On July 28th, Harlemites and friends gathered at the General Grant National Memorial to kick off “A Great Day in Harlem”, the inaugural event of Harlem Week—a month-long (that’s not a typo!) celebration of the rich culture and history of one of New York City’s most cherished neighborhoods. There were booths and attractions all along the park, advocating community businesses and political campaigns or showcasing local and international handcrafted art, jewelry and clothing, and of course, there was also food from local Harlem eateries, Memphis soul food, and traditional West African delicacies. The stage, adjacent to the memorial, featured dancers, singers, and there was also an award ceremony honoring local community leaders. There was not an inch of green space left, as beach chairs and picnic blankets enveloped Grant’s memorial as far as the eye could see.
I stepped into the celebration having no expectations or preconceived notions—as an NYU student, Morningside Heights is unfamiliar territory. Before the real adventure began, I met up with a fellow Honeysuckle correspondent. As non-Harlemites, but curious cultural observers, we set off on our sole mission of the day: to find out what makes a “great day” in Harlem.
Our first action was to split up in order to cover as much area as possible. Immediately, my eyes caught the historical black banner hanging above the NAACP table that read, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday”. The woman representing the NAACP and I talked about the chilling relatability and relevance to race relations and police violence in today’s society. Alex was given a compelling pitch from the MTA Police booth to work part-time for them, and I was soon given the same speech with the emphasis on needing more women in the force. I also got the opportunity to meet the folks over at The Shed, an arts center located at Hudson Yards. They told me about a discount on their showcase of a street dance performer who uses flexing techniques while simultaneously speaking on current social issues. After Alex and I reconvened, we had our hands full of flyers, notices, and pamphlets enticing us to sign up for different events available to the people of Harlem.
We then moved toward the food and art vendors. Alex and I sampled some homemade ginger passion tea, crafted from West African super tea, kinkeliba. The drink had a kick to it, yet its sweetness soothed the stinging in the back of my throat. It was so good that I ended up doubling back and buying a bottle for us to share on the sweltering July day. As we continued browsing the different stalls, we came across DJ Coffee, whose loud, bumping beats were impossible to ignore. The house music was so compelling that Alex ended up buying a mixtape CD, which he has no way of listening to. Eventually, we met Akassa, a Senegalese artist based in Harlem, whose vibrant portraits of people and animals he etches onto colorful clay panels. We touched buttery Morrocan leather goods, Alex was gifted a free book, The Path of The Warrior, from a lovely woman vendor, and I was tempted to buy a unique handbag crafted from recycled plastic from Senegal, created by the charming Adama, the owner of SOMA Fashion.
We let the momentum of the celebration move us from conversation to conversation as we were able to catch a glimpse of the culture and traditions of many Harlem residents. After sipping our ginger tea and waiting on a tremendously long line to try Dre’s Homemade Water Ice and Ice Cream (to our dismay, the mango flavor was sold out before we could try any), Alex and I ended up speaking to the people running security for the Harlem Week, who were all from the same dojo. After being pointed in the direction of the Grandmaster of New Breed Life Arts, Dr. Kenneth Shaw, we were able to ask him a few questions about himself, the dojo, and how they’ve come to do security for Harlem Week events.
As we looked to the stage, we were able to see the Harlem Week Fashion Show unfold, with models from the Faces of Beauty Model team dressed in vibrant colored dresses and bathing suits, provided by local designers such as Harlem’s Heaven Hats, Bernard L. Moore Jr.’s Bathhouse Swimwear, Michi Knitwear, work by Franklin D. Rowe, and more. The fashion show was produced by Deborah Williams, who is the President and CEO of Her Game 2, a fashion event and marketing company.
Afterward, New York’s very own Spike Lee was called to the stage, where it was declared that July 28th would officially be Spike Lee Day in New York state in honor of his achievements. The honoree delivered a powerful speech about justice for Eric Garner, the importance of voting, and the opportunity to better humanity. Lee was given awards by a number of state dignitaries, such as Harlem’s Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Chief Diversity Officer of the MTA Michael Garner, Executive Director of One Hundred Black Men, Courtney A. Bennett, and more.
It has been a tremendous year for Spike Lee, as his movie BlacKkKlansman was nominated for six Oscars and won Best Adapted Screenplay of 2019. As New York State Senator Brian Benjamin stood with Spike Lee on the stage, he said, “The thing I love about Spike is that Spike did movies for us; Spike didn’t do movies the way they wanted to do movies, he did it the way he wanted to do the movies for our culture, for black pride…” After Spike was feted, iconic group Kool & the Gang was given an achievement award as they celebrated their 50th year in music.
Near the end of the day, we got a chance to speak with Voza Rivers, award-winning producer and director and First Vice President of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce. Voza Rivers and partner Jamal Joseph are the founding members of the Oscar-nominated New Heritage Theatre Group. Rivers emphasized what the foundations of Harlem Week were built upon, as he said, “That’s what this is about: legacy. Harlem has inherited the reputation of being the cultural capital of black America. And if we are indeed the culture capital, it was generations that preceded us that gave us the foundations and we want to honor that reputation by doing quality work and honor those who are no longer with us.” He also mentioned the ties Harlem has with Memphis, as Memphis is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Since they are both iconic, historical areas with love of music, food, and culture, the two cities are in partnership for their respective celebrations.
For the 45th time, the people of Harlem gathered together to celebrate themselves, their past, and their accomplishments. Harlem is a diverse space, with African, Hispanic, and European influences shown through its colorful fashion, assorted cuisine, and international art scene.
At the beginning of the day, we set out to discover what makes “a great day” in Harlem.
As we stood at Grant’s Memorial, the tomb of the general that defeated Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army, there was a stark reminder of how far we’ve come and how much more there is left to achieve. Harlem Week does not hide from the cruel past of American heritage but celebrates the triumphs that emerged in spite of those tribulations. This day was about tightening community bonds, supporting local businesses, creating generational wealth, forming friendships and connections, and repping Harlem with the utmost pride. A great day in Harlem is cherishing the present, learning from the past, and building bonds that enrich the local community.