September 20th was a night to remember! We just want to thank Camille Rankine, Daniel José Older, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor for incredible kickoff of our new season. Special thanks to Richard Louissant for these sweet snaps. See you on Tuesday, Nov. 15th – details TBA!
FPP spoke with Harlemite, community activist, and writer Charles Taylor about his love for Harlem, growing up in New York City, the killing of his teenage friend James Powell by police and resulting riots, the gentrification of Harlem, and whether locals and gentrifiers can, and should, work together to change gentrification’s course. See Taylor read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.
The title of your eBook-in-progress, Harlem 2 Harlem: Ghettopian Dreams, speaks of two Harlems. What are these two Harlems, and what do they each represent?
For me, the old Harlem represents a place where money was scarce and times were hard, but people came together to find ways to persevere. The Harlem of my youth provided my relatives and many of their neighbors with a life worth living. Of course theirs was poverty, crime and drugs—they were very much a part of the landscape.
Families of the present experience many of the same challenges faced by their counterparts from the past. There was always a socioeconomic divide in the Harlem community. There were the haves and have-nots. The modest-size middle class of my childhood enjoyed a plethora of advantages that made oppression more bearable. But the one thing that they had in common was their blackness—financial wherewithal notwithstanding, they were all still a part of the community and there was a level of begrudging acceptance that transcended class.
The new Harlem represents the ultimate in parallel universe living. As the middle class struggles to regain its economic footing, the poorest in our community suffer from the ravages of extreme poverty. We shouldn’t be fooled by stylish clothes, expensive sneakers and backpacks, and other external trappings valued by low income and working class residents. Many of them are working harder and longer for less and finding new ways to cutback to make ends meet. The real story is in the number of homeless people begging or living on our streets. There are tales to be told by the growing numbers of mentally ill people roaming aimlessly while engaged in lonely incomprehensible conversations. For this vulnerable population, it’s a live and let die existence.
Across the street, around the corner or sometimes next door, sits a gleaming new condo or a quaintly-appointed and refurbished brownstone occupied by newcomers to the community. These mostly white interlopers have grown in number like a chiapet over the last 20 years. Now, white Harlemites make up more than 10 percent of the population. Of course, there are a myriad of challenges when a group of comparatively affluent, culturally different people move into a minority community. There will always be things to work out such as noise levels—opposition to the noisy street life of Harlem as represented by the constant sounds of music and drumming across the blocks.
The most worrisome thing about the new Harlem is the stark and growing divide between the newly arrived residents and the longtime Harlemites. With gentrification comes a wave of amenities accompanied by cleaner streets, increased police presence, and lowered crime. Some of these benefits can be shared by all, but most of them are reserved exclusively for the privileged. Many people are worried about being pushed out of the community as more urban settlers lay claim to their homeland. I don’t know if that will ever happen. However, my wife and I have recently discussed the possibility of moving as a result of high rent and increased living expenses. We dread the idea, but must consider it as a real possibility. I can only imagine what it must feel like in a household with less income. At least we have options—we can probably find a more affordable place to live elsewhere in the city. If we’re lucky, we can find a way to generate more income and stay where we are. Most Harlemites don’t have these kinds of choices. The average income of a Harlem household is $37,000—barely enough to make ends met for a family with multiple children.
Of course, there is much to be said about the choices presented to various factions of the community—Whole Foods versus Food Town, upscale cafes and restaurants versus Popeye’s and McDonald’s. However, I believe that at the core of the quality of life is green power—what you can afford to buy or do.
In the new Harlem, newcomers hit the trains every weekday morning taking their kids to good schools on the Upper West Side, while most other local kids are stuck in low-performing Harlem schools. Some people have the luxury of living their lives straddling two worlds—home sweet Harlem for the comforts of daily life, and the rest of the city for everything else.
What strikes you most about the way the neighborhood has changed during your time here?
I appreciate many of the changes in Harlem over the years. I never imagined Harlem to be a place where I could enjoy cafes and some of the other upscale amenities. With few exceptions, I can’t buy the clothes I need in my community. I try to support the community by spending my money here—and I can do do that to a large degree. However, I find myself going downtown for many of the important items that I need.
I am concerned about the proliferation of taller buildings. I love the Harlem skyline and the unobstructed view of other parts of Manhattan. I am also bothered by what seems like the filling in of every available space. Now we have super thin buildings wedged between broad, beautiful structures. It’s an unsightly aberration of design.
One of the most unnerving changes is the disappearance of mom and pop shops. As comparative progress moves full steam ahead, the blazing bulldozers displace many of the shops that reliably served the community and offered tourists a taste of our culture. Rent gouging and exorbitant increases are to blame along with deals made with elected officials. On some level, streets and avenues are beginning to look like downtown locations. Along with the many churches and iconic buildings and landmark structures, mom and pop shops are at the core of the community—they are irreplaceable.
How can artists and writers respond to changes like the ones you describe, which can threaten the infrastructure and heart of communities of color?
Writers and artists can come together and engage all members of the community in understanding the vital needs of the community, and encourage them to make a difference. The sharing of artistic expression in all forms is one of the most potent ways to bring people together to share perceptions and opinions in a safe space to find common ground. Artists and writers have to find new opportunities for expressing their art and building a broader audience.
You’re the cofounder of Polarity, a Harlem-based social justice arts collective “focused on redirecting the trajectory of gentrification in communities of color.” What is your response to people who say that “gentrification is an inevitable force?” What work are you doing to redirect the trajectory of gentrification in Harlem?
In my opinion, gentrification is inevitable in that it’s here to stay. That doesn’t mean that the fight is over. We should identify flagrant abuses across the community and mobilize to shut them down or influence the outcome. For example, new housing without a reasonable number of truly affordable units should be vehemently opposed. The work that I’m doing is focused on the people who are living here now—all Harlemites. We seek to establish 1WorldTransition, a social change arts project that is designed to channel the trajectory of gentrification by challenging longtime residents and newcomers alike to collaboratively redirect the flow of sweeping community changes while building a more inclusive and equitable living environment. Through a mobile multimedia living-arts project, 1World will galvanize disparate community factions, examine the pros and cons of gentrification, and collectively determine strategies to reduce its harm and maximize its benefit. 1World will create a vibrant, interactive exhibit that will engage the community in confronting issues, finding common ground, and forging new alliances today for a better tomorrow.
What can gentrifiers do to be more aware of their impact on their new community? What changes would you like to see made to the way gentrifiers behave, shop, consume, and approach education—to name just a few factors—in their new community?
I understand that most of the newcomers can’t go to a hair salon or barbershop in Harlem. They may be hard-pressed to find clothing, furniture or other important items in local stores. However, they can commit to shopping locally whenever possible and attending local events, venues and activities to support cultural and business ventures. Most importantly, newcomers can ignite change in the miseducation of Harlem’s children. They can do this by enrolling their own children in our under-performing schools and then volunteering to make them better. Outspoken, educated parents can be influential in challenging the Department of Education while fundraising for increased school resources. This is a common occurrence at many schools citywide. It is a proven fact that all students benefit from a more diverse educational environment. A key component of creating a “good neighborhood” is the commitment residents have to educating their children. To sum it up, Harlem gentrifiers should start seeing Harlem as more than a convenient commute or an affordable living space—this can never be their home until they do.
Can and should locals and gentrifiers work together? If so, how?
Locals and gentrifiers can work together when gentrifiers decide to get their hands dirty and help address some of the ills that plague our community. Locals can acknowledge that they are short on answers to some of our most intractable challenges. The powers that be, local and city officials and major nonprofits, have not sufficiently met many of the community’s needs. It is time for the diverse residents of Harlem to come together to demand more from our elected officials while also taking matters into their own hands. We can’t be successful when significant swaths of our community are not engaged on either end of the socioeconomic continuum.
Can you tell me about your experiences growing up in, loving, and living in Harlem?
I’ve always loved Harlem. I drew my first breath at Sydenham Hospital on West 125th Street. Many of my mom’s relatives lived in various parts of Harlem. My paternal grandmother was my father’s only relative living up north. The hub of family activity was on 116th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. My great-grandmother owned a small laundry on the block. I spent lots of time there while my parents were at work. We lived close by on 119th Street between 8th and Morningside Avenues in a tenement. My mom’s family was from Long Branch New Jersey by way of Mississppi, and my father was from a mere dot on a South Carolina map—Blackville.
My little sister and I spent so much time on 116th with my aunt, uncle, grandma and cousins and visiting relatives – it kind of felt like we lived there. At one point, we had five generations alive. However, it was not always a bed of roses. We had great family meals and loads of fun, but we also had a subliminal color code that dictated how much attention and privilege each of the children received.
We left Harlem for Staten Island when I was five. I briefly returned to Harlem as a 19-year-old hiding out with my 16-year-old runaway girlfriend. We shacked up in a quasi-abandoned building. This clandestine stint was short-lived.
During my young adult life and beyond, I lived all across the city and for a while, in the southern states reluctantly serving as a soldier. I still had relatives in Harlem, but the numbers slowly dwindled as the years passed. I set off on my big adventure and saw less and less of my Harlem relatives. As my aunts and uncles died, and their children married and moved away, we entered into a benign estrangement. There was no malice intended—on the contrary, we just went our separate ways.
I returned to Harlem years later in 1996. I came back to interview for a job at the Harlem YMCA—blocks from the Savoy Ballroom where my mother and father had danced their hearts out alongside legends like Red Foxx. This was the place where I had created wonderful childhood memories – memories that outshone actual events.
Initially, I was hired as the youth and family director. I was charged with revitalizing the Jackie Robinson Youth Center—once the gem of the illustrious Harlem YMCA. The center was closed for almost 4 years due to financial constraints. The Harlem Y board, and Congressman Charles Rangel, got together and raised over three-and-a-half-million dollars to revive the long-suffering youth refuge. We were off to the races.
After a long separation, I fell in love with Harlem all over again. I worked indefatigably for 12 hard years to build and grow quality programs for youth and families across the community. At the pinnacle of our work, we had programs at 12 off-sites and the main Harlem Y building. I managed more than 125 staff and influenced the lives of countless young people, parents and grandparents. We served more than 10,000 kids and families every year – a monumental, challenging and rewarding undertaking. I eventually oversaw youth and family programs, fund development, public affairs and communications, drug prevention education and a new Americans center. I left it all on the field at the Y.
As the years went by, I began finding new ways to influence the Harlem community and beyond. After being retrenched at the Y due to a downturn in the economy in 2008, I began utilizing the broad network of people that I had developed over the years. I tried my hand at politics for a while—supporting a campaign for city comptroller and another for congress. I worked with numerous local nonprofits and artists to secure funds and resources. I struck out on my own as a development consultant with mixed results. I soon learned that working for oneself is much harder than it seems.
In 2000, I met and married my third, and final wife. My wife, KD, is Japanese. She is a journalist who writes about American culture with an emphasis on black culture. She writes for Japanese print media and also coordinates film shoots. KD also conducts tours of East Harlem, West Harlem, Central Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx. KD came to America as a young woman, learned the language and mastered her craft. She inspired me to be a better man. We adopted a fantastic son, Fernando, now 12 years old, and decided to stay in Harlem. Harlem is now an integral part of our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What past experiences have influenced and informed your work?
Several key childhood experiences helped me develop the kind of empathy and understanding I would draw on in later life. As a child, I was acutely aware how my dark skin impacted all those around me. My lighter skinned adult relatives always talked about my “keen features” and thin lips—another way of saying I was dark with redeeming qualities.
As a small boy living in a strange land, Staten Island, I quickly learned what some white kids saw when they looked at me—something distasteful—something their parents didn’t like. In my first Staten Island home, the Stapleton Houses, one of two little Italian boys about my age hit me in the chin with a well-aimed tomato soup can top. I took my tear-soaked, bloody face upstairs seeking solace. My mom was horrified. My father snatched me by the collar and dragged me down three flights of stairs. He threw me at the boys and told me to fight. I closed my eyes and swung wildly at the boys. He then went and spent money he couldn’t spare to buy a set of boxing gloves. He made arrangements to teach me and the only other black boy in school how to box. My father was a shipping clerk in a coat factory. He was also a very tough former amateur boxer—an unhappy man who only took crap at work. In his real life, he was like a quiet storm. Everyone knew not to mess with Charlie—a nice guy, but a fierce adversary.
When my father thought I was ready, he exhorted me to walk up to a group of white kids on our block and randomly punch one in the face. I received a royal beatdown for my trouble. I accosted the group again and again, until one day, they saw me coming and ran. For the first time, I was filled with confidence. I didn’t have to fight—the bullies went looking for someone who wouldn’t fight back. Most of my former tormentors stayed away from me, but others befriended me.
My beautiful Staten Island housing project, Markham Gardens—stoop, front yard and back yard, like a real home. It was a heavenly place to live. Unfortunately, no one would play with me. The kids in the complex were instructed by their parents to stay away from me—I was the only black kid around. It took almost a year to find my first friend, Richie Riposo, a bushy-haired Italian classmate. We would wave at one another, but could only talk in school. One day, after many tries, Richie succeeded in defying his mom’s order to stay away from me. That was all I needed—the boycott was over. Richie and I played in my yard every day after homework. Soon, other kids joined us and I had a new treasure – a social life. I was just becoming popular when we moved to the Bronx.
I was 10 when we moved to the Soundview Houses in Bronx. It was a racially and ethnically mixed project with equal numbers of black, white and Latino residents. For the most part, the kids in our complex got along pretty well. The community outside the project property consisted of white homeowners who resented our presence. We all shared a fragile peace in a polarized community. Despite the tension, and occasional incident, the road to adolescence was filed with wonderful adventures and extraordinary friendships. Jimmy Powell was one of those special friends.
Jimmy lived in the building behind mine. I used to visit his house often. His mom, Mrs. Powell was a doting parent who treated every child with great care. He was a wise-cracking little guy—skinny with a lot of bravado. I taught Jimmy to box, and he tried to teach me to skate. He was part of my crew. We all had one thing in common—a commitment to squeeze every drop of fun out of each day.
While going to summer school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Jimmy got into an altercation with the super of a building. The mostly black and Latino summer school students were from outside of the ritzy neighborhood in the ’70s. The residents resented having the noisy teens sitting on their stoops and horsing around on their blocks during lunch breaks.
Jimmy and the super exchanged words—the N-word was uttered and the unexpected happened. The super sprayed Jimmy with a water hose and all hell broke loose. Jimmy and some of his friends chased the super into his building, but they couldn’t catch him. An off-duty detective was leaving a TV repair shop on the corner. He saw the tail end of the incident, and began chasing Jimmy and his friends. Two of the cop’s three shots hit and killed Jimmy in front of his classmates and local residents.
Jimmy’s death set off six nights of rioting across Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. More than 4,000 people were involved in the riots which devastated the black community. Hundreds of people were injured and many more were arrested—one person died. It is believed that the Harlem riot ignited other riots in July and August in cities including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. I experienced the harlem riot with a group of friends. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.
It was hard to reconcile so much devastation being connected to the life of James Powell —my skinny little teen friend who should have readily survived the incident that wantonly took his life. Controversy swirled around the incident. The cop claimed that Jimmy had lunged at him with a knife. Par for the course, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, and charges were dropped.
The aftermath of the riot yielded some good things for the Harlem community. An experimental anti-poverty program, Project Uplift, provided thousands of jobs to young Harlemites. This reactionary triage was tantamount to putting a bandaid on a bullet wound, however, it calmed things down for a while. Unfortunately, Jimmy wasn’t around to get one of those jobs.
In my Bronx elementary school, a fifth grade teacher asked my mom why I insisted upon coloring every character that I drew brown. My mom, an accomplished artist, said that she had encouraged me to draw whatever I felt. The teacher said that she understood, but she seemed very uncomfortable with the idea. She had the temerity to suggest to my mom that people came in all colors. I never got an A in that teacher’s class again, even though I could draw better than most of the other students. I didn’t care – I kept making my characters brown. The teacher stopped asking me to share my work with the class.
These childhood experiences taught me volumes about how and why people accept or reject one another—the essence of all relationships. It exposed me to unbridled hatred, unrelenting loneliness, unconditional love, unbreakable friendship, and the power of one person to overcome obstacles and make good things happen.
What is your vision for the future of Harlem?
My vision of the future of Harlem is a community that maintains its cultural identity while embracing newcomers without hesitating to challenge them to become full and active members of the community. I see a community where the focus is on the quality of life for all its members—from the most affluent residing in opulent mini-enclaves to the middle class fighting back against burgeoning rents and reduced services to those scrambling in pockets of poverty, looking for any way out.
The challenges faced by black and brown Harlemites and other people of color in similar communities lead to the same conclusion: We’re stuck between a liberal and a GOP place. We need new ears and hands that will listen to our issues and work with us to make real change.
FPP spoke with poet and Incorrect Merciful Impulses author Camille Rankine about her relationship to New York City, the life, warmth, and character of Harlem, the exhaustion of existing as a Black person in the US, and how poetry can help “open up the world a little bit for each other.” See Rankine read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.
You’re from Portland, Oregon, but you live in Harlem now. How much of your time in NYC has been spent uptown? Can you talk about your relationship to this place? How has the neighborhood changed since you arrived?
I’ve lived uptown for all of my time in NYC, actually. First in Morningside Heights, when I was at Columbia University. Then Washington Heights. And I’ve been in Harlem for about seven years now. Living in Harlem when most of my writer peers are in Brooklyn feels a little like an act of defiance, but I love it here. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, and it feels like a community, which is different from a lot of Manhattan. It’s full of life and warmth and character. It is changing, just like any neighborhood in New York. There are new condos, new restaurants, and, I’ll just say it, a lot more white people. There’s a Whole Foods opening down the street from me next year, which feels very strange, and makes me worry that rents are about to shoot up. But I hope it’ll still feel like Harlem, even after it opens—just with more organic produce.
How has the place you live in entered and influenced your poetry?
I think it’s impossible for the place that I live not to influence my poetry. I don’t know if Harlem, specifically, has affected my work, but I know New York has. It’s been my landscape and my reality for a good part of my life, but one that I never feel entirely at home with, even if it is my home. That’s a little true for me wherever I go, I think, because my parents are immigrants, and I was raised in a Jamaican household. So that tension is on my mind a lot, and I think it appears in my work as well.
In your poem “Survival Guide for Animals Born in Captivity,” in response to the shooting of Mike Brown and the events of the summer of 2014, you write, “The trick is your body itself/ is a violence.” Can you talk about the ways that the body enters your work, particularly the politicized body, the Black body, and the female and intersectional body?
I wrote that poem in the summer of 2014, after deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but I didn’t really write it in response to those events, exactly. I wrote it in response to the fact that deaths like theirs, and the fear that black men and women have of dying at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us—that’s the reality that black Americans have been living in for generations. And that summer, it seemed like the rest of America was just beginning to see that. Black people in America are raised to understand that their bodies will be interpreted as dangerous objects to be feared and mistrusted. And that we have to act accordingly, in order to keep ourselves safe. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and about what it means when your body communicates something you never intended. That’s something that’s been coming into my newer work.
How has your work been going in the wake of the 2016 shootings and ongoing police violence against Black and brown bodies? Are you finding that justice themes are again entering your work, or are you, like (past FPP reader) the poet Morgan Parker wrote in her Instagram feed this summer, “over staying woke,” given how ongoing and relentless the violence seems?
My entire writing life I’ve been writing in the wake of shootings and ongoing police violence against black and brown bodies. This is not new. So I suppose I find writing poetry the same as ever. I don’t know the context of Morgan’s comment on Instagram (though I do know her incredible poem “If You Are Over Staying Woke”), but I imagine what she meant is that she’s tired. And yeah, I’m tired, too. It can be exhausting to exist in a country whose systems of power want you servile, invisible, or dead.
What powers do poets possess to respond to insurgent moments of change in society? How can, and do, poets help the movement towards justice? And do you see this as part of your role as poet?
What I hope for poetry is that by writing it and by reading it we can open up the world a little bit for each other. Audre Lorde said, “We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit,” and maybe poetry can be a part of forming that habit. Maybe by reading each other’s words, we can become more real with one another. We can become more tender. That’s one step toward justice, I think.
FPP spoke with Detroit legend Desiree Cooper, author of Know the Mother, about the plural experience of motherhood, gobbled-up twins, cultural genocide in Detroit and Harlem, and more. See Cooper read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.
In Know the Mother you write flash stories from multiple maternal POVs. Do you consider motherhood a mighty “we”? Would you speak to the tension of “I” vs “We” when it comes to motherhood?
The acts of gestating, birthing, adopting, guiding, mentoring, and nurturing are plural experiences. If you are mothering, you are always “we.” In assuming the role of mother, you must split our consciousness and share your most intimate spaces—body and mind—between often warring drives. What is best for the we is not always best for the I.
I am fascinated by stories of twins in the womb, one absorbing the other. Years later, the surviving twin finds tumors with teeth and hair, remnants of the twin who vanished. This is what happens to so many mothers. If you’re lucky, you remember there’s a “we,” an enumeration of the individuals who make a whole. But motherhood can also produce a royal “I,” where mother and child are enmeshed identities, one living fully, the other absorbed into someone else’s life.
Know the Mother speaks to that tension. But no matter the POV, every story taps into the universal we-ness of a role that is laden with responsibility, fraught with conflict, wrapped in piousness, devalued as instinct, yet necessary for human survival.
Have you ever written anything in first person plural or the “we” voice? Do you embrace or resist such an idea?
The first story in my book, “Witching Hour,” is written in first person plural. It’s about that moment at 3:15 a.m. when so many women’s eyes pop open and their spirits will not let them go back to sleep. I chose that voice because I was so confident that it was a widely-held experience, especially among women.
I think the “we” voice is almost always in my head when I begin to write a story, because I am intent upon illuminating common, secretly-held experiences. As a columnist, I had the benefit of immediate reader feedback that you don’t get in writing fiction. I learned quickly that people are holding their breaths to read something that makes them exhale and say, “I thought it was only me.” No matter what voice I chose to paint a narrative, I’m writing to the we-ness of our experiences.
Detroit v. Harlem
Can’t we make that “Detroit and Harlem?” A few years ago, I was showing an out-of-town guest around Detroit. We hit all the new sights – an award-winning waterfront park, the baseball stadium, the theater district. Suddenly, I was feeling profoundly sad. The pride I always feel for Detroit had fizzled out of the tour. Silence filled the car. Finally, I turned to my friend and said, “I know what you’re thinking: Where did I put all the black people?”
Detroit, like Harlem, is seminal to the history of the African experience in America: the music, the food, the churches, the art, the cars and the rise of the black middle class. Gentrification is not just class war. It’s cultural genocide. Both Detroit and Harlem are losing the battle to keep what’s ours in the face of change.
Urgent advice for emerging writers?
Don’t write alone. That’s like hitting a tennis ball against the wall and thinking that you’re a pro. Share your work, get feedback, listen and consider, then write some more.
What are you reading, watching, or listening to now that others should, too?
I am watching the coming race war and trembling in my sleep. I am watching cities slide into rising seas and wondering why we did nothing to stop it. I’m am watching seismic change in our social structure that I never thought possible. I am watching POC, women and the LGBT communities awaken to a new we.
We should all be hyper-aware, reading, watching, listening…and deciding what part we will play in the new global consciousness.
Oh, and I’m also watching Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, and rejoicing that Oprah got her groove back.
We are over the moon to announce the lineup for our Tuesday, September 20th FPP season premiere: authors Desiree Cooper and Daniel José Older, poet Camille Rankine, and social justice artist Charles Taylor. Join us at 7pm as we kick off what promises to be an incredible season at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem. By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th. As always, admission is free. Bar is cash only.
A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist whose fiction dives unflinchingly into the intersection of racism and sexism. Using the compressed medium of flash fiction, she explores intimate spaces to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Her first collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, was published by Wayne State University Press in March 2016. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.
Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015), which was nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Norton Award and the Locus Award. He co-edited the Locus and World Fantasy nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. His short stories and essays have appeared in the Guardian, NPR, Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, Fireside Fiction, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies The Fire This Time and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel has been a teaching artist for more than ten years. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at danieljoseolder.net, on youtube and @djolder on Twitter.
Camille Rankine’s first book of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, was published in January by Copper Canyon Press. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She teaches at Columbia University, serves on the Executive Committee of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and lives in New York City.
Charles Taylor is a community activist with broad experience across the socio-economic terrain of some of New York City’s most challenged neighborhoods. He persists in reinventing himself to make a difference across time. In the early 1970s, Charles began his great adventure working in the mailroom and front desk, and as an assistant to a literary agent at the William Morris Agency. He toiled as a fashion show and dance promoter in the late 70s. Throughout the 80s, Charles worked to improve Black-Jewish relations in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He also wrote community newspaper columns and produced local cable TV shows that promoted the mainstreaming of disabled people. In the late 90s, Charles co-founded Tru-Skool, a YMCA-sponsored, social-justice focused video project for at-risk youth in Harlem. Over time, Charles collaborated with many community artists to support their projects through marketing, branding and grantwriting. He co-wrote an animated cartoon and comic book “Project New Breed – Robotic Canine Crime-fighters.” Charles co-developed two short films on gentrification, “Slice of Harlem I & II,” under the tutelage of Bill Miles. Charles is a co-founder of Polarity, a Harlem-based social justice arts collective focused on redirecting the trajectory of gentrification in communities of color. He is currently writing an eBook, “Harlem 2 Harlem: Ghettopian Dreams.”
We are thrilled to present the line up for the First Person Plural Harlem Reading Series on Tuesday, April 12th: writers Rosebud Ben-Oni, Amy Fusselman, and Chinelo Okparanta! Join us for this fabulous season finale at 7pm at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem. By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th. As always, admission is free. Bar is cash only.
Born to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review.
Amy Fusselman is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is the author of the nonfiction books The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8, and, most recently, Savage Park. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and Word Riot. She writes a semi-regular column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency entitled, “Family Practice: An Occasional Column by ‘Dr.’ Amy Fusselman.” She was the writer/editor/illustrator of the international ‘zine, Bunnyrabbit, and the editor/contributor of the literary website, Surgery of Modern Warfare.
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel, Under the Udala Trees, which has been widely praised in publications such as Essence, The Guardian, Lambda Literary, The New York TImes, and Vogue. Her short story collection, Happiness Like Water, was cited as an editors’ choice in the New York Times Book Review and listed among The Guardian’s Best African Fiction of 2013. She is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award and an O. Henry Prize. Okparanta was also a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, the 2013 Society of Midland Authors Award, and the 2014 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in Literature. She has been awarded residencies by the Jentel Foundation, the Hermitage Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, as well as Hedgebrook. Beginning in the fall of 2016, she will serve as Tenure-Track Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing (Fiction) at Bucknell University where she has also been named Grange and Rogers Faculty Research Fellow.
Join us 7pm Tuesday night, April 12th, at Shrine for our last reading of the season!
Come out on February 22, 7pm at Shrine in Harlem for an astoundingly great lineup! We welcome poets Sarah Gambito and Amy King, multi-genre writer Hafizah Geter, and inventive sound and video artist Ashley Grier. This reading is a special collaboration with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and features VIDA board members Amy King and Hafizah Geter. We’re excited to link up with this crucial organization! Join us at 7pm at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem. By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th. Admission is free; bar is cash only.
Sarah Gambito is the author of the poetry collections Delivered (Persea Books) and Matadora (Alice James Books). She is Associate Professor of English / Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University and co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American writers.
Hafizah Geter is 2013 Blacksmith House Emerging Writer, recipient of a 2012 Amy Award from Poets & Writers, and a finalist in the Fifth Annual Narrative Magazine Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review, RHINO, Drunken Boat, Columbia Poetry Review, New Delta Review, Memorious, Vinyl, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Hot Street, Pinwheel Journal, Linebreak, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Blunderbuss, H.O.W. Journal, and Boston Review. She was a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship Finalist and a semi-finalist for the 2010 “Discovery” / Boston Review Contest. Hafizah also serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson, is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor at Phantom Books. She is on the Poetry Comittee for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Ashley Grier is a singer, sound artist, and composer from South Carolina. She employs a multidisciplinary approach to exploring identity, culture, and biography. Ashley has recorded and performed with many artists including Adam Rudolph, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Pharoahe Monch. She has performed in many theater pieces, including an original collaborative theater piece, “Unexpected Journeys,” directed by Caroline Jackson-Smith and choreographed by Dianne McIntyre. The piece premiered at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “why i had to dance.” She is a Laundromat Project Create Change Fellow Alum, and holds a B.M. from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Vocal Performance. She is currently an MFA candidate in Columbia University’s Sound Arts program.
Amy King’s forthcoming book, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. Her book, Safe, was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011, and it was reviewed, among others, by the Poetry Foundation and the Colorado Review. I Want to Make You Safe was published by Litmus Press, 2011. Amy King is also the author of Slaves to do These Things, I’m the Man Who Loves You, and Antidotes for an Alibi, all from Blazevox Books, as well as The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press) and Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press). King joins the ranks of Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Barbara Bush, and Pearl Buck as the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women’s National Book Association). She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees, and she received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. King serves on the executive board of VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts.
Join us and these incredible readers Monday February 22, 7pm, at Shrine!
FPP spoke with photographer, poet and painter Rachel Eliza Griffiths about the “‘We’ as a great village of living and dead family”, how Harlem is a “powerful orchestra” and how she took Toni Morrison’s advice to heart in her own art practice. See Griffiths read from her new book of poems Lighting the Shadow at Shrine on Tuesday, Nov. 10th at 7pm!
Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” When I burrow inside of Kahlo’s words and think of my own work, I both agree and differ. I feel alone and yet I do not feel alone when I photograph myself and other women of color. It feels political and powerful to me to challenge my own agency in my images, most especially when I’m photographing myself. I’m compelled to photograph women of color. I’m constantly pushing both known and unknown languages and imagery.
There’s a tension, defiant and complicated, in my own personal perception of beauty. It’s an uneasy one, especially when it comes to bodies of color. I don’t really know why I’ve chosen certain types of imagery – except that it’s instinct and something much older than me – that drives me to photograph black women and myself always in white clothing or why I photographed black and brown women in trees. Years ago I saw it and kept seeing it, had always seen it psychically, and so then I set out to make it ‘real’. But it must have been real somewhere in a place or dimension that is often overlooked when it comes to black bodies. You know Toni Morrison speaks about writing the books she wanted to read and I often feel I apply a similar notion to my imagery.
When did you first pick up a camera? What did you want to shoot? How has this changed?
I first picked up a camera when I moved to New York although I recently found a photograph of myself as a very young child holding a camera quite intensely. So maybe it was already deeply happening back then and only now am I finding the evidence.
I’m also a painter but when I arrived in New York I lived in a woman’s residence on the Upper West Side. My room had a single window that was thin as the width of a matchbox. It faced an elevator shaft. No natural light & certainly no room for easels or even a desk. So I began to walk around the city, endlessly and blissfully walking, and I started to take a camera with me. It helped me train my eye and my art, how to see and to remember textures, people, rhythms, dreams. The anonymity was a refuge. The camera became a witness and a mirror. I photographed anything I found evocative, anything that drew me both out of myself and simultaneously, drew me more deeply into the fluid private space of who I was becoming.
As far as change goes, these days I’m more likely to work inwardly or more conceptually. I’m more likely to spend hours in my studio alone or with models I work with. I work frequently out in natural landscapes. I don’t do as much street photography unless I’m traveling. I still make portraits of writers but less frequently because this current body of work requires so much energy. I’ve also been exploring video as a medium so I’ll set up shoots or record footage as needed. Then I head back to my studio where I edit for hours, cursing at Final Cut Pro.
Truly, I’m excited about some forthcoming collaborative projects with several writers and musicians. These days I experiment in ways I wouldn’t have imagined when I first started shooting. I’ve got some solo stuff that I’m putting together. And actually I’m painting a lot now and beginning to organize my photography archive, which contains thousands of images.
When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?
Since my mother’s death last year I use “we” frequently in my thoughts. From time to time, I’ll even say it aloud. I’ll say ‘we’ and get funny looks. I don’t care. I know it seems crazy to other people but not to me. When I speak and act from ‘we’ there’s a heightened sense of strength and accountability though, in truth, physically there’s just me. The ‘We’ helps me resist giving up when the “I” is too fearful, overwhelmed, weighted, or narrow. For me, I like how ‘We’ acknowledges a great village of living and dead family. When I use ‘We’ I am peopled. The ‘we’ absorbs my ‘I’ and that feels organic to me right now. It could change.
‘We’ also helps me acknowledge the different spaces in which I create. I love how LaToya Ruby Frazier speaks about this and I think, looking back now, there’s a similar notion of my own relationship with my mother and many women of color where I feel there is one, non-monolithic entity and within that single ‘body’ there is boundless nuance, imagination, and action for my collaborative process.
Do you feel called to use the first person plural voice? Does it trouble you?
Like anything interesting or worthwhile, the use of the ‘We’ and ‘Us’ has some tension in it. The plural voice can be troubling in certain contexts. For me, it’s about intention. You know, when I hear ‘We’ used in this country by some people I am deeply troubled because usually ‘We’ is employed as a tool of oppression, division, or power. Some people will say ‘We’ and ‘We’ and ‘We’ and you know (and they let you know by what they aren’t saying) that they certainly do not include and have never included ‘You’. The first person plural voice is a fundamental and complicated device in American rhetoric.
Would you share a cherished memory of light?
The last time my mother called me by my nickname.
What is the first darkness you remember?
It isn’t linear for me.
Where do you feel your feet sink most sweetly into the earth?
Any body of water. Being near or submerged in water is important for my creative process. Some specific spiritual places on this earth: Mexico, Brooklyn, Paris, Provincetown, Northern California, Santa Fe, and the Mississippi Delta.
Do you feel there are places, landscapes that hold you, while others repel?
Certainly, there are landscapes that seem better suited to my moods and imagination than others. There are landscapes that have become, over years, spiritual foundations for me. Travel is critical to my identity and imagination. There are many places I’d like to visit and to explore.
I feel repelled by overly commercialized places when you can feel that a place has been hyper-harvested. I feel overwhelmed in those places. Parts of Brooklyn, where I live, are going through this too. Thankfully, there are sub-radar kingdoms of New York where remarkable streets and half-hidden blocks remain untouched or continue to be perceived, thankfully, by developers, as to be of no value.
What is Harlem to you?
Harlem is chosen family, chosen music, chosen freedom.
What was your first knowledge of Harlem?
I used to take the metro north train at 125th up to Sarah Lawrence College when I was in graduate school. I’d walk around trying not to miss anything. It was impossible. Harlem is a profound orchestra. I’d have a notebook and would try to scribble the rhythm down but it’s beyond paper. The narrative gets made and unmade in every moment. Improvisations, collages, and so much style you can’t even take it except you do because it’s abundant and it leaves you smiling and full, like a meal. I used to go to Harlem often to get my hair braided. And I’d go to the Schomburg or Hue-man Bookstore to take myself out on creative ‘dates’. I’d walk around, buzzing, with all my channels open. I’d think about all of the lineage and pride. What’s so incredible is that you hear the now, the past, & the future all at once. Harlem is sublime. Citizenship in Harlem means imagination, justice, & community, indivisibly. It’s ever a full-bodied song in Harlem. And it’s always so effortlessly cool.
One of my most memorable afternoons, as a young photographer, was working with the late, luminous Walter Dean Myers at Morningside Park. It was one of my very first magazine covers, I think, for Mosaic Magazine. I remember leaving the park, holding my camera and feeling so grateful and so alive. Having been in his presence, even briefly, continues to resonate in me. For several years I used go up to the Harlem Arts Book Fair with my camera and spend the entire day walking around, celebrating the community, the creativity, and all of the wonderful books, art, and food. It would be so hot! But the streets would just be like a village. It was incredible. Another bright moment for me was the very first time I went to the Harlem Arts Salon at Quincy and Margaret Troupe’s home.
Last spring, Laura Pegram, founder of Kweli Journal, sponsored a Kweli event at the Schomburg that featured my photography and also gathered a number of women in conversation about imagery and language in terms of identity and black womanhood. Nikky Finney, Parneshia Jones, and myself, moderated by Saretta Morgan, waded into one of the most provocative and dynamic discussions I’ve ever experienced. But I knew that we went into ourselves so deeply because we were in Harlem. Our audience asked such necessary and powerful questions. There was a sense of grace, of safety, and trust that we could all share our thoughts, hopes, and truths about our shared experiences in the space of community. We could have been there all night!
FPP spoke with writer and world traveler Emily Raboteau about the “school-to-prison” pipeline, brudermensch, and freedom from context. Emily reads with us this Tuesday, November 10th, 7pm, at Shrine in Harlem.
In Searching for Zion, the Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, you track the experience of displacement handed down over hundreds of years to the descendants of African slaves. It’s a tremendous cultural, philosophical, and literary undertaking. It was also a personal quest, though, to address your own sense of unease in American culture, which routinely denies full humanity to many of its residents. Does the personal conclusion at the end of the book—that Zion is located within—hold for you today? Or has your central, driving question changed?
Thanks for calling the book a tremendous undertaking. (One might also call it a fool’s errand that I went looking for a geographical Zion.) Though I have to point out as one of my interview subjects did when I used the term “African slaves,” that we should really say, “enslaved Africans.” Let’s recall that this was not their identity, but a condition forced upon them. And I’d say I was, and am, motivated by disgust with U.S. government policy that systematically denies full humanity to a great deal of its citizens. I do still feel that the ultimate Zion lies within. As an outgrowth of that understanding, my driving question has changed. It’s no longer Where do I belong given that so much about this nation sucks ass? but What can I do to make this a less sucky place?
Where do you see the most urgent domestic (US) experiences of displacement today, perhaps even in your neighborhood? Those who are not at home where they live?
I live in Washington Heights, where gentrification is an issue that makes visible the city’s segregated school system. A couple years ago there was talk of de-zoning our district in an effort to equalize access to good schools, but it was put to bed by privileged and entitled parents who were scared their kids would lose their leg up. I see long-term residents in the hood being physically displaced through escalating rents and the greed of real estate developers. An even more urgent displacement is the school-to-prison pipeline trend wherein poor children, many of whom have learning disabilities or histories of abuse and would benefit from additional education and counseling services are instead isolated, punished, and funneled out of public school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems via “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules and inordinately discriminate against kids of color.
Do you hope that your own children, growing up in Washington Heights, develop an attachment to New York as home, or would you rather bequeath to them your productive distance, so that they might locate Zion “within,” as you do for yourself at the end of the book?
Both. I want them to find something unwavering within themselves, even as they live on shaky ground. Some people might call that “faith.” Others would call it a “moral compass.” Lately, I prefer the term, brudermensch, which I learned from Bernard Malamud’s perfect short story, “The German Refugee.” But whatever you call it, the point of that quality is not distance. It’s social engagement. I know it’s a platitude, but we need to care for our neighbors. I also hope that as New Yorkers, my kids will know they’re citizens of the world. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to here my son declare, “I got eyes like ackee stone in my sheyne punim,” at the age of three.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said in a recent interview that moving to Paris allowed him a temporary break from daily burdens of race in America. When he experiences racist exchanges in Paris, he doesn’t feel the same sting because it isn’t his context. In your experience traveling the world, moving toward danger and complexity instead of away, did you experience freedom from context? If so, how, ultimately, have you come to feel about such freedom?
I did experience freedom from context through extended travel (even though my destinations were in the “third world”) and I felt very privileged because international travel is a luxury most people can’t afford. I also came to see that every country is unjust in its own particular, perverted way. Ta-Nehisi witnessed the same thing in Paris, just as Baldwin did before him, and Chester Himes, and Richard Wright—just because these black men didn’t feel the same sting abroad didn’t mean some other group wasn’t getting kicked in the teeth. William Gardner Smith, a lesser-known author than these cats, put it bluntly in his novel, The Stone Face: “The Algerians are the niggers of France.” That’s just it. Every nation has its “niggers.” In Jamaica, the niggers are the gays. The players might change but the struggle is more or less the same for people who don’t enjoy full freedom. Every nation-state is a work in progress. That was actually a liberating, if distressful, discovery. Sort of like the moment in therapy where you accept your abusive parent is flawed and start working on yourself so the family you’re building (and I mean “family” in the broadest human sense) is less fucked up than the one you grew up in.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now? And in what ways this new work might be a continuation, refutation, or revision of your first two books?
Yes, I’m working on my second novel. It’s called Endurance and it’s about the Dominican superintendent of a gentrifying building in Washington Heights who must raise his autistic son to be a competent adult. It’s not as autobiographical as the first two works but does share many of the same themes—inequality, citizenship, and the question of belonging or not belonging to a community.
FPP spoke with writer and Washington Heights local Victor LaValle about our brains as “virtual reality machines,” walking the streets of New York City to find peace, and his forthcoming novella The Ballad of Black Tom. Victor reads with us this Tuesday, November 10th, 7pm, at Shrine in Harlem.
At the beginning of your most recent work, the novella The Ballad of Black Tom, you write: “People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place.” What does it mean to you to “see” the place you live in?
I mean that a person has to try and understand what they’re expecting, what they’re hoping for, what they fear about any new locale. These personal concerns tend to create the reality we then encounter. All of us are living in a personal virtual reality machine, the brain. Obviously we can’t discard the damn thing (and who would want to?) but it behooves each of us to realize how much we are shaping what we see. This plays into that novella in a vital way. Where one person might see a monster, another will see a human being. And both might be true. Click here to continue reading…