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A gifted, beautiful young woman in the 1920s, May Edward Chinn dreams only of music. For years she accompanies the famed singer Paul Robeson. However, a racist professor ends her hopes of becoming a concert pianist. But from one dashed dream blooms another: May would become a doctor instead–-the first black female physician in all of New York.
Giddy with the wonder of the Harlem Renaissance and fueled by firebrand friends like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, May doggedly pursues her ambitions while striving to overcome the pains of her past: the death of a fiancé, a lost child, and a distant father ravished by the legacy of slavery. With every grief she encounters, a resilient piece of herself locks into place. At times risking her life–attending to men stabbed in their homes and women left to die in filthy alleys–May struggles to carve out a place for herself within a medical world that still teaches that a “Negro” brain is not anatomically wired for higher thinking. Yet against the odds, she achieves her goal, starts her own practice, and becomes one of the first cancer specialists in the city.
Alive with the pulse of black unrest in 1920s New York, this beautifully textured novel moves with fearlessness and grace through a history that is by turns ugly and sublime. With Angel of Harlem, critically acclaimed author Kuwana Haulsey gives poetic voice to the story of a remarkable woman who had the courage to dream and live beyond her era’s limitations.
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It took seventy-three years for my father to die. He held on, cloaked beneath a broad quilt of memories, peering out his window onto the wide basin of winter below. Memory had creased his face with fresh gullies and markers that ran east, toward the river. When memory escaped him, he searched it out, skating his eyes along the sagging white rooftops outside until he found what he was looking for. Papa refused to wade into the drifts of his understanding, though, to get thick into it like he could have, deep enough to allow for release.
So stubborn, that old man. Just tiring.
And I am nothing but his daughter.
My papa managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of spring in 1936. February and March had been humbling throughout the city, but especially in Harlem. Gutters hardened into icy spillboxes. Streets drained of color and smell, except the heavy, spoiled odor of snow.
Months before, when it still sparkled, I’d plunged into the snow stacks with the neighborhood children, flinging it at little pecan-colored boys with wild hair and hatless heads. They’d scatter and re-form, creeping up like bright-eyed kittens, wiggling and ready to pounce. The children all wore patched sackcloth coats; some had mufflers, some had gloves, but none had both. If I’d taken off their shoes, I’d have found soles tattooed with newspaper ink and tiny, ashy toes wrinkled from adventure.
I adored those children, had birthed two or three, the ones who called me Mama May instead of Dr. May or Ma’am.
On those late afternoons, when the sun deepened and lay like sheaves of wheat or, sometimes, like thick cream over the covered roads, those babies reminded me of truth. They taught me that play created gulfs of unintended joy, then unmasked circumstance—not as an adversary, but a coconspirator in the game. I needed with all my heart to remember the wisdom born inside innocence, to see myself in their eyes and maybe find worth in that unspoiled vision.
So I squealed like a young girl when they yelled, “Git her!” and stuffed snowballs down my cotton shirtwaist. I pretended to run so they could foil my escape, sneaking more snow into the pockets of my covert-cloth coat, the first good, new brown coat I’d had in three years. It didn’t matter. I giggled anyway, licking snow off my rose-colored palms before the flakes could melt, while they were still glassy and protruding and round.
But by March, things had changed.
The streets were blackened by spitting trucks and feet and mules and human waste in areas where sewer pipes routinely ballooned with cold and then burst. Weals of mud sprouted through the ice and concrete, snaking along the roads all the way out to the river, which itself was hoary and stiff, poised with frost.
By March, the children had long since trudged home. Now the streets stayed empty unless some kind of work refused to wait. So, things being the way they were, no one came to stand watch at my father’s feet. No old-time friend whispered cures or condolences into my mother’s ear. No nieces or cousins dropped by, donating heaping pans of simmered greens and crisp fried rabbit as a love offering.
Not even his lost daughters returned to see him off. I’d written Irene the month before and she’d written back, “Can’t quite make it. Much to do here. But I’ll pass the word. Tell the old man I said good luck.”
Such carelessness offended Papa in a way that death never could have.
His intention had been to make it back home to Chinn Ridge in Virginia, where all parts of his death would be warm and dusty with road songs, and sweet. He had memories secreted away there, stashed in the swollen, ocher hills like treasure. He had people in those hills too. Most of them were years dead, but some still lingered, telling stories only he could rightly remember and pass judgment on. True or false was his alone to say. My papa yearned to be with people who allowed him his place. In the end, though, he was too weak to make the trip.
Despite his sincere efforts to wait out the last whispers of winter and escape, my papa died cold. He died shivering like the wind in his bed, while my mother, who was the sun, stood by his pil- low playing “Pennies from Heaven” over and over again on the phonograph to warm him. She used burned rum and music on his fever chills because the Depression was so unyielding that year that we hadn’t any extra blankets. Without thinking, I’d given them all away to my patients, every last one. I hadn’t been a good enough daughter to save even one warm, gray blanket on which my father could die.
My selfishness and lack of forethought embarrassed me. To make up for it, I waited on him, trying to get him things he didn’t need—an out-of-season apricot, a bit of soft, sky-blue calico, pinecones to rub against his whiskers and his round, red cheeks and then toss onto the coal in the stove. Then the house would smell of woods, like when he was a boy. He smiled and let me do these things because he loved me more than I’d thought I loved him. All I knew for sure was that I let him down. I’d been distracted by my work, by my own thoughts, hunkered down and birthing other things. I hadn’t stayed aware.
Each time my mother passed his bed, Papa mouthed her name . . . Lulu. His gaze followed her, sucking up what he could—her black eyes, her butternut skin, her silence.
His spirit lingered around just to be near her, long past his physical endurance. Papa’s flesh was bloated by then, fat and ripe with decay. But still he stayed. After a while my mother began to fear, not for the comfort of his body, but for the direction of his soul. Finally, late one evening, she sat on the edge of his bed and took his hand. Leaning in to kiss his eyelids, she whispered, “It’s all right, William. Go ’head now. Go on.”
She released him.
Just like that, after all that waiting, he went.
No more words passed between them, just a look of simple wonder that crossed my father’s face as he let go, a look of gratitude that said he hadn’t known dying could be so easy.
My mother didn’t speak again until we’d laid Papa out in the church. Hair parted, tie straightened, she smoothed him over, readied him for all the hardness of the earth. Even then, the only thing she managed to say was “When shadows fly, they cover the stones below. Remember, May.”
Then the Negro seeped out of her face, and she became a Chickahominy again, so silent that I lost track of her breath, so ancient and wide that her presence suddenly felt as inescapable, as untouchable, as the dusky, violet sky. When she was a black woman, my mother railed and sang and cut her eyes. As a Chickahominy, she was free. Lulu became a Chickahominy every time she got mad at my father. So when she stood at the foot of his coffin with her arms akimbo and got free, that’s how I knew for sure that she missed him, too.
After a while I asked, “What did you mean by that, Mama?”
It’s not so much that I needed to know, but the incredible length of her solitude was too much for me. I wanted to put it away for her, to roll it up like a bolt of cloth over my arms. I wanted to hear its dusty “clap” as it turned and turned, hitting the floor at my feet. But I couldn’t. The space that she held was too vast, too dense, much more like the rolling of river water than some dry piece of cloth.
Standing next to my mother felt like wading through the sand at the bottom of a stream. Her solitude rose, filling the ripening red of the carpet, the velvety creases in the drapes, even the gray lapels of Papa’s suit. The undercurrent of her grief ruffled the waves in his hair. She sighed so soft and, for once, I knew that her memories of my father had nothing whatsoever to do with me.
“I s’ppose,” she replied slowly, “I just meant that you can’t untie the past from its present, that’s all.” She reached behind her, stretched vigorously, and sighed again. “Well, at least his love was good, and it lasted. You can’t ask for much more.”
I disagreed, but didn’t bother to say so. Didn’t have to—she already knew what I was thinking. She always knew. She’d spent the past forty years knowing.
Just to prove the point, Mama coughed politely into the back of her hand, raised the long, woolen hem of her mourning dress and limped toward the back door. As she swung the door open, I felt a breeze shift through the funeral parlor. It roused the heavy curtains and antique lace draped over the mahogany tables in the corner, twisting through the worn pews—a breeze with enough April floating through it to catch butterflies. Despite the cold, my father had managed to produce an unseasonably beautiful afternoon for his burial. I had to smile.
“I’ma check on that carriage right quick. Be back shortly, Ladybug.”
The carriage was already out back, waiting to take us out of Harlem and up to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. We both knew that. This was just her way of giving me some privacy to do my grieving.
I stared down at my father William and touched his smooth, firm, pale skin. My heart refused to see the blotted veins congealed in whirlpools around his nose and across his cheeks. In my mind, I stared into his shining hazel eyes, and I took some time to love the way they danced.
It was his eyes. That’s what did it. When I finally stopped pretending and looked down at his eyes. The sunken lids, rutted with veins, so fragile looking, like paper, like if I pressed even slightly, my finger would go straight through. It dawned on me then that my father would never get to see me again. It was over. He was gone.
For a moment, I thought I’d died. Blackness snatched me up—no light, no sound, no breath, no skin. No heartbeat, no pain. Through the absence of everything, one thought rose up, not from within me, but from somewhere off to the side, a child’s toy floating by in the ocean: This is wonderful.
Grief erupted inside my body. It exploded in a sickening physical blow that crumpled me like I’d been kicked in the chest, harder than Papa had ever had the courage to hit. The pain left me doubled over, my nails digging into the grooves on the side of the coffin, unsteady and shaking with regret. I wanted to cry out for my mother, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, I opened myself to the sorrow. I let it come in and shower me, wash me clean.
My father had been a slave, his father a master. Which master, he never knew, but a master nonetheless. The question of it, the uncertainty, had dogged him his entire life. He’d always believed his father to be his Master Benjamin but Grammy Susan refused to tell him one way or the other when he was a child. The question of his lineage had been roundly considered to be grown-folks’ business and, therefore, none of his concern.
“Shoo, little fly, don’t bother me,” she’d sing, and sweep him away with her broom or dust him out the door with a crisp cotton rag.
“But, ma’am . . .”
“Boy, I know you ain’t tryin’ to work my nerves with this foolishness. Not today. Now get on outside and stay out grown-folks’ business.”
That was always the end of it. By the time he grew old enough to know, he’d been alone and on his own for many years, Grammy Susan long since gone. To this day, I believe that my father’s confusion over the matter was the real reason he himself never learned to master without controlling, to control without descending into tyranny, or to recognize the wisdom in releasing that which had never belonged to him in the first place.
Proud and brilliant as he was, white people often mistook William Chinn as white. Other Negroes, however, never made that mistake. His carriage and the fierceness of his dignity gave him away as one of them, even though his skin color did not. Still, no matter how he tried, he’d never been able to find any forgiveness for his old life, nor a suitable, painless place in the present. Unmet expectation had chained him to his past because the past was the only thing he had to blame.
As a child, of course, I hadn’t understood these things. I didn’t know what his feelings were or how to name them. But when I felt the sadness come down on him, thick and clinging to his feet like mud, I’d crawl behind my mother’s ancient potbellied stove and cry.
As an adult, I tried my best to ignore his moods, just as he’d sworn to ignore me for the rest of his life after learning I intended to disgrace him by going to college. When Mama told him I’d decided to continue on to medical school, he’d fled the house and hadn’t returned for more than three months. When he finally did slink on home, he’d begged my mother to stop my foolishness. If it was all right for a Colored woman to become a doctor, he reasoned, then why hadn’t they heard of anyone here in the city who’d done it before? Because it wasn’t for anyone else to do, she’d explained. The job had been waiting on me.
Papa disavowed me. Again. In spite of the fact that we lived in the same house, he refused to utter a single word to me. He would rage about me to my mother, to the neighbors across the air shaft or off into the sky, ranting that a cackling rooster and a crowing hen don’t never come to no good end! In fact, he claimed, there were two things he flat out didn’t believe in: God and doctors. Somehow, he’d managed to get hooked up with a daughter who thought she was both. Mama would continue to sew velvet or wash the kettle or dust the piano. I’d read my anatomy books in silence. Eventually, he’d skulk out the door with nothing but the price of a bottle in his pocket.
For nearly a decade, I was a ghost to my father. Then one night about eight years before, he nearly died. In the midst of that first false death, he slipped and said the word, the one word that made everything else in my life begin to make sense.
i staggered home during the time of morning so early that you can smell the sunrise long before you see it. The soft, grassy scent of dawn edged up over the river as I crossed the trolley tracks on Lenox Avenue and turned onto 138th Street. As impossible as it seemed, it was only a two-block walk to my flat from Harlem General Hospital, where I interned. My calves clenched and unclenched in spasms, like a heartbeat, and I stumbled over the curb, nearly falling into the corner lamppost. Under my breath I murmured a song, something to distract myself from the fire in my back that came from hefting and heaving a grown man’s weight.
Epiphany! Light of lights that shineth ere the world began. Draw thou near, and lighten the heart of every man.
Railroad ties and twisted nails had shredded my long white skirt and then the skin on my knees beneath. My face was blackened and slick with grease. But I had such a wide, free feeling bubbling through me, something even stronger than the tiredness, so strong that I had to sing it out.
I’d saved someone that night. And though I could barely move, though no one else would ever know, there was joy dancing through my fingers and toes. I knew. That was enough.
Moonlight shivered through the branches of the maple trees. It slid, mirrorlike, across the windows of the fifty-year-old brownstones and tenements that lined both sides of our street. I was the only person up and about, but I knew that in another twenty or thirty minutes, the street would flex and stretch and come alive for the day. Throngs of people would swarm onto the avenue, crowded together almost shoulder to shoulder, in a teeming brown-and-black wave. I smiled, knowing that I would be warm and lazy in my sleep well before then.
Walking with my eyes half-closed, I retraced my steps from memory, stepping high in front of 165 to avoid the oak roots that raised a hump in the sidewalk, to the left around the Wilsons’ trash barrel in front of 167. I never even saw the heap sprawled at the bottom of our stoop until I fell over him. In midthought, my feet flew out from underneath me and I landed hard on the concrete step. The shadow on the ground cringed a little, trying to shield his head with one of his hands. He moaned. When I heard the raspy breath, I knew. I didn’t have to turn him over or call his name. I just knew. Shame cut across my body, cool and smooth and bright as the morning moon.
Papa lay on the ground, curled up on his side, smelling old and sharp, funky with cheap liquor. He’d vomited on himself. I could smell that too. The odor of it wafted onto me, bitterness nestled in my own breath.
“Look,” I whisper, “look at the horse.” The horse bolts from the stable, just past us on the lawn. Its gray muzzle is streaked with long handles of spit and foam. The other men dive for cover while the little blond girl on the saddle struggles not to fly off, screaming, crying, pulling the horse’s mane instead of taking the reins.
Papa leaps from our blanket and, as the horse comes round again, he tackles it by the neck and scissors his way onto its back. The horse whinnies and bucks and the girl begins to tumble. But before she can fall under the hooves, Papa’s arm snaps out and catches her. A jubilant cry goes up from the crowd. He holds her by the silk of her little blue dress until he’s talked the horse still.
Instantly, a huge crowd appears around him, white men helping them down, clapping his back, white women weeping at the heroism, the daring of it all. He’s sweating and shaking, so beautiful that I fall out against my mother and begin to cry too. I stretch out my arms but he can’t find me. The crowd is too thick, too radiant with his goodness for him to notice me. I’m three years old, so small I can’t be seen.
“Come on, fellow, let’s us go inside and buy you some drinks. Lord God! Did you see what he did?”
Papa stops. Papa stares. He cannot go inside. The 126th Street Riding Club refuses Colored. That is why we picnic, each weekend, on the grass outside. The men don’t understand this. They look at his face, at his bright eyes and the strands of hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, and they want to embrace him.
“Oh, what is it, fellow? Your family out here somewhere? Well, bring them too!”
“Yes, please,” says the little blond girl’s father. “Please, I must tell your wife what you did. You are a hero, sir. You saved—” He can’t go on. He breaks down in tears. The women surround him and applaud softly.
“Where are your people, man? Let’s go inside and celebrate!”
Slowly my father turns to face Mother and me, still sitting on our shabby cotton blanket. He does not look at us directly, but over our heads. He’s wilted. Papa’s sad now, and I don’t know why.
Though we are the only two sitting on this part of the lawn, the men still don’t understand. There is good-natured, confused silence for a moment. Then one of the men’s faces goes blank. Like when I erase anthills in the sandy dirt with my hand. One minute there is life, the next minute everything is smooth. It makes you think maybe nothing was ever there at all.
“He’s Colored.” The man grimaces. “He’s a nigger.”
“What?” “Yeah. Look.” “No.” “Yeah. Look, dammit, look.” “Lord God. He is, isn’t he? Hey, boy, look at me. Hey. I’m talking to you. Yeah, look at him. I bet he is.” “Jesus, that nigger had his hands all over your daughter.”
The crowd is unraveling, some moving away from Papa, some approaching slowly, with rigid steps. They’re deciding something. Before they can conclude, Papa breaks away, strides over to us and sweeps us up. I hear voices, louder and louder. But I don’t understand. I confuse anger with gratitude, joy with splintering rage. Mama’s clutching me too tight, squeezing me. Papa’s got our blanket, our liverwurst sandwiches dashed into the basket, his fiddle jammed down in the basket too, getting nasty with meat and jelly. We’re flying, flying. We’re gone. We’ll picnic somewhere else from now on.
Look at you, Papa.
For a moment I watched him struggling to raise his head. Then I stood and turned to continue on up the stairs without him.
But I couldn’t move. Tears gathered at the back of my throat and sprouted up in my chest, bursting open like seeds. My father’s dignity was a sham. He was nothing but a filthy heap in a doorway.
But if he’s nothing, how can I be more?
I looked again and saw that his jacket was open. He’d worn his green wool vest, but no scarf. He never remembered his scarf. Without thinking, I reached for him, ready to cover that soft place at the hollow of his throat with my hands. But then I stopped and glanced around quick. The idea of touching him scared me to where I couldn’t think, couldn’t see straight. What if I put my hands on him and he didn’t move?
She’s so smart she’s stupid. Always walkin’ crooked to go straight. Lulu, can’t you see?
My father had so many cutting ways about him, so many awkward, tilting truths. He used his silence as a blade for so long that my heart became clear water and my purpose, a whetstone—edgeless, heavy, but unbreaking.
This is what he wanted. So let the old man lie in the bed he made.
I turned again to walk away. But I didn’t know where to go. Surely not upstairs to my mother, who, at that moment, was probably scowling over her coffee because the two of us were still out of doors, somewhere on the street. It seemed better just to sit down in the dark and disappear. That made much more sense. I’d relax myself, ease and sink into nothingness. Like him. Struggle accomplished nothing.
All I’d ever wanted was for him to recognize me, for him to stand up as tall as I stood and hold my face and say yes! And then nothing else would matter.
I turned back, knelt beside him and shook him.
“Papa? Papa get up. Come on.”
When he didn’t respond, I checked his wrist. His pulse gently fluttered under the pressure of my thumb and his breath came in short, shallow gasps. I pulled down his lower lids. His eyes were bloody with broken vessels, rolled up into his head.
Grabbing one arm, I hauled him to his knees. Then I wrapped his arm around my shoulder and stood slowly, leveraging myself against his dangling weight as it threatened to drag me back down. Step by step, we climbed the stoop, pushed through the heavy door and started on our way up to the fifth floor. Each time we rounded the corner on a landing, my legs cramped, refusing to go any farther. It didn’t matter. We climbed beyond my legs, past the thoughts in my mind and the burning in my chest. If I stopped, I’d just lie where I was until someone found us and called out “Ho!” to my mother, but by then it would be too late.
“Papa? Can you hear me? Come on, stay with me, Papa. Talk to me.”
My father’s eyes flickered open and his head bobbed as he tried to turn toward the sound of my voice.
“That’s it, Papa! Do you know where you are? Tell me who I am, Papa. Can you do that? Who am I?”
My body slumped forward and we collapsed in a heap on the landing in front of our apartment. Papa’s body landed on top of me. He reeked of pot liquor and ashes and I pushed him off because I couldn’t breathe with him so close. My hair hung in my face, dragging on the floor as I crawled to the door, calling for my mother.
Then the door opened and Lulu was there and suddenly we were inside. She carted Papa to his bedroom and plopped me on the sofa in the sitting room. Flying out the door, she yelled over her shoulder something about getting another doctor, someone other than me, because we both knew that’s what my father would insist on if he could talk.
It seemed as though the door had just closed when it opened again and I heard Dr. Jackson’s high voice and long stride move past me toward the bedroom. Then he was back, out into the hall, banging on doors, calling the men on the floor to help him carry Papa downstairs. Rolling him up in a plaid blanket, they rushed my father across the street to Harlem General. When I moved to follow, Mama said, “No. You stay here,” and snapped the door shut behind them.
An hour or so later, she was back. Alone.
“Dr. Crump took him into surgery. Said his appendix ruptured.”
She eased herself down at the foot of the sofa.
“You better go see about him. Say what you need to say, even if you don’t get to say it to his face.”
“It’s like that?”
“They wasn’t sure. Could be. Dr. Crump said if he makes it through surgery, that’d be a good sign. Come on, Sweetness, sit up. You OK. Let me rub you with some oil and put a little gauze over those cuts on your legs. Then you can go on over. Don’t stay too long though. You need to sleep.”
Mama looked at me so blankly that anyone else would have thought her ignorant.
“You need to wash your face,” she said. “Let me help you. You got work again tonight.”
I didn’t answer, so she said, “You know, when my father used to do things that were bad or that I didn’t understand and I asked about it, my grandfather would say: ‘Truth tells vivid tales that linger in the mouth of time and can never be unspoken, can never be hushed.’ Maybe it loses a little somethin’ in translation, but that’s the gist. Point is, I knew not to ask again.”
“Who is she?”
Mama huffed at me and cut her eyes. “What part of ‘mind your business’ got you confused?”
“Those are things for him to talk, not me.”
“What if he can’t?”
“Look, May, let’s let it rest until tonight or maybe morning. We’ll talk if you get home early enough in the morning. How’s that sound?”
She asked it as a question, so it was mine to answer as though I were rolling around some choices and making a decision. But in reality, the subject was closed. So I said, “Sounds fine,” to save face, and let her run out the door.
The sun had risen. She was late.