Editors’ note: A Pittsburgh reader submitted this article from Freedomways magazine, Spring 1971
Ollie Harrington is one of the world’s greatest living political cartoonists. However he may be best known for his irascible “Mr.Bootsie” which has been appearing in The Pittsburgh Courier and other papers for many years.
Our Beloved Pauli
By Ollie Harrington
The Bronx Street where I grew up must have been the world’s puniest black ghetto, one block long, and only half of it at that.
On the other side of the street were the pungent Sheffield Farms stables whose sleek tenants in their warm stalls were the envy of every shivering black kid on the block.
Our hopes were aimed low: a chunk of cardboard to plug the holes in our shoe soles, a bit of fat meat swimming in gravy and on Sunday, if God’s mood was up to it, chicken.
Our dreams, or at least my dreams, were more daring. Visions of Miss Murray made into fine hash by the wheels of a locomotive, in slow motion and color. She was the ·teacher who lasciviously licked her thin lips each time she told our class that all black kids belonged in the trash baskets.
How our little white classmates giggled under the psychedelic kick of these first trips on racism. Another joyous dream, awake or asleep, was ·the howling death of Duffy, that blue-uniformed menace who lurked in the alley next to Belsky’s candy store, hungry nightstick twirling on leather thong.
Duffy’s stick had already put Melvin Toles into bed. He was only nine, but paralysis would keep him there for life. We didn’t realize it then, probably because the jack-leg preacher over at Thessalonia Baptist had explained that Melvin was only “kind’a sprained by the Law.” Each Fourth of July Duffy’s fat buttocks pranced along the Grand Con course in the Veterans of Foreign Wars parade. Duffy always carried the Stars and Stripes.
Mornings, dry or wet, a tiny flock of black mothers stumbled in arthritic disorder over to Grant Avenue where they numbly waited for the penny-pinching white ladies who would hire them for 10 hours. The men folk trudged across the New York Central tracks to Schrimer’s umbrella factory or to the ice-plant. Shamefaced they underbid each other for a day’s work. The surplus floated back to some day-long card game or sat in squalid flats staring out of the vapor-glazed window panes.
Saturday nights the air seemed to vibrate. “Sportin’ folks” clamored into the inevitable rent party where they stomped and rubbed bellies before settin’ down to a heap of heavily tabascoed chitlins washed down with tub-fresh gin. Kids along the block lay awake waiting for the explosion of shouting, cussing, screaming and shattering glass.
Often after these happenings Reverend Passley, the barber-bricklayer undertaker (and, some said, root man) had work to do in the part- time mortuary behind the barbershop. The good Reverend had only one oration which began with: “We so confused and upset all the time that we got to lash out at one another …. ” Unfortunately the folks often lashed out with a straight razor and this inhibited the Reverend’s talents considerably. Which is probably why, it was widely whispered, he preferred the ice-pick which left the deceased looking more natural.
Our sources of inspiration were meager. There was Ray Mitchel the “genius” who could “put just about anything together and make a radio out of it.” But to be that “deep” called for schooling and such “fool notions” were throttled at birth by the high-minded dedication of Duffy and Miss Murray.
One other possible goal was fuzzily sketched by Mr. Sweet Reuban, who not only owned the corner pool- room but also a most formidable pile of gold on constant display in the open showcase of his upper and lower gums. Sweet Reuban would tip back his pearl-grey, exposing a magnificent head of conked locks and pronounce, “You little ‘n****rs’ will never git nowhere workin’ wif your hands and sweatin’ all over the damn place. You ever heard of a president sweatin’?” With that he would reach into his vest pocket for the famous gold toothpick and gently dig around the nuggets with little sucking noises. But by then the predatory eyes of the oracle were focused on some other world and we knew that we’d been dismissed.
The kids disappeared one by one into the fog of other black slums. All except Biffo, our beloved jester. Biffo found his golden hoard – all .$17.50 of it – in a night-shuttered tailor shop. The widowed Polish woman who owned the shop lay in a pool of her own blood the next morning. Biffo’s gravelly laugh floated up from the dark cellars and Duffy followed the candied spoor and pounced, delivering Biffo to the plainclothes men and eventually the electric chair at Sing Sing.
We climbed the rickety tenement stairs to the flat of Biffo’s work·gnarled father, drawn by whispered rumors of horrible burns on Biffo’s skull. But he lay in a sealed coffin and we quietly crept out, leaving the huge black father rocking wordlessly over an oilcloth-covered kitchen table.
My hopeless world was smashed by Meyer Fischer. Every morning at five Meyer and his wife Blanche rolled in the heavy ten-gallon milk containers, then tugged and swivelled the bulky bread baskets to open their unheated grocery store. They were, and always would be poor Jews because they couldn’t resist mumbled pleas for credit which was rarely repaid.
Many afternoons I sat on a meal sack while Meyer, clasping and unclasping his blue-veined hands, his tiny mouth puffing vapor in the freezing cold store, told me of black poets, teachers, black doctors. One day he told me of an unbelievable black man named Paul Robeson. He told me of this black man who was not as good as white men. He had to be, and he was, ten times better.
They willed me to think that perhaps there was such a black man! And if there was it would mean that we were not trash and dirt-even though black. It was a soul-splitting thought. It was a blow-torch burning out the foundations of existence. I, along with every child and adult on the block was cruelly maimed by everything I’d ever seen, or heard, or even tasted. We knew that we were a tiny lepers’ island surrounded by the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Even the church steeple “crosstown” had its backside turned in our faces. The red-faced butcher, who could barely speak English, kept a special pile of offal for his “n****er trade.” If there were ever a Nobel Prize for the vivisection of living, breathing black kids Miss Murray should have had it. Duffy the Law was tearing out palpitating black hearts long before Dr. Barnard left the diaper stage. And when we thought of Duffy we thought of the Stars and Stripes. We were “n****rs” and we’d been so magnificently brainwashed in what that meant that the only art, the only poetry in our little “n****r” hearts was:
A chicken aint nothin’ but a bird
A n****r aint nothin’ but a turd.
The caterpillar, covered with grey-green, undulating hairs, hides its slimy ugliness inside a cocoon. When the season arrives some magic in nature opens the prison and a completely new creature emerges to rest on a leaf in God’s air. Gently it folds and unfolds its breathlessly beautiful wings in the strength-building sunlight. Black children carrying their “n****rness” like lead weights on anxiety-tensed shoulders can experience this same metamorphosis. It’s happening all around us.
On my single-street ghetto it happened when Meyer Fischer first told me of Paul Robeson.
Five years later my “wings” had lifted me out of the tiny Bronx ghetto and set me down in a real people-sized one-Harlem. The rest of America was being cruelly ravaged by the depression but Harlem only giggled over the sounds of self-pity which the wind carried from across the Central Park lake. “Baby, if you crave to see some real, honest- to-goodness depression, come to Harlem, the Home f Happy Feet,” giggled the wits on “the turf.”
I discovered that I wasn’t any more hungry learning to draw and paint at the National Academy of Design than I would be huddled up in my room. Anyway it was free and the Academy rooms were warm. At night bunches of us milled around the sidewalk outside the IdleWyle or the Big Apple.
Downtown they were still mournfully talking about the good solid white folks who had walked into space from ‘Wall Street’s many windows. Uptown we were talking about Paul Robeson, who was singing songs which gripped some inner fibres in us that had been dozing. And he was saying things which widened black eyes and>sharpened black ears, things which sounded elusively familiar. But there were a few cats in the crowd who somehow managed to own one Brooks Brothers suit.
They sported frat pins (jimcrow frats) and pretended to read the financial section of The New York Times which they’d found on the floor of some Lenox Ave, IRT local. “That damn Robeson,” they grumbled, “gon’ make the big white folks mad, you just wait and see.” They were right. Robeson did make the big white folks mad. But when his voice boomed, I HEAR AMERICA SINGING, he blew flame in the souls of black folk, and a hell of a lot of white folks too, where dim embers had barely glowed since the days of Reconstruction.
One blustery night the space between the bar and the lunch counter at the “Harlem Moon” rocked and reeled in the heat of another “Robeson debate.” Hopeless fear, cynicism and outraged frustration quickly drew the lines between “Uncle Tom n****rs” and “goddamn red n****rs.”
A flat-footed, sad-eyed waiter from New Haven said to me, “Son, them students up there got so much money they don’t know what to do. They requires an awful lot of service. Now if you can get together enough for one semester you can hustle your way through.” It was a long story but I got there. One of the waiters in the Chi Psi house where I was installed as head-and only-dishwasher asked me, “How in the hell did a Iittle-assed ‘n****r’ like you get to come to Yale?” All I could answer was, “I guess it was Paul Robeson.” “What,” he gasped, “you know Paul Robeson?” I lifted a tray of steaming glasses out of the suds and said, “Nope. Just know of him.”
• • •
My first real job was as art editor of the People’s Voice. Adam Powell, Charlie Buchanan and Ben Davis published that great sheet and one day Adam called me into his office. “Ollie,” he said, “there’s someoneI want you to meet.” A beaming giant of a man left his chair, thumped me on the back with a hand as powerful as John Henry’s sledgehammer and boomed, “Feller, I just wanted you to know that those cartoons of yours are great.” Of course it was Paul Robeson. I can’t remember doing much more than gulping.
What can one say to a mountain? But it was the beginning of a treasured friendship.
Paul walked into that ramshackle Harlem newspaper office one afternoon with Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the world’s great writers. With them came a tiny slip of a woman, the captain of a Soviet ship which had been torpedoed and sunk in a convoy. Robeson spoke to the staff. Ehrenburg spoke and thanked all Americans, in the name of the Soviet Union, for the weapons the Red Army was putting to suchgood use against Hitler’s killer hordes.
And he made it clear that this deep gratitude included all of the people of Harlem. The little ship’s captain – I believe her name was Valentina – spoke no English but she beamed as if she’d lived in Harlem all of her life. Later we discovered that she’d lost all of her clothing at sea.
In two days a bespectacled black tailor in 126th Street had made her a uniform and overcoat that must have been the pride of the Soviet merchant fleet. It was MADE IN HARLEM and joyfully paid for by everyone on the staff, from editor to telephone receptionist.
There are many other treasured snapshots engraved in my mind. Paul, a great one for a session of “talkin’ and signifyin’,” sitting astride an ancient looking desk in the miniature-sized office of his publication Freedom. Again I was contributing cartoonist and fascinated spectator.Paul was holding forth on the wizardry of old Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and other black ballplayers jimcrowed out of what was euphemistically called the national pastime.
Listening were editors Lou Burnham and George Murphy, with Lou exploding every now and then with a characteristic, “Amen, Amen!” Behind the desk sat a diminutive secretary whose lovely brown face was illuminated with a serenity which seemed curiously out of place in a loft on 125th Street. “One day,” said· Paul, “our boys are going to bust right into the Yankee Stadium dugout and teach ’em the fine points of the game.”
The little secretary’s eyes twinkled and she asked, “Mister Robeson, shall I make a note to get a committee together this afternoon?” Paul stopped in mid-sentence and then “fell out.” Lou dissolved into a laughter-shaken mass on a pile of newspapers, and George, always cool, sat shaking his head. The secretary who was there gently growing her wings was Lorraine Hansberry.
There are many other memories. A huge sea of black folk silently filling Seventh Avenue as far as one could see. It was Ben Davis’ last campaign for a seat on the City Council and it was night, drizzling.
Ben had lost, with the help of the cops who somehow managed an epidemic of polling booth breakdowns that day. But the crowds waited patiently outside Ben’s election headquarters in the Theresa Hotel. One of the those thoroughly reliable Harlem rumors had it that Paul would sing. “Naw,” said someone, “his man lost so what he gon’ sing for?” An old church sister just smiled and said, “‘Cause he said he would.” And then there was Robeson and the heart-filling voice singing WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME.
Not very long ago I was invited by the satirical Krokodile to see the Soviet Union. In Tashkent I sat on a parkbench here I could drink in the breathtaking oriental beauty of the opera house, I was thinking of coming back the next day with my sketch pad when a little Uzbek girl came to me holding out a flower.
Her oval face was so lovely, even with the tooth missing from in front Of course I couldn’t understand what she was saying but Yuri, my interpreter explained, “She asks if you are Paul Robeson.” Her mother appeared and suddenly it seemed there were hundreds of Uzbek children with their mothers, all carrying hastily picked flowers. I was terribly flustered but I managed to explain that I wasn’t Paul Robeson but that he was my friend.
And then one Uzbek mother, proud of her English said, “Here, he is our beloved Pauli.”