Harlem, Jacob Lawrence, 1946

From London Review of Books:

How to be black in America was the challenge for spirited young men of colour who found their way to Harlem in the troubled years of the 1940s, when music, poetry, dance and art were giving way to drink, drugs, street crime and sex for money. Malcolm Little’s first impulse was to cut loose in the big city where he found himself soon after his 17th birthday in 1942. For a time he worked at Small’s Paradise, Harlem’s famous nightclub near the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. He had recently been fired as fourth cook on a Boston-to-Washington dining car, and had yet to learn to want anything more than a good time. On any morning that summer, Little might have brushed shoulders with the slender, watchful Ralph Ellison, passing through the Harlem YMCA, where Little roomed for a time only a block away from Small’s. Ellison was preparing himself to write the great black American novel, and he later set an important scene in the Harlem YMCA, which offered a bed and clean sheets to ambitious young black men seeking their destiny in New York. Ellison had been just that sort of man when he arrived in the mid-1930s, sent into the world by black clergymen and educators in Oklahoma who preached the American gospel of opportunity. But Ellison soon noted the reality in ‘the bright, buzzing lobby’ of the YMCA. The annual crop of bright-eyed valedictorians from high schools named after Abraham Lincoln faded year by year into greying black men in threadbare suits, carrying umbrellas and bowler hats, wearing coats with Chesterfield collars, speaking expansively of ‘business’ and ‘finance’, with the Wall Street Journal tucked under an elbow. None of them owned anything. The YMCA lobby was their sole arena of operations. ‘I knew that I could live there no longer,’ says the nameless narrator who provides the title for Invisible Man, Ellison’s only completed novel. ‘That phase of my life was past.’

It was the pretence of the YMCA regulars that saddened and disgusted Ellison. They might dress as bankers and brokers, and talk of points and spreads, but they were lucky to have steady work as janitors or messengers. Ellison’s dream was of a different kind. His friends included the black novelist Richard Wright and critics like Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman; his heroes were Joyce and Eliot; he studied The Golden Bough for the mythical themes he hoped would make his novel immortal. Ellison aspired mightily and he dressed the part as he imagined it: Man of Letters, with carefully knotted tie, dark suit in all seasons, white handkerchief peeping from breast pocket, shoes brightly shined, a pencil-thin moustache. In the last year of the war Ellison would acquire a Scottish terrier, soon joined by a second. Thus he strolled Harlem’s streets with his dogs and his dreams, as extravagantly unlikely as any YMCA titan of finance.

The young Malcolm Little also devoted thought and money to the way a man ought to appear on the streets of Harlem. First to go was his kinky red hair, straightened with a homemade goo called ‘congolene’. His friend Shorty Jarvis guided him through the painful process the first time. The necessary ingredients included two eggs, two potatoes, a jar of Vaseline and a bar of soap, combs with fine and coarse teeth, a rubber apron and a hose with a spray-head, rubber gloves, and a can of Red Devil lye. Shorty mixed the potatoes, thinly sliced, with the lye in a jar, then handed it to Little, who yelped and snatched his hand away. ‘Damn right, it’s hot,’ Shorty said. Vaseline was spread liberally over Little’s head, neck and ears before the searing congolene was combed in. ‘My head caught fire,’ Little told Alex Haley 20 years later when they were working on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, at least half of which deserves to be ranked with the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. ‘My eyes watered, my nose was running,’ Little said. ‘I bolted to the washbasin … cursing Shorty.’

‘The first time’s always worst,’ Shorty told him. ‘You took it real good, homeboy. You got a good conk.’ A good conk was a thick carapace of glistening, straightened hair as sleek as the hood of a new car. ‘After the lifetime of kinks,’ Little told Haley, he was staggered by the transformation he saw in the mirror. ‘I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.’

Brownstones, Jacob Lawrence, 1958

“Too Fast”, Thomas Powers, London Review of Books