A Harlem Love Story



100 w 124th Street, ny

Neighborhood: Harlem

“If I should die tonight, oh baby, though it be far before my time. I won’t die, no. Sugar, yeah, cause I’ve known you. How many eyes have seen their dream? Oh, how many arms have felt their dream? How many hearts, baby, have felt their world stand still? Millions never, they never, never…and millions never will, they never will.”

-Marvin Gaye

I came out of the print shop carrying two boxes of flyers promoting a march and demonstration in Harlem that coming Saturday. Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist, had been the latest victim in a string of police killings. Caught defacing the walls at a 14th Street subway station, Stewart was severely beaten, hog-tied and brought to Bellevue Hospital d.o.a. The cops responsible for his death had been indicted and were currently on trial.

But no cop in the history of New York had ever been convicted for killing a black person. It was certain that they would go free. The rally was a call for the end to police brutality and justice for Michael Stewart. Two weeks prior, I had taken part in an overnight sit-in in Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office. We had demanded a special prosecutor for this case. We did not get one. And when the cops were acquitted, I put the pain I felt in that place where I stored all my other hurts.

Malik had been waiting for me double parked on Remsen Street off of Court Street, in downtown Brooklyn. Prince was playing on the radio when I scooted into the front seat, and Malik was singing along. “I will die for you,” he crooned with Prince. Then he turned to me and matter-of-factly repeated the words, “I will die for you.” We were comrades, of course he would die for me and I for him, which is what I first took the words to mean. Then it occurred to me that wasn’t what he meant at all. I felt flushed. He was saying was that he loved me so much, he would give his life for me. Right then and there my soul opened up to him.

Malik was twenty-four when we first met. I was thirty-one. He was living in Harlem, but he was not a New Yorker. He was from Texas and a recent graduate from the University of Texas. I was impressed when he told me he had majored in economics. He had not been in New York long, but already held a position of leadership in the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO) an organization I had just become a member of. He was mature for his twenty-four years and very intelligent. He did not have a commanding physical appearance. A vegetarian, he was tall, thin and wiry and rather frail looking, which might explain why older women in particular were attracted to him. He had a “I need to be taken care of look”. He was Ghandi-like in demeanor, which bespoke a kind and gentle spirit. But there was there was that side to him that believed in Malcolm X’s motto that if anyone put their hands on you, you send them to the cemetery.

As I said, my soul opened up to Malik the way a flower opens up to the sun. I was not alone in loving him. Women were captivated by him. All sorts of propositions came his way, some of which he entertained to my grief and consternation. He told me about a Filipino woman in Texas, fifteen years his senior, who had implored him to have a child with her. She had an eleven-year-old son, was approaching forty and wanted another child. She told him she had never known anyone like him before. For this reason, she sought a union to procreate with him, and said there would be no strings attached. I only half believed this story until he went to Texas to see the child soon after it was born. He named their son Mandela. When I got to know Malik, I could see how a woman would want to have him forever be a part of her life through a child they would bear together.

While I felt pretty secure in Malik’s “die-for-me” love, I nevertheless found myself fending off ladies the whole duration of our relationship. And it was not just the ladies, mostly everyone with whom he came into contact was drawn to him. I was in constant competition for his attention, particularly with leaders and other members of NAPO who were jealous of our relationship. I really had no choice but to share him. There was work to be done and Malik was key to getting it done. We were both committed to the “Movement,” which meant our relationship was secondary. Everything was secondary. The sacrifice for me was that we could not spend a lot of time together. But in our hearts, we were never without the other.

NAPO’s New York headquarters was a four-room railroad flat on 124th Street between Malcolm X Boulevard (formerly Lenox Avenue) and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (formerly Seventh Avenue). Malik and several others actually lived there. I was living in Brooklyn, but had grown up in Harlem. And although I had moved from Harlem some years prior, I still felt a strong bond with it. I remember reading Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets and Claude McKays’ Manchild in the Promise Land as a teenager and being really moved by the depiction of the lives of people who lived in Harlem. Thomas and McKay had succeeded in capturing the harsh realities of life in Harlem. Sunless, airless, roach and mice infested, paint chipped apartments. Scarcity of food. Bedraggled clothes. More tears than laughter. Heart-pumping fear. Misplaced hate and too little love. Incessant fighting to survive.

As a member of NAPO, I came to Harlem three to four times a week. Each time I emerged from the subway at 125th my heart fluttered with excitement. Partly because I was only a few minutes away from seeing Malik. But it was also the thrill of being in Harlem. I noticed how little things had changed since I was a little girl growing up there. The landscape was still that of crumbling tenements, decay, impoverishment along with the downtrodden. In some ways, I found comfort in this sameness. I enjoyed the feeling of coming back home again and again. The bond between Malik and me was deepened by the compassion and love we had for the people, who in our eyes were the wretched of the earth that Frantz Fanon wrote about. Our lives were dedicated to changing the conditions that oppressed us. We would give our lives for the people.

Much of what Malik and I felt for one another went unexpressed because we were almost always engaged in “the work”. To ward off envy, I took great care to conceal my affections for him. He on the other hand wore his love for me on his sleeve. It was in his eyes when he looked at me, in his voice when he spoke to me or about me. It showed in how he spoke up for me and looked out for me. And when we were alone, it was a time of validation and communion conveyed through his touch, his embrace, his kiss. Malik gave good love.

Malik had gone to Nicaragua for several weeks. He went to work in the coffee fields in support of the revolution that had recently taken place there. By then time, distance and other circumstances had taken its toll on our relationship. When he returned to New York, he bought me back a heart-shaped onyx stone. Later, when I lay in his embrace, he sang Luther Vandros’, “Don’t You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me” softly in my ear. He wanted me to remember the love we had shared. What I know now is that the heart doesn’t forget.

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