You’ve got to pass the local police station to get to the theater.
Inscribed on the official vehicles there, you read C.P.R. No, not cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect. Ironic, since the film I’m heading to is all about police discourtesy, unprofessionalism, disrespect.
As I stroll along the Harlem boulevard named after ex-slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, a police officer jaywalks across the street with the spoils from his raid on the conveniently, if stereotypically, placed Dunkin Donuts.
A bit of humor on a darkening day.
You’ve got to cross the muted star-spangled welcome mat embossed “Harlem! USA” to get to the theater box office. On this misty gray Thursday, the theater is warm, welcoming. Up in the second-floor screening room you see only a scattering of patrons, mostly older women, strong black women, here to celebrate another strong black woman—Angela Davis.
You’ve got to hand it to the filmmaker, Shola Lynch.
She wrote and directed the documentary, devoting eight years of her life to answering the basic question: How did a young American philosophy professor become “an international political icon”?
How indeed. It was not enough that Angela Davis was freed.
It could never just be “Free Angela Davis.” She always insisted on the tag “and all political prisoners.” She had escaped from those who would imprison her, but was caught.
Betrayed by a black woman. She was imprisoned. Once acquitted of any involvement in the prison break that led to the death of a police officer, she could have gloried in her freedom or hidden away, but instead, she used her freedom to free others.
She successfully resisted the strongest society in the world. Brightness in the darkness.
You’ve got to walk by a massive statue of Harriet Tubman on the way back from the theater. According to Manhattan Unlocked, this 10-ft tall bronze is one of 100 outdoor sculptures in Manhattan dedicated to historical figures. 94 are men.
Harriet is the sole woman of color represented in this way, in this city of 8,244,910 million citizens.
Alison Saar, the strong black woman who sculpted this memorial, depicts Tubman, “not as the conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as the train itself, an unstoppable locomotive.”
Tubman’s trailing skirt carries the faces of the passengers, carved as African masks; grappling vines drag at its coppered green folds. She has been standing at the intersection of 122nd and Adam Clayton Powell (aka 7th) Avenue since 2008.
Over 100 years before Angela Davis ever drew breath, Tubman, another strong black woman, had escaped from those who had enslaved her. But it was not enough that she alone should be freed. She returned to Maryland, site of her captivity in order to free others. And it was not enough that she should free those she knew.
As the nation that had enshrined her enslavement into its most precious documents exhorting freedom sought at long last to right this wrong, she joined the fight. Over and over again she returned to the lion’s den fighting for freedom until she died in 1913.
Ninety-five years after her death, she was brought back to life standing resolutely atop a pedestal graced with vignettes from her life, quilted together in granite. Brave black women once stitched codes into their quilts. They hung them on clotheslines as drying maps, then took them down again.
Stunning courage and creative resistance. A bit of remembrance and community on a solitary day.
You’ve to give credit to Alison Saar, because it was not enough that she be free to express her art from a position of privilege: born in California, far from the chaotic growing pains of Southern desegregation; born to parents who were both artists; born to grants and fellowships acknowledging her voice.
Through scholarship and art, she freed the voices of others through her celebration of folk art around the world. She studied Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian art, then fused their common humanity into an individual expressive language that would carry their progenitors away from shadows and into the consciousness of a world. She honored the strength of daily toil.
A bit of pride on a melancholy day.