This past Sunday I was at my friend Chanelle Futrell’s house filming a sketch. She lives up in Harlem on Malcom X. I had actually been to her hood plenty of times when my friend Enrique lived there. Unlike Hell’s Kitchen, chalk full of locals who have been there for what seems forever as well as the homos who are starting to trickle in, Harlem still has it’s original feel. Thoughts of Langston Hughes and his beautiful words flew through my mind as I ended up going for a cup of coffee because I was on the early side.
In the bodega, a Middle Eastern clerk made my coffee. I spoke to him in my limited Arabic and he spoke back. Just then I remembered a mosque was not far. A man known as Divine Prince was big into the black Muslim movement in Harlem. He spoke of Islam, what it meant, and how the young kids didn’t know who he was and his station in the community. I thought of him, glancing across the street and seeing the Betty Shabazz Community Center.
Poor Betty, such a sweet lady. Put up with her big mouthed civil rights leader husband and crackhead daughter who’s little crack baby burnt down her house. Divine Prince had crossed paths with her saying she was a sweet lady. Maybe if Malcolm were alive he would have set them all straight, he had an ability to set anyone straight, especially whitey.
Inside the bodega, there were families coming from church or going to, all in their Sunday best. Being a part of the white world, we slum it down for church. Where I came from there was a priest, a Croatian, who printed in wicked letters in our bulletin that church was not a water park therefore shorts were not to be worn. The same went for jeans. Where I grew up you dolled up for church. These white people in New York get their clothes out of the hamper. Their black counterparts on the other hand, you know those clothes are fresh pressed and ready to go. The women have hats and they have fans. They also want to know why Tyler Perry is capitalizing off of them.
Filling the bodega, they were getting the essential food groups like coffee. I understood that. The children were well behaved. While they jonsed for candy, they did so respectfully. One little girl in a flowery dress was dismayed when they were out of Starbursts. I would have been dismayed myself. Perhaps some things do truly cross color lines. The smaller children were all very well behaved too. Probably because Mama could and would knock them out. The funny thing about white parents in the city is that they count to three, they talk about it. A black mother on the other hand, there is no such thing as time out. I think that’s why I have had a lot of black friends. Because when we talk about our childhood we know two things: 1, Your Mama will knock you out if you get out of line. 2. You knock anyone out who knocks your Mama or anything about her.
Call me old school but you mess with my Mama and I will follow you to the ends of the Earth to beat your ass.
I got my coffee and left the bodega. On the block covered in churches of various denominations from AME to Presbyterian to Pentecostal it seemed God had his parking spaces. Various folks seemed to be shuffling out, both young and old. Not far down of course was the liquor store. I wondered how many would be hitting that after the service. Where I grew up, I was used to seeing some “Christians” hit church in the morning and then the liquor store or bar in the afternoon falling off the stools. Maybe it was the Communion wine that drove them to it. Either way, I don’t think Jesus ever turned anything into Jack Daniels.
Then again, some of the fundamentalists in my area tended to screw the Bible to their liking. In their version Jesus hated anyone who wasn’t white, straight, or not like them. Their version of the Bible also left passages out about ripping off the government. They also edited the parts out about church leaders abusing their authority like a deacon who couldn’t keep it in his pants. Not to mention they seemed to forget Jesus mentioning one must love their neighbor. We colored in Sunday School. The Fundies must have colored in the pictures of their Caucasian Jesus and then whited out the passages of the Bible they wanted to ignore.
As I crossed the street and saw in front of one church there was a game of tag in progress. It was a little boy and a little girl, both dressed and clearly not eager to go inside. The little boy had been tagged and was fighting with the girl over whether or not the tree was a safe spot. They could not have been more than six years old. Running like two greyhounds, this game of tag meant everything to them. I remembered those days, happy and care free. Tag was an Olympic sport in our minds. While there was no gold metal at stake, there was ones rep on the play yard.
As they ran, I almost wanted to go back to that stage of my life. These children were innocent, merely running around and loving life. They were free from the jaded cynicism and corruption the adult world does to a mind. They could get joy out of a simple game of tag. Still green, they were too young to hate. They knew God as only the man in the sky, the dude in the cloud. Maybe their God was even black. In their world, they wanted to get church over with so they could play some more. One even said so to his less than thrilled mother when she came to scoop him up.
I wanted to tell her to stop pretending she liked going to church so much. Then again, that’s what’s wonderful about children. They are honest.
Looking down the street, I saw an extreme church. I had remembered seeing it the summer I visited my friend Enrique quite a bit. The marquee always called for an extremely violent measure of faith. I remember in 2010 the sign read, “President Obama is a terrorist. He must pay with his blood.” That church scared me, but more than ever I was more frightened for the children walking in the door. With blank slates, they were being taught to hate and kill in the name of Jesus. They were being taught to hate anyone who wasn’t them. Later, I would find out the kids from that psycho church tortured my friends dog. This was revealed when my other friend’s daughter, gentle as a lamb, wanted to play with it.
The dog recoiled in fear and then the story came out. Did these children not know Jesus loved animals? He referred to his followers as his flock? Then again, what would I expect from a pastor that calls for the assassination of the President? Sunday school there must be an adventure in hell.
However, I will say The Temple of Doom was no representative of all the churches on the block. Most of these people seemed like quiet family people trying to find a solution and a way to cope with this thing called life. They were trying to find answers to whatever ailed them, and were doing the best they could with what they had. They weren’t causing any trouble. The kids were just playing tag.
On a street with two rival funeral parlors, it made me wonder if the places ever dueled over dead bodies. I wondered if there was ever an undertaker battle grand royale.
I also saw the game of tag resuming as soon as that mother turned her back. Engaged, I found myself rooting for the underdog, the little man in the green shirt and suit pants who’s ass would probably be grass later.
Hey, Jesus always roots for the underdog. Love, April