I've Only Been to Harlem to Get my Hair Done (and other reasons why I'm not qualified to write this)
I spent months, years even, writing one story, abandoning it, and then returning to it. Then one day I needed to press the send button, and I hesitated. A queasy, unsettled feeling welled up inside me. I was about to send my writing to a potential publisher, a literary journal that only skilled writers were featured in.
I found out about the journal from an advertisement in the mail, addressed to my husband, with the goal of acquiring new readers. I didn’t give it much thought until rummaging through the junk mail pile later on. I took it as a semi-clear sign that it was finally time for me to submit my story somewhere.
Truth was I knew that sending it somewhere meant lots of querying and lots of rejection. I questioned the wisdom in sending it out, suspecting that If I held onto it a little longer and worked it over a hundred more times it would have a better chance out there.
The piece is set in 1960’s Harlem, maybe predictable and overdone for an African American writer. So many of us are like Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, drawn to that black mecca.
The Harlem Renaissance intrigued me because I always loved the idea of the poetry in abundance. My mother’s friend, the one who used to read what I wrote as a grade school girl, the one who let me interview her for an hour on her Catholic creole upbringing, called me a “renaissance girl” after reading one of my poems. I was maybe fifteen. She picked me apart and rightly so.
It’s the lyricism of such a place that drew me in. My first encounter with Langston Hughes was in elementary school. My teacher had piled old literature textbooks for the dump. When she told me where they were going --perfectly good books, hardly opened-- I asked for one. She said yes, and while cringing at the thought of such waste, imagining kids in other areas of town without good literature, not understanding why they couldn’t be given away when the new edition rolled in, I held the book--unworn, no creases, no ripped pages-- in my hand. The cover shined. I took it home in the summer and found hidden inside it a poem by Langston Hughes called Black Like Me. And I would twirl and dance “until the black day was done” just as he wrote it. I recited it many times as the school teacher that I was to my little brother, his friend and my stuffed bears. The good stuff is meant to be shared.
Later, in ninth grade, my English teacher projected A Dream Deferred onto a white screen. We sat with that poem and asked it questions. Why are you here? What did you mean Mr.Hughes by “dry up like a raisin? Where were you? He was in Harlem, baby. I checked out his collection of poetry from the library and read all of them. Summer came again and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God was on the reading list. Intrigued by the title I picked it up and didn’t put it down. One day, I told myself, I will write with such conviction and describe lips the way she describes them. But I am not a Hoodoo writer. I’m as distant from the Harlem of the renaissance as any other suburban Texan, birthed into a country family. I’ve only been to Harlem to get my hair done at a hole in the wall salon or a fancy one. When I lived in New York with my native husband, I’d catch the two train from the Bronx into Harlem, a couple exits after the train went underground. I’d walk up steps to the street and walk briskly to where I needed to go. I was aware of the men on the sidewalks, leaning against store windows, waiting for the form of a women. You didn’t have to be pretty. You just had to have hips and thighs and breasts for them to make a comment, so I made sure not to turn to the right until I reached the stylist. After some months the stylist switched to the salon with the chandelier, across from a block of white tailored apartments with little box gardens. The emerald green doors of those places stood out to me. It was like a little bit of suburb in the city. But that was about all the Harlem I tread. I learned about Harlem in books, through poetry, introductions and preludes. In that way, it was always near.
A series of events led me to Harlem as a setting for my short story, Riot. The father, Clay Davis, has a deep, sandpaper voice, so I don’t even want to read the story out loud. I can’t alter my female voice enough to make it sound like his. I’ve made a character that I can’t “read” without laughing at myself or stumbling over my words. That’s how removed my reality is from Clay Davis. I have researched Harlem by watching Youtube videos, strained my dialogue loose of too many words. My husband says that in New York, they say less. Yes. I remember.
I remember feeling the heat of the concrete beneath my shoes, too. Concrete is the same in Harlem as it is on Olinville Avenue in the Bronx where we used to live or Soho where I used to work.
In New York I still gushed over meeting actors and eating halal food from street stands. I miss walking and the change of seasons told by the trees on Pelham Parkway. I have read so much Baldwin, but I don’t know Harlem like he did. So, I hesitated.
On the back of Pitts’ book, Harlem in Nowhere is a quote by another author I’ve read, Zadie Smith, and it says in essence that it doesn’t matter where you live or what you look like, writing is about what you love—interest, knowledge, even acquired knowledge. Before I would admit my fear and was aware of how pronounced it was, I sent my writing off to a friend. I was afraid to see his response, but I opened it anyway. He’d read every line of it, and though he wasn’t from Harlem, he wondered at how this story was a mirror to his own childhood. I can’t tell him how. It doesn’t matter. This fiction was his reality put into prose. And what also didn’t matter was someone else not getting it. This story was for people like him. It was a way of looking back and maybe even making sense of life. I wrote this story for someone. There were probably others, too. And I would never know—this story would never get to them- if I didn’t hit that send button, get on that record and trounce the fear of failure.
Ashley Soden is the director of Write/Create, Inc. When she's not writing, she's living life to the full with her husband and three energetic kids.