A Black Brit Heads to Brooklyn

New York City

New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

Well I’d be lying if I said my trip to New York had gone according plan. It’s fine though, I didn’t have a plan to begin with.

I merely had the time off work from Thurs eve, and had to be in Washington DC 3pm Monday afternoon. When I arrived in The Big Apple and what I did was pretty flexible.  My plan consisted of catching up with old, beloved friends, and seeing Black New York. You see, while some may sing the Sinatra track when drunk, my friends (and fam) were more likely to do Ja Rule and Fat Joe impressions.  Until Jay-Z and Alicia Keys paid musical homage of course.  So cos I’m like, special, for me they might as well call New York Malcom X-town.  As for years I’ve grappled with his ideas, and had his words lift my head, (and having done all the ‘sights’ 10+ years ago on a school trip) I wanted to see the Malcolm X museum, or get closer to him somehow when I was in his hometown.

Before I fell in love with Malcolm X’s intellectual offerings (post-Nation of Islam split you’ll understand) there was Zora Neale Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the big novel by the Harlem Renaissance‘s arguably brightest female star. That book that let me know that living life on my terms was okay. That being fortunate, or considered fortunate should be liberating, not mean I should be bound by others’ ideas of success. The story that told me that a happy ending for a black girl like me might include a prince, but the story was ultimately all mine. Nella Larsen also wrote Passing about that phenomenon in New York.  Marcus Garvey lived in New York. Langston Hughes and the whole Harlem Renaissance took place in New York! It’s in the name!!  Hip Hop was born in New York.  And having detested the city on first visit (too-high expectations) and keen to spend some time in a big international city, I was determined to give New York a second chance.

Aware that I’d been in a majority-black region for the previous six months, I didn’t want to be overly culture shocked as I found myself suddenly a second class citizen again as an ‘ethnic minority’. As such, I wanted to make sure I was situated in a New York locale where my skin colour wouldn’t mark me out as foreigner so much as my thick South London twang, or what ‘foreigners’ call my cute British accent. As I must be the only person with Caribbean roots who doesn’t have family in New York (although I do have family in Miami…) I thought I’d check out the New York equivalent of London’s Brixton. Someplace where I wouldn’t stick out cos there’d be loads of black people, and where I wouldn’t feel too much like a fish out of water as there’d be loads of Caribbean people. Somewhere that I could afford to stay on my very limited budget, but not so rough that I wouldn’t feel safe as a young woman travelling on my own. Musing over this over a Piton Shandy in St Lucia, a St Lucian New Yorker recommended Brooklyn, and more precisely Bed-Stuy.

After stumbling off the Long Island Rail Road and into Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn on a freezing cold Friday night, I wandered into my accomodations, found courtesy of AirBnB.  Not one to miss a minute, I dumped luggage and wandered into the streets to find food and get my bearings.  As hoped, Bedford-Stuyesvant was Caribbean enough to not give me a dose of culture shock so strong I’d want to hide under warm covers until I had to leave for DC.  Most importantly, I got a feel for home.

While I’d been out of London for half a year, in Brooklyn I found an ethnically diverse, inner-city neighbourhood, more Brixton than my native Lewisham, but nevertheless an international city with friendly people, positive vibes and good public transport.  I liked-y. And I appreciated the Chinese take-away for dinner too; only in the inner-city do you get those heady ‘give the people what they want’ mélanges so though I went for a straight-Chinese dish, as the establishment was half-Chinese half-chicken shop, all sorts of fried chicken mixes were available. It was like hearing the Eastenders Theme song after a year in Thailand.  Glorious.

Coming from ‘France’, I hadn’t been able to get a UK-US adaptor so first stop was Radioshack.   Caribbean accents abounded but I soon discovered that in America, Guyanese accents sound Bajan.  And a young white person fixing a shop’s door might blatantly and rudely ignore the staff of that shop until the manager is called.  Deep.  Ali’s Trinidadian Roti shop for lunch, and then off to the Schomberg Center, the 135th St (Harlem) branch of New York’s Public Library, and which had been recommended to me by every person I’d spoken to ahead of the trip.  While not quite what I expected, it was definitely worth the trip.  I’d been on their mailing list for the previous 2 months in the hope that I’d get a feel for the kinds of things they did, and what I might be able to do/see once I actually arrived in New York.  This tactic paid dividends as an event simply titled Women and Hip Hop was taking place that very weekend.

As well as being amazing in terms of content; there was a short film ‘Who’s That Girl?’ which saw uni students male and female talking about the ho’s and video girls as opposed to ‘girls like us’ oooh it was so interesting!  And then finding out about projects I had and hadn’t heard about; Black Girls Rock I’d heard about, Breaking The Silence, I hadn’t.  Then there was the Gender Amplified project and music production festival (upcoming autumn 2013 if you’re a girl and gonna be around) which just sounded fantastic.  They also had live performances from female MCs (I fell in love with Genesis Be) and a panel discussion.

Now, being interested in hearing what people have to say about things that interest me, I quite like a good panel discussion.  Chaired by the inimitable Martha Diaz, founder of New York University’s Hip Hop Education Center, I learned loads.  Not just about the projects which sounded innovative, exciting and positive about women and hip hop, but also that despite the over-exposure to their culture which can make us a bit dismissive about them, actually Americans are people too.  And black Americans seemed to have many of the same issues that black Brits do; gentrification destroying communities, progress that looks more like ethnic cleansing, same issues of poverty/unemployment/police brutality of 30 plus years ago, but less societal interest in them as they pertain to black people, inertia caused by class conflict within the black community, lots of talk about black community and leaders, but lower levels of community activism, etc etc.  Like in the UK, it’s a proportionally small number of people who care and take action on the issues they care about, so the number of people at the event was about the same as a similar event in London.

It was also very interesting to find that I was wearing the ‘right’ clothes, despite being a foreigner and unaccustomed to such low temperatures; ‘4 degrees?!  I can’t even remember what that feels like!’ I lamented to my best friend upon discovering the temperatures of New York in March.  Nevertheless, my uniquely customised Reebok Jouvert trainers were very popular ‘original’, as was my funky natural hairstyle ‘done in Martinique’.  In the Caribbean I dress like a Londoner in the tropics, in New York apparently, I dress like a local.  Very curious.  My mum once said that wherever I go I always seem to find people who are exactly the same as me (like it wasn’t a good thing) and among all these well-educated American black women (although there a number of men it must be said), who loved hip hop (some who were a bit older than me and proper came of age with it long before it went mainstream, rather than discovering it via my big cousin religiously taping and making me watch Yo! MTV Raps with him as was my experience) and hearing the impassioned debates and the laughter and reminiscing, I felt right at home.

I was in Harlem for the first time, on Malcolm X boulevard at that, but I could have been at the Southbank Centre, at the Albany, or the Tricycle Theatre. Any of my old London haunts.  As in London, there were snacks so the debate could continue once the panel closed, and as in London, there was hummus,  tzatziki, carrot sticks, celery sticks, grapes, pineapple chunks, strawberries, peppers and cheese.

I am able to detail this for you because I was so amazed by the similarities right down to the food served, that I took a picture which I’ve just referred to.  It wasn’t just the type of people I ran into at my kind of event, but also my knowledge of appropriate conduct on public transport.  When a large loud white American party got on the subway, and one of the mum’s stood on a seat to better see her progeny, the woman sitting opposite shook her head and rolled her eyes at me ‘foreigners’ she communicated without words.  I know I nodded back, recalling countless times some non-Londoners unfamiliar with appropriate public transport etiquette had revealed themselves by being over-excited about getting on a train, or some other gaffe easily identified by the well-trained eye.

Having donated generously via the bookshop, and had a number of interesting conversations, I then went off to meet a friend for dinner, as I would have done a million times in London.  Re-entering mainstream Manhattan, I left Harlem for a cramped Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side with a twenty minute wait for a table for 2 but very nice food, and thanks to the friend, a native New Yorker who’d left London 5 years ago but who I still missed cos she’s awesome, great conversation.  Catching up with a good friend you haven’t seen in 5 years can be a very strange thing but there’s nothing like an Earthquake In A Fishbowl as was offered by Sugar and Plumm to tackle between you to make it a delight and a pleasure.   Yes they could have also named it a heart attack in a fishbowl, but it’s a dessert-ery, and the word sugar is in the name. They are not trying to fool you.  And what I managed was delicious.  The evening ended with a stroll through Central Park and I was sleepy if not all gossiped out when I headed back to Brooklyn that night.

The next day included a trip to downtown Brooklyn, which was frankly not that exciting, but I did get to see the Shirley Chisholm State Office Building replete with plaque.  Lunch in a shopping mall with good company was nice but I’m more of a small family-run restaurant kind of girl.  Which another old friend who’d also skipped shores a couple of years ago (and came all the way from Boston to see meee!) provided that evening.  After scouring the internet for a black bookshop in Brooklyn (cos I didn’t spend enough at the Schomberg Centre you see) and then Fulton Street itself, I headed back to Manhattan for another fabulous evening with a fabulous friend.  The food was less amazing, but the vibes of the restaurant were nice and my friend explained the comedy show scam (which was great cos I almost fell for it).

My final run-in with Black New York took place when I returned from the DC to DC Roadtrip (a post of it’s own).  I finally found the Malcolm X museum which I’d hoped for, and although I didn’t get to the African Film Festival which was taking place at the Lincoln Center, I did get to see Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem the day after it came out.  The Malcolm X museum I simply knew must exist does, but you need to google the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Centre to find it.

In short, if you’re in New York, make the trip.  While it’s not the Natural History Museum in London, or Newseum in Washington DC, it is nevertheless definitely worth the trip. I learnt loads, and was more than a little freaked out (more on retrospect than at the time) about seeing the spot where Malcolm X was actually gunned down; the centre’s home is the Audabon ballroom building and there’s a display around the room as the space is still used for talks and lectures as I understand it.  An afternoon there and I came back with an even more pronounced Malcolm X appreciation/obsession, as well as a new respect and understanding for Dr. Betty Shabazz.

As I like food and I like talking about what I’ve learned, I and the friend with whom I’d shared the visit demanded sustenance and space to think about what we’d seen.  So we got a recommendation for a soul food restaurant whose name entirely escapes me now, but it had a red sign and was on Frederick Douglass Boulevard I think.  And you paid ‘by the kilo’ like with the Brazilians.   Ask a Harlemite, in my experience they’re very friendly.  And artistic!  Every second wall in Harlem seemed to be a mural depicting a little bit of the area’s most famous children.  Although it felt rougher than Fulton Street, I took quite a liking to Harlem. Although gentrification is happening; they have a Starbucks and a number of American chains, apparently it’s not in full swing yet; shops – including Starbucks – still close half day in honour of Malcolm X’s birthday.

Last up on the itinerary was the new Angela Davis movie.  Having heard her speak in London at Capital Woman 2008, and having studied black feminism in A level sociology, I knew God loved me when Shadow and Act told me a film about her life would be on limited released in a selected number of cities three days before I left the US.  If by chance this film did one day make it to screens in the French Caribbean, it was unlikely to be in English.  (I stand corrected:  Free Angela will be screened at both Madiana and L’Atrium at 19h30 Tues 18th June as part of CMAC’s ‘Rencontres Cinemas Martinique’) I jumped at the chance to see it and was not disappointed.  Shola Lynch’s film is great, doing exactly as it promises; it tells the story.  Few of my (black) peers have never heard of Angela Davis, but significantly fewer of us know much more than her name and that she had a huge afro back in the day.  Explaining the link between why Professor Angela Davis’ academic research has been very much focused on the prison industrial complex, the Soledad Brothers, and George Jackson, and why Angela Davis’ case had such international appeal, it also had the action re-enactment bits of when she’s on the run.  I also really appreciated the personal touch; it was a documentary which featured interviews from the judge, her lawyer, her sister, and close friends at the time, and showed archive footage of Davis with her mother.  While I would loved to have seen it with my girls and followed it with drinks and/or dinner, I was just really glad to be able to see it.

So, although it sounds like I spent more time in Manhattan than Brooklyn (probably cos I did) I did have a great time in the city that never sleeps.  From the hours I spent chatting to a street vendor in Harlem to the old friends I caught up with, the Knicks game I saw live at Madison Square Garden, to the Lush shop I discovered in the middle of the night, and the Women and Hip Hop sesh at the Schomberg, I proper enjoyed my time there.  It reminded me of home so much that I decided if I was an American, I’d be a New Yorker.  Which is quite a shift from my first visit after which I declared that I hated New York.

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