vendor, to avoid “a circus.”

A media circus, that is. Who knows what angry journalist would be camped out in the midtown Barnes & Noble, coiled somewhere between Military History and Self-Help, waiting to strike? But here, on the sacred ground of 125th and Frederick Douglass, where the Magic Johnson Theater serves up fried chicken, where Old Navy planted the flag of “the New Harlem,” Jayson Blair has home field advantage, and he knows it.

You aren’t allowed to speak.

He is joking—halfway at least—with a reporter from The Globe and Mail. Seated at a table covered with African-print cloth, he is way more comfortable than he should be. An older black woman stands up to laud his prose. A well-dressed gentleman asks him to speak on the influence of religion in his life. Blair taps a pen to his head as he ponders each question, puffs out his cheeks, and laughs while he recasts himself as anything that isn’t a liar—press critic, mental health advocate, soldier for 12 steps, and most importantly for us, the guy who’s now willing to stick it to the Man.

As if titling his tell-all Burning Down My Masters’ House were not enough, he flashes his hood pass on the first anecdote of the night. This would not be the one where he realizes his editors have found him out, or the one where he beds the Gray Lady and takes her for all she’s worth. No, this would be the one where he claims to have realized that the Times is a bastion of liberal racism. It happened while he was covering a woman’s murder in Central Park. He sat back and watched, horrified, as the story got bumped from page one to the Times‘ nether regions, once editors found out she was black. In the audience, a young woman with braids, adorned with red, black, and green beads, shakes her head and sucks her teeth, and this is the signal. Jayson Blair has been brought back home.

Granted, there’s a litany of reasons for barring him at the gates. Of all the Negroes who’ve left us shaking our heads with that old refrain—had to be a brother—Jayson might be king. We should castigate him for not heeding the lesson of Janet Cooke, for embarrassing us in front of white folks again, for adding the weight of his tired black ass to the cross we bear. Tell Jayson I want to kick his ass, a journalism professor hisses when she hears about his Harlem appearance. But we are still black, and thus are bound to miss no opportunity to offer a middle finger to the Man. Everyone thinks O.J. did it, but we’re vindictive. Washington mayor Marion Barry was re-elected specifically to furrow George Will’s brow. Spite, not forensic evidence, makes us take Tawana Brawley at her word. What would we be if we did not back the dude who laid the Times low?

The book has an interesting title, someone says. I’d like to know, were you the house slave or the field slave?

The house slave. Can I tell you why? I just got sick of having this conversation about how racist the Times was.

Blair laughs out loud again—I can’t believe I just called myself a house slave.

But we can. This is what we came for—dispatches from the Big House, confirmation that it was neither coke nor crazy that brought him down, that it was the lord of our sorry world, the scourge of our days, the one who rages against us as sure as storms and unites us in enmity—the White Man.

For sure, there are many beautiful things that bring black people together—words like “dig” and “dap,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” an affinity for serious feminine curves, mac and cheese baked hard, chicken fried harder. Then there are good hair/bad hair, gaudy suits, ugly jewels, and, of course, a hatred of white people. A man can’t come into the world with a decade shaved off his life and not hold someone accountable. Show me your favorite Negro, corporate in a three-piece suit, killer golf game, mastery of every angle of the queen’s English, his wife’s blond hair shaking down to her shoulders, and I will show you a man who in his most private moments curses and sucks his teeth over a lost promotion and utters the phrase that puts us all on the one—Goddamn, I can’t stand these white muthafuckas.

Jayson is too smart to play his race card that overtly. Even his book mitigates fairly mild racial critiques with a host of other factors. But he knows that Fuck Whitey is our primordial note. And so, tonight, he sings:

I was told by my parents that I would have to work double as hard, triple as hard.

Nods.

Some of the worst e-mails I got were from white guys telling me I had no right to date a white woman.

More nods.

I do think there is a white backlash and it’s primarily from people in the old boys network. Look, there are people who don’t have credentials to work on a daily in my parents’ home town working at The New York Times.

On the verge of amen now.

I’ll be like Moses, if you let me.

Awkward pause.


Later that evening, he walks up Frederick Douglass Boulevard and steps into Revival, an upscale black joint sitting in the shadow of the projects.

A young woman at the restaurant bar stops him. You look familiar, she says. Did you go to Howard too?

No, I’m Jayson Blair.

Ooooohhhhhh . . .

Our hero is halfway through dinner now, weighing an appearance at this year’s National Association of Black Journalists convention, which tonight’s reading has somehow made him come to believe will not end in tar and feathers. There’s no Fuck Whitey talk now. He’s explaining why he hasn’t called former Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, an African American who lost his job in part over the Blair affair. He admits he’s scared, but otherwise demurs—You have to be ready. Then the older lady from Hue-Man appears. She wants to say how much she enjoyed his reading. She glances at the tape recorder on the table, and even though it’s no longer running, she knows what this is.

I like him, she says, meaning Blair, and for the record.

Of course she does. It’s elderly black women who most need the new Jayson’s appeal. It is they who’ve carried so much, who’ve worked the third job, who’ve raised other people’s kids, who’ve watched their men come up lame, shaky, and short. Now, more than any of us, they’re desperate for champions. Now they pledge fealty to anyone who seems ready to stick it to the Man, instead of his kids. But Jayson knows those two things are never mutually exclusive. He managed to stick it to us all.

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The Harlem Shuffle

If you don’t know better, it’s easy to swallow the hype about boom time in Harlem. There’s all that stupendous real estate, for one thing (“Gracious Living! Strivers’ Row! Hamilton Terrace! Convent Avenue! 12-room landmark mansion! 65-foot-long parlour floor!”). There’s the prospect of national retailers taking the plunge. There’s an authentic new supermarket with miles of aisles, the prospect of a cineplex, and of Uptown falling into the Gap.

But scratch a federally funded empowerment zone and you find the old bedrock economics: housing projects with the greatest per-block population density in Manhattan; prairies where apartment houses once stood; food banks and a median family income of about $18,000. Poverty stands out a little more starkly at Christmas, of course, and there’s very little that defines the lot of the low-income better than a Christmas queue for discount goods. All along 125th Street last week, people were lined up to buy cheap sneakers, VCRs, layaway furniture, and kiddie toys that are mostly cellophane and box. It didn’t look like any Harlem Renaissance.

It wasn’t with a naysayer’s urge that a reporter found himself in the neighborhood. Rather, it was in an optimistic frame of mind. To swipe the legend from one of graffiti painter Brett Cook-Dizney’s spray-painted murals: “I LOVE THIS PLACE.” As foreign tourists but relatively few New Yorkers know, there’s not much around to compare with the heady feeling of walking Harlem’s broad avenues, with their high stoops and handsome brownstones and proliferated sectarian churches and abundance of sky. There is the palpable sense of neighborhoods not occupied by overpaid transients but by people whose taproots go deep. Not every person in Harlem would have remained there over the years given the choice. But it doesn’t always seem as if calculations for the latest Harlem resurgence factor in the continuing presence of people who’ve been around a while.

There are a lot of old people, in other words, living in rundown housing on fixed incomes. One of them, godmother to a good friend, can actually recall taking meals with Langston Hughes. You probably couldn’t find 10 people on 125th Street today who remember Doug E. Fresh—the goofy ’80s rapper who now hosts the Wednesday Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater—much less the man once described as the “best-known black poet in America” and whose Simple stories were in certain ways the definitive narratives of 1950s urban black life. But she can.

And it was she who reminded a visitor how it was Hughes’s character, Jesse B. Semple—a kind of skirt-chasing boulevardier—who helped create a certain weirdly enduring image of Harlem. It’s the Harlem of slick pimps and jitterbugs and conked hair, of ripe-figured women in the bias-cut dresses those Gap-ad swing dancers are attempting to ape. It’s Harlem pre-Shaft, pre-Black Power, pre-Nicky Barnes’s gang cutting smack deals at the old Monarch Bar. It’s a romanticized place—one that came to mind when the city unveiled plans last week to redevelop Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 110th to 135th streets.

On December 10, Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields revealed a plan to allot $2.5 million from the city’s capital budget to support development revitalizing this important and long-ruined corridor. She also disclosed that an additional $1.5 million would go to restore a traffic rotary at the northwest tip of Central Park. Fields told 150 community leaders convened at the State Office Building on 125th Street that “Frederick Douglass Boulevard is the central north-south corridor in the community. It is the backbone of Harlem.”

Harlem’s Cinderella story is easy to get carried away with. “Emerging from the ashes,” as a Times reporter recently put it, Frederick Douglass Boulevard is the “warted stepsister, abandoned in the ruins.” It bears remembering that this particular development coach has turned into a pumpkin before. Equally, it’s worth noting that, amid those warted burned-out buildings, one of Jane Jacobs’s most profound observations has been proved true. That is, old buildings need new uses.

Far from remaining the Harlem of Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 110th to 125th streets has metamorphosed over the past decade into the backbone of an entirely different neighborhood. To switch metaphors, it’s become landfall for a population of immigrants, mainly African, who got their economic start here opening beauty salons, nail parlors, restaurants, and the telephone calling centers where the accents of Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Ghana, and the Congo can be heard every day.

The number of boarded-up buildings on the boulevard still nearly outstrips the inhabited ones. But interlarding the empty lots—a whole east side stretch from 112th to 114th streets has been razed—you’ll find blocks with groceries selling fufu flour, yam flakes, and concentrated palm oil. You’ll find restaurants called Le Worodougou and La Marmité serving the French-inflected cuisine of the Ivory Coast. You’ll find delis where you can buy loosies and videotapes of Les Stars D’Abidjan.

Although the scope of the Fields plan extends north to 135th Street, a traditional beachhead of black Harlem, that part of the plan doesn’t quite lend itself to renewal since most of the area is occupied by housing projects that, while run-down, aren’t exactly depopulated. It’s the southern corridor that Fields may have in mind when she states that the plan “will send a powerful message that the second Harlem renaissance has deep and permanent roots in the community.” It’s not hard to imagine this part of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, with its tantalizing adjacency to the park, reconfigured as a northern extension of Central Park West.

The Fields plan grew out of a study commissioned from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; it frankly favors corporate partnership and what appears to be the creation of housing capable of supporting downtown-scale rents. What’s not clear is whether the plan is another instance of city-backed carpetbagging, or what, if anything, it provides for Harlem’s old-timers or for those immigrants who have done so much to keep the place alive. “I don’t know anything about it,” cabbie Jean Christophe Diawara said last week as he stopped to return videotapes at a Senegalese-owned grocery store. “But I wouldn’t expect to,” he added with a shrug. “On the street, we’re the last to hear.”