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Excerpt: 'On the Shoulders of Giants'

Cover of 'On the Shoulders of Giants'

Jungle Alley, also known as The Street, Paradise Valley, and The Stroll, had the highest density of nightclubs and cabarets in New York City. And certainly nightclubs filled with dancing girls, famous jazz musicians, mobsters, illegal booze, and international celebrities are much more romantic than some intense young writer quietly sitting in his room scribbling about the unjust plight of the Negro. But these famous, and infamous, clubs did as much damage as good to the cause of the African-American. While they promoted and celebrated the original music of black Americans, they also promoted a false, rose-colored image that kept white America from recognizing the real problems faced by African-Americans in Harlem and across the country.

This was the notorious area that had become popularized in literature because anything was for sale here, and to keep the customers flocking in, Lenox Avenue maintained a Picture of Dorian Gray persona. If visitors focused on the many ritzy nightclubs that featured dynamic jazz and dancing revues, this section of Harlem seemed giddy with innocent celebration of life. But if they looked in on the buildings where the locals lived, they'd catch a glimpse of the nastier soul of the place — the run-down apartment houses and dilapidated buildings hidden in the dark shadows cast by the bright lights of the resplendent nightclubs.

But no one was interested in looking in those shadows.

These two Harlems were characterized by two of Jungle Alley's most famous, but radically different, clubs: the Cotton Club and, a couple blocks to the west, the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. The two clubs came to define the two Harlems — Harlem Light and Harlem Dark — as clearly as the blue and gray uniforms of the Civil War. The Cotton Club symbolized how white America perceived African-Americans: as happy, dancing children, obsessed with sensuality and therefore incapable of sophisticated thoughts or actions. The Renaissance Casino and Ballroom symbolized the ideals of self-reliance and community values that the Harlem Renaissance was preaching.

The Cotton Club was part of a bizarre tradition in Harlem that included other fancy clubs such as Connie's Inn and Small's Paradise. These clubs, though operating in the heart of black Harlem, catered exclusively to white customers. Yet, in their shows and decor they still promoted an idealized but wholly inaccurate black lifestyle similar to those in minstrel shows. Menacing bouncers were stationed at the doors to make sure no black faces were admitted to the establishments, located on the same blocks where these black men and women lived. Eleven such segregated clubs were listed in Variety, but the most famous and popular of the group was the Cotton Club, the largest, fanciest, highest-priced, which featured the most extravagant shows.

Originally, the club was owned by a black icon who, in the eyes of other African-Americans, stood for defiance of white racism. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson — an amateur cellist and fiddler and frequenter of Harlem's raucous nightlife — bought the struggling Douglas Casino in 1920, changing the name to the Club Deluxe. But Johnson was unable to make the club any more successful than the predecessor. By 1923, Johnson sold it to mobster Owney Madden, who was in prison at the time for manslaughter. Madden, who also owned the popular Stork Club and Silver Slipper, which were frequented by the rich and famous from around the world, wanted the Cotton Club to be equally renowned, so he poured a significant amount of money into renovation. For its decor, he chose to re-create, in the middle of Harlem, the plantation South and its attitude, from which so many Harlemites had fled. From their elegantly appointed tables, white patrons could view the three nightly stage shows. The shows were written exclusively for the club and they were so extravagant that they rivaled even Broadway shows. In fact, some of the shows did move on to Broadway. The revues featured some of the most famous black performers of the day, including Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Edith Wilson, and Earl "Snakehips" Tucker. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were the house band from 1927 to 1931, and again in 1933. Between 1931 and 1933, Cab Calloway took over as bandleader. Most important, the club served as the principal East Coast outlet for "Madden's No. 1" beer.

Other Harlem clubs trying to compete with the Cotton Club were sometimes met with violence. The Plantation Club tried to imitate the Cotton Club's style and venue by hiring Cab Calloway and his orchestra away from the Cotton Club. Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" routine was famous and a big attraction. Cotton Club owner Madden was not pleased, so he sent a few of his men over to the Plantation Club to break up the place. They destroyed tables and chairs, shattered glasses, and dragged the bar out to the curb. Calloway returned to the Cotton Club.

Despite the Cotton Club's gangster origins — in fact, because of it — this became, in Lady Mountbatten's words, "The Aristocrat of Harlem" for the white elite of New York. The wealthy patrons, bedecked in their finest jewelry, hoped to be thrilled with a glimpse of Al Capone or Owen Madden. Mob bouncers met patrons at the door, enforcing the strict color code of whites only. Inside, the waiters, dancers, musicians, and stage performers were black, but were not permitted to socialize with the customers. The young girls of the chorus line had to be under twenty-one, over five feet six inches tall, and of light complexion. This discriminatory policy gained even more respectability because of the white celebrities who frequented the Cotton Club, including Mayor Jimmy Walker and singer Jimmy Durante. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes comments on the growing resentment within the black community: "Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers — like amusing animals in a zoo."

Rather than be outraged, the white public embraced the Cotton Club and its Uncle Remus vision of African-Americans. In 1927, CBS began broadcasting live shows from the Cotton Club, sometimes five or six a week. This created an unexpected opportunity: while the cartoonish portrayal of black culture made the Cotton Club popular enough to have a radio show, the show also provided a platform for the innovative jazz music of Duke Ellington, which led many white listeners to embrace authentic black culture and led to the dispelling of the silly stereotypes from the Cotton Club.

The Cotton Club and other segregated nightclubs didn't just slap local residents in the face, but promoted and gave respectability to a vision of African-Americans that the Harlem Renaissance was desperately combating. They not only confirmed humiliating stereotypes, but led significant numbers of blacks to embrace those same self-deprecating ideals. The conventional wisdom was that white culture and white perceptions of beauty, including lighter skin and straight hair, were somehow superior. These were the physical requirements for many of the performers at the segregated clubs. Consequently, many Harlemites chose to emulate, rather than reject, the twisted perceptions embodied by the Cotton Club.

This obsession with copying white ideals of beauty was most evident in the practices of lightening skin color and hair straightening, or conking. Even the most politically conscious magazines advertised creams that promised to lighten dark skin (products that are still widely advertised today). Ironically, one of the Harlem Renaissance's most important figures was socialite and heiress A'Leila Walker, who inherited her money from her mother, Madame C. J. Walker, the child of ex-slave sharecroppers, who built a hair-straightening empire that had made her over $2 million by her death in 1919. A'Leila Walker spent much of her hair-conking inheritance promoting African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (part of which is set during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance), the character Shug comments on blacks' self-perception as symbolized by conking hair: "Somewhere in the bible it say Jesus' hair was like lamb's wool, I say. Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he'd have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky."

The intellects of the Harlem Renaissance realized that before whites would see blacks as equals, first blacks had to see themselves that way — and not try to pretend to be white or adopt white ideals of beauty. And the Cotton Club, which promoted the inferiority of black identity, was a major obstacle that had to be overcome.

The other Harlem — the one that was inhabited by the black residents — was represented by nightclubs like the Lenox Club, the Plantation Inn, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. These establishments served the black community and were the places that Harlemites frequented for entertainment or to hold social, political, or family events. Many major local events were held at the Savoy, which boasted not only a large mixed-race clientele, but was also famous as the home of the trendy dance the Lindy Hop.

The club that in many ways most represented the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance was over on 150 West 138th Street — a two-story redbrick building called the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. This was the place that the Cotton Club building had first been erected to compete against. And just as the name implies, this establishment embodied the heart and soul of what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. While the corrupt, mob-operated Cotton Club flaunted its patronizing attitude toward African-Americans, the black-owned-and-operated Renaissance Casino celebrated African-American achievements. This is where many of Harlem's more dignified events took place, including the annual awards dinners held by the NAACP's periodical, the Crisis, the magazine that had done the most to define and develop the ideals of the New Negro. Meetings of black unions and clubs were common, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Business and Professional Men's Forum. Patrons danced to the jazz licks of the house band fronted by Vernon Andrade, as well as other renowned musicians and entertainers such as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Elmer Snowden's band, Rex Stewart, Dickie Wells, Cecil Scott, Roy Eldridge, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. While the Cotton Club rejected the black community, the Renaissance clientele reflected the black community. But most important, it celebrated the black community, from its workers to its artists to its writers.

And the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom had one other thing that the Cotton Club didn't have: an all-black championship basketball team, the Rens. Between band sets, the dance floor would be cleared and the Rens would play basketball to the enthusiastic cheers of the patrons. When the game was over, the hoops would be stored away and the dancing would continue, sometimes with team members joining the customers on the dance floor. More important, the team barnstormed throughout the Midwest, South, and Northeast. Through the team's athleticism and courage in the face of constant racism, they helped spread the gospel of the Harlem Renaissance without even knowing it.

From On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance. Copyright 2007 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Published by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted by permission.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar