A class trip to New York City yields diverse insights
Editor's note: During the past academic year, Kenyon history professors Peter Rutkoff and William Scott, who share the College's National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Distinguished Teaching Professorship, used their NEH funds to support a yearlong seminar called "North by South." The seminar was the first of a three-year series focusing on the "Great Migration" of blacks from the South to the North during the first half of the twentieth century. As part of their course work, seminar participants traveled by van to Charleston, South Carolina, during winter break and to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during spring break, spending a week in each location conducting on-site research. Stone, a "student of nontraditional age" pursuing a degree in history while working as the secretary in Kenyon's Office of Public Affairs, recorded her experiences during the Harlem trip. The following are excerpts from her journal.
It's three-thirty in the afternoon, and check-in time at the Harlem YMCA ends at 4:00 p.m. If we're late, we'll be on the streets until Monday. The Y doesn't accept Sunday arrivals. Our vans have been racing the clock since we left Gambier at 6:00 this morning, and we reached the George Washington Bridge in record time, but now, I'm not sure how, we have become ensnarled in the traffic of an under-the-highway co-op grocery market. I believe we have left the street entirely and that we're plowing through a parking lot. Sam Ottenhoff '00, one of my classmates, is piloting our fifteen-passenger van with impressive composure. Somehow, we reclaim a lane and forge ahead, bursting out of the chaos into . . . more chaos. We have arrived in Harlem at last, and it seems that the entire community has taken to the streets in anticipation of our appearance. We're greeted by a frenetic mix of sound and color--sirens and shouts, hip hop and rap, brilliant posters and pastel graffiti--and by sidewalks packed wall-to-curb with uniformly black-clad shoppers, as if a funeral procession had detoured into a carnival. I wish my parka were not bright Eddie-Bauer-blue, my skin not so pale. How can I do research among these people when I am so clearly alien?
It's our first full day in Harlem. Ready to meet our neighbors, we hike down Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard, headed for the Memorial Baptist Church on West 115th Street. Except for a few lingerers with Saturday-night hangovers, the sidewalks are deserted, so we pass the time counting the ubiquitous storefront funeral homes and guessing the contents of small shops sleeping behind postered and graffitied metal shutters. The churches along the way, both storefront and freestanding, give no evidence of activity within.
Rounding the corner onto 115th Street, we're engulfed by a crowd converging on the Memorial Baptist Church. We're swept into the lobby, where we and a gaggle of Japanese tourists are identified as "other"; after a cordial greeting, we're ushered to the outer edge of the semicircular gallery. The drums and keyboard in front of us and the piano and choir beyond obscure our view of the pulpit, but the loudspeakers to our immediate right guarantee full auditory participation. At 10:45, television cameras roll into center-aisle position, a technician in an elevated booth motions, and the fifty-voice choir leads into a spirited session of prayer and praise. The congregation is on its feet, arms and faces uplifted, in apparent ecstacy.
An hour later, the Japanese tourists are politely ushered out, and the main body of the service, leading to Communion, begins. We are privileged to remain. As the service progresses, and progresses, I marvel at the comportment of the small black-and-white-clad boys who have settled into our corner, quietly tending their gigapets. The keyboard and drums, accompanying even the sermon, begin to irritate me, so I tune out.
Four hours after it began, the service concludes with equal exuberance. We stumble out onto the sidewalk, blinking in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight, and clamber into our waiting van. Two hours late for our guided tour of Harlem, we complete it in double-time and arrive breathless, disoriented, but only one hour late for a dinner in our honor at the Harlem Dance Foundation on West 121st Street. The narrow street is a clean, quiet oasis, sheltered from the littered turbulence of Harlem's main arteries. We collect ourselves and adopt a demeanor appropriate to our surroundings before approaching Mrs. Olive Adams, our hostess for the evening. Resident owner of the two adjoining brownstones that house the foundation, she is a vested member of the Harlem community, a long-time friend of Peter Rutkoff, and the embodiment of graciousness. To introduce us to her Harlem, she has invited old friends and neighbors to join us for an old-fashioned, southern-style Sunday dinner.
The evening passes too quickly. When we switch tables for dessert, I find myself seated with two delightfully witty and intelligent women, probably in their early eighties, one an author and one a newspaperwoman. They wear vintage ensembles, with hats that shout their self-confidence; they look fabulous. I wonder if one of them owns the glossy Persian lamb coat I've been coveting. A handsome older gentleman with a quiet mien has caught my eye; I'm sure he is someone special. When we finally meet, I learn that he is Marvin Smith, the photographer whose works exhibited in the Schomburg Center merited a two-page feature in the Columbus Dispatch. I have carried the clipping to Harlem, never dreaming I'd meet Mr. Smith in person or that, as the week unfolded, he would become our muse.
Monday, 4:00 a.m.
The Harlem YMCA, though slightly down-at-the-heel, is a vital part of the community. Its outreach, especially to youth, is invaluable, and it provides safe housing for marginal, indigent members of society. I am grateful for my warm, secure, six-by-ten cubicle, a bargain at $25 per night. If only I could sleep!
Outside my door prowls a giant of a man, a cross between the early John Travolta and Lurch of "Addams Family" fame, who is infatuated with my neighbor, Rose. His plangent voice alternates between off-key verses of "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and pleas for Rose's attention. Later, Peter will introduce me to the magic of Melatonin, and I will cope.
Monday, 11:00 a.m.
We gather at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at West 138th and Lenox Avenue, just one-half block from the YMCA. It will be our headquarters for the week, its collections the substance of our research. In the small lobby broods a lifelike marble and bronze bust of Ira Aldridge as Othello, created in 1860 by Italian sculptor Pietro Calvi. Centering the floor of the high-ceilinged hall beyond is a handsome terrazzo and brass cosmogram entitled "Rivers." Created in 1991 by Houston Conwill to honor the life and accomplishments of poet Langston Hughes, it overlays a portion of his cremated remains. Inscribed with stanzas of Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," it depicts the confluences of his life and his creation. The great rivers of the world encircle the cosmogram, fed by tributaries winding in from the walls of the hall and beyond. I feel that I'm standing at the center of a mystical universe.
A docent offers a tour of the Morgan and Marvin Smith photography exhibit, and as we proceed, I notice Marvin Smith, our soft-spoken friend from the evening before. Like a benign spirit, he shadows our tour, watching for signs of appreciation or questions that only he can answer. Later I offer up my newspaper clipping, and he is both pleased and surprised by the recognition from far-away Columbus. Smith visits the exhibit every day. He tells me how much he misses his twin brother Morgan, who died in 1993, "but here he is with me, so I come." As the week progresses, I look forward to our daily conversations.
We've worked hard the last three days, truly, and we're ready to get rowdy. It's Amateur Night at the legendary Apollo Theater on West 125th Street, "where stars are born and legends are made," and the house is packed. From our seats high in the balcony, we look out on a stage laced with microphones and flanked by towers of speakers. As the house band strikes up, I pull my blessed blue parka over my head to muffle the sound. The audience is wildly enthusiastic. I'm feeling my age.
One by one, the pre-auditioned amateurs sing, dance, or tell lame jokes. There are no Aretha Franklins, Jackson Fives, or Gladys Knights among them tonight. The young hip-hoppers are by far the most popular performers, and I admire their frantic rhythm and endurance. At some point my parka slides off my head, and I become part of the wild and raucous audience. When it's time for "audience participation," I rise with the rest of our small Kenyon contingent to whistle and shout and point to Chonda Mitchell '99, our most talented and self-assured member. Finally we're noticed; Chonda becomes the last person invited to perform.
Japanese visitors are as well represented on stage as they are in the audience, and some of them are exceptional performers. We all agree that they're more hip and more "American" than we are. At last it's Chonda's turn, and from the moment she takes the stage, she controls the MC and the audience. Knowing we've been saturated with gospel and Whitney Houston wannabes, she delivers a stylish, up-tempo "attitude" song, "Tyrone," that brings down the house. The Kenyon contingent is totally out of control. In the midst of the chaos, I realize that Kenyon has just received what is probably its first-ever mention on the stage of the Apollo, and it's high time.
Ellis Island has been a sobering experience. We arrived on the ferry en masse, but once inside the huge terminal we drifted apart, each encountering the memorial images and relics individually. The great entrance hall is too pristine, too hushed and empty to evoke its past, but exhibits portraying the experience of the "huddled masses" are poignant. I'm haunted by a photograph of barefoot children huddled shivering on a grate and another of a tenement room carpeted wall-to-wall with sleeping family members.
I began the subway ride back to Harlem with a classmate, but we parted company at 126th Street, and now I am alone, not certain where on 135th Street this car will deposit me. As I pop out of the tunnel like a bop-the-mole in an arcade, I spot the Schomburg dead ahead and think, "Hallelujah, I'm home safe." To my delight, Harlem does feel almost like home. I recognize many of the faces; they smile, and I feel safe. The blue of my jacket is fading.
We began our visit to Harlem with a traditional southern meal, and we will complete it with another, this time at Sylvia's Restaurant, famous for its family-style soul-food dinners. After a week of subsisting on ninety-nine-cent double cheeseburgers from the Harlem Hospital McDonald's, I'm ready to splurge. Sylvia's has no back room where they can stash a party of eighteen, so they snake a row of two-foot wide tables down the middle of the center service aisle and shoe-horn us in, shoulder to shoulder and forehead to forehead. This gives new meaning to the term "intimate dining," but there are no complaints. Since the beginning of fall semester, we have evolved into a close-knit group, caring, tolerant, and inclusive, and because tonight is the culmination of a week's hard work, spirits are high and the camaraderie is contagious. Our waiters join in our laughter, snap photographs for us, and keep our platters heaped with delicious ribs, chicken, fish, greens, and sweet, crumbly cornbread.
Groaning from overindulgence in peach cobbler, we rise from the tables at last, and Peter announces a "mandatory excursion," destination unknown. Obedient, we pile into the vans and head off into the night, through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey. There, Peter leads us to a terraced park overlooking the Hudson River and the lights of Manhattan. We maintain a reverent silence as we absorb the magical view, but the mood is broken when one of our group shouts "soul train!" Others take up the cry, and before I can retreat, I'm drawn into a chanting, clapping, swaying human corridor through which each group member must pass, dancing. Some go eagerly, some shyly. No one is excused.
I notice a few cars idling by the curb and realize that the occupants are afraid to come into the park while we are there. To them we must look like a group of crazies. It's not the time for a Kenyon mention. Then, to my horror, I hear my name being chanted. Determined to be a good sport, I shuffle into the corridor and stop, uncertain what to do next. I raise my eyes and arms to the moon in supplication, an odd, atavistic gesture, as if some divine being up there might save me from making a fool of myself. For a moment, I have the sensation that we have cycled back to some ancient common origin, that we are all related, a clan bound together in this strange ritual dance. The moment passes, reality reasserts itself, and I clumsily navigate the corridor, accompanied by whoops and cheers from my classmates.
Our van is uncharacteristically quiet as we return to Gambier. Half the students have remained behind in New York to make their ways home for the remainder of spring break. The others have been up far later than I, enjoying one last night on the town, and they sleep sprawled on top of their duffle bags. I'm free to think over the events of the past week, cataloging and storing what I've experienced. I have reams of research notes and rolls of undeveloped film to process later, but for now I can mull over the really important lesson I've learned on this trip: that gender, age, skin color, accent, social background, or whatever other measurement you choose are of no significance when you are learning in the company of friends.
It has been a good trip.
Hays Stone has lived in Gambier and worked at the College for several years while completing the bachelor's degree she began at Smith College in 1959 before leaving to marry and raise a family. Her late son Michael Stone, who died in 1992, was a member of Kenyon's Class of 1991.
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