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22 October 2006 HARLEM SUMMER by Walter Dean Myers, Scholastic Press, March 2007, ISBN: 0-439-36843-8


"As soon as the news got round

The folks downtown,

Came up to Harlem,

Saw everyone Truckin'


It didn't take long

Before the high-hats were doing it,

'Park Avenuing' it,

All over town,

You see them shufflin,' shufflin,' shufflin' down."


--"Truckin' " written by Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler, and performed by Fats Waller


These days the course is listed as, "Afrocentric Perspectives in the Arts." Back in the spring of 1975 it was titled "Black Experience in the Arts." A couple of guys in my dorm at the University of Connecticut had heard that "Black Arts" was an easy class, if only because the lectures were of a civilized nature, being that their frequency was but once a week and they were held IN THE EVENING rather at some ungodly hour that might involve having to wake up in order to attend class.


My dormmates persuaded me to tack the class on to my already full schedule for that semester. That way, if they were too busy to show up on a particular evening, they'd be able to copy my notes.


Back in the spring of 1975 I was a teenager who owed so much of my sensibilities to having grown up tolerant in lily white northern suburbs and having spent the 1960s watching the horrific news on television of white "Christians" engaged in the beating, maiming, and slaughtering of Negroes and Negro sympathizers during the Civil Rights era.


But while I knew a lot about what American citizens of color had endured before and during my childhood, I hadn't a clue at the beginning of my semester in Black Experience in the Arts of the existence of the Harlem Renaissance, nor any knowledge of the colorful characters whose work defined this rich cultural period in American history. But my knowledge base changed rapidly. Structured in large part as a series of guest lectures, my fond recollections of that course involved evenings of hearing first hand accounts of those lives and times. A particularly memorable highlight was listening to the late George Houston Bass who had been Langston Hughes' personal assistant and who served as the executor of Hughes' literary estate.


These experiences came roaring back (as in Roaring Twenties) as I read Walter Dean Myers' exceptionally fun romp, HARLEM SUMMER.


"C. Cephus Carter owned the House of Palms Funeral Home over on Lennox Avenue, down from Freddy's Fish Shack. Now, whenever you talked to that man he only had one thing on his mind, and that was how good the undertaking business was.

" 'Everybody you see is a potential customer!' he liked to say. And he said it again and again. 'People dying today ain't never even thought of dying before!' "


At the center of this HARLEM SUMMER is a sixteen year old young man of color named Mark. It is 1925, and Mark is an aspiring sax player who knows neighborhood star Fats Waller and dreams of jamming with the famous and beloved musician (who would have been twenty-one that summer). But the summer of 1925 gets much hotter than Mark could ever have imagined, thanks to his getting a summer job at the downtown office of THE CRISIS (which was and still is the official publication of the NAACP), and also thanks to Mark's finding himself --through events involving Fats Waller -- in serious trouble with the infamous Prohibition-era gangster Dutch Schultz.


As Mark deals with moms and mobsters dishing him out some serious grief, Walter Dean Myers succeeds in bringing to life the mid-Twenties Harlem summertime neighborhood as well as the cast of Harlem Renaissance musical and literary figures whom I'd learned about back in 1975.


(Of course, what is great fun --and what we couldn't do in 1975 -- is going online and listening to 30 second snippets of Fats Waller between chapters. This is certainly a book that begs for an accompanying CD of tunes and poetry readings.)


"I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow

of human blood in human veins.


My soul has grown deep like the rivers..."

--Langston Hughes


"Mr. Dill made out the checks for the May issue. Langston Hughes got two dollars for a poem that had only twenty-five words. That was eight cents a word! The writing business was starting to look better."


The root of Mark's troubles is his desire for money -- the easier the better. While most readers know Walter Dean Myers as the author of some pretty intense award-winning stories, many readers are going to be thoroughly surprised by HARLEM SUMMER because of its being so dang funny. For instance, when Mark figures that writing poetry might be a road to riches, he asks Langston Hughes about it:


" 'You think I could learn to write poetry?'

" 'Sure. I used to copy other people's poems and rewrite them,' Langston said. 'That gave me a feel for what it was like.' "


The poem that results from Mark's taking that advice had me rolling.


So download some Fats Waller tunes, shuffle on over into a shady spot, and check out HARLEM SUMMER.


Richie Partington




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