Graphite & Acryla-Gouache on salvaged plywood
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As a child, sitting in my mother’s bedroom, I remember the moment clearly, laying on her bed reading from a book of poetry, enamored by the gorgeous sensory descriptions of fruit and skin, both glowing and blushing, in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Sweeties”. It was one of my earliest connections to poetry and my initial awareness of a place called Harlem.
I thought of this memory recently as I crossed the inner lobby of the Schomburg Center, its floor decorated with a cryptic cosmogram, made of gleaming stone and brass, connecting the lives of the poet Hughes and Arturo Alfonso (Arthur) Schomburg, historian, writer and activist whose initial collection of rare books, manuscripts and artifacts of Black history created the cornerstone for the library.
A cosmogram seeks to understand the universe through place and time. This one marks the respective birthplaces of these influential men, circling a cross of rivers, which meet in the center representing Harlem, where each flourished, and died. Hughes’ ashes are actually buried beneath this spot, under the words “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Looking down into the research room from upstairs windows, my reverence for the building and its place in Black history, its affect on our collective future became acute. I saw people studying amongst the stacks, both focused and daydreaming, beneath the murals by Aaron Douglas, “Aspects of Negro Life” commissioned by the New York Public Library for this branch in 1934, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
It was still sunny when the library closed and I went outside to walk along Malcolm X Blvd (Lenox Ave) towards 125th Street, noticing the effects of change in the neighborhood, while thinking about the importance of the preservation of history through books and art. I bought a copy of “Harlem is Nowhere” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts in the bookstore at the Center and read it when I got home. In the book, she talks about the purpose of the 135th Street branch of the NYPL as it was envisioned in the 1920’s, “If the street was the place where black Harlem constituted “the Negro Problem,” where people were only of sociological interest, then the library would be a temple of the individual, worshipping the personal aspirations and collective triumphs of black people and their culture.”