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Harlem fights to keep its identity

In Marcus Garvey Park, gentrifiers vs. drummers

Published Jul 26, 2007 12:36 AM

On Saturday, July 7, in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, the community came from all over the New York boroughs to speak in one voice that the plotters of gentrification or recolonization would not subjugate the African identity.

White racism, which had dubbed Harlem a Black ghetto, has now sold Harlem to developers and the new residents have decided that the drums played in the park are “too loud.” Marvin Gaye is probably rolling and screaming, “What’s Goin’ On?”

A week earlier, on June 30, two white police officers had come to the park drummers with complaints from residents of a condo on Fifth Avenue, bordering the park. The drummers would not allow their African culture to be trumped by European displeasure. The drumming continued.

Then reinforcements of police came twice more to shut down the drums. But the Black community and drummers—about 80 people—said, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “We will not be that constant victim of U.S. cruelty and injustice.” For decades, people had come together at that spot every Saturday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. to play their instruments.

On this Saturday, the communal power of the drum circle would not submit. Men, women and children of all nations of the diaspora played, danced, laughed and listened to the rhythms of the Black World. The impact was felt by those who remembered their history in a country where the African had been stripped of language, culture and human dignity. For this moment in time, all felt liberated and recaptured what had been embraced for over 25 years.

Many people filmed with cell phones and cameras as the drums played on, even louder. Across the street, four white residents watched from their balconies. Strangely, the police left. But the incident brought to the front the internal struggle the colonizers and colonized must face.

The NYPD action was not a surprise. Day after day, the community sees the role of control and containment they play. A legacy of 250 years of enslavement and age-old methods pushed forward.

A call then went out throughout the U.S. and responses came back from drum circles, performers and many who remembered this park’s community. Everyone offered some kind of help or expressed outrage.

So on July 7 there was the response: “We are in our world. We have the right to assemble in our community. The drum has always been the soul and connecting point of the people.” Present at the gathering were Loretta Abbott, an original member of the Alvin Ailey dance company, and members of the Harlem Arts Alliance.

The next week the administrators of the park came in with a deal to move the drummers to a “better place.” The political apparatus knew they could not stop the drum, so they offered all kinds of future annuities, such as a space of their own and a plaque where they previously played.

This new place in the park is a climb above the seating of the amphitheater, just below the bell tower. It turns out that the administrators must have forgotten that they also gave this spot to the Rasta community. Physically, the competition with the amplified stage sound is another wrench, but most tragic is to watch the elders, canes in hand, climb up the many steps to the space. Clearly they were out of breath when they reached the top.

One father, who brought two young children, summed it up with, “Where is humanity heading? This is about dignity and consideration of others. For many people who come [to the drum circle] this is their only mechanism. For many they don’t have the luxury to go to the Islands or the Hamptons,” referring to rich, elite beachside communities on Long Island.

The struggle will not end here by accommodating and integrating. The people of color understand very well what needs to be protected. If history is any indicator, the community will not go back in the box.

As Manala Manazine said when apartheid South Africa banned the singing of the anthem “NKosi Sikelel’I Africa” and musicians like Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba: “They banned virtually everything, but how do you stop people from singing?”