Reclaiming A Forgotten Legacy
Some Reflections On A Unique Celebration
Embattled Congressman Charlie Rangel Gets Love In Harlem
Last Sunday Harlemites were treated to the 41st annual Afro-American Day Parade. I love a parade, and since I am Afro-American and a long time resident of Harlem, I have a special interests in this one. After having attended the other major black and tan ethnic parades – the Puerto Rican, Dominican and West Indian i.e. British Caribbean/Trinidadian Carnival – I am of the opinion that the Afro-American Parade is the least well attended. Of the four parades mentioned here, three are held in Manhattan – the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans strut their stuff downtown on ritzy fifth Avenue – and the West Indian parade is held along Eastern Parkway, where the grand Road March takes place, in “The People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” where many people from the English speaking Caribbean reside.
The West Indian Parade routinely attracts around two million revelers, the Puerto Rican and Dominican Parades over a million each; I would estimate that the Afro-American parade attracted around 300, 000. Although this estimate is unscientific; it is based upon my observations of the crowd, buttressed by what I heard from photographers I know who were shooting the parade along Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, like the venerable photographer of Harlem life and culture Kwame Braithwaite. Hence I advance this estimate not as a scientific certainty, but as an impressionistic speculation.
Naturally, as a highly opinionated pundit I have some thoughts on the reason for the disparity of participants between the other ethnic parades and the Afro-American Parade. I think the difference can be explained by a couple of factors. The most important factor is that the other groups are immigrants who are still in the process of becoming American. Often their souls are divided between a love for the opportunities and lifestyle offered by their adopted country – which is why they emigrated from their countries in the first place – and a spiritual yearning for the culture of their homelands: their music, dances, cuisine, traditional dress, and a moment of bon homie with their countrymen.
On the other hand, North America blacks are among the original stock that created the United States. In fact, this nation, hewn from the vast wilderness that covered this continent, is unimaginable without the input of African Americans. This is a fact that is too often overlooked by bumptious foreigners – white and black – who out of ignorance, indifference, racism, or opportunism find it convenient to forget. Thus we have the absurdity of the descendants of “shanty Irishman” like Patrick J. Buchanan questioning our claims on this nation and asserting that the “Scotch-Irish” of the American South have just as valid a claim on redress for past discrimination as African-Americans! A subject I am itching to debate him on…if he ever grows the balls to stop ducking me
But it was equally absurd when a black Barbadian once expressed to me his indignation that Black Americans were not celebrating the birthday of “Lady Liberty,” by wearing foam rubber replicas of her crown and the like. I patiently explained to him that he, and all black and brown immigrants who hope to gain citizenship in this country, should save their celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the NAACP. Had it not been for the legal battles waged by the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” none of them would be citizens of this rich and powerful Republic today.
Alas, most non-white immigrants have never heard of the National Origins Act; they are equally ignorant of the body of racist pseudo-scientific Eugenics dogma that informed it. But had it not been for the litigation of the NAACP it may well have remained a guiding principle of American immigration policy. In fact, if you read my commentary on the recent Arizona immigration law – “Some Unpleasant Facts about the Arizona Law” – you will discover that some major sponsors of this law are committed Eugenicists. In spite of the fact that it was a fundamental component of Nazi ideology that led directly to euthanasia for people deemed defective by Hitler’s regime, and the Genocide against Jews enshrined in history as “The Holocaust.”.
Black Americans have been the main opponents of these ideas throughout American history, because they were used to oppress and rob us of our labor while denying to us the constitutional rights due all American citizens. It was also used to justify the dispossession and slaughter of Native Americans. And while white Americans with selective memories prefer to forget all this in favor of a more flattering master narrative of the evolution of US civilization: It is an ancestral imperative of all African and Native Americans to remember. To do otherwise would be to desecrate the memories of those who fought and sacrificed, strived and dreamed, to make it possible for us to advance thus far along the way. It would be like Buck dancing on their graves.
We have a long presence in this nation, in fact thousands of black men fought in the revolutionary war for independence that led to the creation of the United States of America. We were everywhere in that struggle as soldiers and civilian spies. And may of the soldiers were already military veterans because they had fought in British America’s Colonial militias in the French and Indian Wars – and every American was since. Aside from our critical role in the formation of the nation, Black Americans have always been the strongest advocates for the principles of personal liberty, democratic government and a fair break for all workers.
In other words our leaders have been the foremost defenders of democracy – political or economic – and the rights of minorities. In fact, the quintessential American values are personified in the classical art of African Americans: Jazz. A modern complex instrumental music whose rhythms reflect the tempos of a machine age milieu, Jazz is democratic, reveres personal liberty and promotes invention. This is “America as she is swung,” as Albert Murray would say.
Hence we are such an integral part of the warp and woof of American civilization that most Afro-Americans of original stock feel no particular need to have a special day to announce our presence, and our cultural contribution is the most original and pervasive of any group; it is the basis for American popular culture as well as the incubator for the nation’s most orginal contribution to fine art. If the promoters of the Afro-American Day Parade want to increase its number then they must up the entertainment value.
Get pop Mega-Stars like Jay Z and Byonce to serve as Grand Marshalls, and book the great Afro-American show bands from our top high schools and universities. I know just the person to produce such an event on behalf of the sponsors, which will make it the world class show that it ought to be. Leon Saunders, CEO of Saunders and Associates, presently lives in Atlanta but was born in Harlem. He is one of the nation’s best producers of big events – like the annual weekend concerts “Jazz In The Gardens – held in Miami. He has also produced “Battle Of the Bands” competition featuring the top black high school bands.
By booking the best Afro-American high school and college bands would give a tremendous – and much needed lift to the African American Parade. This parade through Harlem, which is still the citadel of Afro-American culture, ought to showcase the very best that Afro-American culture can offer. And it should exhibit the complexity and diversity of our culture. A full fledged Afro-American marching band rolling down Seventh Avenue playing the grand marches of John Phillip Sousa like “El Capitan” and “Semper Fidelis” would be really something to see. But all the bands I saw were into hip hop rhythms.
This is what the Parade Needs
The Fabulous Florida A&M Marching Band
I guess my complaints are the same as the bandmaster who insisted that his band play the most challenging music, in that wonderful movie on the black college marching band drumming traditions: “Drumline.” There should even be a float with black Opera singers performing the songs of black composers like William Grant Still, and a float featuring black singers performing tunes from the great American lyric theater. That said, however, there was much to commend the parade as it was.
To begin with the range of Afro-American professional and fraternal organizations was impressive – although few of their members turned out. The saddest of the fraternities represented there were the Kappas. Although I don’t recall seeing the Alpha’s represented at all, and they are a highly successful group of men who could easily have financed a fabulous float. Afro-Americans in the uniformed services turned out and made an impressive showing. I think this is great for the youths, who get a chance to see how many of their people are in positions that makes the city work. The big fire trucks and official cars driven by uniformed or well tailored Afro-Americans could not fail to invoke pride in the revelers. Especially as the Governor Patterson and Congressman Rangel were on hand pressing the flesh in a spirit of camaraderie, since they are both Harlem boys and neither happened to be running for anything at the moment.
Of the many bright moments offered by the parade, the black cowboys on their prancing spirited horses were a highpoint for me. I have had a love affair with horses since I was a little boy. There is something about a well built and conditioned horse that is majestic. Even a little short pudgy guy like Napoleon Bonaparte looked heroic sitting astride a horse. And his favorite Calvary officer General Alexander Dumas, who was often described as a black giant, looked like a bronze God!
The cowboys resurrect a phase of Afro-American history few people know about, but black pioneers and soldiers were an integral part of shaping the cowboy culture of the American West. Aside from my portraits of some of our beautiful black, brown and beige sisters the parade, this fact, spurred by my life long love for horses, led me to focus my camera on the cowboys and girls and their marvelous mounts.
One Cool Cowboy!
Sitting Astride A Beautiful Tennessee Walker
A Spirited Indian Paint!
He Made The Big Gray Dance!
Sistas Sat Tall In The Saddle Too
Large And In Charge!
Galloping Down The Boulevard!
Cracking The Bull Whip!
Our Beautiful Women!
Miss Black USA!
Dressed To Kill
A Satin Doll
A Sophisticated Lady!
And Charming Too!
Diminuendo In Blue!
Breaking It Down
Strutting Her Stuff!
Moving And Grooving!
Afro-Indians: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again!”
a Part of our history lost, stolen and denied
An Ebony Amazon!
A Budding Beauty!
Dance Ballerina Dance!
A Star Girl!
Men Of Distinction
The Prince Hall Mason’s
Another Big Time Harlem Boy!
Governor Patterson Rappin With The Crowd
The Lame Duck Governor Is Embraced By Charles Barron
Freedom Party Leader Opens Arms to Battered Democrat
Intrepid Photographer “Relentless Lisa” Dubois Records it All
And The Fruit Of Islam Was On Guard
Trained for Trouble
Double click to see The great Florida A&M Marching Band
This is the type of band the Harlem Parade Desperately Needs!
Text and Photographs by: Playthell Bemjamin
* Except the photo of Florida A&M’s band and the pics in which he appears.
September 26, 2010